Welcome to another Xena Thursday! Today, we’re continuing our chronological coverage of every single episode of Xena: Warrior Princess — both the episodes that I have previously highlighted AND the episodes I’ve yet to feature. Complementing my thoughts are the thoughts of those who worked on the series: mostly actors, writers, directors, and producers. I have done months of research for the acquisition of the quotes you’ll see over these next 67 weeks (as there are 134 episodes and I’ll be covering two episodes per week). They come from a variety of sources, including the original special feature-laden DVD releases, The Chakram Official Newsletters, both the Topps and Titans Official Xena Magazines, the fan kits, and other assorted print and video interviews. So in addition to sharing my thoughts, these posts will also contain information and musings from the Xenites that matter most — the ones who brought this exciting series to the small screen.
69. Season 4, Episode 1: “Adventures In The Sin Trade (I)” (Aired: 09/28/98 | Filmed: 06/16 – 06/26/98)
Distraught with grief over the loss of Gabrielle, Xena travels to Siberia and the Amazon Land of the Dead to find her friend.
Story by Robert Tapert & R.J. Stewart | Teleplay by R.J. Stewart | Directed by T.J. Scott | Production No. V0607
I featured this episode as #35 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here.
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
Rob Tapert (Executive Producer/Writer/Director): “When we killed off Gabrielle [at the end of Season Three], we kind of knew… that we were going to play good and bad Gabrielle, being confused, coming back in an episode [in Season Four], which turned out to be, “[A] Family Affair.” We knew that we wanted to introduce a new villainess, which we did in [these two episodes]. We knew that we wanted to set up [a] flash forward premonition. So we were pretty sussed coming into Season Four as to where we were going and what we wanted to do. We knew we wanted to introduce shaman mythology and that whole… killing the horse to go to the other side, that all kind of crazy stuff…” (“Adventures In The Sin Trade (I)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “[With] evil Xena in [these two episodes], we get to see her at her most venal, most avaricious, most lustful. She was all the seven deadly sins; she’s all that personified. So I always enjoyed playing her a lot.” (“Adventures In The Sin Trade (I)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Renee O’Connor (Actor, Gabrielle): “I remember asking Rob [Tapert], since I wasn’t going to be in the[se] two episodes, if I could shadow T.J. Scott, who, specifically, is a very visual director. He knows how to play with the camera and keep the camera alive as a character. So I just asked Rob if I could spend every day on set, except for when [they] went to the mountains in the snow… But I tried to stay with the crew as much as possible and just see what was going on, you know, that you don’t typically see when you’re working as an actor. And I did learn a lot. I mean, T.J. was quite generous and once he got used to his little… shadow next to him, then he started just telling me all about the different lenses and I learned how you can manipulate performance and create power around characters… and I just found that really interesting. And of course I had to completely throw that away going back to acting because it just took me out of working with Lucy, you know, if I’m thinking of directing and stuff like that. But, yeah, that’s why I asked if I could work with T.J. It was a great opportunity all around.” (“Adventures In The Sin Trade (II)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Donald Duncan (Director of Photography): “It was wonderful to have a reunion with T.J. Scott who had directed episodes in Seasons One and Two, but I think he’d been a way a while. He had other projects on and we hadn’t seen him in a while, so it was great to have T.J. down again. He had a wonderful visual sense and he always challenged you to do exciting things. [He] shot a huge amount of film, which was a nightmare for the editors often, but they had a lot of stuff to choose from. We went away on location, which was something that we rarely did on Xena. I’d say 95% of the episodes were shot within 25ks of downtown Auckland, so to actually go into the central plateau area of the North Island of New Zealand in the middle of the mountains in early winter was a huge challenge but also [there were] fantastic visual opportunities there… [But] the first day we turned up to shoot it was pouring with rain and I can quite honestly say it was probably the wettest day in my career that I ever spent shooting. I remember comparing the wet weather gear that people were wearing… I was interested to see after a day of continuous rain who came out driest. Well the quick answer is no one. After 12 hours of continuous rain, nothing worked…. Everyone was equally cold and wet at the end of the day. There’s a sequence in [this episode] where Lucy’s stalking a deer, an animal, and you can actually see the rain on camera bucketing down. It’s normally pretty difficult to see rain on camera unless it’s got strong backlight and it’s at night. But when I was re-watching the episodes, I went, ‘Yep. It was really raining. That is wet.’ And the steadycam was all wrapped up in plastic bags trying to do its job without getting rain on the lens…” (“Adventures In The Sin Trade (I)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “This [episode was] my genuine descent into madness. It lasted for about the next three years. It did, I was quite out of my head… Oh, dear.” (The 2003 Pasadena Xena Convention)
Rob Tapert (Executive Producer/Writer/Director): “They had the flood of the century while we were shooting there. It was also a low point in the series for Lucy [Lawless]. There’s nothing she hates more than being cold and wet. She tells me the only other people who have any idea what that is like are Navy SEALS. It was rainy, windy, and cold. She had a tough time. She didn’t really get mad or anything, but it was a dark time for her. It worked for the episodes.” (Whoosh! Interview – January 2002)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “We were in snow and rain and cold for months [during these episodes] and I started to have what is called a neural association, where you associate work with physical discomfort. My non-stop thought that whole time was, ‘I am in pain!’ I could not bear to get up one more morning and put on that yucky brown makeup one more time. It got to the point where I could not even speak about work at home or I would cringe, which is a real problem when you’re married to the producer. So, then, by association home became a bad thing. I was a mess… I was at a really low point one morning and just mindlessly flipping channels when a Leeza [Gibbons] infomercial caught my eye. I thought, ‘Hmm…what’s Leeza have to tell me today?’ Well, she was selling tapes by [motivational guru] Tony Robbins and I went, ‘Oh, hell, why not? I gotta do something to pull myself out of this.’ So I swallowed my pride and bought some self-help tapes… “I nipped [my problem] in the bud before I lost everything, including the respect of my colleagues and possibly my marriage.” (TV Guide Interview – April 1999)
Here are scans of an interview that actress Claire Stansfield gave on playing Alti for The Chakram Newsletter: #6.
70. Season 4, Episode 2: “Adventures In The Sin Trade (II)” (Aired: 10/05/98 | Filmed: 06/29 – 07/09/98)
Xena’s continuing search for Gabrielle in the Amazon Land of the Dead leads to a climatic battle with the evil shamaness Alti.
Story by Robert Tapert & R.J. Stewart | Teleplay by R.J. Stewart | Directed by T.J. Scott | Production No. V0608
I featured this episode as #38 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here.
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
T.J. Scott (Director): “[This] was one of those odd situations where I liked [part one] but I didn’t really like part two. And from the feedback I got, people either liked one or the other but weren’t equally happy with both. I’m not a director who likes to do a lot of visual FX, and the second episode had a lot of visuals in it, whereas the first one was very grounded in reality. We shot it in a harsh climate and played out the gritty reality of it, which is what I like myself.” (Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #8 – July 2000)
R.J. Stewart (Writer/Producer): “[These episodes], of the multi-part collaborations that Rob and I did, [this] was by far the most difficult one to work out. It was very challenging. Rob had some wonderfully ambitious ideas. It was just really hard to get there in the final draft… one of the comparative religious studies that Rob wanted to do [here]… was shamanism. And I found it difficult to access that. So it was a really hard one for me… [But] I’ve had people tell me, and I’m always surprised, that [these are some] of their favorite episodes.” (“Adventures In The Sin Trade (II)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Eric Gruendemann (Producer): “One of the things that I think is really fun about [these two] episodes is that they jump back and forth all over the map… but I think it’s still very clear where you are, and it’s a very, very complex story that we tell. And I think it actually worked really well for such a complicated [script]. It’s probably the most complicated stories.” (“Adventures In The Sin Trade (II)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Donald Duncan (Director of Photography): “[Part Two had some] fabulous editing, I think. Just the quick cutting – there’re some shots in there that are probably eight frames long if you sit down and analyze it frame-by-frame. I think Rob Field cut that episode and he just did a beautiful job… In that episode he also did a lot of transitional sequences where he did dissolves which… can be kind of a cheap tacky effect but the way he used them there, the images perfectly complemented each other so as one faded out, another one came in in the opposing space. If you work them out carefully and think about them, dissolves can be quite a nice effect. And so that denoted passage of time and some of [Xena’s] journeys from one world to another. [These two] episodes were pretty complicated plot-wise because it was moving between different worlds – between spiritual worlds and real worlds – and I must admit, having read the script three or four times and shot the two episodes and watched them two or three times, I’m still on occasion scratching my head, going, ‘Where are we now? What’s going on? How does she fit here? What’s working now?’ But I believe they’re pretty popular episodes with the fans.” (“Adventures In The Sin Trade (II)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Rob Tapert (Executive Producer/Writer/Director): “Somewhere early in the third season, or maybe even the end of the second season, I sat down with R.J. for lunch and we kind of went over kind what we wanted the show—where we wanted to be. And I pitched him “[The] Ides Of March,” kind of, or what later became “[The] Ides Of March” as the season four cliffhanger, and so it was partway through Season Three because he went, ‘Well, we’re going to kind of do that cliffhanger with Gabrielle at the end of Season Three.’ But then he thought about it and thought that [it] was a really good idea. And then… we kind of came to the idea, ‘What if there was a way in the first episode of the season, which was actually [this episode], the second part of a two-parter, if we were able to… give a premonition as to how that season would end?’ And so that was really just a very loose framework.” (Best Buy Exclusive – Season Four DVD Set)
Renee O’Connor (Actor, Gabrielle): “[Rob Tapert] wanted to show that there was something coming up that… would change [the characters’] lives. And the only way he could really show [this change] in a quick little flash would be to change Gabrielle… So that’s [when] he said, ‘Let’s just cut your hair… if you want to.’ He gave me the option. And I said ‘Yes!’… [Also] my favorite villain is Alti… I could watch [Claire Stansfield] over and over again.” (Live Syfy Instagram Interview – April 2020)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “[Alti] didn’t have the same pull on Xena’s heart string [that Callio did]. There was no guilt, there was nothing to get over in the past. So I can’t speak for the audience, but that would certainly make her less [emotionally powerful]. The emotional connection between them wasn’t so strong. The scenes with Hudson [Leick] were always really interesting to play because those characters had that dynamic… But… Alti’s powers were so psychologically like damaging. You learned a lot every time she put her hands on you. And that would take the episode places that nobody ever thought possible. And I think that was just a great device for, you know, traveling through different dimensions. I think [she] was a very cool thing to bring to the show.” (“Adventures In The Sin Trade (II)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Claire Stansfield (Actor, Alti): “Yes, [the wire work] was really uncomfortable. They did a lot of that first with blue screen, thinking to add the background in later. But then T.J. said, ‘Let’s hang Lucy and Claire in the forest!’ There were these two cranes that had a landing on top, and across from the cranes was a wire. Lucy was standing on one crane landing and I was standing on the other. We jump off and fly at each other, harnessed under our costumes. We weren’t that far off the ground, but the stunt girls were later. We were far enough, though, and far apart enough to miss each other. Lucy is so into it you can’t help but want to jump in with her. ‘Let’s go again!’ she’d say. Then when we were losing light and we had to do the spinning sequence, they set up a contraption where we were at one end and the camera was at the other and the whole thing was spinning. It went up and down as well as around. We spent a lot of time harnessed to each other, flying around. It wasn’t very comfortable, but they took good care of you. Two or three minutes of agony, then they pamper you like crazy… [But] for me the thing that was most scary was when I had to dance around the fire. It’s easier to dance in a group than by yourself in front of a crew. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was in my hotel room, studying and listening to the music, trying to figure out what to do. While I was doing this, there was a documentary on television. They don’t have much TV down there, but I was watching The Lonely Planet. The guy on that show happened to be down in South America filming a bunch of shamaness-like women calling up the spirits in a dance. So I went from being stumped on what to do to having an example to work from. I basically copied these big, strong, beautiful South American women doing this dance, and that, for me, was an important moment. I’m actually quite shy, so getting through that was memorable for me as an actor.” (Whoosh! Interview – January 1999)
Rob Tapert (Executive Producer/Writer/Director): “[Gabrielle’s head on the spider] was one of the all-time worst effects. We’ve been sitting here prior to this thinking about what were the absolute worst episodes and worst things, but that was one of the all-time worst effects.” (“Adventures In The Sin Trade (II)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Four DVD Set)
Here are scans of an interview that writer/producer R.J. Stewart gave on both “Adventures In The Sin Trade (I)” and “Adventures In The Sin Trade (II)” for The Chakram Newsletter: #6.
Come back next Thursday for more Xena! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code Film Friday!