Maureen Russell:
Chronicling the Immortals

by Michelle Erica Green

Maureen Russell's Highlander: The Complete Watcher's Guide is actually a concordance for viewers, not a manual for the Watchers who study the Immortals of the series. But if there were real Watchers, they'd probably want a copy for reference. Partly an "Official Making of Highlander," partly an episode guide, partly a trivia-filled interview collection, the book has been extremely popular among fans of the series which recently concluded its sixth and final season.

Russell, a college professor who had previously written a book about Days of Our Lives, manages to balance an ethnographer's view of the series with a fan's enthusiasm for the material. Organized according to the stages of production of the series, Highlander: The Complete Watcher's Guide requires a certain amount of familiarity with the series to be truly appreciated; the photos are captioned only at the end of the book, the Quickening [a powerful phenomenon which occurs when one Immortal takes the head of another] is not explained - a problem for new viewers to the complicated series as well. Yet the show's historical depth and philosophical underpinnings are quite clear. The book is a lovely tribute as well as a working guide to the series.

"I had been familiar with the movies, from the very first with Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery, so when the series came out I was interested to see what they were doing," says Russell, who traveled to the set in Paris to interview series star Adrian Paul and many of the cast and crew. "From the first show, it was great - it was Duncan and Connor [the series' main character and Lambert's character from the films, which are not covered in the book]. I thought Christopher and Adrian were charming. So I stayed with it from episode one on."

Highlander didn't catch on instantly, suffering from a revolving door for head writers until David Abramowitz arrived around the seventh episode. He became the series' creative consultant, turning the series into what production designer Steve Geaghan describes as "a Talmudic discussion with ass-kicking." Russell believes Abramowitz, a trained cantor who takes classes in Torah and studies historical texts, responded to the fact that "he can write a really intelligent, philosophical, thought-provoking show, and the audience will go out on the internet that night and for the week thereafter and discuss the philosophical and moral implications. To him, that was such a gift."

Russell had friends on the series before she started working on the book and had done the video The Life and Times of Duncan MacLeod, which is how she met Bill Panzer, the executive producer who owns the rights to Highlander. She can't remember which of them approached the other about putting together a guide, but once the topic was broached, they both agreed that she was the one to do it. The first draft of the manuscript was twice as long as the final version. "As Bill said, "I didn't know all these people talked that much!" laughs the author, who explains that she described what she dined upon with each of her interview subjects as an aside for Panzer - she expected that information to be culled from the final draft - but Panzer, a gourmet, chose to leave that information in. 'Bill kept saying, 'More dirt! More dirt! Everyone wants to hear dirt!' But no one could ever think of any."

Instead, Russell's book is full of funny stories and anecdotes - costume designer Christina McQuarrie refusing to comment on what Adrian Paul wears under his kilt, Peter Wingfield (Methos) commenting wryly on the undeniably homoerotic overtones of the double Quickening in "Revelations." The author was most touched by her interview with Jim Byrnes, who plays Joe Dawson, the Watcher narrates MacLeod's history. Byrnes, like Dawson, has no legs, but in the episode "Armageddon," the demonic Ahriman tempts Dawson with the restoration of his legs.

"The writers were very concerned about that, because that's something that touches Jim's life very personally in a way that normally they would never overlap a character and an actor," recalls Russell. "Well, he really loved doing that show. 'It was great to really dig in,' was his quote. Because it was something of course he had thought about - he said, 'Yeah, I do think about it. To run down a beach and put my toes in the sand would be like going to heaven.' This is not fictional Joe Dawson saying that, it's Jim Byrnes - to me, that was just a really touching moment."

Russell declines to name a favorite episode, but notes that there were a few which stood out for her. "'Homeland,' which Adrian Paul directed, was a really excellent show with a really big heart, and it was the one episode where in fact the Highlander, Duncan MacLeod, got to go back to the Highlands of Scotland." She also loved "Duende," which featured rapier-dagger swordfights in the Mysterious Circle with "a wonderful interweaving of the story of the dance and the story of the swordfight...and Anthony De Longis!" The penultimate and final episodes, "To Be" and "Not To Be," also were special for her.

"Unusual Suspects" was the first set Russell visited, in a 15th-century chateau outside of Paris complete with a moat. "It was a little bit surreal," she recalls. "It's sort of a murder-mystery farce, and at one point there are bodies stuffed in a version of a freezer. So a bunch of actors were walking by looking like they have frostbite, they're covered with frost and their faces are blue, and it's this gorgeous, sunny French day!" Roger Daltrey appeared as Fitz in that episode, and Russell notes that "it was lovely with him clanking around in a suit of armor."

Did he sing? "Fitz doesn't sing!" she exclaims in horror. "But they did have him play the clarinet. As Daltrey pointed out, they managed to pick an instrument that he couldn't play. So as a joke, he popped the reed in backwards to see if anyone would notice. Musician's humor!"

Of the dozens of people she interviewed for Highlander: The Complete Watcher's Guide, Russell found Daltrey the funniest. "Anyone who read the book would be hard-pressed to disagree with me," she points out. "If you listened to my interview tape, mainly what you'd hear is me hysterically laughing. He had said that he preferred the show's past to the present, complaining, to quote page 116, 'Not enough shagging goes on in the '90s. I'm talking very honestly and candidly about my character. It's one thing having it coated in armor, but rubber isn't quite the same. I'm right, aren't I?' Meanwhile, we're sitting behind the chateau in this very serene but surreal setting, and on the other side of the table is Claire Keim, the French actress who played the maid. Here the dialogue coach is trying to explain to her in French what he just said about it being coated in rubber, and Daltrey, who speaks no French, is just egging her on, getting more and more in depth with the explanation. I'm trying to maintain a professional interview demeanor!"

At one point in the book, even Daltrey admits, "'This is an extremely silly interview.'" But Russell quickly adds that the next morning when he saw her, he worried that he'd been too in character as Fitz and worried that she would want a different sort of interview for the book. "He said, 'Maureen, I was being silly because I thought people would be entertained, but if I didn't give you enough, I would be happy to sit down with you again.' Just the sweetest man in the world."

Though she had a wonderful time watching the antics on the set, Russell came away with a deep sense of appreciation for how hard everyone involved with the series works. She watched two episodes shot in Paris, each taking between six and eight days. "There's a tremendous amount of freedom allowed on the set in terms of the director's vision, so they're shooting a little film every week," she observes. "I have tremendous respect for the work that they do in such a short amount of time. The look of the show is very rich."

Russell also reported on post-production, where "I got to hang out with the guys who do audio and also the guys who do video." Audio fascinated her because she expected it to be so transparent. "It's, 'OK, I want an evil sound, that's an evil entity so there must be a little sound behind him that's really annoying,' and they're very serious about it." She also discovered that the impressive clanks and bangs of the swordfights come not from the swords, but the sound technicians. "The running joke on the set - I don't know if this will play in print, you might need a recording - but when you hear the swords before the sound guys get ahold of the tape, those swordfights are tink-tink, tink-tink. Those lovely big SWOOSHes and CLANKs and BANGs and BASHes all come from the foley artists. They have a whole library of sounds, not just swords, but steel pipes and things."

A fair amount of ADR, known as looping dialogue to laypersons, is necessary because the show is shot not on soundstages but practical locations. There are sounds of course that you can hear in 1998 that you couldn't possibly hear in 1798," Russell says. "Suddenly a jet plane goes overhead. The eighteenth-century didn't actually have jets! Well, maybe on Hercules and Xena, but they're really postmodern - I don't think they have a time period. Highlander does take its history and its time very seriously. The costumers, the set designers, all work very hard at that." Post-production is in Vancouver and while shooting takes place in Paris, so there is a time lag as well as an ocean separating the two crews.

The biggest events in video post-production are the Quickenings, which contrary to popular belief consist not of effects from a lightning box but of hundreds of hand-painted bolts of lightning. "Sparky - and they really do call him Sparky, his name is Tom Archer - is lightning guy," laughs Russell. "There's a drawing on his computer of a little lightning button with a big x through it; there's no magic button. He is an artist who literally hand-paints every single solid bolt of lightning you see in a Quickening. So that was really fascinating, watching him draw a Quickening. They want it to look real, so you have to do little offshoots and lightning has its own character and its own kind of life...they're very serious about this."

A historian by training, Russell was particularly interested in the costume and set research, Her interview with Peter Wingfield lasted for hours, over the course of which they discussed Methos as an archetype and other esoteric concepts, which led her editor to call her and announce, "My god, you two sound like a couple of graduate students!" Wingfield, however, was delighted with the interview, though Russell has not yet gotten feedback from most of her interview subjects because the book is only just reaching stores. Russell gave copies to Wingfield, De Longis, and Pelka at a con in Los Angeles, and autographed copies at the Highlander Warehouse Show in Chicago this month. She will also appear at "Take a Chance with the Stars," a casino night benefitting the American Cancer Society on October 17th in Los Angeles, and on the Highlander cruise in the Bahamas November 13-26.

Conventions have been a bit of a surprise to Russell in part because the demographics were not entirely expected. "The thing that is interesting to me about Highlander fandom is that my experience of it, primarily in North America, has been that it's primarily female," she observes. "At the Celebration convention, I was sitting next to Alexandra Vandernoot, who played Tessa, and we were talking about the fans; she had never been to a con before and she asked me, 'What can I expect?'" Russell said that she suspected the audience would be primarily women between 20 and 50. "She was very surprised, because every time she was approached about Highlander in France, it was always a teenage boy. So from her direct experience, she assumed that the Highlander audience was young males who were interested in action-adventure."

Mostly Russell has been struck by the intelligence and erudition of the fans. "Everyone of whom I have direct experience is highly educated, and I think that if you watch the show, they primarily wrote to that audience." She is aware of the fan fiction, though she notes that the writers and producers cannot read it for copyright reasons and the actors are too busy working to pay much attention. "They will do easily 12-15 hour days sometimes, Adrian in particular - if it's an episode he's acting and directing, the people in production admit, they think he gives up sleep." Russell chuckles when asked whether she is aware of the large slash following, noting that there are instances the fans have made much of: "The show where Duncan has been remodeling the house he bought for Anne, and it was an ad-lib where Adrian whacks Peter in the nose with a paintbrush - that was just Adrian being funny, but it inspired stories! But nobody intended anything."

As for the new Highlander series in the works, they had not even cast the show when Highlander: The Complete Watcher's Guide went to press. Now we know it's Elizabeth Gracen, who played Amanda on the first Highlander series and will reprise that role. Gracen's performances have always been popular on the series. "Amanda's a wonderful character and Elizabeth has always done a great job, so I'm looking forward to it," says Russell.

Though she has no immediate plans to write another book, the author says this one evolved "organically," and she was involved in all stages of production from deciding on the format to choosing the photographs. (Davis-Panzer Productions is planning a Collector's Edition with additional color photos from the TV series, additional interviews, plus the three movies, to be released in 1999.) Russell doesn't intend to begin writing for the screen - "I like telling true stories - that is what interests me" - but given her past writing about a soap and the success of the Highlander guide, it seems likely that television isn't done with Maureen Russell yet.

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