By Bret Ryan Rudnick
Content copyright (c) 2001 held by author and copyright registered with Library of Congress
WHOOSH! Edition copyright (c) 2001 held by WHOOSH
Over the past several years, there have been several occasions where I have considered (and quickly dismissed) the notion of asking Rob Tapert for an interview. After all, Rob Tapert is a very important man. He is in charge of a big company and he has huge responsibilities. He is quoted in the major press from time to time and indeed, he can have the ear of any media outlet he chooses. So, why should he spend any time or effort on an interview with me? It was that reasoning that had me not ask each time I thought about it.
However, I was due for a trip to New Zealand, and there were still several people behind the scenes I had not spoken to yet but would like to, and further knowing this was Xena's last season, I decided to ask anyway. Imagine my surprise and delight not only to be granted an interview, but to experience Rob Tapert's hospitality and candor as well. It turns out he is a Whoosh! fan; he mentioned he had read a recent article of mine and made some comments about it that surprised me a little in their attention to detail. Not only did we conduct a marathon interview, but Rob Tapert was a gracious host and tour guide, showing me around the sets and inner workings of Pacific Renaissance Pictures personally.
One must be nimble of foot and mind to keep up with Rob Tapert. Not only is he extremely creative but he is also very quick, both mentally and physically. At one point, after lunch on the set, we had a quick tour around "Lion Park", the area where many of the more "permanent" exteriors for Xena, Hercules, Cleopatra 2525, and Jack Of All Trades are located. Rob walked with purpose and determination pointing out a variety of sites and supplying rapid-fire information about which episodes and shows were shot where.
It was a busy day. No less than three separate camera crews were working. Second Unit was working on YOU ARE THERE, primary shooting was taking place on THE GOD YOU KNOW, and additional work for another episode was being done.
As Rob moved from area to area, location to location, he greeted everyone with a kind word and a keen interest in what they were doing. He offered encouragement, suggested solutions to problems, enquired about plans for the day and future, and was generally involved and interested in everything going on around him.
On location or at the office, Rob is very much involved in what is happening, a theme we touched upon in the interview. More than anything else, he wants to tell a good story, and he is passionate about the stories he tells. I hope some of that comes through in the text below.
Television versus Film (01-06)
IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE? (07-08)
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (09-18)
The Xena Trilogy (19-22)
John Schulian (23-24)
The End of Hercules (25-26)
SINS OF THE PAST (27-28)
R.J. Stewart and Steven Sears (29-31)
DESTINY and THE QUEST (32-35)
"Mouth Music" (44-45)
THE DEBT (46-48)
FINS, FEMMES, AND GEMS (49-51)
Josh Becker (52-55)
ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (56-60)
Season Five (65-70)
LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN (79-82)
FALLEN ANGEL and the Christian Arc (83-94)
LIFEBLOOD and Amazon High (95-97)
Sixth Season (98-99)
Melissa Good (100-104)
Studio Interference (108-109)
Producer/Writer Emigration (110-111)
What's Coming Down the Pipeline? (112-120)
Rob Tapert, in his natural habitat (his office at Pacific Renaissance Pictures).
Television versus Film
New Zealand became the setting for ancient Greece in HERCULES and XENA.
 You began your work in film and then later moved to television. Do you prefer one to the other?
 I absolutely love television. Going back through history, with my early partners Sam [Raimi] and Bruce [Campbell], we did a kinda crummy movie called Crime Wave (Sam Raimi, 1985). We then had a chance to do something in television. Neither one of them had any interest in TV but I said "Let's do something in television". I've always had a fascination with it.
 In the early 90's we were assigned an assistant from Universal, someone who was laid off due to budget cuts, named David Eick. He became our liaison into television. We were approached to do a Darkman TV show by Universal. That was in 1990 or 1991. They paired us up with Dick Wolf. We got pushed out of the process because we had no prior television experience. Whatever his people came up with wasn't working and Universal came back to us. We in turn made a disastrously awful "presentation" piece for Dark Man. The show never went to series.
Gina Torres, in the pilot for M.A.N.T.I.S., later found employment with Pacific Renaissance Pictures as Nebula and on CLEOPATRA 2525 as Hel.
 That whetted our appetite. We did a two hour pilot for M.A.N.T.I.S. (Eric Laneuville, 1994), a black superhero show. After the pilot, me, Sam Raimi, and Sam Hamm [writer for the original Batman (Tim Burton, 1989)] all got pushed off the project because we were basically used to digging in our heels and not working well with people from the feature world. They said, "Here's your money, go away", and they recast the show. Bobby Hosea and Gina Torres were both people who were going to be regulars in that and they got pushed off the show. But I always respected them as actors and found a way to work with them again.
 The great thing about television is it has to go on the air. They can't air a black hole. With movies, no one cares if something doesn't get made for another year and another year. My partner Sam [Raimi], who is a busy as you can be with features, has done five films in the last seven years. That doesn't appeal to me as a producer, agonizing forever over the smallest minutia. Luckily for us, being in first run syndication, due to the nature of the executives we had working with us when we first started Hercules, they've really had, for the most part, a "hands off" approach.
 Over the years there's been more nitpicking about certain things, but originally on Herc and originally on Xena there were the broadest of strokes regarding things you couldn't do. We said "Sure, you can! Watch!" One of the things we were told you can't do is kill mothers in the teaser. So, I had to mess around with a Hercules episode that had Lucy [Lawless] as Lysia [OUTCAST (H18/205)] in it and make the mother a ghost. We couldn't kill children supposedly. So at the beginning of CALLISTO (22/122), there was a shot of a kid "hiding" with his eyes open--or was he dead? We had a giant debate with our executives over that. We had a big fight after the fact over IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (24/124) and went back and made a bunch of cuts there.
IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?
 Ironically, IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE is still on the "short list" of several fans as a favorite episode.
 Well, you know why. That was the first time Gabrielle died. When I look at Whoosh! or other sites where episodes are rated or discussed, the ones people like the best seem to be ones where the characters die. I can't do that every week! (both laugh) I really like that episode.
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
HERCULES began the legend for Pacific Renaissance Pictures.
 To go back to Hercules for a moment, with you talking about getting into the regular television experience, Hercules was a very popular show. Fans enjoyed it mostly throughout its run. What was the history of that?
 The history of Hercules is the following: I was in New Orleans shooting Hard Target (1993) with John Woo. Sam was shooting second unit and working with the Coen brothers on The Hudsucker Proxy (Joel Coen, 1994), which was basically a remake of a bad movie we made, Crime Wave, and both got written at the same time although it took years for Hudsucker to get made. David Eick called us and said "The studio wants to do a 'wheel', and one of the spokes of the wheel is Hercules. They want to do four two-hour movies, and all you need to do is sell this. That's all you gotta do." I said "David, we don't really do this kind of thing. I don't want to put our names on it unless it's good." He said, "I'll make sure it's good!"
 I didn't hear anything else for awhile but Sam shot a promo. It said things like "Get ready for ACTION! Get ready for ADVENTURE! Get ready for Hercules!" The studio used this little promo and others from feature film directors and the executives were able to sell this "wheel". They came to us to do Hercules. We said, "We don't want to do Hercules, we want to do Conan." They said "The rights are all screwed up, you have to do Hercules." Sam and I watched a bunch of the old Hercules movies and aside from the Harryhausen stuff, there wasn't anything from these films we wanted to redo. We were partnered at that time with a guy named Chris Williams. He had a bunch of good ideas, which were how to make the show acceptable by making Herc a really likeable guy.
 That's how we got started on the five two-hour movies. We never really thought it was going to go to a regular television show. We were working with other stuff. But lo and behold, it pulled the best numbers by far out of that "wheel". The studio had the right to launch two series out of that and they did Vanishing Son (TV, 1995) and Hercules. We came on in January of 1995. Even though Vanishing Son had some very good ratings by the airing of its second or third episode, the studio was fully committed to replacing it. The studio saw the first couple of episodes of Hercules and saw Lucy [Lawless] as the bad Warrior Princess and they told us "Before you guys get ripped off you should make your own series". At that time, I had differences of opinion with my partner Sam because he was doing The Quick And The Dead (Sam Raimi, 1995) and he said, "You just can't do a female superhero show. It's not gonna work!" He wanted to do something like Jason and the Argonauts, but I said, "That doesn't really feel any different from Hercules." So we went ahead and did Xena and the rest is history.
 I noticed that the evolution of the Hercules series could be difficult at times. There was that whole "Twilight of the gods" arc/season where Iolaus dies. I remember quite clearly from conventions years ago that fans were very upset by that. They didn't understand that the death of the Iolaus character was part of a lengthy arc and the plan was to bring back the character at the end of the season. Having said that, though, it did give Kevin Sorbo the chance to stretch as an actor.
 That's why we did it. It was very difficult doing Hercules because Herc was the good guy all the time. It was hard to write episodes to give the character dramatic movement. He couldn't be the conflicted hero. He couldn't supposedly have doubts. By killing Iolaus, we were able to launch his character such that Kevin [Sorbo] had more dramatic stretch and we could do different things. I'm really glad that we did that. I personally liked all of those episodes and that whole arc and season. I was very happy and I think it kept Kevin satisfied, hopefully, giving him things to do and stuff to act in that wasn't the same all the time.
 It was also very creative, making the "parallel universe" with the Sovereign on one side and Hercules on the other. I enjoyed those episodes and thought they were very well done.
 (laughs) I liked those too. Although they get kicked around a lot, I think [Roberto] Orci and [Alex] Kurtzman are good writers. If they ever put their mind to just writing television they could be really great.
Herc and Iolaus walk off into the sunset at the conclusion of the series.
 I'm probably in the minority with a lot of fan comment I've read about Herc and its last season, but I quite liked the series finale. I enjoyed watching The Big Guy and Iolaus walk off into the sunset. As the viewer sees those final frames, one is thinking that they're going off to do the same things we saw them do for the last several years. The adventure continues. I thought it was very nice closure.
 Me too! You know what, we debated that and went around and around with it. I wanted to accomplish two things in that final episode. I wanted to make it a normal, but big, adventure that somehow wraps up his relationships with his father and others, until we screwed it up in Xena, but to wrap up the process and come full circle. I wanted to leave things open for the further adventures of Hercules, but to give the audience an episode that allowed for the repair of some damaged relationships.
The Xena Trilogy
 I noticed in both Hercules and in the early episodes of Xena, there were writing credits for John Schulian, who has always been something of a mysterious guy to me. I haven't seen much information about him, yet he wrote some really good episodes, especially on Hercules.
 He did indeed. Here's really what happened. John said, "I want to do the story of the woman who comes between Hercules and Iolaus." I said, "Great, John, I want to do the story of this evil Warrior Princess and do this three episode arc." I wasn't thinking spin-off at this point. I had a very definite vision of what I wanted that Xena character to be. John wrote the script WARRIOR PRINCESS (H09/109) on Hercules. If you ever would ask Kevin, he hated that script. Always hated it. Eric Gruendemann and a bunch of other people down here didn't like it. They never believed that a girl could get Herc and Iolaus to fight each other.
 After we went to [the Hercules] series, I gave Bob Bielak the story for THE GAUNTLET (H12/112). Never found the transition in the third act where Xena had her turnaround. The only change we made was originally at the end of UNCHAINED HEART (H13/113) we were going to have Xena killed. We kept her alive so she could go on.
 I think John is a really great writer. I think he was a great writer on Hercules. He worked incredibly hard and I think he has really good ideas for the Common Man. Part of the early success for Hercules was that Herc was the Common Man.
 As I was going back through some of the early Hercules episodes and remembering which ones I particularly liked I found his name would come up consistently with those stories that were interesting as well as entertaining.
 CAST A GIANT SHADOW (H23/210) was an episode he wrote and we had Richard Moll play a Cyclops. That did our best numbers, if you take all our past shows. Kids liked that episode. If you look at either series, Herc or Xena, the shows that do the best are the ones that kids like too. But CAST A GIANT SHADOW was an episode that the studio just did not like as a script. John had no desire to be political or diplomatic with them. After John left, the show kind of drifted a little bit until Alex [Kurtzman] and Bob [Orci] came on because I don't think people had a good sense for what Hercules was about.
The End of Hercules
Michael hurst and Kevin Sorbo were a great team.
 Why did we get the short final season of Hercules? Was that just because the contracts had run out?
 Ultimately, yes. There were stories around that the studios asked Kevin Sorbo to take a big pay cut. That was part of any standard negotiation. In reality, the studio wanted to replace Hercules with a new show. The ratings were in decline and additionally Kevin just didn't want to do the show anymore. My attorney and I met with his people, we laid out a game plan where we wanted Kevin to commit to three more years of Hercules, and we'd find a place to sell it. But it would require him committing to three more years of Herc and he just didn't want to do that. He didn't want to wear those heavy leather pants anymore. I'm a producer, it's my job to get every single cent out of everything I can, and I felt that there was still a dollar left in Hercules. I personally enjoyed working on it a great deal. I liked Kevin, I liked Michael, and I liked the relationship that they had together on screen. I liked many the stories we told.
SINS OF THE PAST
XENA got started with SINS OF THE PAST.
 As we move into Xena, I wanted to concentrate on those episodes where you are credited with the story. SINS OF THE PAST (01/101) is, of course, the first Xena episode and that story is by you. It still stands as one of the strongest episodes in the series. It defines the environment and establishes the character of Xena. Was that a particularly difficult story? Did you have to struggle with that?
 I really didn't. I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish in that episode and where I was going. One of the reasons I ended up getting a shared credit with John Schulian was the addition of the character of Gabrielle. That was something I knew we needed. I liked Renee O'Connor tremendously from a two-hour movie we had done with her in Hercules [Hercules And The Lost Kingdom (Harley Cokliss, 1994)]. She was slightly miscast but did well in a Darkman movie [Darkman Ii: The Return Of Durant (Bradford May, 1994)] that we did. I saw her perfectly as that character, so when I saw the first draft of the script I was really pleased with R.J. [Stewart] in giving Gabrielle the voice that she had. I was very happy with that.
R.J. Stewart and Steven SearsRUDNICK:
 R.J. is a very fine writer and tells a really good story. Some of the most memorable episodes in the series have you with the story credit and him with the teleplay credit. He's also written some very fine episodes on his own.
 First, let me say that my relationship with R.J. has been the most creatively satisfying experience of my life. He and I have a way of adding to each other's good ideas. I guess some might say he and I compiled or compounded our bad ideas equally but when he and I are clicking together it is great. From DESTINY (36/212) to THE DEBT (52-53/306-307) to SIN TRADE (69-70/401-402), each one of these creative processes has been a joy.
 And you know what? I miss Steve Sears. He'd drive me insane sometimes, sitting in a room digging into points that were wrong, but as part of the overall, creative, collaborative process, I really enjoyed having Steve as a collaborator on the series. R.J. may or may not agree, but when Steve went away and he wasn't there for a sounding board anymore that hurt.
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