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By Christopher Stipp

The Archives, Right Here

I was able to sit down for a couple of years and pump out a book. It’s got little to do with movies. Download and read “Thank You, Goodnight” right HERE for free.

Check out my new column, This Week In Trailers, at SlashFilm.com and follow me on TWITTER under the name: Stipp


thefourthkindr1artpic1This week I have another contest for you readers out there. This week it’s all about Milla Jovovich.

Starring in The Fourth Kind, the movie is all about exploring alien abductions and government conspiracies. If you’re in the mood for a film that you can pop in the DVD player, pop some corn, and enjoy the lo-fi adventures of a woman who starts to unravel strange occurrences in a small Alaskan town.

If you can cobble together your name and address, manage to send it to me at Christopher_Stipp@yahoo.com, and give me one reason why an alien wouldn’t want to abduct you as a representative sample, I will enter you in a contest to win one of these.

The film’s synopsis:

In 1972, a scale of measurement was established for alien encounters. When a UFO is sighted, it is called an encounter of the first kind. When evidence is collected, it is known as an encounter of the second kind. When contact is made with extraterrestrials, it is the third kind. The next level, abduction, is the fourth kind. This encounter has been the most difficult to document…until now.

Structured unlike any film before it, The Fourth Kind is a provocative thriller set in modern-day Nome, Alaska, where—mysteriously since the 1960s—a disproportionate number of the population has been reported missing every year. Despite multiple FBI investigations of the region, the truth has never been discovered.

Here in this remote region, psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler (Milla Jovovich) began videotaping sessions with traumatized patients and unwittingly discovered some of the most disturbing evidence of alien abduction ever documented.

Using never-before-seen archival footage that is integrated into the film, The Fourth Kind exposes the terrified revelations of multiple witnesses. Their accounts of being visited by alien figures all share disturbingly identical details, the validity of which is investigated throughout the film.

Erin Cummings and Steven DeKnight  - INTERVIEW

So, when you go to Comic-Con, as you’re there trying to score interviews, you sometimes have to sit on things.

Last year I did a rather lengthy interview with Zachary Levi of Chuck that I had to sit on for months because we didn’t know when the show was coming back on the air. When I talked to Michael Jai White and Scott Sanders of Black Dynamite, I had to wait for that one to catch a little fire before releasing that one as well. So, when I was literally pulled into a hallway to be shown the trailer for Spartacus: Blood and Sand, now playing on the Starz channel, and had a chance to talk to the always affable actress Erin Cummings who I talked to exactly 12 months before that for her film Bitch Slap and showrunner/writer/director/producer/ender of anyone not in awe of his body art Steven DeKnight I was game to get an interview that would sleep away for months while the show generated some steam.

Cribbing a little bit from 300’s style but being wholly original in crafting a series that is not your usual sword and sandals production Spartacus separates itself from other shows in that you get blood but you also get a little drama, some heartfelt emotion. The series is just past the half-way point for the first season but it was a pleasure to talk to someone like Steven, a man who has had his fingers in Angel, Dollhouse, Smallville, ahem Viva Laughlin, ahem, and even has written some episodes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The man is impressive simply by the successes he’s had on the production and written side of the business while Erin Cummings, who played a tempestuous little tart in Bitch Slap, simply exudes the kind of intelligence, thoughtfulness, and sense of humor you wish more starlets would possess.

SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND is now playing on Starz. Catch a new episode tonight, March 19th.

poster-spartacusveciCHRISTOPHER STIPP:  Explain to me how you balance being both a show runner and executive producer…

STEVEN DEKNIGHT: Usually show runner is executive producer.  It’s on the writing side if you create the show and are spearheading the show you are executive producer/show runner.  As opposed to executive producer on the production side.  A show runner is a weird term because I run the show with Rob Tapert. He oversees the production in New Zealand.  So we work together.  I do all the script stuff and he oversees production.

CS:  How did you come on board to do this?  How did this fall into your lap?

DEKNIGHT: I was working on Dollhouse with Joss Whedon and I was approached by my agent saying, “There’s an interesting thing…There’s some talk about it having to do with gladiators…Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert are producing”  I didn’t even know it was Spartacus.  It was going to be on the Starz network and, up until that point, Starz just recently came onto my radar with Crash and a couple of comedies so I said, “I’ll take a meeting.”  So, we had a meeting and we all liked each other.  I loved the idea of the project but I wasn’t available because I was directing Dollhouse.  So halfway directing Dollhouse I got another call that they couldn’t find anybody else they really want and when are you available?  Well, I said I finish directing in two weeks.  So literally I finished directing Dollhouse and two weeks later I was working on Spartacus.

CS:  It seems like one of those things like, they say it’s really not who you know but…

erinERIN CUMMINGS: I love that you brought that up actually because if ever nepotism was going to work in the favor of anybody, it would have been me because Steven DeKnight, the show runner, had directed me in Dollhouse.  Rick Jacobson, the director of the pilot, had directed me in Bitch Slap.  Lucy Lawless, who’s staring in the series, had a cameo in my film Bitch Slap.  Michael Hurst who has directed episodes, as well, was fourth lead in Bitch Slap.  Rob Tapert, the executive producer of Spartacus was really good friends with the executive producer of Bitch Slap…If there’s ever nepotism would work in the favor of anyone, it would have been me but in reality it wasn’t like that.  It wasn’t like, “Oh yeah, just cast her and get it done.”

It was a process in what ended up happening was when they were narrowing their choices down for Spartacus, Steven called me and said, “Hey, we’re looking at this guy for Spartacus and want to see his passionate side – we want to see his vulnerable side and how he interacts with women…”  They knew who they were going to cast.  It was a no brainer.  So they just wanted to see what he would be like with a woman.  So they brought me in as a reader.  So, I did that and they said, “OK we have you on tape, when we start casting for Sura, we will bring you in.”  But, once they cast Spartacus they cut off all US casting and looked for Sura in New Zealand and Australia.  So they were not even going to consider me.  Had it not been that I went in and read with Andy that day, I would never have been cast.  Everybody just kept saying, “What about Erin…What about Erin?”  There was some question as to whether Erin could do the fight scenes but because Rick had worked with me on Bitch Slap and had seen me do fight scenes, he said I could.  It was a killer process for several months from the time we talked about the role and getting cast.  Literally when I was cast they said, “OK, we are offering you the role but we want you to move to New Zealand in three days.”  Yes, I knew all the people but they also knew how professional I am on set because they worked with me.  They not only liked me as a person, they knew that I could handle whatever they threw at me.

In a way, it’s who you know but it’s more who knows what about you.

CS:  Why New Zealand?  Why not Toronto?

DEKNIGHT: New Zealand for several reasons.  Massive tax breaks financially.  We were able to slash the budget by 30% and because it was Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Josh Donen.  They had a machine built in New Zealand because of movies they do, like 30 Days of Night, they had all the people down there ready to go.  So they were able to build this streamlined cost effective machine in New Zealand.  When I told people we were going to be filming in New Zealand, they go “Oh, landscape and New Zealand that’s going to be great” sarcastically but I said, “We never go outside.”  We are inside a massive tin shack that was built for other reasons in an industrial park and that’s where we shoot.  Everything is green screen.

CS:  Everything you shoot is green screen? How about the coliseum?

DEKNIGHT: Yes, that coliseum – all that’s real there is the dirt.  Everything else is green screen and digitally created.  So I really do have interior set stuff and that is all real but if there is ever a windmill or you see the sky outside.  That’s all digital.

CS:  Did you know how many episodes you could reasonably film? How does it work for a cable channel?

deknight2DEKNIGHT: The great thing about working with Starz is that they asked for 13.  They didn’t ask for a pilot, they said go straight to 13…and that was season one.  So with the Spartacus legend it’s also great because historically we have touchstones we can figure out and we’ve always figured a 5 to 6 year plan to tell a story.  Because it’s based on history, we know where we’re headed.

CS:  Did you ever work with blocking scenes where guys are flailing around swords in front of a green screen?

DEKNIGHT: Not extensively but we have a great stunt team down there Allan Poppleton is phenomenal and the team is doing amazing things.

CS:  And what was the challenge trying to balance the thrilling fights with the human aspect…

DEKNIGHT: The heart of the series really is the human drama.  Spartacus, for example, has a sense of living for the love of his wife.  He’s captured, along with his wife, and she drifted away from him and the only thing he wants to do is get her back.  And everything he does basically is geared toward that love.

CS:  (to Erin) Do you have moments with him or, because you’re separated, do you never come together?

CUMMINGS: In episode one, Spartacus and Sura are together and then as you saw in the trailer and every time you see her it’s in a flashback or flash forward, visions in his head, memories or ideas of what their reunion will be like.  It’s the way Steven has created his story that my character gets to live through him.  Everything I do I work with Andy Whitfield, the man playing Spartacus, and he’s wonderful – an exceptional actor and beautiful person and has a heart of gold and makes everyday coming to work so easy and a pleasure to be around.  So, because I only work with Andy that means I don’t work with anyone else.  I’m a little deprived about working with everybody else.  I am friends with them all off set but never have the opportunity on set.

CS:  So you are in his dreams and memories.  Does he think of you like some warrior princess?

CUMMINGS: The reality is that they are under constant threat of attack so when Spartacus goes off to fight, Sura stays at home.  Just like what women are going through right now as there are a lot of women who have husbands that have gone off to Iraq, fending for themselves.  If they have a break-in, who’s going to protect their home?  It’s not going to be the husband who is off fighting a war, it’s going to be them.  Who’s going to protect the children?  It’s the woman that’s sitting at home and that’s what we encountered in the first episode is that Sura is in a situation of fight or flight.  Because she’s the wife of Spartacus, we only can assume that this is a woman who is not afraid of anything.  This is a woman married to the man who eventually is going to start a revolution.  So in a case of fight or flight this is a woman who is going to fight and you better believe it.

Later on, when we revisit another fight scene, where in Spartacus’s mind he thinks about what his wife will be like when she fights.  He’s only imagining her as a champion.  Spartacus imagines what Sura would be like.  She’s the love of his life and she’s going to be a badass and he’s going to think about her as even more of a badass.

CS:  As a show runner, coming up with the way the story is going to move, how you plot it out, how has it been working with the network? Are they more meddling than a Fox, NBC?

DEKNIGHT: Creatively, Starz has been fantastic.  They basically said, “We love the idea, we love the arena you are working on,” no pun intended, and, “start doing it.  I have been working for years now and because Starz is the studio and the network producing it and airing it, I’ve never had so few notes.  They are very hands off, basically.  I may have a note here or a note there and they are usually pretty damn good, honestly.  So it’s been so refreshing.  That and because we don’t have a standards and practices to deal with because we’re cable that’s been great.  Starz on many occasions said, “We want you to push it and we’ll tell you when you’ve crossed the line.”  And so far we haven’t.  They keep saying push it further, further.  It’s refreshing to be with a studio network that allows that kind of creative freedom.

CS:  You have all this freedom and wide expanse of what you can do.   Possibilities are endless, it seems.  Has it become overwhelming for you?

deknight1DEKNIGHT: For me, honestly, no because it all comes back to character.  It’s all trying to stay true to what the characters would express, say and do.  Have we gone down blind alleys?  For a day or two in a room breaking stories, sure, we’ve gone down some blind alleys but it always pulls back to that doesn’t make any sense or I don’t think that character would do that, or it just doesn’t feel right for the show.  We’ve never gone down a really bad path.  It’s been pretty smooth sailing I have to say.  I’m a little surprised at how smooth it’s been.

CS:  What do you hope people see in Spartacus?

DEKNIGHT: The great thing about television is we have this long form.  We can delve into characters so much deeper than we can a movie.  Rob Tapert and I loved Gladiator, loved the original Spartacus, we are approaching it from a fanboy perspective, because we are fanboys.  This is something that speaks to the guy in us.  As a fourteen year-old kid I would have loved to have seen this on television.  I wouldn’t have been allowed to but I would have loved to have seen it.  So, basically, what I think we are offering and what we can delve into is the complexity of character that you just don’t have the real estate to do in movies.

For example, Spartacus, the Stanly Krubick movie which I think is a brilliant movie, Spartacus is a golden human being the first time you see him.  In our series, Spartacus is a very flawed person.  He goes down the wrong path a couple different times and he doesn’t start out wanting to make a statement against slavery and save everybody, all he wants to do is get his wife back.  He ends up making one friend but as far as anyone else is concerned he will kill you if you get in his way.  And he slowly evolves into the man everyone knows as Spartacus, which seems to be keeping with history because in historical text – once they start out they start robbing and pillaging people.  It wasn’t about freeing anybody but snowballed into that eventually.

CS:  Almost like a Superman story….there is something about showing the flaws of heroes and having them come back triumphant which makes for a better story.  It’s part of what makes the original Superman story is that he is too perfect.  Batman, who veers into that murky lane, has a much more interesting as a not spotless hero.

DEKNIGHT: Exactly.  And what we focus on in Spartacus early in the story is it’s more about revenge.  It’s not about any sort of idealized society.  He’s just pissed off.  Andy Whitfield can play all those levels.  He’s an iconic actor.  As soon as you see him, he is just Spartacus.

CS:  What about you Erin?  You have been playing a lot of roles where you are having to play the heavy…

ArcLight CinemasCUMMINGS: I see a trend in the roles I’ve been playing.  They seem to be all bad ass bitches and not going to take any shit.  They are strong and I love that.  I love this character.  It’s my favorite character to play.  It’s important as a woman to recognize that part of being strong is being able to be soft.  One of my challenges as an actor is maybe revealing a little too much.  It’s difficult for me to relinquish control to be soft and vulnerable and let someone take charge.  What I loved about the role of Sura is that she’s an independent woman.  Her decisions she makes benefit her husband first and her second and I think there is something very strong about that.  There’s this sense of wanting to do what’s best for my family and there is nothing servant about that in anyway.  He respects her opinion and asks her opinion.  Whether he agrees or not he wants to know.

Being the woman behind the man is not only exciting and interesting for me but a bit raw and empowering.  She’s a woman who doesn’t have to try and be the man.  Sometimes I say, “My god Erin, can you just be a woman for once?”  So, it’s nice to play this character.  And then I take notes from my character and say, “Oh, that’s how I should be acting….like my character.”

CS:  My final question is about the effects.  How has that been, doing what you really want to do but with green screens, computer effects, that has to eat up a lot of budget.

DEKNIGHT: Effects equals money.  Effects are expensive.  There is no two ways to slice it.  A chuck of our budget is effects.  It’s effects you might not even think about.  If two people are standing and talking, and they are outside, in our show it is expensive because we have to put in a sky and it’s an expensive process.  It’s this weird thing because you look at the scene and think it shouldn’t be that expensive but every single shot in that scene is expensive because it’s not the same effect.  It adds up really really quickly.  And yeah, we have to plan our effects because otherwise we run out of money very quickly or go over budget in that episode and if we go over budget for one episode we have to save it in another episode.  So it’s basically robbing Peter to pay Paul at the end of the day.  But the big thing about this show is the effects, it’s the drama and the effects together.  So we have to budget when we go to the arena.  The arena is very expensive so we don’t go to the arena every episode and, when we do, we try to make it count.

And we also wanted the fights to be operatic so we use, not actually CGI blood when they are chopping people up, we do this really cool thing where we film a separate blood element.  It’s actually blood packs that we shoot at high speed and burst open at various different ways and shoot that again on green screen and take the actual blood element and layer it in to the show.  So it’s not CGI blood, it’s like old style effects blood just used in a different way so we can control it and put it in where we want it and speed it up or slow it down.  Rob and I always say there’s a huge debt to Zach Snyder because he opened up how to use visual effects in a new way and we would be lying if we said we weren’t influenced by that.  It’s like when James Cameron started using CGI in the Abyss or in Terminator II.  It’s an exciting tool and I’m excited to bring that to television which we don’t think has been fully explored yet.


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