Starz’ first big hit, Spartacus: Blood and Sand was unlike anything anyone had ever seen as an actually TV program before. A stroke of bad luck turned the show’s second season into a hastily put together, but very well done prequel, before tragedy required the series to recast its lead – original lead, Andy Whitfield insisted the show must go on and he even gave his successor his blessing.
So now we have the actual second season of the series – Spartacus: Vengeance [Starz, 10/9C] – ready to go and series creator/showrunner Steven S. DeKnight took time out from making the show to talk with a group of journalists/bloggers about the show.
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Hi, Steven. Thanks for taking time to talk to us today.
Steven S. DeKnight: No, my pleasure.
So one of the things I really love about the show is that no character is safe at any time and how do you go about deciding which of the characters should go and when and is there any character that you wish you still had for this upcoming season.
DeKnight: Yes, there’s always a question of, you know, on this show characters literally get the ax. I think really ultimately for me it’s always – it comes from the story is how is the story best served by a character death. I don’t ever want somebody to just die. It needs to have ramifications either emotionally or towards the plot. So that’s always the number one driving force of – on who do I kill.
And do I re- do I miss people? I don’t regret killing anyone, but of course, you know, John Hannah, number one. His presence was just so fantastic on the show and he was such a joy to work with and write for. You know, he’s definitely – he had to go, but that was a painful one.
Yes. And as a follow up, in this second episode of the season we get like a Oenomaus origin story. Can we expect that to be a similar format for some of the other characters later in the season?
DeKnight: No. Oenomaus was kind of a special case because this is something that we hint at in Season 1 and we hint at even s- even more strongly in Gods of the Arena with his relationship with Titus Batiatus. So we always wanted to explore that in a one episode quasi-flashback kind of way. Something like that might happen in future seasons, but that’s the only time it happens (in this one).
I’ve had a chance to preview the premiere episode and I have to say – I want to congratulate you for hiring Liam on as Spartacus because I feel like he captures the essence of what (Andy) started but makes it his own.
DeKnight: Right. Thank you, yes. And that’s really what drew us to Liam is that we didn’t want to try to duplicate (Andy). I mean, that will never happen. He was such a singular, amazing talent. But we wanted to find somebody that had the same base qualities of compassion. And I told all the actors when they auditioned that even though Spartacus may fly into a rage now and then, he never comes from a place of anger, it’s always from a place of a wounded heart. And we really felt like Liam captured that essence.
Yes, he definitely did. The character that I fell in love with is Gannicus, so I’m really curious to find out how he ends up coming back into the picture. Like maybe you can tell me under what circumstance.
DeKnight: Why that would be giving away too much. I can tell you that he comes back in a very unexpected way. It’s not what you would think. And one of the things I love about the show and one of the things I wanted to do from the start is that our band of heroes are seldom – they’re not Robin Hood and the Merry Men. They have a lot of problems internally, which is – it’s very historical since they kept breaking apart and, you know, different groups would split away from Spartacus. So I can say when Gannicus is come – comes back, it’s not a happy reunion. There’s definitely a lot of problems that come with him.
Beyond the, you know, the vengeance, which of course is the primary thing, what kind of a journey is Spartacus and the other characters on this season?
DeKnight: Well with Spartacus this was always planned to be the season where he goes from a man really searching for his personal redemption in the death of his wife and his feelings of responsibility for that, that’s why he wants to exact the vengeance, and transitioning him into a true leader. And it’s a very, very bumpy ride for him to go from someone that we see in Season 1 who he’s a good man, but he is much more concerned about himself and his wife. Everybody else is secondary. And this is where he starts to move into caring more about the group and putting their needs above his own eventually.
And everybody else, of course, I love to take to people on journeys. Crixus goes – definitely goes on a journey. You know, even characters like Agron, which was one of the two brothers in Season 1 that we didn’t get to know that well, has a major story (op). Everybody grows up in this season.
I saw the first two episodes and I thought they were frigging awesome. Great job.
Steven S. DeKnight: Great. Thank you.
So – yes, no problem, man. And I just wanted to ask you, have you had any criticisms of the show and have or would you adjust anything based on negative feedback?
DeKnight: Yes, of course. I mean, I think the show just welcomes criticism. Especially when we first started out, if everybody remembers back that far, this show was universally hated. You know, we got off to a rocky start. Rob Tapert, my incredible producing partner, and I always say that, you know, that first episode was by far our weakest one where we were trying to figure out the show and it took a while to get going.
So we took a lot of criticism for too much sex, too much violence, everybody hated the language, not the cursing but the actual language of the show. It just took a while, you know, for everybody to warm up to it. So early on I got a lot of criticism about how people speak, which I steadfastly refused to change.
One of the other things that I’m still to this day getting comments about is, and I put this in air quotes, ‘all the gay shit in my show.’ And people asking me to tone it down, which I always say no. I mean, as far as I’m concerned it’s barely in there to start with. And it was part and parcel of this world and it’s part and parcel of our world now. So I just – yes, I ignore that. If people want to stop watching the show because two guys kiss, well, I shrug my shoulders. You know, that that will always be in there.
And every now and then somebody will say something about oh it’s too violent, oh there’s too much sex, but that’s the show it is. So basically I guess my answer is sure we get criticism, but, you know, thankfully STARZ is very supportive and we get to tell the story we want to tell.
Well, great. And prior to coming back for another season, you know, professional athletes have to attend training camp to get in shape. Is there some – something similar that the actors must go through to appear on Spartacus?
DeKnight: Yes. We have a boot camp every year that it’s for new people coming in and our returning cast to bone up on their fighting skills and to help them get back into tip-top shape. And I think we’re one of the few shows that actually – the men have it rougher than the women because the men are often practically naked all the time, you know, with just a little bit of strategic covering. So they have to watch what they eat and train like crazy for the entire shoot of the show, which is incredibly difficult. But I think the evidence is up on the screen that they literally work their asses off.
And which character on the show do you most relate to?
DeKnight: Well, I’ve always said that, you know, for me, my inner voice is Batiatus. You know, that’s – that strangely his ranting profanity-filled monologues I have all the time. But now that he’s gone, I guess I don’t really have an inner monologue on the show. But, yes, but Batiatus was definitely my – that’s the Steve.
Well, kind of following up on that previous question, is there a character that you wish you could squeeze in more, but you just haven’t been able to yet?
DeKnight: Well, yes, I mean, there’s always – we have so much story we try to put into each episode that some characters, you know, we don’t get to pay enough to. We felt that way Season One with Oenomaus. We felt like there was so much going on with Spartacus and his journey and Batiatus that he got a little bit of short shrift. So we wanted to do more with him in Gods of the Arena and we wanted to do more with him in this season, which is really nice to do.
And, you know, it’s always – we have so many characters, it’s a bit of a juggling act because we don’t want to short change anyone. But yes, I’d say Oenomaus was the one that we felt was underutilized at first and we tried to bring him more to the forefront.
Well, how far in advance do you actually know where you’re going with the story? Like do you have next season planned out, if there is a next season already?
DeKnight: Yes, we’re actually writing the next season as I speak.
DeKnight: So yes, we – luckily I’ve got history as a guidepost, so it’s just basically each season being, okay, well, how far along do we want to be in history and so we know the basic tent poles of where we’re going. And the way it works for us is that at the beginning of each season I get together with the writers and we spend two weeks basically laying out the gist of each episode. The big idea and where we’re going with the characters. And then we spend the, you know, the next six, seven months writing the episodes.
Hi there, Steven. I miss John Hannah as well.
DeKnight: Oh, don’t we all.
Yes. Okay, I have two questions that are about the writing. And the first one is writers always say that as they develop a series, you know, they pick up things from the actors and incorporate them into the way they, you know, kind of deal with the characters and stuff, so I was wondering if there are any changes or, you know, different approaches now that you’ve switched from Andy to Liam.
DeKnight: You know, that’s a good question. Actually no. We had a discussion before we started writing this season of should we tailor the show for Liam. And my feeling and Rob and STARZ, we all agreed, was that no, what we should do is write Spartacus as Spartacus and Liam will bring what he brings to it and it will be a different take, but what he says – what Spartacus says and what he does will still be consistent with the Spartacus that we know.
Okay. Fantastic. And the other one has to do with you’ve got awesome stunt coordinators and I was wondering how much you write into the script say the action and the sex and how much do you leave it to the director and the stunt coordinators.
DeKnight: You know, we do – Al Poppleton is just phenomenal. The thing that he does for us, it would not be Spartacus without him. On the page, it depends on what we’re describing. Generally if it’s a big battle, we – we’ll give the high points and let them work it out. If it’s a more intimate one-on-one battle, we’ll be more detailed because we’ll want the specific moment. And I always try to build a fight with specific emotional moments in it. And then Al and his team will fill in the detail, expand on it, they’ll suggest things. So it’s kind of 50/50.
With the sex scenes, again, if there’s a specific emotion we’re looking for, we’ll get into a little more detail. Otherwise, we tend to just describe what kind of lovemaking is going on. You know, there’s – the words that keep popping up are, you know, tender, gentle, vigorous. Vigorous pops up quite a bit as you can imagine. So that’s usually a little less detailed. And again, we’re more concerned on the writing side with conveying the emotional beats of what’s going on in that situation and we leave the actual technical what’s touching what, who’s kissing where to the director and the actors.
You’ve worked on a lot of other shows before you started working on the Spartacus series, how does working on Spartacus now, Spartacus: Vengeance, how does that compare to some of the earlier work that you’ve done on, you know, Angel, Dollhouse, Smallville, et cetera? Is it easier or is it more difficult? I mean, it’s a different type of show than those, but what are some of the differences between your previous work and the work you’re doing now with Spartacus?
DeKnight: It is. And, you know, I just got to say, first and foremost, I always credit Joss Whedon for really starting my career. I was working on Undressed when he hired me on to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then I went to Angel where he gave me a chance to direct and then I linked up with him again on Dollhouse. I, you know, I cannot – words can’t describe how much I’ve learned from the man.
The biggest difference with this show for me is that all my other work was on broadcast network and this is premium cable. So Al Gough, my old boss from Smallville who watches this show, I bumped into him and he chuckled and he said when he watched Spartacus, he calls it DeKnight unleashed.
And that’s exactly how I felt when I got the – got this opportunity that I didn’t have to deal with standards and practices anymore. I didn’t have to water things down, I could, you know, go to places, not just sexually, not just with the violence, but good characters could do bad things, which is often very difficult to get the network to sign off on. And bad characters could do good things. So it’s – I got to work in a very gray world, which I think is where the most interesting drama is.
And it’s also been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Because I had the bright idea of kind of creating a very different kind of language and the way people speak, which is not natural and it doesn’t come naturally to write it. So it takes a lot longer to write and it’s a bit more of a pain in the ass, but the result I think was very successful in conveying the sense of a different time in history.
Hey, HelloHollywood is a show that airs in the mainland China and also the bigger Asian communities, Chinese communities here in North America and your show is huge amongst our audience. When we put out…
DeKnight: Oh, that’s great to know.
Well, yes, it is. And when we put out the word that we were going to speak to you today, we were inundated with questions, so they were all translated and we have about a thousand. No, well, actually we took the three most popular and here they are. ‘Do you consult with historians to help keep the show authentic?’
DeKnight: Yes. I have two fantastic historical consultants, Aaron Irvin and Jeffrey Stevens. We brought them on from the start. And they’re absolutely instrumental. They – I bring them into the room every now and then; they get all the outlines, all the scripts. They give us copious notes.
And we always say on Spartacus that we want to be respectful to history, but our first goal is to be entertaining to the audience. So sometimes we do have to bend historical facts and shift things around. But we always try to be very respectful and they are just two fantastic guys that have really contributed a lot to the show.
And on that note, a question came in, again, this is one of the – this was probably the most asked question, If these gladiators are such macho men, why do they shave their bodies?
DeKnight: I – yes, here’s the thing. In ancient Rome, the Romans considered hair to be barbaric. Now they probably would have let the gladiator be barbaric because that was part of the appeal, but for our show there’s also an aesthetic value that we need. You know, we need them to look good. You know, having a – we’ll pick Manu Bennett for example, who plays Crixus. He is just a chiseled man, a very muscular, and if we would have had him very muscular, but furry like a bear, you wouldn’t be able to see that he was very muscular. So it just wouldn’t have the aesthetic value.
And in an in- a very interesting side note, actually the Romans themselves because they considered hair to be barbaric, that’s why roman men do not have beards and they actually invented, or I don’t know if they invented it but they certainly used it, waxing.
They were completely hairless. They had waxers and pluckers. Because they considered hair to be such a barbarian trait.
Wow. And the last question from our Chinese viewers, ‘Will there ever be a movie?’
DeKnight: You know, Rob Tapert, Josh Donen, Sam Raimi, and I have always whispered in the hallways about maybe one day to do some kind of spinoff movie. You know, really I think it depends on where we take the show on television and everybody’s schedules. But, you know, we’d certainly be interested in one day doing something like that.
One of the things I really like about the show is as masculine as it is, the female characters also sort of get equal time to tell their stories, so I was wondering if you could tell us what Ilithyia, Lucretia, Mira, what their stories will bring in this upcoming season.
DeKnight: Without giving anything away, Ilithyia and Lucretia, which is two of my favorite characters to write especially when they’re with each other, they continue their frenemy dance in a very convoluted, unexpected way. What happens between those two is not what you would think is actually going to happen, especially based on where we left them at the end of Season 1. They are in fine form totally. They really continue that storyline in an amazing kind of way.
With Mira, Mira is, you know, as we left her in Season 1, she really responded to Spartacus and was falling in love with Spartacus and Spartacus had compassion towards her, but I wouldn’t call it love. Where we move with them, they have moved into a quasi-relationship, but it’s a relationship that’s very bumpy and rocky and may or may not work out in the end.
I was also wondering, the action is so great, but have you ever devised a kill or a stunt scene that maybe somebody thought maybe that’s a little bit too much and we can’t do it?
DeKnight: You know, actually the end of Gods of the Arena we had many, many discussions about that final kill when Gannicus kills Caberus in the arena where he rips his jaw off. And there was a lot of talk of whether or not – not that was it too much, but would it look right, could we do it, was there a more interesting way to do it. And I felt like it was something I hadn’t seen before and our makeup department just did a phenomenal job with that.
We screened that in the CAA Theater for a couple of hundred people and when that happened everybody just leapt out of their seats because it was so gruesome and unexpected. But that’s the one for me that really stood out as the one I remember that we had a lot of conversations about.
I have a sort of specific kind of question about like a specific character. Just based on the first few episodes of the series or rather the season, it seems like Ashur is kind of, you know, setting up his next few moves. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about his motivations as far as, you know, vengeance is concerned has he put getting, (you know), payback against certain people ahead of pushing himself, you know, further up the ranks or what his priorities are as a character.
DeKnight: Right. You know, what I love about Ashur and the way Nick Tarabay really brings him to life is that Ashur is a guy who ultimately doesn’t really think he’s the bad guy. You know, he’s just a guy trying to navigate the choppy waters of life. And he comes from a place, and we explored this in Season 1 and in Gods of the Arena, of deep insecurity where he feels like he is disrespected and not treated as well as he should be. And those deep seated feelings on insecurity is what really drives him to get to the top.
And in this season, you know, he’s out for vengeance against the rebels because he was just – he was being promoted to being in the Ludus with Batiatus, being Batiatus’ right-hand man, he had finally been elevated and then Spartacus literally topples him off his perch and, you know, ruins everything for him. So he’s got an ax to grind there. And he also tries to ingratiate himself back in with the Romans.
And you also sort of set it up in Gods of the Arena that Ashur would have a bone to pick kind of literally with Crixus. Is that something that we can expect to be addressed?
DeKnight: Oh yes, he hates Crixus. Absolutely hates Crixus. That’s something we played and set up in Season 1 and referenced – one of the things that I love about long form television is that we reference that Crixus crippled Ashur in a fight and then we saw that at the end of Gods of the Arena. So he’s – he has always had it out for Crixus to get his revenge.
I guess one of the questions I wanted to know, and you sort of referred to it a little bit earlier talking about how it’s a little more time consuming to write for this show because of the way the characters speak and everything, and that’s one of the – besides the obvious violence and different things like that, that’s one of the things I really like about the show is the way they construct their sentences and the way they talk to each other and I was just wondering where did you decided how they speak? Is it based on any kind of Latin or did you just kind of come up with the way that they talk to each other?
DeKnight: Yes, no, it’s actually not based on Latin. In fact, in Latin they do use articles. I tend to drop out ands and thes in the way they speak. And again, it’s just to give a flavor of antiquity to the language.
For me, I studied as a playwright so I was deeply steeped in Shakespeare, which is really my main influence in the dialogue. Not to say that it’s Shakespearean. I think this is – I call this Shakespeare extra, extra light. And I wanted to cross that – I always say the language is a cross between Shakespeare and Robert E. Howard who wrote all the Conan stories. So it’s kind of a mash up between those two.
It’s – it is absolutely not historically accurate. Much the way – when – and when people bring that up to me about, well, they didn’t speak this way in Latin, I always point out, well, in Shakespearean times they didn’t speak in iambic pentameter, but that’s an affectation to give it a style, which is exactly what we wanted to do on this show. And again, you know, we – about five scripts in after we had done this I realized holy shit, I got to write – I got to keep writing this way for the rest of the series, which is extremely challenging.
Can you talk about the production treatments and visual effects that go into each episode because it’s such a beautifully filmed and unique series?
DeKnight: Yes, it’s a massive amount of work. This show because of the time period we’re using, every single thing on the show we have to make. Everything down to the chairs, you know, the furniture, the jewelry, everything is handmade. So it’s an extremely time consuming process.
And even though we shoot everything on green screen, a lot of people have asked me, well, how much of it is green screen, our green screen is basically the background, the backdrops. All of the sets you see, they’re real. We actually, you know, we built the Ludus, we built the training square, all we use – the only use of CGI is in the backgrounds with the sky and the landscape beyond our sets. So it takes an amazing amount of work and our team in New Zealand just does an incredible, incredible job. And we shoot everything digitally and then we run it through a post process to get the colors right and to give it that really rich, rich look.
I was wondering where Lucretia’s story is leading her now that she doesn’t have a husband anymore and now that she doesn’t have the Ludus or any kind of work to support herself.
DeKnight: Yes. She’s in a bad state. As seen in the trailer, she’s not doing too well when we first find her. Which is not surprising. I mean, it’s – she’s very lucky to be alive. And a lot of people have asked, well, last we saw her she got stabbed in the stomach and sure she was twitching at the very end of Season 1, but how is it possible she survived. And we do explain how she survived. It’s a few episodes in and then we tell you what happened.
For her, she is a shattered woman. And this season is about her putting the pieces of her life back together and trying to move forward. And along with moving forward, much like everyone else this season, she does have some scores to settle. But for her, it’s going to – she’s going to have to be incredibly crafty and smart about her maneuvering because now she has absolutely no position whatsoever. She’s basically – she’s living off the kindness of strangers at this point.
Okay. And I was also wondering what you have in store for maybe the character of Glaber who is played by Craig Parker I believe.
DeKnight: Yes. Glaber, who we only saw in two episodes back in Season 1, he is a major player this season. He is the – he’s the big bad of our season. He’s – historically he’s the next guy that was sent after Spartacus and we follow that history here, so that he’s going to be Spartacus’ arch nemesis nipping at his heels for the entire season.
All right. And there was one last question. I was always wondering, like, the people are always throwing the corpses down the precipice. What is down there actually?
DeKnight: You know, just some jagged rocks. If you’re going to throw a body somewhere, I suppose it’s off the cliff and just let the animals take care of it. But yes. Yes, usually…
Usually pretty much every season somebody is – somebody tends to go over that cliff.
My – what I read, the second season had already been written when decided to make Gods of Arena. So did you have to rewrite the second season because of the prequel? And if so, how far did it interfere in this new season?
DeKnight: Right. We actually were already working on Season 2. We had written the first couple of episodes and we had a layout for the entire season when unfortunately we found out that (Andy) was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, so we stopped working on that and hatched the plan to do Gods of the Arena to give him a chance to recover. We were finishing up Gods of the Arena when unfortunately we found out that his cancer had returned and he had to permanently step down from the role.
So at that point, after having done Gods of the Arena, yes, we went back and we retooled the first several episodes and made adjustments. And also because we had had time off from the season, when we came back we saw some things we wanted to change story-wise. For example, Episode 2 used to be Episode 3. There was a different Episode 2 that once we looked at it, we decided, yes, it’s not really moving the story along and we had an entire script for it, so we threw that script out, took some of the elements, married it with Episode 3 and then moved on from there. But that was really the biggest change that that Episode 2 was a completely different story.
And you wrote series (unintelligible) Buffy, Angel, and Smallville and all of them have nothing to do with this historical series, so I was wondering why Spartacus? Like what made you go into this kind of series.
DeKnight: Oh, I’ll tell you. The concept was sold to STARZ before I had heard about it. Rob Tapert, Josh Donen, and Sam Raimi sold the idea to STARZ of doing Spartacus in a 300 style. Because we are all big fans of Zack Snyder’s work on 300 and how he technically pushed the art of filmmaking and they really wanted to see if they could do that on a – on the television show.
So the concept was sold to STARZ and then STARZ was looking for a writer to come in and spearhead the project. I was working on Dollhouse at the time when I got the call from my agent that Sam Raimi and STARZ wanted to do a gladiator series and that’s all I knew. I didn’t know it was Spartacus when I went in.
I’m a big fan of period piece movies, especially the sword and sandals epics, but I’m the first to admit I – history was not my strongpoint and I knew – the only thing I knew about Roman history was Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. So I had a lot of reading and catching up to do when I signed on. But yes, the idea for Spartacus was presold before I came on.
And the problem about this history based is that everyone knows how the story is going to end or everyone thinks they know. So I was wondering if you already – if you are already 100% certain that you’ll follow the historical facts or if the – if there is any chance of changing things and not following the historical facts.
DeKnight: I will follow the historical facts. You know, again, entertainment is our job one on Spartacus, so we will have to take characters, take two or three characters, form them into one character, shuffle some events around to make the story work, not only for production reasons, but just for clarity. But yes, we will basically follow historical facts. In reference to how Spartacus dies, most people think he was nailed to the cross like we see in Stanley Kubrick’s movie. That’s not actually what happened.
And one of the great things about the story of Spartacus is that there’s only fragments left in history that gives bits and pieces. And most of those talk about who won this battle, who won that battle, so there’s not a lot of – in fact, there’s no emotional detail in it. So we are going to basically follow history, but the audience will still be, I think, surprised by how we wrap up the story.
And whenever anybody says to me, you know, well, everybody knows how the story ends, why should they watch, I always reply everybody knew that the Titanic sunk and yet the movie made a billion dollars. So people obviously want to be along for the ride, even if they know the eventual outcome. The trick is to keep it exciting all the way up to the end and then make that ending powerful and emotional and I think people will show up.
I really enjoyed the first two episodes of the season and I’m so glad Spartacus is back. We all missed it around here. I wanted to ask you what’s, you know, you’ve mentioned Robert E. Howard as an influence and inspiration for kind of the (pulp gen) of the show. What do you like about writing genre fiction and do you feel some people take the show less seriously because it’s genre?
DeKnight: Oh, absolutely people take it less seriously. You know, it’s – there have been some great, great genre shows on the air that got no love from the Academy. You know, Battlestar Galactica comes to mind, Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes to mind.
DeKnight: You know, it’s just – it’s – we’re kind of the redheaded stepchild. You know, and I think one of the most amazing accomplishments of J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof and Lost was winning that Emmy for a genre show. I mean, it’s in- an incredible accomplishment.
And what I love about it is that it really opens up the possibilities of what you can do. It’s a little more restrictive on Spartacus since despite all of its trappings, it’s, you know, it’s not a fantasy show. We can’t bring in magic, there are no monsters, you know, everything has to have a real world logic to it. A bigger pulpy logic, but definitely a real world logic to it. It was much easier on Buffy when, you know, we needed to solve a problem and somebody had a mystical doodad that could help us out. That’s always a lot easier.
But what I also love about genre is just the way you can really heighten emotions and use the situations as metaphors and just make it as powerful and emotional as possible.
Great. Thank you. You know, I know you can’t give too much away, but we’ve seen some diverse romantic pairings in seasons past, like Barca and his love and Batiatus, Lucretia, and Gaia. Can you (tease) us anything we could expect in this season?
DeKnight: Oh, absolutely. For me approaching the show and I think the causal viewer, you know, and the causal reviewer early on dismissed it as nothing but, you know, blood and sex and violence, where for me this has always been a romance. I love a good romance. And all the relationships on the show, you know, I want this kind of sweeping Last of the Mohicans style romance in it.
So yes, this season is no different. There are many romantic plots being played out and subplots. And I think ultimately that’s the heart of the series. Without that it would just be, you know, blood and sex and violence.
Thanks. And when you’re on the – when you’re on set, you know, like in the first episode we see that epic brothel site, you know, were you there on set for that or in, you know, similar instances…
DeKnight: I was…
…when you look around and you go, wow. You know, what goes through your head?
DeKnight: You know, sadly…
When you see it all come to life.
DeKnight: Sadly on this show, since we shoot in New Zealand and we write the show in Los Angeles, I don’t get a chance to be on the set as much as I would like. I love being on the set. Rob Tapert, my producing partner and husband of course to the amazing Lucy Lawless, he spearheads production down in New Zealand and he keeps a magnificent eye on all of that and I just can’t say enough good things about Rob. Without him there wouldn’t be a Spartacus.
One of the big questions that I have about the show is what do you feel like the evolution of the series has been up to this point? I mean, you talked a bit about kind of the rocky start at the beginning of the series and kind of finding a vision for it. What do you feel like that is now?
DeKnight: Yes, when we first started off, you know, this was Rob Tapert and Josh Donen and Sam Raimi and I, this was our first foray into premium cable. And, you know, suddenly the shackles were off and I can’t speak for my partners, but I think I stripped down naked and ran a little crazy through the streets in the first couple of episodes before I found the right tone.
And if you look at that first episode there were moments that you see the glimmer of what the show will become, but we were trying to really find ourselves in the story, the language, the visual, the directing, the acting, everything was trying to find an equilibrium, which took us a few episodes to get to.
Once we found that, we started to, you know, to really find the right element of the show that each episode needed. And we knew we needed a certain amount of action. We knew that emotions really needed to drive the story. It had to be emotionally based, no matter what was going on, no matter what – whether it’s an orgy that’s happening, if there’s an orgy going on, it can’t be about the orgy. It’s got to be about who wants what from whom and what’s the maneuvering and what’s the emotional stake.
And the same thing with a fight. There’s a, you know, when Crixus and Spartacus fight Theokoles in the arena in the middle of Season 2, it couldn’t just be about a fight. What it was really about were these two men trying to find a common ground and come together.
So that’s really how it developed is just episode now concentrating on what are the emotional stakes. It’s very easy in a show like this to get lost in all the shiny objects that are around you all the time. And I do consider the sex and the violence are the shiny objects. And just finding a balance between, you know, that kind of pulpy entertainment and some true human emotion.
Your world is beautifully realized both as sets both digital and physical, the costumes, everything works great together. After two seasons does the research and actualization of the world become easier or is it challenge – is challenging your designers an active concern as you develop scripts and locations for the show? And along with that, which of those visual accomplishments are you most proud of?
DeKnight: Well, you know, I – it never becomes – it becomes easier, it never becomes easy. Much like the writing, you know, once we locked down how to do it, it doesn’t become as frustratingly impossible. It’s still difficult, but, you know, at least we have a handle on it. And it’s the same thing for the physical aspects of our show. We have just such great people. Iain Aitken and Barbara Darragh who does our costuming, which is just gorgeous. They put so much effort into it.
And when you’re on the set for Spartacus, you know, yes, there’s a green screen background and you’re not outside, but when you’re on a set, I’m thinking particularly about Batiatus’ Ludus, you just can’t imagine the detail that is actually put into this set. It’s like stepping back in time. It looks so real when you’re actually on it.
And it’s the same thing with the costuming. The costuming is just absolutely gorgeous. And yes, you know, not 100% is historically accurate. We made that decision early on is that we needed the costuming to have an elegance and a beauty to it, a bit of an enhancement of a more simple Roman style.
And the visual effects too. If you look at – from the first episode in Season 1 to the last episode in Season 1, you can really see how we started off we wanted to be very much a graphic novel and, you know, we all felt we went a little bit too far in that first episode, it was a little too over the top, so we started to dial back and refine the visual effects.
And I got – boy, it’s hard to say what I’m most proud of in these areas. Every time I watch an episode, I’m – I just marvel at the sets and the costumes and the lighting, the cinematography, the visual effects. It’s just – it’s amazing that so many different disciplines have come together to make this such a visually stunning show.
I just have a very quick question and very simple one. Will you have any surprises in store for the San Diego crowd at Comic-Con this year?
DeKnight: You know, that’s a good question. We start talking about Comic-Con coming up I think next month is when we start kicking around of what we’re doing, if we’re doing anything. I hope we do something. I always love being at Comic-Con. With us it’s a little – it’s always a little trickier be- since we shoot in New Zealand, we have to actually shut down for a week to be able to get people here, to be able to get the actors here. So it’s always a – every year it’s a bit of a nail biter to figure out, you know, there’s a large dollar amount that’s connected with shutting down for a week, so it’s always a nail biter to figure out can we do it. I certainly hope so.
Regardless, I’ll be there. So, you know, you’ll find me floating around the convention floor, if nothing else. But I suspect we’ll be there. It’s such a great event and we always love coming there.
Well, this is definitely a unique piece of information. I never imagined it entailed shutting down production and getting actors all the way out here. But that is – that’s pretty impressive and it shows that Comic-Con still has some value if production is willing to be put on hold for this. Well, that’s good to hear. I’m actually based in San Diego, so I am a huge Comic-Con supporter. Well, thank you. I look forward to seeing you here this summer.
DeKnight: You’re very welcome. Thank you.
Well, I’ve got a couple of questions. First, you keep talking about how you are now working for premium cable, which is fantastic. Do you think you’re now too spoiled to go back to broadcast TV at any point?
DeKnight: I’ll tell you the – well, (you know), quite possibly. I will never say never, but this often comes up in the writers’ room where I say oh boy, I don’t know if I could – one of the most daunting things about broadcast networks is I don’t know if I could do 22 episodes a year now.
One of the great things about only doing 10 to 13 episodes in a season is that you really get to handcraft each episode. When you do 22, there’s usually about five episodes that you just don’t have time to fix and you just got to throw your arms up and say, well, that one didn’t work, we got to move on to the next one. Which thankfully in premium cable, you just have more time. You know, I think I could definitely put up with the constraints of not being able to curse or show nudity or be overly violent, that I think I could do, but for me it’s 22 episodes a year that would be difficult.
Completely understandable. Maybe British broadcast TV would be better.
DeKnight: Yes. Yes, exactly. I’ll do six episodes. You know, I’m all for that.
Exactly. My other question is, big fan of Lucy Lawless since Xena days, of course I love the Raimi/Tapert, but how has her insanity presented any new avenues or challenges in writing?
DeKnight: Well, the tricky part is, you know, you can’t have a character be bat shit crazy for the entire season like that. All right. That’s a shtick…
DeKnight: That’s a shtick that gets old fast. So it was transitioning her into lucidity where she starts off obviously very, very, very damaged and broken and, you know, and watching how she puts the pieces back together and tries to reclaim her life is really the juicy part of the storyline. And Lucy of course does it so brilliantly. It’s – I’ve been a big fan of hers, too, since the Xena days and am still thrilled and impossibly shocked that she’s one of the stars of our show.
Yes, it’s – she’s beyond amazing. Love her. Are there any new characters this season that we’re going to love so that you can kill off like Joss Whedon does?
DeKnight: There will be some new characters…
I’m assuming you learned that from him.
DeKnight: I, you know, Joss and I are cut from the same cloth. You know, we will kill beloved characters if emotionally if feels right. Yes, there will be new characters introduced this season. And true to fashion in Spartacus, some will live and some will die horribly.
Wow, I was sweating there. I was hoping I was going to get to ask two follow up questions. When the season began, we see that Crixus is on the search of Naevia. Is this something that’s going to take, you know, take place throughout the whole series or will it be resolved early on?
DeKnight: There will be a resolution. Not exactly early on, but it will resolve itself. I mean, that’s all I can say.
I keep trying to get some spoiler stuff from you. I’m sorry.
DeKnight: Oh, no problem. You’ll get no spoilers from me.
And then finally, my other question, you signed a two-year overall deal with STARZ, I was curious if that was only pertaining to Spartacus or if you were, like, putting together some new projects.
DeKnight: Yes, no, it doesn’t just pertain to Spartacus. I’m actually at the moment writing a new project for STARZ that I – it’s super extra crazy top secret that I can’t even give you a title. But there is something new in the works. Now it’s in the very, very early stages. It has not been green lit. I’ve been sent to a pilot script, but there’s many, many, many hoops to jump through and stages to pass before it’ll get green lit and announced as a show. But all I can say is it’s big and very, very exciting.
Hopefully that won’t affect anything that’s going on with Spartacus in the future.
DeKnight: I don’t think it would. No.
Photos courtesy of Starz