NBC takes a page from classic literature when it adapts Daniel Defoe's 1719 classic "Robinson Crusoe" story into the new series, "Crusoe," which premieres tonight. Series stars Philip Winchester and Sam Neill along with executive producer Jeffrey Hayes talked to Jim Halterman about the dramatic license taken in the adaptation of the well-known books, finding sex appeal in the 17th century and challenges of nature in shooting in South Africa.
In taking Defoe's book and turning it into a weekly series, Hayes stated that the source material was the foundation for the series but "we do take a bit of dramatic license if you will. In terms of how we approach this character and the way that he exists on the island with his partner, Friday. [The series is] definitely grounded in the book but after that we kind of bring it into a more contemporary kind of tone as far as a period drama is concerned."
Winchester, who plays Crusoe, added, "What I've really tried to do and what I think we've stuck to is that Robinson Crusoe is the same character but he's telling different tales or different things are happening to him." One story that is taken from the book is Crusoe's uncovering of cannibals inhabiting the island. "Robinson Crusoe has to go through the emotional journey of what he's going to do about seeing cannibals and if he's going to interfere with [them]. We've taken those elements of the story and we've intertwined them into the 13 episodes." Winchester also said in terms of the balance between original stories and stories adapted from the Defoe material, "there's probably actually only two or three shows that are completely original stories where there's something completely different happening."
In playing the character, Winchester realized that for anyone to live on an island for 28 years, the sole desire to continue living needed something more concrete. "The things that are happening to him and the amount of pressure that he's living with [as well as] the stresses of everyday life of surviving � to have something to live for, i.e. a wife and a family, it gives him a real drive. And something that can really come up throughout the episodes is why is he so tenacious? I mean, why does he want to get off the island so bad?"
Much in the way "Lost" has flashbacks and flash forwards built into its episodic narrative, "Crusoe" divides its time between the occurrences on the island and Crusoe's past life back in London. Hayes talked about the challenges of keeping the story of a man stranded on an island interesting by making Crusoe's past a prominent part of the series. In the creating of the storylines for the series, he said, "You have to create characters. You have to create a back-story. You have to create a love story and give it as many layers as you possibly can and contemporize it in a way that's going to appeal to a broad audience for television." The past and present stories on the series, however, are not always going to run so far apart, Hayes hinted. "Particularly as far as the back-story of Sam Neill [as Jeremiah Blackthorne] and Anna Walton as Crusoe's wife, Susannah (Anna Walton) and [Crusoe's] father, who is played by Sean Bean and this group of remembrances that actually dovetail into real-time towards the end of the first 13 episodes."
As Jeremiah Blackthorne, veteran actor Sam Neill talked about how his character is not exactly out for the best interests of Robinson Crusoe. Neill laughed at the string of villains he's played at this stage in his career. "If you're going to sort of differentiate roles between bad guys and good guys," he recounted. "I've been lurching a bit towards the bad guy end of the spectrum lately and I'm not sure if that reflects something about me or not. But they're a lot of fun to play and I'm enjoying Blackthorn because he's a guy that has many, many sort of layers to him. He's a conflicted guy."
This being modern network television, sex appeal is a common selling point with the cast of many series. Winchester has his shirt off often in the series and, unless there's an Equinox on the island, he is doing something right to stay in shape. Winchester explained his workout regime has been adapted somewhat to the island environment. "We have 5:30 calls in the morning so I'll be up at 4:45 to get some work in. But I'm not doing anything crazy. I wanted to do things that Robinson could've done on the island so I've been running on the beach and I've been doing pushups and pull-ups on the beach and things like that." To balance out the masculine sex appeal, there is no shortage of attractive women in the series, as well. Hayes explained that in order to guarantee sex appeal in this series, "first of all you cast somebody like Anna Walton for Susannah and then you don't have to worry about it because she comes onscreen and she's, I think, what every man would hope his wife would be like."
Besides the creative challenges of adapting the Defoe material, Winchester talked about the filming being tough for everyone involved. "There's been a lot of physical demand on everyone � not just the actors but on the crew, on the grips, mechanic team, everybody. So kind of melding those altogether, coming home and learning eight or nine pages of dialogue for the following day and knowing that you've got to incorporate a sword fight that you've learned two hours ago and other stunts as well � those have been big challenges."
Mother nature also proved to be just as challenging while the series shot in South Africa, as Winchester explained. "We actually had some crazy things happen while we were filming as well. South Africa had the biggest storm they've ever had in 100 years come through and destroy some of our sets. And it was kind of apt that during �Crusoe' we have an epic storm come through and wipe away some of our beaches and many of our sets."
Hayes is confident that viewers will respond to this adaptation and stated, "We've struck a good balance, actually, in being true to the book and providing a very substantial piece of entertainment."
"Crusoe" kicks off tonight with a two-hour premiere at 8:00/7:00c before settling into its regular timeslot on Fridays at 9:00/8:00c.