YHU Interview with Cynthia Hsiung - 2013 (April 8)
The YHU extends its deepest thanks to Cynthia Hsiung for taking the time to grant us an interview.
Interview with Cynthia Hsiung
Answers to Interview questions posed by YHU Academy to Cynthia Hsiung, Producer of "Young Hercules".
Before reading my answers to the following fan questions, I would like to put in a disclaimer of sorts. As you know, it has been roughly 15 years since "Young Hercules" the 50 episode series began in 1998. I hope my memory can do all those associated with "Young Hercules" justice. And I want to apologize in advance if there are any omissions or murkiness in my recollection which might offend anyone who was a part of this amazing TV series. I would like to also give everyone associated with the show an appreciative nod as the series was definitely loved by all those who worked so hard to bring it to life. Thank you to the incredible devoted fans for this opportunity to walk down memory lane. - Cynthia Hsiung
Young Hercules University: As Producer on the show, what did your job requirements entail? What sorts of control did you have over the show?
Cynthia Hsiung: I could probably write a thesis on this question alone! As Producer of "Young Hercules" I oversaw multiple aspects of the series, the stories and episodes, the overall goals which the Network had for the show, the Studio stake in the series and the infusion of the collaborative and creative "thumbprint" for the series which included but were not limited to my very own. That meant my day was full from top to bottom, working with the writers, the visual effects, the directors, the actors, our post-production group, visual effects, music; and then there were the Studio and Network Executives I would speak to on a daily basis making sure their creative notes on scripts and rough-cuts were addressed along with any programming needs.
I suppose if there was any one person who knew on a daily basis what status every aspect of production was in, it would have been me. Others had their area which they concentrated on, my area was to know what every part of the whole was working on and to make sure the entire production along with the entire programming part was all working together in sync.
YHU: Does it surprise you that there are people talking about "Young Hercules" after all these years? Have you still come across groups of die hard fans like us?
CH: Well, yes and no. It does and it does not surprise me that people are talking about "Young Hercules" so many years later. The obvious reason why it does not surprise me is because of the level of astronomical fame Ryan Gosling has attained. The less obvious reason is because I truly believed years ago and now that the series was a great series, full of heart, soul and great fun! And it is a timeless series which can be enjoyed today equally to when it was first made.
It does at times surprise me though because I must admit, I don't live in the world of "Young Hercules" day-to-day. And it is on the rare special occasion such as the writing of these answers when I am touched again by this amazing TV series. This is when it does happily surprise me! It is incredibly meaningful that the fans have remained devoted fans of the series a decade and a half later! This means more to me than I can possibly say in words alone. I hope the answering of these questions can be a way for me to give back some of the love which so many fans have continued to show the series so many years later.
YHU: With the success of Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit", because of Dean O'Gorman's portrayal of Fili the dwarf, there has been a recent influx of new fans of "Young Hercules"; do you think that this will cause a new "Young Hercules" movement?
CH: I selfishly hope so! I love Dean-O and thought he was so adorably handsome in "The Hobbit"!
YHU: What favorite memories of your time working on the show would you share with us?
CH: Goodness, there are too many to write! I can honestly say I loved every moment of the series, from start to finish and beyond. However, if I were to pick some moments, here goes.
What interview regarding "Young Hercules" would be complete without a story about Ryan Gosling?!!
But even before Ryan became the world sensation that he is today, I still would have always remembered casting him with great fondness! I had the privilege of falling in love with Ryan before most others knew of his talents or name. Am I a lucky gal or what? ☺ Ryan sent me flowers after I let him know he was cast in the leading role. The card, I will never forget. It was handwritten and began with the immortal words: "To my future ex-wife Cynthia"!
Ryan was different from the very beginning when he came in to read for the leading role. I have often shared this story with friends. His reading of the lines from the script literally moved the room. His hands were in front of him and he sort of motioned them up and down in a "pressing" fashion. It had the effect of moving the room somehow. I can only say, I can still feel his presence today when I think back to that day in the casting room at Renaissance Pictures.
After his audition, he came up and shook my hand. He was most pleasant. I knew I wanted him back immediately for a call back to have him audition for the Studio Executives. At the second audition, he again blew away the room of Executives. After that audition, he came up to me again. This time, he caught a private moment with me and wanted to share a story. He said he was nervous because his truck broke down and he almost didn't make it to the audition. He had to push it up a hill about a mile and wanted to apologize for looking like, well, like he had just pushed his truck a mile up a hill! Ryan couldn't look bad if he was just swimming in a mud filled swamp. Come to think of it, Ryan would probably wear mud better than any person alive!
Additional favorite memories would include the Santa Monica Convention in Jan 1999. The boys had been shooting in New Zealand since May of 1998 and I had been working over 80 hours a week for over a year on the series myself. The convention was actually a "Hercules" and "Xena" convention and YH was asked to attend a bit last minute. We didn't really prepare much for it and hardly even had photos for the boys to sign or anything. When we - aka Ryan, Dean, Chris and myself all got there, we were stunned! YH was like the latest rock band or something! We were unprepared for the numbers of fans who were there specifically to see and meet the YH group.
YHU: A few years back you posted on the IMDB forum about a 51st episode. This has been a rumor flying around the internet amongst fans since the show has ended about what it was or what it may contain. Can you give us any information about that?
CH: Yes, as I mentioned in my email, there was indeed a 51st episode script written but never made. It was written by Patrick Phillips who also wrote "Me, Myself and Eye." The sisters from "Me, Myself and Eye" were back in that script and Strife was a focused on character in it as well.
YHU: You confirmed that it was not Ryan Gosling singing in the episode "The Prize". Was Dean O'Gorman singing in the episode, or was his voice also replaced? Who provided the vocals for the song?
CH: Ryan was not singing in "The Prize" and Dean did some background vocals. The music was provided by a band whose name currently escapes me! It's old age showing itself. I do believe I have the CD in storage which has the information of the band on it. I apologize to the band if they ever read this and will look through my YH things. If I can find it soon, I will email the info.
YHU: Some of the lyrics of the song Iolaus sings in "The Prize" suggest that he is having romantic entanglements with someone - "You pulled me over, read me my rights, it didn't bother me then, but now I'm losing sleep. I'm sure it's already over, she walked up and slammed the door, she said 'We're just getting started.'" Can you give us any more information into the meaning behind the lyrics? Who is Iolaus singing about?
CH: I believe the song was actually written prior to production of the episode, therefore the lyrics were not in reference to a person related to the character of Iolaus. Sorry if I have just squashed anyone's fantasies about Iolaus and the song!
YHU: IMDB credits you as playing a groupie in the episode "The Prize" - can you tell us where to spot you? Did you appear onscreen in any other episodes?
CH: Lol, my voice was used during a singing sequence. If you listen carefully you will hear a groupie yelling from the crowd "I love you Iolaus" – that was me! Sam Clark, my post-production Associate Producer needed some voices of young teenage sounding girls. He asked me to do it and in the studio during a regular playback, I was recorded. Originally Sam was going to "pitch-up" my voice, but I have a naturally higher pitched voice and it was not a stretch to get it to sound teenager-like.
YHU: Do you have a favorite episode or scene from Young Hercules?
CH: Yes, I do have a favorite scene, however, it's a little hard to describe because it never made it to air! It's a scene where I had to make a very difficult decision. Believe it or not, my favorite all time YH scene I had to actually have edited out!! Yup, that's right, my favorite scene never made it to air.. oh the irony!
It was a scene from the Golden Hind episode entitled "Hind Sight." In the last scene of the episode, you may recall Hercules appears under the blue light of a crescent moon and the Golden Hind, Helene, now in human form, walks up to him. They talk about how they both are unique in different ways. Helene tells Hercules how she thinks he will get his rightful due both on Earth and up above. Well, there was originally another scene right before this scene where Kora walks up to Hercules under the same moon lit sky.Hercules and Kora share a romantic, and rather heartfelt longing moment. This scene was incredibly lovely and actually brought a tear to my eye! The scene was not meant to play that way when it was written. In script form, the scene was less romantic and more old friends discussing personal challenges in life. The actors interpreted it somewhat differently and gave life to a completely unexpected scene albeit one which displayed a chemistry which was enlightening to me.
However, the beautiful Kora/Hercules scene took away from the following scene between Hercules and Helene. Not only that, the scene could have appeared to display Hercules as romantically "fickle" and potentially make him come across as a player! So, unfortunately, it was a difficult creative decision, but an important one for the series as a whole. Thus, the Kora/Hercules romantic scene was cut out! And for years now, I have often wished that scene could have been seen by the fans. If it had been left in, I do think future Kora and Hercules story lines would have changed quite a lot going forward!
Regarding favorite episode(s) – I seem to change my opinion every time I watch an episode! Often, however, I have said I loved the writing of "Ares on Trial" by John Loy. However, I also really love the humor of "Parent's Day" written by Adam Armus and Kay Foster; and I especially loved that the writers fashioned Lilith's sister, Neina after stories I told them about... none other than my own older sister! That's a insider nugget which I have never shared publicly! The point was always that Lilith's sister meant well but had an odd way of showing it which always left Lilith feeling bad. But in the end, Neina showed she only wanted the best for Lilith.
YHU: The outside of Kora's Inn doesn't look big enough to hold the inside - do you remember if you actually shot inside that building, or if you had another stage for the interior of the Inn?
CH: There was a different set for the interior.
YHU: Going by airdate, many characters appeared in episodes before they were actually "introduced" on the show - Discord, Lilith, and Hephaestus to name a few. Do you have any idea why the episodes were aired out of order, or what the "correct" episode order should be?
CH: Gosh you are so observant! Yes, they did air somewhat out of order from how they were conceived, written and shot. There are a variety of reasons for this and I suppose the best way to answer your question is to give a sense of how the series evolved. The series was picked up by Fox Kids Network with a large 50 episode order. Knowing we had 50 to write and produce up top was a nice luxury. It allowed for early planning and ultimately saved production money. We decided to shoot the episodes in blocks of 4 at a time. (I should note when I say "we" it was a collective of many, but mainly Rob Tapert, Liz Friedman and myself in Los Angeles and Eric Gruendermann and Janine Dickins in New Zealand). This was a unique plan of attack and to my knowledge had never been done in a television series production before "Young Hercules." It was so innovative, that once the series wrapped, I was called upon by many colleagues inquiring about the production techniques used on YH. A Studios USA Executive also told me they were using "Young Hercules" as a case study to teach their other producers how to maximize on a production budget by using the same method.
Each episode being 21 minutes and 20 seconds as our target TRT (Total Run Time); this meant that 4 episodes together roughly timed out like that of a feature film. Using an "economies of scale" way of thinking, we shot in blocks of 4 episodes similar to a feature film. 11 to 13 shoot days (depending) of 1st unit production for each block with 2nd unit production 1 day behind. This meant a shooting average of 4.5 pages of script per day between both units totaling roughly 22 shoot days per block.
So for example, "Treasure of Zeus," "Between Friends," "What a Crockery," "Teacher's Pests" a.k.a. Block 1; were all 4 written with the intention to have them take place in similar locations with similar actors and similar needs for extras, props, wardrobe, etc. That way, we didn't have to re-invent sets, re-cast actors, or re-address props or wardrobe for each individual episode. Therefore, actors had to learn lines for all 4 episodes at once because on any given shoot day, they might shoot scenes from 4 completely different episodes. I hope that makes sense!
In addition, since it was a new series, we had to work out initial kinks. Even though Block 1 was written first, we actually shot Block 2, the Amazon Block, first. This was to ensure that when we shot the pilot episodes in Block 1 that the kinks were worked out within the crew, the actors, the post-production system between Los Angeles and New Zealand, as well as the music, visual effects, etc. before we went into production on the all important pilot episodes.
Now that I've explained a bit of the out of sequencing regarding the way episodes were produced, I should also address the way episodes were aired. The airing was predominantly up to the Network. They would consult with us to better understand what they would be getting and when; however, they were the experts when it came to timing out the episodes for ratings, for the all important "sweeps week" and for events or stunts which the Network as a whole might be planning. Therefore, I hope this better outlines why certain characters might have been seen in episodes airing prior to their more official or intended introduction to the series. The original airing of the episodes I believe is available online. The original intention of how they would air was always a bit of a moving puzzle of 50 pieces! For example, we shot the Block with the Golden Hind including "Iolaus Goes Stag" and "Hind Sight" together in one production Block, but they did not air one after the other. The core stories did not need one to understand the other.
YHU: Word is that towards the end of the season, FOX wanted the episodes changed to appeal to a target male audience - there were less 'romantic' storylines, and more emphasis on action and fighting. Can you tell us any more about why FOX wanted this shift? Young Hercules seemed to have a swelling young female fanbase - why turn from them?
CH: Yes this is true. It was less about "turning" from the female fanbase and more about increasing the male audience. In addition, the heavier action episodes could stand alone better which was more desirable when thinking about how to monetize on the episodes. You may recall, many episodes early in the season continued their story lines from one episode to another. Examples would be the 3 pilot episodes, "Treasure of Zeus," "Between Friends," "What a Crockery" and others such as "Lure of the Lyre," "Fame," "Lyre, Liar," and "Lady in Hades." The Network wanted more stand alones, or episodes which did not require a viewer to have seen the episode prior to understand it.
YHU: Although ratings were high, and despite many online petitions from the fans, Young Hercules was not renewed for a second season. Do you have any information about why?
CH: As sad as it was when the series was not renewed, it turned out a good thing for Ryan Gosling fans! If the series had gone on, who knows if his film career would have taken off as it has. What a talented guy he is and I am very privileged to have "known him when"! I am very grateful to him for some of the films he has made in his career. "The Notebook" personally touched me quite a lot. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers shortly after we wrapped on "Young Hercules" and is one of the main reasons I did not take another TV project directly after. When I saw "The Notebook" it was quite a nice reminder that even when things end, there can be great beauty within them ending. And when we love someone or something, perhaps that love really does keep it alive! The fact that you, the fans, have kept "Young Hercules" alive in your hearts and that this interview is being posted in 2013, to me says it all. The series may not have been renewed by the Network, but it has continued to be renewed by the fans for 15 years now!
Networks make decisions for many reasons and YH came at a time when there were many changes happening within Fox Kids Network. You never know though what can happen with such devoted fans! Fans brought "Doctor Who" and "Star Trek" back on screen. Perhaps fans will bring back YH in some similar way one day, wouldn't that be amazing?!
YHU: There was very little merchandise for the Young Hercules audience - do you know if there were any plans for anything to be made?
CH: Yes, if we had gone a second season there were indeed plans for merchandizing.
YHU: In "Herc and Seek", Cratus says, "You left us for this? Schoolbooks and playing warrior" when the lack of books should have cause Cratus to say something like "Schoolscrolls". In "My Fair Lilith", After Antos threatens Hercules in flowery, poetic speech, Hercules points to himself and says, "Uh, no, English!" when Hercules should tell Antos to speak to him in Greek. Do you know if any "mistakes" like these were left in for clarity reasons, or if they just weren't caught by the editors?
CH: Well, perhaps a little creative liberties here, lol, but great catches!
YHU: You said in an interview once that Artemis taught Kora how to hunt so she could use the food for her inn. Do you have any more information about Kora's backstory that was never revealed in the show?
CH: Kora was quite a deep character and actually had we gone a second season, there was talk of, and I would have liked to see, a Kora spin-off series. The character was conceived to essentially be "enslaved" to the Goddess Artemis. Her character had a lot of depth and Angela Dotchin played her exceedingly well! To keep her Inn going, Kora made a pact with Artemis where Artemis would help Kora hunt and supply food for the Inn. Meanwhile, Kora would have to do Artemis' bidding. This came into conflict at times with the other Gods and at times with the humans as well. Kora had special hunting abilities which Hercules witnesses and created a special bond between the two of them.
YHU: What information can you tell us about Amazon High? Was there any talk of crossover episodes or characters between Amazon High and Young Hercules?
CH: This would be a better question for Liz Friedman. Amazon High was a great pilot movie starring Selma Blair. The two pilot movies, AH and YH were being "shopped" together and were made roughly the same time. When we wrote and produced the Amazon Block of episodes for YH, there was definitely the spirit of Amazon High within those episodes. We also had a few of the same actresses playing the Amazons.
YHU: Young Hercules has recently started being released on DVD in Germany - do you know if there's any word of it being released in the USA, UK, or any other countries as well?
CH: Sorry, I do not have information on a USA DVD release.
YHU: There are tales of the existence of a legendary and elusive blooper reel that was shown at the Santa Monica convention - What can you tell us about it? Can you describe any of the bloopers? Any idea where/how we could get our hands on a copy of it?
CH: Yes there was a blooper reel as well as a couple of promotional reels made. There was actually a long blooper reel which I had edited down shorter for the Santa Monica convention. I do not believe it was ever made available beyond the convention. I can share with you that it had hysterical outtakes where the camaraderie of the actors and crew really came across. Also fun to hear were the real kiwi accents of many of the actors including Dean O'Gorman and Jodie Rimmer. The actors were asked to speak with American accents for YH and we would go to great lengths to ADR their dialogue if too much kiwi came out.
There was some footage of Jodie Rimmer and Dean O'Gorman putting out a fire in an interior set. The flames weren't going out very easily and you could see the actors struggling to keep from laughing. Finally, the director yells "cut" and the pyrotechnics team rushes in with fire extinguishers scaring off the actors and putting out the flames.
The blooper reel also showed some of the lighter director moments. I often think the directors went a bit unrecognized especially since they were in New Zealand and post production and visual effects, sound, music and writing were all being done in Los Angeles. All three directors (Chris Graves, Charlie Haskell, Andrew Merrifield) plus the fourth second unit director (Simon Raby) were fantastic! The directors had quite the job to keep it all light and together with a grueling schedule and a non-stop pace. In one of the clips in the blooper reel, Andrew Merrifield was getting "cheeky" showing Simon Raby where the plate should go for the Golden Hind.
I know this might sound a bit like "Greek" so perhaps if you will indulge me, I'll share one of the running jokes during production of the series. As I described previously, we shot the series in blocks of 4 episodes at a time, with 1 director per block rotating between Chris, Charlie and Andy with Simon Raby directing 2nd unit. Which block each director was assigned to was often luck of the draw in terms of the rotation. Each block had their own unique set of challenges. For example, the Bacchus block required a ton of hair, make-up, wardrobe, sets and casting while the Hephaestus block required less in terms of set pieces and extras, but more in terms of props and practical effects. For example, in the Hephaestus block, Andrew Merrifield used a shooting technique called forced perspective to create a giant for those episodes.
However, perhaps the most challenging block for any director was the Golden Hind episodes. This block required shooting with an ever elusive animal, the deer. Deer are worse creators than cats to put on film. They run and scatter upon a person's breath, they really cannot be trained to do anything on cue. The "Hind" block, as it became affectionately known, was originally scheduled to be block 4. The scripts were ready for the director, but as the shoot dates got closer, I got a call from New Zealand saying they were having issues with training the deer for the shoot. The block has moved to become block 5 and quickly I would have the writers (fantastically captained by Eric Lewald) work on new scripts to fill the gap left by the now pushed Hind block. I believe the original director for the Golden Hind block was Charlie Haskell. Pushing the Hind to block 5, now meant it changed directors from Charlie to Andrew Merrifield. As we were shooting block 4, I would get a call from New Zealand giving a new reason why the Hind block would need to be pushed again, and now the block went to Chris Graves. And a new call would come from New Zealand .. and then again, and then again. The block was pushed several times, becoming the "musical chairs" block of "Young Hercules" where everyone wondered who would be left without a chair when the music stopped. Finally, the Golden Hind block landed in the position of block number 9 and the lucky director was Andrew Merrifield who did a fantastic job! And I think the blooper reel captured a bit of the lighter spirit during the Golden Hind episodes because of what became sort of the "legend" of that infamous block!
I hope this story doesn't give the wrong impression of any of the directors. They were all amazingly spirited and jumped in to whatever situation they were presented with. The "Hind" block just became sort of a larger than life block for everyone, almost like how a small itch becomes a larger one the more you think about it. But in the end, the episodes are amazing and the behind the scenes story of the Golden Hind block is fun to think back upon!
YHU: In "My Fair Lilith", Lilith poses as Jason's wife so he doesn't have to marry Princess Dido. Later, it is revealed in HtLJ episode "5.17 - The Academy" that Jason and Lilith eventually were lovers and even had a child. What can you tell us about the origins of this relationship? If Young Hercules had continued, was there talk of Jason/Lilith becoming an on-screen relationship? Do you know if "The Academy" episode was to provide a preview into the next season?
CH: Lilith and Jason's relationship beyond "My Fair Lilith" was not discussed during the first season of YH. If YH had continued into a second season, I would imagine it might have been touched upon given "The Academy" episode on HtLJ.
YHU: Why was Artemis played by a colorful shadow, while the other Gods and Goddesses were all personified by actors?
CH: What a great question! Glad you noticed because we did indeed design her to look and feel different. When we began YH, we "inherited" many of the Gods from Hercules and Xena. Artemis was not a regular in either of the other series and we planned for her to be a regular Goddess in YH. Artemis gave us an opportunity to make Gods look a bit different. You could call it a "signature" for YH in a way. I asked Kevin Blank, our visual effects producer to design a funkier look for Artemis. When I first saw her, I was on the fence but soon thought she had a unique presence. In addition, since Artemis was visually "other worldly" this allowed us to focus more on the character of Kora.