Xena Magazine #2 - Writer/Producer Steven L Sears

Author: Ian Rentoul
Source: Titan`s Xena Magazine #2

In January 1999, wearing his trademark Fedora hat, Steven L. Sears stepped out on to the stage at the Hercules and Xena Convention in Santa Monica, California to rapturous applause. Eight months later, Renaissance Pictures waved him off to head up Columbia's new show titled Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Best known for writing Xena: Warrior Princess episodes that include Dreamworker, The Greater Good, The Price and Endgame, Sears will always be the man who, more than any other, was responsible for creating the Xenaverse's Amazons. Starting his tenure on Xena as a Supervising Producer he had taken on the role of Co-Executive Producer by season four.

Sears' original aim, on arriving in Los Angeles in 1980, was to pursue an acting career. He never intended to be a writer, as he had never taken a class nor even read a book about it. He still hasn't. However, as he looked for acting jobs, he began writing audition scenes for casting directors and eventually one of them suggested he should write a script, and, as he says, "I ended up as a writer."

Sears' first series was Riptide, writing with a partner in 1984 for NBC. He followed with The A-Team and Hardcastle and McCormick, and others including 'Superboy', 'Swamp Thing' and 'The Raven'.

He first became involved with Renaissance when he had a meeting with David Eick, who was the head of the company's television department. Sears was told they were thinking of doing a series based on Hercules, but with a twist. Hearing nothing more about it until the show was on the air, he eventually received a telephone call from Supervising Producer Babs Greyhosky. Greyhosky had been the first person to hire him as a writer back in 1984 - she had also been the producer of Riptide.

Called in for a 'meet 'n greet', this was the first time he met the Renaissance team. He was able to ask questions about how the writing staff was going to handle demigods in the show, and to illustrate the point he started making up a story about the god Morpheus kidnapping Gabrielle. The idea caught Executive Producer Rob Tapert's imagination and the end result eventually became the season one episode Dreamworker.

Offered the job of Creative Consultant, he signed up with Renaissance. "I liked the show and the people, so I agreed. It left me free to do other things if I wanted, but still gave me a steady income. Later, Babs decided to leave the series to pursue other projects and the Supervising Producer job was open. I talked to R. J. [Stewart] about it, pointing out my own experience as a producer and how I wanted the job. He kind of blinked at me as if to say, 'Well, yeah,' then talked to Sam [Raimi] and Rob. And that was it. I became the Supervising Producer before we even finished the first episode."

Whilst writing Dreamworker, Sears was only concentrating on that one episode, but he already knew that threads were being set up that would carry on through the whole series. For example, the blood innocence thread for Gabrielle - the fact that she had never killed anyone, and she was afraid of one day having to do so - became a major factor in her development. At the time, he just thought of it as a logical progression for the character. It was too easy to have Gabrielle just mimic Xena by learning to become a warrior; so he took the opposite route and found it more interesting to contrast Xena using Gabrielle's purity.

For his other stories, Sears says that the initial ideas came from many sources. The Price drew on actual historical accounts of the battles at lslwandha and Rourke's Drift, whilst others, like Orphan of War, were just stories he wanted to tell. On occasions, classic mythology was used with what he describes as a "Xena twist". On average, he was given eight weeks to produce a script - two weeks each for the story outline, a rewrite, the first draft, and finally, a second draft.

Some of the scripts that finally made it were not even planned. The Quest and A Necessary Evil were only written after Lucy was thrown front a horse and injured. The endings to Intimate Stranger and Destiny were re-shot to accommodate the new stories. In another case, Remember Nothing was the second story he wrote, but it wasn't a story they wanted to do early on, so it went into the files. Later, Renaissance were short by a script and it was released from the filing cabinet and written by Chris Manheim. Sears says that she made some major changes that improved it immensely.

For The Quest, he recalls, "All of us got together and wrote the story. In fact, we wrote the first draft together. But R. J. and Chris had, to go off and write other episodes, which meant I was left with rewriting everything... So I ended up with the teleplay credit.

Intimate Stranger was already filmed at the time, so we just had to make a minor change at the end so that Xena wouldn't get back into her body. That set up Ten Little Warlords, which did get a major rewrite to accommodate Hudson playing Xena. Then, to set up The Quest, the ending of Destiny was re-cut so that Xena died. A Necessary Evil was also created as an addendum to The Quest."

In all his time working on the show, Sears only got down to New Zealand once. "With Eric Grundemann on the set and Rob Tapert down there most of the time, I wasn't needed," he says. His one visit was during the shooting of The Greater Good. He was there for a week and worked the entire time. He did however attend the wrap party for the first season in New Zealand. "That rocked!"

Of seeing his scripts in the final episode form, he says, "It's an incredible experience and hard for me to get across to most people what it is like because putting together a television show defies logic and common sense. I liken it to piling scrap metal in a farm field and waiting for a tornado to turn it into a Cadillac. It also has to be understood that working in this business is rare in itself. Making a living at it is more so, whilst being [full-time] staff even more. In my business, we don't say, 'What do you do if you are unemployed?' You ask, 'What do you do when you are unemployed?' Most television series don't last more than a season. One that lasts as long as Xena has is rare.

"In the life of any series, people come and go and the thought that R.J., Rob and I have been together from the beginning - four and a half seasons ago - is incredible. That we still enjoy each other's company after all that time is amazing! But it's more than that. It's that we have two incredible actresses who trusted both us and the material we gave them. We also had a crew that went above and beyond to give us what we needed. And, of course, a fan base that kept things lively! I have many, many memories of the series that I will never and would never want to forget."

Of his own fans he modestly states: "The idea of actually having a following would be a little bit mind-boggling to me. I still haven't figured out why people ask for my autograph!" He also says that meeting fans is like meeting himself. "Don't forget that I was one of those fans. Now, by saying that, I'm not referring to the stereotype that the media likes to play with, the fans who like to dress up as their favourite character. Even though I never considered myself a 'Trekkie', I used to be able to name an episode of the original Star Trek just by hearing one line of dialogue.

"I still enjoy going to conventions, even if I'm not speaking. Just to walk around and see what's happening. Most of the fans we have are very intelligent and articulate people. I've had some great discussions with a few of them, and they are always interesting. As far as the critics of the show are concerned, I've had some great discussions with them as well. There are a few who just go out of their way to hate the series and those of us working on it, but that's their problem. Most of the critics are respectful and give me something to think about."

One thing he does seem to have been spared is all the practical jokes, thanks mainly to his absence from the set. "I wasn't subject to Lucy's wicked sense of humour," he says, "but I will say that we spent 75 per cent of our story-meetings laughing and making jokes. There's a story R. J. likes to tell about one of these meetings when we had Sam Raimi and the director - I believe it was Mike Levine - in the room with us. I was trying to get across to him a bit of action for a fight scene. The action involved a bit of a back-flip on Xena's part to get the best of a villain. I wasn't making myself clear, so I had him play the bad guy and I played Xena. We went through the motions and to make sure he undestood it, I did a back-flip in the room. I had always been pretty physical, so I didn't think much of it. There was a stunned silence, then Sam scribbled a '10' on a piece of paper and held it up. At least I got a perfect score!"

On his decision to leave Xena, he comments, "There were so many factors. Since Xena became a success, I had several enquiries as to whether I would be interested in leaving to take over other series for more money or a better title. I turned them all down because I loved Xena. At a certain point, Rob and I talked about the possibility of me writing pilots for new series and he said he wouldn't stand in my way if it was something I wanted to do. However I decided I wouldn't leave unless I sold an idea I had created or was offered something that I really wanted to do. I ended up having several pilot deals, but none of them went to the status of series. Except one.

"The chance to do my own show... it's something that motivates most of us in my position. The show that was brought to me was 'Sheena'. I kept Rob up to date with developments as I wasn't intending to do anything behind his back. He was being up front with me and it was the least I could do for him. Still, 'Sheena' wasn't guaranteed of being a series, even with all the money put into the presentation. So Rob and I initially agreed that I would work on a per-episode basis until we knew what was going to happen.

"Eventually though, Rob had to make a decision. If 'Sheena' went that year, it would mean I would leave in the middle of a season and he had to think of what was best for the series. He had to make plans if I was going to leave, which meant he had to offer the job to someone. He couldn't do that if I was staying, so he made a business decision to let me go after the first eight episodes of the fifth season. That way he could begin the process of moving someone into my place. As it turns out, 'Sheena' didn't go in 1999 so I could have finished the fifth season but we didn't know that at the time and, all in all, Rob handled all this with class and I owe a lot to him".

Of his last day at Renaissance he recalls, "it was sad - what else could it be? I had four years in that office. I had some great times in there, so I spent a weekend packing up my things and moving them to my house. Keep in mind this wasn't just the usual office stuff, this was a lot of gifts that fans had sent me, one-of-a-kind stuff that means a lot to me. It took several trips to move everything to my dining room, where the boxes still sit at this moment.

"The last thing I did was use a Zip drive to copy personal and script files from my computer. Then I formatted the hard drive, headed to the door and took a last, long look at the office. I tried to remember if it looked that empty when I first moved in. Then I left. It was rough, but it was time to move on."

'Sheena' is scheduled to launch in Autumn 2000 so Sears will begin initial work on scripts and staffing sometime in April or May. He says there are many things that will be taken to the new show that came from or were explored on Xena, but the show won't be the same. It can't be, and he hopes people won't tune in expecting it will. "To me," he says, "it is just a matter of writing an interesting, fun character, no matter what the gender. It's a shame that when it's a woman, people have to make note of it as difference. It shouldn't be. Developing Sheena wasn't difficult at all. I'm very excited about it. Can you tell?

And what of the future? Well, Sears is fairly philosophical about the whole thing. "When I decided to write that first script, I made a choice I never knew existed. So every success I have now is new and unexpected. I like it that way. I've been doing this professionally for 15 years, and there are still times when I look at myself and say, 'Can you believe this?'"

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