Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Q&A with 'Spartacus' boss Steven S. DeKnight

With the premiere of "Spartacus: Vengeance" Jan. 27 at 10 p.m. on Starz, creator/executive producer/writer and all around fun guy Steven S. DeKnight had a conference call with reporters to talk about all things "Spartacus."

So…no character is safe at any time…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?

Yes, there's always a question. On this show characters literally get the ax. I think ultimately for me it comes from 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 who do I kill.

And do I miss people? I don't regret killing anyone, but of course 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. He's definitely - he had to go, but that was a painful one.

Liam...captures the essence of what Andy started (as Spartacus) but makes it his own.

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. 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.

Beyond the vengeance, which of course is the primary thing, what kind of a journey are Spartacus and the other characters on this season?

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. This is where he starts to move into caring more about the group and putting their needs above his own eventually.

I love to take people on journeys. Crixus definitely goes on a journey. 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. Everybody grows up in this season.

Have you had any criticisms of the show and have or would you adjust anything based on negative feedback?

Yes, of course. I think the show just welcomes criticism. Especially when we first started out, if everybody remembers back that far, this show was universally hated. We got off to a rocky start. Rob Tapert, my incredible producing partner, and I always say 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 for everybody to warm up to it. 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. 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.

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.

Prior to coming back for another season professional athletes have to attend training camp to get in shape. Is there something similar that the actors must go through to appear on “Spartacus?”

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. 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 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.

Is there a character that you wish you could squeeze in more, but you just haven't been able to yet?

Yes…we have so much story we try to put into each episode that some characters we don't get to pay enough to. We felt that way Season 1 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.

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.

Writers always say that as they develop a series they pick up things from the actors and incorporate them into the way they deal with the characters and stuff. Are there any changes or different approaches now that you've switched from Andy to Liam?

Actually no. We had a discussion before we started writing this season of should we tailor the show for Liam. 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.

You've got awesome stunt coordinators…how much do 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?

Al Poppleton (stunt supervisor) 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'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. 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. The words that keep popping up are 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.

“Spartacus: Vengeance,” how does that compare to some of the earlier work that you've done on, “Angel,” “Dollhouse,” “Smallville,” etc.? Is it easier or is it more difficult? 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?”

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.” 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 networks 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 this opportunity that I didn't have to deal with standards and practices anymore. I didn't have to water things down, I could 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. 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 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.

Do you consult with historians to help keep the show authentic?

Yes. I have two fantastic historical consultants, Aaron Irvin and Jeffrey Stevens. We brought them on from the start. And they're absolutely instrumental. I bring them into the room every now and then; they get all the outlines, all the scripts. They give us copious notes.

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.

One of the things I really like about the show is as masculine as it is, the female characters also get equal time to tell their stories…tell us what Ilithyia, Lucretia, Mira, what their stories will bring in this upcoming season?

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.

Mira is 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.

Just based on the first few episodes of the series or rather the season, it seems like Ashur is setting up his next few moves. Talk a little bit about his motivations as far as vengeance is concerned. Has he put getting payback against certain people ahead of pushing himself further up the ranks or what his priorities are as a character?

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. He's just a guy trying to navigate the choppy waters of life. 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. Those deep seated feelings of insecurity are what really drives him to get to the top.

In this season 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 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.

You also 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?

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 has always had it out for Crixus to get his revenge.

Where did you decide 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?

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. 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 absolutely not historically accurate. 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…about five scripts in after we had done this I realized holy shit, 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?

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, the furniture, the jewelry, everything is handmade. So it's an extremely time consuming process.

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 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.

Where is Lucretia's story 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?

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; she's very lucky to be alive. 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. 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. She's going to have to be incredibly crafty and smart about her maneuvering because now she has absolutely no position whatsoever. She's living off the kindness of strangers at this point.

The second season had already been written when you 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?

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 episode 2 was a completely different story.

Why “Spartacus?” What made you go into this kind of series?

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 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 history was not my strong point and 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.

The problem about history is that everyone knows how the story is going to end or everyone thinks they know. Are you already 100 percent certain that you'll follow the historical facts or if there is any chance of changing things and not following the historical facts?

I will follow the historical facts. Entertainment is our job 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.

One of the great things about the story of Spartacus is that there's only fragments left in history that gives bits and pieces. Most of those talk about who won this battle, who won that battle, so there's not a lot of…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.

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. 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.

You've mentioned Robert E. Howard as an influence and inspiration for…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?

Oh, absolutely people take it less seriously. There have been some great, great genre shows on the air that got no love from the Academy. “Battlestar Galactica” comes to mind, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” comes to mind.

We're kind of the redheaded stepchild. 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 an incredible accomplishment.

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 not a fantasy show. We can't bring in magic, there are no monsters, 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 we needed to solve a problem and somebody had a mystical doodad that could help us out. That's always a lot easier.

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.

What do you feel like the evolution of the series has been up to this point? You talked a bit about the rocky start at the beginning of the series and finding a vision for it. What do you feel like that is now?

When we first started off this was Rob Tapert and Josh Donen and Sam Raimi and I, this was our first foray into premium cable. And 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.

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 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 it’s the same thing with a fight. 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 episodes 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. Just finding a balance between that kind of pulpy entertainment and some true human emotion.

Your world is beautifully realized 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 challenging your designers an active concern as you develop scripts and locations for the show? Which of those visual accomplishments are you most proud of?

It becomes easier, it never becomes easy. Much like the writing, once we locked down how to do it, it doesn’t become as frustratingly impossible. It's still difficult, but, 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 (production designer) and Barbara Darragh (costume designer), who does our costuming, which is just gorgeous. They put so much effort into it.

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 into this set. It's like stepping back in time. It looks so real when you're actually on it.

It's the same thing with the costuming. The costuming is just absolutely gorgeous. And yes, you know, not 100 percent is historically accurate. We made that decision early on 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 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.

It's hard to say what I'm most proud of in these areas. Every time I watch an episode, 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.

Do you think you're now too spoiled to go back to broadcast TV at any point?

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.

Big fan of Lucy Lawless since “Xena” days…how has her insanity presented any new avenues or challenges in writing?

The tricky part is you can't have a character be bat shit crazy for the entire season like that. 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 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. 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.

When the season begins, we see that Crixus is on the search of Naevia. Is this something that's going to take place throughout the whole series or will it be resolved early on?

There will be a resolution. Not exactly early on, but it will resolve itself. That's all I can say.

You signed a two-year overall deal with STARZ, I was curious if that was only pertaining to “Spartacus” or if you were putting together some new projects?

Yes, no, it doesn’t just pertain to “Spartacus.” I'm actually at the moment writing a new project for STARZ that 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?

I don't think it would. No.

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