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.
107. Season 5, Episode 17: “Kindred Spirits” (Aired: 03/20/00 | Filmed: 12/13 – 12/17/99)
Joxer breaks Amazon laws that force Queen Gabrielle to choose between settling down in the Amazon village and life on the road with Xena.
Written by George Strayton and Tom O’Neill | Directed by Josh Becker | Production No. V0918
This episode has a lot of great things to offer — both comedically and dramatically. But, unfortunately, these things do not belong in the same episode. While the series in its early days could balance multiple genres in a single installment with great mastery, the growing wackiness of the lighthearted moments coupled with the overbearing melodrama of the darker ones makes for a contrast that I personally find too jarring when paired together in a 42-minute installment. This episode, which apparently went through Hell and back several times during Pre-Production, has probably the best Xena/Gabrielle relationship stuff from the entire season, as the duo considers splitting up while the latter stays on to rule over the misguided Amazons. This leads to a wonderful moment where Xena FINALLY sits down and reads Gabrielle’s scrolls. It’s amazingly satisfying. Meanwhile, this episode gives its audience some wonderfully silly comedy as Joxer is found peeping on bathing Amazons, and later is caught making out with one in a hut. The WWE match between Xena and Joxer is an undesirable farce. It’s all very enjoyable, but again, does it belong in this episode, which, at its heart, looks to explore the current dynamics between Xena and Gabrielle? Perhaps you may feel that it does, but for this viewer, “Kindred Spirits” is too disjointed.
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
Josh Becker (Director): “The script for [this] episode was entirely thrown out a week before shooting. Rob Tapert whipped up a new outline and had a completely new script written, which came in on Saturday night and we began shooting on Monday morning. That the episode makes any sense at all is something of a miracle and a true testament to Rob’s ability to pull these stories up out of nowhere. I think it turned out pretty well, considering… I think it turned out pretty good given the problems: I had 5 days, whereas all other episodes get 7-8 days, and I received the script on Saturday night and began shooting on Monday morning, so I had almost no prep time–you usually get two weeks to prep. Luckily, Lucy, Renee and Ted, as well as the crew, are so damn good it didn’t matter. As for the title, it means absolutely nothing to this episode. When I first received the script it was dark and grim and was about killing horses and I guess the title had something to do with that story, not the one we ended up shooting… It was all very grim: the Amazons are killing horses for their ceremonies and intend to kill Argo and Amber, while meanwhile, Xena and Gaby argue all the time…. My favorite scene in the show [is the breakup]. Lucy and Renee were playing the scene quite well without my help, but they were playing it quickly. I asked them to do two things. 1. Slow it down, and 2. Instead of making the little lines (‘Then I’ll go’, ‘You think it’s a good idea’) statements, make them questions. It made [an] aged old director’s heart swell with joy when both Lucy and Renee’s faces lit up when they considered the idea of questions instead of statements, and decided to play it that way.” (Josh Becker Online – Q&A)
Renee O’Connor (Actor, Gabrielle): “I never realize when situations like [Xena reading Gabrielle’s scrolls]… are significant to the audience. I know it was significant to Gabrielle, but it wasn’t played upon for sentimentality. It was a simple scene and very honest.” (The Chakram Newsletter: #11)
Josh Becker (Director): “The scene of Ted and Lucy in the fighting ring wasn’t even in the script. The way it is written, Xena just puts the pinch on Joxer, in front of everyone, and kills him. There’s no fight at all. Well, where’s the fun in that? So I said, ‘Why don’t we do a big WCW parody?’ And Rob Tapert said, ‘Cool!’ And Lucy was totally into it, and of course Ted was totally into it [as well]. So I told Lucy what I had in mind, you know, the ‘I am the Ultimate Woman and I will crush your head in the thighs of Doom!’ Lucy ran with it. I didn’t tell Ted anything! Everything he’s saying in that ring, he’s making up. ‘They call her Xena the Champ. I call her Xena the Champ!’” (Josh Talks Ted Interview – June 2000)
Here is an on-set report of the production of “Kindred Spirits” from Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #8.
108. Season 5, Episode 18: “Antony & Cleopatra” (Aired: 04/24/00 | Filmed: 02/10 – 02/17; 03/01-03/03/00)
When Cleopatra is murdered, Xena assumes her identity to uncover the assassin and protect Egypt.
Written by Carl Ellsworth | Revision by R.J. Stewart | Directed by Michael Hurst | Production No. V0904
I featured this episode as #15 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here.
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
Rob Tapert (Executive Producer/Writer/Director): “This was the first episode that I felt everything was back on track. The baby was left behind with mom so we didn’t have to deal with that… [So] this was an important episode coming back after Xena has been pregnant for ten or 12 episodes and [we had dealt] with that, to reestablish Xena’s sexuality… I just loved that Michael [Hurst, director] was able to set up all these sexual politics too, cause Xena hadn’t ever played the sex trump card in this kind of way… [Also] there’s a whole subplot we were trying to set up of Gabrielle’s politics influencing Pax Romana. In the world of the Xenaverse where everything was created by Xena, Gabrielle at least had Pax Romana to hang her head on… [Natalie Merchant’s ‘Carnival’] is the only piece of contemporary music we used as background score… it’s a music video, but it’s all about their characters… From a story and script point-of-view, getting all the opposing sides to come together in [the] final sea battle to make sense [was tough]… Although it seems so easy [now] watching [it], figuring out who was against whom and how we would tip the hat to Xena was a nightmare in story breaking… This episode in some ways set up a lot of what we did in Season Six, more morally ambiguous situations.” (“Antony & Cleopatra” Commentary – Season Five DVD Set)
R.J. Stewart (Writer/Producer): “[This episode] was developed when Lucy was pregnant and we were all living in denial about how much Lucy could play [while] pregnant. And so we put it on the shelf when it became apparent [this] particular episode was not copasetic with her pregnant state. And we revived it for [later in] the fifth season. I had actually been working on another show and I came back to Xena, and [this] was the first one I worked on and we got it into shape. Carl Ellsworth, who had written the original, was on staff at the time, and he and I together whipped it into shape into kind of a new thing. I think it turned out pretty well. It was a nice episode… [and] Michael Hurst did a terrific job directing it and it was one of those things where he probably, I don’t recall exactly, but he probably got the script pretty late in the running, cause when I came back off the other show, everything was, ‘Hurry up and get it done.’ So he did a terrific job on it… The ferocity with which Gabrielle dispatches Brutus really came from her disappointment with Brutus. She hoped that Brutus was a kindred spirit and what ultimately she learns in [this] episode is that no, he’s a vicious political player and not one deserving of her mercy… Ultimately when Xena kills Antony, it’s clear from the look on her face that she’s very conflicted and this is not the way she wanted it to play out. But she also knows this is something she has to do for the greater good. So there was a definite affection she had for Antony, but not a lot of sentimentality, because she saw a much more important goal that she had to accomplish.” (“Antony & Cleopatra” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Five DVD Set)
Donald Duncan (Director of Photography): “[This episode]’s got very special significance for me because it was the last episode I ever shot for Xena… But I also didn’t get to shoot the entire episode because for some reason the episode got split. It got pushed back and was shot in two different blocks and I’d already had another booking to go to… It was a shame to not shoot the whole episode, but it was also a really good opportunity to bring in a new D.P. [director of photography], Simon Riera, and I got to prep the whole episode with him. And I shot everything up until the fight scene, and he shot the whole fight scene on the boat at the end, so we kind of collaborated on working out the lighting plot and lighting styles for that… [This episode] had some fabulous sets… the biggest… so we had lots of scope to do, big wide shots… It was also interesting because it was a very high key set. We wanted the feeling of hot Egypt blasting sunlight, and so the walls are all kind of off-white. So rather than being a moody, low key episode, it was very bright and high key and upbeat and that was nice to do for a change. I had a lot of fun putting real hard lights in the background, and overexposing by two, three, four stops so people would walk through lights and almost vaporize with the heat, whereas the foreground was in a normal exposure. And that gave it a different feel to what we normally did… The arson scene where the Molotov cocktail gets thrown into Xena’s bedroom… was actually pretty scary to shoot. All the safety measures were in place, but Lucy was right in amongst it. And we had fake flame gas bars hidden behind things, but I think there’s a piece where Lucy’s protecting herself with a table she picks up and the flames were pretty close. It was one of the more scary flame scenes I’ve been involved in, that’s for sure. And it works because it’s pretty realistic; you’re kind of sitting on the edge of your seat watching it… I really, really liked Michael [Hurst]’s energy and enthusiasm. And nothing was ever a problem. He always spurred you on to do your best work at all times. It was great… In pre-production we fought hard to make [the ship fight] as realistic as possible by actually finding real water and bringing the Xena boat into an inlet… and [we] also went to the expense of bringing in a barge with a crane on it with a huge light…and a generator. So a lot of effort went in to [it]… and in the end, I ended up not shooting that part of it… [But] I think I went out to visit them one night while they were shooting. It was all very exciting.” (“Antony & Cleopatra” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Five DVD Set)
Josephine Davison (Actor, Cleopatra): “I only had the opening scene where I play Cleopatra and then of course, I die. I was actually quite nervous about doing that particular episode and playing that character because I had to stroll languidly into this huge bath of warm milk. Well, in actual fact, it took us so long to shoot that it turned very quickly from a warm bath to lukewarm, tepid, and then quite cold by the end, I actually had a hot water bottle… to keep me warm. And also I was a little bit nervous because I had to walk in with this sheer gown and as I sort of step into this huge bath, I [had] to pull it off and drop down. And I [was] actually completely naked underneath. And Michael Hurst, who was directing [this] particular episode, was shooting behind and they had to shoot it several different ways. And I believe there was a very quick glimpse of my backside panning down as the robe fell down. But in the end it was all fine. The way they edited it and what they chose, it was all quite discreet… It was great working with Michael as a director. I’d already worked with him as a director… and I’d done many Herc episodes, obviously, with him as Iolaus.” (“Antony & Cleopatra” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Five DVD Set)
Michael Hurst (Director/Actor): “[The opening scene] took a long time to get… and then Lucy came on to the set and said… ‘I don’t know who’s playing [Cleopatra], but she better be good for the time you’re taking.’ And then [she] went away and I got the producer and went, ‘I’ve just been hassled by an actor. Who does she think she is?’ And Chloe [Smith] said, ‘She’s Xena.’ And I went, ‘Right.’… [But] I really think this [episode] is beautiful. I really wanted it to look good [and]… I knew it had to be sensual… [The late night date/fight scene] is where [Jon Bennett, Antony] got into his first fight with the stunt guys. This guy broke so many swords on the stuntmen that they all got a little bit [retaliatory]… He just couldn’t control it and he actually knocked a stunt guy out… It’s quite a good fight [though]… and I didn’t want to do the usual two camera shot handheld… it’s different from a lot of the fights we normally do, or did… We wanted to show the brute part of [Antony]… I just love the look [of this episode]… That sea battle was three night shoots. The whole ship built, the crane shots… And it rained and it looked great… Again, I wanted it to be really brutal… There’s a lot of blood in this actually. Everybody got it. [Gabrielle] got the crap beat out of her… I’m the cup of blood king.” (“Antony & Cleopatra” Commentary – Season Five DVD Set)
Renee O’Connor (Actor, Gabrielle): “I remember the fight scene where Gabrielle kills Brutus. Michael (Hurst – the director) wanted me to scream with rage. After we did the shot once, I said, ‘That felt so over the top.’ Michael told me, ‘No, you can go more, really, trust me.’ And I trust him completely, so I did it again even bigger and when I saw it later, I realized what he was saying. When you take an emotion and put it into slow motion, it becomes surreal… I felt like I was doing something so theatrical but slow motions takes the edge off it. I learned something in that episode – slow motion works!… We [also] tried to throw in some history between [Gabrielle and Brutus] that wasn’t established in [this episode]. At the read through, we talked about Gabrielle reminding Brutus what had happened. She says, ‘You should have been there.’ We wanted to show her resentment… [But] I don’t think Gabrielle planned to kill Brutus. The fight was so brutal. It was the most violent fight I can remember being in. Everything was to Gabrielle’s face… Gabrielle’s not a cold-blooded murderer. Killing someone so viciously in a hot-blooded fight threw her. It was an absolutely primitive reaction to being beaten to within an inch of her life… Michael wanted to establish [that] she was going to die if she did not retaliate… Michael was very specific making sure this was a love story and having to kill Antony ripped Xena’s heart out. Gabrielle’s look showed her understanding of the loss Xena had just taken… I loved the episode; it’s one of my favorites. It’s funny, the entire episode felt so still while we were filming it. Michael kept reassuring us the music and visual language of the scenes would hold the weight. There wasn’t much choreography in the blocking and no fight scene until the very end. It’s a very unusual-looking show and felt strange for us to do. Michael was very adamant about trusting him and, in the end, it was perfect!” (The Chakram Newsletter: #12)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “The chains [in the carpet scene] gave me a rash for like two weeks… I just wish I hadn’t played [Xena’s dilemma this] way. Could it have worked if I hadn’t played her like being angsty about it and just pragmatic [instead]?… Of course, I remember being there [for the ship battle]. Are you kidding me? It was cold, it wouldn’t stop raining.” (“Antony & Cleopatra” Commentary – Season Five DVD Set)
Here are scans of an interview that writer Carl Ellsworth gave on “Antony & Cleopatra” for The Chakram Newsletter: #13.
Here is an on-set report of the production of “Antony & Cleopatra” from Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #9.
Come back next Thursday for more Xena! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code Film Friday!