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14-20 December 1996
By Peter Richmond
In a hilly park bathed in buttery New Zealand sunlight, two women, deep in conversation, stroll up a path, tracked by a boom mike and a camera-mounted crane. One is red-haired and diminutive, clothed in a tunic. The other is shapely and dressed like a walking tack shop: leather wrist thongs, leather bicep gauntlets, leather knee pads, leather miniskirt, and a leather bustier embellished by breastplates.
Suddenly a man bent over a tape recorder starts to fiddle with his headphones. "Cut!" calls the director, turns to the sound man. "Are you getting it?"
"Yeah," says the sound man. "But I've got a little squeaking on Lucy's costume." Where upon Lucy Lawless's expression goes from stern blue-eyed warrior to smiling show girl, and the sound man reaches gingerly to adjust the offending piece of metal on Xena's leather bustier.
"There's a reason she has metal breastplates," says Renee O'Connor - Xena's sidekick, Gabrielle, on the show "but I don't know what it is."
The truth is, if Xena's squeaking breastplates don't make a lot of practical sense, they're a perfect fit in a world where a goddess windsurfing on a giant clamshell can utter the word "tubular," or Hercules (Kevin Sorbo) can buy a falafel sandwich at the world's first fastfood outlet located on a forest path.
Part "Road Warrior," part "7th Voyage of Sinbad" with a nod to director Terry Gilliam and a leering wink at Hugh Hefner the on-screen world of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess is a place where the whimsy is as important as the warring. And not surprisingly, the scene behind-the-scenes in New Zealand reveals a fanciful production world that's delightfully lacking in TV-industry convention, and long on spontaneity and improvisation. Casts and crews
are stocked with locals from New Zealand's burgeoning film industry and every suggestion, no matter how off-the-wall, can befodder for either show.
"We hop around from century to century; we do whatever we want," Sorbo says between takes one day on a Mediterranean village set. "There are no rules. We make fun of ourselves... I think people are tired of reality. I mean, ER is great, but I think you want an escape. [And] this thing has some sort of formula nothing on TV has right now." In fact
Hercules and Xena, in their third and Id second years respectively, have climbed z up the U.S. syndicated ratings to regularly challenge Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the action drama king.
But where DS9 had three decades of tradition on which to build an audience, Xena and Herc have turned the formulas upside down, starting with the handful of made-for-TV syndicated " Hercules " movies that Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert - the creative team behind "Darkman" and "Army of Darkness" produced in 1994. Their success led to the syndicated series.
Now, action figures and comic books are being spun off, and at the end of last season, 44 more episodes of each show were ordered. But neither show is resting on its laurels. After a messy shuffling of Hercules' writing staff last spring, prompted by a feud between Sorbo and former head writer John Schulian, Hercules' on-screen demeanor is becoming a little less heroic, according to executive producer Tapert.
Tapert aims to dethrone DS9 once and for all by gradually adding a more dramatic, darker and mortal dimension to Sorbo's character this season. Xena has already been proven mortal or at the least the woman who plays her has. Lawless's spill off a horse during a stunt for The Tonight Show in October resulted in multiple fractures in her pelvis.
But with many of this year's shows already shot and Lawless recovering, there will be no Xena without Xena.
Welcome to the microworld of Hercules and Xena, an operation scattered all over the environs in and around Auckland, New Zealand chosen for both its distinctive landscape and low production costs. Depending on what the day's script calls for, filming will span from the beaches to the lush parks of the green-filled city itself. But most of the filming takes place on a 70-acre tract of overgrown vineyard just to the south. From the nearest paved road, the lot is a sprawl of brush and
trees. But just a half mile down a winding dirt road into the vineyard, a visitor suddenly discovers a medieval castle, a Moroccan marketplace, a Polynesian village, an army camp of no discernable time or place and a stage that looks ominously like a sacrificial altar
"We wanted a lush environment with a time that's indefinable," producer Eric Gruendemann says. "We wanted to see if we could invent our own world."
They have clearly succeeded. In the Moroccan set, for instance, the props include a modern hibachi that sits beside an ancient urn. The village streets are prowled by a woolly cast of pierced and hairy extras who appear to have been reunited from a Bronze Age Woodstock. In the meantime, back up in the middle of town, two prop shops churn out scimitars and sea monsters as fast as the writers can conjure them. And near the docks, behind the unassuming doors of the historic Auckland Municipal Markets building, the shows' cavernous costume department creates as many as 70 original costumes each week. On a typical day, costume designer Ngila Dickson sits in her industrial-loft-size shop, surrounded by seamstresses at work. "We always try to have a theme,"
Dickson says of the costumes she concocts for whatever armies have been written into the scripts. "You have to have some focus: 'Let's make them neo-ninja Nazis this week, shall we?' And away we go." As she speaks, Dickson's fingers idly stroke a rubber battle helmet she's just invented out of a mold made from a pineapple. On the floor above, art director Rob Gillies goes about his business of decorating this time less universe. He considers a rough sketch he'd drawn a couple of days before. A Hercules script had called for a land yacht. So Gillies thought up a sort of three-wheeled scooter with a huge sail on its back and sent the drawing over to the prop - where, three days later, the full-size yacht is wheeled out of the garage by a half-dozen twentysomethings who have worked overtime to get the thing built.
"It'll go 70 kilometres per," says 26-year-old sculptor Chris Fitzpatrick, a member of the prop shop's crew, as he admires the sabre-toothed tiger skull he's mounted on the prow of the craft, just in front of a crossbow-style slingshot. A tour of Fitzpatrick's garage reveals a macabre den, indeed. There's an entire room devoted to swords, on shelves arranged by category: Reptilian, Bony, Mystical. "Skulls are kind of good," he says, with a straight face. The Changes of the television audience taking note of this meticulous attention to detail are minimal, but to the New Zealanders involved in the production of both shows, this doesn't matter: They're clearly excited to be part of the project, both behind and in front of the camera. Even New Zealand's best-known and admired Shakespearean actor, Michael Hurst, who plays Hercules' sidekick Iolaus, bristles at suggestions that he's slumming on the Hercules set. "A guy said to me, 'What is a Shakespearean actor doing in a show like this?' I just went, 'Excuse me? I get to do these amazing fights. I get to play
love scenes. I get to play come dy, and great scenes of comradeship and friend ship. Does that sound like Shakespeare to you?' Of course," he concedes, "it is a little different."
"We're in the business of selling beautiful images," says Lawless, in defence of her series' format. "I feel that the show should be, at most, 15 per cent style, five per cent eye candy, and 80 per cent content." This is not to suggest the native New Zealander doesn't enjoy the attention she's getting for her fairly It formidable physical presence. Nonetheless, it's the role's dramatic arc that intrigues Lawless. "For my money, [it's] the best part for a woman in the past 30 years of television."
In particular, Lawless relishes the more complicated and ambiguous shades of personality that the writers intentionally visit on Xena. Tapert readily admits that the writers for Lawless's show purposely try to balance every comedic episode with a dramatic one, while Hercules has tended to offer far lighter and more predictable action fare. Sorbo is eager to see the Hercules formula change. "I'd like to see more growth in Hercules," he says one day over lunch on the set. Out of
character, Sorbo, a native of Minnesota, is a mild mannered sort with a self deprecating sense of humor. "I'd like to see more dealing with his own personal life," he says. "I think there has to be some romantic interest. Make the stakes bigger on the show. I'm beginning to find repetition; I want to be challenged. I think there needs to be a bigger story. What's his view? What's his agenda?"
Sorbo's concerns, Tapert says, will soon be ad dressed, although the producers are limited in how much they can tinker with the formula. The merchandising machine won't tolerate too much of a slackening of Hercules' godliness, for one thing. For another, there's the demographic to consider. When they developed the show, Raimi and Tapert were aiming
at a teenage audience. They had not anticipated Herc's growing popularity with the preadolescent set.
"We had him sleep with a woman once and I got so many letters from parents who thought I'd violated something," Tapert says. "It's hard not to pay attention to the parents who trust we aren't going to turn him into someone promiscuous. But I am going to shake up the formula for Hercules in January and February. We're going to do a big romantic arc with Hercules in February. And we're going to play with his powers." Diehard aficionados need not fear. There will be no toying with the staples of success. As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Especially if it's wearing bronze breastplates.
Peter Richmond is a special correspondent for GQmagazine.
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