Michael Levine:
Xena's Stranger in a Strange World

by Michelle Erica Green

In "Stranger in a Strange World," the episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys that airs next week, there's a Good Hercules and an Evil Hercules. Xena's a vixen, Ares is a great guy. Some of the usual suspects have put down their swords, while some unlikely people are up to no good. And director Michael Levine had to find a way to bring all these variants to life.

Levine, a former network executive, is a sort of stranger in a strange world himself; a former network executive, he left promotion and programming to pursue his dream of directing television and features. He always wanted to be a director; after thirteen years rising through the executive ranks, he finally decided it was time to switch hats, and made his ability to direct episodes a condition for extending his contract with New World Television.

"[It was] absolutely trial by fire," he says of the decision. Though he had a film school education, and a great deal of experience from the writing end, "there was a lot of on-site training when I first started."

While he's probably best known to genre audiences now for Hercules and Xena, Levine played a major role in the cult favorite series Forever Knight from the early 1990s. He was the studio executive when the neo-gothic show was in development, and wrote two of the episodes. Developed as a one-hour prime time show, Forever Knight initially filmed a two-hour pilot with Rick Springfield, but the upper echelon at CBS apparently balked at having a vampire on the network. About a year and a half later when Crime Time followed Prime Time, the director of late-night television resurrected the show, which is probably best remembered for its erotic camera work and its sometimes campy, sometimes dramatic flashbacks.

Those flashbacks, Levine reveals, were not originally planned for the series. Late Night CBS ran so many commercial minutes that the show didn't need so much material to fill up the hour, but foreign distribution requirements were much longer. The flashbacks were originally intended to be included in the foreign cuts only. But, says Levine, "after we shot the first two episodes, we realized that one of the more fascinating things about the show were the flashbacks. So we couldn't get rid of them!"

Levine's directing work on the stylized vampire show was what brought him to the attention of Xena's producers. "My agent had been in contact with Liz Friedman over at Renaissance, and they were looking for directors," he explains. "They wanted [directors] who had done shows that had a lot of style to them, and they saw Forever Knight." A meeting with Rob Tapert, who was still developing the show at that point, cemented Levine's relationship with the producers. He has directed five Xena episodes ("Cradle of Hope," "Altared States," "Warrior...Princess...Tramp," "The Quest," and "Ulysses," as well as Hercules episodes "A Star To Guide Them" and the upcoming "Stranger in a Strange World," which features appearances by most of the Xena cast).

Levine has filmed some of the most popular scenes with fans - the near-miss kiss in "The Quest," the skinny-dipping in "Altared States," the baby-tossing in "Cradle of Hope," the multiple Lucy Lawlesses in "Warrior...Princess...Tramp." Were they as much fun to film as they were to watch? "We were having way too much fun," the director admits, confessing that the actors can be hilarious and the whole crew enjoys the show's sexual innuendo. "The baby scene was fun because we had to think about how many times we could get away with throwing the baby up and down! I had a particularly good time in 'Altared States' when Renee ate the drugged bread - we were just laughing all the time, because Renee was so funny in that."

Did the suggestions of intimacy between Xena and Gabrielle come out of the acting or the nuances of the script? "It obviously starts with the writers," says Levine, indicting scenes such as the dialogue at the beginning of 'Altared States,' which sounds very sexual until it becomes evident that it's an innocent fishing scene...sort of. "It's kind of how the actors play it as to whether it will be innuendo or not," he adds. "I know that Lucy and Renee are always game for that. And then, of course, it's how I portray it: I could be blatant about it, as far as the shots I might select, or I could be very subtle about it." In "Stranger in a Strange World," the last Hercules episode Levine filmed, "there's some pretty broad stuff," so he called producer Rob Tapert and asked, "'How far do you want me to go with the comedy?'" Tapert replied, "'When you think you've gone too far, you haven't.' So it was kind of carte blanche to take it as far as I wanted," laughs Levine.

"Stranger in a Strange World" was particularly enjoyable for Levine because he got to work with a number of fan favorites whom he'd never directed before. The episode features Kevin Smith as Ares, Alex Tydings as Aphrodite, Ted Raimi as Joxer, in addition to Xena, Gabrielle, and Hercules and Iolaus. "It's a hysterical episode - the fans of the show are really going to enjoy this one," Levine predicts, adding that the innuendo in this show is certain to spark interest.

Rumor has it that both Hercules and Xena will be somewhat darker this season. Levine is loath to give details, though he is aware of fan concern about the supposed rift between Xena and Gabrielle in upcoming episodes. The goal, he believes, "is to turn things upside down somewhat...there's a trilogy coming up that, when you take them as a whole, they're pretty heavy themes." Pointing out that Xena has tended to alternate between comic and serious episodes, he compares the upcoming trilogy to the arc filmed when Lucy Lawless' accident caused her to miss a lot of shooting - "Destiny," "The Quest," and "A Necessary Evil." While he predicts that the sequence "will shake some things up," Levine thinks that fans will enjoy the ride.

Levine directed "The Quest," which didn't even have a finished script when he boarded the plane for New Zealand. "It was one of those episodes that just fell together," he says, crediting Renee O'Connor's acting and Bruce Campbell's guest appearance with making the show a fan favorite. His "Warrior...Princess...Tramp" was complicated as well, because instead of no Lucy, he had two to contend with. "Any time you have the 'Evil Twin,' or in this case the 'Naive Twin,' you have to give it a lot of thought...for example, in 'Warrior...Princess...Tramp' when Lucy's walking around herself," Levine notes, stating that he didn't want to resort to simple split-screen techniques.

Xena's production may be slightly more complicated than the average American television show because of its distant location for filming. The writers' meetings are held in California, but the production meetings take place in New Zealand. Occasionally it's necessary to interrupt the producers at night or during a weekend, due to the time difference and the International Date Line. In addition, the writers occasionally lack knowledge about the South Pacific, which is important in selecting props and tools. "For example, if they write in snakes, well, there are no snakes in New Zealand. So we can't shoot that," Levine points out. "Generally, though, the Kiwis are great...if [the script] calls for this prop or that prop, they're game to make it. Now of course, a lot of times the stuff is computer-generated anyway."

Xena and Hercules do have one advantage over most other one-hour shows: a cast read-through of the script before filming starts. The major cast members and guest actors sit down with the producers and read through the entire script. "That way, you kind of iron things out before you get on the set - Lucy [or] Renee will say, 'I'm going to say this instead of that,' and it doesn't really change the text of what the scene's about, but she makes it her own," Levine says, adding that writers like R.J. Stewart or Steve Sears capture the characters' voices very well to begin with. While there's more improvisation on Hercules than Xena, there's room for spontaneity on both shows.

The special effects of course can complicate everything, but Levine sings the praises of the people he works with in that specialty. "Anything that has to do with special effects, any fight sequence, gets storyboarded down in New Zealand, and the storyboard artist will sit with me, and it really makes me think about the scene because I'm essentially directing the scene on paper," he explains. "She's drawing panels of every shot, so it really helps the blue screen process. This last Herc I did, when we shot all the plates and footage that we needed, we had no idea what this [effect] was going to look like. We had wind and we had flashing light effects, but we didn't have any idea what the actual special effect was going to be. And I was just thrilled." Before he goes to work, Levine talks to coordinator Kevin O'Neill to see what he has in mind, and they work together on the effects.

Levine is aware of the vast fan network, and the way his shows are analyzed in detail he never expected. He's very enthusiastic about the feedback they provide him with, and is known to be fan-friendly among internet followers. In the past, Levine says, his only feedback came from the producer and maybe a friend or two who had caught one of his episodes. "Now," he says, "I get feedback from people all over the country, and they bring up things I would never have thought of. So I think they contribute mightily to my growth as a director - it's like a lot of actors will tell you they love performing live because of the feedback. [When] my episode airs, I jump on America Online to see what they said about it."

Xena's fans have been very respectful towards the show's creators, and in turn have been treated positively by the producers - a very different situation from Star Trek's parent company, Viacom, which has harassed and threatened to take legal action against fan-run web sites. Levine thinks it's because the fans have been a driving force in the show's success, and the people in the know have been careful not to spoil the show for others. Science fiction audiences are hardly new to him; much of his directing resume consists of science fiction and action shows, including Zorro, Silk Stalkings, Nowhere Man, and Dark Skies, in addition to Forever Knight. Currently working on Pacific Blue, Levine often brings his oldest child to the set with him.

"You know how on the set we have the D.P., the Director of Photography? Well, on the Pacific Blue set we also have the 'D.K.' - the director's kid. That's what he's known as," the director laughs, adding that his son performed the dialogue for the boy Icus in "Altared States," since the young actor from New Zealand was unavailable when they needed to loop in Los Angeles, and had done the same in Zorro, his father's first film. "Right now, he's having fun," Levine laughs, noting that it's fine with him if his children choose to follow him into the business. He emphasizes the importance of training and hard work: "If you're young and in your teenage years and they have film or drama courses, by all means, take them. And try to get in as much production work as you can. And then definitely go to school, because you learn a lot about things that have nothing to do with film, but that help you when you're trying to tell a story elsewhere, when you try to write and when you try to visualize it on film. Get involved, there's much more opportunity available today than there ever was when I graduated from college."

Though he calls directing his passion, Levine also writes scripts, which he describes as "a means to an end." He is developing two projects which he describes as "family pictures, that everybody can go and see and everyone can enjoy," like John Hughes and Ron Howard films as well as some of Steven Spielberg's. He enjoys filming comedy, and sounds as if he hopes to move out of television and into feature directing more in the future.

For now, though, he's enjoying the occasional trips to New Zealand and his new baby, and it seems pretty clear that there's more Xena in his future - like family pictures, in more ways than one.

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