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Rockne O'Bannon Interview Part 1      

Ratscape's picture of Rockne O'Bannon Illustration from Ratscape

transcript from scapecast  episode 50


Lindy rae

Hey, everybody, this is Lindy Rae, and I'm here today with Mr. Rockne O'Bannon in his virtual comfy chair.  So thanks for being with us today, Rockne.

Rockne

Thank you, and actually I didn't know it was a virtual chair, and I just fell on the floor, because it fell out from under me, so.... thank you for letting me know.  I was perfectly comfortable until you said that.

LINDY RAE

Okay.  So...are you comfortable now?

ROCKNE

No, I'm [unintelligable], thank you.

LINDY RAE

Okay.  [pause]  Rockne, we have a lot of new 'scapers out there who listen to the scapecast, thanks to the syndication of Farscape, and also word of mouth.  So the first thing I want to ask is for you to tell us a little bit about your relationship with Farscape.  Like, you're the Birth Father, right?

ROCKNE

It..uh...yes, I am, as a matter of fact. Yeah.  Farscape started back in the early 90's.  I think it was like '92 or '93, and, uh, got a call, and went in and met with, uh, Brian Henson of the Henson Company.  And Brian had just taken over the company from his father, who had just passed away, I think a year or two earlier.  And Brian was interested in creating a show that uh..an hour drama for television that could essentially show everything that the Henson Company was capable of.  So not just the muppetry, or the puppetry, but also, uh, they were getting into, you know, the early days of CGI, and uh..you know... all the kinds of things of the expansive nature and imagination on film that they were very much involved with.  So.  Um...talked with Brian.  He had a concept for something called "Space Chase".  I think they had a couple of pages that they had developed in-house.  It involved a cargo ship and the characters were going from one place to the other.  And there wasn't much there.  And I went away and kind of thought about it.  Brian knew there wasn't much there.  It was their start at trying to come up or think of a way to come up with a "ship show" of their own.  And essentially what Brian was talking to me about was, he said that he'd like to do..the easy short-hand was the cantina scene from Star Wars, because we're the Henson Company and because we can do animatronic characters, and etc. that aren't normally seen on television, and we'd love to bring that to a network.  And the cantina scene from Star Wars would be daunting to any other studio and was something that The Henson Company was anxious to try to effect. 


And so I went away, and just kind of noodled the idea and came back with the idea that essentially became Farscape, which was the idea of a man from earth rocketed across the galaxy, if not the universe, and um, essentially him being for the most part the only human being in it.  I figured, you know, if Brian wanted to do a show with a lot of creatures in it, I figured I would take him at his word and, uh, do a lot of creatures.  So, um, that became kind of the centerpiece of it.  So when I told this idea to Brian, he kind of swallowed a bit at first, but then immediately embraced it because Brian's very cool that way.  It was sort of like, it sounds tough, but we'll figure out a way to do it.  And that kind of became the beginning of it, and then we sold the idea to the Fox network. 


So I wrote the pilot script for the Fox network.  They liked the script.  The Henson Creature Shop did some maquettes, which are like clay, well not clay, but clay-like models of some of the characters so that we'd have something to show to the networks.  Examples of what the creatures would look like.  And we took the pilot script and those into the network and they really, really liked them, and wanted to order a pilot, but obviously, unlike a police drama, or a lawyer show, or a kind of more conventional television show, to do just a pilot of a science fiction show, and in particular, a show like Farscape, was prohibitively expensive, because, you have to build everything.   You have to build the space ship, you gotta build the interior of the ship, you have to build the exterior of the ship in CG, you have to, obviously, do all the creature prosthetics and all of that.  And to do that for an hour pilot that may not become a series is prohibitively expensive. So, we crunched the numbers and we told the networks that we thought we'd need essentially 11 episodes; an order of 11 episodes without a pilot in order to amortize the costs of creating all the elements of the show that were needed.  And that was kind of a big -- this is the Fox in kind of the early days of the network -- and the idea of ordering 11 episodes without a pilot was kind of daunting to them. So they kept kind of edging us along, obviously wanting to make that decision to trigger the 11 episodes. 

We, um, did three additional backup scripts, behind the pilot.  So we had four scripts altogether. And I brought in David Kemper, who ended up, obviously...er...I brought onto the show -- my first hire on the show -- to write two episodes, and I wrote the other two episodes.  So we had four scripts altogether and brought those to Fox.  And they still couldn't bring themselves to trigger the 11 episodes.  So we ultimately kind of parted company with Fox.  And Brian vowed that he would not let it die.


True to his word, he hung in there.  And we would every few months, or a yar or so, there'd be another network that Brian would get interested in, we'd dust off the maquettes and we'd take them scripts and go on in and pitch it to them.  And we'd just...um...you can tell by the dearth of science fiction ship shows on the air that networks tend to not want to buy into shows that take place in outer space.  so we just didn't find a market for it.


Then television came up with exactly what we needed, which was a network dedicated to science fiction.  When we finally went in to see them, it was 1968 or 69....I'm sorry, 1998 r 99.  SciFi had been on the air for just a few years, surviving on reruns of former science fiction shows, including several of mine.  Sequest would play on that, and Alien Nation.  So we went in and they read the scripts and liked them, and were looking for their first original series, to become kind of the glagship of The SciFi Channel.  So they bit.  They gave us an ofer for, actually, 22 episodes -- for a full season.  So it took like six, seven years from the time the pilot script was first written to the time when we were standing in a soundstage inside Moya filming the pilot.

LINDY RAE

That's perseverance.

ROCKNE

Yah.  It's um...like I say, that was all Brian.

LINDY RAE

Yeah.  So, which were the four scripts that were written for the into?

ROCKNE

Well, I'm trying to remember...okay, uh, obviously one was the pilot.  There was one that ultimately became -- I don't remember what it ultimately aired under -- but it was the lawyer show where they have to go down to a planet.

LINDY RAE

Oh, yeah.

ROCKNE

And again, that changed quite a bit from the script that we had written originally.  And then the other two or three were cannibalized kind throughout the run of Farscape.  There were elements of them we would use.  There was a terrific script that David Kemper wrote -- the first one he wrote for the show -- which was based on an idea he'd actually pitched to Star Trek next Generation, and they didn't buy it.  He'd pitched it a few years earlier, and it was an idea for a particular kind of creature.  and Star Trek didn't buy it.  And we went to lunch and he just happened to tell me the idea after he'd pitched it.  And I thought it was just a terrific idea.  So when I brought him onto Farscape later to do these backup scripts, I said the first story I want you to do is this particular one.  Unfortunately it was so...such a great idea, but such a daunting idea that we could never quite figure out how to pull that off.  We did a version of it in Farscape with the Budong.  The notion of the creature where they're kind of mining the inside of a being.  So there's a version of that.  so anyways, the only I believe we adapted and used many elements of was the Lithigara one, and the other ones bits and pieces of were cannibalized.

LINDY RAE

Is there any Farscape character that you really identify with personally?

ROCKNE

[chuckle] Well, obviously, when you write there's a little piece of you in everybody.  because to me that's the juice of doing the job is to kind of be able to put yourself into these situations and no matter who the character is and say, okay, what would I be thinking if I were int hat situation, if I were that person, and have that personality; how would I react to things.  Obviously John Crichton is very much a stand-in for all of us.  He's the guy from earth and very much the outsider who's having ot adapt and learn and prove himself anew almost every day.  So John, certainly.


I was really quite taken with the character of Aeryn and her growth through the series I thought was quite remarkable.  I could see the power of that even through the first season.  Seeing where she came from if you watch her in the premier episode and then you see her in the last episode of the first season.  One of the most touching moments in the series for me is in one of the last episodes of season one when Pilot informs them all that Moya is pregnant and he tells Aeryn that Moya would like her, Aeryn, to name the baby.  It's a combination of the situation and Claudia's amazing performance.  The expression, and the emotion she expresses in that moment, to me is just...I remember when I saw it first, I saw the dailies, and I saw the show, and it just chokes me up each time.  Just really really very effective.  So I'm really quite taken with Aeryn and the journey that she took.  And it wasn't an easy journey for her, and I think that made it very interesting, as well.


Crais also had a real interesting journey.  I thought that his arc, a much longer arc, obviously, through several season, which was really quite interesting.  And we put him through a lot of wringers.  D'Argo's plight, I thought, was terrific.  D'Argo, in particular, considering who he was, and the kind of straight-forward nature of him in the pilot, or the Premiere episode, portrayed all that there was deep in the heart of D'Argo.  All the kind of layers of him.  That really came out from a couple of things.  One was obviously the writers kind of dug into him and started to mine those depths.  But it was also Anthony's creativity.  Not only in the performance of it, but Anthony's a really creative guy.  I think he's directing now and he's really smart.  A film maker's head.  He and Ben both were incredibly valuable contributers, beyond just acting.  Anthony brought a LOT to D'Argo.  It's tough to do.  You're covered in a lot of prosthetic makeup, and a lot of performance can be buried, and there can be a tendency in actors to let the prosthetic be the character, or carry a lot of the heavy lifting of who this character is just by virtue of his look.  That wasn't Anthony.  Anthony was right in there digging for the character way beneath the surface look.


[chuckle]  Rygel.  I'm not just going down the list.  Probably what I was the most proudest of was how consistent he was.  Even though he, obviously grew to first tolerate, then...er...or maybe first be grudgingly dependent upon the others on the ship, and then to tolerate, and then to appreciate, and then ultimately to like and maybe love them, I guess.  What I was very proud of with Rygel was he always stayed true to his core nature.  I think that's one of the reasons why when you first see Rygel on screen in the Premiere, you also have the puppeteers who are operating Rygel learning, kind of getting up to speed on all that he can do and how best to create his performance, same with directors and all that.  but you also had, when you first saw Rygel, even for me, you're not used to seeing an animatronic like that as a important character on a TV series, so there's a little bit of a disconnect.  You're kind of "hey, I get it, but he's a pupet."  Because of the nature of Jonathon Hardy's performance, and the way Rygel was written, and the way Rygel was so consistent as a character, I'd like to think that very soon it drifted to the back of your mind that this is an animatronic that I'm watching and you really feel that you're watching a living being.

LINDY RAE

We are all totally able to do our suspension of disbelief thing.

ROCKNE

Yeah.  And Pilot, same thing.  I always thought Pilot from the very beginning was incredibly cool, because of his size, and his design, and all of that.  But again, in the first episode or two, you're kind of "okay, here are the human characters.  I get that.  And here's this giant animatronic creation."  And then because of the nature, and the heart that he had, and the personality he had, you totally forget that.  At least, I did, and I tend to think that's true of a lot of us.

LINDY RAE

Now did the actors who portrayed the characters -- it sounds like there was a lot of give and take between them and you and the other writers to help develop their story.  Did that happen from the beginning?  Or did that come later in other seasons?

ROCKNE

There wasn't a lot of hardcore contribution to the story or the story arcs of the characters.  I tend to find that actors, at least in my experience. often like to be surprised about where their character is going.  Not horribly surprised, though.  So they don't necessarily get involved on a story level.  But in terms of aspects of their character, and how they would react in certain circumstances and situations and that sort of things, which obviously then color the creation of story, very much.  That was one of the joys of this show.  When you're casting you never know what levels of chemistry you're going to find out of the group that you're putting together.  You're always worried that around the corner there might be person that was really perfect for that role that I just missed.  If you look at our show, it was one of those magical times - [which] don't happen that often - where we found a great group. A really smart group of actors.  The fact that all but Ben were Australians was, I think, a huge contributing factor, because I think they weren't steeped at all in the American television machine.  There's so much in the Australian arts, there's so much theater, and there's so much training, so their actors are all very classically trained.  I think that contributed hugely to the richness of their performances, and totally informed the show in a huge, huge, huge way.

LINDY RAE

And they're so much fun in person, too.

ROCKNE

[Laughing] Oh, they're just the wildest.  Australians in general, and our cast, very specifically.  They just a kick to hang with. 

LINDY RAE

When you were thinking about the show, you talked about how you developed the show.  I've heard you say that, like, bolder material gets more attention.  And one of the things that was said about Farscape was the story telling was pretty risky and that it didn't seem that you guys were worried about failing and were willing to push the envelope to tell different stories in different ways.  Who was really responsible for that willingness?  I mean, how did that come about?

ROCKNE

It's kind of one built on the other.  At the core of that, the set of people who could have obviously put the brake on that, was the network.   And if we were on another network, certainly a REGULAR network, not a cable network, and not the SciFi Channel, yeah, there was a ton of stuff that we did that would've gotten nowhere near the light of a television screen.  Again, we were in a period when cable was pushing into new ground and you could do kind of bolder things, and the next day the network executives didn't wake up to fifty phone messages on their desks complaining.  And they appreciated the fact that there was an opportunity for them to kind of push those envelopes and things.  So at the center of it is the network. 


It was a perfect time for David Kemper and me, because we had both worked in regular television a lot.  I think both of our tastes and talents were just ripe for the right moment where as we saw an opportunity and a premise that would allow for this kind of wilder stuff, we were ready to jump into it.  It was very telling to us, because when we would try to bring in American writers and friends that we knew, or people who had written for American television, the tendency very typically was to try to go back to the more familiar acceptable American television kind of thing.  I remember in the early days of the scripts I kept getting scripts in from these other writers and they were all trying to make John Crichton the de facto captain of the ship, and very much the man in charge.  I kept saying, no it's not, he's the exact opposite, he knows the least of how things operate.  He's not the guy who stands at the front, he's not, you know, by virtue of the fact that he's human, and our lead character, he's not the guy who, while everyone else is cowering on the command, wondering what do we do next, the one who steps forward and says this is what we do.  He's the exact opposite.  Everyone else is screaming what to do, and John's the one who knows the least of what to do. As I used to tell the writers, the one thing that John Crichton can bring to the party, is something that I think is inherently human, which is while everybody else is kind of chattering and coming up with different opinions about what we should do in this horrible situation, John is the one who's essentially willing to put the knife in between his teeth and dive into the pool of snakes.  He's the one who's kind of willing to leap in, even though he's not the one who's best suited or has the most knowledge of what's going on, or whatever the creatures are or the race that they're facing or the technology, and that sort of thing.  So the timing was just right for David and me to hook into that, and we just fed on each other.  We both "got" it. 


Then, in terms or performance, Mr. Browder is the bravest actor.  He would do things..and not only would do things if we asked him to, but would come up with wild things for Crichton to do.  He so embraced that.  You look at some of the episodes, and the things we had him do, and the costumes we put him in, and they weren't...they were all always...Ben certainly would never allow us, if we ever went off the beam slightly, would never allow us to go outrageous for outrageous sake.  It was always grounded in the needs of the story.  But Ben's boldness allowed us to take the stories into these really wildly off beat, or off the beaten path directions.  Ben would just grab it and embrace it.  One of the things that I wanted in the show from very early on and developed as one of the signatures of the series was that notion of all his pop culture references that he would make.  To me, as funny and cool as that is, it's fun to listen to, there's a solid reason for it.  I always pictured for John as his way to kind of stay in touch with earth.  If I make Monty Python references, or Spongebob, or Simpsons, or name it references, even if the people who I'm talking to don't understand it, it's helping me to keep a little piece of earth, a little connection to earth.  Believe me, the writers all had great fun coming up with those, and Ben would come up with a zillion of them himself. Many of the top Crichtonisms are Ben's own creations. 

LINDY RAE

Really.  What's your favorite?  Do you have one?

ROCKNE

If I thought about it, I could probably come of with a real favorite.  The one that turned a corner for me was probably at the end of season one, was an episode that Ricky Manning was writing.  Ricky, being the other American writer who came in very early on, and who just "got" it right away, and became a huge contributor to a lot of the mythos of the show and the tone of the show and all that.  And there was this episode in the latter part of the first season where Crichton was being subjected to the Aurora Chair.  And, when you're working in a writing room on a series, there's kind of two levels of conversation that goes on.  One is kind of what goes into the show, into the stories, and into the script.  But there's a whole other sub-level where you're kind of mocking the show at the same time.  So Ricky, for example, would continually refer to the Aurora Chair, which was originally intended to kind of save us some money by putting Crichton into the chair and torturing him; they'd be probing his memory for things that happened in the past, and we'd be able to use clips from other episodes and save us some money at the end of the first season.  Obviously, in the Farscape tradition, it didn't work out that way, and story was more important to us than savings.  But in the writing room, as we were developing this episdoe, Ricky kept referring to it as "the clip chair".  You know: "we get Crichton in the clip chair, and then we show some clips there", that sort of thing.  A shorthand, in a kind of snide way, mocking your own product.  I kept referring to it as "the comfy chair", from Monty Python.  When Ricky wrote the episode, I thought it was great, but I told him that somewhere in this episode I want Crichton to refer to "okay, go ahead and stick me back in the comfy chair".  I remember after the episode aired there was a nice flurry of appreciation on the blogs about the show for that.  Because it was such a wonderful little throw away, and to me that's the joy of it.  It doesn't have to be references that 98% of the audience gets.  Let it be something that 30% of the audience gets.  The other 70% isn't going to tune out because of this one line.  That 30% is going to really enjoy [it] especially well, because it's a more specialized, personalized reference for them.  So, it's certainly not my favorite, because it's not that great, but it comes immediately to mind because, again, in the development of the show, it was one of those turning points in the first season where Crichton's pop culture references were starting to become more pronounced and more signficant. 

END OF PART ONE

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