One ticket to... paradise?
It was warm on Tuesday, 19 June 2001, when I arrived but one block from the famous Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills to see the local premier of the Xena series finale at the Beverly Hills Museum of Television and Radio. But as warm as it was, I suspect it felt much warmer to those seated on the panel for the discussion after the episode was shown.
Thanks to a benefactor, I received a complimentary ticket to the event. While tickets for the 150 seat main theatre (where I was) had a face value of $8.00, some people paid scalpers up to 100 times that value in order to attend this event. You could sit in the "overflow" area, which was another room where about 50 people watched the event on closed circuit TV, for a bit less. But since my ticket was free, I can truthfully say I got my moneys worth and then some!
Good thing I didn't come for the food. There was a reception at the museum which preceded the showing of the finale, which preceded the panel discussion. I had been told beforehand, "Don't eat much or anything before the reception -- the last time X-Files had an event there they put on quite a spread!" The budget must have been severely curtailed since X-Files was in town, since what was offered at the reception was, to put it optimistically, minimal. To those of us who are slimming this perhaps wasn't such a bad thing after all.
The reception lasted about 30 minutes, near the end of which we were called in rows (like at the airport) to take our seats in the theatre. Unlike on the airplane, there were several ushers and usherettes to ensure people did not take photographs or record what was to pass on any magnetic medium. I'm given to understand this was not completely enforceable. It's a nice theatre, with about a 150 seat capacity.
As the lights went down the panelists were escorted to their reserved seats in the front row. There was to be no intermingling of panelists or guests at any time during this event. People who spent a packet in the hopes of getting a word in to Lucy or Renee or Rob Tapert or anyone else connected with the show must have been very disappointed. One lady was weighed down with items garnered from on-line auctions, presumably for autographs. Despite the presence of Sharon Delaney, this was certainly not a Xena convention, though many in attendance had been at conventions so it did have a bit of that feel to it. In fact, one person commented to me that this event was unusual in that all other similar events she had attended did encourage intermingling of attendees and participants (events of media levels viewed with numbers greater than XENA), while this one went the opposite route and discouraged all interaction. There were some people from the show in attendance. I only recognised a handful of staffers apart from the participants and their partners.
Then we saw the premier.
I shall refrain from commenting on the episode subjectively in this article. I have done comments on the episode in other places -- one of the rare times I have made personal comments publicly. For the purposes of this article, I shall stick as close to mere fact as possible and let the reader be the judge of what was good or bad. It is sometimes difficult to make conclusions without hearing actual voice inflection, so where I thought it relevant I've added ambient description to aid in defining the context of remarks. What is presented from here on is as close to actually being there as I could make it, and I've done my best to remove any personal prejudices from the report. Now I translate from a steno pad nearly filled with notes. I believe I captured almost all questions and responses.
During the premier the audience was responsive, though sometimes not as the makers of the show might like or appreciate. During the credits, when Renee O'Connor's name was displayed there were cheers from the audience, the only time during the credits when this was so. There were laughs at what were no doubt inopportune moments -- Xena inventing the atomic bomb and Xena's head resting on some sort of stool come immediately to mind. The kiss scene got extended applause. Some Xena and Gabrielle action moments were also applauded, as well as a "posing" moment or two. At the very end of the episode there was applause and some very audible booing which began timidly at first but gathered some steam.
At the conclusion of the premier, beyond those making the usual polite applause, slightly more than half of the audience cheered and slightly less than half the audience booed loudly. I and my party were in the polite applause camp.
A moderator (a lady who introduced herself at the podium before the episode started by whose name escapes me, sorry, but she was the director of the West Coast MTR) then introduced the panel, who took seats one by one on stage facing the audience. The panel sat in a line on stage under bright lights so I doubt they could see the audience very well. That helps, actually, in panel situations because it makes you less inclined to stage fright if you're not used to public speaking.
The moderator introduced R.J. Stewart first, who took his seat. Taking a seat to his right next was Rob Tapert (amid some booing). Then sitting next to Rob came Renee O'Connor. Last, sitting next to Renee on the end, was Lucy Lawless.
Since I know some people out there care about such things, Lucy wore a black full-length dress with a scoop front, and Renee wore a black bikini top and black skirt covered by a sheer, see-through black gown.
Prior to the viewing of the episode everyone in the audience got a card and a wee golf pencil to write a question for the panel. The cards were collected later and sorted through by the moderator to ask the panel questions. Actually, some were deliberately picked up before the premier started and the rest were collected after it ended. But the moderator didn't even look at the ones handed in after the premier was shown. So while technically some of the questions asked came from the audience (the moderator mostly asked her own questions), they were filtered first and not asked by the audience directly. There was absolutely no interaction between the panel and the audience directly. Well, almost none. You'll see what I mean in a moment.
The first question asked by the moderator was to explain the process of the final episode.
Rob Tapert answered first. He paused, considering his words. "The ending we chose--" he began, "-- sucked!" finished an audience member to applause. Rob smiled, shook his head, and pressed on. "Xena's story is the story to redeem herself." He went on to explain that throughout the series this redemption was withheld. The HERC series from which her character was created portrayed her as a war criminal.
R.J. said they wanted to do a Japanese ghost story, and she could ultimately only be redeemed if she died. R.J. said that Xena had to pay a high price to redeem herself and that was the ultimate price of her life in FRIEND IN NEED.
Rob nodded his head in assent.
Lucy added, "We never took the easy way out. It was a strong choice, a bold choice. Xena lived by the sword and by golly she died by the sword." Before the last sentence she said she didn't understand why people wanted Xena and Gabrielle to walk off into the sunset together (Renee echoed that she didn't think they could). She said some people were not destined to be together -- like Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed (her words, not mine). This particularly struck me as an inappropriate comment and made me personally uncomfortable.
As the discussion morphed into a description of what the Xena character was, Renee added that Xena softened because of Gabrielle. Renee viewed her character as the "eye" through which the audience saw the action unfold.
Rob said that Gabrielle was allowed to explore more growth as a character. Xena had to be Xena. Rob went on to say that John Schulian wanted to do the story of the woman who came between Hercules and Iolaus. Rob wanted to do a three episode arc about a warrior princess.
As discussion of the creative process continued, it was revealed that Rob and R.J. would come up with stories and parcel them out to writers. Some were more last minute than others. R.J. gave special compliment to Eric Gruendemann who helped bring things together quickly and well. R.J. also said that Lucy and Renee had veto power over what happened to their characters.
Turning to the subject of directors, Lucy, when asked if she wanted to direct, strongly answered in the negative. She said on the set directors were often referred to as "Chumps-d'jour." She said the actors did what the directors told them but the directors were still often referred to as "chumps".
Some cards with questions on them were then read. The probability of getting a question to be a candidate for answer seemed directly proportional to the length of the question, though someone told me she thought it was merely what card happened to be on top.
From Anita to Rob: What stories are left untold? Rob said he really wanted to do the musical but couldn't get the rights to the music.
Alita asked, Why end the series? Rob said it was time to end the show. It was demanding on everyone. He referred to the kiwi expression "spitting the dummy" meaning everyone pretty much had enough.
Rosie asked were comedies or dramas preferred. Lucy and Renee both said comedy.
Sue asked what was the show's place in history?
Lucy said it revived the female action hero. "Chicks can hold a show." Renee said it redefined women on television and that it was timeless because of the setting.
Rochelle asked will Lucy and Renee work together and on what? Lucy said, "A comedy!" Renee said "A musical!" It was pretty obvious they were joking.
Miranda, who is writing a dissertation on Xena (stare at the audience from Lucy) asked how is the choice made what to merchandise? Lucy said "We don't choose." Rob said "R.J. and I don't either." He said there was no time to get a show out and do merchandising too.
There was a sidebar with references to the Internet. Rob said he never got involved with the Internet for the show because it was too hard a job. He also said the Internet was not a good source for things because it was too volatile. He had heard of other shows where there practically had to be an intervention between people who work on the show and Internet users. He said there was nothing to be gained from it.
Someone asked "How did you hire Rob Field?" Lucy laughed and R.J. looked over at the card and said, "Hey, Rob, I recognise your writing!" Rob Tapert answered that Rob Field did a trailer for DARKMAN that he thought was great and he cut the HERC trailer so when an opening came up he was the guy Rob thought of.
Theresa asked was there a different final version of the script?
Rob said there was one where Gabrielle died too. Lucy mentioned that Rob "waffled" a lot on the ending, going back and forth several times right up until the end. Rob nodded in agreement. There was an implication that the waffling may have been for a "happier" ending, but that is purely a personal interpretation on my part.
Someone asked about religious issues and why those stories.
R.J. said that he and Rob both have an interest in the subject and so they explored it a bit. "You don't look to XENA to study world religions," he said. Lucy said "Other cultures and philosophies are fertile ground." Renee said she didn't realise how people would react to it sometimes. "We didn't take it too seriously to offend a nation."
We now leave the realm of audience questions and go to the moderator's "in conclusion" set of questions.
As regards favourite moments:
Lucy's was IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE when Gabrielle comes back to life. "It was the first time I let go completely on screen."
Renee loved the musicals, especially the ones with Ted Raimi and the Cinderella episode.
Rob said he had so many he couldn't decide. He singled out SACRIFICE 2, that "frozen moment" when Gabrielle and Hope are going down the shaft. He also remembered Xena on a hilltop in HERC as the Xena character was introduced. He saw that and said, "I can make a series out of that."
For R.J., it was the pilot where Xena was spinning around on a pole. "This is cool shit!"
Regarding tough moments:
Lucy said "The finale was hardest of all. We were already so tired. I just try to be the character."
Renee said it was the environmental elements. Suffering hypothermia. Wind and rain machines in winter. THE ABYSS had all those elements. "I learned more about myself than I ever thought I would on a television series."
Rob said sometimes they did clip shows he didn't like. Some he did like. He didn't say which ones.
R.J. said the hardest for him was when Lucy fell off the horse [ed. note: referring to the injury she suffered while doing a skit for the Jay Leno show]. "My friend was in the hospital and the show had to go on."
Regarding special effects, Rob said "Special effects have been the bane of my existence." He said it was difficult communicating what was wanted versus what was actually produced. He also said it was hard getting quality on short notice. "Some shows when broadcast had certain effects Monday through Thursday and others Friday through Sunday."
When asked about the fate of XENA the show, Rob said "The fate of XENA after this is in the hands of others."
So what next?
Lucy joked she was going to settle down and have babies. She quickly added, "You haven't seen the last of us though."
Renee said "It's nice to relax. I'd like to do plays and direct."
And what do they take away from the show?
Lucy said "I'm very proud of the way we held it together. We never treated one another badly."
Rob said "It brought a group of people together who like the show and watch the show and are so generous and want to help others.
Lucy quickly added, "Yes, they came together on the Internet or whatever and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity."
Rob said you'd see that at conventions too, regarding a love for the show.
Lucy added "We are amazed at how touched people are by it."
And with that, the panel was concluded and ushered out the back door.
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