What do TV shows like The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, Forever Knight, Grey's Anatomy and Ugly Betty all have in common? If you said James Parriott, you are right. The veteran executive producer/writer has lent his considerable talents to these and countless other TV series over the years. In 2003, he and executive producer Michael Edelstein, whose credits include Hope and Faith and the hugely popular Desperate Housewives, worked together on the short-lived series Threat Matrix. More recently, they teamed up again to exec produce Defying Gravity, a Canadian-made space thriller that makes its Stateside premiere this Sunday at 9 p.m. EST on ABC.
Set in the not-so-distant future, Defying Gravity was inspired by Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets - a fictional docudrama produced by Impossible Pictures (the same creative minds behind Walking With Dinosaurs) for the BBC. It follows the crew of the spaceship Antares, an international team of eight astronauts (four woman and four men) who embark on a six-year mission to explore Venus as well as other planets in the solar system. Their journey is being monitored closely by Mission Control back on Earth, but only a handful of those involved are aware of the very real dangers and mystery surrounding this mission. Defying Gravity is not so much Sci-Fi as Sci-Fact and served up with a large helping of human drama, all of which is part of Parriott's and Edelstein's original blueprint for the series.
"Michael saw Voyage to the Planets on the Discovery Channel, and I then happened to see a rebroadcast on the Science Channel and thought, 'This is extremely well-made and cool. There's something here,'" recalls Parriott, who, along with Edelstein, took time out from their day to talk about Defying Gravity on the show's Vancouver-based set. "In this business you're always looking for a new arena for a drama. I mean, there are thousands of law shows and thousands of medical dramas, a lot of which are very, very good, but you're always thinking, 'What's the next arena?'
"So after watching Voyage to the Planets I got really excited and, right after the  holidays, I ran down the hall to Michael's office - we were both working at Disney at the time - and said, 'What do you think? If we throw in a little Grey's Anatomy along with a little Lost, this could actually work.' Because it has an international crew, it felt like an international show and, therefore, would have a broad appeal. It would appeal to Sci-Fi fans, but the drama part of it would appeal to those who have no interest in Sci-Fi. Michael and I looked at each other and said, 'This could be the one that really works.'"
[caption id="attachment_2289" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Ron Livingston (as Maddux Donner) and Malik Yoba (as Ted Shaw) in Defying Gravity. Photo copyright of ABC Television"][/caption]
Continues Edelstein, "What appeals to me about working with Jim is that he's all about the characters, and I just thought if someone was going to tackle this, give it to him. So Jim took this idea, put it to his brain and months later Defying Gravity came out of that. It was somewhat different from our early conversations, but I think it's richer and more compelling, not to mention addictive. We've been very selective about who we've shown the pilot to. Recently, I had an older female friend from London visiting me and I didn't think she was our demographic at all. However, she watched the pilot, got hooked and wanted to watch more and more late into the night. We're hearing stories like this from everyone who has seen the pilot.
"To Jim's credit and that of the other writers, they've come up with, once again, an addictive show. There's just layer upon layer of mystery, and the amazing thing about the characters they've created is that you can go to any one of them for a story and you can fall into their world and find those multiple layers. So that's been a thrill, and I get really excited when I read the scripts. I think the challenge, obviously, is to build a show of this complexity, and from day one Jim told me, 'Michael, this is a space show. Space shows are incredibly hard to produce.'"
Says Parriott, "I started out doing The Bionic Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man and other Sci-Fi and complicated shows with [visual/special] effects. And I told Michael, 'This isn't a medical show. This isn't Desperate Housewives. This is [outer] space we're getting into. Aren't you scared of getting into space, and on a budget?'"
Says Edelstein, "I came up here in early November  and since then I've been back home less than ten days in seven months. Initially, Jim was going to be up here a week or two, maybe a month, and he's been here at least three weeks a month, but it's been a ton of fun. Vancouver is a beautiful city and it has a great film community. We've inherited a wonderful group of people to work with and are settling into a nice groove."
[caption id="attachment_2290" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Paula Garces (as Paula Morales) and Christina Cox (as Jen Crane) in Defying Gravity. Photo copyright of ABC Television"][/caption]
Defying Gravity's international cast is led by Ron Livingston (Antares flight engineer Maddux Donner), Laura Harris (geologist Zoe Barnes), Malik Yoba (Antares commander Ted Shaw), Christina Cox (biologist Jen Crane), Florentine Lahme (pilot Nadia Schilling), Paula Garces (pilot, scientist and onboard documentary producer Paula Morales), Eyal Podell (psychiatrist and medical officer Evram Mintz) and Dylan Taylor (theoretical physicist Steve Wassenfelder).
Overseeing the entire operation back on Earth are Andrew Airlie (Mission Control Commander Mike Goss), Karen LeBlanc (scientist Eve Shaw), Zahf Paroo (flight engineer Ajay Sharma), Maxim Roy (flight surgeon Claire Dereux), Ty Olsson (capsule communicator a.k.a. cap comm Rollie Crane) and William Vaughn (assistant cap comm Arnel Poe). Episodic director Peter Howitt also plays BBC journalist Trevor Williams. In creating such a large and diverse group of characters, Parriott took a page out of his Gray's Anatomy days. Once the onscreen players had been named, he and Edelstein then began casting the roles.
"We wanted to create characters who are sort of archetypes," explains Parriott. "On Grey's Anatomy you can point to those characters and say, 'That's the pretty one who was the model,' or, 'That's the Asian girl who's the hard-ass,' or, 'That's the guy who is...,' etc. You create characters who, at first, the audience might not necessarily identify with, but at least they know who they are. I tried to do that with Defying Gravity in order that the characters would be very specific, and even a little bit stereotypical at the start, so you'd think, 'Oh, I recognize him, or her.' As the series goes on, you then give your characters different dimensions and continue to expand upon all that as the viewers get to know them."
Says Edelstein, "In terms of casting, we went through an exhaustive process. That really was a luxury, and I think it took us five months to cast the show. We cast out of Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and even Germany. Jim and I were up at five in the morning to audition actresses via teleconferencing and it was great. That's when we found Florentine and she's been fantastic. The funny thing is Jim and I have very different tastes in things, and we found that the right person for a part would be the one where we both overlapped. There are actors who Jim zeroed in on right away and it took me a while, and vice versa. It's been terrific casting this series together because we both looked for different things, and I think I speak for Jim and myself when I say that we're both thrilled with who we have on the show."
[caption id="attachment_2291" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Mission Control Commander Mike Goss (Andrew Airlie) and scientist Eve Shaw (Karen LeBlanc) watch intently back on Earth as the Antares mission unfolds before their eyes. Photo copyright of ABC Television"][/caption]
As the actors were being auditioned and cast, the cosmetic elements of Defying Gravity, including sets and costumes, were also being designed and built. "We were fortunate to find some incredible department heads, including our production designer, Stephen Geaghan," notes Parriott. "He has a tremendous amount of Sci-Fi experience and is also meticulous as well as wildly knowledgeable about [outer] space, and he brought his enthusiasm to the job. By the time we met, Stephen said we were already two weeks behind. We didn't start construction on the sets until mid-October  and we began shooting mid-January . So it was a Herculean effort, and there was a Christmas holiday right in the middle of it all as well."
Continues Edelstein, "There was very little stage space in Vancouver when I initially came up and scouted around. This [a portion of Bridge Studios] was, I think, the only stage really available, so we took it. Unbeknownst to all of us, Stargate Atlantis has left this massive steel cage-type set behind. Lucky for us, Stephen had the good sense to say, 'Hey, let's keep this. We can strip it down and turn it into something else.' So he built Mission Control around it, which was fantastic because on our budget I don't believe we could have achieved the same results from scratch.
"We were also lucky to get Monique Prudhomme, our costume designer, who has a wonderful background in feature films. She received rave reviews for her last movie, Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. We just thought that Monique had a great vision and she jumped headlong into research for the show. For example, with our EVA [extra-vehicular activity] suits, our white spacesuits, she looked at the new direction that MIT believes NASA will be going in next with their pressure suits. So Monique did some hardcore research and then she had to figure out how to make the suits 'work.' In real life they cost something like a million dollars apiece. Obviously we couldn't do that, but Monique figured out a way to make something that looks great on-camera.
"Our whole idea going into prep was, 'This needs to feel real and be believable.' One of the things that Jim and I learned at NASA is that the space shuttle, which had its first launch, I believe, in 1981, was built using solid-state technology. It was technology from the late 60's and 70's. The thing is, NASA has a great deal of redundancy in their systems. Once they lock into something they don't necessarily update as new technology comes along. The International Space Station is run by 46 computer chips, because when NASA first designed it, they knew peoples' lives were at stake, and that meant its systems had to be very reliable. So early on, Jim figured out that if Defying Gravity is set in 2055, the technology would probably be from the late 2020's to 2030."
Says Parriott, "We looked out to 2020 and decided that that's what we were going to do. Of course, everything on the show is from what we think will happen looking forward. I actually think some of our technology is behind 2020. It could be better in [the real world] 2020. In our case, though, what you see on-screen all depends on our budget and how much money we can put into the show."
[caption id="attachment_2292" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris), Steve Wassenfelder (Dylan Taylor) and Nadia Schilling (Florentine Lahme) on the Antares observation deck. Photo copyright of ABC Television"][/caption]
Adds Edelstein, "Budget-wise you don't get all the money in one lump. We had to take our episodic budget and use it to chip away at [building] the sets. The sets that you see now were not that evolved when we began shooting. However, we've slowly been able to put it all together and, fortunately, the studio has been very supportive of our vision. That's what's made this whole thing possible. It's a lot of hard work and people solving one problem at a time. Every day we've continuing to learn about the show. At the moment [late May] we're shooting episodes 12 and 13 and we're still learning things insofar as what we'd like to do in season two as well as ways to improve the show."
Story-wise, the 13-part first season of Defying Gravity is divided between the present day, as the Antares travels towards Venus, and the past, with flashbacks to when the astronauts were in the gruelling selection and training process. Although the show's characters are not aware of what lies ahead. Parriott has a definite plan for where this story is headed.
"Before we started filming, we had outlines for all 13 episodes,'" says the executive producer. "I'd basically arced out the entire season, which helped us a lot of terms of production and knowing what we needed to build. Beyond that, I wanted to do two things. One, in our ninth episode we have a major reveal, and it's a cool one that catapults you into the next part of the season. Also, having started in Sci-Fi, I know Sci-Fi audiences are demanding and I wanted to be demanding of myself, which meant I needed to know where the series was going. I didn't want to jump the shark; that was very important to me. So I know the ending to the show. I know season by season where it's going and the big [story] beats along the way. That's crucial for the Sci-Fi audience, in particular, and audiences in general."
Continues Edelstein, "My time is valuable as is everyone else's. There are only so many hours in the day to watch TV, and if someone wants to look at our series, then I feel extremely flattered that he or she wants to spend their time watching something that I'm a part of. You have to take that commitment to your audience seriously. It's sort of a covenant that you make - you give us an hour of your time and we're going to entertain you, we're going to move you, and we're going to keep your interest."
[caption id="attachment_2293" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Evram Mintz (Eyal Podell) and Nadina Schilling (front) along with Zoe Barnes and Jen Crane (back) sit through yet another training course. Photo copyright of ABC Television"][/caption]
Says Parriott, "It has to be a show that I want to watch, too. I think that's also part of the criteria. If you're making a program that you wouldn't want to watch, then you're kind of a cynic who's just out for the buck. We started out in a very calculated, dare I say cynical place of, 'OK, [outer] space, that will have a broad appeal.' But then as you start to write it, you fall in love with it and your characters, and you become passionate about it. We've very passionate about this project now, and I think all the actors and the crew feel the same way."
Adds Edelstein, "Episodes eight and nine changed everyone. After eight, everyone was like, 'What happens next?' And after nine it's just been a mad sprint to the end of these first 13 episodes. It's a very cool show and certainly not like anything else on TV. I feel the same way about Defying Gravity as I did about Desperate Housewives. When we first came out with Desperate Housewives there were no drama/comedies on the air and people didn't know how to react to it. Some people said that men would never watch a show called Desperate Housewives and there were those who wanted to change the title. With Defying Gravity we've made a show that's interesting and unique as well as compelling, and we're hoping it finds an audience."
Says Parriott, "I always say keep your eye on the ball. Make the shows as good as you can make them, and make the scripts as good as you can make them. That's the joy of something like this. I find I'm the happiest when I'm in the cutting room or when I'm writing. The time just flies by because you're doing what you love. The true reward is in the actual doing. And then in the larger sense, it's in the relationships that you build making a show. These last two episodes have been bittersweet. It's kind of sad and the cast as well as the crew are feeling it,too. They're like, 'Why does this have to end? Do we have to go home?' It really has become a very happy family and one of the tightest-knit groups I've ever had the pleasure of working with."
Steve EramoDefying Gravity is produced by Fox Television Studios and Omni Film Productions, in association with the BBC, Canada's CTV and Germany's ProSieben. As noted above, all photos copyright of ABC Television, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any form. Thanks!