April 2001 by Joe Nazarro
OUT ON THE FARSCAPE
When Farscape first debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel, viewers didn’t know what hit them. The quirky series , about a group of aliens (plus one human) thrown together aboard a living ship, was rewriting genre rules on a weekly basis. Instead of the traditional humanoid aliens, characters now came in all shapes and sizes. The main cast members not only fought and insulted each other; they also fell into bed together. Guest stars could suddenly become regulars, and they could just as quickly die. The only rule seemed to be this: Folks, there are no rules.
The man behind the madness is David Kemper, a veteran of SF projects past who’s now having a blast turning the genre on its head. As Farscape’s executive producer, Kemper oversees the show’s Australian production as well as supervises two different writing staffs in two hemispheres.
On this particular afternoon, Kemper is back in LA during the break between seasons two and three (the latter of which begins airing on Sci-Fi March 16). But Farscape is never far from his mind.
It was writer-producer-creator Rockne S. O’Bannon, in fact, who in 1993 brought his old pal Kemper back to work on a new series (then called Space Chase) with Brian Henson. “I knew about the pilot from the beginning, because I was good friends and shared an office [with O’Bannon]. I knew what he was writing. I had just come off seaQuest and was doing the third Voyager episode when Fox said to him, “We’re interested in your series, but we would like to see four back-up scripts and we want them in two months!” That was just impossible, so he said, ‘I’ll only do it if David can do it too.’ They said, ‘We don’t give a shit who does it, just get somebody to do it.’ So Rock and I sat down together and he schooled me on what he wanted the series to feel like.
“We wrote four scripts, which were good enough for Fox to say, ‘We’ll pick you up.’ But they would only pick us up for 13 episodes. The Hensons couldn’t afford that, because it would have broken the company just to build the creatures and the sets from scratch for those 13, so the series languished for a while. Eventually, Brian called Rock and said, ‘Get ahold of Kemper, we think we sold it to Sci-Fi!’ and back into the fire we went. The initial discussions were in December ’93. Rock and I began working on those four stories in earnest in January ’94.”
The Sci-Fi Channel picked up the series, now called Farscape, and opted to shoot in Australia in order to enlist another co-production partner. This meant somebody had to go with the show and live Down Under. Kemper finally “volunteered.” “Initially, it was going to be Rock and me, and we went down there several times together, but the issues of moving a family to Australia are enormous. My wife and I don’t have kids, but he has two kids. That made a huge difference in whether or not he could be down there.
“Our writing staff was originally based in the United States, and Rock said, ‘You know, someone is going to have to stay here with these people, because they’re new. We have to teach them what to do.’ We had this great friendly argument for two hours, and eventually I said, ‘Oh, all right, you bastard!’ And that was it, down to Australia I went.”
One of Kemper's first responsibilities was to assemble another group of writers to complement the staff already in place in America. "We basically did the same thing you do everywhere: You interview people and you try to make it work. In America, we had four writers in the first year, and we found Ricky Manning. We decided to keep him, and got rid of the others. In Australia, I went through four different writers before I found one, Justin Monjo. That's it right now, and we're in our third year, still trying to go through new writers.
"It's a very difficult show to 'get.' We had several people who came in last year-two Americans and two Australians-and they all treated the series as if it was a cartoon. We had people pitch us things like, 'Crichton has to stop this alien, because he has this device that will destroy the universe.' We would say, 'OK, that's great. You come from comic books, right?' Crichton's enemy might have a device that will destroy Moya, or maybe the alien has a device that destroys a transport pod, but we don't build universe things. That's not the way it is. One person said, 'This guy has strength, and he can lift a whole planet above his head!' and we went, 'OK, maybe he can lift a car above his head.'
"The series has a realistic air, which we preserve jealously. The people who get it, like Manning and Monjo, have wonderful careers and will be with us forever. The people who don't get it, sorry. It's like fantasy-they're dealing with fantasy and we're trying to make this as real as possible. Within the show's guidelines, everyone behaves realistically. You believe that you're on a living spaceship, and Crichton doesn't say, 'Bullets can't hurt me, ha ha ha!' He says, 'Holy shit, I hope I don't get hit by a bullet!' "
The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of O'Bannon-who, upon learning of this STARLOG interview, responds by standing outside the office and barking loudly in order to wind up Kemper's dogs.
This unwanted canine chorus brings up an obvious topic: People who recognize the value of a good joke. "Well, Rock is really funny," agrees Kemper. "I'm pretty funny and Manning and Monjo are hysterical. It's easy. Sometimes we get people-I won't mention names-but we had some people last year who were what we called 'the enemies of comedy.' There wasn't a chance in the world that they would write a joke. Even they knew it. They would put things in and say, 'That didn't come out good, did it?'
"The truth is, Rock would have a hard time, as would I, having a conversation without seeing the humor or the irony in something. We comment as an aside to each other al the time. We've matured as writers. We're not kids, and we're not afraid to put it out on he table. When we see something ironic, we say, 'That's pretty stupid!' That's the trick. It's just who we are, and Rock's pilot was rife with it. That's just the natural way he writes. We looked at it and decided that was the show's tone. We would rather be doing something with humor in it than not, so that became part of the show's signature."
Needless to say, there's no point in filling a script with humorous asides unless there are actors who can deliver those lines with panache. "And it's not just the cast members, it's the directors," asserts Kemper. "Australia's the country of irony; they get it. The directors get it, and some of our actors are brilliant, particularly Ben Browder, who is the funniest man in the world and gets everything. Some of the other people aren't as natural at it, but they're learning, and the directors get it so much that they won't let the actors let a good one go by. They're always looking for the thing that makes you smile."
Kemper adds that the show's humor is never done with a wink to the camera. "It's always done on the fly. We're always throwing things away. In the 'Look at the Princess' trilogy, for example, you know the middle one, where Crichton does the space walk? That was one act, one scene, but it would be an ending for most other shows. They could not even mount that on most shows, but that would be their finale. For us, it was the end of act three. We just threw it away and then act four had other stuff going on.
"Many times, Ben has asked me how he should deliver a line, and I will say, 'It would be great if you could deliver this line with your back to the camera, almost like you were walking out of the scene. You're not trying to make a joke, it just slips out.' It's the same way we all make a snide comment when a person leaves the room, like, 'That's a great looking dress!' It's a throw-away, not meant to be a big yuckity-yuck. The people who get it, get it. The people who don't are no worse off. That's what Rock did in the pilot; he made the jokes smart, and if you don't get some of them, it's not hurting you."
As a groundbreaking space series, Farscape isn't afraid to flaunt its alien nature, featuring a wealth of bizarre-looking characters. Unlike the traditional Star Trek model, where aliens are generally humanoid in shape, the denizens of this series, realized with a combination of make-up, animatronic and puppeteering techniques, are truly otherworldly. "That goes back to Rock and the Hensons saying, 'The Creature Shop is here, and we're going to use it.' Let's not have everybody be a two-legged man wearing a rubber mask. Rock has com pared this to looking at the Star Wars cantina scene week after week. You don't know what's at the next table until you get into those shadows and look, and you might be surprised. They don't all have two legs, wave five fingers at you or say, 'Hello!' "
By the end of Farscape's first season, the writers had made two major additions to the regular cast. Joining Crichton, Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), Ka D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe), Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan (Virginia Hey), Rygel (voiced by Jonathan Hardy) and Pilot (voiced by Lani Tupu) were Chiana (Gigi Edgley), a troublesome Nebari teenager, and the recurring villain Scorpius (Wayne Pygram). "We had tried several times to create characters throughout the year," explains Kemper. "You always want to create great, wonderful characters who stand on their own-ones that you can use over and over. You want someone so compelling that the audience thinks, 'Wow, how great they are!'
"With Chiana, we just knew if we could get the right actress, we could write a great part that would sustain itself-for how long, we didn't know. What we ended up with is a girl who's so phenomenal that you couldn't write her out of the show, so she stayed. The same thing happened with Scorpius: he was so good that everybody said, 'Wow, this guy is good!' So we kept him."
In order to wrap up the first season with a bang, O'Bannon and Kemper teamed up for a multi-episode storyline that culminated with the cliffhanger "Family Ties." "As the series went on, we found that people were responding both to the stand-alone episodes and those of a serialized nature, so we called the Sci-Fi Channel and said we wanted to do a two-parter. They were a little nervous about it, but once they saw it, they said, 'OK, more two-parters.'
"The Sci-Fi Channel wants the same thing we want, which is the best show, what- ever that ends up being. So how do we make the best show we can? We 're figuring it out as we go. We just do what we do, and if something works, that's what the series will steer towards. If it doesn't work, we don't. If we find a guest actor who works, we bring him back and make him part of the group. If they don't work, they're gone. The same thing with writers and directors: If we can't find a writer who works, we get another writer."
Once the series had been established, the producers began to cut loose in the second season. As Kemper elaborates, "One of the things we wanted to do was be shocking and outrageous when we could, and we're doing that-not gratuitously shocking, but we want to surprise the audience. We don't want to do a show where halfway through the episode, an audience can say, 'Oh yeah, I know how this is going to end.' In the 'Look at the Princess' three-parter, everybody was guessing, 'Oh, Crichton and Aeryn are going to kiss at the end, and they'll be compatible.' They were right, but they were so busy focusing on it that nobody paid attention to the fact that Crichton was married and has a kid.
"The same thing happens in episode 14; the audience focused on certain things, but the clues were also there to solve all the puzzles. Everyone was so focused on the things that they wanted to be focused on, that most of them missed some things that will surprise them at the year's end. If they had just paid attention to a little more, they would have gotten the whole thing. It's fine, though, because they'll get it on the second viewing. Once they get to the end, they'll say, 'Oh darn, those smart bastards tricked us!' "
One of the series' most eye-opening aspects has turned out to be the shipboard romances. There's the relationship between Crichton and Aeryn, of course, but the writers have had even more fun putting D' Argo and Chiana together for a few passionate interludes. "We're all just normal people and we sit there and say, 'Man, if you put six people in an enclosed environment for a year, and they're attracted to each other, isn't something going to happen?' Just like real life, it would, so we're doing it. Rock has always said he wanted this show to be gritty and real, real, real! Well, part of reality is that people have feelings, and they lust after each other, have sex and argue. They feel and they bite each other's arms in a fight; that's how it goes, so that's where we're going."
If viewers were surprised by some of the events in Farscape's second season, they've been blown away by the final four episodes, which killed off one main character and left another in a state of terrifying vulnerability. "We needed a big ending for the season," says Kemper, "and that was to rob a bank. I knew right away that to make it a three- parter, we had to keep it simple in a story sense, so the first part was, 'We robbed the bank and got away with it; aren't we smart?' And then we figure out, maybe we're not so smart because Scorpius was a step ahead of us, and he sabotaged the money, and now it's going to kill us. So the second part is, 'OK, we robbed the bank and now they know who we are. We can't sneak in again because they're waiting for us, so we've got to recruit people to help us knock the door down.' And then the third part is, knock the door down, just blow the bank to smithereens.
"Along the way, I realized that we were going to fall into a dilemma where we only had one episode to go. I didn't have the idea for Aeryn's death yet, I just knew that Crichton's brain was going to be out, and I had the idea of the surgeon-all of that had been in my head for months.
"Once I knew that the three-parter was looking good, I went home for 10 days and wrote the season ender, and that's when I thought, 'You know what? I'm going to kill Aeryn! That will surprise them!' Having a hole in Crichton's brain is one thing, but having a hole in Crichton's brain and having Aeryn dead, that's a whole other thing. So I thought, 'OK, this will really freak people out!' and that's exactly what we did."
With the Olympics now a memory, production on season three has resumed in Australia, while back in LA, the writers have begun hammering out the season's major story points. "We know the first 10 stories, and we also know the end of the year, so that allows us to build in all those moments that people can go back to later and say, 'Ohhh!' The only way you can do that is if you know where you're going.
"Up until now, John Crichton has had two goals that go hand in hand. The first, as stated in the opening credits, is 'I'm just looking for a way home, but you have to stay alive in order to accomplish that, so his second goal is staying alive. This year, he'll develop another goal that's equally compelling. Something will happen over a period of time that changes his path to what he wants, or what he thinks he wants. That's the big issue this year: what does John Crichton want, and how will he go about getting it? And then we hope, as we always do, to come up with some surprises that people don't see coming."
As Farscape moves into its third year,
O'Bannon has taken a step back to become creative consultant, and the
show has become Kemper's to shape. "I was in Australia the whole
time, and Rock was back here all through the first year. In the second
and third years, he hasn't been day-to-day with the show. I talk to him
all the time and he's so integral to how I do things, but in terms of
running the show, I've been doing it solo for over a year. In the second
year, all the stories were mine, and Rock became a consultant, so he
didn't work with the other writers, and didn't even like some of the
stories. He would tell me he wouldn't have done something, and I would
say, 'You're welcome to come back and help.' Until they fire me,"
David Kemper smiles, "I'm in charge!"