Xena Magazine #8 - Director TJ Scott talks about his work

Author: Joe Nazarro
Source: Titan`s Xena Magazine #8
Date: May 2000

R.J. Stewart, Executive Producer of Xena: Warrior Princess, once said you could look at an episode of the series directed by T.J. Scott and recognise his distinctive stamp almost immediately. Whether it`s the outrageous rock video vampishness of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" or the dreamily hallucinogenic "Adventures in the Sin Trade" two-parter, Scott`s style is definitely unique. He doesn`t just push the visual envelope - he often stretches it to breaking point and beyond. Although Scott is now probably better known for his work on Xena, he actually joined the Renaissance family during the early days of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

"[Producer] Liz Friedman was in charge of finding directors,` Scott recalls, "and she had screened tons and tons of reels of directors. Xena was just starting up, and Tim Bond, who had already directed some Hercules episodes, told me, `Hey, you should get your reel in to these people!` Liz looked at my reel and liked it, I came in and met with her, we got along well, and about two weeks later, I found myself in New Zealand!"

Scott`s first episode of Hercules was "Highway to Hades", and he soon discovered that first-time directors on the series were often tested to see how they could handle an episode with a limited amount of resources at their disposal. "Rob Gilles, who`s the head of the art department, gave me about 14 pillars and a bunch of material, and said, `Here`s your castle! You make hallways out of this by putting seven pillars on each side, you can open it up into a square to make a room, and you just keep attaching the fabric along the sides; that`s how you`ll make your set.`"

"I thought he was kidding, but he said, `No, that`s how we do it here. So I really had no set to shoot. I couldn`t move the camera around and do my sort of thing, because I was busy trying to figure out how to turn these couple of pillars into a set all day long! But it was a great experience, and once I did that, they gave me whatever I wanted, and a few episodes later, they built me an entire castle!"

By the time Scott returned for "The Enforcer", things were a good deal easier, and the director was able to create some interesting techniques for the episode`s eponymous villain. "One of the interesting things that Renaissance says right off the bat," he reveals, "is that if you`re going to make a villain, you`ve really got to make a bad villain, because your heroes can only be as heroic as your villains are bad. I think in "Highway to Hades", I didn`t quite push that far enough, but I realised by the end that if you`re going to make a villain, you`ve really got to make them villainous. When we got Karen Shepherd as the Enforcer, I really wanted to make her bad, and also to create a point of view from her side that you understood was different and weird."

Scott was able to continue that look again later when he returned for "Not Fade Away", which featured the return of Shepherd`s character as well as the fiery Cynthia Rothrock as an even more unstoppable new Enforcer. "That was a very different episode, and to try and recreate it as a sequel, they sort of needed me back there to helm it," Scott explains. "Especially with reinforcing Karen`s character. Bringing in Cynthia Rothrock was a really cool idea. To have these two martial arts giants battling it out was a lot of fun."

By that time, the director had already helmed his first episode of Xena: Warrior Princess and found the spin-off series even more to his liking in terms of the visuals he was encouraged to create. "I think I did "Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts" and "Callisto", and then went back to do Not Fade Away," Scott recalls. "I`d now worked with the company a while and understood the parameters and what materials you could and couldn`t use. The Xena writing staff and I got along a lot better, so they let the reins go and finally let me do what I could do. And I think they saw the results of that."

For "Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts", the Xena art department not only built Scott an entire castle to move the camera around, but a full-sized Trojan horse as well! "There were lots of discussions about how big it was going to be," he explains, "and of course Rob Gilles would bring in these little four-inch tall models and say that this was what I was going to get and how I was going to have to shoot the whole thing with miniatures. That went on pretty much right up to the day the real thing arrived, and then it was like a big gift: here, you`ve graduated, now you can actually have a full-sized one!

"That was a really fun episode. I think it was the first time that I was really allowed to be let loose and show them a style that I thought Xena could have, just go with a moving camera and keep that show moving all the time. If you go back and look at "Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts", there are a lot of shots where people are walking along the top of the castle, down staircases and into the courtyard, all in one shot. We finally had room for the actors to walk and talk a lot, and they loved that because they could do stops and starts and move around."

Scott`s second Xena episode, "Callisto", introduced Xena`s homicidal nemesis, played by Hudson Leick. Scott had to pack a great deal of material into the episode, which actually took nine days to shoot. "Nine days is a rarity, and this was the first time they had done it," he explains. "I said I would do "Callisto" in nine days, but they could give me another episode and I would do it in five. So that was my trade-off. "Is There a Doctor in the House?" was originally supposed to be a six-day episode, so I said I would do it in five."

Scott was already in New Zealand when the producers began looking for the right actress to play Callisto, but was more than satisfied with their final choice. "We were all concerned about it, because of course Lucy has such a presence. So how do you find someone who looks like a worthy adversary for her? I got a call from R. J. saying, 'We found her, we found her!' Apparently, the second Hudson walked into the room and greeted everybody, R. J. and Rob Tapert turned and looked at each other and said, We found her!"

Also making his debut appearance in that episode was Ted Raimi as Joxer, the would-be warrior who also became a fixture of the series. "They had been looking around at different people and had even talked to Wallace Shawn, and I think they almost got into negotiations with him for the part," Scott reveals. "It came right down to the wire and Ted was free from his show, and all of a sudden, Ted was Joxer. That was the first episode for both of those characters, so I had a lot of fun working on the wardrobe for them and helping to create the characters through the wardrobe, especially Ted`s character."

Having been given nine days to shoot "Callisto", Scott now had to keep his promise and finish "Is There a Doctor in the House?" in just five, which proved to be no easy task. "It`s a full episode, and it was two days less shooting time than an episode had ever been done in," he explains, "so I took it as a challenge. Patricia Manney wrote a really good script, and understood that we had to do it in five days, she set it in a way that I could do it, keeping it essentially within one location.

"I made a big speech where I got everybody together at the beginning of the episode and said, `Guys, this is it. It`s a challenge for us, but I think we should take it and run with it. I`m not going to shoot this any differently than any other episode. We`re going to keep things moving, moving, moving, but it`s a big challenge.` And they jumped into it. I`ve never seen a crew move so fast; I think they saw it as a challenge to themselves as well."

The episode`s visceral subject matter turned out to be a source of some controversy, and Scott ultimately had to make some minor cuts before it would air. "When we were shooting it, my feeling was that we do nothing gratuitous, but show what Xena is doing with the same amount of blood and gore and factuality as an ER episode.

"Of course, our advertisers had a bit of a problem with things like the tracheotomy, where we showed the amount of blood that would be in a tracheotomy. There`s a scene where a guy gets a gangrenous leg cut off, and they swore that I cut off the leg and they could see it, but it was all in the sound design. To tell you the truth, the episode`s sound design was what made people squeamish, not what we shot. But we had to trim out about 30 seconds of material in the end. Rob fought hard to keep it the way it was, because we thought it was very close to reality, and we ended up losing. But I think the episode still hangs together."

One of Scott`s most outrageous efforts for the series was "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", in which Xena and Gabrielle encounter the evil Bacchus and his vampiric servants, the Bacchae. After shooting two days` worth of footage, the director went to Rob Tapert and asked if he could change the episode`s tone to stylised rock video horror. "I got the crew together and said, `Okay guys, here we go. This is going to be a lot more vampy and fun,` and cranked up the ghetto blaster with rock music and away we went."

Because of the episode`s subject matter, Scott was also able to push the envelope in terms of sexual content, along with the help of his leading lady. "When we started to set up the shot where Gabrielle bites Xena, Lucy said, `Come on, we`re not going to -` and I said, `Yeah, lets go for it!`

"I remember we did two takes that were on the edge of tasteful vampire sexuality, and we did a third take where Lucy really let loose. Of course, we all died laughing and said, `Okay, that one is never going to make it to the screen; we definitely pushed it too far!" I always try to push the limits and make things interesting, and this episode gave us a lot of opportunities to push the Xena limits of sexuality. But I think its a really fun one. We knew we were going to put it into the Hallowe`en time slot, where thematically, it really fit. If you pull it too far out of context and try to take it seriously, it`s a bit too rock video at times."

Scott was back into more serious territory with "The Return of Callisto", a hard-hitting episode featuring an epic chariot chase between Xena and Callisto. "That chase originally wasn`t in the script," he reveals, "but I pushed for it and said, `We need a big set piece in this episode. Why don`t we do a chariot chase, because there hasn`t been one on Xena for a while?` I`m always looking for something fun to do, some new action stuff, and I thought, `A chariot chase would be pretty cool!`"

The "Return of Callisto" finishes with a stunning scene in which Xena refuses to save her nemesis from quicksand, a scene still undecided right up until the end. "There were two schools of thought on whether or not Xena should try and save her, going right back to the very first writing of that episode, to the production meetings, to R. J. and Rob and I talking. It really wasn`t until we were on set filming it, and on a take where Xena was supposed to try and save her, that she didn`t. Lucy just stood there and watched her go, and then said, `That`s what Xena would do`. So it was sort of made right then. In the editing, we still had two versions, and we decided right at the end how we were going to do it."

After taking a break from Xena to work on a number of other projects including a feature film, Scott returned for the two-part "Adventures in the Sin Trade", with the Warrior Princess travelling into the Amazon underworld in search of Gabrielle. "It was one of those odd situations where I liked Sin Trade 1 but I didn`t really like part two," the director admits of the episode. "And from the feedback I got, people either liked one or the other but weren`t equally happy with both. I`m not a director who likes to do a lot of visual FX, and the second episode had a lot of visuals in it, whereas the first one was very grounded in reality. We shot it in a harsh climate and played out the gritty reality of it, which is what I like myself."

Ironically, the two-parter also featured the image of a crucified Xena and Gabrielle, which turns out to he the climactic event of the fourth season. "That was one of Rob Tapert`s `I woke up with a dream` shots," Scott laughs. "He said, `I want to end the season with this; how do we work the story around it?` He had a very clear idea of what that image was, and pitched it to R.J., who then had to work the story backwards from that. I didn`t have any of those headaches; I just had to deliver the image itself."

"Adventures in the Sin Trade"

turned out to be Scott`s last Xena episode for the time being, although he directed two episodes of the new Renaissance series Cleopatra 2525, one of which he co-wrote. "It`s very interesting," he notes. "You do two blocks, and, in theory, you have four days per episode. That works out to eight days an hour, which is okay, but sometimes you intermingle the two episodes between a shooting day, so people are jumping back and forth between two completely unrelated episodes." Right now, Scott is working on a new road thriller called Blacktop, after which he`ll fly back out to New Zealand to do another two episodes of Cleopatra, then return to North America for an episode of Kevin Sorbo`s Andromeda. Although he enjoyed his work on Xena, it seems unlikely he`ll return any time soon. "Once you`ve done something that was really good," he claims, "you don`t want to do an episode that`s not as good, so you`re always trying to top yourself. I find that I put a lot of pressure on myself and everyone else to make it better, and in television, you can`t always keep making every episode better. That`s just the nature of the beast.

"The one nice thing with Renaissance is they`ve always given me really good scripts on Xena, so I can`t complain about that."

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