Q & A with Spartacus' Steven S. DeKnight

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Writer, producer & director Steven S. DeKnight

On March 30th, the Starz Entertainment cable network period drama Spartacus: Vengeance finished out its season with an edge-of-your-seat finale where no one was safe and more than one character met a bloody, horrific or otherwise unsettling end. Series creator and executive producer Steven S. DeKnight along with the show’s cast and crew gave fans an episode that they would not soon forget and one that left them wanting more. Viewers will have to wait a bit, but they can expect to be enjoying a third season of the popular Spartacus franchise in the not-too-distant future.

Having graduated from UCSC with an undergraduate degree in Theatre Arts and an MFA in dramatic writing from UCLA, DeKnight wrote, produced and/or directed for such shows as MTV’s Undressed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Smallville, Viva Laughlin and Dollhouse before he joined the Spartacus creative team. Last week, he spent a considerable amount of time on the phone with me as well as other journalists talking about his work on Spartacus and career in general. The following is an edited version of our Q & A. Enjoy!

 

You had a number of storyline reasons to end some of the characters’ lives the way you did in the last episode of Spartacus: Vengeance. Were you satisfied with the way you did it? Is there a part of you that regrets killing X character off and not being able to tell his or her story anymore in the future?

Steven DeKnight:  Well, there are actually two answers to that question. I never really regret killing a character off, because I feel like when I do something like that, it serves a specific purpose. Either that character has run its course or he or she needs to die to propel the hero in a new direction or further his direction.

That said, there are plenty of actors that I really miss, and plenty of character traits that I miss, too. A good example is John Hannah from season one. His portrayal of Batiatus really brought something fantastic to the show, but Spartacus needed to kill him in order for the season to have closure and to feel like the hero had a major victory in moving forward in his story. So for that reason, a really fantastic character and a fantastic actor had to go. I definitely miss John Hannah on the show, as I’m going to miss everyone that was killed off this season, but I don’t regret any of those decisions.

 

I’m wondering where do we go next season? Based on history, will be seeing Crassus or Pompey.

SD: Yes. After three seasons of talking about him, we’ll be introduced to Marcus Crassus (Simon Merrells) and start that section of the war. We’re actually going to jump forward about six months, so we’re deep into the war. Spartacus’ army has grown to what it is in history, where it’s on the way to being that big. It’s not a few hundred people, but thousands of runaway slaves that have joined his cause.

So Crassus will be brought in to try to quell the rebellion, and he will enlist Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance) to help them. This is a young Julius Caesar, right around the age of 27, and I’ve already been pelted by messages on the Internet saying, “You know, you’re ruining history. Julius Caesar has nothing to do with the Spartacus war,” and that’s actually true and not true.

This is an odd period in Julius Caesar’s history. For a man that we know so much about, there’s not a lot known about him during this period in time except that he was in a military tribune in Rome. Most of the accounts I’ve read say that he may have been or most likely was part of this army sent after Spartacus, especially since he does have a relationship with Crassus.

It’s often a bit of a tumultuous relationship, but they do know each other, and of course as everyone knows, according to history, Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey overthrow the republic later on. So that’s the basic plan about what’s coming up, and it definitely involves the third servile war.

 

With Spartacus’ history being vague at different times, has that been a little bit freeing for you creatively on the show as far as being able to, for example, include Julius Caesar where maybe some folks think that he wasn’t there?

SD: Yes, the fact that there are large gaps in what is known about this time period, especially when it comes to Spartacus, has been incredibly liberating when it comes to telling a dramatic story. And next season we’re taking a lot of these events that are known and putting a dramatic spin on them.

As I always say, Spartacus is not a documentary. You shouldn’t write a term paper based on this show. First and foremost, it’s entertainment, and my job is to entertain the audience. However, it’s also my intention not to completely turn my back on history. We call it historically adjacent. We want to be in the neighborhood of history and not go completely off the rails.

 

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the decision as far as how things played out with Lucretia, and whether or not Lucy Lawless will be around at all next season, perhaps in a flashback or other capacity or is she completely gone from the show?

SD:  I never rule out a good flashback. But the decision to kill Lucretia actually starts way back at the end of season one, when I decided to kill her the first time. So it always makes me chuckle when I read that people are saying, “You killed Lucy Lawless’ character; I’ll never watch this show again,” because in my mind Lucretia got a reprieve. She was in a six-episode prequel and then another entire season when she was supposed to be dead at the end of season one.

Going back to season one, I really felt at the time when I was structuring it that Spartacus had to kill Batiatus, and Crixus (Manu Bennett) had to kill Lucretia for what they did. We actually shot it both ways. We shot it where Lucretia was clearly dead at the end of season one and then again where she was still twitching, because there was still some discussion going on. I was approached by Starz and my producing partner, Rob Tapert, who is married to Lucy, and the concern was in the second season should we bring back what is arguably the biggest name in the show. I, however, was adamant about the fact that, no, she (Lucretia) had to die. It wouldn't work any other way.

So graciously everyone said okay, you know what you’re doing. Then the next morning in the shower before I came to work, I had this idea about Mad Lucretia, a take on Mad Ophelia. I thought at the time, “Wouldn't it be great if Ilithyia (Viva Bianca) is pregnant, and Lucretia, who is criminally insane at this point, has designs on this child? The audience will think that she wants to take the child and run away with it, but if you look back over the season, you realize she wants to take the child to her dead husband in the afterlife. Lucretia then goes over the cliff.

That’s the idea I had that morning and I called Rob up and told him about it. So she (Lucretia) was brought back based on this idea. We didn’t bring her back and then decide what to do with her. I wanted to know clearly where that character ended, and I also thought that Lucretia and IIithyia both had to die together to really conclude that story line. So that was the entire thrust of bringing her back, is that she was to be intimately tied in with Ilithyia and their storyline had to end together in a grand, operatic fashion.

 

Is there any chance that Ilithyia is going to get a reprieve for next season, or is she completely gone?

SD:  She’s completely dead, and again, so many characters died, but especially with Lucretia and Ilithyia, we really looked at what was coming next in the story with Crassus and Caesar launching a full-scale war against the rebel slaves, Ilithyia and Lucretia just didn't have a place in that world.

There was no scenario where Crassus was going to take those two with him, or even take Ilithyia with him. Crassus doesn't know them. They would be damaged goods no matter how you sliced it. So they really didn’t fit into the world, and we felt that jamming a character into the season just to bring the actor or actress back just didn’t feel right.

As much as the audience may love that character, I personally think that if you don’t do the character justice in a season, the audience will start to not like that character and peak in memory of that character. So it’s best to end on a high note. But I absolutely love Viva Bianca and Lucy Lawless, and they were fantastic together. So I won’t rule out a flashback, but at this point there are no plans.

 

You’ve written for these actors for quite a while now and we always hear about how it’s a collaboration between them and the writers. They interpret the material and sometimes it surprises you, and then the writers will write to that kind of strength if they like it. So I was just wondering if you had some examples of something that’s surprised you in such a way that you incorporated it.

SD:  That’s a good question. It’s interesting; on a show like this we’re usually so deep into writing the season before we start, so any kind of tinkering we do is in the following season. For example, right now we are finishing up the break of episode seven, which means we’ll be finished breaking episode eight before we start shooting this (third) season.

So I won’t actually get dailies or cuts until we’re practically done writing the whole thing. But thinking about things that we have seen, there are small things we’ve incorporated. Nick Tarabay is a perfect example. Early on in season one there was a scene where something terrible was happening, and Nick, who plays Ashur was in the background munching on almonds, which wasn’t scripted.

We saw that and immediately decided that Ashur should always be snacking on something when there’s trouble brewing. It was a little character trait that Nick brought to his performance. Moving forward, once you have episodes cut together and see what people are doing, I think even at a subconscious level you start writing to peoples' strengths. But mostly, though, and I’ll be honest, on the writing side, especially on this show with the language, it is so difficult to construct a story and write the dialogue. Often that’s our only concern, and we just let the actors do what the actors do, and we know they’ll bring something to it.

 

What is going to be the name of the next season, the subtitle?

SD: We are still discussing that. Doing each season with a subtitle I think was my best worst idea. It's tough. The only time it was ever easy was season one where we were at a meeting and I just threw out, you know, each season will be something different, like “Blood and Sand." Everybody was like, "Oh, that sounds good,” so it just stuck and there was no discussion. From that point on, “Gods of the Arena” was a nightmare to pick, and with “Vengeance," we went around and around for months. So right now we're zeroing in on something that I think we all like, but we're still talking about it.

 

To me, one of the greatest things about Spartacus has been it is a strong casting as well as writing for women on television. The women have their own dimensions, and with season three moving over with having Simon and Todd play Julius Caesar and Marcus, how is that going to affect the female characters going forward?

SD: Well, we’re bringing in three new female characters which I can’t talk about, and, of course we will still be following and developing the Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) story. We’ll also be giving Saxa (Ellen Hollman), the German warrior woman, a much more prominent part.

So I definitely don’t want to lose sight of the female characters, and also, you know, the trickiest thing on this show is resisting bringing a character back once we’ve killed them off. We had this discussion moving into Vengeance about how it would really be nice to have a Batiatus-type character, a guy who talks like that and acts like that. My ultimate feeling was if you try to bring in a Batiatus substitute, the audience will smell that a mile away.

You can’t replace a character that really hits home like that, and I feel the same way with the female characters. There was a lot of discussion going into this season that we should really bring in two Roman women who are constantly maneuvering around each other. My feeling was, well, that’s Lucretia and Ilithyia Let’s not do that again. That storyline worked out great. If we try to reproduce that, it’ll just feel like a pale imitation.

So there are new female characters, and they will not be the same type of characters. They will have different stories as well as different strengths and weaknesses.

 

What are you considering for new male characters coming up in season three of Spartacus?

SD: Well, the main ones are, of course, Crassus and Caesar, and we have several others that are popping up. I can't give details because it would ruin what's going to happen, but Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) comes across some very interesting individuals, and some very interesting characters pop up on the Roman side as well.

One of those characters is Crassus’ son Publius, who will be part of the story line. Historically, he was actually Crassus' stepson, since Crassus' brother, also named Publius, died and Crassus married his brother's wife, which was very common back then. It had nothing to do with love, though, but to keep the money and holdings in the family.

For our story it became incredibly convoluted and difficult to explain the back story without a two-page exposition piece. So we have simplified it, that it is Crassus' son Publius, and he will play a major role next season.

 

Much of the series so far has been about Spartacus being driven by loss and revenge, and now he’s essentially lost two women in his life, On the other hand we have Crixus, who seems to be driven by love. Do you foresee those two characters clashing heads once again in the upcoming season?

SD: Well, historically, the rebels were constantly clashing and breaking apart, and one of the things that we really wanted to explore is why this happened. In the history it just says they fell apart. It doesn’t tell you why they fell apart, so that’s definitely a big part of this next season.

You’re absolutely right. Crixus is very much driven by love and Spartacus with his loss, but at the end of Vengeance he actually gained a bit of closure. Spartacus had killed Batiatus and he’s now killed Glaber (Craig Parker), the two men that he feels are most responsible for his wife's death. Moving into next season, the question becomes, what drives him now?

Yes, there’s the sense that I don’t want this to ever happen to another innocent person. But how do you define victory? When is it enough? This is something that will really haunt Spartacus through most of season three - what is the end point? Is it to overthrow Rome? Then what happens? When is a war over, and is it ever truly over for people like Spartacus?

 

Now that Spartacus has had his vengeance, and you’ve mentioned before that this is going to leave him a bit empty going forward, do you think that the fans’ perception of the character will change to the point where they no longer view him as that much of a heroic figure when the lines become blurred?

SD:  That’s another very interesting question that we’ve discussed as far as this upcoming season. Historically, people have a very romanticized vision of Spartacus and his rebels escaping and fighting for freedom. In reality, if you read the history, which, of course, was written by the Romans, what they did is they escaped and raped, pillaged and robbed their way through the Republic, very brutally exacting their revenge.

That’s something we didn't want to shy away from, the brutality and this idea of war crimes and how do you not become the enemy you're fighting. So it does get dirty and very grey next season, and Spartacus is not only our moral center trying to hold things together, but he also completely understands why you would want to do this to the Romans. Why you would want to make them suffer even more than you suffered. So it is a very dirty season. Everyone morally and ethically gets a little muddied in season three.

 

What were some of the biggest writing as well as production challenges would you say originally getting Spartacus off the ground?

SD: Every single one. People ask me, “Were you always interested in Roman history; was it your passion project?” In fact, I was just a gun for hire. The concept of doing Spartacus, like (the feature film) 300, all shot inside with green screen CGI backgrounds and kind of a heightened graphic novel aesthetic was sold to Starz by (fellow executive producers) Rob Tapert, Sam Raimi and Josh Donen, before I was approached about the project. I then came on to figure out what the actual story was.

But the challenges were just monumental. It really was one big experiment of can you do something like this. Can you take the visual concepts and aesthetic that (writer/director) Zack Snyder so brilliantly pioneered in 300, and apply that to a television show where the time restrictions and money restrictions are just massive?

So it was really a matter of learn-as-you-go compounded by the fact that we went straight to 13 episodes. There was no pilot, so we didn’t have time to go back and retool, rewrite and re-shoot a pilot the way that you normally would. A week after we finished shooting episodes one we had to start shooting episode two. That’s one of the reasons, and I’ve gone on record for saying this, that I’m not the greatest fan of the first episode. I think the writing is suspect.

Everything is just a little off. It took us a couple of episodes to figure it out and really dial into the whole feel of the show. So again, every single thing was a challenge, from the costuming where everything had to be built for the show, to the sets, to the visual effects, especially on this show where literally every single thing you see on the screen was built especially for the show, the weapons, the furniture, etc. I mean, you can’t walk into a store and buy something off the rack for Spartacus.

 

Steven, what would you say makes a career in this industry rewarding for you so far?

SD:  That’s an interesting question. You know, honestly, it’s about doing something that excites you, and doing something that when you see the finished product on the screen, you’re just as enthralled and excited as if you had nothing to do with it.

I’ve been very lucky in my career to work with some great people, Joss Whedon number one among them in my time on Buffy and Angel, which is thrilling in its own right, to work on something you’re so excited about. Once you get to the level of creating and working on a TV show in that kind of excruciating detail, you really hope it’s something you’re excited to work on, and not a show you have to drag yourself to your computer every day to write for the paycheck.

A lot of people will say it’s not about the money, but it really isn’t on this show. It’s just such a fantastic opportunity. I never in my life dreamed that I’d be able to not only work on a show like Spartacus, but create and executive produce it along with my partners, and just be involved in a show that just excites me every day.

The other part of that equation is working on this show with Starz, where they give us absolute creative freedom, as evidenced by the season finale this year. If I was working on network television, I guarantee you that they wouldn’t let me kill off all those main characters, and they certainly wouldn’t have let me take a baby over a cliff.

So I feel like I’m just in this dreamlike position of being on a show that I love and having a network that is incredibly supportive and allows full creative control, which is so rare these days. Usually you’re just micromanaged to death, but Starz just really gives us a lot of latitude.

Please note, all Spartacus photos above copyright of Starz Entertainment. 

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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