Director Michael Bassett loves to blow stuff up. That's why Cinemax's "Strike Back" was the perfect choice for his first TV directing gig.
"I blow up an ambulance and it's one of the biggest indoor explosions I've ever seen," Bassett told me at San Diego Comic Con. "When the shockwave hits you—you're sitting at your monitors 50 yards or 100 yards away—and then suddenly you just feel this wallop of air. Your crew is like, '[gasping sound].' It's total excitement."
Viewers will see that explosion in the current season's eighth episode, debuting at 9 p.m. Sept. 28. (See at photo here.) It's the second of Bassett's two-episode arc that began last week with military ops unit Section 20 chasing the nuclear devices stolen by Conrad Knox (Charles Dance) to Zimbabwe, where Knox broke opposition leader Walter Lutulu (Eamonn Walker) out of prison to lead a coup against the regime of Robert Mugabe.
Knox's unpredictable moves have kept Section 20 operatives Stonebridge (Phil Winchester) and Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) in the line of fire throughout Bassett's episodes, which is exactly what the director had in mind when he signed up for the job.
"It's just relentless action," he said. "For a show in which two episodes shot in 24 days, it's more action than I've ever done."
When it came to pumping up the action, Bassett had a willing cohort in Winchester. The two had worked together previously on the film "Solomon Kane," which incidentally opens this weekend in theaters. Winchester suggested Bassett come onboard to direct "Strike Back," and he was pleased with the result.
"He had me doing things like jumping out of a moving jeep onto the back of another moving jeep. So I liked him because he ramped up my stunt quota quite a bit, and stuck me in a parking garage with an exploding van and things like that," the actor told me. "He single-handedly gave me more dangerous stunts in one episode than I had the whole year."
As much as Bassett, whose film "Silent Hill: Revelation 3D" opens Oct. 26, was living a "childhood dream" getting to blow things up, he was also happy to have the chance to work with acting greats Dance ("Game of Thrones") and Walker ("Oz," and currently in Chicago filming "Chicago Fire").
"I got to put Eamonn Walker and Charles Dance together and they're fantastic," he said. "[Watching] two heavyweight actors doing their thing, which is a real privilege."
Bassett and I talked more about filming the action and character moments and how his research and real-life events in Zimbabwe altered the scripts for his two-episode block.
How did you get involved with this?
I knew the [Sky TV] first season [which aired in the UK] and I knew Phil Winchester because I directed him in a movie I made called “Solomon Kane.” He's terrific and I actually auditioned Phil for stuff years before, which was for movies that never got made. I always thought he was wonderful, so as soon as I got an opportunity to work with the guy, a role comes on that they're right for you cast them. Phil was in “Kane.” I went off, did “Kane.” Then I did a movie called “Silent Hill,” which comes out Halloween. I finished that movie in Toronto and Phil and I were emailing over Christmas and I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I'm doing a new series ‘Strike Back.’ What are you doing next year buddy?” “Nothing really. I'm going to take a bit of time off.” He said, “No, no, come do ‘Strike Back.’” Which I thought was a bit of a joke and I said, “All right, I'll do it.” And a week later I got a call from the producers saying, “Would you come in for a meeting?”
Now, I had never done television before. I just did features, but I love the format of the show. I like the action, adventure. I like that it's strong military. It's kind of real and gritty and it's got these two great characters at the center of it, Scott and Stonebridge. My childhood in the UK there was a show called “The Professionals.” Americans won't know this, but it was a similar kind of thing. It was about MI5 and two guys who go out and fight terrorists and criminals. To me “Strike Back” was like a modern version of that, so it's was my opportunity to kind of relive a childhood dream of making a show that was like that.
I met the producers. I pitched them what I'd do with it. I said I think we can make it cinematic and bigger and more action packed and more character driven. They seemed to like what I said. They said go to South Africa and we'll give you some episodes to do ... I signed up for scripts, which ended up getting changed. I thought I was doing a jungle adventure, which is what I really wanted to do. They got changed and ended up working into a different storyline, but it turned out that I get to work with Charles Dance, who is the principle baddie for the season. He's brilliant.