Xena Magazine #6 - Writer and Producer Chris Manheim Speaks...

While working on a new story for Xena:Warrior Princess, scriptwriter CHRIS MANHEIM took time out to talk to IAN RENTOUL about how she became involved in the show as a freelancer and eventually as a story editor and producer.
Source: Titan`s Xena Magazine #6
Date: April 2000

When I caught up with Chris Manheim at the Universal City office near downtown Los Angeles, she and the rest of the Xena staff writers were in the midst of a busy period. Although the first episodes of season five had aired in the US and the show had already entered its first re-run phase before new episodes were transmitted in January, stories were still in production for the remainder of the year. Nevertheless, the senior scriptwriter, who works alongside Executive Producer R. J. Stewart, was more than happy to fill Xena fans in on her contributions to the show and reveal a little bit about herself and how she first became involved with the Xenaverse.

"I drove in to LA from San Bemardino with my husband in 1978 after we had lived in New York for seven years," Chris Manheim recalls. "My original career path had been acting and I studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York after being awarded a scholarship from the University of North Carolina. I also became involved in Community and College Theatre.

"While living in New York, I did a lot of `out of town` shows which meant I didn`t get to spend as much time with my husband [who was also an actor] as I liked. One day he brought home a magazine that had an article in it about how Sylvester Stallone was reported to have written the script for the film Rocky in a single weekend. This sounded pretty good, so we thought, `we`ve been doing acting, so maybe we can do some writing`.

"A friend and I eventually wrote a couple of speculative, or `spec` scripts, and submitted them to the William Morris Agency in New York," explains Manheim. "The Agency advised us that if we were to pursue a career in television and film scriptwriting we would need to move to Los Angeles.

"We started our writing career working on scripts for Eight is Enough. They wanted a couple of extra episodes, so we wrote them, and after that we wrote several more. When my writing partner and I went our separate ways, I wrote some episodes of Murder She Wrote and a script for Columbo, working with Peter Falk. That one was an adaptation of an Ed McBain novel. The Columbo script was never produced, but that series developed four or five scripts for every episode made."

Having worked in LA for a number of years, Manheim needed some new material to show around, so she wrote a `spec` script for Picket Fences. "The script got to Steven L Sears [who was then a writer and Supervising Producer on Xena], because we were both with the same agency. And as a result of that, Liz Friedman got to read the script as well. It was [Liz] who was pretty much responsible for finding new writers for the show.

"My first contact with Renaissance Pictures was really through Steve Sears and RJ Stewart," she remembers. "My agent got a call and I was asked to go over and `pitch`. At the time I had another job offer. The other show was fine, but Xena swung it with the thought of being able to write stories about and around the Greek myths.

"The company sent me the Xena writers` guide for the show and I went off to read Hamilton and Graves and any other book on myths that I could find! My only real previous contact with the Greek myths had been reading stories when I was in sixth grade and seeing a six-part television show by Joseph Campbell called The Hero With a Thousand Faces during the 1988 Writers Strike in LA."

At the time that Manheim`s work came to the attention of Renaissance Pictures, the company was working on the first season of Xena. "Lucy Lawless was scheduled to be away at a convention while an episode was to be filmed, so a story was needed where Xena was only in the first and last scene," she recalls. "This meant that the episode had to be `carried` by Gabrielle [played by Renee O`Connor]."

Manheim went off to watch two films first - The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. She then wrote a story and the initial `beatsheat` (the genesis of the script), developing a tale that would eventually become known as "The Prodigal", which aired for the first time in the US on 4 March 1996. In "The Prodigal", Gabrielle returns to her home village of Poteidaia for the first time since she left to join Xena in the premiere episode, "Sins of the Past". Together with her sister Lila (played by Willa O`Neill), a drunken ex-warrior Meleagar the Mighty (played by Tim Thomerson), and the villagers, they manage to fight off a warlord and his army who are raiding Poteidaia for food and supplies. It is a story of Gabrielle having doubts about her ability to stand alongside Xena and of her losing and regaining her self-confidence as she stands on her own without her warrior friend. Manheim continued to work as a free-lancer on the show during the first season, and also wrote the script for the episode "Altared States". Coincidentally, this episode would immediately follow "The Prodigal" in the first season airing schedule. "Altared States" co-starred Karl Urban, who was later to take on the roles of Cupid and Julius Caesar.

"It was the first time I got to write an episode with `Full On Xena`," she says. By the start of the second season, Manheim had been taken on as a story editor. Her next script was "Remember Nothing", which she describes as "a great concept by Steve Sears that I really sunk my teeth into." The episode was to become known as Xena`s Alternate Universe story and was loosely based on the classic film lt`s a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra (which starred James Stewart). By chance, "Remember Nothing" was one of the original stories produced for the show by Steven Sears, but one that at the time was not taken forward. But by the second season, it was taken out of the filing cabinet and given to Manheim to develop. The script focuses on what could have happened if Xena had not become a warrior and the effect this would have had on the towns and villages and people she knew and loved. When the episode was aired on 7 October 1996, the story was credited to both Manheim and Sears. Manheim recognises that "stories are a combined effort, as television is a collaborative medium. Everyone is `on board`, and at Renaissance Pictures this is particularly so, because everyone gets the beatsheets and every-one knows what is going on - the costumiers, set developers, props... everyone. This means that no one is left out of the production process and it creates a much better product."

In her capacity as full time story editor at Renaissance, Manheim may have up to writers` meetings in her schedule in any one day. Each meeting lasts between two to three hours, during which time the scripts and stories are discussed. From the initial story ideas someone is tasked with preparing the beatsheet, which normally takes about a week. "Beatsheets are about 10 pages in length and comprise a brief synopsis of the proposed story," Manheim explains, "from the `teaser` through the various scenes to the conclusion. It is similar in many respects to a storyboard, only written rather than drawn."

There can be anything up to about five revisions to the script, and there is a meeting of the team for every revision. It normally takes up to three or four days to do a re-write.

Manheim says that each season`s episodes are planned in advance. A Xena season is a 22 episode `arc` (although the first season eventually ran to 24 episodes). Early on in the planning for a season, the writers get together talk about the entire year. "Sometimes," says, "events occur that cannot be anticipated such as Lucy`s pregnancy and her accident and injury during the second season [when Lawless was thrown from a horse during a rehearsal The Leno Show in the US which meant there was a need for a quick re-write of the script for The Quest]."

The challenge that resulted from Lucy`s accident is one of Manheim`s most enduring memories of her time on the show. `It was a great bonding experience with everyone pulling together," she recalls.

Lawless` pregnancy meant that the writing staff had to review their plans for the fifth season, resulting in the `new` Gabrielle. "We all had input into Gabrielle`s character for season five," she said."I see Gabrielle as growing stronger in an outward sense and Xena growing deeper in an inward sense. We also needed Gabrielle to step in to a role that was more proactive, because with Lucy (and Xena) being pregnant, she couldn`t fight so much or ride.

"Of all the scripts I have written for the show, I think the one that has taken me the longest to complete to date has been "Chakram"," says Manheim, referring to the fifth season episode in which Xena gets her new weapon, a chakram which can be broken in half as two weapons and kill gods. "That one seems have draft after draft and then, in the end we used one of the early ones. The episode "Maternal Instincts" also took a long time to `fine tune`, while "Tsunami" was probably the one I wrote the quickest."

So which of the two main Xena characters does Manheim enjoy writing for the most? "Both characters are very different," she comments. "Xena feels very abrupt and I`ve never written for such a strong woman before. I`m not like that myself and I can`t be so forthright. I guess I don`t really have a favourite character, but I can say that of all the types of scenes I have to write, my favourites are those between Xena and Gabrielle. Added to this, we have two terrific leading actresses who can really sell it.

"I`ve been really lucky working on Xena, because it has meant that I`ve been able to write a number of different genres for the same series, including westerns, farces, melodramas, musicals and comedies. I think my favourite show is always the one that I`m working on at the time. Something I don`t like to write, however, is a story with big battle plans. That`s `a guy`s thing`. I like to write more personal stories. I guess that Maternal Instincts comes real close to being my favourite. I think it worked out very well, and I got to write for Callisto in it. "At the time, though, I thought that perhaps there was one problem with that episode," she comments. "It was at the beginning when the young Hope rescues Callisto - she falls backwards and crosses her eyes while falling. I did wonder when people saw it whether they might have thought that it was going to be a comedy, and I also thought at the time that maybe they should have re-shot that particular scene just one more time."

Having finished a script, had it shipped to New Zealand and filmed, Manheim explains that the writer`s job doesn`t finish there. She also gets involved with some of the post-production work. "Normally, I don`t get involved in the editing, but I did do so recently for one episode. We have just finished Punchlines and that was a really difficult show to complete. So on that occasion, I did spend two to three hours with our editor, Robert Field, watching him work his `magic`.

"Normally, I work far more closely with Bernadette Joyce and her team: Jody Fedele, Jason Schmid and Tim Boggs, because additional dialogue may need to be written during the post stage of production.

"By the time the episode reaches Bernie`s team, we go through the episode and review the dialogue to see if any additional lines need to be added [by way of explanation] from, say, a character off camera or one who has their back to the camera. If that is the case then I write it so that it can be inserted into the soundtrack at that stage."

And if she had an opportunity to play a character in the show, what sort of character would she like it to be? "While I trained as an actress, my days in front of the camera are over," she remarks. "From now on, I`ll stay behind it."

In fact, talking to Manheim, it rapidly becomes evident that she is quite a retiring and modest person, and when asked about conventions and meeting fans, admits that she has, "been asked to appear at events and to speak. However, I have attended some, but as anonymously as possible. I have `sneaked` in on the Xena days if people I know are speaking. I have on occasion been pointed out in the audience, though! But usually, I don`t let people know who I am."

Manheim reveals that, with Hercules ending and the two new Renaissance shows starting, there have been some changes within the writing staff. "When Steven Sears left, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman moved over from Hercules and R. J. moved over to do Cleopatra 2525," she explains. "But then Bob and Alex moved over to do Jack Of All Trades and so R. J. came back to Xena. Recently, we have also taken on two new writers for Xena as well, Tom O`Neil and George Strayton."

Does Manheim have any ambitions yet to fulfil? "I would like to get my own series on the air," she says. "Then again, I sometimes wonder whether I would like people coming to me with all the questions. But then I think, `yes I`d like to give it a stab!` I would also like to write novels.

"I find writing Xena terribly empowering. I have to say that as a person, I don`t like conflict, but it worries me less now. We don`t write Xena as a woman; we write her as a person. In the Xenaverse, the inhabitants don`t `blink` when they see Xena fighting, even though she is a woman. But that would have been different in real life.

"I`ve been lucky enough to move from one genre to another while writing for this show, and I`m grateful to Renaissance Pictures, because they have given me the chance to do it - to be a part of it. It`s just been terrific for me. Working here, the company demands, expects and challenges you to do your best. I guess you could say that they `keep your toes in the fire`. It`s been a real growth experience."

And what would make Manheim`s experience on the show complete? Surprisingly, the writer reveals that she has never been to New Zealand to visit the sets or see the show being filmed. "I`ve never been down to New Zealand," she admits, "but I`d love to go!"

Back to the Articles Index Page
Back to the Main Xenaville Page