Cult TV Magazine (UK)
Modern Mythmakers Joe Nazzaro chats to the writers and producer who are breathing new life into old legends Hercules and Xena.
Fantasy on TV is booming, and its all thanks to the twin trimuphs of Hercules :The Legendary Journeys and its sister series Xena: Warrior Princess. Although shows like The Adventures of Sinbad and Roar are cashing in on their sucess, its these two ongoing sagas from Ancient Greece that continue to attract the best ratings.
Hercules started out as a series of TV movies. It's tongue-in-cheek approach, helped by star Kevin Sorbo's wry performances, proved so successful it was given its own regular series, and a year later spun off Xena - Lucy Lawless playing the eponymous warrior women. Both shows feature the same winning combination of over-the-top action, cutting-edge SFX and stunning location work.
While Hercules and Xena are being shot in distant New Zealand, two teams of writers are busily churning out myths in the land of fantasy known as Hollywood. The Herc team is based at Universal Studios while, several miles away in the LA suburbs of Studio City, the gang of Xena are creating their own weekly adventures. It's a shared universe, but for the most part, each team has staked out its own distinctive mythological turf.
The man best qualified to explain the contrasts and similarities between Hercules and Xena is executive producer Rob Tapert, whose many responsibilities include overseeing the writing on both shows.
"The biggest difference between the two shows when we're working on scripts is that on Xena, we always look at what change takes place in Xena or Gabrielle, but we don't do that on Hercules," Tapert says. "Xena is somebody who learns something on a weekly basis, and the episodes work best when the drama flows out of her as a character and the decisions she's made. Hercules, because of the nature of the show, is a kind of an unchangeable hero, who's already a good guy, and very few times do we find a way to have the drama flow from him. He usually comes into a situation and rectifies it so he acts more like a teacher."
"I think Hercules is an extremely difficult show to write," Xena's supervising producer Steve Sears asserts. "I have nothing but admiration for the writers and producers on that series. Hercules is a good, noble moral character, and believe it or not, that's difficult to write. Our hero has flaws, sha has a very dark background, so it's not as easy for us to do the lighter or fun stories that Hercules can do. We've never really had a problem of starting off with a script here and having someone say, 'This seems more like a Hercules script than a Xena script.' The two characters have their own ingrained differences, so the stories will naturally go off in different directions. We saw a cut of one of our episodes and somebody turned to me and said, 'Well there's no way we can confuse this with Hercules!'"
Anything you can do...
While that may be true, both shows are working with the same group of Greek Gods, monsters, heroes and historical figures. With this in mind it seems inevitable that the occasional overlap may occur.
"One of the huge pitfalls for us when we start bandying around stories is when we hear those hateful words, 'You know, on Hercules...'" Sears says laughing. "I was working on a story and Rob was down in New Zealand, and when he came back, I gave him the basics, and he said, 'Let's have lunch tomorrow.' We had lunch, and he said, 'Let me pitch you a Hercules,' and pitched me my story. I stopped him and said, 'I know where you're going Rob, and you can't do it!' He said, 'We're already doing it.' I'm sure the most horrible words they hear over in the Hercules camp are, 'You know, on Xena...'
"In fact, I ran into that yesterday," Tapert admits. "and I'm now having to make a show decision. Over the coming years on Xena, we're going to show more and more the decline of the Greek Gods and a world awash with all different sorts of religious beliefs, which was really true of ancient times. Most of the great religions already had some basis by 500 BC, and then the guys on Herc came up with a huge arc they wanted to do. I had to say. 'Okay, that's going to run right smack into what we're going to do on Xena here and there, so let's marry it up, and guys, if this road we're going down doesn't work, both shows are going to tumble!' Once this arc begins, there's no going back!"
One of our stars is missing
The success of both Hercules and Xena has led to some interesting complications on the writing side during the shows' last seasons. When Sorbo took and extended studio-approved hiatus to work on Kull The Conqueror, the staff on Hercules had to think fast when he was late returning from the film.
"Without getting into nasty studio politics, had I really known that he was going to miss three episodes, I would have written a storyline for it, 'Why is Hercules missing?' and embraced it," says Tapert who admits to having mixed feelings about the actor working on another sword and sorcery project. "Because I found out he wasn't going to be in two out of three episodes at the very last minute, I couldn't make adjustments for a three-episode arc, with Hercules frozen in rock or something, and everyone's asking, 'Where is Hercules?'"
"That was unfortunate," agrees Bob Bielak, a former freelancer who's now co-executive producer on Hercules. "It was really a moving target in a sense wondering when Kevin was going to be there and when he wasn't. I don't know if it's anybody's fault, but the studio promised us one thing and then it didn't happen and suddenly he was gone, so we had to scramble to change thing around a little bit. It certainly would have made our lives easier and we could have geared ourselves up for a three-episode arc if we knew for sure that he was going to be missing for three episodes rather than maybe one or two, but its not so different than what everyone runs into on other shows. People get hurt too, and we've been very fortunate with all the action we do that there's been no major injuries. Micheal Hurst (who plays Iolaus) broke his wrist last year, which impacted on three episodes, and there was some scrambling at the last minute to accommodate that. Things happen; that's why they pay us the medium bucks to adjust it."
It was an injury that had Xena staffers scrambling for their word processors last year when Lucy Lawless fell off a horse during a taping of an American chat show and broke her pelvis. The accident prompted a number of last-minute rewrites to cover their star's absence.
"I remember when this accident with Lucy happened," Sears recalls, "and we were discussing how we were going to fix it. Somebody said, 'This could be a disaster,' and it struck this line in me that came from Apollo 13 where somebody said that in the movie, and Ed Harris' character says, 'Excuse me, I beg to differ; this will be our finest hour!' That really was true, because I thought this was where we really had to be creative, so let's prove what we're getting paid for, and I'm very pleased with what we did."
Even after Lawless reported back to work, the writers weren't anxious to write too many knock-down, drag-out fight scenes involving Xena and a couple of dozen testosterone-heavy stuntmen.
"To a fair extent, nobody wanted her to be pushing herself and really doing some damage." adds Xena's story editor Chris Manheim, the sole female staffer on either series. "We wanted her back 100 per cent, and even when she was feeling great, we were still getting reports of, 'Lucy is doing some kicks on the set,' and we were saying, 'Somebody stop her!' because we didn't want any kind of permanent injury to flare up in her later life either."
It's not such a small world
Because Hercules and Xena exist in the same universe and feature some of the same characters (human and immortal) you'd think the two heroes would meet up for the occasional cup of grog or to compare recent scars. Think again.
"During a crossover with Kevin or Micheal is extremely difficult because of the scheduling, and the same thing with sending Lucy or Renee over for one of their episodes," Sears explains. "We're shooting at the same time, and we both have a full slate, so those crossovers are very few and far between. As far as the residual characters such as Salmoneus or the Falafel man, we like doing that; we just don't want to do it so much that the two shows blend. We're actually obsessed with coming up with characters on our series that we can give back, because Hercules is our flagship and we borrowed a lot from it. Eventually, if we use Joxer more, maybe he can go over there.
Getting it right
While the fantasy genre is now as crowded as fleas on a centaur's bum, Hercules and Xena are still incredibly difficult to write for. Both shows have a deceptively simple recipe that most freelancers seem incapable of following.
"Many outsider writers took the myths too seriously and too literally," explains Hercules' former co-executive producer (and Xena co-creator) John Schulian. "They thought we were just taking all that incest and fratricide and all that good stuff and putting it on screen, but nothing could be further from the truth; we were just taking a sliver of mythology and spinning it in our own way.
"Finally, people started getting the message, but we still had some awful stories proposed to us." he winces, "It defeats the purpose of the show if your going to have time travel, because if Hercules travels to 1997 to solve some problems, that just makes the show like every other show on TV. He has a very specific and unique world, that he lives and works and thrives in, and why should we walk away from that?"
If it's any comfort to the creative team behind Hercules, several miles away in Studio City, Xena's staff aren't safe from the writers pitch from hell either.
"There's the space alien idea which we threw out a long time ago." Sears jokes. "Not only that, but we've heard so many versions of the future idea: Xena is transported into the future, or people are transported back there, and that's certainly not our show. I say that's in our fifth season when we've been cancelled in four!"
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