I still remember watching an episode of the revamped Twilight Zone back in 1985, white-knuckled as the silhouetted killer from under the bed prepared to finish off the one kid who was supposed to be immune to the carnage of the Shadow Man. That was my first experience with Rockne O'Bannon's addictive brand of storytelling, though I didn't know it at the time -- and given his long list of science-fiction creations, you've probably enjoyed one or two yourself. I'd still never heard of him when the honor students at my high school polled A.P. English class about whether the Newcomers on Alien Nation should have the right to vote. Yet by 2004 when Farscape's fans had amassed enough clout to bring their favorite space chase back from the dead, O'Bannon had earned an international reputation for crafting the kind of mythos that gathers a cult following.
"That's kind of the sweet spot where I live," he says during our recent chat. "As much as I would have loved to have created CSI, in terms of owning my own Hawaiian island, I like having delivered shows that truly are, in their own way, really unique."
It had been at least a decade since I'd seen O'Bannon when we meet up at Stefan's at L.A. Farm in Santa Monica. Though his more current work on Revolution, Defiance and Cult is my priority, we end up digging pretty deep into his Farscape years.
Recalling the moment when he and Brian Henson sold the first 22 episodes of Farscape to the Sci-Fi Channel, he says, "We walked out of the office, Brian and I, and we hugged each other and said, 'How do we do this?'" The answer actually came in the form of a regime change at Sci-Fi, which launched Farscape in the right direction. The new network president "called me in and said, 'Just make it as weird as you can, because I just don't want a kids show,'" O'Bannon recollects. "The greatest words I've ever heard were, 'Just make it as weird as you can.' It took all the restraints off!" And it was their decision to shoot in Australia that made Farscape a classic. "Australians are just incredibly wild individuals," he smiles, "and they embraced the insanity of the show."
Thus well versed in television fandom, in around 2006 O'Bannon conceived of Cult, an experiment in metafiction, a TV show about a TV show (also called Cult), whose rabid followers are being recruited into a mysterious cabal. After a series of development snags, including the collapse of The WB Network, the show finally debuted back in February on The CW. Though its symbols, clues, and repeating phrases -- including the curious "Well hey, these things just snap right off" -- were left frustratingly unreconciled upon its cancelation, Cult remains a unique moment in television.
"Cult was really an attempt to break down the fourth wall," O'Bannon explains, "to break the glass between you and the TV show." Actor Robert Knepper, best known as the sadistic and perversely charismatic villain T-Bag on Prison Break, played the dual roles of Billy Grimm, the villainous cult leader, and Roger Reeves, the actor who portrayed him. When I contacted Knepper for this piece, he let me know how grateful he was for the opportunity to play the two Cult characters. "For me, they were the antidote to T-Bag," he relates. "To play the monster, as well as the actor who plays the monster, mirrored my real life since Prison Break days. My relationship with Rockne began with Cult and will last a lifetime."
Cult had received its green light, much to O'Bannon's surprise, while he was hard at work developing Defiance, Syfy's new flagship swashbuckling, alien-steeped action-adventure, which was tied in from day-one with a multiplayer online game. It was O'Bannon's call to have Defiance take on "the classic tropes of the John Ford Westerns and television Westerns," as he says, "but not to play it like a Western at all. This isn't retro; they're not reverting to the 1860s. It's 30 years in the future, but it's a world where conventional technology has been churned under."
And now that Cult is in the rear view and Defiance is in the capable hands of showrunner Kevin Murphy, O'Bannon is on to his new gig as executive producer for season two of NBC's post-apocalyptic Revolution, which premieres September 25th. "There's more grit to it," he says, "a little more edge. One of the things that people thought during the first season is that often characters looked too cosmetically network-television-friendly, and we're much more cable-esque this year. Much more hard-boiled, gritty and real."
I mention that there must be a new set of rules this season, now that it's a post-nuclear world -- assuming last year's cliffhanger missiles actually hit. "I'm not saying!" he grins. "You didn't see them land. Our people are very good; they may have, at the last moment, stopped them. You'll have to tune in and watch. Good try, though!"
When I ask what he loves about science fiction, he responds, "It's such a fertile ground to think as far outside the box as you can. It's a wildly exotic territory and it allows you to go everywhere. And if you're kind of twisted like I am, it's wonderful to have that outlet."
"I grew up loving television and movies," he adds, "and to be able to be a part of it, it's the best!"
Read the full interview at iconicinterview.com. Season two of Revolution premieres September 25th on NBC. Season two of Defiance is slated for June 2014 on Syfy.
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