The most advanced archaeologists would have a hard time proving that pyramids ever existed in Orono, Minn., but that didn’t deter Michael Vickerman from digging up inspiration in his hometown for a King Tut movie.
Vickerman, who has moved to Los Angeles but maintains a Minnesota residence just an amulet’s throw from his parents’ home, is one of the executive producers and co-writers of “Tut.” The six-hour miniseries debuts Sunday on Spike with Ben Kingsley — a pharaoh by Hollywood standards — as the boy king’s not-so-trustworthy adviser.
Vickerman, whose previous credits include a slew of TV movies and miniseries, spoke recently from New York about his most ambitious project to date.
Q: What was it about your Minnesota background that helped prepare you to tell the story of King Tut?
A: When I was a kid, my dad built a pyramid in the backyard. Just kidding. Talk about a world away from a world. But my upbringing taught me to empathize with people. In this golden age of TV, a lot of creators from the East and West Coasts live in a bubble and are very cynical. That makes for great characters, but I have a different outlook on life. I don’t want to say I made Tut Minnesota Nice, but I did try to infuse a human being in him.
Q: Since you come to back to the area often, I assume you did a lot of writing here. Is the process different when you’re not in Los Angeles?
A: Absolutely. In Hollywood, you’re always playing catch-up with the girl or guy next to you. When I can sit by the water, far away from all the nonsense, I get more inspired.
There’s a great scene at the end of Night 1 in which Ben Kingsley lectures his son about taking advantage of opportunity. We really wanted it to be a juicy scene for Ben. I needed to let my mind go and I found that moment during a family reunion, just sitting around a bonfire, chit-chatting and listening to a guitar. I ran off and returned with an iPad. Inspiration can happen at any time. I’ve written a lot of scenes on the subway, at a bar, at a friend’s house. Once it clicks, you have to be ready.
Q: I can’t think of many actors more intimidating than Kingsley. What was it like for you?
A: It was such a joy. When I was writing the character, I imagined Ben in the role, but you never say that, because it sounds so contrived. When he arrived in Morocco, he didn’t mingle much with the cast, keeping to himself between takes and in the evenings. But after a few weeks, he started coming down to the hotel bar after shoots and buying beers for everyone.
There was one moment where I had to add a piece of dialogue at the last moment. I was summoned to his office, where his assistant told me that you don’t make changes on the same day. I came out to his patio and he asked me to explain what I did and why. He said it was fine, but then asked, ‘Is this the rule or the exception?’ He told me that he prepares two weeks ahead of time. ‘The reason I’m here,’ he said as he patted the script, ‘Is this. You’ve written a beautiful script. You need not make any more changes. Let us actors do our job.’
Q: You got your big break from another icon. How did you end up working for Sylvester Stallone?
A: I got a job as an office runner, answering phones, running errands. Every morning, his bodyguard would read my scripts and he and Sly would want to know what happens next. When I worked for him, there were a lot of people around him that just told him what he wanted to hear. But I said it like it was, which would cause a lot of his employees to scramble and leave. But I always told him that I wanted to make him look good.
Q: You’ve worked on a number of films, but have yet to shoot in Minnesota. Any chance that will change soon?
A: I’ve got a story on the Minnesota high school hockey tournament that I’d love to do. It’s ‘Karate Kid’ meets ‘Miracle,’ and that can only be shot in one place.