DEFIANCE, now in its second season on Syfy Channel, concerns an Earth approximately thirty-five years after seven different types of aliens, known collectively as the Votan, crash-landed on Earth. The Votan have issues with each other, as well as with humans, who – as always – also have issues with one another.
At the same time the TV series DEFIANCE began airing, Trion launched its online videogame DEFIANCE, which has story and characters that synch up at various points with the show. This poses a unique challenge for both the TV creative staff and the videogame personnel.
DEFIANCE executive producer/co-creator/show runner Kevin Murphy, formerly of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, is present at an all-day event NBC holds for the press. He takes time to talk about DEFIANCE’s origins, its relation to its videogame sibling, and much more.
AX: How did DEFIANCE started and how did it change when you came onto the project during its development?
KEVIN MURPHY: The original version was a little more of a closed-ended procedural, it was kind of more of a science-fiction crime of the week, and we were in the process of changing that when CULT got picked up and [original DEFIANCE co-creator/show runner] Rockne O’Bannon left. I then had a choice that I wasn’t sure that the show was going to work in the incarnation that it currently was in, and I didn’t want to have responsibility for something that didn’t work. So I gave Syfy a choice. I said, “I’ll transition you into your next show runner, and I’ll make sure that casting continues and produce the pilot, but I’m not going to stay on for the series unless I believe in the show.” And they were like, “Well, what would you want to do to it?” And it was basically, “Well, it involves getting rid of pretty much all the scripts, and let me give you my pitch.”
So I did the pitch, worked it out with the writing staff, and at this point, it was Rockne’s last day, and he was helping us to kind of reconceive it, and Scott Stewart, the director, was very involved in the process, and so was Michael Taylor, who had worked on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and was a member of staff under me. And we pitched the whole thing to [then-Syfy Channel president] Mark Stern while he was driving in his car on vacation with his family in Palm Springs. And he had his wife and kid in the vehicle with him, and the pitch lasted about ninety minutes, because we pitched the entire story from beginning to end, every single beat, and by the time he pulled into the hotel in Palm Springs, we had finished our pitch and he was like, “Okay, I love it. Go write it.”
AX: Did you make major changes to the characters?
MURPHY: The PAPER MOON thing I added, the idea that Nolan [the town’s new law officer, played by Grant Bowler] came in from the outside and that he was a con man and a drifter and a huckster and a criminal. That was all stuff that I added. The idea that Amanda has only been mayor for six weeks and she’s the former mayor’s assistant and no one takes her seriously, that was an addition; the idea that Irisa [Nolan’s adopted Irathient daughter, played by Stephanie Leonidas] uses knives and Irisa being sort of the feral badass was an invention of mine. And Michael. When I say “me,” I’m including Michael Taylor, who was definitely my partner in crime. We would not have gotten that script in the shape it needed to be in without Michael at my side.
AX: When did all of this happen in terms of production?
MURPHY: This is while we were casting. Grant was coming in to test along with some other guys. And I was a huge fan of his New Zealand show, OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE, because he was Wolf, and that was my favorite show. I tried to get the format rights for years and nobody would give them to me, and when I saw that he was on the list, I was like, “Oh, my God, he’s Nolan, he’s Nolan.” I had to explain to him the script that he had signed on for no longer existed. So when he came in for his test, I sat down with him, I had him come early, and I said, “I need to tell you a story. Your character’s changing – I hope you like it, because I’m a big fan of OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE.” And I told him the story and he just said, “All right, mate, that sounds great, let’s do it. What do I have to do?”
We kind of have a murderer’s row for a sci-fi series in terms of our cast. Graham Greene’s [who plays mine owner Rafe McCawley] got an Oscar nomination, we’ve got Julie Benz [as Mayor Amanda Rosewater], Jaime Murray [as Castithan Stahma Tarr], this is my second show with her, she can do no wrong, we have Tony Curran [as black market mogul Datak Tarr, Stahma’s husband], who [is] amazing – he was Vincent Van Gogh [in DOCTOR WHO], he was the Invisible Man [in THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN], he’s genre catnip. We’ve got Grant, who is a movie star. And Mia Kirshner [who plays NeedWant brothel proprietor Kenya Rosewater], she’s doing this role because she loves the role, she loves the part.
AX: You also have some less familiar names …
Jesse Rath plays Alak Tarr and Nicole Munoz plays Christie. You’ll notice I have a tendency to use people over and over again. When [Munoz] was just a little wee thing, ten years old, I cast her in a pilot that was one of her first professional jobs and I just fell in love with her. The pilot got shot, but it didn’t go to series. It was for ABC Family and I thought of her for Christie, and she got the part. Jesse Rath is wonderful. He plays Alak, Datak’s son, and he’s kind of this slickster, and because he’s so good, he [became] kind of our Chris-in-the-morning deejay. There’s a pirate radio station at the top of the Arch, inside the Arch. Jesse Rath is wonderful doing all this patter, he’s great with the alien language.
AX: A lot of your actors are Australian or Irish or English …
MURPHY: Tony is Scottish. Grant was born in New Zealand, he was raised in Australia. Stephanie is a Brit and Jaime is a Brit.
AX: But they’re all doing North American accents.
MURPHY: Grant is doing an American accent. Stephanie is doing kind of her own thing that’s a little otherworldly. It’s not really American, but it’s not her normal British accent. And Jaime is doing – we had to work with accent teachers, because all the accents are very deliberate – it’s called mid-Atlantic and it’s what Shakespearean actors do, when they do something that’s from another country, like Chekhov, where they flatten their British accents and it’s sort of a generic stage accent that they learn. We thought that was a good choice for Stahma, because Stahma was a character who would not want to offend anyone who was different from her. She would want to assimilate, so she probably would have done that research to figure out what kind of accent do I want? Tony, because his accent is such a part of him, he’s flattened his accent, but there’s just a tiny little bit of Scottish that comes out when he talks. We spent a lot of time just listening to them and tweaking it and when we shot the pilot, there are takes where they did their normal voices, there are takes where they did stronger accents, they did lesser accents, and then we picked later what we thought was right for the character.
AX: The first mandate for DEFIANCE was reportedly to create something that can be both a videogame and a TV show. How do you, or don’t you, synch up with the gaming side of things at Trion?
MURPHY: I really credit Syfy and Trion. There was never pressure to put a square peg into a round hole. There’s a famous serenity prayer – “Give me the ability to change the things I can, endure the things I can’t and the wisdom to know the difference.” The Trion guys are brilliant. We work really hard to be good partners for them; I believe they work really hard to be good partners for us. I can’t control what the public thinks of my own TV show, much less what the public thinks of the videogame. All I can do is, for my part of the cog, and this is sort of the Wikipedia theory, for my part, I’m going to do the best that I can to make excellent television that people can’t wait to watch more of. Tony Curran is going to learn his lines and he’s going to know the Castithan language inside and out. David Peterson is going to make amazing languages for Tony Curran to say, Michael Nankin is going to challenge the universe to bring on the box, and altogether, the hope is that, like Wikipedia, it turns into something special. Because Wikipedia only works because everybody involved is so passionate about it, but nobody who contributes to Wikipedia controls other people on Wikipedia, except to a certain degree. And that’s what we’re trying to do [in interacting with the videogame side of DEFIANCE].
I really felt – and I give credit to Mark Stern – that we had to coexist peacefully, but we had to make the show our own, because if we were trying to pander to a videogame, or what we think videogame people want to see, the show is going to suck. So in terms of where did that initially come from, the people that I was surrounded with – I’m inspired by them and when I see how badly they want to make something great, yeah, I want to do the same thing. I want to make something that aspires to be about something bigger. I don’t want to do a cheap shoddy genre show. I want to do something that people who don’t like genre will enjoy, because it’s universal.
AX: How much lead time do you need to shoot whatever in the show has been affected by events in the game?
MURPHY: We plan it all very far in advance. Trion does their job well, and we do ours well. So we agreed many, many, many weeks in advance that in Episode Seven, X is our crossover event. Episode Eight, X is our crossover event.” We try to have every episode, something goes from the game into the show, something goes from the show into the game, and then we identify a crossover element. And when I edit, I try to not take those things out of the cut whenever possible.
AX: What percentage of the TV series is affected by the game?
MURPHY: In some episodes, it’s a tiny thing. Let me give you an example. One of the big monsters that you fight in the videogame [is the] Hellbug. We have a Hellbug episode, and just the presence of the Hellbugs and the fact that they’re being used as a murder weapon and why and how that affects what’s going on in the motivations, that is a crossover for one episode. Then we have more elaborate ones, where we have an event in which the players are involved with doing something, and when they achieve their objective, it has the unexpected side effect of creating something that then creates a problem which launches us into the next episode of DEFIANCE. And because we know that in June, that’s when that storyline is going on in the videogame, we know that our episode that airs the next week has to reflect that. And then we go back, and at the end of that episode, there’s another element.
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