Jamie Ruby / SciFiVision
Tonight Syfy airs a new episode of its new series, Olympus, which premiered last week. Creator and director Nick Willing recently talked to Jamie Ruby of SciFi Vision in an exclusive interview about working on the new and unique series.
Willing is a big fan of mythology, and with Olympus, he wanted to do something different that he hadn’t seen on television before. “I’d never seen a show quite like this on television. I’ve a bit of an Ancient Greek fanatic; I’ve always studied the Ancient Greeks, because I’m into two important things: one is psychology, and the other is the Classics.
“So one thing I’ve noticed is the Ancient Greek Classics have always been treated in modern television and cinema as a sort of fairy tale set in Ancient Greece, and I’d never actually seen Ancient Greek drama – the tragedies – portrayed on television. The great dramas of Phaedra, Medea, Oedipus, Antigone, the beginning of all drama, which informs so much of our modern day drama, is so much more outrageous and extreme and shocking, but is still as shocking today as it was then, has never actually been done on television.
“So I thought, ‘wow, here’s an opportunity. Why don’t we try and bring the full force of the dark sexual world of Ancient Greek drama, which informs so much of us: who we are, what makes us tick, where we come from, what we believe in: gods and humanity, the way we think, why not try and create a show that does all those things?’ I mean, that’s quite an ambitious thing, obviously, but that was how I set off on this epic journey. And indeed that was one of the challenges; can we make a truly epic show that actually concentrates on the small human things that lie inside each and every one of us?”
The creator worked with Robert Halmi Sr. to bring that idea to television. “The very first idea I sent to one of my great benefactors and partners, Robert Halmi Sr., I sent him like three pages – because we’d done Jason and the Argonauts together before back in 2000, and that was a huge success for NBC, but I told him, “Listen, why don’t we do the Greek plays that have never been done before? Why don’t we try new twists on the Greeks, make them dark and grown up and adult and sexy and all the things that they were originally?” And he, who was such an extraordinary visionary, said, “Yeah. Let’s go for it.” He got Syfy involved, and then we developed it and had it green-lit almost immediately.
“And sadly, as I was shooting the first episode of the series, I had just read an email from him saying, “Love the new look to the environment,” closed the email, and then the next thing I get is a phone call saying he’s passed away. He was 90 years old; he was sitting at his desk working when he passed away.
“And this was a man who had devoted his entire life to telling stories. I mean, he was perhaps the best storyteller I’ve ever heard, and so I was devastated of course, but you know, in a way, I’ve done this for him, and I’ve kept going, perhaps worked harder than I’ve ever worked, so that he can smile at me somewhere. But I hope I pleased him, because I’ve been working with Robert Halmi Sr. since 1996 with Alice in Wonderland. We’ve made hundreds of shows together, we were a real partnership, and he was one of the greatest guys to work with.
“…He was the inspiration behind a lot of this, so I’ve continued on making the show for him. And it’s interesting, because the show is about gods and death and heritage and soul and legacy, and all those good things that we spent years the two of us together talking about, and then suddenly, I find those are real feelings in me now. I have feelings of love and heritage, and you know, all those things that he’s left behind.”
The showrunner changed and adapted mythology to make it new for the series. “The Ancient Greek dramas and stories and the Ancient Greek religion, what we now call mythology, was an evolving thing. There are many different accounts of Eros and Psyche, and there are many different accounts of the various myths that we know and love, and that’s because they were constantly rewriting them, and rewriting them for a modern audience.
“To a certain extent I’m doing that now as well. I’m taking the Ancient Greek stories, but I’m doing two things. I’m mixing the mythology with the Ancient Greek plays – the tragedies. So I’m meeting characters that were very much part of the Ancient Greek world – Madea and King Ageus, one of the first kings of Athens, and so on – and creating one huge epic story that explores the ideas behind Oedipus, Phaedra, and Antigone, the ideas behind all of the plays. It’s not exactly the plays, because we’re doing something a little bit different – kind of reconstituting and exploring their themes and ideas, so that we can go, ‘wow yeah, that’s the same now;’ we can learn a lot about ourselves today by revisiting the Ancient Greek stories.”
The creator has worked on series such as Olympus before, but this time he is heavily involved in all aspects of production as showrunner, as well as writer and director, which has been a new challenge. “It was a big challenge. It’s the first time that I’ve done a thirteen hour series. Tin Man was six hours, Neverland was four hours, Alicewas four hours, Jason and the Argonauts was four hours. Those are like making big movies, and I can write and direct them without too much trouble, because I write and direct a lot of movies.
“With this one, thirteen hours, it was a real challenge for me. I had a new role, which is showrunner, which is something I’d not done before in quite the same way as this. I have to counsel the other directors, who I hire, and work with the actors throughout the whole season, not just on the episodes that I direct. I have to supervise all the writing.
“So it was much more work than I’ve ever had before. Literally while I was in production during the period of last summer, I was averaging two hours of sleep a night for three months. And the rest of the time I was just working, like writing, going to set, looking at new costumes, rehearsing actors, working on cuts, figuring out the music, working on set.
“I mean it suits me in a sense, because my job I regard as a sort of compulsive disorder; it’s a sort of an obsession for me, my job. I love creating new worlds and doing these kinds of amazing fancy shows, but it was also more work than I’ve ever done before. So I’m going to need a big rest after this.”
As showrunner, Willing was also involved in casting the series. “With the cast, the way we decided to go – and this is me and Robert Halmi Sr. – initially, we thought, ‘look let’s create a completely new brand a new show with new faces.’
“…The guy who plays the hero [Tom York] – he is a man with no name, because he name was cursed – he is straight out of drama school in England, has done nothing before, and is electrifyingly brilliant. He has learned so much. He’s in very good shape. He fights and acts beautifully.
“Then alongside him, I’ve cast actors who are more experienced, but I wanted their faces to be associated with our world, not necessarily other programs, with one exception. I put in my old friend, who’s one of the greatest actors around, Matt Frewer, who’s been in a lot of different sci-fi shows and genres. He plays Daedalus, the greatest inventor who ever lived.
“And I actually wrote that part for Matt, and I sent him the first script, and said, “Matt, look this is what I’m doing for you, would you like do it?” He said “yes,” and as I kept writing, I kept sending him the new scripts with him in it so that he could see how he developed, so that he could prepare. And that worked very well.
“And one of the other great actors to point out, is the Oracle of Gaia, who is this extraordinary actress from England, called Sonya Cassidy, who cast out of here.
“I mean, we do have quite a lot of English actors. I think most people realize that in Ancient Greece they spoke with an English accent. I only say that, because, well, I think modern accents often feel out of place. Australian for instance, and so on, can feel a little out of place in Ancient Greece, because it feels like it’s a modern lilt. So in order to get something that sounds a little bit more classical, we go back to Shakespeare, and that’s why I think a lot of the English actors work very well.”
Willing also wanted to change the mythological creatures to make them unique, yet recognizable. “For me, the touchstones in storytelling are a surprise, shock, and recognition. And what I mean by that, is a story should be a big surprise: ‘wow I’ve never seen that before,’ so that it has your attention, but then at the same time you also recognize what it is. ‘Oh yeah that’s Cyclops with one eye.’ And for me, it was very important to reinvent the classic creatures, because there’s something a bit hokey about these creatures if you’re not careful. I think that we need to put a twist on them and make them a bit more cooler and more surprising and shocking and twisted and more perverse in order to connect with us today, because we’ve seen them to death. And I think we like to see them afresh. I think the thing about all classics, is if you present them in a fresh way for your modern audience; they’re respond better to your material. And that’s what I’ve tried to do with all the creatures.”
It wasn’t only the look of the creatures that Willing reinvented, but also the gods. “I think one of the things that sci-fi fans will really respond, is how we present the gods. For me, one of the big challenges was, ‘I’m not going to do the gods sitting in the clouds looking down or playing chess on Mount Olympus.’ That’s not what the Greek gods were. I’ve kind of reimagined the gods in a way I think is more faithful to the ancient Greek idea of what gods really were, and they are humongous powerful forces of nature that have a very unusual look, each and every one of them. And they also represent so many different things, and I think that as we go in the season, and as we start to meet the gods and try and overcome the gods in one way or another, I think people will be fascinated by the philosophical idea behind each god as much as they will about the way each god looks.”
Olympus has a lot of digital special effects; however, there are some practical ones as well.”Seventy percent of show is virtual and shot with special effects. Seventy percent of the show is shot in a green stage. What I came up with, is in order to make the look consistent, everything that is indoors is a set that was built, and as soon as you go through a doorway into the outside, then you’re into a world that is designed by a huge team of artists that we have working here in London and Mumbai in India.
“We have fifty-five different 3-D environments: forests, woods, temples, cities. The city of Athens itself is all virtual. So you’re only limited by your imagination. We’ve designed some amazing looks.
“And the creatures themselves too, what I’ve tried to [create] is a combination of the old and the new. So i have some live action creatures that are part special effects makeup and prosthetics combined with visual effects CG. So for instance, part of the Cyclops is real an actor in a prosthetic makeup, and then part of him is 3-D CG – the eye for instance is 3-D CG – so that you can get regular movement and performance out of your monster and you’re not relying on animators that can make it look a little bit clunky, but you’re still getting the benefit of doing extraordinary looking things like an eye inside a creature’s mouth.”
While Olympus is being presented as a thirteen-episode story, the series could potentially go beyond that.
“It could definitely continue. It’s a limitless world, the world of the Ancient Greece. Because we’re not only drawing from myths, but we’re also drawing from tragedy and Greek drama, there is so much to draw from; it’s a world that is incredibly rich and colorful.
“And it’s a world that, interestingly, even though it’s set 2000 B.C., is a very modern world, because it deals with modern human emotions, which are the same emotions today as they were then. It’s a bit more extreme in that sense that there’s more violence, more sex, and more blood; it’s darker, and there are monsters, and so on. They’re not the everyday monsters you get on the street in your local town, but they are monsters nevertheless that we can all identify with and recognize, like Cyclops and dragons and harpies and nymphs.
“So yes, if it is liked, and it becomes popular, it’s something I think I would enjoy making a lot more of.”