Michael J. Bassett on-location directing Strike Back
How many people do you know who go to work and get paid to make their childhood fantasies come to life? Michael J. Bassett counts himself among such lucky individuals. Over the past 13 years, the award-winning writer-director has exercised his storytelling muscles for the small as well as big screens and in a variety of genres such as horror, fantasy, drama, and action/adventure. In 2009, Bassett cast actor Philip Winchester as Henry Telford in the feature film Solomon Kane. They developed a good working relationship as well as a friendship, and kept in touch after production wrapped. A few years later, Bassett was finishing up work on the 2012 movie Silent Hill: Revelation 3D and, during an exchange of e-mails with Winchester, the actor told him about a new TV show that he was working on called Strike Back.
“Philip said to me, ‘You should come down here to South Africa [where Strike Back was being filmed at the time] and direct an episode. You’d love it,’” recalls Bassett. “I checked out the show, and I did love it. It turned out that the Strike Back producers were actually fans of my work, and they later contacted me and asked, ‘Do you really want to do telly?’ I told them, ‘This is exactly what I want to do. I’d get to live out every teenage boy’s fantasies of blowing stuff up.’ So they invited me down to South Africa as a guest-director for the show’s third season [Strike Back: Vengeance] to direct episodes seven and eight, and I had a ball. I thoroughly enjoyed the pace of television along with the challenge of making a big TV show like this, including the tight [shooting] schedule.
“The producers liked what I did and invited me back the next season [Strike Back: Shadow Warfare] as a lead director as well as a writer, and then again for this fifth and final season [Strike Back: Legacy]. Over time, I’ve grown more and more comfortable with the series, its cast and the production, and finally by this season, Strike Back became something that I consider myself, hopefully and very happily, integral to.”
Based on a novel of the same name by writer and former Special Air Service (SAS) soldier Chris Ryan, Strike Back follows the exploits of Section 20, a covert branch of the British Defense Intelligence Service (DIS), whose operatives carry out high-risk, top priority missions across the globe. The first season starred Richard Armitage as ex-SAS officer John Porter, who, after seven years, is called back into active service to deal with a terrorist kidnapping of a journalist. Owing to another work commitment, Armitage was unable to reprise his role for season two, and Philip Winchester (Sergeant Michael Stonebridge] and Sullivan Stapleton [disgraced ex-Delta Force operative Damian Scott] were cast as the show’s two new lead protagonists. In Strike Back’s third season, our two heroes must deal with Conrad Knox (Charles Dance), an English billionaire and philanthropist planning to use nuclear weapons to advance Africa’s position as a world power. Bassett’s introduction to the series as a director called for him to hit the ground running, but despite the fast pace of shooting, he still had time to take a breath and fully appreciate the experience.
“When I was a young man I was actually a television presenter in the UK, and my specialty was natural history and science, which are my great passions,” he says. “So when they told me I’d be working in South Africa on Strike Back, the first thing I thought was, ‘Great, I get hang out in Africa.’ However, the shooting schedule on a show like this is tight and there’s very little margin for error. When I got to Cape Town, they were already in the midst of filming season three, so I had to quickly establish myself as the person in charge of episodes seven and eight, and had to figure out what would and wouldn’t work as far as directing. One of the things about Africa and many of the other exotic countries that Strike Back filmed in - and it’s something I love - is that you have to be very much reactive to the environment, because nothing is quite what you expect it to be.
“For my episodes, I brought in actor Eamonn Walker, who is in Chicago Fire now, but was also in Oz, and I’m a huge fan of his. He played an African leader who was broken out of prison by our bad guy, Conrad Knox, and was going to be manipulated into leading a revolution. We shot on-location in one of these sprawling shanty townships/communities where the people live on top of one another in corrugated buildings. To an outsider going into such a place, you think, ‘Oh, my God, this is a terrible environment.’ However, it ended up being one of the most joyous filming experiences I’ve had. We worked with this community to re-create the return of this Nelson Mandela-type figure who is assassinated in the middle of giving a big speech.
“Our heroes, Scott and Stonebridge, chase the bad guys through the streets of the township, and chaos, confusion and gunfights erupt, all of which are staples of Strike Back. In the midst of doing all that, it was just so glorious to have this community’s support. That’s one of the indelible memories I was left with from my first time directing this show. When the machine of Strike Back works in the community that it exists in at the time, it’s an amazing thing. I’m always looking for that challenge, the hardest thing to do, the biggest set piece that seems impossible to pull off. That’s kind of what we did here, and I think that shooting experience in Africa was a brilliant way to start out for me. We returned to Africa the following season, which was doubling onscreen for Columbia, and I got to shoot all sorts of stuff in the African jungles, things that, when you’re a teenage boy, you imagine would be the best job in the world, and it turned out to be just that for me.”
Having written the scripts for all of his movies, Bassett is no stranger to scriptwriting, but there were certain aspects of Strike Back that he had to familiarize himself with when he also began writing for the series. “One of the tricky things about Strike Back is that there are two partners that finance the show,” explains Bassett. “There’s Cinemax/HBO in the States, and Sky in the UK, both of which have slightly different demands on what they’re looking for with the television that they make. Cinemax/HBO is all about the long season arcs or 10-episode story, which Sky also wants, but they want very strong episodic storytelling, too. So generally, our episodes are two-parters with a beginning, middle and an end, and each two-parter contributes to the season’s larger overall story arc. That’s actually quite difficult storytelling.
“Another challenge with Strike Back is that idea of telling a story on the move, which is what this show tends to specialize in. We tell more story in one of our episodes than most shows do in an entire season. For example, we’ll do a kidnapping episode where you think, ‘Oh, you can get an entire season out of this,’ In fact, it’s just our entrance into the whole season. So one of the things I had to quickly learn was how to always keep a scene moving. There are rare moments where people stop and talk without something else happening, and I just love the kinetic energy of that type of storytelling. I think it’s unique to Strike Back, and the show has to have a unique selling point. There’s lots of amazingly good television out there, but very little good action television, and I proudly proclaim that these past couple of seasons, in particular, of Strike Back are some of the best action television ever made. When 24 was really cooking, it did great things, and I’d say that Strike Back can stand toe to toe with that type of storytelling.
“The other thing for us with regard to the Strike Back narrative is that although we are kind of looked at as just a big dumb, musclebound television show, our storytelling is really quite clever. We have full-time researchers working for us and who have contacts with intelligence agencies and politicians around the world. We take real world situations and current threats and develop them as the backbone elements for our series. So this season, for example, we’re going to be touching on North Korea and the threat that certain dissident groups there could pose. We’ve touched on the IRA in the past, and obviously we’ve touched on fundamentalist groups throughout the seasons.
“So we do our best to incorporate a considerable amount of research into our storytelling, and even though some people may think, ‘Oh, that’s not plausible. That’s not real,’ it genuinely is. We also try to make sure that we show our people using sound military tactics, proper weapons handling, etc. So when our characters are doing their running, jumping, chasing and slightly-implausible-that-two-guys-can-take-on-that-many-bad-guys-type of stuff, it’s all backed up by something that gives it a little more of a grounded feeling. I think that’s a big part of what makes this show work. It’s certainly why [real life] soldiers like the show. We receive a great many compliments about the tactics and the weapons handling, and that’s always nice to hear.”
In the fifth and current season of Strike Back, Scott, Stonebridge, and the rest of the Section 20 team are back to deal with more kidnappings, corruption, terrorists, brutal murders and assorted other threats that makes today’s world all the more dangerous. Behind-the-scenes, Bassett and the show’s other creative minds had to shift gears a bit and get used to some new surroundings in order to brings a brand new set of 10 high-octane adventures to life on the small screen.
“This was quite a challenging season, partly because we picked a new part of the world that we’d never shot in before,” says Bassett. “So from day one when we arrived in Thailand, I knew that we were facing an entirely different set of challenges. There’s a thing called ‘African time,’ and when we filmed in Africa, we pretty much knew how long something would take, and then you added African time to it. With Thailand, it became a similar type of thing. The culture is very different, and the thing is, I can be a bit of an SOB on-set. I drive everyone hard, but you have to because, again, there’s a lot to do on a show like this. So in Thailand, I had to slightly re-learn how to get along with people and how to get the best out of people who were coming at the work from a different perspective. That was really interesting for me, and once I figured it all out, we got on great.
“The things that are promised in certain parts of the world are never quite delivered how you expect them to be, and you always have to be prepared for the unexpected,” continues the writer-director. “One of the great advantages of having shot this many seasons of a television show, is that everyone involved pretty much knows that. Philip and Sullivan are rarely caught off-guard by anything. If necessary, we can make adjustments to filming along the way, and they just go with the flow. Our stunt team is amazing and is able to react on the spot. I especially liked shooting the jet-ski chase and the motorbike chase in the floating market for the season [five] opener. Later on, our heroes encounter the Yakuza and chase them down to the southern islands of Thailand, so we ended up shooting some neat stuff down there that turned out absolutely beautiful.
“When we get to the second part of the season, one of the stories takes us into North Korea. I didn’t shoot those episodes, but it was a huge challenge to re-create that country. Later on, I had a ball shooting Philip and Sullivan running down the streets of Bangkok at night amongst live traffic. Even though the street was supposed to be closed, nothing like that actually ever happens, so you have to be really reactive in a situation like that. We did some big stuff in episode ten, which is the season finale and the final episode of Strike Back. We really push the storytelling limits and focus on our two leads, and there are a couple of fantastic set pieces in there which I loved putting together,” enthuses Bassett. “It’s no secret that we lost Sullivan for a few months because of an accident, which required us to shut down filming and then start back up again. That was a big challenge and one that we typically wouldn’t have had to face, but it brought us all together in a way that we hadn’t experienced before. So by the time we finished the end of this season, we really had been through just about everything together.”
Along with Strike Back, Bassett’s other TV directing credits include the STARZ network original series DaVinci’s Demons and Power. Just prior to doing this interview, he was down in New Zealand directing another STARZ series, the upcoming Ash vs Evil Dead. “That was an enormous amount of fun,” enthuses Bassett. “After finishing work on such a big and intense show like Strike Back, to then have the chance to go to New Zealand, hang out with Bruce Campbell [series lead who is reprising his role of Ash Williams from the hugely popular The Evil Dead film franchise] and use a chainsaw to chop up some ‘Deadites’ was the best kind of ‘holiday’ I could have.
“Currently [early July] I’m about to start work on Philip Winchester’s new show The Player for NBC, and then after that I’m doing Sullivan Stapleton’s new show, also for NBC, Blindspot. With The Player, I told NBC that I’m going to make it the biggest action show on network television. Whether I can step up to that promise is anyone’s guess, but that’s the challenge I’ve set for myself, so I guess I’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
Strike Back: Legacy (season five) is currently airing Fridays @ 10:00 p.m. EST/PST on CINEMAX. Please note, all Strike Back photos above by Liam Daniel and copyright of CINEMAX.