Interview with Steven S. DeKnight from Spartacus: Vengeance

Earlier this week, the creator, writer, and Executive Producer behind the amazing franchise of Spartacus, Steven S. DeKnight, took some time to chat with journalists. He had so many wonderful insights into the newest installment, Spartacus: Vengeance. He discussed the reason why certain characters must meet their demise, the plans for our favorite characters, and so many other fabulous insights.

Just to prepare you for the rest of the interview, here’s a brief synopsis of what this new installment is all about. Basically, it’s just purely epic.

On the heels of the bloody escape from the House of Batiatus that concluded Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the gladiator rebellion continues and begins to strike fear into the heart of the Roman Republic in Spartacus: Vengeance. Gaius Claudius Glaber and his Roman troops are sent to Capua to crush the growing band of freed slaves that Spartacus leads before it can inflict further damage. Spartacus is presented the choice of satisfying his personal need for vengeance against the man that condemned his wife to slavery and eventual death, or making the larger sacrifices necessary to keep his budding army from breaking apart. Containing all of the blood-soaked action, exotic sexuality, villainy, and heroism that has come to distinguish the series, the tale of Spartacus resumes in epic fashion.

Just reading that is exciting, isn’t it? Keep up the excitement by jumping ahead to read the interview.

On the decisions surrounding character deaths

Steven S. DeKnight: There’s always a question on this show [of which] characters literally get the axe. I think really ultimately for me it is always 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.

And 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 had to go, but that was a painful one.

[Note from Megan: Painful? That’s an understatement. I understand it serves the story, but I loved Batiatus. He is by far my favorite for quotes from the show. That said, there is something to be admired about a show where no one is safe. The story comes first, and that’s why this show is as amazing as it is.]

On how Liam stepping in as Spartacus

Steven: 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.

On how Gannicus ends up coming back

Steven: 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 is when Gannicus comes back it’s not a happy reunion. There’s definitely a lot of problems that come with him.

On the journey that Spartacus is on this season

Steven: 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.

On criticisms received along the way

Steven: 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 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.

[Note from Megan: First, one of my favorite parts of the show is the language style. It makes it all the more delicious. The language is sexy, and provocative in itself. There is nothing wrong with the violence or sex on this show, because it’s very close to the era this is based on. I applaud Steven for being brave enough to push the limits.]

On what the cast goes through to look as scrumptious as they do

Steven: 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.

[Note from Megan: We appreciate the hard work – a lot. One of the hottest casts on TV today.]

On which character he relates to the most

Steven: Well, I’ve always said that, you know, for me, my inner voice is Batiatus. You know, that 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 my – that’s the Steve.

On how much of what we see is left up to the director and stunt coordinators

Steven: 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.

On how working on Spartacus compares to working on past shows

Steven: I just got to say, first and foremost, I always credit Joss Whedon for really starting my career. I was working on Undressed when he hired me on to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then I went to Angel where he gave me a chance to direct and then I linked up with him again on Dollhouse. Words can’t describe how much I’ve learned from the man.

The biggest difference with this show for me is that all my other work was on broadcast network and this is premium cable. So Al Gough, my old boss from Smallville who watches this show, I bumped into him and he chuckled and he said when he watched Spartacus, he calls it DeKnight unleashed.

And that’s exactly how I felt when I got this opportunity that I didn’t have to deal with standards and practices anymore. I didn’t have to water things down, I could, you know, go to places, not just sexually, not just with the violence, but good characters could do bad things, which is often very difficult to get the network to sign off on. And bad characters could do good things. So it’s – I got to work in a very gray world, which I think is where the most interesting drama is.

And it’s also been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Because I had the bright idea of kind of creating a very different kind of language and the way people speak, which is not natural and it doesn’t come naturally to write it. So it takes a lot longer to write and it’s a bit more of a pain in the ass, but the result I think was very successful in conveying the sense of a different time in history.

[Note from Megan: One of the reasons I first tuned into Spartacus was because of my love of DeKnight’s previous work. This man is brilliant, which shows all throughout his career, but I love his work on this show. Gray is a wonderful shade to work in, because you never know where he’s going to go with anything or anyone.]

On the tremendously strong female cast

Steven: 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 Season 1. 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.

On where the pattern of speech came from for the show

Steven: It’s actually not based on Latin. In fact, in Latin they do use articles. I tend to drop out ands and thes in the way they speak. And again, it’s just to give a flavor of antiquity to the language.

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 is absolutely not historically accurate. 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.

On the visual effects of the show

Steven: 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 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.
There you have a brief glance into the intelligence behind the excellent series Spartacus. The next installment, Spartacus: Vengeance, premieres on January 27 on Starz. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss it.

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One Response to Interview with Steven S. DeKnight from Spartacus: Vengeance

  1. Penny Douglas says:

    I have been a Spartacus fan since the beginning and I knew from the very start that this was different than anything on TV. The only show to even come close to it was the HBO series ROME! I am a huge fan of historical epics and I really loved the cast and the writing was very cool! The most amazing thing happened to was being introduced to the lead actor, the late great Andy Whitfield. He was a most amazing and powerful person in life and we all love him who felt his very special gift!
    Spartacus Vengeance looks to be very good, so we will see but Steven DeKnight is a very creative, artistic, and brilliant man, and I’m so glad he brought this show to television. It rocks!