‘MacGyver’ – James Wan and Peter Lenkov Interview on the Action Series Reboot

MacGyver executive producers James Wanand Peter Lenkov
James Wan and Peter Lenkov (Photos ©2016 CBS Broadcasting)

CBS will launch the 2016 reboot of the action series MacGyver on September 23rd at 8pm ET/PT. The original MacGyver starred Richard Dean Anderson as a guy who could get out of any situation by using whatever miscellaneous items – paper clips, toothpicks, etc – he found. The new series starring Lucas Till in the title role will also be filled with MacGyverisms, according to executive producers James Wan and Peter Lenkov. During our interview at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con, Wan and Lenkov talked about how the two shows compare and what made Lucas Till the right guy to lead the cast.

The MacGyver Plot:MacGyver, a reimagining of the classic series, is an action-adventure drama about 20-something Angus “Mac” MacGyver, who creates a clandestine organization within the U.S. government where he uses his extraordinary talent for unconventional problem solving and vast scientific knowledge to save lives. Joining his team on high-risk missions around the globe is maverick former CIA agent Jack Dalton and Patricia Thornton, ex-field agent turned director of operations and Riley Davis, an unpredictable computer hacker with a chip on her shoulder. At home, MacGyver is entertained by his ambitious roommate, Wilt Bozer. Under the aegis of the Department of External Services, MacGyver takes on the responsibility of saving the world, armed to the teeth with resourcefulness and little more than bubble gum and a paper clip.”

James Wan and Peter Lenkov Interview:

Why do you think now is the right time for a new MacGyver TV series?

James Wan: “I actually think more than ever this is the perfect landscape to bring a show like this. He’s such a different hero in a lot of ways. In a lot of ways he’s like an anti-hero. I don’t mean in a Clint Eastwood kind of way. He’s a guy that doesn’t use guns to solve problems and in the climate that we live in today, it’s kind of refreshing to see an action hero who uses violence only as a last resort to deal with things. He likes to solve his problems with his brains, and find ways to kind of engineer his way out of these predicaments that he gets himself into. So, I think that’s kind of cool.

As Peter has pointed out in the past that with a lot of the cop shows out there, a lot of the action shows out there, it is just so violence-heavy. Again, whereas we do have violence in our show but it’s more action-driven and action in a fun-hearted way.”

Will people recognize the tone from the original or is this something completely different?

James Wan: “I think that tone is very important, that we never lose that tone in this new version. That tone’s very important to us, but of course you know we’re now living in a different time. That show played today would be very different, you know what I mean? You take that show directly out of the ’80s and put it in 2016, I don’t know if it would resonate as well given how much diet of action stories that we’ve seen today. But keeping the tone and that spirit and that philosophy like the original is very important to us.”

Is the tongue still very much in the cheek?

James Wan: “I think so.”

Peter Lenkov: “Yes, I think so. But I think we approach everything with the same… Look, there’s a lot of ingredients in the show – a lot of humor, a lot of heart, a lot of action, adventure, MacGyverisms – but yes, tongue in cheek.”

Is there an element of nostalgia to the new show as well?

Peter Lenkov: “I think so. A lot of reboots don’t work. They don’t work for a number of reasons, but I think this one belongs on TV today because of the character. I think James explained why. […]The fact that we rely on technology and all those things, it’s almost like retro. It almost goes back to a certain way of thinking that allows people to be creative again, not rely on technology, not rely on apps, smart phones, or PDAs.”

He’s not going to be Googling his way out of this?

Peter Lenkov: “No. He is a little bit like a Luddite in that way. There’s a little bit of that retro quality and I think it actually works today.”

James Wan: “I actually think the show’s more relevant today in a lot of ways because we’re such a technologically-driven society today. We so rely on technology it’s kind of cool to see an action hero who doesn’t use any of that stuff. Peter has a great line in the pilot script where MacGyver is talking to a hacker and he tells this hacker, ‘Well, you know how you hack computers? Well, I hack everything else.’ I think that’s such a great line and I think that sums up who MacGyver is in this show, that basically retains the spirit of the original but gets to put it out there through the filter of a very sort of modern sensibility.”

Who comes up with the inventions, the MacGyverisms?

Peter Lenkov: “Well, you know what we do is that always story comes first because you’re not going to write to a MacGyverism. You write to a situation and then you try and figure out how to solve it. Sometimes you’re reverse engineering a situation using whatever you would find in that situation. So, we create a solve and then we send it to our tech advisor. We get notes and we get it back. The tech advisor exists because we want to make it as real as possible. But it’s really using our imaginations. It’s very much MacGyver. It’s like we try and get into a situation and try and solve it in a very unique way. A lot of it is research, a lot of it is relying on a tech advisor. A lot of it is just being creative. And that’s where they come from. It’s the fun of writing the show.”

James Wan: “I guess for Peter too it’s important not to be driven by the set piece. It should be driven by the characters and the amazing chemistry between Lucas Till and George Eads. Those guys are so much fun. When I’m directing them on the set, I’m cracking up half the time just because the sh*t that they talk to each other and throw each other, it’s so amazing. I like that and I think that’s kind of unique.

But I will say this, I’ve met and I’ve had many meetings with the original creator of MacGyver, Lee Zlotoff, and he did say in later episodes what they would do is they would go to Cal Tech and they would talk to the students, the kids at Cal Tech, and he would go, ‘Okay, what would you guys do for us that would be a cool MacGyverism that we could do on our show?’ These kids would come up with all these crazy scientific things, and then they would write the episode to those things. I don’t think we’re doing that.”

Peter Lenkov: “We may. Who knows?”

James Wan: (Laughing) “We may down the line!”

James, how hands on are you with the show given all of your film projects?

James Wan: “I mean, I don’t have to be as hands on because Peter is so incredible at what he does. This is a guy who rebooted Hawaii Five-O, who took another classic old property and made it really successful in our time. I feel very fortunate and I feel very lucky that Peter is running this. But Peter knows that I’m such a big fan of MacGyver. I’ve been wanting to do this back when it was a feature project. I’ve been chasing it for a long time and so the opportunity…I feel lucky that my schedule’s finally cleared up, that I can actually come back. When I read Peter’s pilot for this, I was blown away. I was like, ‘You know what? I’ve got to come back. I’ve got to find a way to make this somehow.'”

How important was it to make the lead character younger in this version?

Peter Lenkov: “It wasn’t, really. Somebody else asked that question and it’s interesting because we never looked at it as going for age; we looked at best actor for the role. I think when James was casting this he just found the right actor. It’s all that. It’s all chemistry. It’s all driven by the right face out there on screen because you’ve got to believe he’s MacGyver. I think despite the fact that he looks a little young, he is MacGyver. When you see him on screen you are going to say, ‘Oh yeah, I get it. I know why they cast him.’ You have to watch the first episode to see and once you see him in action, once you see him as MacGyver, you’re going to be hooked. So, it was not age-driven. It was best actor won the role.”

James Wan: “So the good thing is hopefully, if we are fortunate enough to have many seasons, he’ll eventually grow into it.”

How difficult was it to find the right MacGyver?

James Wan: “We looked at so many people. I mean, I felt for me trying to reboot this early on the hardest part was how do you get over people’s perception of who MacGyver is? Everyone sees MacGyver as Richard Dean Anderson. He’s so synonymous to this character, right? And so we looked at a lot of people. I was just watching this going, ‘Oh man, this is never going to work. We’re never going to find (him). All the original fans are going to hate us.’ Then finally Lucas just showed up beaming with charisma. His hair was kind of long as well so he had a bit of that mullet thing going on, too. And so I just fell in love with this guy. When we saw him, we all – the studio, producers, we all just go, ‘I think we’ve got our MacGyver.’ He and George are the most important thing with moving this show ahead.”

And you were both fans of the original series?

James Wan: “Oh, hell yes. I was such a big fan that when I was in my teens I went and bought a red Swiss Army pocket knife. I’ve had that since I was a teenager.”

Is Richard Dean Anderson going to be involved at all?

Peter Lenkov: “We’re hoping. That’s the plan. He knows we want him, so that’s the plan.”

James Wan: “We’ve got to get him out of retirement!”

Watch the full James Wan and Peter Lenkov interview: