A Song of a Lass Gone

Ronald D. Moore on the daunting task of adapting the epic, wildly popular Outlander novels to TV and why he’s still paying for killing off one of Hollywood’s most beloved characters.

©2016 Starz
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in Outlander.
June 30, 2016 Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
Ronald D. Moore

[The industry] is going to tell you ‘no’ over and over and over again, and you’d better find out really quickly whether that's going to knock you out of the business or if you just somehow insanely believe enough in your talent to keep on going.

Simply put, Ronald D. Moore likes it big. Really big. Through a jagged prism freighted with psychogenic combustions, desolate spiritual sojourning, and blunt, gory, diffident warfare—familial, romantic, global and, uh, intergalactic—Moore’s finest work as one of television’s finest showrunners, producers, and writers takes audiences to worlds far, far away, often to epochs long vanished, showing them that for whatever star system, colonial starship, constitution class transport, standing stone, alien race, or Highlander battleground they think they’re seeing, every tale is always, only about yearning for home.

Moore mined these bottomless philosophical wells expertly as a late-addition to the Star Trek: the Next Generation writers’ room, on the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, and again with Outlander, his current project, enjoying critical acclaim and sizable audiences in its second season on Starz. Based on the bestselling franchise by novelist Diana Gabaldon, Outlander merges time travel, star-crossed romance, revenge play tropes, history-hugging detours, savage battles, and frank, unapologetic sexuality like few television shows before. The show’s ethereal thematic concerns remain well grounded by Moore’s trademark earthiness, satisfying fans of Gabaldon’s books while attracting a large “virgin” audience to the boob tube.

Which is to say that the 51-year-old Moore, who has already joined a legendary franchise midflight and reinvented a campy ‘70s Star Wars TV wannabe into a modern classic, still had some serious work cut out for him with Outlander. Nearly 30 million readers have bought at least one of Gabaldon’s eight Outlander tales, profoundly epic, truly sprawling stories that skip between centuries and countries. On the page, the Outlander stories take up some 3,000 pages to unfurl (with more arriving in bookstores soon). Moore’s task: to devote one 13-hour season to each of the 600-ish paged novels.

An impossible mission? Not to Moore. That’s where the fun begins.

Like Battlestar Galactica—and, to some extent, the Star Trek work you did—Outlander is a series that gives viewers what they put into it. It’s not a demanding show necessarily, but the more you bring to watching the show, the richer its pleasures.

When I was putting together the writers’ room for Outlander, I very specifically and intentionally populated it with the best writers I could find, and there was one critical caveat: half of the writers’ room could be fans of the novels and the other half of the writers’ room could not have read any of the Outlander books. I did that because I am acutely aware that Outlander is a show that has to play to two audiences simultaneously. We have to play to the audience that knows the novels and loves them, the audience who is looking forward to seeing how we’re going to bring these beloved stories to life. These are very passionate fans. They know these books very, very well—the characters, the dialogue, the minutest of details—and they have certain expectations and hopes about how the show will portray all of it. But we also have to play well for an audience that has no idea what Outlander is or where these stories are going. We’re always striving to connect with both audiences.

Of the Outlander virgins you hired for the writing team, how many have steadfastly resisted reading the novels?

There’s only one left. That’s testament to what Diana’s done with these books. You can’t resist them.

The series is midway through its second season, based on the second novel in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. How do you transform a 752-page novel into 13 episodes of television?

Everybody gets a copy of the book and we tear it to pieces. I don’t mean we denigrate Diana’s writing. Not at all. What I mean is: we have to break the book down into discrete, manageable bites. What type of scene is this? What storyline does this scene feed? Is it a scene that’s in some way redundant? Is it a scene that offers exposition? If it does, is there a more visual—or more filmic—way of getting that information across to the viewer? So we break it all down like that, creating this series of index cards that are very clearly labeled and organized: the major plot points, the A thread, the B storyline, the big action sequences [which take a lot of time and budget to shoot], the love scenes, and all that. We put all of the cards up on this big board in the writers’ room, and then we all just stare at that board. For a long time. Because it is, basically, an impossible task. But eventually the silence becomes too chilling, and I’ll have to sit up and sort of arbitrarily say, “Okay, from this card to this card, that’s one episode. Probably.” And we do that until we’ve got, in the case of season two, 13 bigger chunks. After that, it’s a matter of going into each of the 13 chunks and figuring out how to manage all of the character and plot details that need to be conveyed inside of that. So we’re always going deeper into the books in an effort to be as economical as possible with our storytelling. It is a fairly massive undertaking.

Novelists have very different takes on surrendering their works to filmmakers. Many of them just take the check and hold their breath, kind of anticipating the worst will come. Diana Gabaldon, though, has been very involved in the series, very supportive of the series, and is even writing an episode this season. For you, is it preferable for a writer to leave you to your work, or are there benefits to having someone like Ms. Gabaldon so readily available?

One of the great, great qualities about Diana is her fierce intelligence. Before I even had a deal to make the show, I went to Scottsdale where she lives and spent a weekend with Diana, talking about my ideas for adapting the books and how, as much as I love the books, there would have to be changes. Diana just stopped me there and said, “Look, I'm an author. You're a TV writer. I don't do what you do. I'm going to have to just trust you with my characters and know that you're going to treat them well.” I went, "Well, thank you, that's very gracious. My intention is to do the best adaptation we can and to really be as close to the books people love as we can.” Diana and I started off on this really positive foot, and that’s been a really great thing.

From giving you her blessing to where we sit today, she has become increasingly involved in the show. How has that worked?

Well, out of respect, I’ve sent her everything as we go. Everything. She’s never asked for veto power or even to see the works in progress, but I feel we kind of owe it to her, so we do. She sees the breakdowns, the storylines, all the drafts, the dailies, the rough cuts, all of it. As she’s become more familiar with how television is made, she does chime in more often—which is fantastic! There's not a formal notes process with Diana. She’ll simply reach out whenever she thinks of something that might be helpful or really good, or she’ll notice something that’s just a little bit out of whack, and nine times out of 10, she’s absolutely right. It’s easy to accommodate her, partly because she never asks for the impossible and partly because we really want to.

The second season has made some significant changes to the novel, primarily structurally, but in other ways as well. Has she been such a keen supporter, even through that?

Well, Dragonfly was a more complex and difficult story. As a writer, Diana tried out a lot of different things with that book. She changed the voice and point of view in different chapters. She played with time. The storyline zigs and zags. It’s a very complicated book, and Diana knows it. She knows the challenges of the material, and she’s really come to know that we’ll do right by her and her fans. Even with the changes we’ve made in season two, Diana mostly just points out certain grace notes that we, as outsiders to her novels, might overlook in our writing process—because a certain line of dialogue or a tiny little plot point doesn’t seem terribly significant right now, but Diana knows it means a lot in the fourth book.

Back to the writing room…You’re trying to break Dragonfly in Amber for season two. It’s a bigger novel. It’s a more difficult novel. What kind of nervous breakdowns are you and the writing staff enduring?

Oh, it’s just brutal. I mean, there’s not really a better word for it: it’s just brutal. For me, here’s the biggest difference between doing an original series, which I’ve done, and doing an adaptation, like Outlander: when you’re doing an original and you find yourself a little bit stuck, you just kind of write through it, and you can always go back and sort it all out. When you’re doing an adaptation, the tracks are laid. If it’s a tough ride, that’s too bad—because that’s the way the story goes! You have to figure out how to get it done. But it’s not easy, so that means there are a lot of spinning wheels, a lot of pacing back and forth, a lot of frustration, and a lot of ideas that get thrown out there and then shot down because they’re just not right. Ultimately, it comes down to determination more than anything else. You write a scene once. It doesn’t work. You write it again. If you have to write it again, you write it again. There’s just no quitting or giving up with an adaptation. You have to get there.

Determination is kind of a recurring theme in your work anyway. Looking back at Battlestar Galactica, which was a landmark series in so many ways, you devoted a good portion of that series’ storytelling to exploring your own relationship with faith and spirituality. Does that resonate for you?

Battlestar was a chance to play around with things in my own head—thoughts about spirituality, thoughts about my place in the universe, questions like “What does it all mean?” You know, the existential stuff. It was a chance to go a little deeper than the Star Trek stuff allowed me to. With Star Trek, you didn't really want to delve into those weightier matters—unless they were somehow attached to an alien culture that had wacky superstitions or religions. That stuff had to be relegated to the aliens or the weirdos. You couldn’t really have your human characters grappling with those questions. On Battlestar, it was anything goes. What’s human and what’s not human? What’s faith and what’s science? Why do we believe and how do we choose what we believe in? All of that stuff. It was very rich ground there. I'm not sure if there’s anything terribly autobiographical about Battlestar, but it definitely allowed me to ask big questions from different points of view and to keep changing the answers. That, I never got tired of.

What about Diana Gabaldon’s novels lured you into this massive undertaking?

I responded to the first book as a piece of historical fiction, and I really liked the central character of Claire—her voice. I was really drawn to that female character. That book was just a really good page-turner. I was surprised by a lot of things that happened in the story, and that doesn’t happen to me very often. What Outlander has in common with my other work—Star Trek or Carnavale, all of it, basically—is that I really enjoy creating a world that doesn't exist and making it more real than real for audiences. That's really appealing to me. I like the challenge of that. I like the question of “How do you create a show when you can't just go down the street and shoot a scene by whatever cars happen to be parked there that day?” I like all the questions involved in building a world: What are their tools like? What are they eating? How is their language the same, or different? I have the mind that goes looking for the one tiny thing that’s going to give away the whole charade, the thing that’s going to tear a viewer out of the story and remind them that, “Oh, yeah, this world doesn’t really exist.” And then I plug that hole too.

This is a terrible story to tell aspiring television writers, but your breakthrough happened simply, almost implausibly.

Yeah, I was dating a girl in L.A. Turned out that she loved Star Trek and had worked on Next Generation for a little while. One night, she noticed the Captain Kirk poster on my wall and asked me if I loved Star Trek, too—which I thought was pretty obvious from the poster. When I told her I loved the show, she offered to get on the set of Next Generation. The next morning, she made the call and got me a set visit for six weeks later. It took a while to schedule that kind of thing because the set was so open to fans; they’d do tours of that set regularly. Fans loved that show, and it was cool that they could come and walk around the set. So I had my date, and I decided I’d roll the dice. I wrote an episode of Next Generation, something I thought was really good, and I took it with me to the set visit and I convinced the guy that was giving the tour to take the script and read it, and I asked him to tell me later if it was any good. He turned out to be one of Gene Roddenberry’s assistants. The script made it all the way to the showrunner. He bought the script and asked me to make another one, then another one. Eventually, I got a call that they needed a staff writer who could start work the next day. I showed up. It was the luckiest of breaks, really. I had the right script at the right time. I knew the show inside and out. I loved it. I channeled that passion, threw myself into it, and it all happened to work out.

That all happened in the couple of weeks before you were supposed to report to boot camp with the U.S. Navy. In some alternate universe, Ronald D. Moore is serving in a submarine deep in the ocean enduring all of the nightmares he’s put his characters through!

Oh, the alternate universes available to Ronald D. Moore could be so much worse than being in the U.S. Navy. Trust me! The life I’m living, it’s the only life where things go the way they have for me. In every other possible scenario, I’m dead in the water. This is where I was at when Next Generation happened for me: I had flunked out of school, and I was in Los Angeles, and I had no money and I was trying to be a writer, and I was a messenger, and I was an animal hospital receptionist, and I was making just a few hundred dollars a month. It was an impossible situation. But I can look back on all of that and see now that if any one of those horrible things had been easier than they were, I might not have taken that insane chance of writing a script no one was asking for and imagining it would actually be read and loved and lead me through a series of pretty great jobs that have brought me here.

It’s kind of surprising to learn that you had a Captain Kirk poster in your apartment. You know where I’m going with this: you’re the screenwriter who killed Captain Kirk in the Generations feature film!

I will never fully serve my sentence for that! That was a…what’s the word…a complicated thing. When we first started talking story for that film, we were all talking about destroying the Enterprise as a key event. I thought that was interesting, but what if we went even further and told the story of the death of Captain Kirk. I thought that would be even more powerful for audiences. So I became very determined to tell that story. It was probably some deeply embedded psychological thing from my childhood where I was determined to kill the characters I loved as a child now that I was a man making films! There are depths to killing Captain Kirk that I've yet to fully explore.

Which is why the world will not let you forget that you killed Captain Kirk.

As a writer, the death of Kirk really could have been an amazing thing—a noble, inspiring, kind of tragic, Arthurian thing. But here’s the truth: I really wanted to tell that story, but back then I just didn't have the maturity or the chops to do it well. If Captain Kirk had died well, people wouldn’t be so pissed about it 25 years later. The whole movie is this kind of meditation on mortality, and then I just didn’t land the big death, the whole point of the movie. The other problem was that there was a very real, serious pressure from the studio to make a movie that would attract new fans instead of dropping old fans, like the last couple of Star Trek movies had. So Generations ended up being kind of a Pop Star movie, a bridge thing, a transition from the original series to Next Generation. And then we were told we had to bring in the Klingons, too. There were just so many things that movie had to be that there was no way, even if I’d had the chops, Kirk was going to die well.

Your chops, they’re pretty impeccable these days. Outlander is one of the best series on television. The cast is simply flawless, uniformly outstanding. How does that impact your writing, having such a gifted group of actors?

It’s huge. One of the challenges of writing for television—because of how quickly they have to come together, mostly—is that it can take some real time for the writers to get to know their cast. That’s why so many shows take six episodes or so, maybe a whole season, to get really going. The writers have finally figured out what their actors do best. A lot of times as a writer, I’m not even aware when that eureka moment happens; I just suddenly realize I’m tailoring. I’m writing to things I know for a fact are an actor’s strengths. By the way, actors really appreciate that. On Outlander, the writers realized really quickly that we had gold in this cast, that there is literally nothing we could ask Caitrioina [Balfe, Outlander’s lead] to do that she couldn’t or wouldn’t do. That opens up tremendous possibilities for the writers. You’re, of course, beholden to the novels, but the ways you honor the novels increase exponentially when you’ve got a cast this good.

Since you’ve ruined aspiring writers with your story of “Yeah, just go ahead and get yourself into a bad pickle, write a script very quickly, and then hand it to a total stranger to get your big break,” do you have any advice for writers that might be useful?

Hey, you asked! I actually do have some advice. It’s in two parts: the first part is a story told to me when I was just starting out in the business. It contains very, very true information. The second part is a great piece of advice told to me by one of the great masters of science fiction.

Part one…

One day backstage at Carnegie Hall, the concert violinist Jascha Heifetz is preparing to go on when a young man in the wings approaches him and asks, “Mr. Heifetz, will you please tell me if I have any talent?” The kid has his violin with him. “Please, sir, just one minute of your time. Tell me if I have what it takes to make it.” So Heifetz, he kind of gives in, right? “Okay, kid. Go ahead.” The kid plays for not quite 60 seconds. Heifetz looks at him dead in the eyes. “Nope, kid,” he says. “You do not have what it takes.” The kid's devastated, sulks away, and drops music from his life altogether. Ten, 15 years later, Heifetz and this kid, who’s now grown up, run into each other some sort of a social gathering, and the kid goes up to Heifetz and says, "You probably don't remember me. I came up to you one day at Carnegie Hall and asked you to listen to me play the violin and asked you if I had any talent. You said that I didn’t, so I dropped the violin and now I'm in insurance,” the kid says. “I just wanted to ask you: how could you do that to me when I was so young? How could you crush my dreams like that after only listening to me for a minute?" Heifetz doesn’t miss a beat. He looks down at the kid and says, "I say that to everyone—because it's the kind of business that if you can be discouraged, you will be, and you should find that out sooner rather than later."


That's a profound insight into the business that is really true. It is a firmly, savagely discouraging business. It's going to tell you “no” over and over and over again, and you’d better find out really quickly whether that's going to knock you out of the business or if you just somehow insanely believe enough in your talent to keep on going.

What’s part two?

I’m on a panel with some sci-fi writers at some event in Beverly Hills. The great, great science fiction Harlan Ellison is on the panel with me, which I can still hardly believe. The forum was, basically, the panel would be asked a question and then the moderator would go straight down the line, getting each of our responses. So the question was, “What’s your advice to young writers?” And Harlan Ellison takes the microphone and he’s kind of growling, this guttural, phlegmatic thing going on in his voice, and he says very, very firmly, deadpan, insistently, “Don’t. Be. A. Whore!” And you know what? Harlan Ellison is right! In this business, all they want to do is whore out your talents. Livelihoods are based on that kind of pimpery in this town. I’m not saying you’re too good to do a job for hire. There is much to learn and many times a lot of happiness that comes with jobs like that. But if you write like Paul Schrader, but you’re being asked over and over again for some reason to write cartoons about clever, talking pets, and you do it more than once, that’s tragic to me. You are probably a whore. Don’t do that. Don’t be a whore. Stand up for your work. Have some principles. Don’t sell out to the lowest common denominator. Those two stories sum up almost everything a writer in Hollywood needs to know.

© 2016 Writers Guild of America West

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