On Set With 'Terra Nova': 8 Secrets Revealed From TV's Most Ambitious Fall Show
Fox’s Terra Nova follows the Shannon family and other settlers who, threatened with extinction in the year 2149, travel back 85 million years in time to join a prehistoric Earth colony.
The Hollywood Reporter visited the Queensland, Australia set to get a behind the scenes glimpse of Fox’s highly anticipated —and heavily scrutinized—show ahead the series’ Sept. 26 premiere.
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Among the revelations from this week’s cover story:
1. STEVEN SPIELBERG CAST AVATAR’S STEPHEN LANG
Executive producer Steven Spielberg made his first choice very clear on who he wanted to play paramilitary guy Nathaniel Taylor — the first to travel to Terra Nova: Avatar’s Stephen Lang. “He was always an advocate of Stephen Lang — and he was right,” says Brannon Braga. Another Spielberg note: add oxygen masks. He was responsible for the “rebreathers,” masks inhabitants of 2149 wear as there’s no longer fresh air on the overcrowded earth. That people from the overpopulated future nearly choke to death when they arrive in the oxygen-rich Terra Nova was an ironic twist that also came directly from him. “It was such a cool detail,” Braga notes. “A lot of the ‘Here’s what would really happen if...' came out of Spielberg’s brain."
2. THESE ARE NOT JURASSIC PARK DINOS
The dinos from Terra Nova are not from the same period as the ones in Spielberg’s seminal dino flick. Instead, they are from the Cretaceous period, 85 million years in the past. The pilot will feature a Brachiosuarus and a Carnotaurus, and there will be at least one dino per show. Though Spielberg brought in the same paleontologist he used on Jurassic Park, “he didn’t want people to see a show affiliated with his name where they follow the same dinosaurs they saw in Jurassic Park – like a T. rex running around,” says Braga.
3. THE SERIES COULD HAVE ENDED UP ON SYFY
Originally titled Gondawana Highway, the then 12-page short story by British writer Kelly Marcel found its way to former William Morris scripted television head Aaron Kaplan in 2009. 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.
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4. BOTH CBS AND FOX WERE INTERESTED IN THE SHOW
After shopping the show around in late 2009, both CBS and Fox were interested, a source says. In the end, the team was struck by Fox’s track record of betting big on out-of-the-box shows like Prison Break, 24 and Glee. “Matt [Cherniss] and Terence [Carter] immediately got it,” Kaplan says of the then-Fox executives whom he pitched. Four months after Fox picked it up, Kaplan got a call from Fox that not only would the series bypass the standard pilot process and receive a 13-episode order, but Steven Spielberg and former News Corp COO Peter Chernin would come aboard as producers.
5. SPIELBERG VETOED HAWAII
Among the early decisions that needed to be made was where the production would shoot. The plush landscapes of Hawaii seemed a suitable choice but Spielberg vetoed that option, fearing that the comparisons inevitably drawn to his earlier dinosaur feature Jurassic Park would become that much greater if the two projects were to shoot in the same locale. Florida, Louisiana and New Zealand were all voted out as well. On to Australia.
6. TERRA NOVA IS NOT CHEAP: A "BIG SWING"
The two-hour premiere episode alone has been pegged at a price tag of between $10 million and $20 million. “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 tells THR of a series that has become one of the most scrutinized and anticipated shows to hit 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.” It was Fox’s Peter Rice who reached out to Spielberg. Then the network and studio collectively agreed that Chernin, who launched a Fox-based production company upon his News Corp. departure, would 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.”
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7. THE SHOW WAS DELAYED PARTIALLY BECAUSE...THEY RAN OUT OF TAPE
After the show was teased to the media at January’s Television Critics Association tour in January, and then again in a Super Bowl commercial, Fox abruptly announced that its two-hour premiere after American Idol in May would be pushed back to the fall. Braga acknowledges they were short of material (the set had been plagued by torrential rains); there were also executive departures that complicated the creative process. “It’s never fun to publicly change an announcement,” admits showrunner Rene Echevarria. “We went to Australia with the hope of hitting a home run, and we hit a triple.”
8. THE SHOW BECAME MORE FAMILY-FOCUSED IN RESHOOTS
The producers returned to Australia determined to add an emotional hook to ensure the series would appeal to the family audience that its 8 p.m. slot necessitates. The plot now revolves 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. The pilot now includes a prologue telling their story. “I felt it was a mistake to ask the audience to follow these characters who you don’t know,” says Echevarria. “You can throw endless amounts of money at the screen, but if it doesn’t have