Spartacus Creator Steven S. DeKnight Talks ‘Vengeance’

Photograph by Jack Thompson

Spartacus creator, writer, and executive producer Steven S. DeKnight had some time to chat with us and to members of the media on the upcoming Spartacus: Vengeance show. It’s a great read and insight on how the show came about, about the authenticity of the dialogue, historical accuracies, and of course, the sex and violence.

Spartacus: Vengeance, as you may know, has a new actor playing the title character. Liam McIntyre was brought in because of Andy Whitfield’s condition (non-Hodgkin lymphoma), which caused him to pass away last year (RIP). Vengeance begins where Blood and Sand left off, with the gladiators rebelling and on a mission to fight the Romans to survive.

When writing about characters, DeKnight would always try to have meaning for different characters’ 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 – on who do I kill.

And do I re- 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’s definitely – he had to go, but that was a painful one.

He talks about how he wanted Liam to portray Spartacus. It’s a fine line because audiences already have a preconceived notion on how Spartacus acts, thanks to Whitfield’s performance.

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.

Gannicus was one of the main characters in Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. He was the hero gladiator who gained his freedom in the end. DeKnight tries not to go into spoiler territory, but he tells us that Gannicus will be coming back from a place that’s unexpected.

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 seldom – they’re not Robin Hood and the merry men. They have a lot of problems internally, which is – it’s 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.

He then talks about whether it was planned from the beginning if we would see Spartacus transform from being a slave to being a leader of a rebellion.

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. 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 (op). Everybody grows up in this season.

The show of course is very violent, has a lot of nudity and sex scenes, and has a lot of dirty dialogue. DeKnight answers questions about how he handles people complaining about them.

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.

Spartacus features a lot of gladiators who are in very great shape. Of course they need to be, because they’re in a world that requires them to fight to survive and during a time where publish nudity is more common.

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. And 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, 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.

With the show having a lot of action and sex, the show has to make sure that it flows within the story. DeKnight talks about how he plans the action and sex scenes.

You know, we do – Al 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 – 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. You know, there’s – 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.

Ancient Rome is the setting, so of course there are elements that has to be historically accurate. DeKnight would strive for accuracy, but also want to entertain the audience. It’s a fine line between moving around facts to serve the story.

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.

The gladiators on the show are very clean. One would think that because they are gladiators, they’d be dirty. That’s not the case at all. There are two factors to the clean look; one is because the ancient Romans considered hair to be barbaric, and the other is to see that these guys are very muscular.

I – 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. You know, having a – 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 an 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.

With movies like 300 and Immortals out, it seems like a show like Spartacus would be great for the big screen. DeKnight mentions it, but I think it will be a while to we see Spartacus in theaters.

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 that makes the show stand out is the dialogue. The characters have a certain way of talking while also having a mouth that would make a nun go deaf. I always wondered if the way the characters talked was portrayed accurately. It is not.

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. And I wanted to cross that – 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 – it is absolutely not historically accurate. Much the way – when – and 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, you know, we – about five scripts in after we had done this I realized holy shit, I got to write – I got to keep writing this way for the rest of the series, which is extremely challenging.

About Lucretia:

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. I mean, it’s – 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 basically – she’s living off the kindness of strangers at this point.

DeKnight’s history on Spartacus:

Oh, I’ll tell you. 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 – on the 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 I – history was not my strongpoint and I knew – 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. But yes, the idea for Spartacus was presold before I came on.

About the history of Spartacus’ end:

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 not a lot of – in fact, 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.

So what does the future have in store for DeKnight? He signed a two-year deal with STARZ on a new project (no, it’s not another Spartacus). As for what this new project is, we’ll have to wait and see.

I’m actually at the moment writing a new project for STARZ that I – 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.

Spartacus: Vengeance premiere episode will air on STARZ Friday, January 27, 2012.

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