War is never pretty, especially if it involves an alien invasion.
After a far-off solar system is destroyed, several remaining extraterrestrial races, collectively known as Votans, venture to Earth seeking a fresh start. Unsympathetic to their plight, the planet's nations turn them away, sparking a devastating battle that leaves the globe and environment drastically changed forever. Thirty-four years later, the two sides have called a ceasefire and are trying to coexist in this hostile new frontier. That's the premise behind the ambitious sci-fi drama "Defiance" (premiering April 15 on Showcase and SyFy).
The series finds anti-hero Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler, "Ugly Betty"), a reluctant lawkeeper, attempting to keep the peace in the small town of Defiance, where cultures clash and internal, as well as external, conflicts jeopardize their existence. To make matters worse, a tremendous amount of technology has been lost. There's still functioning electricity, but no satellites, internet or air travel. That back-to-basics lifestyle is on full display during a "Defiance" set tour in October, 2012. A massive back lot in Scarborough, Ontario has been transformed into various buildings and establishments. Most inhabitants live in little shipping containers-turned-condos, while a few wealthy families have houses and lawns. A popular hot spot is the NeedWant Lounge, which serves as the local bar and brothel. Across the street is a doctor's office and lawkeeper's jailhouse. Parked out in front is a converted Dodge Charger, which runs on a fuel called Petrohol. It all feels very industrial and post-apocalyptic.
Executive producer Kevin Murphy, actors Julie Benz and Bowler, and language consultant David Peterson spoke with HuffPost Canada TV about creating "Defiance"'s harsh environment and what to expect from Season 1.
Nolan isn't your typical do-gooder. A former veteran of the Battle of Defiance and the Pale Wars, he's now a scavenger with a bounty on his head. Along for the ride with Nolan is his rebellious adopted alien daughter, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas, "MirrorMask"). The unusual father/daughter dynamic is the beating heart of the show.
"Irisa was a foundling who he rescued from a very bad situation," explains Murphy over the phone a few weeks after the tour. "What drives him as a character is trying to help socialize her and help her grow up, to have as normal a life as possible. He realizes it takes a village to successfully raise a child and he's one guy, and not a particularly nice guy, but he's a guy trying to be a better guy. These two end up becoming the lawkeepers in this futuristic boomtown."
"One of the keys to coming up with a good character is not to evolve them too much in all areas," offers Bowler in a separate phone interview. "You run out of story and start jumping the shark. Nolan becomes a better lawkeeper and starts to get the hang of being part of something again. When Irisa and Nolan come to town, a big part of Nolan's reason for staying is he's been dragging this kid around the badlands since she came up to his knees. It's time to plant some roots and give her a shot at some kind of normal life. In the early part of the season, he could basically take or leave this place. The idea of a new start is definitely pulling him in. Over the course of the season, he does find a sense of belonging and place, which is something he hasn't had for a very long time."
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Other prominent figures include the Castithan Datak Tarr (Tony Curran, "The Adventure of Tintin"), Datak's wife Stahma (Jaime Murray, "Warehouse 13"), Defiance's resident madam, Kenya (Mia Kirshner, "The L Word"), and mine owner Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene, "Wolf Lake"). Keeping tabs on them is Mayor Amanda Rosewater, played by "Angel" and "Dexter"'s Julie Benz.
"Trying to keep all these eight races at peace is hard," says Benz on set. "It makes me realize what it must take to be a politician in real life. There might be two warring factions that you bring together and find peace over there, but it then somehow ignites a little fire over on the other side. Then you have to put out that fire and that ignites another fire. There's always cause-and-effect. Each decision sets off more issues.
"Amanda feels bad about the Irathients, that they are living in the badlands," continues Benz. "She wants to bring everybody together at peace and they are definitely living removed from this town."
To further establish the show's rich mythology and ground the aliens, Peterson was brought in as a special language and culture consultant. It was his job to construct the vocabulary, lexicon and symbols for three of the major species. And in case you were wondering, Peterson is also the brains behind "Game of Thrones"' Dothraki language.
"It ["Defiance"] takes place on Earth, so it's not going to be an accident that people are speaking English," explains Peterson during a press panel. "It's around St. Louis, so it's still a means of communication. It's a fascinating linguistic context situation where you have a whole bunch of different alien races, each with their own unique cultures and languages, and everything gets mixed together and becomes a huge, gigantic linguistic mess. I'm still a kid in a candy store."
Not everyone plays nice in "Defiance." Everyone seems to have their own secret agenda. Early episodes will focus on power struggles in the town and there will be an ongoing threat that is not immediately apparent.
"As we get into the series, we're trying to figure out who tried to wipe out the town, what's going on and uncovering that element," reveals Murphy. "At the same time, you have a lot of in-fighting for power. Graham Greene's character, Rafe McCawley , is our J.R. Ewing. He is the richest guy in town. He's a maverick who is raising a family without his wife, who may or may not be dead. The local crimelord, who is our Tony Soprano, is Datak Tarr. He's looking to take McCawley's mines away from him. Complicating this is the fact that Datak's son, Alak (Jesse Rath, "18 to Life"), is deeply and madly in love with Rafe's daughter, Christie (Nicole Munoz, "Defying Gravity"), who is a human. You have an alien/human Romeo and Juliet relationship between these two feuding families, which is a big part of the drama of the show.
"You also have the fact that Amanda, who's Mayor of the town, replaced the previous mayor and has only been on the job for six weeks. She's making all kinds of rookie mistakes. She's smart, she's got great DNA, and Julie Benz plays her with enormous intelligence and nobility, but people don't completely trust her yet. Amanda is only the second mayor the town has ever known. Nobody takes her seriously and it's a real struggle. To compound this, she has this new lawkeeper come in. Nolan fills the void, but he's not remotely qualified to be a lawkeeper either. He's one step shy of being a criminal. He's a scavenger, he's a thug, he's a creature of the badlands and he's trying to uphold the law.
"We're playing a lot of stories with your ongoing character/family relationships. We're also looking to tell immigrant stories. If people enjoy movies like "Gangs of New York," they're probably going to enjoy "Defiance" because you don't have a lot of rules, and people bend the rules a lot. That's what makes it feel like a western. In a western, people don't really worry so much about law and order. They worry more about doing what's right or just. You see a lot of "Defiance" stories dealing with relative morality and making tough choices."
Building A Better Universe
Somehow, in the middle of Scarborough, production designer Stephen Geaghan managed to erect an impressive and authentic-looking town. Apparently, his approach mirrored the same philosophy as "Defiance" itself, which is, "waste not, want not."
"Every single element of the town, in terms of how it's built and conceived, is to make it more cost effective and easier to shoot," explains Murphy. "One of the things I like to point out is some of the hanging bamboo sheets were designed to block and filter the sun because the streets were so narrow. Those big crane flyswatters you put up to block direct sunlight when the sun changes during the day, was an expense we couldn't really afford and were cumbersome to fit in between the streets. 'Defiance' is lined with these fabulous bamboo hangings that make the town look great, but also serves a practical function. The fact that we used metal shipping containers as the basis for a lot of the town, those are designed so we can actually get a camera up on top of those buildings and be able to get these grand sweeping aerial shots without having to pay for a crane."
Brave New World
Video games based on shows or movies are nothing new. And shows or movies based on games are a Hollywood goldmine. Now Syfy and Trion Worlds is bridging the two worlds, by concurrently developing a show and a video game that will impact each other.
"We're in the TV show and are coming up with a gang of bounty hunters," explains Murphy. "The first thing out mythology consultant, Brian Alexander, will do is get on the phone with their mythology consultant and say, 'Hey, what do you have with bounty hunters because we're thinking of doing a story in that realm?' Then his counterpart says, 'We can send you the images. Here's the characters we have. Can you use one of them? Maybe we can cross them over, back and forth?' Then the writers go and integrate that character. Suddenly, you have a crossover point between the video game and the TV show. That works in both directions.
"In out writers' room, we have a big chart on our wall that shows the episodes and then we have the story foundations that are going on in the video game at the time our show is airing," adds Murphy. "And what we've done is built into the TV show crossover elements that will launch a contest that will happen in the video game, or a new particular mission or challenge that will happen in the video game, and then we'll boomerang it back into the television show."
There's the sci-fi elements. The video game connection. The cool characters and alien/human melting pot society. There's a lot to love in "Defiance" and Bowler is confident this universe will speak to viewers.
"This show is endlessly detailed," concludes Bowler. "I know because I'm a gamer and a sucker for good sci-fi. Detail and pervasiveness of the world are what it's all about. It needs to be well enough thought out so I'm not pulling apart the logic of the technology, of the environment, of the world or of the history. We have that in spades because both Trion and Syfy have been developing and pulling each other apart for four years. Everything works. It all meshes. It all makes sense. Any vehicle in the game that we've used in the show, we built in real life and actually had to drive away. The fact that it all works and functions is incredibly attractive to a sci-fi crowd."
"Defiance" premieres on Monday, April 15 on Showcase at 10 p.m. ET. in Canada, and on SyFy at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT in the U.S.