Collider Goes to the Set of DEFYING GRAVITY Part I

     August 17, 2009

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In late May I was put in touch with a representative to setup a visit to the set of a new show called “Defying Gravity”. The date kept shifting between two days due to production changes, but a week before either, I got sick and it nearly kept me from going. But by June 10, the last day of principal photography aside from re-shoots; I defied the odds and visited the set. But rather than offer you a boring set report filled with just the facts, I wrote my report like a journal entry. So if you’re curious what going to the set of a new high concept TV show was like, after the jump is part one of my report. Hope you enjoy it:

However, before getting started, here’s what you need to know about the show:

Defying Gravity image (13).jpg“Defying Gravity is a sexy, provocative space thriller set in the very near future against the background of our solar system, in which eight astronauts from five countries (four women and four men) undertake a mysterious six-year international space mission covering eight billion miles.

The series’ international ensemble cast is led by Ron Livingston (Office Space) as Antares flight engineer “Maddux Donner,” Laura Harris (24) as ship’s geologist “Zoe Barnes,” Malik Yoba (New York Undercover) as Antares commander “Ted Shaw,” Christina Cox (Blood Ties) as biologist “Jen Crane,” Florentine Lahme (Impact) as pilot “Nadia Schilling,” Paula Garces (The Shield) as pilot, scientist and on-board documentary producer “Paula Morales,” Eyal Podell (24) as psychiatrist and medical officer “Evram Mintz,” and Dylan Taylor (House Party) as theoretical physicist “Steve Wassenfelder.”

The cast on planet Earth is led by Andrew Airlie (Reaper) as Mission Control Commander “Mike Goss,” Karen LeBlanc (ReGenesis) as scientist ” Eve Shaw,” Zahf Paroo (Battlestar Galactica) as grounded flight engineer “Ajay Sharma,” and Maxim Roy (MVP) as flight surgeon “Claire Dereux.” Episodic Director Peter Howitt also plays the role of BBC journalist “Trevor Williams.”

Hurtling into the vast challenge of infinite space, the eight astronauts and the four or five ground personnel that support them are on a mission, which has a powerful and awesome mystery at its core. The intimate and interconnected relationships among the astronauts and the ground crew, as well as their past actions, have a strangely karmic effect on the present.”

Defying Gravity image (4).jpgYes, you’re right. That could all just be fancy language hyping up manure. Though this was my first visit to a studio lot of any kind it was also one of the limited glimpses that had been given to this yet unreleased show. Even as I walked the studio roads, the shows producers were still seeking confirmation for a U.S. broadcaster. It would still be a few weeks before ABC made the announcement of its acquirement and longer before its August 2nd premiere. Their production model as I learned, aside from the challenges, gave them the ability to create a show’s first season of 13 one-hour episodes in its entirety and how they wanted. This show was specifically pioneered for the international model that had the cooperation between companies from Germany (ProSieben), Britain (BBC), the U.S. (Fox Television Studios) and Canada (CTV/Omni Film Productions) involved with a cast just as diverse.

For instance, Florentine Lahme of Germany plays Nadia Schilling: a pilot who uses sex as her weapon of choice.  Laura Harris is originally from Canada and plays Zoe Barnes: a geologist with dreams that hold a secret from her past. And then Eyal Podell who plays the psychiatrist and medical officer Evram Mintz was born in Israel and even spent some of his childhood in Hong Kong. But wait that’s not all. Paula Garces who plays the documentary producer on board was born in Colombia. It was Ty Olsson who I think I saw that comes to my mind right now. I say I think I saw him because I was suffering from the shock of a moment I looked toward him. I just had to mention him because if I fast-forward for a moment to the end of the day, he was doing these body movements outside the trailers that looked like exercise and meditation at the same time. As I walked by him, he threw a kick in the air and it caught me off guard. I tried to block something that wasn’t going to kick me. That gives you a hint of the fun I had that day. I couldn’t have guessed from where it started.

Defying Gravity image.jpgIt started romantically on a train ride. I took an elevated train to a station near the studio, then took a walk and then paced back and forth outside because I was a little early before my noon appointment. But a few minutes before noon I went to the front gate and got a temporary pass to walk to the farthest corner from the entrance to a marked door near the corner of a warehouse. I walked through the door expecting a receptionist but instead went up three flights of industrial stairs. I was slightly confused. I eventually walked into the production offices and met with a publicist by the name of Julia Frittaion. She would accompany me the entire day to both inform and make sure I didn’t capture any unauthorized photos or video. You’ll notice her voice in the audio interviews posted but before getting to those, the adventure began.

She introduced me to a long hallway of concept art involving drawings of space suits that hug close to the body, diagrams of spacecraft facilities and a long schematic of the Antares ship that’s the center of Defying Gravity. There was one thing that was evident from there on. This wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar world being created but rather a foreseeable one from now that was based on real science evolving in the next few decades toward the year 2052 when the Antares launches. There was incredibly creative and educated detail put into it all and one concept which was constantly repeated throughout the day that summarizes what I mean. That is: it’s more sci-fact than sci-fi.

Defying Gravity image (9).jpgFollowing Ms. Frittaion, we passed through the art department and I was introduced to Stephen Geaghan sitting in his office, the show’s Production Designer. The background of the work he and his team put into this show was fascinating and it was difficult not to look around him at all the conceptual material. I found him to be a remarkable first interview for myself and was honored to interview the man about what turned out to be his most favorite project to have ever worked on. That means a lot coming from a veteran of the business who has worked with Highlander, The Outer Limits and Jeremiah to name a few. I may have been a little clumsy with my wireless microphone and nervous with my questions but for a passionate fellow like me (listen to the interview here); it was the hardest thing to hide that pure excitement when meeting the familiar of the entertainment industry. It’s like being able to tell speeches to your friends of the minutest facts and when you meet the person, you choose the smallest phrases. You’re in awe. It’s the drawback to journalism: you can’t be the entire fan, or in my case, myself. This mentality carried throughout the day.

After that interview, Julia cleared my path to visit the empty lit sets to the show. A few minutes before I had heard the story of it all and now I was witnessing it in an enormous warehouse. I walked into a large hatch on the Antares. Around the corner was an elongated bright hallway to which an end could not be distinguished while glaring down its unbroken space. It was separated into segments, from a science lab to a storage bay. It wasn’t entirely decorated with loose props but I had to be told that. Aside from the obvious differences in square footage, the ship’s walls were eerily familiar to old Apollo documentary footage. It gave another sense of realism when I thought of the fact that the crew’s lives are monitored onboard the ship. You could think of it as a method of historical documentation or Big Brother.

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Then, at the end in the massive storage bay, I stepped through a door to the side and into a small gap where the illusion ended but it wasn’t for long. I was now in the corridor between the quarters of the various members of the Antares ship. There were many tidbits of the characters’ far away homes scattered throughout. Religion was predominant near one of the beds so I assumed then it would be one of the major issues touched throughout the show’s story. That and maybe two juice boxes I saw on a table. I guess thirst is part of our future or at least part of today’s film crews. But touching back on the philosophical questions of religion, that assumption was solidified in an interview later.

Passing the entrances to the rooms brought me to a large galley with a darker pallet choice. The focus of the room had swiveling chairs attached by small arms under them to the legs of a long table. One side of the galley had cabinets divided by food groups and a small fridge and cooking device. On the opposite side of the galley was a large exercise machine with weights and by it, the entrance to the shower and toilets. I was told the inner unseen designs of the toilets were based on the actual toilets of the space program. That gives you an idea of the thought that went into this entire endeavor. I am pretty sure I noticed the handle end of a toy lightsaber on a wall as part of the ship’s piping. Was this someone’s nod to the genre? Back outside at the end of the galley the wall, grey, resembled a giant vault with an elevated hatch in the middle where a twisted metal staircase went up to. It’s a pity I didn’t see a cockpit module. It would have been nice to sit in a pilot’s seat.

Back on the ground, Mission Control was like visiting a renovated version of NASA’s. It had rows of monitors and flat translucent keyboards that glared with neon light beneath them. On the far wall was a green screen and on the sidewalls of mainly glass various logos of future companies were displayed.  I went up some stairs noticing a couch and large television in what looked like a visitor’s lobby or waiting area. In a glass boardroom on the second floor overlooking the rest there was a poster of a 20th century astronaut in a hallway connected to the room. Walking through the boardroom I was shown the medical rooms behind the wall of the green screen but not before noticing from above the large emblem of the ISO on the ground floor, still thinking about those fictitious companies. I was then informed that the ISO (International Space Organization) is a private entity rather than a government or military arm. The mystery only deepened.

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To step foot into all of this was literally stepping into something that seemed immense in layers and ways it could all branch off into a universe of different story possibilities. All that stood out to me were the facts that there is an “unseen force” and the true purpose of the Antares’ mission is only known by a few. Does someone on the crew know it? If so, do they only think they know it? Have they been manipulated themselves? Just wondering what the purpose of the mission and the entire mystery around it got me thinking beyond space and time. Exiting the sets gave me a tangible idea of their immense size. You forget you’re in a warehouse when standing in them. As we walked back around the first stage of the Antares spacecraft, I saw some of those props that weren’t included inside. There were these racks of clear boxes with plants growing inside, including tomatoes. I was told loosely they would play some role but got no extra details. My search for new information continued.

DEFYING GRAVITY airs on ABC Sunday Night’s. Check back for part two of my set visit in a few days.

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