The CBS series MacGyver, for which James Wan is an executive producer and directed the pilot, is a reimagining of the classic action-adventure about Angus “Mac” MacGyver (Lucas Till). As part of a clandestine organization within the U.S. government, MacGyver uses his extraordinary talent for unconventional problem solving on high-risk missions that save lives, and he gets helps from former CIA agent Jack Dalton (George Eads), Director of Operations Patricia Thornton (Sandrine Holt), and computer hacker Riley Davis (Tristin Mays).
During this exclusive interview with Collider, filmmaker James Wan talked about his vision for the MacGyver pilot, wanting to keep the tone of the show fun and light-hearted, the biggest challenges in doing big action for television, and paying homage to the original series. He also talked about how cool it is to have such a highly successful horror franchise with The Conjuring, focusing on developing Aquaman next, and how he’d love to further explore long-term storytelling on television.
Collider: You were going to direct this pilot originally, and then you couldn’t because of scheduling, and now you’re back on it again.
JAMES WAN: I know! It’s crazy how it came back around.
Is this the vision you always had for MacGyver?
WAN: It was a different script that they had back then, when they shot the previous pilot. But in terms of tone, the feel, the emotion and the action, this is the spirit I would have loved to have had, if I had shot it in the first place. And I got a second chance to do so.
Was anything carried over from the first pilot script to what you shot, or is this pilot entirely different?
WAN: It’s entirely different. Peter [Lenkov] wrote it from scratch. Really, the only thing that we kept was Lucas [Till] and George [Eads]. And we kept a particular story MacGuffin that drove the plot of the first pilot, which was that our heroes are trying to retrieve this particular chemical weapon. That’s basically the catalyst for this crazy fun action-adventure that they get into.
Did the network give you any guidelines for tone or action, or were they pretty hands off?
WAN: We were all pretty much on the same page. I really wanted the tone of this to be fun and to be light-hearted, and I wanted to find humor between the two lead characters. That’s exactly what Peter wanted, and that’s what the network wanted, as well. We were all in sync, really. That’s nice, for a change.
What are the biggest challenges in translating the action you’re used to doing in film to a TV series?
WAN: That’s really the biggest thing. In the feature world, I have so much money to play with, especially for Fast & Furious 7. The budget on that was almost unlimited. Not that it was, but it felt like it. On a TV show, people have seen what you’ve done and they go, “We want you to do that, but you have to do it on a TV budget with a TV scheduled.” I shot this in 13 days. I was like, “I don’t know how you guys do it!” And they said, “You get way more for the pilot. For the actual show, they’ll get a lot less.” That’s what makes me really in awe of the people who work in television. I have a new-found respect for what they do and how much they can pull off, in such a tight amount of time. It’s different when you’re doing HBO or Netflix because they have a schedule and money that’s more like traditional feature films, and they look like traditional feature films. But in this particular space, it’s not so much. But it was great for someone like myself, who has a background in indie filmmaking. I had to dig way down to find clever ways to make it exciting. I joked that I have to be MacGyver myself.
Because you have more of a budget and more time for the pilot, do you feel guilty that the directors coming after you have to live up to what you did?
WAN: Yeah, I do! I’ve had later episode directors come up to me and go, “Damn you, James! Now, we have to live up to that with a lot less schedule, days and budget.”
How do you pay homage to the original series while acknowledging the huge changes we’ve had in technology since then?
WAN: That’s the tricky thing. When the original MacGyver came out, technology was nowhere near as advanced as it is today. A lot of the stuff MacGyver was doing was cutting edge, in a lot of ways. But today, we live in a cyber world where everything is about information control and everything is related to the computer IT world. We have to acknowledge that and have a character within the show that deals in that world, but I think that’s great. It still makes MacGyver seem like an old school analog hero. So, we have characters that deal with the cyber world, but MacGyver’s take on everything is still very analog and practical. I think that’s a great contrast with the world that we are in right now. There’s still a guy whose approach to everything is very practical and very tangible, and he uses his hands to create things, make things and craft things. That is an art form that has been lost, in the new world that we live in.
As someone who is passionate about filmmaking and such a horror fan yourself, what’s it like to have such a successful horror franchise, with The Conjuring, that has also spawned two spin-offs? Is that just ridiculously cool?
WAN: It’s stupid cool! It’s crazy, stupid cool! I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been a part in helping to create so many horror franchises in the last 10 to 12 years. I feel very lucky for that, and I’m very thankful to the universe for allowing me those opportunities. That’s part of the reason why, with Atomic Monster, my production company, we wanted to make Lights Out. We wanted to pay some of that back and give someone like David Sandberg, a young upcoming filmmaker who made a little, short viral movie out of his living room in Sweden, to take Lights Out and turn that into a feature film. I want to do more of that and help upcoming fellow filmmakers, and give them the opportunity that I had when I was starting out, as well. I think it’s great. It’s a world that I really love. The horror community is one that I’m very thankful for because they’re so loyal. Society likes to paint them as outcasts and freaks, but I love these freaks. I love my fellow horror freaks! I’m very thankful for them. They always come out to our movies. They’re always there on opening night and opening weekend to support us, and I’m very thankful for them. In the world of the fandom universe, I would say that horror fans are the most loyal and the nicest. We’ve seen fanboys in the comic book world, and those guys are brutal. They’re ruthless! The horror fans are not like that. They’re a lot more polite. So, I’m very thankful to them for supporting me all these years. I now have the chance to break out and do other things that I love, and that’s not just horror.
And now you’re jumping into that comic book world yourself, with Aquaman. You still have some time to work on and develop that, but what has it been like to collaborate with DC’s Geoff Johns on that?
WAN: Up until recently, I’ve just been super busy wrapping up all things The Conjuring 2 related, and then promoting Lights Out. Now that that’s out of the way, I can finally focus on everything Aquaman related. It’s been good. It’s been really creatively diving myself – no pun intended – into the world of Aquaman and taking that on board, and seeing the world that Aquaman is now a part of, with Justice League coming up, and taking that and respecting that world that everyone has collectively created. It’s about honoring that world, but also, at the same time, making my own movie, as well. That’s very important for me.
Is it fun to be part of what is now a filmmaker collective, all making your own movies, but also keeping them connected?
WAN: Yeah, I think that’s great. I’m not a director for hire. I’ve really only done one director for hire job, and that was Fast and Furious 7. If I don’t have a hand in creating it, than I’m not interested. I’ve been very fortunate, as a filmmaker, that a lot of things that I have created have gone on to be successful, and I take a lot of pride in that. They are giving me a lot of leeway to create and craft my story, and it’s been a blast working with Geoff Johns to craft the story and the world, and seeing how it all ties back into what Zack [Snyder] is doing, as well.
In doing the pilot for MacGyver, did it give you a taste of the possibilities of what you could do in television, exploring different genres?
WAN: Yeah, definitely! One of my favorite TV things that I’ve seen recently is Stranger Things. How can we not love that? It’s great! The show is a beautiful love letter to all the ‘80s things that we grew up with. And so, you realize that the TV space is amazing for long-form storytelling. Generally, when you make a feature film, you don’t get a chance to tell it long-form, so you have to tell everything in basically two hours. You’re lucky if your movie becomes a franchise, and then you get sequels to tell in a longer form. But usually, features are only one-off movies, which is good and bad. It’s good because you do want an end where you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to do until the sequel. But, I do really enjoy the TV space. I think it’s a different beast. I would love to be able to explore darker storytelling. Cable TV really allows you to do that. Streaming channels really allow you to do that, as well. I think it would be fun, potentially, for future projects to explore those worlds.
Could you see yourself taking on something where you direct the entire season?
WAN: Yeah, I fantasize about that. That’s what Cary Fukunaga did with True Detective. He was the main director for the entire first season. If you can do eight episodes and really set the world, and be a part of writing the story, directing it and producing it, it would be amazing. Believe me, I would love to do either sci-fi or horror in that long-form TV space.
MacGyver airs on Friday nights on CBS.