Interview: ‘MacGyver’ Producers James Wan & Peter Lenkov on Pilot Reshoots, the Theme Song, and Updating a Classic
Posted on Friday, September 23rd, 2016 by Fred Topel
James Wan makes his television debut with MacGyver, CBS’s reboot of the classic ’80s action series. With showrunner Peter Lenkov, and after one false start pilot, Wan directed the pilot that will air this week and set the stage for the series going forward. Lucas Till stars as Angus MacGyver, a scientist who uses his knowledge of real principles in the field on missions from a covert task force.
You may have heard the term “MacGyvering” your way out of a situation. It comes from the original show starring Richard Dean Anderson. Will Forte’s MacGruber sketch on SNL and subsequent movie is a spoof of MacGyver. We spoke with Wan and Lenkov before their panel to the Television Critics Association this summer.
In 2016 are there fewer things that MacGyver needs to improvise since we have all these devices that do things for us?
Lenkov: That’s a great question. I think that’s a good challenge also. We haven’t run into that yet, luckily enough. But you could solve everything with an app. He can’t make an app, that’s for sure. He could do everything else. That’s a really interesting question.
Wan: You need some MacGyver apps.
Lenkov: Literally, he repurposes whatever he can on the fly. Sometimes technology can’t help. Unless he wants to get an answer to a question and go Google, everything else is sort of up for grabs.
Did you end up directing the pilot?
Wan: This pilot, the one that Peter wrote, I directed, yes. Not the previous incarnation.
What exactly changed between the original and this one?
Lenkov: That was more of a premise pilot. I felt personally I wanted to do what the original MacGyver did for me, which is I jumped right into a world. I jumped right into a character that was already fully functioning in that environment and I wanted the audience to have the same experience. I wanted to jump right in and this character exists and I didn’t want to have to spend 30 pages, 30 minutes of the show doing the premise of explaining how he becomes MacGyver. I wanted this guy to already exist and for the most part, he already exists in people’s minds. So it’s very hard to start with a premise pilot when people already have a preconceived idea of who the character is. So for me, the better version of the story was to just come right out and he’s MacGyver already.
So the show is already past the trailer that came out over the summer where he escapes terrorists and joins the task force?
Lenkov: Yeah, I think what they were doing was selling the spirit or the fun of the show. Those elements, the scenes that you’ve seen, the cut down of that, that’s not going to be in the new show. But I think the spirit of that is there, the fun, the excitement, the adventure, the MacGyverisms, the humor. All those things still exist. Sometimes when you got to a movie and there’s a scene that you like but then it’s not in the finished product, I think you’ve got to look at it that way. I think they did pull a lot of good things from that first pilot but you’re not going to see it in a new version of the show.
Directing the pilot, were you able to incorporate any of the style you brought to Death Sentence with the car rolling backwards or pulling the rug in the house?
Wan: Dude, there’s an alley foot chase sequence in an alleyway. Wait for it. You’ll see. It’s shades of Death Sentence, shades of Furious 7 in there as well.
So gritty Death Sentence action and larger-than-life Furious 7 action?
Wan: In some respect, yeah.
You’ve been attached to MacGyver for many years. What is your history with and passion for MacGyver?
Wan: Like everyone that grew up watching and loving MacGyver, like Peter here as well. We just love this character. We think he’s so unique. He’s so different to a lot of the heroes out there. Not just in the TV landscape but just in general. A guy who uses violence as a last resort but uses his brains to think his way out of situations.
Was it ever going to be a movie?
Wan: Oh yeah, a while ago at one stage it was supposed to be a feature, yes.
Did TV seem like a better idea so he could have more adventures?
Wan: I felt so. At one point, after pursuing it as a feature for a while, I eventually thought, “You know what? We should go back to CBS and just see if they would be interested to do this again as a TV series. With what Peter did with Hawaii Five-0, they could have very easily today done a feature version of that but they went back and they recreated a really successful version of that show on television. I felt that was the right way to go.
Are you able to use the theme song in an age where they’ve cut theme songs out of shows entirely?
Lenkov: One of the big things in television these days is there’s no main title sequence anymore. One of the things that I was really adamant about doing the show, and they signed off on it, was doing a main title sequence and actually having a theme song. Incorporate some of the original theme from the original show and a little bit of a new theme. So it’s a combination of the two but I didn’t want to do the show without a main title sequence. I feel like this show needs that. Very much like that original show.
On Hawaii Five-0 you got the theme song down to 30 seconds. Similar thing for MacGyver?
Lenkov: I think right now it’s 21 seconds. It keeps getting shorter every time we do a redo, but I’ll tell you one thing. That’s a big battle to win, to be able to do a main title sequence and a theme song these days. That’s not something network television does anymore.
Wan: Because it eats up ad space?
Lenkov: Yeah and they feel like maybe it’s a little retro but I like that.
Wan: It sets the tone.