There's an earsplitting boom and Stephen Lang hits the deck hard as the windows implode.
"That's nothing," the buff 59-year-old actor says, removing his earplugs and brushing sawdust from his hair. "You wouldn't believe the stuff that happens around here."
We're deep in the Australian bush on the set of Fox's new adventure series Terra Nova. In the scene filming today, a meteor has just exploded in the atmosphere above the prehistoric colony presided over by Lang's Commander Nathaniel Taylor, knocking out the power and throwing up yet another obstacle for the pilgrims from the future who are grappling with the past.
It's clear from the size and permanency of the set that this megabucks Steven Spielberg-produced series, about a family from the year 2149 who travel back 85 million years to help reboot civilization, is a hugely ambitious project. With the two-hour premiere's budget estimated at $16 million, and the promise of showstopping visual effects each week, this is shaping up to be the most expensive TV show ever made.
"I opened the script and I thought, 'There's absolutely no way this can be made,'" says series star Jason O'Mara (Life on Mars). "I've been doing television almost exclusively for the past eight years and I've done some very ambitious shows, but nothing like this. So that's pretty much why I wanted to sign up."
At the center of the story is the Shannon family, part of the Tenth Pilgrimage to the past. They leave behind an Earth where pollution and overpopulation threaten mankind with extinction. Scientists have discovered a fracture in the time-space continuum, delivering a one-way ticket to an unspoiled Earth where humanity can start anew.
Ex-cop Jim Shannon (O'Mara) has been jailed for breaking the 22nd century "family is four" law — limiting couples to two children — but manages a last-minute escape to join his surgeon wife Elisabeth (British actress Shelley Conn) and their teenage children Josh (Landon Liboiron) and Maddy (Naomi Scott), plus their illegal third child, 5-year-old Zoe (Alana Mansour), as they head into a brave new world. "We're trying to create a civilization here in the way the pioneers did in the old West," says O'Mara, as a low mist rolls in over the set and the silence is punctured by the eerie call of a whipbird.
Here in the lush Gold Coast hinterland of Queensland in northeast Australia, a large ensemble and hundreds of extras are working long hours, but the mood is buoyant. They're shooting mostly on location, in a former cow pasture that now hosts the sprawling Terra Nova settlement, a football field—size colony ringed by majestic bushland.
Everyone agrees that the landscape feeds into the authenticity of what they're creating on screen. "It feels prehistoric here," says New Zealander Simone Kessell, who plays Commander Taylor's sidekick Alicia Washington. "When you look up at that tree line, it feels like no one has ever been here before. It has this untouched quality."
Even on the other side of the world, the buzz and expectations for the show are unavoidable. "We're telling this particular story on a scale for television that's never been done before," O'Mara says. "This set is the kind of thing you would build for The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings."
Avatar star Lang agrees, calling this the most challenging production he's been involved in: "When you're dealing with computer-generated dinosaurs, with meteors and forces of nature, you feel like the stakes are raised."
Oh, yes, did we mention the dinosaurs?
We're promised roughly one new creature each episode — some benign, some petrifying, all of them spectacular. Created primarily with cutting-edge CGI, they stomp and chomp their way through the series, casting a long shadow.
"It's so true when they say the show's really about the drama, about the people," says Lang. "Except... It is about the dinosaurs! Which doesn't mean that the dinosaurs have to appear in every frame, but the potential of them coming, the sound of them passing by always has to be thrilling and possible and when they do come, they just have to be magnificent."
We'll meet a baby ankylosaurus incubated from an abandoned egg; rampaging, short-armed carnotauruses; and a pack of nicoraptors, which are like mangy, feral dogs. And in an episode that plays like an homage to Hitchcock's The Birds, the colony is encircled by scores of pterosaurs, nasty winged beasts the size of large crows. "Moments like that are not designed to electrify audiences with the beauty so much," says Lang. "They're meant to scare the pants off you."
That will be up to the effects people. But Terra Nova's staying power will rest with its story line and character conflict, hence the marketing team's emphasis on family drama over sci-fi mythology. Exec producers Brannon Braga and René Echevarria describe it as an intimate epic — kind of Little House on the Prairie meets Jurassic Park. "The makings of the show are epic, but at the center of it all is this one family," Braga says from L.A., where he's writing upcoming episodes.
For more on Terra Nova, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, August 25!