Steven S. DeKnight Talks Spartacus: Vengeance
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.
Steven S. DeKnight: Yes, there's always a question of, you know, on this show characters literally get the ax. I think ultimately for me 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 who do I kill. 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 had to go, but that was a painful one.
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?
Steven S. DeKnight: No. Oenomaus was kind of a special case because this is something that we hint at in Spartacus: Blood and Sand and we hint at even more strongly in Spartacus: 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 season.
I want to congratulate you for hiring Liam on as Spartacus because I feel like he captures the essence of what Andy Whitfield started, but makes it his own.
Steven S. 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.
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.
Steven S. 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 not Robin Hood and the merry men. They have a lot of problems internally, which is 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?
Steven S. 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 Spartacus: Blood and Sand. 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. Everybody grows up in this season.
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?
Steven S. 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.
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?
Steven S. DeKnight: Yes. We have a boot camp every year 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 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.
Which character on the show do you most relate to?
Steven S. DeKnight: Well, I've always said that, for me, my inner voice is Batiatus. 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 the Steve.
Is there a character that you wish you could squeeze in more, but you just haven't been able to yet?
Steven S. DeKnight: Well, yes, I mean, 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 Spartacus: Blood and Sand 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 Spartacus: 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.
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?
Steven S. DeKnight: Yes, we're actually writing the next season as I speak. 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.
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?
Steven S. DeKnight: 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. We all agreed 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 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.
Steven S. DeKnight: You know, Allan 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'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. 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.
Do you consult with historians to help keep the show authentic?
Steven S. 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.
If these gladiators are such macho men, why do they shave their bodies?
Steven S. DeKnight: 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. 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 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.
Will there ever be a movie?
Steven S. 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.
Steven S. 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 Spartacus: Blood and Sand. 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.
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?
Steven S. DeKnight: You know, actually the end of Spartacus: 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, 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.
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.
Steven S. 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 Spartacus: Blood and Sand and in Spartacus: 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 Spartacus: 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?
Steven S. DeKnight: Oh yes, he hates Crixus. Absolutely hates Crixus. That's something we played and set up in Spartacus: Blood and Sand 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 Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. He has always had it out for Crixus to get his revenge.
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?
Steven S. 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.
Steven S. 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. 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 living off the kindness of strangers at this point.
I was also wondering what you have in store for maybe the character of Glaber who is played by Craig Parker I believe.
Steven S. DeKnight: Yes. Glaber, who we only saw in two episodes back in Spartacus: Blood and Sand, he is a major player this season. 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.
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.
Steven S. 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 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 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?
Steven S. 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 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.
Spartacus: Vengenace premieres Friday, January 27 at 10 PM ET on Starz.
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