Stephen Lang talks Terra Nova as show lands in New Zealand

From the NZHerald: Welcome to the world of Terra Nova folks – the most expensive TV show ever made. With its flashy CGI effects, vicious dinosaurs, and vast sets, including the prehistoric human colony the show takes its name from, the feature-length pilot cost around US$20 million ($24.1 million) alone. And each of the following 11 episodes of the Steven Spielberg-backed series cost US$4 million to make.

It would want to look good then, and though it’s no Avatar, it is certainly cinematic in scope.

But as Avatar veteran turned Terra Nova star Stephen Lang, who plays hard-as-nails colony leader Commander Nathaniel Taylor, says, it’s not just about the effects.

“In the end, if you don’t have a good yarn to tell, then all the special effects in the world aren’t going to help you. And if you don’t care about the people who are going through what ever it is they are going through, then it’s going to be an empty experience.”

“I’ve done a lot of stuff with lots of explosions in it,” he says in his dry, staunch tone, “and I must say Conan the Barbarian had more special effects in it than anything I’ve ever done, with the exception of Avatar. But this one is certainly up there.”

The premise for the show goes like this. The year is 2149 with human life on the verge of extinction because of overpopulation and air pollution. The only hope of survival – for a chosen few at least – lies through a time portal that allows people to travel 85 million years back in time to an “alternate” prehistoric earth.

The story picks up with the Tenth Pilgrimage of settlers on their way to Terra Nova, Among them are the Shannon family: dad and former cop Jim, his surgeon wife Elisabeth, and their three children Josh, Maddy and Zoe.

It’s a chance for a new start.

As Taylor says in his welcome to the colony’s latest inhabitants: “Citizens of 2149, together we are at the dawn of a new civilisation. Welcome to Terra Nova folks. Welcome home.”

Today, Lang is talking to TimeOut during a brief break from shooting on set. He’s still wearing his military-style uniform, with a gnarly handgun in a holster strapped to his body, having just come out of “the jungle”.

“We have a plan, it’s very risky, to send [Jim] Shannon back to carry out a little sabotage that is necessary to the survival of our colony,” he says of the scene he’s just shot.

And as for executive producer Spielberg’s actual involvement? Well, let’s just say he’s a busy man. Young star Landon Liboiron (who plays Josh Shannon) cheekily describes the King of Hollywood as a “Wizard of Oz-type character”.

“We haven’t met him yet. But, I mean, he is working on 20 different things,” he laughs. “During the pilot we were laughing that Steven Spielberg was going to shoot down, [come] boosting out of a helicopter with the Jurassic Park theme playing to check on everything.”

Seriously though, the show’s writer and producer Rene Echevarria says Spielberg was involved in casting key roles (“he’s made a few stars in his day”), the production design of the colony and the dinosaurs (“he lent the production a dinosaur expert”) and establishing the ecological themes of the show (“the idea that the community was renewable”).

One of the most noticeable things about Terra Nova is its family-friendly audience focus, with the Shannons at the heart of the story.

“Not that we sacrificed dinosaurs for it or anything,” jokes director Jon Cassar, the man also behind action-packed political series 24 and most recently The Kennedys. “It’s just about where you put the spine of your show and the Shannon family is exactly where it’s at.”

“You’ve got your weekly story, your family drama and within that you’ve got the mythology, mostly because of this renegade tribe called the Sixers who are mysterious right from the get go. They become a major force.

“The fanboys will like that part [because] you can’t do sci-fi without mythology,” says Cassar.

The idea of time travel and the “alternate time line” Terra Nova is in are two elements of the show that could be hot topics for sci-fi geeks – and Cassar knows it.

“With science fiction you have so much leeway to go whichever way you want to go and make up your own rules. There is a part of it that’s interesting in that way, but the difficult part of coming up with a sci-fi concept is the amount of scrutiny you come under.

“If a cop show comes out it doesn’t get scrutinised – except maybe from cops. And I had a friend who was an ER doctor and she said her and her friends got together and watched ER as a comedy every week.

“But sci-fi is incredibly scrutinised by people who think they know the rules of sci-fi. You say ‘time travel’ and everyone starts giving you the rules of time travel,” he says.

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