david j. moore chats with T.J. Scott about his new film Death Valley and his work on the small screen…
Long time stuntman, stunt coordinator, and director in his own right, T.J. Scott might best be known as a director for numerous television shows such as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, Cleopatra 2525, and more recently shows such as Gotham, Spartacus, 12 Monkeys, and The Strain, but he has a new feature film set to be released in theaters on October 20th called Death Valley. The suspenseful film stars his wife Victoria Pratt (Mutant X, Cleopatra 2525), and is set entirely in Death Valley. It centers around four characters stranded in the desert after they accidentally run over a woman with their car. Scott, who took a moment out of his busy schedule, discusses his career and shares his thoughts on his latest film.
You have an incredible list of credits to your name, T.J., but your first one is the best one: Breaking all the Rules. I love that movie!
(Laughing) Wow, that was a long time ago!
You started out in the stunt business and then you segued into directing. Talk a little bit about that.
I actually started out as an actor, and in the 80’s when all the big action people were doing their own stunts, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I fell into the business completely by accident. I had a fairly good stunt career for a short period of time. But always the goal was to direct. I was able to second unit direct a lot of stuff, and then I became a stunt coordinator, taking my second unit stuff into the main unit, and then everything came together.
Your first feature film credit was TC 2000, which was one of those 90’s action films with Billy Blanks and Bolo Yeung.
(Laughing) You know, I was very young. I took the first feature that was offered to me. I think we all learned a lot while we were making it.
You then started directing episodes of Hercules and Xena for Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi in New Zealand. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that?
That was a fantastic period. Sam and Rob were heavily into television with their Hercules series. They brought me on early in the series. Then they decided that it was going so well that they were going to spin it into another series called Xena. I jumped on board Xena and those were fantastic times. Shortly after that we did another show called Cleopatra 2525 and I did the pilot for Young Hercules. They had a film factory going and we all had a great time. We shot a lot of episodes of television in New Zealand, a fantastic place to work.
I was a big fan of Cleopatra 2525. What a fun show.
What was really cool about that show is that we embraced the cheese factor. We knew it was cheesy and that was the fun of it. We wanted it to be a little tongue in cheek. We wanted it to be Charlie’s Angels in the future. We embraced and had fun with the fact that we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. That was our goal with that series. We tried to film it as innovatively and interestingly as possible and break new ground with our filming techniques, which was always a Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert thing. Switch it up and shoot things the way people wouldn’t expect.
How did you not end up working on Jack of All Trades, the other show Raimi and Tapert produced at the same time?
It was shooting at the same time as Cleopatra, but at the time I was dating Victoria Pratt, and Cleopatra would shoot half the year, and the other half of the year Jack of All Trades would shoot. We actually just wanted to spend time together. After the season of Cleopatra was finished, we left New Zealand and went back to America and shot shows there instead.
You did some other shows like Mutant X and Spartacus, which was another Tapert/Raimi production.
Yeah, I directed the pilot for Mutant X. Jon Cassar, who became famous for becoming one of the executive producers on 24, was wanted to direct the pilot for Mutant X. Half of the producers on that show wanted him, and the other half wanted me, so we split the pilot between us. It was a two-hour pilot, and we flipped a coin to see who would shoot the first hour and who would shoot the second hour. It was a super fun collaboration with Jon. Of course, Victoria was one of the stars of it, so that was fun. Then when Spartacus came along, I was attached to a feature that didn’t ended up going, but I was offered episodes but couldn’t do them. So it was fantastic to jump into that show in the second and a half season. It was one of those shows I’ll take to the grave. It was so much fun to work on. So innovative.
Now you’re directing some episodes of some of the biggest shows on T.V. like Gotham, Constantine, and 12 Monkeys. You’re so busy doing episodics, but do you prefer doing features?
It’s a golden age of television right now. Everything we wanted to do as features 10-15 years ago now we can do as a T.V. series. I did some episodes of Orphan Black. It’s a story of a woman who has clones all around the world who come together. That totally would have been a feature, but now we’re doing it instead as a T.V. series. It allows us hours to explore the storyline. Gotham would have been a movie, but now we’re doing it as a T.V. series. Working in television is fantastic, and I absolutely love it.
What propelled you to do a movie like Death Valley where you filmed entirely in the desert? It looked like an uncomfortable movie to film, but at least you were surrounded by a cast and crew you knew and trusted.
Death Valley has always been a location I’ve wanted to film at. It’s my favorite place on earth. I feel at home there, which is bizarre because it’s so arid. There’re no plants, just dust and sand and boulders. The beauty is in its starkness. I wanted to write a movie to shoot in Death Valley. There are a lot of restrictions about shooting in Death Valley. You can’t go in with a big crew – they just don’t allow it there. It’s a state park. We created a storyline that would work with a very small crew. The actual shooting of it was fantastic. Both cast and crew were comprised of my favorite people to work with in the industry, people who have all won awards in their capacity. They were willing to work on a low budget picture. The low budget aspect of it was really fun because I’d just come off Spartacus where we were spending six and a half million an episode. So to do something that was small and where every little thing counted was really fun for everybody. Everyone on the project did three or four jobs on the film. We were out in the desert and were a tiny crew so everybody had to carry equipment. I was the writer, director, producer, and camera operator. Every night we stayed in Death Valley in a really cool resort and we went to the bar together and talked about how great the day was.
What’s next for you, T.J.?
Gotham just started airing again. I have two episodes of it that I just finished directing. I also did an episode of Damien. The next things to film are Bates Motel and then I go back to The Strain. I like it this way; I like being busy.
Any final comments about your movie Death Valley?
The idea when we were writing the script was to explore the idea that you never know people until you’re in a point of adversity with them. What we tried to create was interesting characters thrown into a life or death situation to see how they responded. We picked four actors as the leads who could nail everything right off the bat. It was really fun to see what they did with the material because it’s such a character-driven movie. There’s no stunts or special effects: It’s just acting. I hope people really enjoy it. It’s a ride.
Many thanks to T.J. Scott for taking the time for this interview.
david j. moore