Xena Magazine #20 - Charles Siebert, Veteran Director..

Author: Ian Rentoulr
Source: Titan`s Xena Magazine #20

Charlies Siebert is currently enjoying a well deserved break. The long-time director and actor, who has helmed numerous episodes of Hercules and Xena and starred in several episodes of Xena, recently finished his final project for Renaissance Pictures: directing the comedy episode old Ares Had A Farm. "I'm not quite sure what will be next right now," he shrugs.

A seasoned director who claims to be "the oldest of the Xena directors by along shot," Siebert went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art almost 40 years ago. "It was at the time when Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud were in their heyday," he recalls. "It was all kind of exotic, and it enthralled me.

"I have a very special affection for London," he admits. "I married my college sweetheart in New York and we sailed for England four days later on the old queen Elizabeth I. We were there for two years. My first son was born there, and we would have stayed, but I couldn't get my visa changed and therefore couldn't work. So I arrived back in New York with a wife, a three-month old son and $4 in my pocket! But before I'd left London I'd wired $100 ahead, so I had a fortune waiting for me, and I eventually got an acting job working with a small repertory company in Western New Jersey."

Siebert's interest in acting was piqued long before his visit to England, however. "It all started when I went to journalism School at University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin," he recalls. "While thumbing through a catalogue of classes, I saw 'Acting 1', and I thought, 'What the hell? I'll give it a try!' And literally, from that moment on, everything else was taken care of.

"My mentor there was a very demanding and inspirational Catholic priest. I was asked to try out for the play they were doing, and all of a sudden, from not knowing what I was going to do with my life, I had a direction, a goal and a fascination. And I was fortunate to have someone who encouraged me and kept me going, since I'm naturally a very lazy person!"

Following a number of theatrical roles, Siebert soon made a name for himself in television and film, guest starring in renowned series such as Kojak, The Rockford Files, The Love Boat, Matlock and Murder, She Wrote, as well as films including The Other Side of Midnight, Coma and All Night Long. He's also appeared in numerous TV films and had regular roles in such television series as The Incredible Hulk, Mancuso FBI and the. 1970s show Trapper John MD. It was the latter series which offered Siebert the chance to try his hand at the skill he had long hoped to develop: "I was on Trapper John MD for seven years," recalls Siebert, "and after a lot of kicking, screaming, begging and pleading, was able to wangle myself a couple of directing opportunities on the show and eventually ended up directing a total of seven episodes.

"Being on a show like that was a wonderful opportunity," he says. "It was like being at film school all in itself. I was on the 20th Century Fox lot, and I'd just walk around asking questions of the various departments to find out what they did. In this industry, when you ask questions, people are always ready to answer them, and it's a good way to learn. That gave me some experience, but it was still a difficult transition, and the start of the serious directing only really happened about six years ago.

"So I came to it late, but I had a big backlog of acting experience that stood me in good stead. It's not very typical of directors in television to have an acting background, so the primary asset I had to sell was my ability to talk to actors and not to be afraid of them."

Siebert can cite a number of accomplished directors who have inspired him in his field. "I admire Orson Wells, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and John Ford," he states. "Probably my favourite film of all time is Citizen Kane. Its rather a cliche, but I probably watch it about once every six months. But directing for television is very different from directing for films. In television, you are essentially making half a movie in seven days. So when I started doing television I was astonished that I couldn't do all those massive crane and crowd shots and other things that I had seen in the movies, which had probably taken two years to prepare and three weeks to shoot!

"Today, television is far more adventurous than 20 years ago," he adds. "The development of equipment means that you can do far more today than you could have done back then."

When he's not acting acting in television, Siebert spends a lot of his spare time watching it, and he admits that he enjoys watching the more serious programmes rather than the more serialistic comedies and soaps he's traditionally appeared in. "I like Steven Bochco's shows: NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues and LA Law," he states. "He adds a level of seriousness and complication to a story. And I think The West Wing is wonderful."

However, the actor/director is quick to add that these are not by any means his favourite television shows. "If pushed up against a wall, I'd have to say that my favourite shows are Xena and Hercules," he acknowledges. "They are both shows that I actually love."

So what is it in particular that Siebert admires about Renaissance's two most successful series? "In terms of technical demands, I think the achievements are extraordinary," he says. "To produce such a big production on a television schedule is quite an achievement. A lot of shows have tried to capitalise on those series and imitate their success, but none of them have come close."

Siebert recalls how he was fortunate enough to get involved in his two favourite series. "I went down to New Zealand early on in the first season of Xena," he says. "The opportunity really evolved from someone working at Universal who I knew and with whom I had worked before. So I was recommended by them, and I shot The Reckoning and Death in Chains early in the first season. For the first couple of years I seemed to be exclusively directing episodes of Xena, but then I went over and did Hercules for a while, and then I went back and forth doing both."

Although Siebert was thrown into Xena's very first season, he explains that directing the show didn't pose as much of a challenge as one might think. "Remmber that Xena had spun off from Hercules, so there was already a threestory arc," he points out. "They had come up with a good back story and biography of Xena, and then they introduced Gabrielle when it went to a series. They also had the production teams set up because they'd been doing Hercules for a couple of years by then. So they knew what they were doing and were in pretty good shape by the time I got there.

"I didn't know very much about Greek mythology when I started," he admits. "And I still don't, to my shame! But when I arrived, they gave me a kind of a bible of Greek Mythology, and I read that, which was as far as I went with it. I tended to take everything I did from the script and react to what I found in there. These shows, although based on mythology, are very irreverent of it and have a wry twist, and it's also nice to have a sense of the contemporary culture that you're in, because that's here it's all really coming from."

Siebert had a great deal of admiration for the production crew on Xena. "[Unit production manager] Eric Gruendemann, who I think was about 26 or 27 when he went down there, is a great producer," he acknowledges. "It was Eric and his team down in Auckland who created the structure that made it possible to do all the things asked of them in the time they had available. Working with the Xena crew was one of the most wonderful and fruitful experiences I have ever had."

Siebert also enjoyed working with the shows' cast. "All of them are wonderful to work with," he enthuses. "Lucy Lawless, Renee O'Connor and Kevin Smith... and on Hercules, Kevin Sorbo and Michael Hurst - they'll do anything. I once hung Kevin Smith upside down over a fire, and I couldn't believe he went along with it! He can and will do anything. He's an enormously talented man, as are they all, and I'm going to miss these shows a lot because it's been a wonderful part of my life."

Of the Xena and Hercules episodes he's directed, Siebert points to the comedies as being his favourites. "I think I have a bit of a feel for them," he says, "although I like the serious stuff as well. Again, that was the wonderful thing about these shows: they would cover the whole range of emotion and experience. Then again, sometimes it's good to be on the set just laughing and fooling around!"

Viewers were afforded a rare glimpse of Charles Siebert on screen in the Xena season two episode Ten Little Warlords, in which he played King Sisyphus. One of his first directorial outings, Death in Chains, actually centred around that character too, but it was Welsh-born actor Ray Henwood who played the part of the king in the latter episode. "It turned out that Ray wasn't available [for Ten Little Warlords]," Siebert remembers, "and that show became a really crazy one because it was also around the time when Lucy was thrown from a horse and seriously injured.

"So it was a time of very interesting and clever improvisation," he explains. "As Ray wasn't available, somebody said to me, 'Well, you're an actor. Why don't you do it?' I thought, 'That's the last thing I need!' I acted in and directed episodes of Trapper John MD, but I thought acting in and directing the same episode of Xena would be a pain in the arse! Every time I wanted to set up a shot, I had to go off and get my beard reglued! So it was somewhat distracting, but I did it nevertheless.

"When Lucy was injured," Siebert continues, "Eric Gruendemann came in to my office and said, 'Well, you can go home!' I said, 'Well, no, I've got some more work to do,' and he replied, 'No, you can go home to the States.' He then told me what had happened to Lucy, and for a while they didn't quite know what to do. But what they cleverly came up with in the end was the idea to put Xena in Callisto's body, so I ended up working with Hudson Leick, which was kind of fun."

A further on screen appearance for Siebert occurred when he was asked to do a voice over for the god Poseidon in season two. "I don't know why!" he exclaims. "For some reason they weren't happy with what they had, so Rob Tapert just came in and asked me to do it. I was down in New Zealand at the time, so when I got home I went straight to the recording studio in LA."

Siebert admits that it is directing, rather than acting, which is his passion. "I actually stopped acting about six or seven years ago, and to my absolute amazement I haven't missed it at all. I've had so much to do as a director, it's so challenging and I have so much to learn, that I don't have the time to be distracted by anything else. So although once in a while when I'm on set I'll read out off-camera lines for actors, I feel no urge, impulse or need to act."

Given his long list of credits which span an almost 40-year career, it's surprising how highly Siebert rates his experiences acting in and directing Xena and Hercules. "For someone like me, who has been around for a long time and is now possibly getting towards the end of his working career, being involved with this extraordinary, talented and congenial bunch of people has been an enormous gift, for which I'm very grateful. It has been a wonderful way for me to learn a lot about directing. As an older man, I went down to work with and learn an enormous amount from many people who were younger than my children. So that was very exciting.

"They're a very creative, energetic and dynamic group," he acknowledges of the Renaissance Pictures crew, "who also happen to be some of the nicest people I've ever worked with."

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