Michael Karnow is an experienced film industry professional who has worked for many years as a script writer, producer and co-created with Zak Penn Syfy's science fiction drama Alphas, in which Summer Glau had a recurring role as Skylar Adams. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Summer is playing in Jeff 1000, the sci-fi comedy web series he created for Wired Magazine, which features Summer as herself and whose best friend happens to be a nine-foot-tall robot who left Detroit to pursue his dream - become an actor in Los Angeles. Michael Karnow has graciously agreed to answer our and fan-submitted questions about how Summer got involved in the project, working on set of Jeff 1000, what he had in mind for the Skylar character in Alphas, what would have happened on Alphas season 3 and much more.
Alphas and Jeff 1000 creator Michael Karnow.
Question: Summer is a sci-fi fans favorite and she played a Terminator before. Knowing this, was Summer always your first choice or did you audition several actresses?
I wrote this specifically for Summer. With any other actress playing herself it would have felt random. But with Summer’s background in science-fiction, it somehow made sense that she would be pals with a giant robot. Summer always delivers an incredible performance. But as we got into shooting it did occur to me that I had never seen her do comedy. As it turned it out she was great. She played it totally straight. Her nuances and timing were dead-on.
Question: Was it the stunning and most impressive performance in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles that influenced the deciding factor in hiring Summer Glau.
Like I said, her previous roles gave a certain logic to the premise.
Question from robbo: When did you approach Summer for the role of Jeff 1000’s best friend and what was her initial reaction in receiving the news that she got the role?
Following Alphas, Summer and I had talked about developing a show in which she found herself sucked into something outlandish, something that would have happened in one of her other roles-- like Galaxy Quest but tonally more like something Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine) would have written. Wired called saying they had a giant robot -- would I like to create a web series? I immediately got in touch with Summer and she was game. I pulled in director, Nick Copus and Ryan Cartwright who played Gary on Alphas. Both generously offered their talents.
Question: You have worked with Summer before on Alphas and director Nick Copus directed many episodes of Arrow, Alphas and other TV shows that Summer has been on. How did this influence the way you worked on set?
You want to work with the most talented people possible. It’s like cooking. You want to start with the best possible ingredients. You want to work with people you trust, creatively. People who share your sensibility and your taste. I had worked with Nick. He is obsessed. This is a guy who works all the time, directing top TV shows. He certainly wasn't doing this web series for the money. But still he was up at five AM scouting locations. Nick is intrinsically incapable of giving less than 100%. Summer is the same way. So too with Ryan Cartwright and David Arquette. These are people I trust. That meant I was happy to give them space to play, do what they wanted, explore. I knew they would deliver and they did.
Question from Wade Wyeth: Can you tell how Summer felt about working with this 10-foot tall robot? Was he scary to work with because he is so big and hulk like. Cause if I was working on the set of that thing I would be scared that one mistake he could fall on me.
I don't think she was ever afraid of being crushed by Jeff. Bruce Mitchell, the actor controlling Jeff from inside, was amazingly adept and athletic. He had the toughest job of anyone on set. He was working a 16 hour day inside that hulking rig. But he was always in total control. Summer quickly adapted to the situation, playing off Jeff like she would any actor. They had real chemistry.
Question from Reddit user timthomas299: Was curious as to the design inspiration for Jeff 1000 and also wondered if during the creation of the character they had to step back and rethink because it was "too human" or "too robotic".
We inherited Jeff fully formed from the folks at Legacy Effects. We were fortunate that they had built Jeff to look menacing and scary. It made all that more amusing in contrast to Jeff’s nebbishy personality.
Question: It must have been a real challenge to move beyond the constraints of the robots limitations in terms of movements and ability to showcase humans emotions. Can you tell us how you did this to make him appealing (or scary)?
Yeah, Jeff is BIG. That did create limitations. What if he was an uber driver? Or a yoga instructor? How are we gonna shoot that? We just had to adapt to his capabilities. But given his size, I was amazed at how human Bruce was able to make Jeff seem -- his subtle gestures and movements.
Question: What will you most remember about the filming of Jeff 1000. Any (real) anecdote you’d like to share with us?
I will remember a really long day of shooting -- all the three episodes plus the behind-the-scenes stuff was shot in a single day. I’m surprised we pulled it off.
Question: Summer recently played the lead actress in a thriller-drama for Sony’s streaming service Crackle. Was Jeff 1000 your first foray into the world of online video and are you willing to repeat this experience?
Jeff was my first foray into online video. Everything is going online one way or another. Technically “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” are “web series.” The delivery system is less important than other factors. If someone is willing to spend $100 million dollars to shoot and market a series, they can deliver as big an audience as anything on conventional television. I am more than willing to foray into “web content” -- all depends on the circumstances.
Question: While his name has not been mentioned before, Alphas’s alum Ryan Cartwright plays a big part in Jeff 1000. Can you tell us a bit more on his role?
Well, Ryan is the voice of Jeff. Maybe if we shoot some more episodes, he could show up playing himself. Or maybe he could be Gary. A little crossover to make people’s heads explode.
Question from termi-ninja-tor: I thought the script for Jeff 1000 was very clever, so I would like to know who wrote it and did Summer contribute to the lines she delivered?
I wrote the scripts. Summer, Ryan, David, and Nick Copus all played with their lines to varying degrees.
Question: Will we see more scenes of the making of the action movie starring Jeff as an evil robot from another planet and Summer as a resistance fighter?
That’s Season Two, Episode Nine. We learn that Jeff is not, in fact, a former automotive assembly device -- he is here on earth, in fact, with a more sinister agenda.
Question: Summer has played two of the most iconic characters in sci-fi history and it's neat to see Summer poke a little bit of fun at her own career. Can you tell us how she feels about that?
Summer clearly doesn’t take herself too seriously which is refreshing. I think she had a good time getting meta.
Question: Who has got the brilliant idea of these “fake” Behind the Scenes featurettes in which the cast and crew stay in character?
That notion was actually developed by Rachel Samuels from Wired.com and some very talented folks at Sawhorse Productions - Nic Hill and Blake Behnham. That stuff was amusing and fun to be part of.
Question: The trailer and Behind the Scenes shorts shed some well-deserved light on people you don’t see on screen, such as the director, the producer (yourself), the guys from the special effects or the personal assistant. Did everyone enjoyed this experience?
Everyone but me, I hated it. No, it was fun just to screw around and improvise.
Question: No doubt a web series has to follow rules but it does not have to be as formulaic as Network TV in terms of format, length, or content. Wired and the guys behind Jeff 1000, namely Stan Winston School and Legacy Effects, likely gave you guidelines. As a writer/producer, how do you manage to keep your creativity in play?
Wired.com was relatively hands off. Writers usually complain about meddling and interference from “suits.” I usually welcome advice, notes and criticism. Its easy to lose perspective when you are in the middle of working on something. As long as you all generally share the same taste and sensibility, you are all working towards the same goal, its a positive. With Jeff, Wired gave us tremendous creative freedom but useful notes, when necessary. If we had been launching a $50 million dollar television series, I would expect a network to be, understandably a little more intrusive, to keep closer tabs on their investment. Working with Wired was great.
Question from Thomas DePetrillo: Are you considering any crossovers ? Like Jeff 1000 old girlfriend showing up and being all jealous. Or exploring the Human-Mech dating issues. Well, if you need any other Giant Robots, I have a collection. Summer is irreplaceable.
You know what I always say -- you can never have too many robots. Lets take a look at your collection. How large are these robots? The bigger the better. Bring it on.
Question: We’ve got to ask will there be a follow-up to Jeff 1000? This would give you the chance to develop in future episodes the relationship between Jeff and Summer and also the scary, disturbing robot-alien-meta-fictional dystopia that is clearly lurking in the background of all this.
There is going be more than a hundred episodes of Jeff 1000. The hive mind episode. The multi-dimensional time travel episode where Jeff stops Ben Franklin from flying his kite and prevents the Iphone from ever happening. The cottage cheese episode. The spinoff series, Jeff 2000. Action figures. Prizes in your cereal. Theme parks. A tie-in with American Airlines and the Olive Garden. And so it begins.
Question from robbo: Who was the face that created the character Skylar Adams and why? What was the purpose of the character?
I was the face that created Skylar Adams (Summer Glau’s character on Alphas). Her deeper purpose, initially, was to help flesh out the backstory for Doctor Lee Rosen (played by David Strathairn). Skylar had been treated by Rosen but had gone AWOL. She created a dilemma for Rosen forcing him to choose loyalty to his patient versus the US government, his employer. I thought Summer did a wonderful job breathing life into that character. I actually pushed to make her a full cast member for the second season. She was one of my favorite elements of the series.
In future episodes of Jeff I would like to see more of Skylar Adams’ personality in our fictionalized version of Summer Glau. I liked Skylar’s caginess, vulnerability and independence. As well as the heavy eye-liner. Summer looks outstanding in leather.
Question: Summer Glau with tattoos, such a brave call! Who or why was given the idea of introducing them for a character like Skylar Adams.
Tattoos went along with the character. Maybe the Jeff 1000 version of Summer Glau will have one or two.
Question from Kara: How was it working with Azita Ghanizada on set of Alphas?
Azita was great. She’s super talented and spirited both on and off set. She was a pleasure to work with and very committed to the show.
Question from John, from Laura Mennell Fans: How much more did you have in mind of the Nina and Skylar back story?
We certainly could have explored that backstory further. A couple more seasons of Alphas and that might have happened.
Question from Reddit user Icalasari and Thomas DePetrillo: Have you ever thought of a web series to continue Alphas (Video, webcomic, etc.)? If so, what's stopping such a thing?
That would be cool. How about a Skylar Adams spinoff? Make it happen!
Question from robbo: The reaction from the fans of Alphas was wanting more of Skylar Adams would that have been a possibility in future episodes of the series, maybe as a regular?
We wanted to make Skylar Adams a series regular, even while shooting her first episode in season one. Her character was great. Summer’s appearance on the show was a substantial ratings bump. That was a missed opportunity, no doubt.
Question: The Alphas season 2 finale (Gary walking among the bodies at the sound of 'The Only Living Boy in New York') left fans with a huge cliffhanger and wanting to know what would have happened in Alphas season 3 to the team members. What can you tell them?
In Season Three, Gary moves with his mother to Delaware where he drives an ice cream truck and gets involved with Civil War reenactment. One thing leads to another and Gary is eventually elected to a team of reps covering Civil War reenactment for the mid-Atlantic states as well as Ohio. The U.S.D.D.P. are a governing body resolving altercations among the paid membership. Decades later, Gary will retire and die quietly among friends and loved ones.
That was the pitch - we were still seeking network approval when Alphas was sadly cancelled.
Question from robbo: Would you ever consider using Summer again for any other projects that maybe on the horizon. Possibly in the foreseeable future.
Given the opportunity and privilege, I would work with Summer anywhere, anytime.
Question from Hans Schmidt: Where do you find your inspiration for such awesome and complex stories and characters?
It’s a collaborative effort. You start with a germ of an idea and let it grow. People join the mix and the project takes on a life of its own and evolves. It becomes an independent organism you can shape and steer and prod, but can never entirely control.
Question from TechMASH: What projects are you working on for next year? What other work of yours can we look forward to?
Lots of stuff in the works. I am definitely hoping to move forward on Jeff or some version of it. I feel like we are just getting started. Can’t wait to find out what happens next.
Again, thank you to Michael Karnow for answering our questions and we’re looking forward to more collaboration in the future; thank you to the fans who have send us their questions and thank you to our dedicated member robbo who helped me prepare this Q&A interview.
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