Farscape: The New Motley CrewA Peter Coogan interview
by Jane Killick
The history of Farscape goes back several years. Created by the writer of the Alien Nation movie, Rockne S. O'Bannon and developed by the Jim Henson Company, it finally went into production and debuted in the US in the Autumn of 1998. Now Farscape is getting its first run in the UK, and the episodes currently being shown on BBC2 are a pretty close match to the orignal idea. "It hasn't changed that much, in fact," says Peter Coogan of the Jim Henson Company. "The basic premise of a guy who the audience could identify with and has these pop culture references. Ben Browder, the guy who plays John Crichton, is very funny, a lot of those he drops in himself. The show's idea centres around an experiment going horribly wrong and him ending up on the other side of the Universe on a prison ship, that was basically the premise. How you embellish that and develop it, obviously came in over the years."
Pete has been with the project since the early days. He saw through much of the development, was instrumental in selling the idea to co-producers The Sci-Fi Channel in the US and Nine Netowkr Australia, then was on set for the first season as Executive in Charge of Production. Despite the amount of work that went into Farscape before going in front of the cameras, he believes the episodes get stronger as they go along. "That's the great thing about how it was written. We didn't have 22 scripts going into it. You can shoot it that way and from an analytical statistical point of view, it makes a lot of sense. But from a creative character development point of view, it makes no sense whatsoever. Because we're working with an organic group of characters and cast and crew and you find out what works well together and what dynamic evolves during the show. I firmly believe that the show goes from strength to strength and really developes into great Sc-Fi drama, [especially with] the way Crichton develops and doesn't quite handle the environment. As human beings, how would we be if we were in a totally different alien environment? How would we handle it? could we handle it? Maybe you close down totally and go inside yourself and don't exist anymore. Crichton is able to respond to it with tongue-in-cheek humor, but at the same time, he never actually fits in. I think that comes through in the later episodes, which is refreshing."
"I remember a guy towards the end who plays a character called Scorpius, Wayne Pygram, who has quite an intense make-up. He was a lovely, well-balanced kind of guy, a guy who you'd quite like to go and have a drink with. But in the space of an hour-and-a-half whent he make-up was going on, he'd become this evil character and you couldn't talk to him. He followed me off stage one day and he said, 'Pete, is there a problem between you and I?" and I said 'absolutely not, Wayne, I just didn't want to break your characters'. He said, 'I was worried sick, I thought I'd said something'. I didn't want to shatter the character because he was so convincing, even the grips and the electricians couldn't look himn in the eye. It's part and parcel of that kind of job and the genre that you find a way to best schedule it and keep the actor's' health and energy levels in the forefront of your mind."
Pete Coogan is now back in London, having set the series on it's way for the first season. But work is still going on back in Sydney where the second season of Farscape is being filmed, having been a hit in the US and Australia. It only now remains to be seen how it will fare in the UK.
Sidebar: Special Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Courtier on P'au Zotoh Zhaan
"We were involved in many conceptual designs for Zhaan. That character was once a man in our conceptual thoughts and was called Zen and shared some of the personality profile that she now has. She was a sort of spiritual leader in a way, the calm one, as opposed to characters like D'Argo who's prone to fits of energetic poutbursts and violence, and Rygel who's a frustrated ruler. Zhaan is the most philisophical of them all. I suppose when a show's being conceived right at the beginning, it was a collection of loose thoughts by a collection of people which included Brian Henson, Rockne O'Bannon and us at the Creature Shop. The character developed from the writing end and from Brian, and it was good to get the balance right."
Sidebar: Special Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Courtier on Rygel XVIII
"There was always going to be a little character, power-mad ex-emperor of billions of subjects who couldn't accept the notion that he now has no subjects. That's Rygel who is the little puppet character we did for the show.
"He's got hundreds and hunders of moving bits. He's got 25 little motors in his head and it takes between two and four people to operate him. He's a conventional hand puppet in essence -- ie, there's someone underneath him with their hand in his head operating the jaw -- the rest of his face is driven by an external puppeteer off camera.
"Rygel has taken a lot of time to get to the right place, but he's better now than he was. That's quite often the case with animatronic charatcers which can't be auditioned and found to be right before we start shooting. Quite often than not, they arrive a week or two weeks before the shooting, having come out a tihgt built schedule; they're then given to puppeteers who have very little time to get used to the equipment, let alone build a character performance. So it may take a few weeks for them to settle in and then to start drawing out what can be really good about a character like that.
"We developed a sense of background for some of the characters as we were building them. Rygel, for instance, has nostrils which are very high up in his head and our feeling was that he was an aquatic creature from a very muddy planet and that his features would be happiest immersed in water. Just they eyes and their nostrils and their ear flaps would be seen as they basked in their natural environment. Of course, Rygel doesn't appear to like that! But I've got an answer for his physiology."
Sidebar: Special Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Courtier on General [sic] Ka D'Argo
"We ran through the gamut of different designs for D'Argo. He was going to be something like Chewbacca many years ago because Star Wars was something that everyone held up the looking glass to. And, in matter of fact, D'Argo became more complex and he needed to be more complex than big furry thing. So he went through his debacle of different guises. He was once a brutal lizard-type thing, and then a hairy thing, and he finally emerged as D'Argo the warrior with very interesting drealocks!
"He wasn't so much inspired by his home planet environment, but there were a few ground rules: If you had a race of warriors, they would have bony skulls and nose plates and be unbelievably tough. He has natural armour, in other words."
Sidebar: Special Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Courtier on Pilot
"Pilot is cool. We always felt they were subterranean creatures or tunnel dwellers because he's sort of embedded in the ship and doesn't move out of place. He's somehow symbiotic with Moya who is an organic spaceship. We didn't quite develop the theories as far as we did with Rygel, but we somehow felt life on his home planet was probably a similar sort of existance to that on the ship. He would always be plugged into something; if it wasn't Moya, it was be some other kind of symbiotic relationship.
"It was a great joy to work on Rygel and Pilot simple becuase there were no constraints, so our imaginations could fly. For us at the Creature Shop, it's like being let off the leash. The leash quite often wants us to make extremely realistic creatures which have to match their live counterparts, as in Babe. The challenges are still enormous and fascinating, but your imagination isn't involved, whereas in Science Fiction we're free to be inspired."