8:00pm PT by Merrill Barr
'Strike Back' Director Breaks Down Series Finale: "I Wanted to Wring Everybody Dry"
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the series finale of Strike Back.]
The final season of Strike Back was a complicated one fraught with production delays due to off-screen injury. However, through all the blood, sweat and bullets, the team behind the Cinemax show managed to make it to the end in a satisfying way that saw Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) and Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) ride off into the freeze-frame sunset in the final scene of the series finale. THR spoke with co-executive producer and director Michael J. Bassett on what it was like to create the final episode, why he opted not to kill off the pair and his favorite moments from the international production.
Are the boys truly out of the soldier life?
I always had a plan for what they would be doing next for their lives. There’s never going to be another series like Strike Back, I don’t think, but there’s always the opportunity for a movie or a limited run single adventure.
I think they’re out of the military life. They’re probably in the world of Private Military Contractors. They’re really in the world of finding problems to fix with their skill set.
Do you envision a world where the franchise continues?
Completely. I know we love doing the show. There’s no better gig. I’ll spend a long time in my career trying to figure out how to make another Strike Back family. So I see returning if there’s an audience for it. What the structure would be is anybody’s guess. Cinemax [in the U.S.] and Sky in the U.K. were the greatest homes for the show. But Cinemax wanted to move on. We have to do what they wanted us to do, which was end the series. There were plenty of stories to be told with these characters.
When you were building out the final story, what were the things that you knew you had to cover?
When we started breaking the story and got writers in, we talked about what we were going to do [and] I said, “I know what the final episode is, so I want to work towards that.” How we got to it and what the season’s villain was, those things [eventually] came into clearer resolution. I wrote out the last ten pages, just as an outline for the writer. I was really specific about it. The writers delivered a terrific episode.
The last episode is so diametrically opposed to the one before that, whereas typically Strike Back works in two-episode arcs. Why did you go that way with the last two?
I wanted to finish the season’s story by episode nine so we could take it down to the purest version of what this show could be, which is just Scott and Stonebridge versus an implacable enemy. We chose the enemy to be their own government because their own government wants to basically hand them over to un-rustle the political feathers of North Korea. After all they’ve done to serve their countries, that notion of Scott and Stonebridge exploring the possibly last moments of their lives, I thought, was what Strike Back ultimately would have to be about at the end of the day.
How far down the line did you get with thinking about killing them off?
I was a good way down. Remember, I’m not the showrunner. We never had that in the structure of how the show works. The executive producers and writers and everybody had the conversation. I’m the guy on the ground shooting it, and I had, obviously, a huge amount of input into the stories and the writing. But it was always a conversation. I never got to put my foot down, and Cinemax and Sky always got involved as well.
But they were pretty open to going down that route. Finally, I got my mini version of killing them, because in the middle of episode 10 is that strange little moment where they go down in a hail of bullets. Then we reveal it as kind of a fantasy “that plan wouldn’t work” kind of vibe. I really liked it because it’s a joke, but for a fraction of a second, when you’re watching it for the first time, you go, “Oh my God. They’ve killed Scott and Stonebridge.”
That’s exactly the death I would have planned for them. So I got to shoot it. We did a couple of versions of that as well. There are actually several more version of them getting riddled. It was fun to put an end to them. But I like the guys too much. I like the characters too much. I wished for them to be able to go on to other adventures. That’s why I left the door open.
In that final shootout in the barn, why did you decide to stop everything and then jump to a few days later with Stonebridge with the dog tags?
Firstly, that shootout could have gone on forever and, ultimately, would have gotten a little bit repetitive and boring. What I wanted to do was to build. It’s almost like a cinematic invention—you don’t really need to see how they get out of it. What you understand is the emotional power of them fighting tooth and nail to the last moment.
We know that Scott has been shot several times and Stonebridge has been winged a few times. It’s almost pulling the rug out from under the audience a little bit. I’m not giving them a fully rounded, kinetic experience in terms of just the action setup. I feel like I delivered all the emotion that you could get out of that scene. I wanted to wring everybody dry. We go to the slow motion, the music builds and they’re fighting, and their bullets are running out. The bad guys seem to be coming wave after wave. That final click of an empty mag, I thought that’s the way to end this fight.
It was absolutely a choice to play with convention a tiny bit. That episode changed the convention of Strike Back a little bit. In doing that, you’re allowed to have a satisfactory ending. One of the great things was knowing we were going to end the show because a lot of shows get cut in their stride and you don’t get to fully resolve the stories. I was lucky enough to be able to know that we were going to finish.
I was coming at it like a fan as well. It was, 'How can I make this work?' I don’t want to see them actually get the victory. One of the things I was trying to do was put the audience on the inside of the action all the time. So we’re experiencing intensity and then once that last bullet runs out, or we think it’s the last bullet in that particular magazine that runs out, you go, “OK. It’s over. They’re going to die.” But we don’t want them to die, so why do that to everybody?
What, for you, was the hardest part about making the last season of the show?
Emotionally, the hardest part was dealing with Sullivan’s injury. When he did get hurt, we were asked to carry on shooting to make sure that we were satisfying the insurance company requirements. So that was very taxing. We’re in Thailand, which is a difficult country to shoot in anyway. We’re all pretty beat up because Sully’s in the hospital, and yet we’re having to carry on making the show without him.
That was very draining [and] really put a lot of pressure on Phil Winchester to carry on and become a leader. He’s the guy everyone rallied behind. I’m trying to keep the machinery going, and Phil’s trying to keep the emotional core going. That was very taxing.
The final season really plays up the boys’ connection to one another, especially when they’re making fun of each other. Did you have any favorite moments?
Any scene when it’s only Phil and Sully together. When I first arrived, I knew Phil a little, but I didn’t know Sully. … Because we were working internationally, isolated from the rest of the world in terms of production, there was nobody breathing down our necks. We just went and did what we did.
It was a strong family unit. I directed two episodes, four episodes, and then on the final season, I directed six and was involved with the writing and producing. It became much more about the family element of the production and it spilled over into the onscreen stuff a little bit. Anytime I got a chance to just put Phil and Sully side by side in the middle of a gunfight or doing something crazy was enormous fun.
What did you think of the Strike Back finale?