XENA MAGAZINE #13: Director Doug Lefler Speaks

Author: Joe Nazzaro
Source: Titan`s Xena Magazine #13

Director of both the first XENA and the first HERCULES episodes, Doug Lefler is an old associate of Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert`s from their Army of Darkness days. He directed Hercules and the Circle of Fire, one of the original tv movies, before helming early episodes of HERCULES.

"When Raimi and partner Rob Tapert began making plans for a series of two-hour TV movies based on the legends of Hercules, Lefler, came on board to do more second unit work and direct Hercules and the Circle of Fire. The movies, which starred Kevin Sorbo as the eponymous hero and film veteran Anthony Quinn as Zeus, became an instant success, paving the way for a regular weekly series.

"One of the theories I have as to why Hercules was successful," claims Lefler, "is that when we started out it was being made by a bunch of people who had never done anything like this before, but we all loved it and we were learning as we went along. Kevin had never carried a vehicle like this before, so he was learning at the same time as I was learning how to direct and the producers were learning how to produce. So we all had experience in the film business, but nobody had done a show like this before.

"I think Anthony Quinn`s contribution was maybe greater than was obvious. We all learned from him, and it was good for Kevin to work with somebody like Tony. We all got something from it, and he really kept us on our toes because he liked to improvise and didn`t necessarily follow the script. Kevin was able to do things later that were enhanced by his association with Anthony Quinn. Any actor who works with somebody of Quinn`s calibre, who has had as much experience as he`s had, is going to get something out of that."

A major calling card for the movies were the larger than life fight sequences, which took elements of classic Hong Kong action films and transplanted them into a fantasy setting. "The thing I kept stressing early on was that they should really be constructed like a three-act play" Lefler remembers. "They should have a premise, then what happens when this character comes up against an obstacle, and finally how the character overcomes it before this unstoppable event occurs. I`d always try to find those three elements in a sequence to give an interesting and necessary object, an interesting challenge to that objective, and why that objective has to be achieved at that point."

Lefler reveals that he created storyboards for each of the Hercules and Xena shows he directed. "I basically storyboarded every shot of all my episodes in advance," he explains. "Sometimes people don`t want to be dictated to that much, but generally it`s an advantage, and it became more of an advantage later on when people realised I would follow those storyboards. In the beginning, people were very dubious about the storyboards I gave them because they were so used to working with directors who would give them storyboards and then wouldn`t shoot them. With the action scenes in particular, if I had people making things specifically for a shot I was doing, I`d try and stick to the boards as closely as possible."

Lefler`s ability to map out elaborate special effects and action sequences made him the perfect choice to direct the first weekly episode of the series, The Wrong Path. "I think the producers were pleased enough with Circle of Fire, although, looking back on it, I don`t know if I like the whole show as much as some of the other episodes I did. But I think I got enough on screen. So when it came to directing the one-hour episodes, I was flattered to go back and do them.

"That was the only time I`d ever done two episodes back to back," he says, referring to his second episode, The Road to Calydan, being shot immediately after. "As I`ve said before, I wasn`t very pleased with my second episode, only because it didn`t have enough in the script to work with. I don`t really know whose fault it was, but it didn`t have all the raw elements we needed. If there isn`t something in the story early on to draw you in, no matter how clever you are or how busy you keep it, you can never win the audience back."

The director`s solution to this problem was simple: write an episode himself. The King of Thieves became the second season opener, and introduced one of the show`s most popular recurring characters, the brash Autolycus, played by Bruce Campbell. "That episode came about because I had spent so much time down in New Zealand that I really wanted to spend some time home with my wife," Lefler remembers. "I had been complaining about the script I`d been given previous to that, so I decided I should kill two birds with one stone and see if I could do something about the script myself instead of just complaining about what other people were giving me. So it gave me an excuse to stay in town and see my wife for a while, and it was an interesting experience. I worked really hard on that one, and although writing a script is hard I was pleased with it. Of all the Hercules shows that I`ve directed, The King of Thieves is my favourite."

It was during that period that Lefler was also asked to direct the first episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, which would combine special effects techniques and Hong Kong-inspired action but with some differences from its parent series. "When Xena started, it was supposed to be different from Hercules in the sense that they were not going to have [visual effects studio] Flat Earth working on it," Lefler reveals. "It was going to be more of an action show, and the only visual effects were going to be in-camera visual FX like the forced perspective. Time has proven the show to be different from the original concept, but that was the initial plan. So they wanted the pilot episode to be a prototype of how they would do it."

Just as the success of Hercules was partly due to Sorbo`s presence, much of Xena`s popularity can be attributed to Lucy Lawless and costar Renee O`Connor. "Lucy is an amazing woman," Lefler enthuses, "and she made the character of Xena her own very quickly. It`s so hard to imagine anybody else playing that part now. It was an extremely happy accident, and everybody involved in the series has benefited from it. Working on Xena is such a delight because you could not ask for two nicer people to work with than Lucy and Renee. I just adore both of them, and would crawl over glass to have an opportunity to work with either of them at any time!"

After directing Xena`s premiere episode, Lefler left the series to work on other projects. By the time he returned to work on A Family Affair in the show`s fourth season, the series had become a well-oiled machine. "By then they`d had three years of doing the series plus all the experience of doing Hercules, so that was a good thing. But some of the fire and invention had gone. When we first started doing the show, we were all making it up and inventing things as we went along, and that fun was gone.

"Also," he continues, "the way action scenes were being shot was now well established. When I returned after a few years, I was handed a printed sheet that they gave all the directors at that point. It explained all of the things they wanted to do for the series and how it should be shot, so everything that was pioneered before had now become mandatory I found that I rebelled against that even though I was responsible for a lot of it!"

Lefler returned the next season to direct Chakram, and the experience he picked up from working on so many episodes of Hercules and Xena went into Dragonheart: A New Beginning, a direct-to-video sequel to the popular film which has just been released in the United States. "[Producer] Rafaella DeLaurentis had looked at Hercules and Xena and said, `I`m going to give somebody an opportunity to direct a feature, and I want somebody from this show, because they know how to do a lot with very little,` Lefler recalls. "I think all the directors she interviewed and considered for the job all came from Hercules and Xena.

"Because we had to do Dragonheart in 30 days without a second unit, I had to use every trick that I learned from the years of doing Hercules and Xena. I had to call upon all of them to get the job done in time. So I was very grateful for the experience."

Right now, Lefler is taking a short break from directing to work with Sam Raimi as part of the storyboard team on the upcoming Spider-Man feature. "We haven`t had a chance to work together for a couple of years because he`s been so busy directing films and I`ve been busy directing, so it`s great to sit down in a room with him again and come up with shots and filmmaking strategies. This is such a labour of love for him, and it`s exciting to be a part of that."

And looking to the future, Doug Lefler has some very definite ideas about the work that he wants to be doing. "I`m trying to come up with projects that are strongly visual, that have a certain element of action and/or effects," he says, "because I feel comfortable doing those things. So they`re my strong points right now, but also projects that have some kind of strong emotional core to them.

"I`m really not interested in doing straight action, shoot-em-up types of things, so I`m trying to come up with projects that have worthwhile stones to them. After that, we`ll have to see!"

Lefler recalls the three Xena episodes he directed in more detail...

Sins of the Past
"I`m sure one of the reasons I was hired for that episode was the climactic fight on top of the characters` heads. I`d like to think there were other reasons, too, but it was a complex and ambitious episode with a lot of action and forced perspective sequences and a bunch of things of that nature.

"I believe the first episode was shot in 16mm instead of 35mm and we were given the marching order to work a lot faster than on Hercules and get a lot more set-ups, because they wanted it to be more like a Hong Kong film. We took inspiration from the Jet Li film The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk for that climactic battle, which was one of my favourite films. So I loved that scene so much that I jumped at the opportunity to do a sequence like it for the Xena pilot."

A Family Affair
"Of all the Xena episodes I`ve done, that`s the one I enjoyed the most. I was shocked when they sent me the script, because I hadn`t been paying attention to the series for years and I was surprised by the machinations of the plot. Gabrielle had a daughter who had grown up and looked exactly like her, who had a son who was a monster. I called Liz Friedman who was a producer at that time and co-wrote the episode, and said, `What have you done with these characters?` But I found that when I read the script I got caught up in the story. It had an emotional core to it, and when I look at that episode now, I still find myself getting caught up in the story, as complex as it is.

"I think it helped a lot that you could get into the character of that porcupine monster. He just wants to be loved, but he`s covered with these quills so he can`t hug his own mother without inflicting serious harm. From a practical standpoint, one of the things I`ve learned over the years about shooting rubber monsters is to suggest what`s there rather than show it. KNB did the creature suit and I thought they did a very good job with it, and so did the guy who was in the suit, of miming the action."

That was a creative challenge, finding ways of staging Lucy to hide her pregnancy, which was highly visible at the time. But for whatever difficulties I had to go through as a director, it was nothing compared to what she had to go through.

"It`s very difficult to be an action hero when you`re pregnant! There were times when we were doing fight scenes and I would go up to her and say, Would you like to stop now?` and she`d say, `No, I think we should do it again.` She was quite a trouper."

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