Spartacus: Gods of the Arena’s Steven DeKnight faces the challenge of losing his lead actor and takes on critics of the show’s hyper-violent, highly sexual content.
Written by Denis Faye
When Steven DeKnight decided to bring the tale of the world’s most famous gladiator to the small screen, he probably had no idea that he’d be facing challenges worthy of Spartacus himself.
First, he had to recreate Rome with a “less than Romanesque” budget. The solution came in the form of fellow executive producer Rob Tapert, who’s worked similar sword-and-sandal shows such as Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess. Tapert runs production where the show is filmed down in New Zealand and has a knack, as DeKnight puts it, for “making one million dollars look like four million.”
The next hurdle was facing criticism over the show’s hyper-violent, highly sexual content. Given it appears on Starz, a pay cable channel, Standards and Practices doesn’t really play a role in the creative process. “I certainly make no apologies,” shrugs DeKnight, whose previous writing-producing credits include Angel, Smallville, and Dollhouse. “It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, I understand that, but for adults who want an adult story and adult entertainment, it’s perfectly fine.”
Finally, and most tragically, the showrunner had to keep things together when Spartacus: Blood and Sand’s lead actor, Andy Whitfield, was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “It was absolutely devastating,” says DeKnight, “foremost on an emotional level. He’s a fantastic human being.”
As a quick fix while Whitfield was undergoing treatment, DeKnight came up with a prequel mini-series to keep the show alive. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena starts its six-episode run on Starz this month.
But then Whitfield decided to pull himself permanently from the series to continue treatment and spend time with his family, so for the second full season, Australian actor Liam McIntyre has stepped into Whitfield’s sandals. While Whitfield’s departure was a blow to morale in the writer’s room, it didn’t have a big effect on the scripts. “When McIntyre steps into the role, and we start to see footage on him, there may be minor adjustments,” explains DeKnight, “but we’re writing Spartacus as Spartacus.”
Photo: ©2011 Starz Entertainment
John Hannah and Dustin Clare in Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.
DeKnight spoke with The Writer’s Guild of America, West Web site about all the challenges of showrunning Spartacus. Even though some battles have been tough, this is clearly a writer willing to take on every comer in the arena.
The sex and violence in Spartacus play a big part promotionally. How do they figure into the creative process?
Obviously, with this time period, you can’t get around the violence. For season one and the prequel, we’re dealing with gladiators. It’s going to be violent. It was a violent, violent time. It wasn’t that murder was accepted, but people were trying to murder each other to get a leg up. You had to cover your tracks, but it was a dark period.
A show about gladiators is going to be violent. The question is: how do you play it? We made a very conscious choice to go very operatic in our violence. Not to say we won’t be realistic at certain times, but the CGI blood sprays and stuff like that was our choice.
And almost always, the violence plays an important part in the story. I don’t like to have violence just for violence’s sake. The violent things that happen, like the gladiator fights, there’s an emotional element; the character needs something, wants something beyond just staying alive.
On the sex side, I have a very European attitude toward sex. With this country, despite the fact that we’re the number one provider of pornography, we’re still so sexually repressed. It’s shocking! I was stunned when we first aired season one, and people were calling it everything from softcore to pornography. Being a male, I’ve seen my fair share of softcore. I’ve seen my fair share of hardcore. And this is neither. Sex on the show, I like to use it as an emotional plot device. It’s not just a couple of people having sex. Somebody wants something; somebody needs something. There are repercussions from it, especially with the prequel. The sex that happens in the prequel has serious ramifications. It might not appear that way it first, but as the story unfolds, you realize what’s actually going on.
Being able to let loose and tell stories with sex and violence, is that more fun than conventional television writing?
Of course it is! And you can tell, in the early days of Spartacus, it was a little too much fun. The gloves were off for myself and my right-hand man Rob Tapert, the unsung hero/executive producer who’s in charge of the production side down in New Zealand. We both went a little hog wild, having spent years and years under the restraints of Standards and Practices. So if you watch the first couple episodes, okay, I confess we went too far. We were spreading our wings, and then we learned how to fly straight.
What I find most liberating isn’t the fact that I can show naked people, that I can show really violent, horrible acts, that’s not what excites me. What excites me is that I can tell stories where these things are important, where these things are integral to what’s going on. That’s the exciting thing. So many times when I was working on network television, it was very difficult to do certain scenes the way people really talk. Truth be told, when people are really upset and in an intense emotional moment, they curse. That’s been my experience, but I’m from Jersey, I curse all the time.
To me, the way Batiatus talks, that’s the way we talk. It’s like The Sopranos. One thing about the language that I think threw people – and perhaps the nudity too – is that they weren’t used to it in this time period. They’re used to things that are much more refined and sophisticated. If you take a look at a movie I love, Gladiator [Screenplay by David Franzoli and John Logan and William Nicholson], there’s not a lot of cursing. There’s not a lot of nudity. It’s a classic kind of telling of that tale with a little bit of violence. I wanted to do something much more like I thought people would act, with baser situations. And all the cursing, of course, as much as it surprises people, it’s historically accurate. I don’t use any curse words that they didn’t have an equivalent of.
How did Andy Whitfield’s departure affect the writer’s room?
We had laid out season two and written the first two scripts when we found out that he’d had the relapse. It threw everything into turmoil. Our marching orders were, until we know exactly what his condition is and how long his treatment will last, to marshal forward writing scripts, which is what we did.
How did the prequel play into that?
We didn’t want to let the show completely go away. So I came up with this idea to do a prequel to keep the show alive, to keep the core cast and crew employed and also to flesh out the storyline of season one. I’d always planned on a flashback episode of season two. This is basically expanding it into six episodes.
I’m proud of the prequel. It’s a great stand-alone story one its own. And now we’re back to season two.
How do you like writing a 13-episode season, as opposed to the traditional 22?
Twenty-two episodes is an absolutely crushing schedule. Shows that can maintain the quality for 22 episodes have my utmost respect. In my experience, what happens with 22 episodes is that four or five of them just slip through the cracks. It’s just a numbers game. You just don’t have enough time where you know a script isn’t perfect, and you’ve got to shoot. The great thing about 13, it’s more of a handmade show. It’s a carefully crafted show. You have more time, especially on the script side, to work out the kinks.
If you look at season one, by the time you get to episode 13, you’ll realize just how intricate everything is. It takes a massive amount of time to figure out where all the pieces go. The surprises, the twists, the turns that you just don’t have on a network TV show. And when you do, oftentimes, you build this grand mystery where you don’t really have to know where you’re going which will paint you into a corner when you pay off a season finale or a series finale. That’s why audiences find finales to be underwhelming. You just don’t have the time to figure out where you’re going. The deadliest thing you can do is to construct an intricate plot without knowing how it’s going to pay off.
Your goal is to create something epic; yet something tells me your budgets are hardly James Cameron-esque…
Not at all! You’ve got to get creative. It’s amazing we do so much. It’s not like we have a tiny, little 100,000-dollar budget. We spend a lot of money, but for a show like this, it always amazes me. It looks much more expensive than it actually costs. We definitely have to get creative sometimes in the writer’s room and figure out, “Okay, how do we do it?” We’re doing it right now, breaking the mid-season episode of season two, which is gigantic. It enormous, it’s epic. We ran into the same problem with the end fight of the prequel. It was massive, and we weren’t quite sure if we could do it, but we took a stab at it anyway, and it was beautiful.