Whoosh! Issue Eleven -
August 1997


AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL LEVINE:
A VIEW FROM THE DIRECTOR'S CHAIR



HOW AN EPISODE IS SHOT


Normally I would not ask for directions, but you look
friendly enough.


A great deal of advance work goes into every show.


RUDNICK:
[18] When you direct an episode, how do you organize the work? I know it's all shot in New Zealand, but there must be some preparation and other things done here. Is there some "typical" sequence of events you have to go through?

LEVINE:
[19] I will use XENA as an example. XENA is very unique. There are no other shows like XENA and HERCULES on TV. Yes, there is SINBAD [THE ADVENTURES OF SINBAD (Canwest/All American/Atlantis, 1996- )] and TARZAN [TARZAN: THE EPIC ADVENTURES (Siegel, 1996- )] but XENA and HERCULES are by far the better of any of those shows. I get the scripts for XENA, thank God, real early. They are very good about getting scripts to me early on. I do not think I have ever done a XENA where I went to New Zealand without a script. As a matter of fact, I had ULYSSES (#43) seven months before I shot it. And it is only because of what happened with Lucy [Lawless].

[20] I'll get a script and I'll read it. Then there will be a story meeting in Los Angeles with Liz Friedman and R.J Stewart or Steve Sears or whoever wrote it. We will talk about it. Rob Tapert will sometimes be in the meeting. My first meeting, Sam Raimi was there, which I thought was great, and I have never seen him since. We'll sit and talk about it, and if I have any problems with plot or any production difficulties then the writer will go back and try to accomodate me.

[21] Generally, XENA comes in pretty good straight off the bat. That is a real tribute to R.J. and his staff. They really know that show. There just aren't any plot holes you can drive a truck through. If it is a heavy special effects episode I'll meet with Kevin O'Neill from Flat Earth. Those meetings aren't as detailed as what happens in New Zealand because quite honestly Kevin is working on a billion other things between HERCULES and XENA and your little blue-screen shot he is not worried about because he is worried about this giant blue-screen shot due next week. So we'll just talk concepts, should we do this blue-screen or should we do it CGI, etc. We'll have that meeting and then I am off to New Zealand.

[22] It's a twelve hour flight and you go to work right away. You usually arrive at 6am and at 10am I go to casting. All casting is done from tape. I don't see any actors live, which is a little disconcerting for American directors because we are used to seeing people live. Now I am used to it.

[23] Much of that is done for time and convenience. I get shown the best people for each role. If there is a role we really can't find anyone in New Zealand for, then the casting process will start in L.A. if it hasn't started already, because Eric Gruendemann has seen the script in advance and he'll know if we'll find somebody.

[24] After casting, the next day we'll have a production meeting. There aren't really location scouts, because you're usually on a stage. If you're outside, there are generally four main places we go to. The most familiar one is a place we call Sturges Road. That is where the water pond is. Actually, it's a man-made lake. The castle is there. There are four villages. There's a temple, some roads, everything. There are three other places we go to on a regular basis, all of which Pacific Renaissance leases. There's a public park called Mangere Park where ALTARED STATES (#19) was shot. One time I went an hour away from Auckland to a waterfall.

[25] There are all sorts of meetings those first few days. Rob Gillies, production designer, Tracy Hampton, extras casting, and I just kind of piece it all together. By day two and day three everything is in earnest and happening. The art department isn't worried about the show that is shooting, they have pretty much finished it. Now they concentrate on your show. You really have to narrow it down.

[26] The Kiwi crews are very meticulous. They want to know everything that you could possibly need. They want everything planned out in advance. They don't want anything to fall thru the cracks. Things do though. They always do in every show at some time or another. But the Kiwis really try to be as thorough as possible and it makes me think more about the episode as a result.

Add up all the IQs in the room and you might reach room
temperature.


The episode HERE SHE COMES... MISS AMPHIPOLIS (#35)
must have been a costuming nightmare.


[27] I'll meet with Ngila [Dickson], our costume designer. She'll say "I'm thinking of this," or "I'm thinking of that." Normally Lucy is going to be wearing the armor, but in WARRIOR...PRINCESS (#15), for example, what is Lucy going to look like as Diana? And Renee [O'Connor], in ULYSSES (#43); she was supposed to look like a harlot in one scene, so what is she going to look like? Ngila usually has the sketches for me pretty quickly.

RUDNICK:
[28] It's pronounced NIGH-la?

LEVINE:
[29] Yes.

RUDNICK:
[30] I have seen her name printed many times and always wondered.

LEVINE:
[31] Usually by day three I have to have a serious meeting with Peter Bell, the stunt coordinator. These are stunt shows. I ask "How are we going to get Lucy to fly?" It is usually second unit with a wire. There is six to seven days for second unit and seven to nine days for main unit, which is what I direct. Sometimes I will direct second unit but usually it is the second unit director, Andrew Merrifield.

RUDNICK:
[32] Second unit filming can happen at a completely different time, can't it?

LEVINE:
[33] It depends on where you are in the schedule. Usually they don't start shooting your second unit until about two or three days in. If we're doing a fight between Lucy and somebody else, you want to shoot your [first unit] coverage first, so second unit can match to what you shot. I did one fight in WARRIOR...PRINCESS (#15) where second unit shot their thing first. It had to do with the schedule. They were able to get to the stage before we were.

[34] So there's a big meeting with Peter Bell. I like to know what the fight looks like and Peter has got these little "Leggo men" and he puts them on a table and shows how things can be arranged. It's really quite amusing to watch. But that gives me an accurate idea of what the fight might look like. You work with the A.D., the assistant director, about what's the best schedule and when actors are available. So there's much preparation that goes into the shooting.

RUDNICK:
[35] I understand also the New Zealand crews are very nine-to-fiveish in the sense that they have a fixed number of hours a day they like to work and they're a bit reluctant to go over that unless you tell them way in advance.

They may be on the beach and scantily clad, but it just
ain't XENA


The cast of PACIFIC BLUE.


LEVINE:
[36] Yes, in essence you are right. I'm not saying that in a bad way, it's just different there from here, very different. If I'm shooting something here in Los Angeles, like PACIFIC BLUE, we have a twelve and a half hour day, which is twelve hours of shooting and a half hour for lunch. In New Zealand, you get a twelve hour day period, 45 minutes is lunch and 15 minutes is afternoon tea. So as a director, you're getting one hour less of shooting than you normally get in the States. That, as a director, you feel. You *want* that extra hour. They're not unwilling to do overtime, but they do like to know in advance. I have been in situations where, to complete a scene, we have needed 15 minutes and we would get it. If you're the Ugly American and you come down and you're an ***hole, they don't want to do it for you. But if you have a good relationship with the crew, they'll pull for you.

[37] They work hard all day long and they just really are not interested in doing overtime. Unlike up here in the film industry, it's common and it happens all the time.

[38] So we work out as much as possible in advance where we want things. Do I want a crane? Where do I want the crane? Do I need a special lens? Do I need lightning in this scene? You have to work that all out in advance because you just can't show up on the set expecting it. Lightning is a special effect and if you don't order it, you don't have it. In the second to last day of prep, there's a cast read-through.

[39] Usually it's seven-thirty at night because Lucy and Renee have just wrapped whatever they've shot that day. They come and we read through the scripts. It's at that point that I get a chance to really hear the dialogue for the first time, and anyone who's in the show is invited. So if Ares is in it, Kevin Smith will show up. If a guest star from America is down, we invite them along. They might be coming straight from a wardrobe fitting.

[40] This is a big difference between XENA and HERCULES from other shows on television. Everything is done from scratch. If an actress comes down and she's playing a princess, they have to *make* a princess costume. Hudson Leick comes down to play Callisto, they have to make the costume for her. It's not like you can pull it off the rack.

I'm no princess, honey, I'm a queen!


It's the right costume, but boy, have *we* got the wrong girl!


RUDNICK:
[41] I read somewhere that there is only *one* Xena costume.

LEVINE:
[42] No, that's not true. There are several Xena costumes. Lucy may only wear one, but they have to have standby costumes. There are also multiple Xena costumes, because Lucy has a lot of doubles for different things. The stunt double that does most of the fighting has a costume, and Polly has a costume, who is a stand-in double who looks a lot like Lucy so we use her for shooting sometimes.

[43] In the cast read-through, we hear the script on its feet. Lucy and Renee and the script supervisors will be there taking notes, "Can I say this?" or "This doesn't make sense." We try to work out anything that the actors may have a problem with in the dialogue. We'd rather do it there than on the set. It's harder to do it on the set. Details are worked out if there are changes due to shooting. We may shoot something near a water trough instead of a pond, so the dialogue may have to change slightly to make sense.

[44] Continuity is there so they are noting all this down. Then, after all this, you start shooting. You go crazy and you stress out for eight days.

RUDNICK:
[45] So you shoot and work out any problems you haven't come across yet. First unit does its thing and second unit does its thing. Now you have got this jumble of film to pass on to the editor.

LEVINE:
[46] He gives me what is called the "editor's cut". [See July 1997 WHOOSH! #10 interview with Robert Field, an editor on XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, for the editor's perspective.]

RUDNICK:
[47] Do you two sit together at this time to go over it?

LEVINE:
[48] If I'm available, which I try to be, I like to sit for three days with the editor and edit the show I'd like to see on the air. To Renaissance's credit, the shows that have aired have been my cuts. THE QUEST (#37) was ten or eleven minutes too long, so it had to be cut down. I cut it down to a certain point and I said to Rob [Tapert], "I can't cut it down any more. You cut what you want to lose, but I don't want to lose any more." That, by the way, is not a good thing to do. We don't want to shoot a lot over. I just did a HERCULES like that and it is not fun [STRANGER IN A STRANGE WORLD, to be released 4th season].

Don't take it so hard, Herc, your ratings will
improve!


Xena comforts an ailing Hercules in the Season 2 crossover
JUDGEMENT DAY (#H52).
What will Season 3 bring?


RUDNICK:
[49] I have heard the next three months can be a wash-out because of the rainy season.

LEVINE:
[50] Not a wash-out. You try to fit in two days outside. You just have to allot in your schedule that you are going to get rained out. I was just down there shooting [the HERCULES episode STRANGER IN A STRANGE WORLD] and only got rained out a total of an hour. But as it gets closer and closer to July and August, it gets pretty wet.

RUDNICK:
[51] That is where it helps to have scripts well in advance. If you know an episode is going to take place primarily indoors you can plan for it.

LEVINE:
[52] R.J. and his staff are well aware of the rain problems. I don't think I've ever shot a show that was totally inside on XENA. We always muddled through it.

[53] There was one time I was shooting on XENA and it was pouring rain. It was THE QUEST (#37) and we were trying to shoot the Amazon funeral. We finally said "This isn't happening." You cannot shoot the funeral in the pouring rain. And when second unit comes, the coverage is just as likely to be in sunny weather. So we packed up and went inside, which is a two hour move. So we finally get done, it gets edited, and you see it a couple of months later. I always watch it when it airs, I like to see it on the air. It's a lot of fun.

RUDNICK:
[54] Of course when you get an episode you have the principle players, Lucy, Renee, and so forth. Do you have any input for a particular guest role or small part, someone you think might be ideally suited for it?

LEVINE:
[55] Yes and no. If they're not expecting anyone from America, it wouldn't make a difference who I sent. I did have someone in mind for one of the roles in one of the shows and recommended him, and they were willing to go with him, but he wasn't available. In New Zealand, I have seen a lot of the talent pool after seven episodes, and so I have in cases actually brought back people to play different roles. I had a really good time, for example, with Ed Newborn who played the king in CRADLE OF HOPE (#04). He was in my HERCULES episode, A STAR TO GUIDE THEM (#H46). I also did the same thing with another character, she was in a XENA and also in HERCULES. They don't want you to do that from XENA to XENA because people remember. There's no one else watching the casting tapes but the casting director, myself and Eric Gruendemann who will look at the selections I've made and if he's got some input he'll let me know.



APPROACH TO MATERIAL


RUDNICK:
[56] Because of the nature of some of the episodes I have seen you direct, episodes in XENA but also in FOREVER KNIGHT, I was curious, do you think of yourself as a very "spiritual" person? Maybe I am just seeing a skewed sample, but I have noticed themes in your work.

Yet another sighting at Roswell...


Xena's chakram scores a clean miss -- almost the only time it has.


LEVINE:
[57] It's the luck of the draw. I'm not spiritual. I've read the [WHOOSH! Episode Guide] summary of ALTARED STATES (#19). Ninety-six percent of what was done was not done for the reasons they conjectured. I'll give you a perfect example.

[58] There's a scene in ALTARED STATES (#19) where everything is settled, Lucy and Renee are walking along with Argo. One of them says "Good thing you got that loud talking thing," and the other says "I never got it," then "Well if you never got it, who did?", and so forth. Lucy is very playful in that scene. There's a big analysis as to why Lucy's playful. Huge analysis. You know what, Lucy had injured her back and had been out for five days. It was her first day back, and this was her first scene. She was in a really good mood, she was happy to be there, and she was just playful. I don't think it was intended. There wasn't a serious forethought given to playing it that way. She did it that way in rehearsal and we went with it.

RUDNICK:
[59] You seem to get "thematic" kinds of episodes rather than the standard "get the bad guy" kind of episode.

LEVINE:
[60] As a director, I try to "latch on" to something in every episode. I did look at ALTARED STATES (#19) as kind of like Moses.

[61] We were mixing up a lot of biblical stories in that episode. But I very specifically said "We need a mountain." They just can't climb up a little hill. They've got to go up a mountain. I've got to be able to get the scope of what's going on. If he's talking to God, he's not talking to God at the bottom of a hill. So in that respect, yes, I intended that.

[62] Some of the techniques I used? Well, you can be a little more grand with a huge vista in front of you. It was a fun episode. The guy who played Maell, Karl Urban, who went on to play Cupid [and Caesar, Julius Caesar], was wonderful in it. The kid was good. We had David Ackroyd in it, who was the father [Anteus]. It was a little different than the other XENA's because there was a larger theme going on. But a lot of the stuff wasn't intended. You approach it in a certain way, hoping to shoot it properly.

[63] By the way, one of the first things Rob Tapert ever did, before I set foot in New Zealand, was to send me about six hours of tape, including Hong Kong movies. He wanted to show me the approach he wanted. I'm watching the tape, I see this fight involving a baby, I get the script for CRADLE OF HOPE (#04) and I think, "Aha!"

RUDNICK:
[64] I mentioned this to Robert Field, who edited the episode, and I'll tell you the same thing I told him -- that it has been determined the baby at one point had to be tossed 60 meters straight up to be in the air as long as was shown.

LEVINE:
[65] We never quite got the shot I wanted. I wanted Lucy to toss the baby up in the air, fight fight , and then I wanted the baby to come up large in the frame, the fight below him, and giggle and laugh. Then he'd start to go back down, fight fight , then Xena catches the baby. It ended up as fight, toss, and then we saw the baby going down, not toward us. We were never quite able to get the baby to laugh at the appropriate time either. The shot was planned out from the very beginning. Also what I call the "baby cam" shot came into it. We had Lucy wrap her arm under the camera and move back and forth, that's how that came about. I wanted to have fun with the baby fight, and I talked to Rob about it. There were a lot more tosses back and forth in the script than what we showed. I thought we needed to limit it. The first time Xena tosses the baby it's like "What are you doing?" and sure, Gabrielle catches it. We know if Gabrielle can catch the baby, Xena can certainly catch the baby despite Gabby's bad throw. That's why I had Lucy give the look to Gabrielle "Don't do that again." (both laugh) That was a fun part to do.



THE INTERNET


RUDNICK:
[66] Before I talk about some episode specifics, I was curious to know what you think about the Internet in general. Obviously WHOOSH! is an Internet publication, and you were one of the first people from the show to make yourself known in certain forums, coming in and talking to fans and so forth.

LEVINE:
[67] I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a good ego boost. I like hearing people's feedback, what they thought of different episodes, and what they thought of different characters. I also like hearing the various theories as to why people think things are the way they are. It's amusing.

RUDNICK:
[68] You get ten people together and you'll get ten different opinions.

LEVINE:
[69] Exactly. It's an outlet and avenue that used to take weeks of research to get what you can get now in ten minutes. I enjoy that. I think it's good. I like talking to everyone. I like taking the myth out of what we do. I don't like dispelling what the movie magic is, but sometimes I think people think it's a certain thing when it's really not.

Funny, Dave. Does that gap in your teeth extend to your
brain?


Lucy Lawless really did appear on David Letterman's show in April, 1996.
Can we expect to see her again this fall when she's in town?


RUDNICK:
[70] It helps ground people in reality.

LEVINE:
[71] For people who get on the Internet I think Lucy and Renee are more "real" people to some of them. Lucy and Renee are not typical "celebrities" because the fans hear stories about them and the show. They get little insider tidbits. It's kind of like Oprah , and everyone looks at Oprah as their buddy. They see her every day. But prime time people aren't seen every day, they shoot far away, and being on the Internet helps make people a little more real, more acceptable. They're just like other people. Particularly Renee and Lucy, they're very grounded.

RUDNICK:
[72] Do you spend a lot of time online yourself, doing other things?

LEVINE:
[73] Yes, I check stocks. I go hunting on the Internet for things I'm interested in.

RUDNICK:
[74] With some of the sophisticated search engines, you can get some pretty decent information on some obscure things that you might not find out about using "traditional" methods of research.

LEVINE:
[75] My kids use it for research. I have a hard time getting online in New Zealand. The lines are often bad. But it can be done.



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