Fantasy Renaissance

Renaissance Pictures development exec Liz Friedman on giving the series a humorous touch.

Author: Dan Scapperotti
Source: Cinefantastique - issue 31 - May 1999

One of the lesser known facts about the XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS program are the hilarious disclaimers such as "No winged Harpies were harmed or sent to a fiery grave during the production of this motion picture," which are tucked away among the credit scrawls at the end of each show. Most television stations that run XENA reduce the credits to a postage stamp size and fill the screen with trailers for upcoming shows or clips from XENA. Too bad.

This clever post-production joke could only have found its genesis in the mind of a genre fan. Those disclaimers are the brain child of Liz Friedman, an executive who has worked her way up through the ranks of Renaissance Pictures.

Until recently, when she was promoted to executive in charge of development at Renissance, Friedman was intimately involved in every show. "Up to that point I was pretty much involved with every story meeting on HERCULES and XENA, every script meeting and the hiring of directors. I looked at almost every cut of the show, worked with the writers on brainstorming stories and then working out problems. I`d talk to New Zealand about the problems or concerns they had with the scripts. When the show came back to us after it had been shot I`d work through the post-production process."

Now firmly planted on television, the company`s production focus is solely for that medium. With a proven track record, projects in development at Renaissance tend to be genre oriented. "It`s easier for us to sell something that has a Renaissance edge to it," Friedman explained. "If it has action or special effects or horror, whether or not it`s specifically one of those genre pieces, it certainly makes sense to buy that from us. Just like you probably wouldn`t buy an action show from the people who did FRIENDS. They`re probably not going to buy a traditional three camera sitcom from us." Renaissance certainly put New Zealand on the movie-making map. The decision to travel into the Southern Hemisphere to film the tales of Ancient Greece was driven by both economic and cinematic factors. "We filmed HERCULES down there first and then XENA went down there," said Friedman. "The two productions share some basic elements that make it a lot more affordable to make those shows down there so there`s an amortization of costs that happens. We went down there for HERCULES because the country has such a great look. It really looks like that land before time and you buy it. It`s also very different from the classical, or I should say typical representation of ancient Greece as being sort of dry and barren which isn`t what I think people want to look at on television. Then there was also the factor that the New Zealand dollar was very cheap when we first went there." Friedman credits the success of XENA to the same factors that made another science fiction franchise so successful.. "I`m a huge ROBOCOP fan," she said. "That`s one of the greatest, smartest movies ever. One of the things I love about it is that I think it absolutely works on two levels, which is one of the reasons I think XENA has been so successful. ROBOCOP works as just a straight action film. It also works as a very smart satire of society and corporate economy, loss of identity to technology. XENA works as a straight ahead tits-and-ass action show for lack of a more intellectual term. It`s an action show but the lead is first of all a woman and second of all a woman who never apologizes for being strong. It features two women who have a very intense relationship, who do not spend all of their time talking about either their sanitary protection or their boyfriends. In this way it ends up being, compared to what is typically on television, I think, fairly subversive. I don`t think we could get away with all that if it weren`t working on the fact that it is entertaining. It`s a good kick-ass action show."

An off-handed remark gave birth to those wacky disclaimers in the show`s end credits. During a playback session of a mix midway through working on the first order of 13 HERCULES shows, Friedman turned to co- ordinating producer Bernie Joyce who runs the post production department and said, "I wish we could say, `No Centaurs were harmed during the making of this motion picture.` That would be so funny." Joyce looked at her and said, "We can."

Recalled Friedman, "After that first 13 is when we had our second season of HERCULES and then we got XENA too. Then we just started doing it for every show. Bernie is great. She makes a huge contribution te the show. Bernie and I would bounce it back and forth anc other people would sometime@ contribute. It had to pass Bernie`s funny meter first and then mine and then we kept trying to top ourselves. You do see that they get more and more outrageous as we go along."

While decisions for the disclaimers usually stay withir post-production there was one that bit the cutting room floor, "The funniest one that we never got to use that I`m going to regret forever is on the episode `Return of Callisto,"` said Friedman. "It`s the one where Gabrielle marries her childhood sweetheart and Callisto kills him. In it Gabrielle marries Perdicas and they have their wedding night. So our disclaimer was, `The producers would like to thank Gabrielle`s virginity for the role it has played in our series. It will sorely be missed.` No one knows exactly what happened, but somehow the studio got told about it and they told us we had to change it. I`ll always be a little sad about it."

A third season follow-up to the "Warrior..Princess..Tramp" episode where Lucy Lawless plays three different roles was "Warrior.. Priestess.. Tramp." For that episode Friedman came up with "Despite another Xena look-alike the gene pool (or rather the gene puddle) was not harmed during the making of this motion picture." The quirkiness of the show can have a slapstick edition one week followed by a serious drama the next. Which does Friedman prefer? "I prefer the darker ones," she said. "I like comedy a lot and I do love to laugh but I love dramatic story telling. I love a good story and a good twist. I think it puts your hero in a bind. I think we`ve done some great comedies but by the time these things are done I`ve watched them four or five times and sometimes those laughs get a little thin, after about the fifth viewing."

Since becoming Sam Raimi`s assistant in 1991, Friedman`s unique talents have been recognized and she has moved up the corporate ladder going through a dizzying progression of titles along the way. "My first credit on one of the DARKMAN movies is something absolutely absurd like associate in charge of blue screen effects.

"In terms of the HERCULES and XENA stuff, first I was the creative associate for a couple of seasons on HERCULES, then I was an associate producer. On XENA I started as a co-producer because that was a show that I developed and helped launch. Then I became a producer, a supervising producer and now I`m the co-executive producer."

Between the two shows, Friedman has produced nine seasons of television programming. Some shows in the grueling pace are harder than others. "The two XENAs at the end of last season `Sacrifice I` and `Sacrifice II` were very tough," she said, "because there were a lot of story threads that we wanted to work out. Doing two-parters demands a particular balance. Do you construct your stories as if there`s one big story playing over two shows or as if each one is its own little arc? "It`s an interesting exercise but it`s pretty tough. `The Bitter Suite,` our musical, was grueling. Rob Tapert put all of his blood, sweat and tears into that one. It was the production killer to end all episodes. Incredibly expensive, but it turned out really well. On most shows there are moments when you think this just isn`t going to work. Not to congratulate ourselves too much, but, basically, you have five pretty smart people sitting in a room absolutely stumped and then someone comes up with something that turns it around. Someone will say, `What if?` and, suddenly, it all falls into place. That`s the beauty of TV - you just have to get it done."

Back to the Articles Index Page
Back to the Main Xenaville Page