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'Strike Back' director Michael J. Bassett pumps up action

Michael J. Bassett loves a moving target. As director, wirter and co-exec producer of "Strike Back," he's found two.

Stars Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton do most of their own stunts for the Cinemax series, and Bassett cooked up some doozies for the next episode.

"We've done stuff in Episode 9 which you're going to, I think, adore," Bassett told me at San Diego Comic-Con in July. "The show runs 46 minutes long and there's, I think, a 30-minute run of action.

"It just doesn't stop. They infiltrate a terrorist base and it doesn't stop until a train explodes a half an hour later."

The episode, which I'll call "Stunts on a Train" because Bassett and Co. don't name the eps, airs at 9 p.m. CT Oct. 11 on Cinemax. (See photos from the episode here.)

After directing two episodes in the show's second season, Bassett returned this season as a writer, producer and "lead director." He directed the first and last two episodes, and acted as showrunner throughout the season.

He wanted to direct all 10 episodes. And though he wasn't able to do that, Winchester, Sullivan and costars Michelle Lukes and Milauna Jemai Jackson likely would have enjoyed it--even if he did stretch their physical limits with the stunts.

"I want the stuff to look insane and dangerous and intense," he said, smiling. "I don't want anybody to get hurt. We are just making entertainment and it's not worth anybody's life. But it's worth somebody's injury."

Bassett talked more about his approach to the show.

Why don't you just do everything?
Well, you know what, the horrible truth is I said, "Can I direct them all?" And they went, "You just actually can't do it because the nature of how the show gets made is that you can't do all 10."  But maybe this coming season I might do six of the 10 rather than four of the 10.

So now you're hooked.
Well, you know what? I've never had more professional fun than doing this show. I mean I hope that comes across when you watch it because it is enormous fun. Why do this job if it's not going to be fun? We're not curing cancer; we're trying to entertain people so if we're not being entertained doing it, in whatever capacity, how can that possibly get through to the audience?

It's an action adventure show and we try and make it politically resonant. And we try to put all the other stuff into it. People don't believe me we have a full-time researcher on the show to try and get a degree of verisimilitude and accuracy into the little details of that we do.

I said to Michael Casey, the series producer, "I want to make this bigger than you've ever done it before." And he goes, "Well, I'm not sure how you do it bigger." I went, "Don't worry, leave it with me." Because that's what I think really my job is; the resources don't change.

The resources don't really get any bigger. They go up with inflation like five percent a year or something but you say, let's deploy that stuff better than it's ever been done before; more intensely then it's been done before. I genuinely think, and I know this is quite a big claim but I do think it's the biggest action show on television by quite a long way now.

You don't have a huge budget, but it often looks like a movie.
That's the way I look at it exactly.

You did four episodes this season, so you just did two movies basically.
I come at it exactly like if I was putting a movie together. The only difference is 24 days to do 90-odd minutes--Stapleton's looking at me now; I'm embarrassed. There are 24 days to do it and I guess the catering budget for "Skyfall," you know, and yet we are trying to get up there and do this right.

And the problem is of course the audience is very familiar with huge action, which costs $200 million. Is that a competition worth having? You turn on the TV are you expecting that? Hell yeah, you should definitely expect it. You should expect to watch something when you go, "Holy shit."

And more importantly that it's the actors doing it. That's the thing--there's no digital manipulation. The boys are in the midst of the explosion, in the midst of the boat chase, in the midst of running along the top of a train as it's exploding.

Were you eager to find new ways of bashing those two?
Absolutely. It is my lifelong challenge to find things that they won't do. And I haven't found anything yet. But we sort of sit around and we'll have a dinner and get a little bit drunk and just say, "What haven't we done yet?"

I really wanted them to jump out of a plane in the opening episodes. And I wanted to jump down with them. We weren't allowed to do it. Insurance wouldn't let us do it. The boys started their training; they were like, "Yeah, we'll get qualified, we'll do it." So the only thing we can't do are the things that the insurance company actually won't let us do where it becomes a danger to the show. And it's not because it's dangerous for the boys…

It's probably safer than some of the shit they do, right?
Well, that's the stupid thing; we have a stunt supervisor and we'll look at guys saying, "We got this plan." He'll look and he'll go, "Yeah. OK, they can do that." And sometimes he'll go, "No. They can't do that." And I'll go, "Look, but if I did it this way." They go, "Yeah, OK you can do that." And it really is a tense negotiation…

And though we focus on Phil and Sully because they are the sharp point of the spear, everybody falls in behind their lead. That's the most important thing is if they were at any point seen to back down or be a bit grumpy about something, but it's quite the opposite. They get grumpy when you won't let them do it. I'll go, "No I'm sorry." They'll go, "Well, the stunt team got to do it." And they're like, "Why?  What can we do to get the stunt team out of the picture and us in it?"

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