Terra Nova: Inside the Making of One of the Most Ambitious, Challenging and Expensive Shows on TV
As you turn onto the one-lane gravel road leading to the Terra Nova set, you pass a multicolored sign that reads "Danger" in four languages. Lower down, another line appears. This time, in plain English, "Dinosaurs."
Installed in jest by the series' crew, it sets the mood for anyone entering the four-acre settlement of Terra Nova in Queensland, Australia. For it's here on the edge of the rainforest, a 20-minute drive from some of the country's best surf beaches off the region's Gold Coast, that this fantasy world becomes real.
It's a balmy mid-July day, and The Hollywood Reporter is here on set for the second time since December for an exclusive sneak peek behind the curtain of one of fall's most eagerly awaited -- and pricey -- shows. In what many have dubbed Avatar meets Jurassic Park, the time-travel drama, set to debut Sept. 26 on Fox, whisks the Shannon family and fellow settlers back 85 million years in time, from the dystopian world of 2149 to a promising prehistoric Earth colony known as Terra Nova. The day of the visit, two rival factions are facing off over one of the series' many mysteries.
All of this takes place against a backdrop of nine bamboo-infused homes for those settlers who have relocated to Terra Nova. A textile market shaded in solar panels features the kind of food selection no longer available in the future they've recently departed. A 24-foot-high fence with lookout towers armed with sonic dinosaur-repelling cannons surrounds the community. And a medieval portcullis-inspired gate opens upon command, providing safe passage for those refugees transported back through a fracture in time.
Missing from the visual are the dinosaurs and Cretaceous-era insects that will be dropped in by the Burbank-based team of special effects wizards as the sci-fi drama inches closer to its premiere. The epic adventure, which counts Steven Spielberg and former News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin among its many executive producers, was picked up straight to series with a 13-episode order, a product of both its scale and its budget. The two-hour debut alone has been pegged at a price tag between $10 million and $20 million, a fee Fox brass argues will be amortized over the course of the show's first season.
"Terra Nova is a big swing -- and the best of Fox tends to be big swings, in concept and/or tone," Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly says of the series, whose buzz -- and scrutiny -- are almost unprecedented for the small screen. "We are in the big-bet business. So if you're looking to break through and garner a big share of a fractured audience, and it is going to be costly regardless, you take the most exciting shots you can for your audience."
While Terra Nova runs the risk of being overshadowed by The X Factor on Fox's schedule, Reilly and his staff have spent the better part of two years banking on the fact that the series will fill a void of big-event genre programming left by the departure of such shows as Lost and 24. The media may have chronicled the show's litany of setbacks, including torrential rain and departing creatives, but advertisers and international buyers alike are largely optimistic about the series' broad, family-friendly potential.
Thinking back, the grandiose offering of Terra Nova, which in addition to dinosaurs boasts floating holograms and technology from a futuristic world, was almost too big to even conceive.
When former WMA scripted television head Aaron Kaplan first laid eyes on what would become Terra Nova in spring 2009, it was titled Gondawana Highway, a 12-page short story by British writer Kelly Marcel (whose experience included a musical adaptation of Debbie Does Dallas). He intercepted just as Marcel's U.K.-based agent was deep in discussions for a deal with Syfy U.K. "I begged her to put me on the phone with Kelly," Kaplan recalls, ultimately convincing Marcel that the only way to sell a project of this size was to do so in the U.S.
"I was hooked by the paradigm of the future and the past," Kaplan says, "the idea that 100 and some odd years from now, everything we're worried about will happen: The sun is burning out, our natural resources are depleted, global warming is real, and it's very difficult to breathe."
Kaplan tapped a former client, TV writer Craig Silverstein (Bones), to help turn the elaborate world Marcel had crafted into a pitchable script for U.S. networks. Although the plan always was to incorporate dinosaurs, the trio hadn't envisioned having either the resources or the auspices to do any more than display them through sound, shadow and music.
The team, with Marcel attached as a producer, shopped it to all four broadcast networks in summer 2009, with CBS and Fox interested in buying, a source says. In the end, they were struck by Fox's track record of betting big on out-of-the-box shows like Prison Break, 24 and Glee. "[Fox scripted execs] Matt [Cherniss] and Terence [Carter] immediately got it," Kaplan says of the then-Fox executives whom he pitched. The network, which looped in 20th Century Fox Television, picked it up in September 2009. (At least two international markets, France and the U.K., have since acquired rights to the series.) Four months later, Kaplan got a call from Fox chiefs Reilly and Peter Rice. Not only would the series bypass the standard pilot process, but Spielberg and Chernin would come aboard as producers.
Spielberg had been approached over lunch by Rice, who was eager to get him aboard a program that fit so squarely in his wheelhouse. The network and studio then collectively agreed that Chernin, who launched a Fox-based production company upon his News Corp. departure, would also be a valuable addition. "When he was at News Corp., Peter really talked a lot about this type of event programming and about taking risks and being bold," says 20th TV chairman Dana Walden. "It just felt that this would be something that he would be incredibly responsive to and helpful with as we moved forward with production."
A complicated game of musical chairs followed, with Silverstein and Marcel dropping out as day-to-day producers to fulfill other commitments, he at the CW (for Nikita), she at Showtime (a passed-over development project, Westbridge, with Thomas Schlamme attached to direct). The remaining execs met with a host of potential producers, ultimately deciding on former Star Trek: The Next Generation and 24 producer Brannon Braga, who had an overall deal at 20th TV. "Brannon shared our view that at the core, it was a family adventure show and not a dinosaur-of-the-week show," says Kaplan, adding that Braga also was in agreement about the show's scale.
"I was frankly a little daunted by the premise; it sounded like an awfully vast canvas," Braga acknowledges. "A show that takes place in the distant past and the distant future, I was a little skeptical about how that was going to be possible."
After meeting with the coterie of producers, Braga went about flushing it into a series. Then, just 10 days before production was set to begin, he was able to convince his fellow Trek producer Rene Echevarria, who most recently worked on ABC's Castle, to come aboard as showrunner so Braga could focus on writing. (Responsibility for the series remains very much split down the middle, sources say.)
Among the early decisions that needed to be made was where they would shoot. Although such destinations as Florida and Louisiana were tossed out as options, the plush landscapes of Hawaii seemed a more suitable choice. But it was Spielberg who vetoed the latter, fearing that the comparisons inevitably drawn to his Jurassic Park would become that much greater if the two projects were to shoot in the same locale. They settled on an area near Australia's Gold Coast, where the region's otherworldly topography worked best as a site to create a sprawling frontier-town settlement.
Of course, with that came that headache of having a staff that straddles two sides of the world. Physical production is done in Queensland, a 15-hour flight from Los Angeles; writers, producers and postproduction are based in L.A. "When it's nighttime here, it's morning there, so we have a lot of late nights," Braga says of the 17-hour time difference. "The teleconferencing system has a one-second delay, so sometimes it can be like the cone of silence from Get Smart."
Spielberg's commitment to the series has remained strong, say multiple producers, who tick off his various touches, including the casting of such stars as Avatar's Stephen Lang and the need for dinosaurs that audiences have not yet seen. Spielberg brought in paleontologist Jack Horner, with whom he'd worked on Jurassic Park, with a mandate that the dinosaurs be realistic for the period and different from those of the '90s film franchise.
Visual effects supervisor Kevin Blank notes that having the series set 85 million years in the past -- in the Cretaceous period where, producers say, only 10 percent of the dinosaurs that existed in that era have been accounted for in the fossil record -- allows Horner and Co. to take more of a creative latitude when it comes to creating dinosaurs. Horner admits many of the dinosaurs featured on the series had to be "made up" but are nonetheless true to the time period. The Tyrannosaurus rex, for instance, won't appear because it hadn't yet evolved at that point in history, though he suggests viewers could see a Tyrannosaur of some sort. The pilot will feature a Brachiosaurus and a Carnotaurus. (While there is no dictum of one dinosaur per episode, most if not all will offer at least one.)
"It's an ambitious idea, but the small screen is no longer such a small screen," Justin Falvey, a co-head of DreamWorks TV and one of the series' nine executive producers, says of advancements in HD and visual effects technology. "Audiences want a filmgoing experience, and the budgets available for TV are letting us do that now. Five years ago, dinosaurs like this weren't possible."
It was so ambitious that it was peddled before it was ready. Having wrapped filming in Australia on the premiere in November, the cast and crew met the media in January at the Television Critics Association tour in Pasadena, where a three-minute sizzle reel offering the first footage of the time-travel series was met with strong, if slightly confused, reactions to the show's dual universe. Weeks later, an extended trailer would air during the Super Bowl, giving viewers a taste of what's to come. At that time, Terra Nova was slated to air its two-hour, two-night preview in May in the plum post-American Idol time slot, a tactic the network had used to build excitement for Glee in 2009.
But by mid-March, the network announced the series wouldn't be ready. Reilly issued a statement: "Terra Nova is one of the most ambitious television series ever produced. The cutting-edge visual effects used to create the world of Terra Nova, which is of massive scope and scale, require more time to be realized." Braga acknowledges that they were also short on material, a fact The Hollywood Reporter first reported in April. It was the latest in a string of challenges that had included record flooding in Queensland and a series of executive departures, which sources attribute to internal conflict. Although current producers refute this claim, one source says there were a couple of times where Terra Nova was on the brink of falling apart.
"It's never fun to publicly change an announcement, and it leads down the line to questions like we're having now," admits Echevarria, recalling discussions at one point about airing only the first hour in May. (The network ultimately decided that a single hour wasn't a good idea.) Adds Braga, "We went to Australia with the hope of hitting a home run, and we hit a triple."
Not surprisingly, producers now call the delay a blessing. The team returned to Australia in late May, determined to add what was missing from the original iteration: an emotional hook to ensure the series would appeal to the family audience that its 8 p.m. slot necessitates. The plot now revolves more centrally around the Shannon family -- matriarch Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), a doctor who helps her inmate husband Jim (Jason O'Mara) escape prison and, with their three children (Landon Liboiron, Naomi Scott and Alana Mansour), head for a new life free of 22nd century population laws put in place to combat the planet's overcrowding in Terra Nova.
"I felt it was a mistake to ask the audience to follow these characters who you don't know," Echevarria says, adding that they incorporated a prologue into the first episode that they hope will pull the audience into the Shannon family's backstory. "You can throw endless amounts of money at the screen, but if it doesn't have a heart, people just don't care."
Fast-forward to the series' first real test when a handful of producers and Lang turned up at Comic-Con 2011. Until then, Terra Nova was little more than an untested concept with boldfaced auspices and the promise of dinosaurs. The studio screened the series' first hour for some 4,000 members of its core audience in Ballroom 20.
Recognizing the significance of the appearance, Braga admits to waiting with bated breath until the audience reacted to the opening credits at the end of Act 1. While the freshman effort, to be expected, didn't quite draw the same fervor as established genre hits such as the CW's The Vampire Diaries or AMC's The Walking Dead, the audience was audibly impressed with the dinosaurs.
The most fervent response during the hourlong session came when executive producer Jose Molina vowed that audiences would see "dino-on-human action," capitalizing on the crowd's enthusiastic response to a battle in which a dinosaur came out on top. Critics were impressed by the cinematic nature of the project; some, however, expressed frustration with plot holes and the similarity of Lang's Avatar character to that for which he is best known.
Now the cast, crew and execs will attempt to convince viewers that the wait has been worth it. "We're an expensive show, and you will see the money on the screen," Molina told the Comic-Con fans. "It's going to look badass."
Whether the series is ultimately too big for TV is a question that won't be answered until the fall. Is there an appetite for dinosaurs? For another multi-universe drama? For a family adventure? "The one thing I know for certain," Kaplan says, "is that there's nothing like it on television."
-- Pip Bulbeck contributed to this report.
TERRA NOVA BY THE NUMBERS
- 4,000: Potential fans who turned up to see the series' first hour at Comic-Con.
- 250: Crewmembers -- on the set and off -- including construction workers, the art department and production office staffers.
- 150: Castmembers -- including stars O'Mara and Lang -- and extras on the Australian set each day.
- 111: Million Super Bowl viewers who watched the splashy promo for Terra Nova's since-delayed preview.
- 85: Million years between the two worlds featured on the series.
- 9: Executive producers now involved, including Spielberg and Chernin.
- 4: Acres of land where Terra Nova resides in Queensland.
- 1: Minimum number of dinosaurs -- or Cretaceous-era creatures -- that viewers will see in every episode of the Fox action-adventure series.
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