Interview Date: 01/14/2011
Run Date: 01/20/2011
As a writer-producer on such long-running series as "Angel" and "Smallville," Steven S. DeKnight had quite a bit of experience behind him when he started work on the highly stylized, highly sexualized, and extravagantly ultraviolent period epic for Starz, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand." Still, no amount of preparation could have prepared him for his very popular leading man, Andy Whitfield, coming down with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a type of cancer. Rather than immediately recasting the role, the solution was to create a 6-part prequel series, "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena," minus Whitfield's title character. Both the original show and the prequel are made in New Zealand.
At the time of this roundtable interview at the 2010 Comic-Con in July, the mood was extremely upbeat. Whitfield had apparently defeated the illness and was preparing for the start of the second season. Sadly, the actor suffered a relapse some time later, his battle with the disease continues, and he will not be returning to the extremely rigorous role of the heroic gladiator. With the former star's blessing, a new Spartacus, Liam McIntyre, has since been cast.
Of course, all of that was in future when DeKnight and a few of us writers sat down at the San Diego Convention Center to discuss the prequel, which was just gearing up to start shooting. The first to speak started out by congratulating DeKnight on the success of the series and noted that, at first, prospects for the series were arguably doubtful.
Journalist: I was here for the panel last year. People were excited, but there was a sort of feeling of "I don't know about this show."
Steven S. DeKnight: We had the same feeling on our side. We weren't quite sure. We had an inkling that we had something special, but we are very, very happy for the reaction.
Journalist: So, was the idea [behind the prequel series] that, if you're successful, you could do another show...?
SSD: It came about because Andy was not available. We had planned on doing a flashback episode with John Hannah [who plays the slave-gladiator Spartacus's conniving owner, Batiatus] during season 2. We had it quasi-planned out. Then, when this happened and we had to delay the start of season 2, I called up Rob Tapert, one of my partners, and said, 'Hey, how about a two-hour prequel?' And then it became a four-hour prequel, and then it became a six-hour prequel. The lynchpin was that John Hannah was available and he was eager to come back and do it.
Journalist: Where are we [in the story's timeline]?
SSD: We are couple of years before Spartacus arrives, before that story. You get to see, for instance, how Ashur [Nick Tarabay] came up in the ludus and got up to his nefarious deeds. We see how Crixus [Manu Bennett] is brought into the ludus. We see Oenomaus [Peter Mensah] before he's Doctore. We see a new gladiator, Gannicus [Dustin Clare], who is pretty much the hot shit at the time.
Journalist: I know that Marisa Rameriz was just cast as a body slave. What does that mean, exactly?
SSD: In season 1, Lesley-Ann Brandt, Naevia, was Lucretia's [Lucy Lawless's] body slave. It's a slave that's attached to your body, basically, all the time. We keep attaching beautiful women to Lucy, and it all seems to work out great.
Journalist: Have you gotten any negative feedback from Starz on how far you’re going [regarding sex and violence]?
SSD: Not at all. Not at all. The great thing about Starz is that they've always said, "We want you to tell a story you want to tell. We'll tell you when you cross the line." I think the only time in season one when they told us we crossed the line was in episode 6, when we had the orgy scene down in the ludus. Some of the footage was a little bit too much but, when you buy the DVD, we put it all back in. So...
Journalist: Sex is the problem, not the violence.
SSD: Yeah. You know, sometimes they'll ask us to trim a frame off here or a frame off there in the violence. Honestly, the most violent thing you see in season 1 is episode 4, the guy getting his face taken off, but it's so quick. It's shocking but quick.
Journalist: I think there's a stylization to it that sort of defuses it. If you'd done it in a more straightforward style, I think people would have a harder time.
SSD: We very much did that on purpose. We only use the really graphic horror show stuff every now and then. For example, the face coming off, or when Ilithyia [Viva Bianca] smashes Licinia's [Brooke Harmon's] head open. Those are just very brief moments. Otherwise, we're going for a more operatic view of violence.
Bullz-Eye: I did notice, as someone who's watched a lot of sword-fight movies that, ordinarily, the really gory things that could happen never seem to. When a guy sweeps around for the head, it never seems to make contact. You don't do that.
SSD: No, we show it. We don't cut out early there. There's blood pumping.
BE: If you aim straight for the middle of the head, it goes there.
SDD: Oh, yeah. We don't shy away from that. When we started, Starz wanted a "hard R" action show. It's funny because, in early conversations with Starz, [executive producers] Rob Tapert, Josh Donen, Sam Raimi, and myself, they said "Hard R like '300.'" I said, "Look, I love '300,' that's not "Hard R." That's "R" but not "Hard R." Rob and I said, "We're going to give you a 'Hard R.'"
Journalist: Were you looking to push the envelope?
SD: It's interesting. Neither [Rob or I] was ever looking to push any envelope. We just wanted to be able to tell the kind of graphic novel story that we wanted to tell without having to worry about Standards and Practices, which Rob and I both have wrestled with many, many years. I remember when I was on "Angel," every script I wrote I'd have a fight with Standards and Practices because it's a vampire show and the only thing they didn't want us to show blood.
BE: That's kind of funny, because I can remember a few bloody moments from [sister show of "Angel"] "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer." There's one particularly gruesome shot with a huge amount of blood in the dream episode ["Restless"]. I wonder why they'd permit that and not...
SSD: Well, we always got it in. It just was a fight. Weeks and weeks of fights. Usually, it would end up with them saying, "All right, we'll let you do it this time, but no more. We're giving you the warning." Then, we'd do the same thing next time. With Starz, since we're on premium cable, we have so much more latitude.
Journalist: What stories are you most looking forward to in the prequel?
SSD: Oenomaus, Peter Mensah, is a character that we loved in season 1, but because of the way the stories broke out, we didn't get to concentrate on him. So we really bring him to the forefront. He has a very, very large part in the prequel that's very, very important. Honestly, having John Hannah and Lucy Lawless together again on the show. We loved writing for them. They were so juicy. Especially with John Hannah, everybody asks me, "What's your favorite character?" I love all of them, but I am Batiatus. [Laughter around the table] Everything you see John Hannah doing, I'm thinking. I associate closest with him.
Journalist: John's a great actor.
SSD: He is, and one of the funniest guys you ever met. Every time I'm around him he cracks me up.
Journalist: How does it feel to have a franchise?
SSD: It feels great to have a franchise.
Journalist: Did you think you'd end up with a franchise?
SSD: You never think that far ahead. Obviously, we were just trying to get a show on the air. I remember my first meeting with Rob Tapert, I said, "Rob, I'm not going to be happy until we have an Emmy nomination." He said, "Steve, I'd be happy getting a season 2." Rob got his wish and I'm still waiting on mine, but it's out there somewhere. There is a season 2 and we just love working on the show. It's an incredibly difficult show to produce and write, but it's so rewarding because you really don't see anything else like this on TV.
Journalist: Do you read the reactions online? What's your experience in terms of the fans?
SSD: In my writers' room, they desperately try to get me to stay away from the Internet. It's funny because, when the show first started, I'd have to sift through hundreds and hundreds of posts of "you suck," "this show sucks," "this is the worst thing I've ever seen," to find that one good comment. By the time the show ended, I was sifting through hundreds and hundreds of comments of, "wow, that was great." I was looking for that one thing that said I sucked. That's just the way I'm built. Completely. I knew it was out there somewhere. No, I like to check in and see how people are reacting. It's been very rewarding charting from where we started to where ended regarding how people responded to the show.
Journalist: So, do you feel pressure regarding expectations for season 2?
SSD: I feel pressure for every little sentence. There's always that pressure. It's not so much the pressure we have about "How do we top season 1?," because we don't approach it that way. We just approach it as, "How can we tell another great, rip-roaring story?"
BE: I admit I've just been getting myself up to speed on the show the last couple of days. Is the plan on the show to eventually get to the slave uprising [that was the main plot of the historical novel and movie that popularized the name of "Spartacus"]?
SSD: Oh, absolutely. It starts in season 2. The finale of season 1 we really platformed that. We will hit all the major touchstones in history with the slave uprising.
Journalist: Theoretically, how many seasons before the show ends if you have your way?
SSD: I've always said we've got about five to seven. We have a fairly clear idea of five years. We haven't worked out all the stories, but we know, historically, this will happen at the end of season 2 and this will happen at the end of season three. So we know where we're headed.
Journalist: Do you work out of L.A., or do you go to New Zealand?
SSD: They keep me locked up in Burbank, near Warner Brothers. They don't let me out very much. I get down to New Zealand a couple of times a year, but Rob Tapert is the New Zealand guy. He's down there making sure everything's running right and doing a phenomenal job.
Journalist: Are you glad that they shoot down there?
SSD: It's a two-edged sword. I think that by shooting down there we were able to find a lot of talent that we wouldn't have if we had shoot here. We probably never would have found Andy Whitfield, Viva Bianca, or Jai Courtney or other great actors down in Australia and New Zealand. The downside is that it's a one day time difference and sometimes it's a little difficult to work between production and the writer's office. Rob and I, we've got a great relationship. It's pretty much smooth sailing now. It would be nice to drop by the set every now and then. But, on the flip side, when they're having trouble on the set it's nice that they call Rob while I'm asleep. [Laughter]
Journalist: Is there anything else fans can expect, other than extra orgy scenes, on the DVD?SSD: There's a ton of extras on the DVD. I was going through the list myself. I've seen some of them. It was footage I haven't seen that I thought was great. One of the greatest things about the [Blu-Ray] is it being on 1080p. A lot of people have seen it on NetFlix, have seen it on their computers. It's a different show when you see it in 1080p. It is phenomenally gorgeous. I was shocked the first time I saw it in high-def because, up until the time we aired, I had only seen dubs that were not high-def. Then, when you actually see it in high-def, it's phenomenal.