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After Hercules, Rob Tapert takes on Cleopatra

By Patrick Lee

Rob Tapert has come a long way since his days at Michigan State University, where he first hung out with buddies Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell. The trio teamed up to make the low-budget horror classic The Evil Dead in 1982, with Raimi directing, Campbell starring and Tapert producing.

The success of that film led to sequels The Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness. From there, Raimi went on to a successful feature-film directing career, and Campbell won cult fame for his performances in several SF and fantasy movies and TV shows. For his part, Tapert gained his greatest success on television, where he created the hit syndicated series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess in partnership with Raimi under their Renaissance Pictures banner.

With the end of Hercules last year, Tapert and another partner, R. J. Stewart, have come up with an innovative replacement: two half-hour action comedies paired as the Back2Back Action hour from Studios USA. Jack of All Trades stars Campbell as a Napoleonic-era James Bond, and Cleopatra 2525 is a futuristic Charlie's Angels-meets-The Terminator. The twinned shows have already been picked up by most of the television stations that aired Hercules.

Tapert, who lives in New Zealand with his wife, Xena star Lucy Lawless, talked about the genesis of Cleopatra and his friendship with Raimi during a recent press event in Los Angeles.

It's been said that Bruce became an actor because he was better looking than the other guys, that Sam always wanted to direct and you were the business guy. But you're more than that, aren't you?

Tapert: Those guys knew it even back then. I loved television, and I always wanted to get involved in television, and they always scoffed at it. Sam isn't a TV fan. He's a "Director." I understand that. [laughs]

Are you planning another installment of the Evil Dead series?

Tapert: If I were Bruce, I wouldn't do it. It's really hard on you. I don't know. Sam talks about it all the time, but only when he's depressed. Sam's actually written one with his brother [Ivan], Evil Dead 4, but it's only two out of three acts.

Isn't Cleopatra 2525 based on your other original series idea, Amazon High?

 Tapert: What happened was, we sold [Amazon High] at [the National Association of Television Program Executives conference] last year. Everybody was pleased with what they bought. And I was standing at a monitor ... watching The Lost World promo, and I said, "You know what, we've been ripped off so many times ... we have to do something fresh." No matter what we do and bring to Amazon High, there's a better way to portray that story. It was about a modern girl sent 10,000 years into the past to the Russian steppes to help a group of women ... find their way, and give them the name "Amazons." It was to star Selma Blair [Cruel Intentions]. We said, let's take that ... and set it in the future.

Why the SF theme? Are you a fan of SF?

Tapert: I was a huge fan of science fiction. In my warped little mind, I saw a chance to spin sci-fi differently than it had been done before, which was to take it in an irreverent direction. And hopefully, in making it irreverent, but supporting it production-wise, it wouldn't just be junk. I've seen Earth: Final Conflict and all those shows that take themselves so reverentially, and I just thought, "You know what, it's time to do something sci-fi and different." There was a story I liked as a kid about the world moved underground, and I thought, "That's different. It's not in outer space, but we can do many of the same things." Our mythology is that mankind created drones to clean up the environment, and the first thing they did was kick [people] off the Earth.

Cleopatra 2525 is clearly influenced by many stories, including The Matrix and The Terminator. Were these in your mind when you created it?

Tapert: Certainly the metal man [in the pilot] was a bit of that. And The Matrix ... raised the level of action by putting its stars right in the middle of the action. The only other comparable thing was stuff they've done in Hong Kong, but they still double those people. We actually did [a Trinity-type move, running along a wall,] in an episode of Xena, and it was so hard at that time, we said we'd never put our actress in those harnesses again to run on a wall. And when we did Cleopatra, we said, we've got to do that. It really means you've got to build your sets, rather than out of foam, as a solid wall. It gets into all kinds of building and stunting problems.

You're juggling three shows now. How do you do that? Are you worried that the quality will suffer?

Tapert: You keep busy. You deal with it every day by what brush fire needs to be put out the most. I do worry that the quality suffers.

How much longer will Xena be around?

Tapert: Another season. So this season plus one more at least. I haven't thought about what comes next. I want a third hour. [The studio] likes to say, "Wait until Xena's done, and we'll give you that time slot," and I'd like a third. Xena's in its fifth season, and there's an order for a sixth. Why couldn't it go into another year after that? Because I think Lucy and Renee [O'Connor, who plays Gabrielle,] would kill somebody. I think they really enjoy doing it, but that will take them to 134 episodes, and physically, it's hard.

Would you want to do something else with Lucy and Renee?

Tapert: Of course I'd love to do something with any of them. I pitched a show to Renee and Ted [Raimi, who plays Joxer,] about them as a couple. A silly comedy. And they laughed, but that was more of an off-the-cuff thing.

Are you working on any feature film ideas?

Tapert: I don't. I had been so frustrated doing feature films that I just signed off on that. Sam loves it. We did Hard Target with [director] John Woo, and I spent the next year and a half trying to set up a movie with John Woo, and that just kind of burned me out. I don't even want to say what movie it was, but it never got made, and all the good ideas from it got pilfered by the guy who was supposed to star in it.

Do you talk much with Sam these days? Do you talk about his movies?

Tapert: No. We talk about his making wine, and kids and those kinds of things. And he says, "Uh, I'm trying to get [the job directing] Spider-Man, but they're never going to let me do it; they'd have to move this and that." He's just negative on those things, until he's shooting on the set and cashing the check. [But] I think if he was doing Spider-Man, and prepping it right now, it would be the big blockbuster that he should have.

Is he having conversations with the studio?

Tapert: I think yeah. He's had a regular series of meetings, explaining his problems with the script, and the usual director things.

What can you tell us about The Gift, the supernatural movie that Raimi's directing in Georgia?

Tapert: It's a drama. Billy Bob Thornton script, with Cate Blanchett and Keanu Reeves. Somehow Sam signed on to this super-low-budget movie, and suddenly he's got all these giant stars. [Keanu plays] a psycho. Sam signed onto it quite a while ago based on his experience with Billy Bob [during the shooting of A Simple Plan], and now they're shooting it. The Gift is a small movie.


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