Michael Nankin interview: Defiance, latex, TV pilots and more

With the launch of the Defiance series and TV show imminent, we spoke to producer and director Michael Nankin about its making...

The Syfy Channel is about to air what is surely its biggest experiment yet. Called Defiance, it’s a sci-fi series which not only employs some proven industry talent – not least writer Rockne S O’Bannon, of Alien Nation and SeaQuest DSV fame, director and producer Michael Nankin, who previously helmed episodes of Battlestar Galactica and Alphas – but also coincides with the launch of the online shooter of the same name.

In a media first, Defiance the TV series and Defiance the videogame will share characters and storylines, with events in the show replicated in the online experience, too. It’s a concept that has roped in the creative minds from both Syfy and Trion Worlds, cost an undisclosed sum of money, and will, if successful, no doubt pave the way for further ‘transmedia’ collaborations in the future.

Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth where multiple races of aliens live uneasily among humans, Defiance takes place in the ramshackle town of the same name. Roguishly handsome newcomer Nolan (Grant Bowler) provides our way into this grubby community, in which bitter rivalries and cultural chasms constantly threaten its stability. As much a Western as a sci-fi show, Defiance is infused with a lightness of touch and a faintly kitsch sensibility, which is far removed from the brooding, post-911 atmosphere of Battlestar Galactica, whose success Syfy will no doubt be hoping to replicate here.

Ahead of the Defiance pilot’s premiere on the 16th April, we had a chance to talk to Nankin about what we can expect from the show, the pitfalls in developing a TV series and game at the same time, and the perils of directing a show full of alien prosthetics, contact lenses, and brightly-coloured wigs…

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For you, what’s the differentiation point, in making sure that cadence and pacing aren’t necessarily the same as Battlestar Galactica? Because obviously sci-fi has a lot of crossovers, and it’s important to make your own mark.

The intent of the two shows is different. Battlestar Galactica was much darker. It was a show about people who were lost. Their home was destroyed, they don’t know where they’re going, they have Cylons trying to kill them. So Battlestar’s really a show about people discovering what they’re capable of when they’re pushed. This, although it’s a post-apocalyptic world, is really about a blossoming of hope; it’s about, can we get along? There’ll be no Earth for our children or anybody if we don’t find a way to defeat our selfishness and our darker side. We’re reaching for the brighter side. I think that’s probably the main difference between the two.

Taking an idea that content exceeds form – that the pacing follow from those different ideas. We tried something visually, which is not in that pilot, but you’ll see it in the series if you look for it. Whereas both shows are handheld, Battlestar’s intent was to make it look like a documentary, so it was all aggressive camera zooms and finding focus, trying to keep up with the action.

Defiance is handheld, but what we would do in every episode is try and find two or three scenes, and shoot them with the camera locked off. So you have this gritty, handheld feel, and then suddenly – it’s subconscious, it’s not obvious – but suddenly the camera locks down, and you pay more attention to it. 

How can you see the story developing, because obviously, the pilot leads lots of scope, and lots of characters. Will it cover the 30 years before the apocalypse in more detail? Will we see more about the lead character as a kid? I was quite intrigued by that opening scene.

No, we don’t reach back all that much on the show. There’s quite a bit where they kept us busy with this ne’er do well from the badlands [redacted for spoiler] and somehow trying to find redemption in his hometown. We find that he has a very, very dark past, and the relationship with his daughter is probably the heart of the series.

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And then we’ve got De-Tak-Tar trying to take over the town; he’s the show’s Tony Soprano. He’s without boundaries. Then the whole idea that there are people trying to destroy the town – that kind of takes us through the whole series.

In the UK, we had a series called Outcasts, which was kind of about people trying to survive as a community, and it didn’t quite work. Do you think there’s something about your country’s history, which makes you better able to tell stories like this?

Well, yes. One of our creative touchstones – what we kept telling ourselves – is that we’re telling an immigrant story. The DNA of this country is different, in that we are all immigrants here, so the assimilation of the De Tak Tar family – their son is a rebel. He was born here, so he doesn’t care about the customs of his ancestors. So you could essentially take the story and set it in New York in 1900. And also, the DNA of the show is very much a Western. Even though we made a creative choice not to have horses and cowboy hats, and not to make any nod to the Western, it really is.

There’s the sheriff and the doc and the prostitute in the saloon, so we have all the elements of a Western, but then we tried to move as far away from that as possible.

What struck me about that pilot was how ambitious it was, and the quality of the effects. How did it cost to make the series? It looks like a big investment.

As is typical in television, we don’t sustain that level of production enormity all the way through, although we do touch on it. Actually, episode two is huge. Then we have some smaller ones in order to protect our budget. But it’s the same visual effects team who did Battlestar. There are also quite a number – not in the pilot, but in the show – of CGI environments, where we’d do a scene where it’s the actors and a table and a chair, and everything else is green screen and CGI. We did that to give ourselves the scope and scale that we really couldn’t afford to build, because actually, Defiance is not a huge budget show. It’s the CGI that opens is up. 

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Is there the hope that Defiance will have the same cliffhanger notes that Battlestar did, and therefore the same longevity?

God willing! You know, we’ll know in a month. It’s an experiment, this grand experiment with a game and TV. I’ve no idea.

Touching on the transmedia stuff, how will its storyline differ from Battlestar, given that you’re telling a story over several strands of media?

This show had a creative partner, in a way, that no other show has ever really had. We actually had a team of people which did nothing but deal with cross-over elements, and design elements that had to work on both the show and the game. There were little mini wars about that process, and it was like siblings finally coming together and hugging and finding out a way.

The short answer is, it was twice as much work. Because we had to do stuff that they were doing, and they had to do stuff that we were doing – and it all had to be the same. It’s the same universe. Characters cross from one to the other and so on, so for example, they couldn’t design characters who were going to come into the game who had anything green on them, because we shot in front of a green screen, and it would have been troublesome for us. We had be careful with stuff that we designed that went to them, because they couldn’t have complex curves, which are very difficult for animators to deal with.

So if that was pre-production, what will you have to deal with in the second or third season, if they go ahead? Have you planned for that?

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We don’t know if there’s a season two yet. But supposing there is, I think there’ll be a much richer integration in season two than there is now, because we’ll have six months of gameplay. Because we made that show while the game was being built, and no one’s ever played it – it hasn’t been out in the world. Now we’re going to see what they like about the game, what they don’t like about the game, how the characters are tracking.

We’ll have the storytelling from the players to draw from as we go into season two. And plus, there’s an enormous amount of energy in building the highway between the game and the show, and figuring out the logistics of how we’d work together. Now that’s done, and we can concentrate on what elements are going to thrive on the highway. So season two, I think it’s going to be a whole different ballgame. 

Putting on the hypothetical hat, let’s assume that one element of this media synergy doesn’t work. What happens then?

If either one’s a hit in its own right, there’s no reason why it can’t go on. If the game’s flying off the shelf and nobody watches the show, there’s no way in the world that anyone would stop the game, and vice versa. I’m sure there’s a formula someone’s worked – level of success equals the size each needs to have in order to keep going. We may be helped by the success of the game, or we may pull them along – we have no idea. It’s all new territory.

Was it difficult not having just one person overseeing the game and the TV show, having the drive to say, “This is what we’re doing; this is how we’re doing it”?

It wasn’t really, because maybe 75 or 80 per cent of the game has nothing to do with the show. We have an enormous amount of storytelling and characters that never cross over to the game, so we could just do what we wanted to. We just had this 25 per cent that had to be common to both.

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But we had fights, you know? There were times when we wished they’d just go away, and there were times when they wished we’d go away. But it all worked out in the end. One of the early battles was the idea of horses in this town. We were rooting for horses, saying, if you have a post-apocalyptic world, you’d need beasts of burden to pull shit, you know? [Laughs]

And the game side was saying, “We can’t do horses. Sorry.” [Laughs]

Has there been a push for the creative team on one side to dabble on the other? So have you guys been invited in to play the game at various points?

No, not really. And the reason is that we’ve both been so busy just getting each side done. The show is still – I’m going to LA tomorrow to shoot pick-up shots. We’re still shooting the show! And there’s enormous amounts of visual effects which still have to be done. So it’s great that the videogame people don’t need us, and they feel the same way. They’re happy that we’re busy. But like I said, season two will be different. We know how to do it now.

With a universe like this, and it being in different forms, is there less focus on characters, and more on story and setting? I’m thinking of something like The Walking Dead, which is a massively trans-media property. It’s not specifically about one person. Is that the case here?

Actually, no. And you’ll see as the series comes out, it really concentrates on the characters. Because, really, you need to start at this level in order to create the universe. And once you’ve got the rules of the universe, you know what’s going on, then it becomes much more like Battlestar. Although there are still global issues, and the main one being, why are they trying to destroy Defiance? What’s the secret? That never lets up. 

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You’ve an awful lot of latex, and an awful lot of contact lenses in this. What sort of challenges did that pose during shooting?

It’s [pauses for thought] a fucking nightmare. [Laughs] For example, Stephanine Leonidas, who plays Arisa. When the series started, she had a three-hour make-up job. Latex, lenses, at times full body make-up, which we got down to two hours, but she’d be picked up from the hotel at 3.30 in the morning to be in the trailer for a seven o’clock call.

Contact lenses need to be fitted by a doctor, and take two weeks to create. So anyone who’s coming onto the show to play an alien couldn’t be cast at the last minute; they had to be cast two weeks ahead of time, which is almost impossible. The background players, we have a core of 20 or 30 cast-a-thons for the various races who we could never change, because we’d fit them with lenses and two-hour make-up jobs.

We had a bath scene with two actors painted completely white. [Laughs] It took an enormous amount of logistical planning, and an awful lot of dedication and hard work from everyone involved. The lenses, once you have them in, you can’t wear them all day. You schedule when the lenses come out, and if she cries when she’s wearing the lenses, it’s a shorter time… you know. It’s a huge, huge deal. There’s a seven-foot alien with a puppeteer… just gigantic.

You’ve done a lot of sci-fi work. What drew you to the genre in the first place?

It’s funny, I was a fan as a child and a teenager, but I didn’t really touch it for a long time as a filmmaker. My first entree was Battlestar, which isn’t just sci-fi; it’s a very human drama. I ate that up with a spoon. Now that I’m in sci-fi, happily… I’ll give you the stock answer, because it’s the right one, which is that the once removed quality you have as a storyteller – because you’re not telling a story about this world, you’re telling a story about a fictional world – allows you to get to stories in this world without making people uncomfortable.

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In Battlestar, we had our heroes strap on bombs and become terrorists, which you’d have much more trouble doing in a story set today in New York.

Obviously you touch on themes of race and acceptance throughout the show, how deep do those run?

Oh, very deep. The mythology, which you don’t get the full extent of in the pilot, is that the six Votan races came to Earth don’t get along. They’re all from different planets, and ganged together because their sun was blowing up and they had to survive. But as soon as they got off the ship [on Earth], they went to war with each other. One race looks down on the other, one race was enslaved by another race, and so on. There’s all kinds of unfinished business between them.

Did you purposefully leave some of that backstory out of the pilot, to add an air of mystery?

We actually shot something that explained everything for the pilot, where you basically got a history lesson. But it was dull, and we found that the desire from the audience to want to know more is very valuable. So yeah, we’ll parcel it out as the show goes on. Also, it’s not a very complex story, you really hear pretty much all of it by the time the pilot’s over.

How different was the production on this different from your other sci-fi work? You made the pilot with the other episodes already scheduled, so how did that affect it?

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It made it much more relaxed, because you know you have a job at the end of the pilot. [Laughs] It allows you to sit with the writing team and spin stories out into the future before you commit to the pilot, so you can set things up, knowing that you’re going to pay them off. Because often, you make a pilot that’s not so much a drama but a sales tool. A lot of pilots are retro-fitted. Once a season’s been picked up, they’ll go back and add stuff to the pilot, very often, because now you know what you’re setting up, so now you can go back and fix it. We knew where we were going with this story.

Michael Taylor, thank you very much.

Defiance airs on Syfy at 9pm on the 16th April. You can read our spoiler-free review of the pilot episode here.

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