By Jeff Pfeiffer
Terra Nova, the epic new sci-fi/action/drama series premiering this Monday, Sept. 26, at 8pm ET/PT on FOX with a two-hour pilot, has a storyline that straddles both a future world about 150 years from now, and an alternate world 85 million years in the past, where the brunt of the action takes place. In reality, the show has sometimes felt like it’s taken a million years to get here, with premiere date postponements and rumors of out-of-control production flying over the last year and a half. But judging by what I’ve seen from the pilot, it looks like it could be worth the wait (aside from the fact that my cameo appearance was left on the cutting-room floor) once it settles in. It’s thrilling and has cool dinosaurs, but importantly, it also does not skimp on the human interactions of the characters, and the bigger questions for all of us about human nature and existence.
Monday’s pilot episode begins in 2149, when Earth has become a dying world — overcrowded, with a poisonous atmosphere. Scientists discover a fracture in time that makes it possible to construct a portal into prehistoric history, giving humanity a chance to reboot itself there and get civilization right this time.
Jason O’Mara plays Jim Shannon, head of a family who are among the Tenth Pilgrimage to this new world, dubbed Terra Nova. While living 85 million years in the past, the Shannons and other citizens of Terra Nova naturally face threats from the prehistoric creatures of the time, but perhaps even more ominously from others among them, and the series raises good questions about whether or not humanity can change its essential nature, even given a second chance.
I was able to sit down with O’Mara last month at the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles, where we discussed questions such as these that Terra Nova addresses — along with the cool dinosaur stuff, of course (the Irish actor admits to being a fellow “dinosaur nerd.”)
“Terra Nova” has been in the works for a while. How grueling and physical was the shoot, long did it take to film, and are you even done filming the first season?
Jason O’Mara: I come back [from shooting in Australia] first week of October. It will be almost a year of production by the time it airs. We did take four or five months off. There’s the two-hour pilot [and] we have another 11 episodes which will complete the first season.
I found [the shoot] very intense and very demanding physically, so I’ve taken it upon myself to take my training very seriously. I’ve been working out for 90 minutes a day, which I’ve never done as an adult. I haven’t done that since I was probably 17 years old. I have to say, I think [costar] Stephen Lang probably inspired that because he’s a little older than me and he’s really fit. So we kind of challenge each other to stay fit. Last week for a scene I spent three hours hanging upside down because I was caught in a man-trap, and a raptor had come sniffing around started to attack me. So trying to dodge a raptor dinosaur while upside down, hanging from a tree is … you have to be fit! [laughs] There’s no rest. So after that scene was shot at the end of a 12-hour day, the next morning I start again with like eight pages of dialogue somewhere else, shooting for 12 or 14 hours. It’s relentless. Playing a TV lead is like that, and I’m happy to do it.
Do most dinosaur interactions like that one require a lot of green-screen special effects work?
O’Mara: Ninety percent of the green-screen work was in the pilot. It tends to be stuff that’s going on behind you, rather than in front of you. So if you’re interacting with a dinosaur sharing the same frame as you, you have to just imagine it’s there. There’s been a lot less green-screen work than you think. Sometimes you get a visual effects guy who’s got like a pole, and at the end of the pole is a rough dinosaur head cut from cardboard he’s moving around, just so everybody’s got the same eyeline to react to. Other than that, you’ve got to imagine [the dinosaurs are] there sniffing you and breathing on you and about to bite your leg off. I’ve had a few run-ins with them! You have to use your imagination, that’s what it’s all about.
Had you been interested in dinosaurs before this? Did you learn anything about them working on this show? What prehistoric creatures can we expect to see in “Terra Nova”?
O’Mara: I’m a dinosaur nerd. It is a childhood dream. What makes it super-interesting — I’m going to get nerdy for a second — Jack Horner was the dinosaur advisor on Jurassic Park, and [co-executive producer] Steven Spielberg wanted us to work with him as well. What’s interesting about our show, is because it’s set a bit further in the future, we don’t know what we’re going to discover paleontologically between now and then, so we get to take some liberties. [Our dinosaurs are] all based on creatures that could have existed, but there’s a slight twist. Bear in mind that when Jurassic Park was made in 1993, velociraptors were how they looked in that movie, but we’ve since discovered scientifically that that’s incorrect, that they had feathers. So we’re bringing some feathers and some more pigmentation to these dinosaurs, but we’re also using a “what if” kind of principle of going, “Okay, but what if this dinosaur had horns in its tail, even though scientifically it didn’t; What if this dinosaur … ” So Jack Horner made sure that they’re all based in reality — or in what could have lived. But we get to also sort of put our own spin on it. Some of these dinosaurs are like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and I don’t just mean design. I mean their behavior is different. Some of them are kind of scary because there’s something really mean about them that we’ve never seen. Almost like they’re grinning.
Apparently Steven Spielberg didn’t want anything that had appeared in a Jurassic Park movie. Why repeat dinosaurs that we’ve seen and have been done so well? So we tried to bring our own twist to things. So [the carnosaur in the pilot] is probably as close as you’re going to get to a T-rex. But we have a whole range of other dinosaurs we’re going to explore. We have our own take on various raptors. Raptors in our world, there are like a dozen diffent type of raptors who all have their own behaviors, their own colors, their own amount of feathers, sizes. We also have our own version of the spinosaurs, and many other dinosaurs. So it’s really fun. Initially I thought, “No, we should do it as historically accurate.” But that’s only historically accurate according to what we know. So I kind of opened my mind to that.
Same as with the time elements [of the story] as well. I had a lot of questions like, “What about the Butterfly Effect?” Alternate universes, this and that. A lot of that stuff is not only explained, but further explored down the line. Even though people are acting like, “Huh?” at the beginning, there are all sorts of things that are going to be explored. The writers are super-smart; that stuff is going to be an intrinsic part of the show.
You mentioned Steven Spielberg. How involved is he on the set?
O’Mara: I believe he has a lot of input on behind-the-scenes stuff, like story, scripts, production design. He’s one member of a large team; obviously he’s the most disintugished and has a very strong voice. What surprised me was how sometimes we get these notes or messages on the set where you’re doing a scene and the director will say, “Okay, we’re going to do this this way.” And you go, “Why?” And they go, “This is how Steven Spielberg wants it.” And it usually is a moment of brilliance, and you go, “Okay, that’s what makes him a genius.” So his presence is very much felt on the set, even though he hasn’t been to Australia. I really think his presence is felt tonally in the show. I think there are some “Spielberg” moments in terms of humans in peril and human moments. There’s something really exciting about that.
Like most good sci-fi, “Terra Nova” presents questions about modern humanity that viewers can take in and think about. Was that an appeal for you taking this role?
O’Mara: Listen, you have touched on exactly the questions we want to ask in the series. It can’t be just “Dinosaur of the Week.” We have dinosaurs every week, but it’s not Jurassic Park. Plus, we’re in their environment, they’re not in ours, so it has to come back to humanity. We have this incredible back door, this second chance, to ensure our future. The question is: What if we can’t put aside the things that make us human and mess this chance up, too? You realize that there’s already stuff going on [at Terra Nova]. The Sixth Pilgrimage didn’t work out; there’s a bunch of reasons why that took place. Most of the people from that pilgrimage have branched out and become the “Sixers.” They have a reason for doing what they’re doing. Taylor’s [Lang's character] got a reason for being the leader and ensuring Terra Nova survives. There are people questioning his authority, wondering why he was never elected and what makes him so autocratic. In one of the episodes we have the first murder in Terra Nova. And why would we do that do each other? And why we have no judicial system in place, and what form of punishment should be carried out for the suspect. So these are all things we’re hoping to explore, and the backdrop of the scene that we’ve set, the world that we’ve created, allows us to tell those allegorical stories and ask those questions.
I guess it’s a show that in a way reminds me … [of] Star Trek – but it’s so much more than that — in the way it asks similar questions. Yes, in the future we will have all these great things, but we will also have a sort of flawed nature that will constantly challenge us, and we’re always looking to try to make the next right decision.
Jason O’Mara: © 2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. Credit: Michael Lavine/FOX
O’Mara/Stephen Lang & Shannon family: © 2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. Credit: Brook Rushton/FOX
Dinosaurs: © 2011 Fox Broadcasting Co.