Implementing the tools he learned from some of television’s most innovative series, Steven S. DeKnight waged a campaign of shock and awe. As the series creator of Spartacus, DeKnight played a key role in ushering a bold, new phase for the television drama. In this third part of a special Personalities Interviews series, step into the Examiner arena with the man behind the return of TV's guiltiest pleasure, Spartacus: Vengeance.
It is hard to avoid the parallels between the savage Roman gladiator bouts seen on the hit show Spartacus and the complicated reality of launching a new television series in the 21st century. Both are the ultimate spectator sport, where champions are revered and the losers carried out in pieces from the arena.
Feeding an increasingly fickle crowd is a daunting task for any show runner, but veteran director/writer/producer Steven S. DeKnight has been quite adept at taming this vociferous beat. With a track record that includes such influential series as Angel, Smallville and Joss Whedon’s legendary Buffy the Vampire Slayer, taking on the swords and sandals genre would seem an odd fit. "Not so," says DeKnight.
“I was actually working with Joss Whedon on Dollhouse when I got the call from my agent,” he explained. "’Starz and Sam Raimi want to do a gladiator show. Are you interested?’" I'm a huge Sam Raimi fan, so I was like, "’I'm going in!’"
After their initial meeting, scheduling conflicts seemed to make this collaboration a short one. Yet, fortune indeed favors the few. DeKnight remained standing after an intense search by the Starz and Spartacus teams for the right show runner. Once approached with the offer, he simply wrapped up work on a Dollhouse episode on a Friday, heading straight into Spartacus on a Monday. His agenda? Not to recreate some sort of history lesson.
“They sold it as, ‘Let's do Spartacus like 300 and make it sexy and visceral,’" DeKnight continued. “That's about all we had at that point. I went in and started figuring out the story. I was shocked to find out that there's so little known about Spartacus. Just bits and pieces. That entire first season is literally about three paragraphs of history.”
Filling in the gaps of the rise of Spartacus was exactly the challenge DeKnight sought at this juncture of his career. Without the limits of network censors, his vision of ancient Rome would be as no-holds barred as history has documented. Libidinous, brutal, decadent and rife with tales of heroism, Spartacus: Blood and Sand would fearlessly take audiences into the heart of the period. It would be first and foremost an action-adventure. However, its brave take on human drama is what has turned it into another rare genre hybrid: the guilty pleasure that has an emotional resonance.
“Because of the world,” DeKnight said, “this salacious sexiness and incredible violence in it, I think it will always stay in that realm for some people as a ‘guilty pleasure.’ Those are the two things you're not supposed to like. For us, it's always about the deep emotion.
If you haven’t entered the realm of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, or its prequel, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, prepare yourself. Everything you’ve heard is true and more, which is more reason to watch Spartacus: Vengeance when it premieres January 27 on Starz. Sitting down to field questions at a press gathering to promote the home entertainment release of the first series, DeKnight proved animated and intrigued by reactions to Spartacus.
So, does the show go too far in his estimation? Even DeKnight had to admit that even a show as provocative as this one can cross a few lines. Take for example one brainstorm session for a rather infamous sex scene early in the series that was a bit too, well, tame. Exactly what ideas failed to make the final script to spice it up?
“One of them involved a dog and an eel,” DeKnight confessed with a mischievous grin. “That's all I'm going to say.”
Here’s more with DeKnight as he details how all roads, both personal and professional, led him to Spartacus.
QUESTION: You are a long way from your work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. How did Spartacus come about?
STEVEN S. DeKNIGHT: I had a meeting with Starz. And, actually, (producer) Rob Tapert, who was on speakerphone because he was in New Zealand, told me they wanted to do Spartacus. They wanted to shoot it all on green screen like 300. What did I think? I said, "Well, that sounds great to me." This was about three years ago. They knew my work from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Smallville and they had read a pilot that I wrote a few years ago. They said, "Great. How soon can you start?" I said, "I can't start for two months. I'm busy." They said, "Well, we've got to start now," so we parted ways. I went back to work on Dollhouse. I was writing and directing on there, so I had about two months of writing and prep, and then I went straight into directing. I was actually halfway through directing this Dollhouse episode when my agents popped up on set. When your agents pop up on set, it's usually really good or really bad. And they said, "Hey, you know, Starz has been talking to a lot of feature people, but they haven't found anybody that they feel is just right. Are you still interested?" And I said “Yeah.” So I literally finished editing my episode ofDollhouse on a Friday and started work on Spartacus on a Monday.
QUESTION: Was it always the intent to create a taboo-busting show? Will that always be its principal agenda?
DeKNIGHT: Not really. I approached the sex in the show from a character point of view. I remember having talked with Rob Tapert early on that I wanted nudity. There wasn't necessarily a sexual situation. I said, "Listen. If we're being real, the husband and wife are going to have a conversation and they're going to be getting undressed and they're going to be getting naked. It's not like they're having sex, but they'll be naked. And the gladiators down in the baths, of course they should be completely nude." So, we started from that point. I remember Rob and I had a discussion in the second episode of season one. There is the infamous fluffer scene between John Hannah and Lucy Lawless. In the first round of the script, they were actually having sex while they were having this conversation. Rob said, "This is something we could see on any other show on cable. How can we make this different?" He threw out some wacky ideas that I can't even repeat. His note was great, but I didn't want to make it perverted just to be salacious. After a lot of thought, I came up with the idea that we need to make a visual statement about the class system. About where Batiatus and Lucretia are and where the slaves are. What if they use them to get them ready to have sex with each other? It's interesting. People talk about that scene all the time. There's actually almost no nudity in that scene. It's what's implied. For me, those are the best kind of sex scenes. We've got one in this new season where there is no nudity whatsoever. Trust me; you'll be talking about this scene.
QUESTION: Given that the show’s sexuality has become its trademark, is there now added pressure to find room for such scenes?
DeKNIGHT: I actually don't feel pressured at all. You'll see some crazy nudity and women flashing in the stands in the background. It's not actually in the script. It's almost like the green screen for me. It's just something that shows up later. But, for the main characters, I'm always very protective of them when they're in a sexual situation. It needs to be because of the story and coming from a character point. And, usually, in that sexual situation, there is some kind of dynamic playing out. Somebody is trying to maneuver somebody. Somebody is trying to get something. Somebody needs something. That is really important for the main characters. We definitely want to be different. But within that context we want to be true to our characters and to our show. We never say, "Okay, look, this episode doesn't have enough sex in it. Where can we put it in?" There are some episodes, especially in this new season, which is sexy and scandalous in areas, but it's such a different story that it's not quite the same kind of sexual feel. We never want to feel like we have to jam it in.
QUESTION: The stylized violence has also become the hallmark of the series. What was the challenge to make it palatable to an audience without overwhelming them?
DeKNIGHT: We wanted to do it in a graphic novel style so it wouldn't completely turn people off. In that first season, every now and then, we'd do something very, very real, like the guy getting his face cut off. We slowly become a kind of a mix of both. I always say one of the things we do better on this show than you'll practically see in any movie is when somebody gets their throat cut, it's a glorious effect. But we try to balance that. We try to balance between just the graphic realness of violence and more of a graphic novel style. For reasons that we don't want to completely turn off the audience, and just for technical reasons. At the end of Gods of the Arena, when the guy his jaw ripped off? That was one of those big "oohh" moments, but we don't do it all the time. We kind of save it for special moments.
QUESTION: How do you avoid the pitfall of having the lead characters become one-dimensional? How will they evolve?
DeKNIGHT: That's one of the things I love about this show, and especially in season one, I really tried to hit with John Hannah and Lucy Lawless's character. They are the villains of the show, but people get really caught up in their story because they are human. They have human desires and human needs. Even though Lucretia is sleeping with Crixus, she still is completely devoted and in love with her husband. It's that kind of gray area. It's also the same kind of gray area I like to use on the heroes' side. Crixus is not 100 percent good. Spartacus himself, in season one and this new season, makes mistakes. He is a human being. He's not always right. Giving the villains something that's good and decent about them, and giving the heroes something that's a little shady makes them real people.
QUESTION: How are you handling the transition between the late Andy Whitfield and Liam McIntyre? They look so much alike!
DeKNIGHT: Which was unintentional, completely unintentional. For the longest time, we were trying to find somebody. We went back and forth. Should we try to find somebody that looks like Andy Whitfield? Should we go completely in the opposite direction? We ended up screen testing a handful of actors, and all of them looked completely different. Everything from a tall blonde guy to someone that was closer to Manu Bennett. We just finally decided we've got to go on the best actor we can find. The one that really encompasses everything we're looking for. And it just so happens that there was a resemblance to Andy. Completely unintentional. But, how we're handling it? We've had a lot of discussion about it. Should I write the role differently? Ultimately, we decided, "No, we should write Spartacus exactly as he was. It's Spartacus, and the new actor will bring something to it." We pick up the story in Vengeance a month or two after Blood and Sand. He is Spartacus.
QUESTION: What’s your vision for the future of Spartacus?
DeKNIGHT: I had a plan for the show to go anywhere from four to seven seasons, depending on budget and Starz. It's basically to tell the story of Spartacus. The thing we always come back to is just trying to keep it true to the characters. I've gone record and it's no secret. I don't think the show worked early on, and it took us a few episodes to figure it out on the writing side, on the visual effects side, on the acting side, all around. We went straight to 13 episodes. There was no pilot. So we didn't have a chance to really fine tune it. But by episode three or four, we really found how everything works. I'm most proud that when it started, it was dismissed as just this gratuitous show. By the time you got midway through the season where they killed the giant, as people were starting to say, "Oh, well, this is actually pretty good." And when Spartacus kills his buddy, Varro, grown men were weeping. Then it really became apparent that what we were doing was working. It's those emotional moments that, I think, are really the key to move it away from people thinking, "Well, it's just a guilty pleasure." It is actually emotionally involving.
QUESTION: Despite this vogue to cater to a youth-based audience, it is refreshing to see a show that actually prefers to neglect them.
DeKNIGHT: We're doing more than neglecting the kids. We're excluding them altogether. I'm always shocked when people watch the show and go, "Oh, I can't believe all the cursing and the nudity and the violence. It's outrageous." My big influence is actually Shakespeare, because I studied as a playwright. Titus Andronicus is such a gory, gory play. I actually based the character of Asher in the series (portrayed by Nick Tarabay) on Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus and Iago from Othello. I love that kind of story. You know that duplicitous, double-dealing, complicated story. It can be shocking. But, bizarrely, again, we never sit in the room, or we never talk to Rob and say, "How can we shock the audience this week?" We went round and round with the episode "Whore" because our basic problem was that we knew that we needed to have Lucretia have something with which to blackmail Ilithyia. We came up with the idea; she's going to trick Ilithyia into sleeping with Spartacus. That's where it sat for quite a few weeks at the break. We kept talking, it's like, "Well, it's not like she has pictures. It's her word against hers. What do we do?" One of the writers says, "What is Ilithyia kills this other woman?" Then it became how she did it. It went through nine different versions. At one point, she stabbed her. At one point, she hit her and the other women just fell and hit her head. Then it became, "What if she smashes her head on the steps?" I saw the dailies, and I was like, "Whoa, that is a powerful, powerful moment."
QUESTION: How do you define your own moral code?
DeKNIGHT: I exist in a very gray area. It's funny because I've gotten some notes every now and then. I remember one was for the finale of season one where Katrina Law, who plays the character of Mira, basically blackmails Spartacus into sleeping with her. She says, "This is my price. I want to feel what your wife felt. I want to feel love." There was a lot of talk about, "Well, do we not like her because she did this? Do we not like Spartacus because he's succumbing to that?" I said, "Well, this is exactly the kind of gray area that I want to explore." She's doing the wrong thing for the right reason because of the fact that she's never been loved. As for Spartacus, it's not that he is giving in because he decides he wants to have sex with her. He's giving in because he sees how much she's been deprived of this. It's not like he loves her, but there is compassion. It's all a very murky, gray area, which is what I love about this show. I never want to do black and white, right and wrong. Even in Vengeance, the villains have a very good reason for what they're doing. They've very complicated people. When we bring in Marcus Crassus to hunt Spartacus, I've always said that I want Crassus to give a different view of slavery in that time period. Right now we've only seen the bad side of slavery in that time period. With Marcus Crassus, it was more like a corporation. He had slaves that were paid, had their own homes. They were more like employees than slaves.
QUESTION: Shows like Spartacus and True Blood have redefined the cable drama series, which were a bit stagnant post-Sopranos. Do you think this new wave of success is in part because the format needed a shock?
DeKNIGHT: I think that is part of it. I love premium cable. Most of what I watch nowadays is cable and premium cable, but I think it started to get a little bit too elevated. I think what they lost was the idea that there is an audience watching this. This isn't merely an exercise in "look how grand we are." That's a thing that Alan Ball with True Blood really gets and in what we do with Spartacus. People say, "Well, that wasn't 100 percent historically accurate.” We try to be inclusive and respectful of history. But, first and foremost, this is entertainment. I strive to entertain the audience. That's why I use a structure in the show where each episode, even though they're all connected as one long story, each episode has a beginning, middle and end. I like to end an episode where you're sitting on the edge of your seat, going, "Oh my God, I can't believe what's just happened. What's next week?" This is something I think premium cable kind of forgot how to do. A lot of times, I'll be watching a show and it's over. It’s like, "What, it's over, that's it?" It's something that I learned from Joss Whedon on Buffy and Angel. End an episode with a visceral kind of feeling that really makes you want to come back and see more.
Spartacus: Vengeance returns to Starz on January 27. Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Gods of the Arena are now available on DVD and Blu-ray.