“Farscape” Season Three – According to David Kemper
By Anna L. Kaplan
Everyone who makes FARSCAPE works very hard, including executive producer David Kemper. He is passionately committed to making the best television show possible. He feels the weight of that responsibility. As work was progressing on the beginning of season four, he said, “Rockne [O’Bannon] had a vision from the beginning. We are going to stay true to it. I know where the series is going. I know the cliffhanger for year four. I also know the season opener for year five, because if you know the cliffhanger you have to know how it resolves. I know all the way through into the beginning of year five. I feel this responsibility to all the fans. That’s what scares me. I’ve got all this stuff in my head. There are stacks of file cards and papers. They are my notes for the first three-and-a-half years. Embedded in all those notes is another six or seven years worth of show. All these file cards are sitting, and other people know what they are and where they are, but interpreting is them is like tea leaves. That’s what scares me. All these people really like the show, and I feel like I better deliver.”
Kemper added a promise. “When people watch the season ender for year four, it will be better than this year. There is not a person in the company that will let it be worse. We know what it’s going to be, and we know where we are going. It’s hard to always get better. We have dedicated ourselves. Certainly if we go five years we intend to keep getting better.”
Exactly how much of the series, specifically, does Kemper know? He used a trip across the United States as an analogy for the plotting of FARSCAPE. He explained, “We are thinking long term. A lot of the fans are thinking very short term. They are enjoying the episodes one at a time but they are missing out on something bigger, what we think makes our show special. We have a rough thematic idea of where we are going. We know what is supposed to happen. We know we are in L.A. and we know we are going to end up in New York on New Year’s Day. Most people would think you go straight through, Phoenix, Las Vegas, St. Louis. You might take a detour.
But we might go to Washington State, then go down to Texas, then come back to Vegas, then go to Mount Rushmore, circle back to Denver, go right down to Miami, from Miami up to Detroit, from Detroit to Dallas. Back to Dallas because we liked Dallas. Up to Washington, right to Philadelphia. We are an hour-and-a-half from New York, but we decide, we want to go to Dallas one more time. We go to Dallas, and from Dallas we go to New York.”
Kemper laughed, “When we get to New York, we parachute into New York. That’s our show.”
What makes FARSCAPE work? For one thing, Kemper and company take risks and are proud of it. He said, “If you want to do something inventive you have to take risks. If you take risks, you make people uncomfortable, including yourself. We are taking chances and it makes us nervous. We all know what the safe route is. Sometimes we are tempted to follow it. There are always one or two voices which say, ‘I know we are all tired folks, but let’s not take the safe route.’ It makes us nervous, because we have all worked really hard. We are going to do something risky that might undo all the work. But we would rather take the risk, and there are enough risk takers at the top of this pyramid.”
Another hallmark of FARSCAPE production is its collaborative nature. “Dog With Two Bones” was written by Kemper but enriched by contributions, especially from director Andrew Prowse and actors Ben Browder and Claudia Black. All worked very hard to get every scene right, including the one where Aeryn and Crichton ultimately say goodbye. Explained Kemper, “I had a scene for them saying goodbye. The movement of the scene, the internal structure of the scene is the same. Crichton comes in and says, ‘I am not letting you go without me.’ Then they have an argument in the middle, and they come to a false decision, because neither one of them can live with it. They come back together, and they come at it again. They have another decision. The decision holds, and you end the scene. Claudia, Ben and I were sitting together one day in the maintenance bay shooting something else. Claudia said, and I am paraphrasing, ‘It just seems so ridiculous, but we know they have to part. Crichton at one point had talked about fate. It’s almost like they should just flip a coin.’ I am thinking, ‘That’s interesting.’ It became serious. Claudia said, ‘Is that a good idea?’ Ben looked at me, and I looked at Ben, and by that time Andrew was there. We knew the scene had to be powerful. The template of the scene was there. Crichton comes in, tries to stop her. They have an argument. They come back together. They have another argument and they come to a decision. What is the device that lets you have the decision? Do they fight each other? Do they slap each other? Do they tackle each other? Do they kiss each other? There’s a million ways to go, and you have to figure out how the people feel at that moment. Because I have two actors who know their characters so well, I want their input. We wrestled around with it, and I said, ‘I like this idea. I am going to rewrite this whole scene to get to a coin flip.’”
Black also suggested a line change for Aeryn’s “death” just before filming the scene. Recalled Kemper, “Ben and Claudia are sitting in their positions. They’ve got their arms wrapped around each other. I happened to walk up, and we had a huge discussion, right then and there, 20 seconds before the cameras rolled. In the script, it was basically, ‘I love you. Don’t let me go.’ I went for the tear-jerker, and then she dies. Claudia had rehearsed it, and we were fine. She was almost joking, and she said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I said to him the same thing that he said to me?’ Ben turned to me and said, ‘That would be neat.’ So we thought about it and we talked about it. I said, ‘The problem is, the other Crichton said it. This is isn’t the same Crichton. This Crichton is giving the memory to Aeryn, because Aeryn doesn’t really exist. Aeryn is in his mind. The only way that would work, is Crichton, in his head, when he thinks through a death scenario, that’s a line that comes to his mind. He said it when he died, the him that died, and he gave it to someone else when he fictionalized a lover’s death. It clearly becomes something that is part of John Crichton, that both Crichtons have. We decided to go for it, and it worked great. That’s FARSCAPE.”
Kemper also thinks a key to FARSCAPE is that it is not predictable. Everyone working on the show goes to great lengths to take the show in the direction opposite what others might do. Said Kemper, “I think the hallmark of our series is we sit back and go, ‘What would be the thing that every other show would do? What would most people think was going to happen? We’re going to do it completely differently.’ Some of the people will guess, but we’d like to think that we are good at what we do, and we’re trying to surprise you. We don’t want you to guess it. If you can guess it then you won’t watch our show. People want to know spoilers, because they love the show. But once you know the spoilers, eventually you just won’t watch the show. You’ll start to drift away. It won’t become so imperative.”
Everyone working on FARSCAPE also tries to keep the surprises secret, often going to great lengths to do so. At the end of “Dog With Two Bones,” Crichton realizes that the old woman, played by Melissa Jaffer, told him that Aeryn is “with child.” Kemper described the way that dialogue was kept secret. “This script never said the word pregnant in it,” he recalled. “I wrote other scenes, fake scenes, and we published the script. There were only four pieces of paper that had the scene where the pregnancy is discussed. Besides the writing department, Andrew Prowse, Ben, Claudia, and Melissa Jaffer were the only people who knew that it was about pregnancy. They rehearsed it with the dummy lines. When the cameras were rolling they did it with the real lines. Once the scene was shot, between Melissa and Ben, when she is in closeup whispering in his ear, the pages were shredded. The only record of the pregnancy was on the tapes. It was a very, tightly-kept secret. The thing is, what does it mean? Crichton only knows what he thinks he knows. We don’t know what’s real. We don’t know, because Aeryn is gone. Aeryn can’t tell us yet.”
Despite all the care that went into keeping “Dog With Two Bones” secret, it aired in England months before it was shown on the SCI FI Channel, and people put spoilers up on the Internet. To Kemper’s way of thinking, this not only ruins the end of the season for other viewers, but it also diffuses interest. FARSCAPE has to attract new viewers. Kemper wants FARSCAPE’s surprises to stay secret in order to generate interest in cliffhangers and their resolution, and capture the attention of mainstream media. He explained, “What we need is for people to not know what’s going on, so there is this ground swell of buzz, before the event. We can tap into that in the mainstream media, and hype something, which gets new people interested. When it starts to buzz from the Internet, and it buzzes to the mainstream, then you get ‘USA Today’ to do an article on it. Here’s this great buzz going, like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. They want to do an article about the buzz, which gets us an article on the front page of ‘USA Today,’ which makes other magazines and newspapers cover it, which makes people who never heard of the SCI-FI Channel, tune in once. What they’ll see when they tune in will blow them away, and they’ll probably stay. However, when the Internet people have seen it, our core people are going, ‘I know the story, I’ve read the transcripts.’ We go, ‘“USA Today” you should cover the buzz about FARSCAPE,’ and they look around and go, ‘There’s no buzz.’ We don’t get the ads, we don’t get the articles, and then the ratings don’t spike at all. Then I go to the people with all the bucks and Barry Diller says to me, ‘I’m not giving you 12 million dollars for promotion. You are not even going to bring in new viewers.’ It’s a vicious cycle. That’s how shows die. Our show is so monstrously big with so many tentacles that the show will end up collapsing. When it some day collapses, for lack of support, because it’s really expensive, I’ll be giving an interview to you explaining how some of the fans were partly responsible.”
But Kemper also loves to deliver the surprises. That is huge part of the fun for him as a filmmaker. He added, “It’s a compact between the viewer and the producer. We are going to give you entertainment. The way we are giving you the entertainment is, we need to slightly manipulate you. If the fans heard that, and ten fans or twenty fans said, ‘I’ll try to watch the show without knowing the ending,’ then it’s worth it. Then I have turned some people around.”
Copyright 2002 by Anna L. Kaplan. A shortened version of this article originally appeared in the June 2002 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 34, Number 3-4). Other articles from this issue can be found in the Archives June 2002.