Sci-Fi Mastermind Rockne S. O’Bannon on Defiance, Farscape, Cult, and the Coming Revolution

Rockne S. O'Bannon | Defiance | Farscape | Revolution | Cult | Science Fiction
Rockne S. O'Bannon
I still remember watching an episode of the revamped “Twilight Zone” back in 1985, white-knuckled as the silhouetted killer from under the bed prepared to finish off the one kid who was supposed to be immune to the carnage of the Shadow Man. It was my first experience with Rockne O’Bannon’s addictive brand of storytelling, though I didn’t know it at the time — and given his long list of science-fiction creations, you’ve probably enjoyed one or two yourself. I’d still never heard of him when the honor students at my high school polled A.P. English class about whether the Newcomers on “Alien Nation” should have the right to vote. Yet by 2004 when “Farscape”‘s fans had amassed enough clout to bring their favorite space chase back from the dead, O’Bannon had earned an international reputation for crafting the kind of mythos that gathers a cult following.

Thus well versed in television fandom, in around 2006 O’Bannon conceived of “Cult,” an experiment in metafiction, a TV show about a TV show (also called “Cult”), whose rabid followers are being recruited into a mysterious cabal. After a series of development snags, including the collapse of The WB Network, the show finally debuted back in February on The CW. Though its symbols, clues, and repeating phrases — including the curious “Well hey, these things just snap right off” — were left frustratingly unreconciled upon its cancelation, “Cult” remains a unique moment in television.

Playing the dual roles of Billy Grimm, the villainous cult leader, and Roger Reeves, the actor who portrayed him, was real-life actor Robert Knepper, who himself is best known as the sadistic and perversely charismatic villain T-Bag on “Prison Break.” When I contacted him to ask about his experience working with O’Bannon, he let me know how grateful he was for the opportunity to play both Grimm and Reeves. “For me, they were the antidote to T-Bag,” he relates. “To play the monster, as well as the actor who plays the monster, mirrored my real life since ‘Prison Break’ days. My relationship with Rockne began with ‘Cult’ and will last a lifetime.”

“Cult” had received its green light, much to O’Bannon’s surprise, while he was hard at work developing “Defiance,” Syfy’s new flagship swashbuckling, alien-steeped action-adventure, which — in a groundbreaking move — was tied in from day-one with a multiplayer online game. And now that “Cult” is in the rear view and “Defiance” is in the capable hands of showrunner Kevin Murphy, O’Bannon is on to his new gig as executive producer for season two of NBC’s post-apocalyptic “Revolution,” which premieres September 25th.

I first met O’Bannon about 15 years ago in my PR days when I accompanied him to an interview on public radio’s science-fiction program “Hour 25,” and again at Comic Con 1998 where — thanks to some unexpected scheduling — everyone on the team had gone home but me, and I ended up presenting the very first “Farscape” trailer.  We kept in touch through the years, though it had been at least a decade since I’d seen him when we met up for this interview at Stefan’s at L.A. Farm in Santa Monica a few weeks back.

When you were asked to develop the “Defiance” universe, what did they give you as the premise that you had to run with?
They knew they wanted to have some sort of town with aliens and humans intermingling, but the other versions they had were all a little more amorphous, and I looked at it and said, I’d love to do something that takes on the classic tropes of the John Ford Westerns and television Westerns. I thought that was a great starting place for this, but not to play it like a Western at all. As I kept saying to everybody in production and to the writers — this isn’t retro. They’re not reverting to the 1860s. It’s 30 years in the future, but it’s a world where technology has been churned under, for the most part, or at least conventional technology. I came up with the idea that the town of Defiance is built on top of the old St. Louis. St Louis is down under us, so the St. Louis Arch, we’re not seeing the whole thing — we’re really only seeing the top portion of it. But it gave us opportunities for stories that would allow us to go down into subterranean St. Louis. And then there was Nolan as the sheriff. The different races were already established by the game folks, so then it was just a matter of plugging in who was doing what. The Tarrs — Datak, and Stahma who is the Lady Macbeth. I was involved for the first nine months and brought in the staff — and in the meantime, Mark Pedowitz took over The CW and he was aware of the script for “Cult” from when he was at ABC, and the first pilot he ordered as the new president was “Cult.” So suddenly I get a call saying the CW wants to produce “Cult” as a pilot, and I was in the enviable and not-so-enviable position of having two shows, both of which I loved, in front of me. “Cult” was my baby, so Syfy was very cool about letting me go. Kevin Murphy, whom I had hired as my number two, an experienced showrunner, himself, has done a fantastic job [taking over “Defiance.”] So I transitioned over onto “Cult.”

Did you have any part in the casting of “Defiance”?
Grant Bowler is the only one. We had obviously looked at other names, but in terms of someone who is so poised to be a star of his own show, Grant was it. He’s a great action star, but his relationship with Irisa, his adopted daughter, is just fabulous. He carries the show!

Julie Benz is great as well.
I’m a big fan [of hers] from “Dexter” and “Buffy.” I had nothing to do with bringing her on, but when they hired her, I was thrilled.

Take us through the process of sitting in the room and sketching out the complex, interconnecting story arcs and back-stories that are played out on the shows you have worked on.
To me, that’s the fun part of it. You’re mapping out the big moves and you’re getting that five-miles-up view of the season. It’s a kick! It could be anything and that’s always fun. I look at characters and go, this is what the audience is seeing in the early days, and how we perceive them. Now let’s look at the character and go, “What don’t we know about them?” Or, “What would be the most surprising thing to find out about them?” Then if you’re in a room full of a bunch of really smart, creative people, you get all sorts of wild ideas. Then it’s an embarrassment of riches in terms of what’s the coolest one? What surprised us and made us laugh — not necessarily because it’s funny, but because it’s so delicious? And then how do we apply that over the course of the season? They’ve come up with all sorts of fabulous, wild stuff.

How much of the backstory is generally planned out from the beginning?
It’s tough! If done correctly, it all looks organic, that all those gears meshed so well because it was all perfectly planned out. Obviously, our writers’ days would be a lot shorter and there would be fewer weekends to work if that were the case — but so often we get those big gears in place and then as you get into the finer work episode by episode, you end up putting a lot of stuff into those that you didn’t plan, and you’re always really pleasantly surprised when some really fabulous thing that you had never thought of, fits. But until it does, you’re banging your head on the table, and you’re doing that collectively with 10 other people, just trying to figure out what works. And then it does! A lot of work goes into it.

Tell us a bit about your experience producing “Cult.”
It was such an unusual piece of material, and for better or for worse, such a singular vision piece that the network and the studio were very respectful of what I wanted to do with it — because they couldn’t go, “No, that doesn’t work on ‘The Mentalist’ or ‘CSI.'” [laughs] They knew this was nothing like that. I’m very proud of this show because, though it went nowhere very quickly, it was very well received. There was just no money for promotion — and there are some other things involved with that — but the network was very supportive of the show and they were very happy with it, creatively, but once it went on, they didn’t really have the promotion money — it was February at the end of a cycle — to explain to the world that this is not the typical CW fare. They promoted it a lot on the CW, but it’s very hard to promote on “Hart of Dixie” and “Gossip Girl” and get them going, “I want to watch this very edgy show that’s playing with the way I watch television” — the very thing that everyone, including myself, was so proud of. Where the show, itself, is kind of invading your space, because it’s not letting you just passively watch it. I’m watching a show called “Cult” about people watching a show called “Cult.” That house of mirrors thing, which it was all about from the get-go, really needed very special handling, in terms of preparing the audience for that, and it was just thrown out there and a lot of people went, “Huh?” The last episodes [are airing now], so finally the entire season is getting to play. Based on the Twitter response and blogs, the audience that stayed with it seems really passionate and they really seem to get it and they’re really chilled by it, the way it was always intended. It is always frustrating that there are so few of them. I wish there were more.

What do you find fascinating about a TV show that brainwashes its viewers and messes with their minds?
Who wouldn’t love it? As writers, we’re always trying to create not just a visceral response from the audience. We really want to get them involved and you do that through some emotion, usually. It can be excitement because you’re watching an adventure, a relationship because you’re hooked into that — but all those things are intellectual. You’re using conventional storytelling techniques to get people to hook in, based on an intellectual observation. “Cult” was really an attempt to break down the fourth wall, to break the glass between you and the TV show. I’m very, very gratified about the folks in the States who stuck with it on The CW, and there’s a growing fan base as it starts to play internationally. Those who get it, get it. Here I am with another — pardon the pun — cult hit, but I’ll take it! That’s kind of the sweet spot where I live. “Farscape” had a four-year run and a miniseries and all that, and is relatively well-known, but it’s still kind of a cult success. As much as I would have loved to have created “CSI,” in terms of owning my own Hawaiian island, [laughs] I like having delivered shows that truly are, in their own way, really unique. I’m happy with that!

What were your goals going into the second season of “Revolution”? According to the season-one finale, they’ve turned the power back on and now there are nuclear warheads heading for Philadelphia and Atlanta. I would assume this changes some of the rules.
You have to watch it and see! That was something that, to me, was bold and so correct in terms of the danger of any show like a “Revolution,” where it’s got a central premise of — is there any way to get the power back on? You can go seasons and years without getting the power back on, but as a fan of the show, I thought it was really smart and really good to have them go right down the center of the plate — in terms of, we’re not going to hold that off for four seasons. The arc of the first season is going to get us to where the power is back on — but as soon as it is, typical of mankind, [laughs] the first thing that’s done is the most destructive force is unleashed over two of the most populated cities on the North American continent. What a fabulous [idea]. We’re not going to pussyfoot with you guys or with the premise; we’re just going to go for it. Now it’s a matter of taking that and just completely throwing it into the cyclotron, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Can you give any hints about the kinds of things we might see in the upcoming season?
As you would expect, you’re watching people that have many of the same passions, but they have been cranked and torqued tremendously, and because of the events of [the final episode], there are a lot of surprises. I’m already pleased with some of the surprises that we have coming. As a fan of the show, I’m excited to see them on film, and I know that if I was still just watching it as a viewer, I’d be going, “Holy mackerel! Did they really do that?” Production has moved from North Carolina to Austin, Texas, this year; it’s a really good crew and I’m really excited about the look of the show. There’s more grit to it, a little more edge. One of the things that people thought during the first season is that often characters looked too cosmetically network-television-friendly, and we’re much more cable-esque this year.

More hard-boiled?
Much more hard-boiled, much more gritty and real. And that’s in the look of the show and the look of the characters, and also the material. It flows nicely from season one, but it truly is a second chapter.

There would seem to be a whole new set of rules. Last year there was only electricity in these little finite areas, and now the power is back on, but it’s a post-nuclear world. At least I assume the bombs actually hit…
I’m not saying! You didn’t see them land. Our people are very good; they may have, at the last moment, stopped them. There’s also nanotechnology involved. You’ll have to tune in and watch. [laughs] Good try, though!

Tell us the story of “Farscape.” How did you initially connect with Jim Henson Productions?
It actually started with them. Brian Henson’s father had just passed away unexpectedly, and Brian rose to the occasion and took the reins of the company. Bill Haber at CAA — who’s this really wonderful, menschy guy — took Brian under his wing. They kept all the Muppet stuff going, but one of the things that Brian was anxious to do with the company, as well, was to move it into other areas besides the typical and very successful family fare, and show the other things that the company could do. I think he was thinking of Dark Crystal — something with that kind of sensibility. They went to the then-relatively new Fox network and talked to them about — I think the agent shorthand was “the Star Wars cantina as a TV series.” I was with the same agency at the time, and because of Alien Nation and “seaQuest,” I had a meeting with Brian and talked about their idea for a show — some sort of “ship show” that wasn’t the typical “Star Trek” and could involve a whole bunch of Henson creatures. As someone who had done my share of aliens, even up to that point, the notion of being able to tap that resource, it’s something that nobody had done before and they haven’t done since, in terms of animatronic characters. I think we did remarkable prosthetic work as well, which still hasn’t been touched as far as I know in television — which I think is curious. So we came up with the premise of the show and I took them at their word in terms of wanting a lot of alien creatures. I’ll create a world where, essentially, the only human is our one lead and everybody else on the ship is an alien, including the ship, itself. Oh, and the only people who look like humans — because I’m not an idiot; I can’t populate an entire series with creatures — are the villains that you hate and want to destroy. That’s where it all started.

We went in and pitched it to Fox and they bought it. I wrote the script and Bob Greenblatt, who’s now running NBC — and is now my boss again — was a development executive there, and everybody really liked the script a lot. But it’s a science fiction show, and science fiction shows are unique, much to my chagrin, because — taking “Farscape” as an example — you have to build everything and everything is a decision. And in the case of “Farscape,” this included all the creatures and animatronics, so Henson popped for us to make maquettes, little models of all the characters, some of whom are very similar [to how they ultimately looked on the show]. Pilot’s exactly like he was as a maquette, Rygel is almost identical, but Zhann was a little, pudgy Buddha guy. Scorpius, who ultimately didn’t appear until later in the first season, was [humanoid] but had kind of a bird-like look. We went to Fox and said we can’t afford to just shoot a pilot because we have to build all this stuff. We crunched the numbers and figured we needed an order of 11 episodes to amortize the cost of the sets and all that other stuff, and we kept pitching it up the food chain. Because of Bill Haber, who is one of the founders of CAA, we pitched it to Rupert Murdoch, himself. So I actually shook the then-six-billion-dollar hand of Rupert Murdoch and pitched it to him. But even then, the Fox network wasn’t sure what it was going to be and they just weren’t prepared to go forward. And Brian, much to his undying credit, just wouldn’t let it drop. And every so often, we’d dust off the maquettes and pitch it to some other network and we just couldn’t find someone who was ready. It’s a very unusual show! And then, what I like to say is television came up with what we needed, which is a network dedicated to science fiction, The Sci-Fi Channel. Essentially, Sci-Fi Channel was born by airing re-runs of old science fiction shows — some of which were my old shows. [laughs] They wanted to get into original production, something of their own. They didn’t have a show that was their flagship. An executive named Rod Perth was there [and he] read the scripts for “Farscape” and called us in. We talked to him and showed him the maquettes and he ordered a season — 22 episodes, right off the bat. We walked out of his office, Brian and I, and we hugged each other and said, “How do we do this?”

Then it all started to develop. There were a couple of key factors that were super-important. The lesser of the two was that while we were still developing, Sci-Fi went through a regime change and another executive came in and took over as president. He didn’t understand what it was, so he called me in and said, “Just make it as weird as you can, because I just don’t want a kids show.” The greatest words I’ve ever heard were, “Just make it as weird as you can.” It took all the restraints off and that was very important to us. Meanwhile, the other huge decision was, for financial reasons, we decided to shoot in Australia. Post-production, visual effects, everything was there. It made all the difference because Australians are just incredibly wild individuals and they embraced the insanity of the show, in terms of style of storytelling but also in terms of production design. These are people who do The Road Warrior and Mad Max and those sorts of things. They brought that sensibility to it, and, honestly, I think that shooting in Australia imbued the show with another energy. Literally, Ben Browder was the only American. We probably had some guest stars a few times, but Ben was the only American among otherwise all Australian actors. So we had as the only human in an alien world, the only American in an alien world. Even though Ben had been trained in England — he’s very classically trained — it’s a very different acting style and energy. I think that served us incredibly well. So it was this wonderful lining-up of planets, and I’ve got to tell you, it just all fell into place. And then you look at the production values, even by today’s standards. People aren’t doing that on TV, even now.

What was it like working with Steven Spielberg on “seaQuest DSV”?
That was great, needless to say! When I was working with him, talk about a creative period. He was shooting Jurassic Park, so he was in Hawaii for a portion of it, and then he was shooting on the lot, and prepping Schindler’s List! I learned one of my life lessons from Steven. When we went out to pitch “seaQuest” to all the networks, he was pitching as hard as anybody. He was just truly, passionately pitching this television show. If anybody could rest on his laurels — going, “I’m Steven Spielberg and I endorse this project” — it’s him. I’ll never have laurels like his, but just always be passionate about everything you do. It may sound like a cliché, but if you saw him do it, you’d go, I’m definitely seeing the kid who snuck onto the Universal lot and got his way onto “Duel.” He was a guy who really knew how to work it.

How did you get your start?
I had been writing forever, literally since I was 10 years old. I had always had a passion for writing and I just loved to do it. I would write spec features, I would write spec [television]. At the time, “Magnum, P.I.” was on, so I was writing spec episodes of those sorts of things. There was a show that aired around 1980 called “Darkroom” with James Coburn. I wrote a couple of short, mini spec scripts for that, and actually managed to get them to producers of the show, and they wrote back! It was nice; they said, “We really like these, but we just got canceled, so we can’t do anything with them.” So I put them up on the shelf, and as I am wont to say to writing classes, the great thing about spec material is that it doesn’t dissolve; it’s always there. So then in 1984, both CBS and NBC put into development anthology shows. CBS was remaking “The Twilight Zone” and NBC was doing “Amazing Stories” from Spielberg. So I dusted them off and got the scripts to both shows. Both of them showed interest, so I got all excited, but on “Amazing Stories” it had to go all the way up the food chain to Steven, and while that was happening, I went in and met with the “Twilight Zone” people and they offered me a job as a staff writer, so I jumped on it. I would have been ecstatic if I had sold a script to “Magnum, P.I.” or some other regular show, but the fact that I was working on “Twilight Zone” — which should be every writer’s dream, favorite TV show — was fabulous! Then I get there, and I’ve got Phil DeGuere, who I was a big fan of from “Simon & Simon” and his Universal work. Harlan Ellison was on staff. Alan Brennert, who’s now writing novels, he was a young guy like myself but very successful. Jim Crocker was there. It was a fabulous core of writers and it was a very writer-centric show. It was great experience for me because I was a kid and I got to work with Joe Dante who had just finished Gremlins. I worked with Martha Coolidge, who I hired back on “Cult.” Billy Friedkin did an episode for us. Wes Craven directed the very first thing I wrote — “Wordplay,” which I’d sold to them. He did several episodes for us. It was this amazing experience, and writers got to essentially produce their own episodes. We were involved with casting, talking to the directors, on the set, all that sort of thing. It was great!

You wrote the screenplay for the film Alien Nation, which eventually spun off into a series. Was it a priority for you to tell an immigration story rather than an alien-invasion story?
I worked really hard to make sure that that’s what it was. That’s why I made them a labor race on an automated ship, because I did not want them coming down with any technology. I didn’t want it to start with — the ship arrives! I really wanted it to be about x-number of years after they immigrated, and what’s that like? We met with a few directors, initially. I remember one director was saying, “We need to go on the ship and see it!” And I’m thinking, “No, we don’t!” I get it from a director’s point of view — I want to build an alien ship interior, but no. It’s so much cooler if it’s not that. That was very much by design. I didn’t want any alien technology at all.

What are your thoughts on science fiction as a metaphor for humanity as a whole?
I think my prejudices are probably obvious, but it’s the reason Rod Serling chose to develop a show like “Twilight Zone.” As the story goes, he really didn’t have a foundation for science fiction, and he talked to Ray Bradbury to get a handle on it, but he understood that it was the right genre to be able to do things that spoke to aspects of humanity without being as on-the-nose. For me, it’s such a fertile ground to think as far outside the box as you can. It’s a wildly exotic territory and it allows you to go everywhere. And if you’re kind of twisted like I am, [laughs] it’s wonderful to have that outlet.

What do you love about what you do?
This may sound like a joke, but I honestly have no other appreciable skill of any kind. I honestly don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t writing television or writing in general. I grew up loving television and movies, and to be able to be a part of it, it’s the best! I grew up watching NBC shows, and to know that I’m writing a show that’s on NBC — how cool is that? On top of that, my father was a gaffer, a lighting guy, at Warner Bros. for, like, 40 years, so I used to go visit the sets with him. He was always on the set, so I didn’t know the producers and writers who were in the buildings over there. That was very separate from the world where he traveled. It was fun to be on the set and all that — it was far more colorful — but I always looked at the buildings and wondered what was going on there. Back when I was starting, you couldn’t go online and find scripts, so they were few and far between. My dad would bring home arm-loads of TV scripts and whatever he was working on. I looked at the page and figured out the format, and then read them and figured out how they were structured. They were all Warner Bros. movies or TV shows, so the very fact that I’m now currently, and have been for the last couple of years, working at Warner Bros. is incredibly personally satisfying.

Season two of “Revolution” premieres September 25th on NBC. Season two of “Defiance” is slated for June 2014 on Syfy.

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