Xena Magazine #10 - Writer Paul Robert Coyle speaks to Joe Nazzaro

Author: Joe Nazarro
Source: Titan`s Xena Magazine #10
Date: August 2000

Time travel; parallel universes; other-dimensional portals... They`re all the work of writer Paul Robert Coyle, whose work on 'Hercules: The Legendary Journeys' and 'Xena: Warrior Princess' often combines mythological fantasy with speculative science fiction ideas. With a genre background that includes episodes of 'Star Trek: Voyager', 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine' and 'Space Precinct', it`s not surprising that Coyle quickly became the go-to guy when it came to injecting the occasional SF idea into Hercules and Xena. That uneasy marriage didn`t take without a lengthy courtship, as, according to Coyle, executive producer Rob Tapert was always leery about venturing too far into science fiction territory. "He never really wanted to do it, and time travel [in The End of the Beginning] was the first experiment in that area. The Bizarro world [Stranger in a Strange World] was another example, and because I had done Star Trek, he kind of pegged me as the sci-fi guy and threw all those stories my way. But he went reluctantly into that whole arena, because he wanted to keep Hercules and Xena in the world of fantasy.

"That`s what made them distinct and different from anything else on television," Coyle continues. "But after a certain point, Rob had used up so many of those stories and was looking to expand a little bit, so SF was a natural avenue. He never went so far as to get into UFOs or aliens - although I pitched such stories - but we went into SF and time travel, and I`m the one who got the parallel universe stories and that kind of thing."

Although Coyle would eventually go on to write well over a dozen episodes of Hercules and Xena, he admits he was somewhat uninterested in either series, at that time. It wasn`t until watching a second season episode of Xena that the writer tried to arrange a meeting with the producers. "I went in with six or seven stories, and, to my surprise, there was a big group of people there, not just R.J. Stewart, but Steve Sears, as well as Rob. It was surprising to me that Rob would sit in on a pitch from a freelancer, but as I found out later, they didn`t see many freelancers, so it was kind of a big deal to them.

"I proceeded to pitch one story after another, and they kept getting shot down because they were doing similar stories already. But that`s actually a good sign, because they said, `Oh, you`re really thinking along the right lines for us, because little did you know that we were already developing that story.` So I kept striking out for that reason."

Coyle finally landed an assignment to write 'Ten Little Warlords', a pre-Hellenic twist on Agatha Christie`s classic whodunit, 'Ten Little Indians'. The episode took a few last-minute twists after Lucy Lawless suffered a debilitating accident that removed her from several episodes and sent the writers scrambling for their word processors. As Coyle remembers, "A lot of scripts got tossed or hastily written, like the Joxer story, 'For Him the Bell Tolls'. My story survived, it just got heavily rewritten. They brought me in to do the rewrite [on that episode], which was kind of surprising because the staff usually does that kind of thing. But they were really under the gun.

"As I recall, there was a brief hiatus, and Warlords was scheduled to be the first show to shoot when they returned. And it was during this hiatus that Lucy got hurt, so they called me in and it was like an emergency ward over there. They were having emergency meetings in every room - Adam [Armus] and [Nora] Kay [Foster] were doing a show in one room with Steve Sears, while Rob and Liz Friedman were with somebody else in another room. I went in with RJ, who said, `Here`s what we want to do with 'Ten Little Warlords'. We`ve already shot the previous episode, Intimate Stranger, which is a body swap episode. We`re going to alter the ending so that Xena did not get into her regular body and carry that storyline over to your show.` So I was given the mandate to rewrite my show with Hudson Leick. Over 90 per cent of that story remained the same in the script; I just had to remember that the characters were seeing Hudson and reacting to her as if she was Callisto, [but that she was actually Xena]."

Despite the last-minute changes that had to be made with his first script, Coyle felt that he had a good handle on Xena right from the beginning. "Somehow I caught the [feel of the] show, because they immediately wanted me back to do more," he recalls. "It was to my surprise, because I`d never done anything quite like that before, but I threw myself into it and watched all the tapes and got the voices in my head. I got thrown for a loop when it wasn`t going to he Lucy playing the character after all, but I worked with that, and then I did 'The Execution' and 'A Necessary Evil.'"

Ironically, it was a Xena pitch that eventually landed Coyle a staff position on Hercules when his time travel story 'The End of the Beginning' was bought as a Hercules episode. "I`d already expressed interest in writing for Hercules at that point, although I was keeping busy with Xena, and that was fine. They had a larger staff on Hercules, so it was surprising to me when they wanted me over there. But when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it, and it turned out to be a great two-year experience."

Although Coyle had found a new home on Hercules, he still wasn`t finished with the characters from Xena, who continued to pop up in his episodes. "I was the one who got to do all the crossovers," he explains, "which I loved. Even though I was writing for Hercules, I continued writing the characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Callisto and Ares because I got to do 'Stranger in a Strange World' and 'Armageddon Now' and various other shows that were the crossover episodes."

The writer later achieved television immortality of sorts when he was played by actor Michael Hurst in the off-beat episode 'Yes Virginia, there is a Hercules', and the equally comedic follow-up, 'For Those of You Just Joining Us'.

"I vividly remember the day around the conference table when those guys pitched that story to Rob: `Gerry [Conway] is going to be out in the woods shooting paint balls, and Paul is going to be in Vegas at a craps table.` I said, `First of all, I don`t play craps, I play blackjack!` I was extremely amused by the story, but thought, `We`re not going to make ourselves the characters and the stars of the show!`

"I was surprised that Rob bought it, but I was delighted with it all. Right up to the time it shot, I couldn`t believe we were really going to go through with it. Now, when I appear at conventions, people have an image of me in their heads which gets completely trashed when I walk out on stage, because I`m not that character!"

Having written a number of extraordinary Hercules episodes, it seems unbelievable that any literary stones went unturned by Coyle, but the writer does have a few regrets. "One thing I always wanted to do was a Roger Rabbit-type mix of animation and live-action," he reveals. "Rob was up for doing it, but it would have required a huge amount of lead time to do the animation, so we were never able to do that story. But we could do anything: comedy, drama, melodrama, slapstick and satire. "Another story I always wanted to do that I pitched, and they recently did on Buffy, was a silent episode. I wanted to do a dialogue-free episode, a pure cinematic exercise, like the long, sustained sequences without dialogue in a Hitchcock movie. I wanted to do virtually an entire episode of Hercules like that, but Rob gave me the dirtiest look as if to say, `Are you out of your mind?` I`m glad that Buffy recently did it, and extremely well, so I felt I was in the right ballpark." When Hercules finally ended its run after six successful seasons, Paul Coyle returned to freelancing once again, although he`s only too happy to stay in the fantasy/SF arena if the opportunity presents itself. "Every few years theres some new trend," he reflects, "and the writer has to reinvent himself, which I did with Hercules and Xena. But I don`t feel that I need to go back to areas I`ve done in the past to prove myself. It`s something you do if you have to pay the bills. "Right now, I`m quite happy."

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