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The Process, with Donna Lettow & Gillian Horvath

Gillain, Donna and the Toy BagGillian and Donna started by saying that there are a hundred and one reasons why writing an episode of a television show is not like writing fanfic, first and foremost of which is that an episodic television script has to follow a formula. It has to be 42 minutes long, when filming is complete, and if it's too long, it has to be cut, and conversely, if it's short, you have to find a way to fill in the time. Donna said that the original script for Money No Object had Cory and Amanda robbing two banks and then being shot, but they came up short, hence the montage. When you think about it, the montage makes it look like Duncan is following the two of them around wearing the same suit all the time and, of course, they have the car. Donna explained that this is also the reason why there are six minutes of square dancing in the European version of Obsession. An episode of television requires four acts of roughly equal length, with a teaser at the beginning, (this is the short scene that is intended to "tease" the audience into staying and watching what happens next), and, on Highlander, there's normally a sword fight at the end of Act 4, which is the big climax to the storyline, although they occasionally substituted this with something else, such as an exploding bridge. Normally, Highlander finished Act 2 with a sword fight that was aborted in some way, such as the interrupted fight in Band Of Brothers. They said that, above all, or you had to remember you writing action adventure TV.

The first question we had to resolve was which episode of Highlander were we writing? To help us resolve this with an element of uncertainty, Donna rolled a die, which came up with a one. So, we were writing an episode from season one, and Donna dug into the bag she'd brought on stage to produce two of the toys from the toy box - Barbie and Ken masquerading as Tessa and Duncan. She set these on the edge of the stage, but did we have Richie and Darius? Gillian produced a set of numbered cards and a volunteer from the audience blindly selected number five. This was interesting, they said, as a lot of the rules that would later be set don't apply, but it must be watchable. By this point, Donna's Palm Pilot had provided the information that we were writing Free Fall, so we had to have a role for a rock star. They told us that Free Fall was the first episode written, which is why it contains a number of elements that don't match the rest of the series - Tessa smokes and is a bitch and her relationship with Richie is extremely antagonistic. By this point, things were looking a little tricky, so it was decided to roll again.

When a 6 came up, they didn't look as if they knew all whether we'd gone out of the frying-pan into the fire or not, but Gillian scattered everything over 13 out of her pack of cards and another audience member picked episode eight. People were asking whether or not this would be featuring Methos and/or Amanda, but they said that the contracts for the actors were written before the series was written, so you knew in advance which of the regular characters were committed for which episodes. The only exception to this was that, when they were filming in Vancouver, they had purchased a number of Jim Byrne's days, so that they could use him as necessary. They explained that this is why there are some scenes in season three which take place in Joe's bar, but there is no Joe, as Jim Byrnes was on tour at the time.

The toys come out to playSo we were writing episode eight of season six - Justice. This wasn't a bad pick from season six, as we actually had Adrian Paul available for all eight days of filming, but we did have to have a female Immortal. Donna dug back into the toy box for Duncan and managed to produce a one-legged female! After a few comments about disability and Immortals, an able-bodied substitute was produced. So we had to come up with a new story for this female Immortal, who had to be older than Duncan MacLeod, but just as strong. The role also had to be interesting for the guest star.

A few ideas were shouted out which Donna scribbled on a flip chart. Our heroine had been living on Holy Ground and looked young, (despite being older than MacLeod). She was coming out of seclusion. At this point, they informed us that that there could be no crossover with previous Highlander episodes - the European buyers had been quite insistent that the story had to stand on its own.

They told us that the original idea for the episode Justice was that Katya was hunting a friend of MacLeod's. Things got a bit distracted and they told us that, in Deliverance, when Duncan is in the Holy Hotspring, there had been a suggestion that Methos should be tinkering at the top of the well securing a grate, (a sideways reference to the deleted scene in Revelation 6:8), although I got the impression that this was a joke that had gone round the writers' office.

It was all right for our heroine to be living on Holy Ground, but she couldn't be a nun. That would be offensive in the Bible Belt, amongst other places, and they had had problems with the Mikey story and with the butt shot in Chivalry. You had to be aware of people's sensibilities and, besides, there was a moratorium on killing priests on Highlander after both Werner Stocker and Roger Bret died after their characters were killed. Gillian, (or was it Donna?), said this was such as strong idea in the writers' minds that when they were developing the story line of Armageddon, they reached a certain point and both she and David Abramowitz looked at each other, but couldn't bring themselves to say it. James Thorpe, blissfully unaware of that element of Highlander's past, cheerfully blurted out, "and then he kills the priest". They decided to put that down as something to be figured out later and put WP, (writer problem), in the margin.

So she was cloistered and she had a trauma in her past and she was called Carla. The general consensus was that she should be gunned down in the teaser. Gillian said that we had to be careful not to show too much blood, and told us that there had been a controversy about the colour of the communion wine in Mortal Sins. The director had used white wine, the colour used for communion wine in his religion, and they had to colour correct it in post-production. After some further discussion, it has decided that she would be arguing with the Mother Superior, walk off Holy Ground, be shot and die.

So on to Act 1. Our opening scene was suggested to be Duncan having a shower. So we were going to use the barge, Gillian said, pointing out that we had never had a bathroom shown on the barge before. She also pointed out that this was Paris in the summer and the interior of the barge could reach 120 degrees. They quoted David Gerrold, who said that you can have one at major coincidence in any story. They also said that they had found a real problem by episode eight of season six, that of finding a Canadian or European actress who can act convincingly as an Immortal. They also pointed out that it's a rule of television that you have used the same location, so when it was suggested that the flashbacks should be set in the convent school, this got high marks. We also had to work out a connection between Carla and MacLeod that was not necessarily confrontational or over-friendly, so why not have Duncan on the board of trustees of the convent school where Carla gets shot. As an aside, they said that it was Adrian's decision not to use a sword in Sins Of The Father.

There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing as to the scenario, which I've cut out here, but by this stage we had established that Carla was the sponsor of a school for orphans and the person who shot her was her former student, Frederick, (only we weren't sure whether he shot her or the Mother Superior - there was a strong feeling that we should kill the nun). Frederick's motivation wasn't exactly clear, but it had something to do with a sword which was invested with magical powers, allegedly, which was in Carla's keeping. This prompted the suggestion that when our pilot episode got picked up for a season, we would have the title Highlander: The Guardian, which again got high marks from Gillian and Donna, as we then had a reason for Carla to leave Holy Ground, that being her very public death.

So who gets to be the girl?For a little while, it had dawned on Gillian that our two professional swordmasters would have to enact a fight between Frederick, (and has he had been given the full name of Frederick von Braun, there are no prizes for guessing who she had cast in that role), and Carla, which left only that role for Bob Chapin, much to Gillian's amusement. When Braun and Bob came on stage, Bob was less than enthusiastic about his role and it was decided that a woman should play Carla, so Morgan, one of Bob Chapin's students who was in the audience, found herself cast as our heroine, which left only one possible role for Bob - Duncan MacLeod. It was decided that Duncan would fight Frederick first, then Carla would step in and take over. Braun and Bob started to work the fight out, with audience suggestions being shouted out. There was a definite feeling that we wanted to see more than just sword play, which meant that the fight ended with Duncan on his knees and being kicked in the face by Frederick, which laid him out at the crucial moment and Frederick would take his head but for the intervention of Carla.

Braun and BobAs Braun started to choreograph the fight with Morgan, he said that he liked to work in different planes and levels as well as combining moves, to make the fight interesting. He also pointed out that he would normally write the choreography down as he went along, whereas he and Morgan were having to remember the fight from the start. As the two of them worked up what had the makings of a very respectable fight, Bob was lying where he had "fallen" and kept asking if he was better yet. Morgan seemed more than capable of keeping up with Braun and finished the fight with a nice round house kick that sent Frederick sprawling and allowed Carla to step in, kick down on his sword arm, breaking it, before taking his head.

Gotcha!Braun said that most fights were filmed in short sequences, as few actors were capable of learning an entire fight - he said that Anthony de Longis and Valentine Pelka, and to a lesser extent Peter Wingfield, could do this, but that 90% of a master shot might never be used anyway. Another factor in determining whether you shoot a master shot of the fight is whether or not your set lends itself to that kind of continuous movement. He said that fights were often shot as a series of phrases and that sometimes a master shot was impossible to do, because of the type of weapons you were using. He said that he always did the choreography alone, but that when it came to teaching actors the fight, only Adrian Paul and a few of the trained actors spoke the language he would use, so he had to explain it very simply. He said he choreographed fights alone and had to learn both sides of the fight, and the got some very weird looks choreographing a fight when he was working out the moves without having a sword in his hand! He said it would normally take about four hours to choreograph one minute of screen-time action.

Faster than the eye can seeHe was asked what the best period was for the sword and he said that costumes from the period when the rapier was the weapon of choice were cut with an understanding of the needs of the weapon. He also liked Cavalier and Elizabethan dress and felt that they were practical and he liked the weaponry from those eras. He said that over stylisation of dress makes the wearer less mobile and corsets and bodices practically immobilise the wearer. He said that the footwear and the costumes, as well as the set and lighting, even the jewellery that the actors will wear, all impact on his choices before he choreographs the first blow of a fight.

A nice roundhouse kickHe was asked what is the average number of takes before you get a good take of a fight and he said it's hard to say. The maximum he's heard of is 30 takes of a single scene, but that was not on Highlander. He said the number of script pages that have to be filmed each day dictates the amount of time available and hence the number of takes that can be done. He was asked how he determines an actor's ability with a sword and said that he tries to get the actor or his agent on the phone to find out such simple things as whether the actor is left or right handed, which weapons he might be familiar with and whom he has studied with. He said he also tries to determine if the actor has any defects that he should know about and told us that they were on the beach filming at the fight scene for The Samurai before Robert Ito told him that he had two artificial hips.

Someone asked how they could go about learning to use a sword and Bob Chapin said that we should look for a teacher who was a member of the Society of American Fight Directors. He said that there's a link to the Society of American Film Directors on his site at www.robertchapin.com.

Braun said that a person's height is not a problem when you're choreographing, but their reach is. He said that you can tell the height of someone from the blade length of his or her rapier and that the Spanish rapier was so long it was too long to draw. He said that, on Highlander, where there is a mismatch of swords in most fights, length and reach were an issue. By season 4, they were using swords made by Museum Replicas of Atlanta. He said that he had to develop fights for weapons from different periods that had never actually been used against each other historically - for example, a katana against a Roman gladius. He said that some do not match and this would be a problem if he was expected to be historically accurate, but he justified the mix-and-match of weapons by the fact that the Immortals travel the world and noted that the reverse grip that Duncan often uses on his katana is Korean, not Japanese.

Next... Rare Highlander Footage