From TSTV to SyFy
Radio-Television-Film alumnus and “Battlestar Galactica” producer Paul M. Leonard finds a niche in science fiction
Paul M. Leonard, B.S. Radio-Television-Film '91, is best known for his extensive work in science-fiction television programs including producing such hits as "Battlestar Galactica" and "Defiance."
The Dallas native is a third-generation Longhorn who attended USC after earning his bachelor's at the College of Communication. While temping during the day and taking classes at night, Leonard landed at 20th Century Fox, taking a job with Steven Bochco Productions as the assistant to the head of production who helped launch "NYPD Blue." After two years, his boss' contract expired but allowed the young upstart to sit in production meetings, watch dailies, visit the mix stage, and learn a lot about post-production from which Leonard has built a successful career starting with the cult-hit "Sliders."
Leonard also teaches courses on editing and post-production at the University of Texas Semester in Los Angeles program (UTLA). We caught up with the veteran producer to find out how his profession has progressed since his time at UT.
Do you have a love of sci-fi and is that why your career has gone in the direction of that genre?
I have always loved the "magic" of movies, so a television product with so many VFX (visual effects) is the closest I've gotten to participate in that. The post gig was my first freelance job, so I eagerly agreed to stay on "Sliders" for seasons two through five. What I wasn't expecting is that I had pigeonholed myself as the "hour-long sci-fi visual effects show guy." I had friends at Dick Wolf Productions and wanted a job on a straight drama, but I couldn’t get an interview. SyFy Channel kept calling me, so I kept saying "yes." Although I've always kept my sense of humor, some of the shows and TV movies that I have worked on have been sub-standard. The most challenging were eight $2 million TV movies I posted for SyFy Channel.
"Battlestar Galactica" took off and is still remembered as one of the best television shows of all-time according to critics. Why do you think the show became so popular?
I lucked out when the associate producer on the "BSG" pilot begged me to take her job. The number of VFX in the four-hour mini-series pilot overwhelmed her. Ron Moore was unfulfilled with his last days on the "Star Trek" shows as the storylines had to be wrapped up neatly with heroes and villains being too clear-cut for his taste. He and David Eick set out to make the anti-Trek: long-running story threads; heroes making dark choices; villains acting heroically; hand-held camera work; primal, ethnic music – whatever "Star Trek" would do, we set out to do the opposite. Once SyFy Channel saw the great reviews, they succumbed to Ron and David's vision of the show. Anyone who worked on the show became a fan. The show took so many chances with its heroes and controversial story lines that my staff and I would literally scramble to read the scripts when they were distributed. The critical success of the show clearly stemmed from Ron Moore and the writing. However, unlike any other show runner I've worked for, Ron was wide open to collaboration. Rymer is a big fan of improvisation and chose to include much of what he got on set in the cut. The deal with the writers' office became that the cast needs to do it once as scripted before inventing more. In post, we needed 42 minutes of content to make an episode. Due in large to the improv on set, we'd end up with first cuts being routinely 10 to 30 minutes too long.
What did your time at UT teach you?
To distinguish myself from the pack in some way. It's easy to get lost at UT, much like it is in L.A. Eager to attend a graduate school producer program at USC, I set out to create something at UT. That desire resulted in Texas Student Television, where I was the founding station manager for its first two years. I'm thrilled to say it’s more alive now than when I graduated in '91.
What advice do you have for students?
Determine what you want and go after it. Find a focus. No one will give you anything, but if you're direct in your interests and find specific requests to make of faculty, classmates, and professionals, people will usually help you reach your goals.
What are your future plans/goals?
I had the good fortune to develop a feature script and get it produced through the Motion Picture Corporation of America. It was released directly to video last year starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and called "Assassination Games." I'm writing, co-writing and optioning other scripts to get more into producing.