Defiance stars Grant Bowler, Jaime Murray, Julie Benz, Jesse Rath, Stephanie Leonidas and Tony Curran and video game producer Rob Hill discuss the hit sci-fi series in this exclusive interview from San Diego Comic-Con 2013 by david j. moore….
SyFy’s television show Defiance has had a successful first season run, with an equally successful videogame launch from Trion Worlds. The show, which has run for twelve episodes, covered an enormous amount of ground, introducing dozens of characters – human and alien – all of whom shared a post-apocalyptic Earth as their home. Set in the rebuilding city-state community of Defiance, on the outskirts of St. Louis, the program focuses on a core group of humans and aliens who co-exist some years after an alien invasion rendered most of Earth a dilapidated ruin. Earth, a terra formed apocalyptic remnant of what it used to be, is now inhabited by aliens known as Castithans and Irathients, humanoids who have learned to adapt to Earth’s ways and customs. Plant and animal life has all but been rendered extinct, but the world is in a state of regrowth and rebirth, with humanity making peace with the alien species living amongst them.
The videogame, which launched two weeks before the first episode of the series, is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, which inherently compliments the television series in every aspect. Rob Hill, the senior producer at Trion Worlds, talks about making sure that the balance between the game and the show is equally complimentary and avoids being gimmicky: “It was a long conversation we had. We at Trion didn’t know shows. We do games. SyFy didn’t know what made a good game. We had to learn each other’s language. What’s important on both sides is taking those rules and adapting them. We knew before what the show really was that we wanted to do this transmedia thing. That was already taken care of. What we needed to do was try to figure out what the universe was really about and what kinds of stories we were going to try to tell – from the game side and the show’s side. What makes a great show, what makes a great game, what do we need on both sides? We wanted to make sure that one wasn’t being sacrificed for the other.” Hill goes on to elaborate: “Once we developed the universe pitch, then it was presented to the network by both of us. They loved it, and then we had to develop the beats of the show, and then we started to develop the beats on our side.”
The early stages of the show’s inception are somewhat removed from what actually ended up being produced. Grant Bowler, who plays the lead character in the program – a drifter named Joshua Nolan – explains that when he was approached to play the lead hero in the genesis of the show’s development, that the show was quite different than what it ended up being. “The script I read – and only I read – for the original pilot was much further along in the story. It was a beautiful script, by the way. My character had been in Defiance for seven years already. He had a human daughter. There was a whole bunch of different stuff. Irisa [played by Stephanie Leonidas on the show] didn’t really exist. It was a different story. It was like High Noon. He’d been around a long time, and now the trouble was coming.” He also goes on to say, “When the script was rewritten, it was written to be much younger. Nolan and Irisa come into town in the pilot, and the town was just getting going. They’re just starting to find themselves.” When asked how he feels about the final result of the first season in its entirety, he responds, “For my money, Defiance is still too established. If you’re going to hope for something, what are you gonna hope for? Equality, no racism … when we’re coming into Defiance, there’s a town council, there’s an ex-mayor, there’s the Tarrs [a family of Castithan aliens played by Tony Curran, Jaime Murray, and Jesse Rath]. We know what their talents are, we know their fears, and who they like to work with. Then we blow it up and make them start again. That’s the idea between season one and season two. We know them now. We start them as far from what they know and now we can go in that direction.”
The second season of Defiance promises to deliver whole new plot lines and intrigues. Rob Hill, who brings up the lull in between seasons of the show, addresses that the game is a viable option to continue the story. “We have this opportunity now where the show is stopped and the universe is continuing on in the game, which will help fire off season two. The characters – since they are on off-season – will show up in the game and will help inform what will happen in the next season.” On the topic of the second season, Jaime Murray, who plays the Lady Macbeth-fashioned alien character Stathma Tarr, is enthusiastic about the prospect of returning to the vast science fictional world of Defiance: “I’m really excited about the world we’ve created. How intricate it is. What I love about it is that we’ve constructed such a complex and interesting universe. It’s so fantastical, and really it’s just a backdrop for really relatable themes that we’re able to examine.” When pressed on what themes the show touches on, she answers, “There’s the theme of family, obviously, but the Tarr family is a very strange, weird, and wonderful family. We’re able to look at gender issues, we’re able to look at feminine issues and race issues. We’re allowed to look at the double standards of race issues and how they’re played, how ingrained in the underbelly of society they are. I think those themes that are bubbling away at our own society, we’re able to look at head-on in the sci-fi genre. It gives you a fresh perspective.” Julie Benz, who plays Amanda Rosewater, the Mayor of Defiance, chips in her excitement about starting work on the second season, “I’m looking forward to seeing a new Amanda. What her journey is going to be. At the end of season one, they stripped away everything from her character. At the beginning of season two, we’re all starting over. It’ll be great to see them at that point and how they got there.” She also points out that “Defiance has something for everyone,” and that “it’s the first show in many years that has brought aliens back to T.V.” Adding to that, she says, “I think it appeals to a great cross-section of people. There are strong and complex female characters on the show. And some of them are half-naked! So why not, right?” she laughs.
Jesse Rath, who plays the young alien character Alak Tarr, and Stephanie Leonidas, who plays the pivotal role of the Irathient surrogate daughter of Nolan, both relate the enormity of the practical set of the town of Defiance. “It feels like we’re actually working in the town of Defiance,” says Leonidas, “It’s an amazing set.” Rath adds, “We shot for about four months, and by the end of it, there were still little alleyways and doors that I had never seen or been down before. It was like, Oh, wow – there’s a whole street down here!” Leonidas laughs, “It was like a playground! The marketplace is full of real stuff. I would walk by the sellers and go, Oh, I’d buy that! Every little detail is amazing.” On the subject of detail, Rath and Leonidas bring up the alien races and their respective styles that differentiate them from amongst the rest. “Every race of aliens on our show all have their unique styles,” says Rath, “The Irathients are steampunk-like, and the Castithans are more stoic, regal-looking. It’s all very mathematical, even down to the language. The language is all written down like a mathematical equation. It’s cool to have all of these styles that are reflective of their races. It’s all very different.” The alien languages – both written and verbal – were created specifically for the program by David J. Peterson, who also came up with the Dothraki language on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Rob Hill mentions that “We give [David] dialogue that needs to be translated; we send it off, and he sends it back.” Jesse Rath stipulates that learning the alien languages is “hard,” and that “it takes a lot of practice.” Leonidas says, “It’s one of those things where you ask for your lines weeks ahead of time. Please give me those lines now! But it’s starting to feel like a second language.”
The post-apocalyptic genre is seemingly all over the place these days. Every week a new apocalyptic blockbuster is released to cinemas, and more than a few shows on contemporary television feature apocalyptic themes. Rob Hill explains why Defiance is set in the time and place that it’s in: “We went this way specifically because we really couldn’t do spaceships and stuff like that because it doesn’t sell. We wanted to do something that felt familiar, but alien at the same time. We didn’t want to do Mad Max or something like that, so we came up with the idea of terra forming, which was a combination of the familiar and the bizarre. It’s not a straight apocalyptic universe like Mad Max. It’s not a world that’s dying or dead … it’s actually in a period of regrowth. We didn’t want desolation and desecration.” Grant Bowler, who plays a Mad Max-type hero in the show, is enamored with the “used future” look and feel of the show. “I love it so much it’s crazy,” he says, “I love the character. I’ve never seen this world. It’s arguably an iconic western show, and it’s also arguably an iconic post-apocalyptic show. We’re being chased around by high tech steampunk-looking aliens in post-apocalyptic automobiles. Right? There’s no part of the show where it stops and goes, Okay, we’ve finished the western part of the show, now we’re going to do the science fiction part, okay, now hold on – we’re going to do the apocalyptic part of the show. It’s seamless. I’ve never seen that.” The movie Cowboys and Aliens starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig is brought up, and Bowler exclaims, “God knows I love Cowboys and Aliens – a fantastic movie – but the first half was the western half and the second half was sci-fi. And never the two shall meet. What I love about our show is that you can’t see the lines. We’ve got a western theme, but you never notice it. The mythology is so well executed that you just follow the storyline.”
Aside from the vast and undeniably unique universe Defiance creates and presents, the show is rich in its characters, both alien and human. Getting into character is a process that actors relish, and the cast of Defiance is no exception. Tony Curran, who plays the ambitious Castithan businessman Datak Tarr, describes his character as streetwise and cunning. “Datak is obviously from the gutter on his planet,” he says with a smile, “He’s working his way up; he’s reinventing himself on this planet. I’m looking forward to seeing him wise up a little bit. Instead of being spontaneous with his rage, I think he has to try to keep a lid on his wrathful nature. At the end of last season, it didn’t end so well for him.” Curran, who has costarred in macho films like The 13th Warrior, Beowulf and Grendel, and Underworld: Evolution, describes a history of watching classic gangster movies: “When I was growing up, I always liked the movies with Jimmy Cagney, things like Angels with Dirty Faces and White Heat. Datak is sort of a gangster. He has that persona. He’s a victimizer, but in many ways, I think he’s a victim of society. I’m not blaming society’s problems on him, but he’s a survivor. I’m not saying he’s right, but in his world and in his head, that’s the only way he knows how to behave, it’s the only way he knows how to survive. At the end of the first season, he let his nature get the best of him. He gets his ass kicked, and that’s fun to play.” Curran also goes into detail about the collaborative process of working on Defiance. “We’re free to email the producers when we have ideas,” he interjects, ” We have an idea box. No matter what anyone thinks of your ideas, we’re free to do that. It’s a collective process. Anybody’s allowed to collaborate. Anything can be added to the script. We do have to come up with our physicality, though. How do you play an Irathient? You have to come up with these things. By Monday morning, we have to come up with a spiritual movement like crossing yourself or something. How am I going to come up with something that looks alien? Trying to find the subtleties about my character … that’s what it’s all about.” Other actors in the show talk about their time getting into make-up and costume. Jaime Murray says with a gleam in her eye, “I’m painted from my tippy toes to the tip of my head, so that’s a process, having four paintbrushes in every area of my anatomy at the same time. Then I put on long, flowing clothes to cover my body. It takes a long time. It takes two hours,” she says. “But a lot of actors take about two hours to be ready for the red carpet, so from start-to-finish, it’s actually not that much longer than getting into normal make-up. I definitely feel different, though, when I look in the mirror when I have all that make-up on.” Jesse Rath says something along the same lines, “I relate it to like being a superhero and suiting up. You feel like you’re in armor. I get a kick out of it. You don’t feel complete unless every little detail is done.” He adds, “Sometimes you walk by a mirror and catch a glimpse of yourself and you forget, and you’re like, Wow! It’s awesome.” When Julie Benz is asked if she appreciates not having to put make-up on to help create her character, she laughs: “I’ve done my time in the prosthetic make-up world. It’s nice to be one of the last to arrive on set and then one of the first ones to leave. I’m very thankful.”
As season two of Defiance prepares to produce new episodes this summer, fans can sit back and enjoy the videogame or bide their time while watching the first season all over again. What makes this show and its companion game so compelling is that as its universe continues to open up and allow viewers and players to enjoy a sense of exploration, the themes within them are still universal and relatable. While the post-apocalyptic genre perpetually renews itself through film, literature, and videogames, consumers have a viable and safe bet with Defiance.
david j. moore is a contributing writer to Fangoria, FilmFax, Lunchmeat and VideoScope Magazines. His book WORLD GONE WILD: A SURVIVOR’S GUIDE TO POST-APOCALYPTIC MOVIES will be published in late 2013.