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FARSCAPE: Directing the Future

An interview with directors Andrew Prowse, Tony Tilse, Ian Watson and Rowan Woods.

By Anna L. Kaplan     January 01, 2001

Farscape never ceases to surprise and amaze its viewers. One of the things that helps keep them off guard is the creators' determination to avoid a 'house style,' or a usual way of presenting each episode. It's common for different writers to add their own points of view to the mix with their scripts. But, equally important, various directors bring their personal styles of filmmaking to each production. Rather than asking numerous directors to rotate through, act as technicians as they often do on television shows and then move on, executive producer David Kemper has made it a point of bringing directors into the production and keeping them there.

While there have been some directors who have just directed one or two episodes, including executive producer Brian Henson, and this year, Catherine Millar, Farscape has retained four key directors throughout the show's run, including the upcoming third season. Each comes from a different background and brings different experiences and preferences to the show. This helps assure that each episode is more like a little movie than television's typical episodic fare.

'People should just make a mental note of who wrote the episode and who the director was,' says Kemper. 'If you start looking, you will notice that the same four directors are directing every episode. They do them over and over and over and over. That's why the show is consistent, and that's why the show looks so good, because we have a core group of writers, and four guys direct[ing] these shows.

'Go look at Rowan Woods' pieces. They are slightly different. Look at Tony Tilse's pieces. He has his own signature style. Look at Andrew Prowse. Look at Ian Watson. Those are our four main directors. Look at what they do. Each one is slightly different, because each man brings a different way of interpreting the material, and yet they are all Farscape. But the fans need to realize that the people, the creative team behind [it all], is very much a part of Farscape.'

Andrew Prowse

Andrew Prowse, who has directed both Australian feature films and television, directed Farscape's premiere episode. He is also an associate producer who helps shepherd each show through post-production. Kemper notes that as a director, Prowse tells unrelenting, forward-moving, large stories. Among others, he directed the pivotal episode 'DNA Mad Scientist,' in which Zhaan (actress Virginia Hey) was willing to cut off one of Pilot's arms in order to get a map home.

'What 'DNA Mad Scientist' did for the show made everyone sit up,' says Prowse. 'As long as we can keep screwing around with things and making them different for ourselves, it's going to continue to be fresh. Where we chopped off Pilot's hand, that was a great debate. That's a sort of example of shocking people. We set up a character that's saintly, and then turn her on her head. There is a fair bit of that that goes on. As we set up Rygel as a greedy little scumbag, Rygel will do something nice and surprise the hell out of you. We set up Captain Crais [Lani Tupu] as a villain, and Captain Crais is going to come to the rescue here at some point.'

During the first season, Prowse also directed 'Rhapsody In Blue' and 'Bone To Be Wild.' In the second season, Prowse directed the opener, 'Mind The Baby,' the episode 'Picture If You Will' and first unit on the three-part 'Look At The Princess.' Of the three-parter he says, 'There's elements of tragedy and comedy. It's a ripping yarn. It started out as a double ep[isode], and we had a lot of stuff left over that was really interesting. We felt like we could have expanded on the major part of the stories, so we decided to make it into a triple. The middle of the triple has one of my favorite sequences I have ever shot in my life, [in which Cricton escapes from Braca and the alien ro-NA, and the trap set for him aboard a Jakench ship orbiting the Royal Planet].'

As associate producer, Prowse also oversees the show's visual effects and post-production. 'I think that's what I like most about CG, is when you take it on board and accept that it just exists, making the show real,' says Prowse. '[In] Farscape Episode One, the premiere, the space shuttle stuff in space is all created. [For] the lift-off we pinched some NASA footage. But once we are in space, everything is built. If you really look carefully and you see the shuttle take-off, it's named after a suburb I was living in at the time. Columbia got changed. The things that I like about the CG are the ones that sometimes you don't even notice, things that you just take for granted, like the very opening shot of the premiere when you see the shuttle over the horizon. You just accept it. There, we are in Florida. You don't even think about it. But that's an add-on, because we weren't in Florida.'

Ian Watson

Although he has directed other television projects, Ian Watson's background is primarily in theater. According to Kemper, he likes to tell character stories and get inside people's heads. 'For me personally, the joy of something like Farscape is essentially the quality of those actors and the material,' says Watson. 'The special effects I see as a side line to the whole thing. My personal interests are just mainly in actors and the text.'

'There are four directors in rotation most of the time, so every fourth script tends to become yours,' adds Watson. 'Often they'll move things around to accommodate certain directors, to give us continuity of work. But by in large it's luck of the draw.'

Kemper says that sometimes they give certain directors scripts that seem best suited to their preferences, and at other times give them very different scripts just to see what they will do. One way or the other, Watson got to envision both the conception and birth of Moya's baby when he directed 'They've Got A Secret' and 'The Hidden Memory.' One of his favorites, though, was 'Through The Looking Glass,' in which Moya was split into multiple dimensions, because the characters behaved differently in each dimension. The various realms were marked by different colors and sounds.

'In the sound world, I actually had that noise on set,' laughs Watson. 'As the actors were playing the scene, I had this noise cranked up really loud, with speakers all around them, so it would give the sense of the pain and the torture that was going on in the blue world. It added to the quality of the acting. They didn't particularly like it, but that didn't stop me doing it.'

In the second season, Watson directed the Zhaan-centered 'Dream A Little Dream,' as well as the demented 'Crackers Don't Matter' and the body switching 'Out Of Their Minds.' All of the actors say that Watson helped make possible their performances in 'Minds,' which required theater-like rehearsal.

His last script for the second season was 'The Locket.' 'There is an episode where it settles down again into a small, conventional, emotional story,' says Watson. 'The most pleasing thing the producers can see in any episode is that it is vastly different from any other episode, the theory being that as soon as the fans start to expect a certain type of Farscape, then we should change it. If one episode can be vastly different from the next then that's good, so we can't really be defined as a type of television. More so, we are defined by different views on different types of storytelling. It's harder for us, but that's good.'

Tony Tilse

Tony Tilse joined the Farscape group of directors with the first season's 'PK Tech Girl.' Kemper says that Tilse films rollercoaster-ride episodes, and that he's nicknamed 'Tony Woo' after Hong Kong action director John Woo. In addition to 'PK Tech Girl,' Tilse has directed 'Till The Blood Runs Clear' and 'Vitas Mortis.' His visual style can be seen in the cliffhanger 'Family Ties,' 'A Bug's Life' and 'The Way We Weren't.' He introduced Chiana (Gigi Edgley) in 'Durka Returns.' He also directed 'Beware Of Dog' and 'The Ugly Truth,' as well as second unit for the 'Look At The Princess' trilogy and the third part of the upcoming three-part 'Liars, Guns, And Money.'

'I came on to do one episode, strangely enough,' says Tilse. 'I was only going to do 'PK Tech Girl,' and I was going to go off. I've stayed on since then because I've sort of got hooked on the show.

'One of the joys of doing Farscape is the fact that we try and push that area of character,' adds Tilse. 'I think that the show is about character. Even though we explore much more traditional sci-fi themes, I think the emphasis has always been about character and exploring the complexity of character.'

When asked directly about who killed the Salis character in 'Durka Returns,' one of the show's long-standing mysteries, Tilse prefers not to give an answer. 'Part of it is not to try and answer every question,' says Tilse. 'In life, every question doesn't get answered. I think there are questions that never get answered, and you may not know the answer to those until years later. Part of Farscape is that we try not to answer all the questions every episode. It gives us the opportunity to answer more questions later on. It gives us much more freedom.

'I've been working on the show now for a long time, and we've been able to get early drafts of the scripts. We may know where the plots are going, ten episodes ahead, or even more, twenty episodes ahead. You realize, I can now seed that idea in my episode that I am doing at the moment. It may just be a look, it may just be a moment, but we can help the motivation of the characters even more. We can actually seed little moments, little beats, little interesting things, knowing what's coming up.'

Rowan Woods

Rowan Woods comes from the world of feature films. He won the Australian Film Institute award for best director for the 1997 film The Boys. Kemper says that Woods creates worlds, and tells great Farscape stories that look big, like features. He directed 'Back And Back And Back To The Future,' and 'Thank God It's Friday, Again.' He did both of Crichton's fantasy returns to Earth, 'A Human Reaction' and 'Won't Get Fooled Again.' He introduced Wayne Pygram's Scorpius in 'Nerve,' directed 'Taking The Stone' and 'A Clockwork Nebari' and finished of the second season with the upcoming finale 'Die Me Dichotomy.'

'From a director's point of view, David [Kemper] has strategically stayed away from a house style,' says Woods about the way Farscape is made. 'Every episode has an angle from the writers that, given its due, demands that we treat every episode stylistically as a one-off. One episode you'll be preparing to shoot an old Western, the next minute you'll be preparing for quite a cerebral piece of sci-fi, and the next week you'll be doing a very romantic, old-fashioned love story.

'We just have license to adjust our visual style to whatever the script presents, which is a great luxury actually, and great fun, because you are not continually bound and bored. Most sci-fi and sci-fi-fantasy, according to the logistics and the financial aspects of shooting, usually ends up bound by one particularly dominating visual style that has to carry through, just for financial reasons, apart from everything else. But this show manages to have avoided that particular trap. I think it's a good thing, because it keeps us on our feet; it keeps us interested and excited. Obviously it keeps the fans interested as well.'

'That ethos that surrounds Farscape,' adds Woods, 'is really a credit to David and [creator] Rockne [S. O'Bannon], who basically made the big calls. They prod the writers to go to those places, and they construct moments that are brave and adventurous for the writers. They actually sometimes push us to places that maybe we didn't think that we could go to. I've never, ever had executive producers who actually prod me to go a more adventurous place than I have previously. That's really unusual in TV. You usually get an executive producer saying, 'You've just gone a little bit too far there, Rowan.' I get that a lot.

'In my preparation and for my planning for the way to shoot the scene, I'll have softened my approach. As I am describing it to David, he'll go, 'Why have you softened it?' That's a pretty cool situation to be in, if you are a director. It also represents a huge challenge. Lucky I like challenge. Once you set up a successful show that has no house style, that does something different every week or almost every week, then you set yourself up for a ride that has to continually surprise. That's why you couldn't really have anyone else but Kemper to helm the show. The show just couldn't survive in any other hands.'

Farscape returns from hiatus with 'Liars, Guns, And Money: A Not So Simple Plan,' directed by Andrew Prowse, on Jan. 5, 2001. The third part of the trilogy, airing Jan. 17, is called 'Plan B' and is directed by Tony Tilse. Rowan Woods directed the season two finale 'Die Me Dichotomy,' which is scheduled to air on Jan. 26 on the Sci-Fi Channel.


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