Interview: 'MacGyver' Producers James Wan & Peter Lenkov On Pilot Reshoots, The Theme Song, And Updating A Classic

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.

MacGyver producers interview

When did the idea to gender swap Thornton come about?

Lenkov: I don't know, it felt organic. I like the idea of a strong woman in charge. I wanted somebody who was running DXS to be a strong woman and Thornton was that. It just made sense to me. Again, I just wanted somebody really strong, female in that role. Department of External Services quickly becomes The Phoenix Foundation in the first episode. The problem with rebooting shows also is a lot of this is out there. Everybody knows DXS becomes The Phoenix Foundation so it's very hard to make that a surprise. You've got to look for things that could surprise the audience so that's something that I wanted to get out of the way very quickly because I don't think I could hide the ball on that for very long.

Is the format a new mission every week?

Lenkov: Absolutely, yes. There are personal stories that are going to arc over the course of the season but for the most part, there are stories every week that are closed-ended stories that we'll see a beginning, middle and end to. Also one of the ingredients of the original show, which is the opening gambit. So we're going to open up very much like the original show did or like Indiana Jones where you're in the middle of a mission. You see the end of it. We're going to have our main titles. We come back to a personal story and then we start the A story.

Not a cold open from later in the episode, an entirely standalone mission?

Lenkov: No, I like that also because most shows follow that formula. You're sort of setting up what the crime is and then you have to solve the crime. This is, we're setting up something, and again getting CBS, getting a network to sign off on something like that because it's different, that's the fun thing. You see how supportive they are of this franchise, that we're doing things a little differently than most shows in that genre.

You've said international, and MacGyver was always international, right?

Wan: That's something we definitely want to embrace and lean into.

It's been pointed out that the Conjuring cinematic universe is the first successful cinematic universe since Marvel. How does that make you feel?

Wan: It doesn't suck. [Laughs] It's good, especially since people weren't expecting that. That's always nice, because we got to do it under the radar. That was the best thing. I'd get to create this world that I love and I get to spin it off and have no one tell me how to do it. I just do the story that I want to do.

Had you thought about it that way?

Wan: Yeah, I quietly think of this bigger universe but I'm very superstitious. I never like to talk about it. I don't like talking about sequels or spinoffs or franchise until they actually happen, until they actually work with the audience.

Working on Aquaman, do you get updates every time a new DC movie is released or Justice League is in production, saying, "We're doing this?"

Wan: [Laughs] They're keeping me abreast. It's like the CIA. I'm on a need to know basis and only if I need to know.

What are plans for Lights Out 2?

Wan: Continuing with that world, carrying this potential story. I'm excited for what the potential franchise could be. We've created this villain we're excited about and we'll see what happens.

Would you be able to return to direct any MacGyver episodes?

Wan: I think it would be fun maybe down the line if my schedule opens up. I think it'd be cool, if Peter wants me back.

Lenkov: It would be great for him to come and do like the finale or a special show that's like a sweeps episode or something that's significant would be great. Those are things that the audience looks forward to. They know they're going to be special episodes so that would be great.

Wan: That's awesome.

When you do a pilot, it's sort of like directing the whole series because everyone who comes after has to follow it. Did it feel different than directing a standalone movie?

Wan: I've always said that with a lot of the horror franchises that I've started, it's like directing a pilot. I come in, I direct the first movie and all these directors come in and direct all the sequels after me and hey have to kind of retain the look, the tone, and the characters. It's a bit like that, so this is similar in that way but it's also a whole different world and I'm learning it firsthand. I'm learning a lot from Peter. He's teaching me how things are put together in this space and it's been a great learning experience.

Have you lined up subsequent directors?

Lenkov: Oh yeah, yeah. As soon as we got the green light to do the first episode, we lined up our directors. A lot of guys that do Five-0, a lot of guys that do very successful CBS shows, it's the same group of guys that I've worked with for a number of years. So yeah, Joe Dante's directing one.

Wan: Joe Dante's doing one and I'm so excited about that.

Lenkov: We have Matt Earl Beasley, Jerry Levine, a lot of guys that are very successful in the genre but Joe, I've worked with Joe for a long time and we're both fans of his as well. He's directing I think the next episode.

Is there something fittingly Joe Dante about his episode?

Wan: [Laughs] They're not little gremlin creatures if that's what you're asking.

Lenkov: On Five-0, I always have Joe direct the Halloween episodes but unfortunately we couldn't book Joe for the MacGyver Halloween episode.

Wan: There's no werewolf in this one.

Lenkov: There is no werewolf, no killer fish.

Are there any ripped-from-the-headlines subjects MacGyver can deal with?

Lenkov: No. That's a great Law & Order franchise. Our stories are big stories. We're Mission: Impossible in terms of if you were going to compare it to something, big stakes.

I'm thinking Snowden-like headlines.

Lenkov: Yeah, there is something similar to that actually.

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MacGyver premieres Friday, September 23 at 8PM on CBS.