Xena Magazine #22 - Interview with writer Joel Metzger

Author: Joe Nazzaro
Source: Titan`s Xena Magazine #22

Joel Metzger hadn't planned on writing for Xena: Warrior Princess. He'd never seen an episode of the show, and was actually pitching story ideas for another series when he was offered the coveted job of staff writer on Xena's sixth and final season.

"I'd actually written an episode of Sliders a couple of years ago," explains Joel Metzger, whose Xena credits consist of The Haunting of Amphipolis, The Ring, Dangerous Prey, Path of Vengeance and The Last of the Centaurs. "I met a guy named Chris Black, who ended up working on Cleopatra 2525. The producers of Cleopatra were looking for freelancers, and Chris got me in and I sold a pitch. That turned into 'Out of Body', in which Cleo is hits by an energy weapon that basically vaporises her, and she gets to play a ghost.

"Out of Body turned out really well," Metzger enthuses, "and at that point the producers were looking for staff for Xena too. There was another writer they were considering who they gave a freelance assignment to, but they didn't like how it turned out so I was asked to rewrite it. I didn't know they were looking for staff at the time, but after I'd turned in my first draft of The Haunting of Amphipolis, they made me an offer. I thought I was just working on a freelance script, so it was quite a surprise."

Metzger's job on The Haunting of Amphipolis, which sees Xena returning to her family home only to find it possessed by an evil entity, was to do a rewrite on the draft that had already been turned in. "They told me the biggest problem was that the writer didn't capture the Xena voices at all," he recalls. "The dialogue is the most difficult thing to do, because you can't have an obvious anachronism, and yet you can't have stilted, Ben Hur-style dialogue either. It has to be natural and sound modern to the ear, so that was the hardest thing for me.

"Originally they wanted to do a story about Xena's childhood home being haunted, so it was going to be a full-on scary horror adventure. Keep in mind that Rob Tapert produced 'The Evil Dead', so loves that kind of stuff. They also wanted to use Mephistopheles as the story's villain. They threw out a lot of the structure of the original plot, in which a man was killed and he had a daughter. So I basically tried to bring it closer to home by having Xena's mother trapped in limbo down in the underworld, and that way Xena had a personal stake in it. That kept everything very close to home, and then we just went through it and tried to think up the horror set pieces."

In retrospect, trying to rewrite a flawed set was probably a no-lose situation. "If a story is trouble, even if you barely bring it up to mediocrity you look okay," claims Metzger. "If you can save it then you didn't just do a good job, you saved the day. I think everybody was happy with it in the end but we took the haunted house story and essentially started from scratch. They wanted to do that typical classic horror scene of being afraid (like in the shower scene in Psycho), so they kept that, but not much else remained from the original."

However, the producers of Xena were so happy with Metzger's rewrite that they offered him a staff position on Xena for the rest of season six. "By the time I got there, they probably had six or eight ideas for the year so they already knew what they were going to do, and I was more than happy to write what they wanted me to write. A lot of the times they'd just give me a nugget to flesh out, and then they'd change it. But it was a very collaborative process, so I never really felt as if I was just filling in the blanks."

The biggest challenge was becoming familiar with half a decade's worth of series continuity. Even though season six took place in Xena's future, it didn't mean jettisoning events from the past. "The ice cave definitely affected just about every episode, because they'd run into somebody and we'd have to remember that they, didn't know who Xena was because that was 25 years ago!'

Getting to grips with the shows long continuity, was one of Metzger's first tasks. "They sent me a bunch of tapes, mainly from the last season, so I could catch up on the show," he recalls. "It was very difficult getting up to speed, because the show had such a long history and there was so much back story, that I was really out of my depth. They'd mention some giant storyline from four seasons ago, and I'd have no idea what they were talking about!

"After a while you'd get tired of explaining things, so you'd just have someone say, `Oh, that's a long story!' I must have written, `It's a long story' a hundred times, because we were constantly running into people that she knew when Eve was a baby, but who couldn't understand why Xena and Gabrielle were the same age as they were then!"

Soon after coming aboard, Metzger was busy writing The Ring, the middle segment of a massive three-part epic loosely based on Wagner's Ring saga. At that point, much of the story had already been hammered out, with Executive Producer R.J. Stewart writing part one, and fellow staffer Emily Skopov tackling the finale. Metzger was required to set up a specific chain of events in The Ring which would lead neatly into Skopov's concluding episode, The Return of the Valkyrie. Although it's part of a trilogy, it still has a beginning, middle and end. By the end of the episode, Xena has lost her memory and Gabrielle is trapped in a ring of fire, so I had to set up all these problems, which were then taken care of in the next episode," he explains. "Painting your characters into corners is easy, but getting them out is difficult, and Emily had to do all of that. "

Metzger has very fond memories of working on the Ring trilogy. "I loved the Wagner; I loved the music," he enthuses. "I loved all that Germanic stuff. It was really cool and very mythological. I was also blown away that everything actually looked better than you could imagine it. Your brain gets used to thinking about small, budget-restricted stories, so it's great when the monster looks really cool, or you can write, 'Ten flying horses come in', and it actually looks good.

"Rob Tapert is always throwing things in like, 'Let's put a forest fire in,' or, 'Let's have Xena do a catapult out of a tree and throw a girl two miles in the air!', and you're thinking, 'How can they shoot that?' As a writer you're not used to producers who are responsible for shooting the shows actually coming up with these kinds of crazy ideas!"

Metzger's first episode as a staff writer was Dangerous Prey, in which Xena becomes the latest quarry for a deranged prince who's been hunting down and killing Amazons. "I think I had the most fun writing that episode because it just wrote itself," he recalls. "It started off as something very different, and then someone in the office mentioned the short story from the 1950s or 1960s, 'The Most Dangerous Game'. It's basically about a guy who is obsessed with hunting and ends up hunting humans."

According to Metzger, the episode was fairly easy to write, because the premise was, such a straightforward one. "Once you have a villain who's easy to get a handle on - in this case that he's motivated because he's a hunter - you don't need to know that much else about him," He explains. "He hunts, so he's a one-note guy. You know why he does what he does, and he's driven to hunt Xena because she's the greatest challenge he's ever had. Once you have a motivated villain, every scene, writes itself because you've got the motivation.

"The difficult part was that he wants the ultimate challenge of hunting Xena, but you have to keep that game of cat and mouse going. Once you put them in the same room and they fight, that's obviously going to be the end of the show. So how do you keep them playing that cat and mouse game all the time without them coming face to face with swords? If he wants to fight her so badly, why doesn't he just fight her! So having this giant chess game, and coming up with reasons why they can't get face to face was difficult.

"The original idea was that Varia the Amazon hothead girl, goes on a mission with Xena," Metzger continues. "We think it's to rescue the new Queen of the Amazons, but the whole time Xena is training her so she's learning lessons along the way on how to fight. By the time we get to the end, it turns put that the girl we're rescuing isn't the queen; Varia is the queen, that became the B story with Xena teaching Varia how to control her anger and how to be a queen, and when we get to the end she gives her the necklace and says, 'You're the new queen; you're going to lead your tribe.' So, that was cool because we got to do both stories."

Dangerous Prey marked Renee O'Connor's second directorial outing on the series, which meant that her acting work in that episode was severely reduced. "We got rid of Gabrielle in the teaser and she's not in the episode proper until the end. Everyone wanted Renee to be able to concentrate on her work behind the camera and not have to be in front of it. So its really the Xena and Varia show."

After finishing Dangerous Prey, Metzger began work on what could have been the most outrageous episode in Xena history. Rob Tapert wanted to pay, homage to the old 1950s camp dinosaur movies, right down to the big hair and skimpy leopard skin bikinis, and Metzger was given the enviable task of being the scriptwriter on the episode which was to be titled 'Sticks and Stones'.

"I watched all these cheesy movies like Land of the Lost, and it got to the first draft," Metzger reveals. "I went back and did a different outline, but by that time we were all pretty tired of it. I guess Rob had sat down and watched those movies with a number of people, and no one remembered, them and not everyone was a big fan of them, so they didn't think it would work. But the producers throw out a couple of ideas every year, so it was really no big deal."

Varia returned to play a major role in Path of Vengeance, another chapter in the continuing Amazon storyline. "We established in Dangerous Prey, that the Amazons were in trouble," Metzger explains, "They're losing people every year; the tribes are getting smaller; and then we had this guy hunting them to death and Xena set up Varia as the new Queen of the Amazons. In Path of Vengeance we were trying to join all the tribes together. They're becoming extinct because they're separate, so we have Amazons from all aver the world coming together to form one nation and save themselves, and Varia is the queen of this new nation."

To make things even more interesting, Path of Vengeance, also featured the trial of Xena's daughter Eve and the return of Ares, who was last seen struggling with his newfound humanity in Old Ares had a Farm. "The idea of having Eve on trial had been knocking around all year," says Metzger, "so we decided to try it in the Amazon arena. I think I came up with the suggestion that Ares had a secret plan of getting the Amazons to follow him. The idea was that he was training them to fight the Romans so that both sides would be in a 100-year war. And everybody was worshipping him because both sides wanted to win the battle.

"So we wanted to put Ares back in his nasty god role again, and I was told to make him more like the old Ares. It's in his nature, after all - he's the God of War, he wasn't cut out to be a nice guy mortal, leopards don't, change their spots. So that's how I wrote him, I did go back and watch some Ares episodes, but he's in so many, and Kevin Smith paints the character, so well, that I had no trouble picking bits up. He's a very Machiavellian fellow. He's out for himself and he's hot for Xena, and that's all you need to know."

Metzger's final Xena script was the late season six episode The Last of the Centaurs. Previous centaur stories had often been created to add a bit of a social commentary to Xena and Hercules, with the creatures representing a race that was discriminated against, or worse. "What this one ends up being is a kind of 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' except that instead of Sidney Poitier it's a, horseman," Metzger explains. "Basically, he's the last of the adult centaurs and he has a centaur baby, so his mission is to, get his family to an Amazon valley that's hidden from mortals, so that they can live in peace and not be hunted for the rest of their lives.

"Xena is in a bind, because she wants to help the centaur, Ephiny's son Xenon, who she helped bring into the world," Metzger continues. "At the same time, the guy who's hunting him, Lord Belach is Borias' son, and Xena stole Borias away from Belach. So Xena's stuck in the middle and doesn't want to upset either side, and she doesn't want the centaurs to die. So that was my biggest challenge.

"Putting her in a dilemma that's impossible to solve is the hardest thing to do in the series," Metzger adds. "Superman has his Kryptonite so that comes in handy, but with Xena what we end up doing is putting other people in jeopardy or a huge army of forces against her. So the trick is to put her in a dilemma where she's forced between two things that she can't pull off at the same time."

The other challenge in writing The Last of the Centaurs was whether the story should be a comedy of manners a la 'Guess Who's Coming to, Dinner,' or a more hard-hitting episode about race. "I didn't really know what to do with it," admits Metzger. "I originally wrote it as a drama which is what they wanted, but the whole thing is about this girl who basically has sex with a horseman. So it's hard to keep that image out of your mind and take it seriously. And then you have Ephiny's ghost in there too, so I put in some jokey moments where no one could see or hear her.

"Than was my first draft," Metzger recalls, "and then Rob said, 'lets make this a tragedy; these are heavy stakes lets lose some of the jokes.' So I did. It still has some pretty heavy themes - whole races being wiped out, and Xena has this painful back-story to deal with, and her friends are in jeopardy because she can't bring herself to kill the son of Borias. There's a lot of tragedy there, but the image of a woman having sex with a horseman is pretty tough to get out of your head when you're writing dialogue because you fell like cracking up! So that was a challenge, but we definitely went with the tragedy. It is tragic, because the guy never really gets his daughter at the end. But its also uplifting because the centaur race is saved even thought there are only two left.

Metzger felt that The Last of the Centaurs demonstrated his evolution as a writer on the series. "By the time I got to my sixth episode, I was really in the groove," he declares. "To be honest, there was a lot of real Shakespearean stuff to milk out of killing that last centaur. What I'd done was create this prophecy that they would all die and be born again of a new father, and the whole time you're thinking Xenon is the father. So the prophecy comes true in a way you didn't expect, which is great stuff."

The day, after handing in his final draft of The Last of the Centaurs was also Joel Metzger's last day on Xena. With the series coming to an end and just a few episodes still to be written (mainly by RJ Stewart) there was act longer the need for a writing staff. Metzger jumped back into the freelance arena with both feet, pitching his first episode to another genre series just a few days later.

But despite his short-lived involvement with XENA:WARRIOR PRINCESS, Metzger will always remember his time on the series as a high point of his career, and he sums up his work on the show succinctly, revealing that it has been invaluable to his career as a writer, "I came out of Xena as a better writer," he says simply.

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