Interview: ‘Spartacus: Vengeance’ creator Steven DeKnight

“Spartacus” creator Steven DeKnight faced a unique, and tragic, problem after the end of the show”s first season on STARZ. Andy Whitfield, who played the titular hero, was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma after production on “Blood and Sand.” To give Whitfield time to heal, DeKnight and his creative staff concocted “Gods of the Arena,” a six-episode prequel series that aired in 2011.
But while Whitfield initially recovered, he soon suffered a recurrence that left him unable to continue with the show in any capacity. DeKnight struggled with the idea of ever continuing the show with another actor playing the Thracian hero. But with Whitfield”s ultimate blessing to continue the show, the search started for a man to replace him for the upcoming season, subtitled “Vengeance.”
At this winter”s Television Critics Association press tour, DeKnight sat down with HitFix to discuss the process that led to finding new lead Liam McIntyre, the equal influence that Joss Whedon and Rob Zombie have on “Spartacus,” and why giving each season a subtitle is something he”ll never, ever do again.
In recent interviews, you”ve keyed in on the word “epic” to describe the upcoming season. What does that mean in a show that”s already seen the mass murder of a ruling elite at the end of “Blood and Sand”?
[Laughs] Well, yeah. We certainly ended epic at the end of that season, and we wanted to continue that. How do we get more epic than that? Well, the last two episodes of the season are definitely more epic.
The scale of “Kill Them All,” the Season 1 premiere, and even the scale of the finale of “Gods of the Arena,” seems to be built into every episode so far in “Vengeance.” How did you pull that off? Was the budget increased, or do you know how to do more with the same resources?
No, the budget slowly has gone up and up. And we always knew that would happen, because we”re telling the story of Spartacus. We started in this very insular ludus, really concentrating on the upstairs/downstairs story of Season 1. But we always knew that we were leading towards Spartacus building a massive army and going against the massive army of Rome. So we knew it would get exponentially more difficult and expensive.
What were you looking for when recasting the role of Spartacus? What qualities were you hoping to find, especially considering where he has to go on this particular leg of his character journey?
We went back to what we were originally looking for in Spartacus when we were first casting the role, and what we responded to when we saw Andy. We saw a lot of great actors, but what we needed was somebody that understood that Spartacus doesn”t come from a place of anger. He comes from the place of a wounded heart. So we needed that kind of pain from our actor. And also, we needed someone that could exude compassion for other people. And we looked at a ton of actors all over the world, and Liam really stood out with those qualities.
Unfortunately, at the time, it”s well known that he had lost an insane amount of weight for a previous role. So he was rail thin. Physically, he didn”t have the presence that we needed. So when I first saw him audition I thought, “This guy”s great, but he”s way too skinny. So we can”t use him.” Then STARZ told me he had just lost all this weight–I don”t know, twenty or thirty pounds–for this other role, and I thought, “Well, that”s interesting. We should keep looking at him.”
So we put him through paces, called him back a few times, put him through a screen test. And even after that, we squirreled him away and put him on “the program” to try and beef him up.
Is that a program that all the actors are on?
Well, this was a special program tailored just for him. And it was a nail biter to see if he could get up to the physical presence that we needed. All through that time, we had a deadline where we had to look at him, and if it didn”t work out…we were going to cancel the show. So there was a lot riding on it. But luckily, he gained it back.
And you didn”t even meet him until Comic-Con last summer, correct?
I had not. I had conducted Skype conversations with him. But I did not physically meet him until Comic-Con.
So how did you feel confident, having never met him, that he could be the new lead of your show?
Rob Zombie said something very interesting. I”m a huge Rob Zombie fan, and he said that he doesn”t like to be in auditions. He only likes to see people on tape. Because when you”re in a room with an actor, they can charm you. You can be taken just by their presence and you can forget what they look like or how they come across on tape. And I thought that was interesting, and thought it could be something to explore moving on to whatever next series I do. Because I think it”s very true. So I think it was actually a benefit for me to see him only on tape, and just get that clear view of what the character could be.
The events in “Gods of the Arena” were designed as a short bridge between seasons. Did suddenly expanding that to six full episodes give you the opportunity to layer in some elements for “Vengeance” not possible within “Blood and Sand”?
Absolutely. Absolutely. My original pitch for the prequel, to give Andy a chance to go through his treatment, was a two-episode event just to keep the show alive. And nobody wanted to do it. They all said, “Ehhh, it”s not worth the time.” And so it died. It was a couple of weeks later that producer Rob Tapert said, “What about four episodes?” And for the writing of it, four episodes just wasn”t long enough to plot out a really gripping story. And it was too long to tell a concise, punchy story. So, it died again. A couple of weeks after that, STARZ contacted us and said, “You know, six episodes would really be just right for us.” It was like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. And that bed was just right.
You”ve had three seasons now in which you”ve had to almost start from scratch. In the first season, you had to establish the world. In the second, you had to re-establish the background context for the world. In “Vengeance,” you”re exploring a new world order. How does your experience on shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Smallville” help you serve a season arc as well as a series arc?
Well, the most important lesson I learned was from Joss Whedon. I learned so many of them from him. But I remember when I turned in my first script for Joss, there were a couple of things that didn”t quite jive. And he said, “Listen: clarity and emotion above all else.” And I really took that to heart. So with “Spartacus,” look past the sex, the violence, all the trappings…it”s the emotional journey that”s the most important. And that”s what we try and consistently hit are the emotional elements of the story.
Do you find that it”s easier to sell the sex and the violence, rather than trying to sell it as a character piece?
It”s always easier to sell the sex and the violence. And honestly, we knew from the start that it was going to be those things that were going to draw people in. That”s really what happened, and it was only four or five episodes in that chatter started on the internet that said, “Wait a minute, there”s a real story going on here, and there”s something really happening.” I”m thrilled that we can produce such an entertaining show that still has a core depth to it.
You”ve had three seasons of different episode lengths. Is that a freer way to pace your stories, or have you found it a challenge to pace each iteration differently?
You know, the early days were a bit of an experiment for STARZ. And now, I think the model is usually eight episodes for the first season, and ten after that. For me, it didn”t really matter. I mean, the six-episode prequel was a bit different. But I think any less or any more wouldn”t have been any good. I think six episodes was just right for that story. And ten episodes for “Vengeance” is just perfect.
Did the word “vengeance” come up as the first idea, and the season sprung from there? Or was it a label you focused on after writing a few episodes?
Well, we knew where the story was going in Season 2. And you know, I had this brilliant idea at the outset of the series that each season would have its own subtitle. Which I”ll never do again, for several reasons. One, you apparently have to reset your DVR to tape it, because it won”t automatically recognize the new name. And it is INCREDIBLY difficult to get everyone to agree on that subtitle. “Gods of the Arena” we went around and around for months and months. And “Vengeance”…we were really split on “Vengeance.” That was my first concept for the season, since everyone is out for vengeance. But then some thought that vengeance wasn”t really a heroic thing to go for. So, it”s always a nail biter to see what the subtitle will be. So far, I”ve been lucky, since I”ve been able to push through “Blood and Sand,” “Gods of the Arena,” and “Vengeance.”
There are a lot of moments early in the season in which Crixus and Spartacus have a difference of opinion as to how to lead their nascent army. Were those differences reflective of moral differences in the writer”s room? You just mentioned a few people didn”t find the concept of vengeance heroic.
You know, the writers were all FOR vengeance, at the start. It”s such a clear concept, and what we loved about it is that “vengeances” addressed both the Romans as well as the rebels. So it covered everybody. And we always from the start had the plan that the rebels wouldn”t always get along. We didn”t want Robin Hood and his Merry Men. And historically, large factions of 30,000 would break off from Spartacus and go off and do their own thing. And we were very interested in how Spartacus keeps these people together for so long.
You went through all those titles a moment ago. All of them have “Spartacus” at the front of them, but this season appears to be attempting more of an ensemble approach.
That was always the plan. Spartacus was always going to be front and center, but it very much is an ensemble show. There”s a lot of opportunity to explore the different characters.
And in terms of Lucretia, how long can fans expect to wait to learn how she could have possibly survived the end of “Blood and Sand”? Is there going to be a concrete answer to that?
Oh, yeah. There”s a concrete answer coming to that.
And was it always intended for her to survive?
No, that was not intended. And in fact, we were getting to the end of Season 1, when I got a call from my amazing producing partner Rob Tapert, and he said, “STARZ would really like to bring Lucy back.” And I said, “I love Lucy, but she has to die. Batiatus and Lucretia have to die. That”s what we”ve been building towards.” And he said, “Ok, I understand that.” And then the next day, I called him back and said, “You know, I have an idea. I have an idea that I”m really excited about in terms of tying this even better together than we did when Crixus stabs her.”
And it was weird because we shot it both ways: one where she”s still twitching, and one where she”s clearly dead. We didn”t know if we would be able to make a deal with Lucy, so we wanted the option to go either way. I”m thrilled that we landed on the option of “she lives” because where the story goes and the journey that we take her on is really phenomenal this year.
And by the same token, you”re missing John Hannah this year. That”s a huge loss for the show, but it sounds like it was by design in order to create a vacuum within the show for others to fill.
In my opinion, there was no way that Batiatus could live by the end of Season 1. I mean, we needed that cathartic moment of Spartacus killing him. And there were a LOT of talk about, “Should we kill him? Should we delay the breakout another season?” But Rob and I were really adamant that this is where the story wanted to go. And Batiatus had to die, even though we loved John Hannah and he was such a presence on the show.
You mentioned the “upstairs/downstairs” aspect of “Blood and Sand” earlier. With that came a lot of interior scenes with green screen background sprinkled throughout. Were you worried during the writing process for “Vengeance” about what you could show onscreen with that aspect removed, or has technology gotten to the point where that is not longer a limitation?
It”s difficult. The technology allows you to do it, but it”s very expensive to do it. You can create those vast backgrounds, but it”s very tricky to do so. But we knew that was where the story was always headed. So we tried to embrace it. One of the things that you lose going into this next season that we had over the past two is that upstairs/downstairs aspect. But again, we had conversations where we said, “Look, we”re telling the story of Spartacus. Either we tell that story or we don”t.”
I”m amazed that we actually had nineteen episodes inside the ludus, when historically it”s like a paragraph that just says, “They don”t know if he was a Thracian or a Roman or where he came from. But he was in Batiatus” ludus and then he broke out.” That”s basically all it says. And we squeezed nineteen episodes out of that. So we knew we had to get to the story, the actual story of Spartacus, the one where everybody knows he led this rebellion which brought down the Republic.
So are there other such abstract paragraphs that you will be filling in during “Vengeance” as well?
The actual historical bits and pieces that are known about Spartacus can be read in about an hour and a half. It”s not a lot. It”s just fragments. And a lot of those fragments are just about battles, and whom he defeated. Nothing emotional. You don”t know anything about the guy. You don”t know anything about his relationship with the rest of the rebels. So that gives us the leeway to actually build that ourselves, and give the emotional reasoning for what happens.
And is that part of the desire to augment the ensemble? Because those people are even less filled in that Spartacus in the history books.
Absolutely. With Gannicus, with Crixus, with all those characters…historically, you don”t know anything about them.
What will fans of “Spartacus” see in these first few episodes that might surprise them?
Well, I think first the scope is going to surprise them. Just the fact that we blow the doors open and give a much bigger picture of the world. And along with that, there are also emotional surprises. That, to me, is the most important: that the emotional revelations of what”s going on. I think by the time you get to the end of this season, there are so many emotional revelations and so many surprises that I think the audience will just love.
It”s all happy-go-lucky for everyone this season, right?
Yeah, you know, everyone”s happy this season. I mean, when the rebels broke out, that”s the one thing we wanted to do: not make it easy. They are out. They are on the run. They are dirty. They are hungry. They are tired. People aren”t getting along. And that just makes for good drama.