Brannon Braga’s resume is looking pretty sharp: show runner, executive producer, Emmy-nominated and Hugo Award-winning writer, and now, director. Impressive titles, even by Hollywood standards.
And while it might not carry quite the weight out in L.A., when you add “McKinley Bulldog” and “Kent Stater” to that list, it makes for quite the story of local boy makes good.
Braga is one of the most prodigious talents in Stark County’s book of famous locals. So why haven’t you heard of him?
Because when you’re behind some of the biggest shows on network TV, you’re too busy to be out front.
Braga grew up here, graduated from Canton McKinley and attended Kent State Stark before heading to film school at the University of California at Santa Cruz. From there, he landed an Academy of Television Arts & Sciences screenwriting internship on the fourth season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” And he never left.
He went on to pen and/or produce more than 300 episodes of various “Star Trek” franchises, moving from TNG to “Star Trek: Voyager” (1995-2001) and “Star Trek: Enterprise” (2001-05). He has written more Star Trek episodes than any other writer.
He also co-wrote “Star Trek: Generations,” the movie in which fan favorite Captain Kirk meets his end, triggering outrage from “Star Trek’s” very dedicated—and very vocal—fan base, quaintly referred to as “Trekkies.” He even is reported to have received death threats after the movie’s premiere, and Trekkies worldwide heavily scrutinized Braga’s work on the TV series.
He wrote the screenplays for “Star Trek: First Contact” and “Mission: Impossible II,” penned and produced the seventh and eighth seasons of Fox’s action-drama series “24,” and was an executive producer and writer on shortlived projects “Threshold” (CBS, 2005- 06), “FlashForward” (ABC, 2009-10) and the epic Stephen Spielberg television project, “Terra Nova” (Fox, 2011).
Now he’s taken a turn in the director seat for “Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey,” the reboot of Carl Sagan’s 1980 classic miniseries, while his concurrent witch trials project, “Salem,” debuted on WGN late last month.
We caught up with Braga for details on his new projects and what’s next on the highlight reel of his prolific career.
You were a fan of Carl Sagan’s original “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” (1980). How surreal was it to make your directorial debut with this new iteration?
My good friend Seth MacFarlane approached me, said they needed a guiding hand. Ann Druyan (Sagan’s widow and original “Cosmos” writer) had been working on scripts, but the show needed a good mix of science and science fiction. Seth says I have a knack for making difficult concepts clear. That was true for sci-fi, and the question was “can I do it with real science?”
So Seth asked me to come aboard, but the directing was unexpected. We went without a director for a while, writing the scripts and doing the production prep, and we still didn’t have a director. Then we had a day of test shooting, and Ann said, “Well, why don’t you do it? Who else is as intimately involved with the material?”
But you haven’t directed before, despite having so many production and writing credits under your belt?
I always wanted to direct. Show running is not terribly different than filmmaking. But I was looking for the right thing in my bones. I could have directed some “Star Trek” episodes, but it didn’t feel right. And when you’re running a show, it’s hard to direct. You’ve got to take three weeks off. I was just never in a position to take that amount of time off. I’m happy I waited and happy it’s “Cosmos.”
I’ve seen the first four episodes and both the storytelling and visuals are remarkable. How do these things come together?
One of the things we knew was that we wanted to use a variety of storytelling devices. That’s what the original did. We knew this was going to be a visual effects feast—it had to be a cosmic experience.
We had to be the grandest to do it right, to live up at the very least to the original “Cosmos.” If we don’t bring a tear to the eye at the end of episode one, if we haven’t moved people by the experience of what science means, we haven’t done our job.
It was Seth’s idea—his brilliant idea—to do the ship of the imagination in every episode. It gave us a home base and point of view for our host (Neil deGrasse Tyson). We’re diving down into Jupiter, not just showing shots. It puts the audience in these places. And we thought Seth’s animation machine could help us do unique, avant-garde, adult animation.
What can we expect in future episodes?
My God, what topics don’t we cover? An episode about the autobiography of the Earth. Climate change, our sun, our precious, life-giving sun. And the final episode is a killer. The absolute best. It’s a journey into the microverse, a universe within our universe. If you like what you’ve seen so far, you’ll like what’s coming.
How have you felt about the reviews—both critical and viewer?
Absolutely thrilled! Ratings are beyond expectations. The premiere episode drew 40 million viewers worldwide. That’s a hell of a lot of people.
The reviews have been really great—and what a relief—but more importantly, people just come up and tell me how much they love the show. It’s fun to look at the live Twitter feed.
I love science because it is absolutely wondrous and absolutely true. It’s obvious to me that we’re starving for it.
A crew member on the set of “Salem” came up to me and said, “I watch the show with my daughter. It’s the only show we’ve watched together, she’s really into science.” I did the same thing with my father when the original aired. As a producer, that’s as good as it gets.
In previous interviews, you’ve talked about being more of a horror fan than a sci-fi fan. Your resume seems to tell a different story. Is “Salem” the first time you’ve flexed those horror muscles?
Absolutely. It’s a period horror piece: a scary show about witches running the witch trials for mysterious purposes.
I’ve described it as “Wuthering Heights” meets “The Exorcist.” There is an epic romance between a witch and someone who doesn’t know she’s a witch. It’s disturbed and disturbing and horrific, while also wildly romantic. It’s my first foray into horror, my first foray into a soap opera of sorts, but I don’t consider it my first foray into period pieces. I think of “Star Trek” as period—just a period that hasn’t happened yet.
Can you pick a favorite character?
[Laughs] That’s like picking a favorite child.
The emotional epicenter of the show is Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery). Everything revolves around her, and she’s the character I enjoy writing most at the moment.
Have we found our female answer to Don Draper or Walter White, the “antihero”?
I knew within days of developing “Salem” with (co-creator) Adam Simon that Mary was destined to be one of the great female characters for television. You’ll have to tell me what you think. But she is diabolical, murderous and terribly good and evil, all rolled into one, in female form. Test audiences had a complicated relationship with her, love and hate her at the same time. Is she a female Tony Soprano, set in the 1600s? Yes, I think yes.
Whose work inspires you?
From a young age, Hitchcock and anything resembling him. I would say that the biggest influences of my life are Rod Serling (“The Twilight Zone”) and Stephen King.
I think my influences today are other writers that I work with who are really, really talented people and inspire me every day and force me to bring my best game to work. Ann Druyan—I was a fan of hers and Carl’s, and meeting her made me really nervous. Was my work up to her standards? Am I going to seem stupid? What an opportunity it is to work with people you admire!
So I’m inspired every day by the people I work with. I guess maybe I’m influenced by everything. Doesn’t the brain absorb everything?
So, I’ve got to ask. All the interviews I’ve read talk about references you’ve made to Bozeman, Montana, your birthplace. But no references to our fair city? What gives?
Oh, they’re absolutely in there! There’s an episode of “Voyager” called “Deadlock.” It’s season one or season two of “Voyager.” The ship has been duplicated, it’s occupying the same point in space-time as an identical “Voyager” ship. Captain Janeway cites a “Kent State University experiment” as she tries to explain to the crew what’s happening to them. And I’ve put my high school teachers in there. I know there’s a McKinley in there—McKinley station or USS McKinley. I’m certain there are others.
You always seem to have more than a few irons in the fire … what’s next?
[Sighs] A vacation? I’m slightly fearful of my frame of mind when I haven’t taken a vacation after two solid years. Both (“Cosmos” and “Salem”) are so huge in their own ways. In one, I’m trying to depict the actual cosmos; the other, I’m trying to depict the 1600s. You could say it’s been … exhausting.
In terms of another project, I haven’t thought about it. Things come my way, but I’ve been so lucky to be working on two amazing projects. Don’t know what could possibly be next that would even come close, that would be so original or enticing.
If we get a second season of “Salem,” I think I’ll just work on that for a while?
It must be hard, wondering your fate?
Most shows don’t succeed. The last three shows I created didn’t. All were excellent and critically received; all were canceled after one season. Fortunately, I enjoy the process. You meet new people and make new friends and learn things. You can’t think about the ratings. People will watch or they won’t.
The irony is, of course, that “Cosmos” is a miniseries, and it’s getting really great ratings.
I’m so encouraged by the success of “Cosmos.” It means that there’s hope for people to embrace science. Science and technology have saved us throughout history. Without science, you and I wouldn’t be talking now.
We’d be dead of smallpox.
New episodes of “Cosmos” air at 9 p.m. Sundays on Fox. “Salem” airs at 10 p.m. Sundays on WGN. Check your local listings.