Cinemax’s high-octane, globe-spanning thriller Strike Back is coming to a close with its final season, as the top-secret intelligence team known as Section 20 has embarked on its most dangerous mission yet. While British sergeant Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) and former U.S. Delta Force operative Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) are working to crack a missing-persons case in Bangkok, it unveils a massive terrorist plot that might finally end up bringing them all down. With the action bigger than ever, you’ll want to stay tuned to this final journey to see who makes it to the end.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, co-executive producer/director Michael J. Bassett talked about how he ended up getting so involved with the show, the challenge of finding projects that he’s equally as passionate about, figuring out the direction for this last season, doing action and stunts of this level for a TV show, and going out with a bang. He also talked about continuing to work with Strike Back leads Philip Winchesters and Sullivan Stapleton, as a director on episodes of their upcoming NBC series The Player and Blindspot, and how much of a blast it was to direct two episodes of Starz’s upcoming Ash vs. Evil Dead.
Collider: You started off as a guest director, and then you became a lead director, writer and co-executive producer. When you did those first couple of episodes, were you hoping it would lead to more, or did you just feel really lucky that they liked working with you and wanted to keep you around?
MICHAEL J. BASSETT: I got into this because I knew Philip Winchester. I did a movie called Solomon Kane, and Phil was a supporting player in that. And I had cast him in a horror movie that never got made, years earlier. So, I knew him and I knew he was a lovely guy, and he was maturing into a great actor and a physically very capable actor. I finished Solomon Kane and went off to do another movie. I think Phil did Crusoe, and then Strike Back. We ended up talking and he said, “Hey, I’m doing Strike Back. Come to Africa and do an episode.” When an actor offers you a job, you say, “Yes, of course!,” but you don’t expect it to happen because actors can’t offer you jobs. But it turned out that the owner of this company in the UK, called Left Bank, was a fan of my work. They called up and said, “Do you really want to come and do an episode?” And I said, “Yeah, if this show didn’t exist, I’d have to create it. It’s my fantasy.”
So, I went down to Africa and I did a couple of episodes, and I had a lot of fun. I never intended to do television. I thought I was making movies and doing that whole slow grind of writing a movie one year, trying to get it made the next year, and then three years later you get it made, but nobody sees it because you can’t get distribution. Television happens very quickly. It was like a shot of adrenaline into me, as a filmmaker, and my career. You can hit town, do the show, and leave with this incredible energy behind you. So, when they liked what I did and the next season got commissioned, they said, “Do you want to come back as the lead director?” I said, “What does that entail?” And they said, “Normally, you do the first episode and the last episode.” I said, “I want to do more. Give me more. Let me write one. Let me get involved in the storytelling.”
I felt this was a show that I absolutely understood, and that I thought I could do. I loved what the guys did on the first season, but I thought the show could be bigger, have more action, and have this incredible energy that feeds off of what the principal actors can do. What Philip and Sullivan do, no other actors can do. There were very, very few times that you’d ever see a stunt man standing in for Phil or Sully. They absolutely deliver, on the screen, what you think they’re going to deliver. As a filmmaker, that’s the gift that keeps on giving. So, I got involved and I loved it. I loved the boys, and I loved the cast. They’re all wonderful. The production team was great. Cinemax and Sky, in the UK, and Left Bank let me have my way with it, a little bit, which was wonderful. Each season, I did a little bit more. And in the finale season, I directed six of the ten episodes, I did second unit action photography on another episode, and I did pick-ups for all the other episodes, as well. Knowing it was the swan song, I wanted to wring every last exhilarating second out of the experience.
When you have that much of a say in the final product, how challenging is it to find the next project that you can be as passionate about?
BASSETT: The problem is finding something to go on to that has that amount of challenge. When I talk to producers and go for a job, I say, “Give me the hardest thing you’ve got.” That’s what I want to do. I want to see where you draw the line, and then go beyond that line and deliver something new. Television can become a bit of a treadmill for directors. You come in, nobody knows you, the actors are already doing what they’re doing, and you’re just one of a number of directors who comes in. I’m too passionate about what I do. I like to get involved. The joy of it now, for me, is that I’m going to direct a couple of episodes of Phil’s new show (The Player) for NBC, and I’m going to direct an episode of Sullivan’s new show (Blindspot) for NBC, as well. We haven’t really broken up the family yet. They’re gonna be fun. When the producers and studio discovered is what an asset Philip is, in terms of physically doing things. They didn’t realize what he could do. When I came on board, I said, “Just get this guy front and center. Let me get inside the action and let me try to deliver the biggest show on network television to you.” That’s the ambition for The Player.
No show on TV does action like Strike Back does action, and each show has been bigger and better. After having done so much, up until now, how did you decide where to go with the last season? Did you just want to go all out?
BASSETT: Because we went into it knowing that it was the final season, it wasn’t like anybody was pulling the plug on us, half-way through. We knew what it was, and we were not going to go out with a whimper. We had to go out with a bang and tell the stories that needed to be told. When you do know that you’re doing a final season, you can start finishing the characters’ stories, which you can’t do in television, generally. You have to take baby steps with character stories because you don’t know when you’re going to get to finish them. So, the gift we got was that we could close them out. Strike Back’s job is to put as many obstacles in the way as possible. They have to save the world while they’re dealing with their stuff. What I always loved about Strike Back was that there was very rarely a point where someone stops and talks about their emotions. It was not dwelled on or labored because they had to get on with it and save the world. With this season, we have really strong bad guys. Knowing that it’s the final season and knowing that we wanted to offer the audience something new, Southeast Asia seemed like a really great place to play with a totally new vibe and energy. There were production challenges like you wouldn’t believe, so I loved it. It brought a really different flavor and energy, and it brought different things out of the actors. It allowed us to bring a different look to the show.
What are the biggest challenges of doing action and stunts, on this scale, for a TV show?
BASSETT: It’s knowing that you don’t have room for mistakes and room for repeats. Everybody has to be on their game. The team has to be the best team. Preparation is everything, but the familiarity and chemistry is also important. We know that, if we turn up at a location, you might not be able to execute your plan because things will be different on the day. For a lot of people, that would be paralyzing. For Strike Back, it was invigorating. Because I’m a writer as well, we could turn on a dime, in terms of story. If something changed or didn’t work, we would fix it. You would have to keep the energy level up enough, so that you weren’t brutalized by the schedule. It is absolutely non-stop, but it also pays attention to character.
Did you intentionally want to close out the show on what seems like it could be the team’s biggest mission yet?
BASSETT: Yes. Strike Back generally has an over-arching villain for a season, with side stories in each episode that allow you to dip in and out of the series, if you don’t want to follow the whole thing, and we do that again this season. The interesting thing is that, because we are getting to the end game, we are painting with slightly larger brush strokes. I always knew where I wanted the final episode to go. I pitched it to the studio and the production company by saying, “This is what I think the finale should be. We’re gonna strip it right the way down to the purer elements of what Strike Back is, which is Scott and Stonebridge, and we put them in the worst situation they’ve ever been in and see if they survive.” So, it becomes less about the big mission and more about just staying alive. I don’t want to give away any more than that, but I think it’s the best episode of Strike Back that we’ve ever done. We’ll leave the audience with their hearts in their mouths and maybe a smile on their face.
How was it to go off and direct two episodes of Ash vs. Evil Dead?
BASSETT: I had an absolutely blast doing it. It was another one of those moments of living out a childhood fantasy, working with Sam Raimi, directing Bruce Campbell, the coolest guy on the planet, and having the opportunity to kill lots of deadites with chainsaws and shotguns. I think it’s going to be an enormously fun show. It’s going to be absolutely great.
Is it intimidating to step in and take on directing episodes of such a highly anticipated series that continues that Evil Dead legacy?
BASSETT: Yes, it’s incredibly intimidating. It’s intimidating standing next to Sam Raimi and seeing him at work. He’s a powerhouse of good ideas. Sam did the first one, and he had the resources and time. And then, I had to shoot the same thing, but on the TV schedule. I had less resources and less time, and that was my challenge, but I knew that I had to do it. I like difficult things. I love Evil Dead. I was a fan, as a kid. I cut school to watch the movie. When I heard they were making it, I spoke to Starz and said, “You’ve gotta let me do this. I so want to go down there and play in this world.” They’re 25-minute episodes that make you laugh, hit hard, spill some blood, and then get the hell out of there. It’s just the best fun.
Having been a fan of the movies, how does the level of gore of the TV show compare?
BASSETT: Oh, completely! There’s absolutely no break on it, whatsoever. There’s no censorship. There’s nothing. We were literally figuring out how to make it more fun, more gory and more Evil Dead. What Sam, Rob Tapert and Bruce did, back in the day, was invent a whole new visual language. I had the Evil Dead movies on my computer, so I would bring them up and say, “This is what we’re trying to achieve. This is the energy.” Bruce is the keeper of the keys. Just before we started shooting, he said to me, “I’ve never done an Evil Dead with anybody other than Sam Raimi.” I said, “I want to free you to be that creative guy again, and decide what Ash would do with these circumstances and make it fun.” What I took away from Evil Dead was that it’s frightening, it’s gory and it’s funny as hell. Bruce Campbell and the young cast that we’ve got alongside him are absolutely dynamite. It was lovely to spend some time doing that, and it was very, very different from Strike Back. It was a great way of changing gears. And I did the Starz show Power, with 50 Cent, as well. It’s really nice to be able to do different flavors. After having been so responsible for Strike Back for so long, to just come in and play in other people’s worlds a little bit, get a sense of what they like and how they shoot it, and then go away, that will inform everything I do, from now on, in terms of the new projects I put together.
Strike Back airs on Friday nights on Cinemax.