Xena Magazine #7 - Writer/director Josh Becker

Source: Titan`s Xena Magazine #7
Date: May 2000

Comedy is serious business. That's why the producers of Xena: Warrior Princess often call Josh Becker when they have a particularly outlandish episode to direct. Over the past five seasons, Becker has worked on some of Xena's most unusual escapades, from the mistaken identity caper Warrior.. Princess... Tramp to the gross-out fest In Sickness and in Hell. While the director relishes every opportunity to create a few laughs with his talented cast, it's not always an easy job.

"To me, the bottom line is this: if you find yourself in some drippy forest at seven in the morning in New Zealand, and you're supposed to be funny, you think, 'What does this scene need?'," explains Becker. "That's all that's important at that moment. I don't care how the scene relates to the scene before it, or the scene after it; our job is to make that scene come to life, and if it's supposed to be funny, we'd better figure out a way to do it in this drippy rainy forest in New Zealand, with everyone shivering and holding cups of coffee and saying, 'Where does the dolly track go?' I have to ask, 'What's the humour in this scene? How do we make this funny?"'

As an example, Becker cites his work with recurring quest star Ted Raimi in their most recent episode together, Kindred Spirits, in which Joxer is caught watching the Amazons bathing and is consequently sentenced to death. "The one piece of direction I was able to give Ted, and that he was able to wring 20 laughs out of, was [for the scene] where he's caught spying on the naked Amazons and is stuck in the middle of the village in stocks for almost the whole show. I said, 'Ted, Joxer only has two modes: he's either apologetic for what he did, or he's hitting on the girls. That's the only way he can see things.' And Ted was great. He knew where to find the laugh in every single moment: 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry - hey, how you doing?' To do this switch back and forth is funny every time."

The director is quick to praise the efforts of the Xena cast, who can ad-lib effortlessly and aren't afraid to make themselves look foolish in order to milk a scene for every available laugh. "Lucy [Lawless] is always coming up with gags for scenes that she's not even in. She came up with a gag in Warrior.. Princess... Tramp, which was for a scene in which Joxer is talking to Gabrielle. They're both in prison and he believes that Xena is in love with him, but it's really Meg, and he says, 'You know, she really likes me.' And Gabrielle is saying, 'Oh, she can't like you.' So he says,'Oh yeah?'and pulls down his collar and he's got a huge hickey. And then he says, 'And what's more-'. "Lucy and Renee [O'Connor] really enjoy the episodes with Ted because he's such a screw-ball and you laugh a lot. I've known Ted since he was born, so we can get into a silly place like when we were 15 years old, where we can't stop laughing. If you can keep that attitude on the set, it ought to be a funny episode."

Becker's relationship with the Renaissance family goes all the way back to their boyhood days in Michigan together, so when producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert first began making plans for a series of Hercules TV movies, it seemed only logical to enlist some of their old friends for the project. "I've known Sam since he was seven and I was eight, and Bruce [Campbell] since we were both 10," Becker reveals. "I didn't meet Rob Tapert until late in the game - we were probably 18. So I've known these guys my entire life. This was their first really big television deal, and at the beginning, people were fumbling, they didn't know what they were doing. So I didn't mind being second unit director because I got to establish a lot of very important things that have never stopped being used."

Raimi and Tapert signed Becker up for second unit duties on the first four TV movies with a promise to direct the fifth. Because of the many complicated action sequences involved in the movies, the second unit director was actually involved in helping to create one of the major signatures for Hercules, as well as Xena a few years later. "Rob's big innovation was to do this pre-Hellenic stuff in a modern-day way with martial arts in it," Becker explains. "Nobody had really fused the Hong Kong martial arts thing into standard action stuff here. Rob and Sam had just brought John Woo over to do Hard Target, so they were into the Hong Kong thing at the time.

"So that's how the fights were done. Rob and I had to sit there and watch tons of Hong Kong action movies with him pointing and saying, 'I love that!' Deep in his heart (and I say this with all the love in the world), Rob is really like Beavis or Butthead; he's totally in touch with that, 'That's cool!' When I showed him the first cut of Hercules and the Maze of the Minotaur, when the two guys go down in the cave at the very beginning, and come to that big door where the Minotaur lives, Rob says to himself under his breath, 'Big doors are cool!' And I thought, 'I've got him!"

Becker finally got to direct the fifth movie, Hercules and the Maze of the Minotaur, a combination of new material and clips from the previous four films. Looking back, it wasn't a very happy time for all involved. "When we all went down to New Zealand in November of 1993 to begin,' he recalls, "we were making four movies. But Rob had told me, 'There's going to be a fifth one and you're directing it.' He wouldn't have got me as a second unit director otherwise. But when I got down there, there was a big board that had four Hercules movies and no fifth one - he never told anyone else there was a fifth one. Keep in mind, there were few Americans down there, so I was this nutty American second unit director, saying, 'I'm really the main unit director of the fifth movie. Everybody thought I was insane, and Rob didn't let anyone know there was a fifth movie until the end of the third movie.

"It ultimately took eight or nine months to do those five movies, so everybody was contracted for eight months, and then it was,'No, we need you for another three weeks because we're going to do a fifth movie.' Suddenly, this psychotic second unit director that's been walking around mumbling about a fifth movie for the last six months is the director of this thing, and this was the crabbiest crew that ever lived! I had a three-week shoot when every other movie was a five-week shoot. I'm trying to shoot 70 minutes of material in three weeks, including the biggest fight scene that exists in any of the five movies. So I had to do some real ass-kicking to get that thing to happen, because no one wanted to be there. The shoot was such a misery that I didn't get hired again for an entire year until Xena started!" Becker's long-standing relationship with Xena:Warrior Princess began early in the first season, not as a director, oddly enough, but as a writer with a story credit on the episode Chariots of War. "Rob decided he wanted to spin a female warrior character off from Hercules right away, so he came up with Xena and had her in those three Hercules episodes," Becker remembers. "The way the series order came down was that they needed an episode on the air with barely enough time to get the whole thing written and shot, and everybody at Renaissance went into a total panic, thinking, 'How do we make a Xena episode? What the hell is it about?' Meanwhile, I had written a number of Hercules stories, including one that got made in that first season, which was The Path To Freedom with [Ally McBeal's] Lucy Liu, but I went uncredited on it.

"They were in this total panic over at Renaissance because they couldn't figure out how to write a Xena episode, nor did they have a writing staff, so I took one of my Hercules stories and changed Hercules to Xena - it doesn't even have Gabrielle in it, because the character hadn't been created yet! So I took this story and handed it to Rob, who said, 'This works', and they bought it! Chariots of War went into production first but aired second, and it was just a Hercules story I had sitting here."

Becker made his directorial debut on the series with A Fistful of Dinars, an Indiana Jones-like romp in which Xena teams up with a group of scoundrels to search for the lost treasure of the Sumerians. Stylistically, the episode was very different from some of Becker's more comedic efforts later on.

"Fistful of Dinars is a pretty straightforward Xena and I really like the tone of it. I've said to Rob before that it shouldn't get any more serious than that, because when they get into the really dark, serious episodes, I'm just lost. But to me, that one has a nice Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of feel to it."

The following season, Becker returned for Warrior.. Princess... Tramp, with Lucy Lawless playing no less than three different roles, as Xena, Princess Diana and a rather dim Meg. "When you have a show like that, your main issue becomes how you shoot it, because every time Lucy had to go off for a total change, at least an hour was lost getting her into a different character, particularly as the princess.

"There are times on that episode where Lucy makes it look so effortess," Becker enthuses of Lawless' performance in Warrior... Princess... Tramp, "where she's Meg dressed as Xena pretending to the princess, for example, and you know just what's going on because of how she's handling it. There were a couple of times when both the script supervisor and myself were a little lost, and Lucy came on the set and knew exactly where she was. Good actors are a real blessing for a director."

The director's next episode was For Him the Bell Tolls, a standout episode for Ted Raimi, with Aphrodite's spell turning Joxer into a swashbuckling hero every time he hears a bell. It was also the first time viewers were treated to the now-classic Joxer song, an idea which Becker came up with during prep. Armed with the first two lines, he then called Tapert and producer Liz Friedman, who approved the idea, not knowing what the final result would be.

"I then went to Ted and said, 'Look, I think you should have a theme song, and here's what I've got, 'Joxer the mighty, roams through the countryside, never needs a place to hide,' and you should come up with some more.'He came up with 75 more lyrics, and when the day came to shoot that scene, if I hadn't called cut, he would've kept singing that stinking song forever!"

For Him the Bell Tolls was actually shot while Lawless was still in hospital following her fall from a horse during the taping of a chat show appearance in the US. "She was in hospital the whole time, so I shot with a double for both the beginning and end scenes, and then her close-ups were shot months later and cut into it. It's the only one where she's basically entirely out of it."

Becker returned to serious territory again with Blind Faith, in which Gabrielle is kidnapped and Xena is temporarily blinded while attempting to rescue her. "Like Fistful of Dinars, it's a very straightforward Xena episode," Becker explains. "I like it. It's a good, solid, no-bullshit Xena episode. I think the stuff between Renee and Sydney [Jackson], where he's trying to make her into a princess, all that Pygmalion stuff, is pretty funny."

When Xena returned for a third season, Becker was given the surreal Fins, Femmes and Gems to direct, in which Xena develops a preoccupation with fish, Gabrielle becomes preoccupied with herself, and Joxer becomes king of the jungle. "I thought Ted's whole bit there with the fish was hysterical: 'Good trout joke! Go, tell your people of me, bring tributes!' We improvised all of that stuff, like the scene when he says, 'Soft, like baby monkey.' The whole bit with him calling all the other animals, that stuff up in the tree with him and Renee; none of that was in the script."

The director's most outrageous episode of the series may well turn out to be In Sickness and in Hell, with Xena and Gabrielle failing victim to all manner of disgusting ailments, from head lice to foot rot. Just how far was Becker allowed to go in terms of the gross-out humour? "They left it in, didn't they?" is the gleeful response. "You pretty much got exactly what I put in, and I couldn't believe it, because I put fart noises in there for Ted making all that bad food for the Sythians. We completely improvised that, where he's going down the line, saying, 'A little bit more for you. I used to be the chef for the king; his renowned flatulence has nothing to do with me!'"

Becker's next Xena credit was for Locked Up and Tied Down, for which he helped create the story idea. Tapert had a scene in mind in which Xena is arrested and taken away in hand-cuffs, but that's as far as the story went. "He didn't know where to go with it, so I said, 'She goes to prison and finds out that the prison warden is the woman that she thought she killed.' Rob said, 'Okay, we've got a story!' So we got together and kicked it out and there you have it."

Becker returned to the director's chair for If the Shoe Fits, which sees Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer and Aphrodite taking turns telling a fairy tale to a young princess. "That script gave us a lot of trouble because it's so complicated, because whoever is telling the story is Cinderella, and therefore, everybody else has to fill in the other parts. And then, of course, I tried to shoot each one differently, so that its stylistically different for whoever is telling the story." On the plus side, Becker is delighted with the performance he was able to get from his juvenile princess. "I dreaded it up to the time when I cast her and we started to shoot with her, but she was just great and she made it no problem. I said to her mother, 'I feel like I'm dealing with Meryl Streep at seven.' She was so talented and knew exactly what all the words meant and where she was. If a line got dropped in the middle, she could go back a line and pick it up. She was great."

The following season, Becker was asked to kick off the new action-adventure series Jack of All Trades, starring Bruce Campbell as the eponymous swashbuckler. "I think part of the reason behind my doing the show was that Bruce and I have been working together since we were 10," notes Becker. "The thing that's so great about Bruce is that he has such an arsenal of reactions, which is what comedy is all about. Angie [Dotchin, who plays Campbell's co-star, Emilia] is great too. She did seven years on Shortland Street, a big soap opera in New Zealand, so she is well trained, and the two of them are very good at their reactions. With Bruce, whether I say, 'Do Curly, or do Shemp or Moe or Larry [an allusion to their shared love of the Three Stooges],' he knows the difference and can do it. Or he can do W.C. Fields - he has such an arsenal."

After directing two episodes of Jack back to back, Becker stayed in New Zealand to direct Kindred Spirits, another episode in which the script was literally being rewritten right up to the last minute. "There were so many restrictions on that, because Lucy had just had the baby, so I only had her for four hours a day and it was a five-day shoot. Babies are just impossible to work with. They're great as long as they're in their mothers arms, but the minute they hand them off to shoot the scene, they start to cry. I also had all these young Amazon girls, who were cute in their little furs, but many of them had never been in front of a camera before. I only got the script 24 hours before I started shooting, so I really feel that I pulled a rabbit out of a hat with that one. On Jack, I was able to prep everything and work it all out, but on this episode, I felt like I was maybe five minutes ahead."

After finishing Kindred Spirits, Becker resumed post-production on If I Had a Hammer, a low-budget independent feature he shot last summer. "It takes place in folk club over the course of a weekend in February 1964," he explains, "where the folk movement died in that weekend. At 8am on February 9th, the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, so I'm saying that was the final death knell of the folk movement."

As for future projects, Becker is also finishing a script for a First World War picture he hopes to direct, and there's always the possibility of another Xena episode popping up. "Bruce and I have also been cooking up a deal for quite some time and will know soon if we have financing for a couple of pictures," he reveals. "We've already been discussing the fact that even if this money doesn't come through, we want to make a movie anyway, because we want to make a movie together no matter what, so we'll see what happens.

"Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether it's serious or funny. What's important is telling the story and getting the audience to pay attention. That's the whole game to me."

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