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Sci Fi Entertainent Magazine
Official Magazine of the SciFi Channel

Xena Warrior Princess - Behind the Scenes

June 1998

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*Many thanks to Peggy for the following transcript*

WHETHER SHE'S swashbuckling with a sword or hurling her chakram, Xena is a warrior to be reckoned with. The phenomenal popularity of Xena: Warrior Princess continues unchecked as the third seasonwinds down. Rarely has a spin-off series become as popular as the show that spawned it (in this case, Hercules, the Legendary Journeys), but Xena has, and the. Two shows (which will begin running on the USA Network in August) have outmuscled even Star Trek in the syndicated ratings arena. Tracking down cast and crew members for this thriving show can be as difficult as fending off an angry Dryad, but I was lucky enough recently to talk to Executive Producer R.J. Stewart and to Ted Raimi (brother of Sam), who plays Joxer, the warrior whose braggadocio exceeds his brawn. Stewart, who was recently promoted from Co-Executive Producer to Executive Producer, is quick to point out that the negotiated credit doesn't change his principal contribution to the show. "I'm the head writer," he says. "That's my main game, and to feed the script monster that eats a script every week is my main job, and to keep the quality of those scripts as high as we can. To keep the show imaginative and varying, and to run a writing staff and keep writers happy and productive - or if it's better, [then] that they're unhappy [laughs]. Different people have different management styles. I like happy writers, To work with Rob [creator/producer Rob Tapert]: he has very specific visions, for each episode and and I work very closely to see that those visions are realized. And do all that for a reasonable amount of money; to stay within budget. My part of the Executive producer credit is that I'm the head writer."

The Xena writing staff consists of Stewart, Co-Executive Producer Steve Sears and Executive Story Editor Chris Manheim and is. overseen, like most of the by creator/producer Rob Tapert. Stewart notes that episodes for the show, like most others, evolve from story meetings.

"Very much so. You know, one of us will have an idea for an episode, and it's either Rob or myself or Steve or Chris, and we will pitch it to each other. Of course, Rob is the ultimate veto power, although certainly he's anxious to make things work so he's not running around vetoing things, though he's in that position. And so we sit around and talk about how it would make a good idea. Steve and I being in the position we are, we're given a lit the more autonomy to go off to work it out, Chris will sit room and actually talk about it before we run off to do a beat sheet. Then when the beat sheet is done, we all sit around and talk, about the beat sheet and hopefully we'll go to script or another beat sheet. And that's how it goes. Rob certainly plays a very important role in all of that."

A beat sheet, according to Stewart, is "really a treatment or an outline. I've got into calling it a beat Sheet because they called it a beat sheet when I came on here - Renaissance did. It's really an outline or treatment: seven to ten pages describing what the episode is, and to give production a head start: we actually break down the sets. Just like a script it'll actually say 'Exterior; Village of Andros; Day' and then we'll have a little paragraph underneath describing what happens in that scene, which have the act breaks and all that stuff. I would say that for the staff people, the beat sheet is the most time-consuming of the processes because people wouldn't be, on staff - Chris and Steve and I wouldn't be here if we didn't hit the first draft pretty close. So once we get the story right, we hit the first draft. And then there's always some notes on the first draft.

"However, it's impossible for a freelancer to hit it just right because the don't know what we were talking about just the week before. In those cases the story sessions take just as long if not longer, but then also the script can be very long because we have to rework it, and inevitably either I or Steve will rewrite the freelancer's script. I'm sure if I thought about the three years, I could think of an example - I think there were two where we didn't have to do that: Just a little bit of polish. But in most cases there are some pretty big rewrites done on these freelancer scripts. And I'm not one who wants to do it - there are [some head writers] where everything has to run through their computer - I don't feel that way at all, I love the freelancers when they hit it - it's just real hard. Both Rob and I are really into things happening in episode one, that pay off in episode five - you know, those kind of cool things - and how could a freelancer know that? They miss things by just days, sometimes. The freelancer will be sent the script, and while he's writing the script, Rob and I are cooking up some twist that'll change the script. It's no knock on the freelancers. This is what I'd consider to be a really good experience with the freelancers: If they gave us a first draft and then a polish in which I could, or me or Steve could, turn it around in two days that'd be great: a wonderful experience with a freelancer. If it gets into four or five days that we have to spend on it, that's not such a good experience."

Sometimes scripts can be in development for quite a while. "Oh yeah, oh yeah," Stewart says emphatically. "Sometimes they're months. If we're behind, or things' go wrong. I'm sure you're familiar with the famous one Lucy falling off a horse - but there are other things that can go wrong, and suddenly you're behind on a script when you thought you were ahead. And we had this case where our plan was to have six scripts coming back from hitatus, but a series of things led to [us coming] back with two and we've been playing catch-up ever since. Other times we've been way ahead. I want to try and do that going into the fourth season, get way ahead. Boy, that sure makes the job that much more fun."

Have Stewart and his writing team dipped the mythological story well dry yet? "Not yet," he says, "Knock on wood. We haven't yet. Of course it's difficult at times. I think conceptually, this is a pretty sharp team: Rob, me, Steve, Liz Freeman - I think we can be, to be collectively modest, pretty sharp with coming up with story ideas. We usually have a lot of things bouncing around the room and I haven't really felt the strain yet. I'm sure' there'll be a day where ... it's not coming, but coming up with the idea and getting how to tell the story, that's a huge gap. Certainly that's the most difficult thing. But you know, sometimes it's a great idea but you know what, folks? It's impossible to tell the story that happens. Or we'll put it on hold, "I'll give you an example: somebody suggested: Why doesn't Xena meet Socrates? And you know what? If you do the thing that's most famous about Socrates, [then] he drinks the hemlock at the end and dies. So we spent some time on it and we realized, what is she going to do? Is she going to give him the hemlock? Is she going to help him escape and then send out word that he died? But what does that do? Socrates' whole thing was standing for the truth ... so it became an impossible story to tell. It had such an obvious flaw in it that I don't know why we spent so much time on it."

Stewart allows that it there are sometimes story ideas where the special effects would be too prohibitive. "Yeah, we see that all the time. It's not just the budget, but that - and Rob says this all the time and he's absolutely right - we can't compete with features, as far as what we do. So if you construct a really cool story around special effects it's never going to be as effective as if you construct the story around the emotions and the characters or some dramatic thing. And there's a big difference between what we do and what the same genre would be in features. There, you could make an incredible fight at the end the whole hook for the movie, but ours, although I think we do do some terrific action and some nice special effects, in the end it's never going to compete with features so we have to make, sure there's a good story to be told there, that's about the emotions, and the heart, and the evolution of these characters. That's going to be much more effective on television."

The character-driven scripts can yield real dividends, such as rich characters like the revenge-obsessed Callisto. "I came up with that idea while driving to work one day," Stewart says, "I just thought: Xena has got off easy. She had all this dark past, then decided to go good, got a 22-episode order and really didn't have to pay for the deeds she did in the past. So I thought, what if there was someone out there who's really scarred and comes back to get revenge on Xena, and what if that somebody is a woman? Now my idea for it was a two-parter and she'd die in the second part, which is what we really did: it was "Callisto" and "The Return of Callisto." And the reaction, number one, to seeing the dailies of how great Hudson was, and the reaction of the fans was such that clearly it was someone we had to bring back. So then, very soon, like even before "The Return of Callisto" had gone to script, we decided to make sure we did the one with the body switch, which opened up the door for when Lucy fell off the horse and we had Hudson play Lucy, which was very fortuitous. That was a case where we saw how good she was. I'd always planned to bring her back a second time, but if she had turned out horrible, we wouldn't have even done that. There have been other characters we've developed that we hoped would repeat, but sometimes you lose actors. They go off to do something else."

Stewart is quick to point out that his favorite aspect of working on Xena is "telling these cool stories. This is such an exciting arena. I lived in Greece when I was a kid, and I'm totally saturated with Greek myth, and now I get to bring those stories to life, And I'm also into things like Eastern philosophy, and I was able to pump all that stuff into [the showl. It's such a liberating experience: In a network television show, when you're, dealing with a contemporary show like NYPD Blue -- and I'm not knocking the show in any way, but clearly they're so limited to what goes on in New York - but we can do anything! So it's very satisfying, This next year we're going to have them on the road again and [with] all kinds of different cultures and people. It's a terrific thing."

So how does Stewart account for the enormous popularity of the show? "The totally honest answer is that I have no idea. I think you start with Lucy Lawless: She's a very charismatic, powerful presence. I think you go then to the concept of the woman warrior, which is so unique. And I'd like to think that [the fact that] we keep it interesting and tell good stories has some effect on it. And then dumb luck: filling a void that was there, the idea that there hadn't been a female action figure, before. Your guess is probably as good as mine. I talk to the fans, not just at the conventions - the fans at conventions are, obviously the most zealous of the fans - but I talk to fans I meet in restaurants or here at work when they come up and talk to me, and there's always sort of a breathless enthusiasm for how unique it is. I think a lot of that comes from the [idea of] the female warrior. I think what Rob did with Hercules, it was a unique world he created, and then this is one step more unique: now there's a female warrior.

"Trust me, the first few months we were doing it, we had no idea. We were afraid. Very, very afraid. One of the reasons I took the job was that I saw a clip of Lucy and I thought, 'that's a very impressive person - that's a star.' But I think another reason is that we had the Hercules lead-in, so we had a platform for some success right off the bat. So it wasn't as painful in the beginning as it would have been if you had a syndicated show without that lead-in. But certainly in a way that adds a certain pressure to you, because now you've got a lead-in and you'd better succeed. So certainly we didn't go into it with any cocky attitude like this was a sure thing. Early on, I don't want to tell you how scary some of the moments were when we had a couple of bad numbers come in or some things we were planning to do with the show that I think in retrospect would have been totally wrong. Fortunately we didn't. Rob held firm on everything and I think it turned out great."

Ted Raimi credits Stewart for the inspiration behind his character Joxer. "You know, that's always a tricky question to answer, but I think that it's probably 75 percent R.J. Stewart and 25 percent Ted Raimi. I think with every show they see what kind of an actor you are, and they see how creative you are, and if the producers are up for it, and if they like you and if you're up for it, they'll let you improv a lot of lines and they let you do a lot of gags and stuff. All the gags I do are all me. Every time you see me do some gag or other, that's me. But the heart and soul of the character was created by R.J. Stewart, who decided that Xena needed a character who was a great fighter in his own mind but who really couldn't fight, which is a very funny concept, and something that is able to be sustainable through many episodes. If he were just a goofball, first there'd be no reason for him to be there and then it'd be sort of one long Jim Carrey gag, which would be funny for five minutes and then I think you wouldn't really care about him any more."

Raimi's character is one of several recurring roles in Xena. "Things actually couldn't be better at this point. I just got back from two episodes and I'm going back to do a third this calendar year, and it's the last episode of season three and I can't believe I've made it -t hat Joxer has been continued through the end of the third season."

Raimi attributes some of his character's staying power to the necessity for some comic relief in Xena. "I think that the audience probably doesn't want to see Gabrielle and Xena being too funny, which in a way is a shame, because Lucy and Renee have such good comic abilities. They do let them shine about every fourth episode, those guys - for me it's every episode. And once in a great while I do an all-serious one. But yes, I think it does - it needs something. I mean, there's so much murder in that show and pillaging and burning of villages that you need to laugh at something."

Joxer wasn't always a popular character for some fans, though. After he debuted, a controversy brewed on the Internet. "Well, I think that any amount of controversy - can controversy be good - ?" Raimi asks. Oscar Wilde seemed to think so. "Well, then any amount of good or bad controversy is a good thing. It's like, if people are talking about it then they're interested in it, you know? And that's always a good thing. There was a point when all Joxer internet commentary was negative. I think it was like 95 percent, and then there was 5 percent which was my fan club. 'No, we like him!' [laughs] Ninety-five percent were actively trying to find ways to get me off the show, either by writing the producers or posting these web sites that were you know, 'ways to kill Joxer.' They invited users to find ways to kill Joxer, and it was like fan fiction. They had the eleventh way to kill him, the twelfth way - when it got to around forty, I think I turned off the computer and never looked again."

Raimi found this a bit disheartening, as might be expected. "It was demoralizing, but you know, in a way it's a great compliment, because if they didn't care about him one way or another that would have been worse. But this way they were saying 'I hate him becauseŠ.' So it was kind of a neat thing because at least I was making an impact. Most people never really attacked my acting ability they just attacked the character, but it was understandable, because here you have this very successful show, with two female leads and these leads never had men, and when they do, its sort of like how guys have girls, in that they'll have an affair and then leave them, you know? A very sort of male attiitude - should say it's a classically male attitude, which I think the fans really liked. And then suddenly there was this guy on the show and they were wondering what his position with them was going to be like. I mean, was Joxer going to say to them 'Hey Xena, go make me a sandwich, with plenty of mustard like I like,' and 'Hey Gabrielle, go fetch my slippers and I mean now, and get ready for some kissin' later,' whatever. And [the fans] were terrified that that was going to happen and of course it never did, but I think {there were} a lot of fears about that. Most of the negative criticism I got was from women, surprisingly or perhaps unsurprisingly, but now the fans accept me, which is a nice thing."

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