HOME       

Logoretro2.GIF (10126 bytes)

#1 November 1997


Highlander

wpe2.jpg (18360 bytes)

 

The premiere issue of RetroVision, published in November 1997, features a cover story on Highlander: The Series, kicking off what is without question the most comprehensive guide to this unique television series ever written. Journalist Scott Thomas has spoken to all the key players both in front of and behind the camera, and their recollections will make up this series that will run through at least the first six issues.

Beyond Highlander, there's a guide to "retro" web sites penned by Allen Lane, a stunning retrospective of the science fiction cult classic Colossus: The Forbin Project (see separate page devoted to this film as well as the novel that inspired it); Edward Gross and Ron Magid's look back at Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home ("the one with the whales"); the beginning of Tom Soter's multi-part look at the history of James Bond 007; and Scott Thomas' take on the under-appreciated Psycho II by way of an in depth interview with director Richard Franklin, as well as sidebar interviews with the late Anthony Perkins and Robert Bloch, screenwriters Joseph Stefano, Tom Holland and Charles Edward Pogue, and Virginia Gregg, the voice of "Mother".

There are still limited quantities of RetroVision #1 available. Those interested can order via credit card (see ordering information on the RetroVision home page) or by sending a check or money order for $10.00 (postage included) to RetroVision, 1036A Park Blvd., Suite 103, Massapequa Park, New York 11762.

 

 

RetroVision #1 Excerpt

 

THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE

The Making of "Highlander: The Series"

Season One

Note: The following excerpt from RetroVision #1 is condensed from the 17,000 word piece that runs in the magazine and is devoted to the show's first season.

 

"My gut is that we will have a life; that more people will discover the show later," offers executive consultant David Abramowitz, the true guiding force behind the series since its second season. "It's not one of the most accessible shows and that's one of the difficulties. Because of the rules of Immortals -- sanctuary on Holy Ground, fighting with swords one-on-one -- and the nature of the flashbacks, you come in the first time to watch an episode and it's very hard to follow. That's something we've struggled with. One of the things you like about it is the character development and what our core fans like is that these are living, breathing characters. They're real human beings who are always evolving and changing. The problem is that if you watch the shows out of sequence, it's hard to get a handle on it. Still, I think the audience will continue to grow, even after we're done producing new episodes. The real trick has been to keep it fresh. If it's not fresh, you're dead."

The true appeal of Highlander for Abramowitz and the rest of the show's creative team is the scope that the show's numerous flashbacks have provided, and the issues which have been explored by the stories. "You can do things on Highlander that you can't do anywhere else in terms of television, simply because of the flashbacks and what the show is," muses Abramowitz. "You can do shows with real substance and great moral and ethical issues. Basic questions like what is the difference between honor and vanity?"

FROM SCREEN TO SHINING SCREEN

Highlander began as the 1986 feature film of the same name which starred Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod and Sean Connery as his mentor, Ramirez. It introduced audiences to the concept of Immortals living among men, battling each other in an effort to claim their heads and, in turn, their life force or "Quickening." As their legend has it, the last Immortal among them will rule over humanity.

The film, directed by Russell Mulcahey and backed by Queen's pulsating score, was highlighted by a variety of shifts through time; revelations of Connor's past told via flashback, which not only provided background to his character but added unexpected scope to the film. While not a tremendous box office success in the United States, it gained an international following and scored on video cassette, ultimately leading to the abysmal Highlander 2: The Quickening, an off-the-wall sequel that essentially dismissed almost everything established in the first film and was marred by generally awful performances (Lambert's interpretation of an elderly MacLeod -- what was he thinking?), including Connery -- miraculously surviving a beheading in the first film -- who sleepwalks through this film. The filmmakers attempted to get back on track with Highlander 3: The Magician, but that was pretty much a creative misstep as well. Amazingly, television offered the best possibility of getting the franchise back on track.

In 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation hit the airwaves in first-run syndication and revolutionized the sheer possibilities of what the medium could offer, serving notice that providers of entertainment did not have to be limited by the (then) three networks. Star Trek was backed by a healthy budget and, in some cases, better than network production values. Greeted by extremely high ratings, it paved the way for not only two of its own spin-offs (Deep Space Nine -- television's other best kept secret -- and Voyager), but a plethora of programming, including War of the Worlds, Friday the 13th: The Series, My Secret Identity, The Adventures of Superboy, Babylon 5, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, F/X: The Series, Baywatch, Soldier of Fortune, Inc., Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict and, naturally, Highlander.

Bill Panzer, who along with partner Peter S. Davis produced the theatrical films and subsequent series, notes, "We realized that Highlander would have the advantage over other TV series in that there were two movies that preceded it. The movies were hugely successful worldwide, and while not a huge theatrical success in America, they've done quite well on video there. So we felt that kind of worldwide familiarity with the concept and the characters made a Highlander TV series a natural. Billy Wilder said that to protect your sanity, you have to believe that there is an audience for what you want to do. These days, too much product is made ass backwards. The philosophy is, 'What do the viewers want to see?' But we don't like to work like that. We're not going to make the show that we think they are going to like. We are going to make the show that we like to make and hope that they are going to join with us and they are going to like it too. That's a very major part of our philosophy. We would find it extremely difficult to do it any other way.

"Television," he adds, "gives you more of an opportunity to explore ideas. I find it intriguing and challenging, because you can explore a character and an environment, a philosophy, a state of mind over a period of time that you could never do in a movie because of the time restrictions. That is what we try to do with Highlander. Also, you're doing it all at once -- developing, shooting, editing, mixing --and it's all nonstop. I find that very energizing."

The concept was also an expensive one, which could not be supported by traditional means. What this meant was a variety of international partners -- who had noted the success of the features and believed in the potential of the franchise -- who would finance the show. For its initial season, money was provided largely be France's Gaumont Television; Rysher Entertainment in America and Filmline in Canada, with additional investments coming from Japan and Germany. One of the results of this coproduction is the fact that the show spends half each season shooting in Vancouver and the other half shooting in France.

While all of this provided the financing, it would ultimately prove a bit troublesome creatively for the team that Panzer/Davis productions attempted to bring together. The first people they hired were producers Gary Goodman and Barry Rosen, who had come off of the success of the syndicated Zorro television series, also an international coproduction. They were joined by supervising producers Kevin Droney and Philip John Taylor, all of whom went about getting the concept of the show in place and developing the various scripts. It wouldn't be until about midway through the season when David Abramowitz would come on board.

"When Gaumont and Rysher had developed the series," explains Goodman, "they needed someone to implement the vision. Creatively and business-wise Barry and I had to keep those partners in the process and happy. Our job was to make a show that would satisfy everybody and still have a vision that was true to the show that we wanted to make. The great thing about the franchise itself was you had the ability to continually deal with a lot of different elements and stories. I recall in the early stages we were trying to figure out how to make a show work that would be true to the Panzer/Davis Highlander movies, because there was a core audience there. At the same time, the show could not simply be about trying to kill your opponent each week, but it had some other substantive qualities that would make it interesting and not make it a show necessarily about violence. Those were tricky things. Barry [Rosen] and I often think about the fact that it was really a big undertaking to make this show work under certain parameters for television and have it find an audience."

Rosen notes, "Number one, you had to deal with the fact that the first movie had been a huge success. Maybe not the biggest box office hit, but people loved it. The second one was a disappointment for a lot of people, so you had to come back up and hit on what made the first one so great. Plus just dealing with the nature of the beast -- chopping off heads. How do you do that on television? And how do you do that stylistically? That was one of the things we had to lick right off the bat, which was not be graphic but do something sensational with effects and music -- basically be stylistic."

It wasn't always an easy objective to meet. Kevin Droney points out that at almost every turn the various financial partners buried them in memos and notes about everything. "Everyone had a different idea of what the show was," he explains. "At one point the Germans were going to drop out, then they didn't drop out. They had one show in mind, the French had a different show in mind. The French thought it was a detective show, the Germans wanted a big action show for sure but they weren't too sure about camaraderie among the Immortals."

It was Droney's feeling that this was an extremely important element for the series to showcase. "A movie is a movie and you're really lucky to preserve some character moments in it at all," he muses, "whereas television is 85% character scenes and 15% action. It's budgetary and just the way it is. You have to be more of a playwright than you have to be for films, ironically. You have to write good dialogue and you have to create characters you care about. The investors wanted our character running around saying, 'There can be only one' in every episode, chopping off somebody's head. I was there saying, 'If that's the case, it's just going to be him against an enemy every week and that is not going to work.' Once everyone accepted that, it played like a house on fire. It became less important who the bad guy was, although we did try to come up with really cool bad guys."

Another challenge the series faced, according to Philip John Taylor, was coming up with Immortals who were variations on the theme as presented in the features. "We didn't want to go, as we did in the pilot with Richard Moll, with a clone of the bad guy from the first movie," Taylor explains. "We thought, 'This can't go on forever; you can't have knuckle-head Immortals just trying to lop off heads every week. We started to do variations on that and, again, I think we were very successful. We were able to come up with a different series of Immortals which was necessary to keep the series interesting for the audience."

"I wanted to goose up the idea of how much power you get from each Immortal you kill," interjects Droney, "so someone like our guy, Duncan MacLeod, at this point would be one of the wiser, more powerful Immortals. That concept wasn't very clear in the movie. Panzer/Davis would be like, 'No, they just kill them and that's it,' and I said, 'This doesn't make a lot of sense unless they're continually growing with all this and that the wiser, better ones would actually be more passive and not just waiting to chop people up. It's like the good aliens versus the bad aliens, if you will. They are the Close Encounters of the Third Kind Immortals, not the Independence Day Immortals. They're guys who think about it and who try to help the human race, or at the very least not harm them."

IMMORTAL CASTING

The resulting premise for the series is that Duncan MacLeod has retired himself from "the game," and is living a life of peace with a mortal woman, Tessa Noel. He is contacted by clansman Connor MacLeod and told that the time of the Quickening is at hand, which ultimately pulls him back in and sets the series in motion as Duncan metes out his own form of justice against Immortals traveling along the dark path. En route he hooks up with street punk Richie Ryan, more or less "adopts" him and is there to guide him when Richie is ultimately revealed to be an Immortal in season two.

Casting the role of MacLeod was not easy and the man almost everyone wanted -- former model and fledgling actor Adrian Paul -- was not an easy one to sell to the investors.

"There was a lot of debate over it in the beginning," concurs Barry Rosen. "There was something kind of straight about him, something that was kind of bold about him. In our heads we thought women would react to him and guys would think he was cool. He was very physical, so we felt he could do the action. But, really, something reminded us of a young Sean Connery. We just thought he would have staying power."

Adds Gary Goodman, "Adrian has a timeless quality. I think he had the ability to look good in any era, which is so important to Highlander, and I think he gave a sense of substance. There was a lot going on behind this guy's eyes that made you believe that he has lived and learned about life, so he wasn't just a nice looking guy. Instead, he was somebody who had some depth and he was physically able to meet the demands of the role."

Important to the mix as well was the casting of Tessa and Richie, MacLeod's primary human contacts to the world around him. Respectively cast were French actress Alexandra Vandernoot and Stan Kirsch.

"Because of the partnership," explains Goodman, "we had to find a French actress that would be appealing on a television screen. Not appealing physically, but appealing in the sense that you were comfortable with her accent and her character. I also liked Alexandra a lot. She was able to be exotic, pretty and not so unfamiliar to an American audience that she was accepted.

"With Stan Kirsch," he elaborates, "we wanted to have some young appeal; we wanted to have a character that was our eyes of awe of what was going on. I know this character did develop into other things during subsequent years, but in the first year it was really to try and have somewhat the quality of a kid who can't believe his ears. Maybe it's his Jimmy Olsen to Adrian's Superman. It had a quality that allowed us to have some fun as well. Seeing all the serious stuff and bewilderment of the character who can't quite believe what the other guy was doing."

Adds Barry Rosen, "We were very lucky that Alexandra and Stan were so human-grounded, so we could really play off of them and the way they looked at things that Adrian went through. They were also able to get into real-life situations, romances, getting in trouble, jealousies and so on. In the years that followed without her and with Stan becoming Immortal, you couldn't do that as much. You had to play the show differently."

Probably most important in terms of casting -- at least insofar as launching the series was concerned -- was the guest appearance of Christopher Lambert in the premiere episode, "The Gathering."

"What Chris Lambert brought to the pilot was invaluable because he kind of passed the torch -- or the sword -- along to Adrian," says Kevin Droney. "He created that camaraderie I was always talking about; this camaraderie among these people who have been there, done that for centuries. They don't just have to kill each other, they can actually be friends. Eventually they might have to whack each other in the mythology, but certainly not during the life of the show."

Adds Barry Rosen, "Chris was terrific. He believed in the franchise, he knew what we were doing, he supported the series and he had a terrific relationship with Bill Panzer and Peter Davis from the movies. He was really very cooperative."

Aided in no small part, undoubtedly, by the tremendous paycheck he received, which was reportedly considerably more than his people had initially requested.

"We received a note from a genius from the French people, a guy who's a penny-wise pound foolish to the nth degree," says one anonymous production source. "He said, 'We can't afford Chris Lambert,' and our response was, 'He's asking $50,000 and he's doing this as a favor to Bill Panzer and you're not going to have him?' This little pencil-pushing accountant was telling us to rewrite the script without Lambert. The Germans saw that draft and dropped out, so the French said, 'Write him back in,' and we just took the old draft out of the draw. Christopher Lambert was contacted -- after being told that they weren't going to meet his fee -- and he basically said, 'Fuck you, I'm not going to do it.' The Germans said if he wasn't going to do it, they were not going to pay a quarter of a million dollars per episode. Finally the offer went out for $500,000 for three days work. Christopher was the most cheerful person I ever saw in my life."

GROWING PAINS

For Kevin Droney, this kind of interference was par for the course, and only drove home the point of how creatively distracting it was for everyone to have an opinion. "You would sit down with as many of them as you could," he says, "but when there were invisible people in Germany telling you they don't like a line of dialogue, it makes you lose it. That's why you won't see my name bandied about with great fondness, because I started arguing and fighting back and make no apologies for it. I wasn't surprised to see them bring in David Abramowitz to kind of smooth over the waters, only to watch David almost have a nervous breakdown. He finally did what I should have done, which is to single out a couple of people and say, 'I will no longer talk to you.' He put his foot down and that's why the show is still on the air five years later. I knew it was only a question of time before you either blow out of a show -- as three producers did and I eventually did -- or you say, 'I'm running the show and you're not.' David, to his infinite credit, found a way to not only keep the show going, but kept kind of the vision we established in the first year. Believe me, nothing was clear. No one knew what was going on that first year. The Hollywood Reporter said that until David came on it didn't have a voice. The show did have a voice, but everyone kept trying to contradict that voice."

Abramowitz, who had come from a long background in television, but only one other genre show (the single-season "V"-The Series), truly was the voice of reason that helped guide Highlander through the last half of its first season and, in subsequent years, has allowed the show to reach its full potential.

"There were so many chefs in the beginning that it became very difficult to keep delivering," Abramowitz agrees. "The show had to find its own voice and it was tough to filter out the other voices. In the second year people said, 'Okay, you guys know how to do this somewhat,' and they backed off. Bill Panzer and I really took over in the second year and did it together. You know, people try to give me credit for the show, but it's only partially true. If I were to look at it, I'd say that I was the mother of the show and Bill Panzer was the father. Bill is very involved. We work together. I handle the writing, Bill handles the directors and post production. I give some notes on the finished shows, he gives notes on the scripts. Basically if Bill hates it, it doesn't happen. You have to give him a great deal of credit. People give me a lot of credit and I am the workhorse who has to make it happen, but Bill is the person who will not allow me to accept mediocrity. Sometimes you get mediocrity because you can't help it, but going in we try to make every show a little movie."