Executive Producer Steven S. DeKnight Interview SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA

     January 22, 2011

The new Starz original drama series Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is the prequel to the popular first season, Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Going back a few years prior, this mini-series showcases the time when the House of Batiatus is on the rise and basking in the glow of its infamous champion Gannicus (Dustin Clare), whose skill with a sword is matched only by his thirst for wine and women. Batiatus (John Hannah) will freely betray anyone to ensure his gladiators are in the highest demand, and his loyal and calculating wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) is by his side for every underhanded scheme, drawing on the talents of her seductive friend Gaia (Jaime Murray) when needed. Together, they will stop at nothing to deceive the masses, seize power and bleed Capua dry.

During a recent interview to talk about Gods of the Arena, show creator/head writer/executive producer Steven S. DeKnight talked about the prequel’s genesis, getting to explore some of the early history of characters that couldn’t be delved into more deeply in Blood and Sand, following the same tone and style of violence and nudity that the series has become known for, and book-ending this mini-series with the Spartacus character to tie everything together. He also talked about where he plans to head with Season 2, which will be called Spartacus: Vengeance, and the choice of actor Liam McIntyre to take over the title role. Check out what he had to say after the jump:

Question: How did this prequel come about?

STEVEN S. DeKNIGHT: It came about because originally, in Season 2, right around mid-season, I had planned to do a flashback episode with John Hannah. John had such a great time on the show that he had expressed interest in coming back, if we could find a way to bring him back, so I said, “Yeah, absolutely. That would be great.” There are a couple of things that Batiatus mentions in Season 1, about his father and about things that happened, that I thought would be great to revisit. Unfortunately, when Andy [Whitfield] fell ill, we had to halt production and the concern became, “How are we going to keep fans interested in the show?” Looking at the calendar, we would be off the air for 18 months, and to be off the air for a year and a half, after you’ve just had your first season, can be a little tricky. You can lose a lot of your fan base.

So, I took the idea of a flashback episode in Season 2 and approached (executive producer) Rob Tapert and Starz with the possibility of doing a two-hour movie to air in January 2011, just to keep the show alive. But, two hours wasn’t long enough to really fill the hole that they had. It was complicated and it would have been more trouble than it was worth, so it died. A few weeks later, Rob suggested that we do a four-hour prequel, but four hours didn’t work creatively because it’s too long for a concise story and not long enough to tell a really complicated story, so it died a second time. Then, about a month later, Starz popped up and said, “How about six hours?,” which was just the perfect length for everybody, so we all agreed that would be great. And then, the lynchpin was John Hannah. We called him up to see if he was available, and luckily he was, and was excited to come back and do the show.

Was it difficult to create a prequel out of sequence?

DeKNIGHT: Because we practically chopped John Hannah’s head off at the end of Season 1, unless he’s a head in a jar, we had to go back in time. We had planned a flashback episode, centering on Batiatus and his father, that probably would have been amounted to eight or nine scenes in the flashback. So, we took that idea and expanded it, as the seed, and grew the tree of the prequel. I was very saddened for the cause, but thrilled for the opportunity that we could really flesh out some of the characters – that we could flesh out Crixus’ backstory, that we could flesh out Doctore and then Lucretia – and really see them in the early days.

The hardest part was that we had never actually planned for that, so we had to make the prequel fit a lot of the story and mythology in Season 1. There were times where that became very difficult where, what we needed to do in the prequel went against what was cannon in Season 1. And, I very much come from the Joss Whedon boat that I like continuity, so we really strived to keep everything kosher between the two projects.

Were there any characters that you regretted losing in Season 1 that you enjoyed getting to go back and explore for this prequel?

DeKNIGHT: Oh, yeah. I love all the characters, especially Batiatus and Lucretia. They were such a joy to write for. I cannot say enough good things, not only about the acting ability of John and Lucy. I loved working with them. It was great to be able to have them together again. There are also a bunch of minor characters that I really enjoyed revisiting. I loved having Barca (Antonio Te Maioha) back and I loved having Gnaeus (Raicho Vasiley) back. Gnaeus was the villainous gladiator that Spartacus threw off the cliff in Season 1. All of these people were so much fun to work with again, and work in that world of the gladiator school.

Was it fun to explore those characters, since there were so many interesting minor characters that you couldn’t learn more about in the regular season, with it being focused on Spartacus?

DeKNIGHT: Exactly. A good example is Doctore, Peter Mensah’s character. Because of the way they season broke, we didn’t have a lot of space to delve into his story. He was great in Season 1, but he’s a bit of an enigma. We shift some focus over to him in the prequel and really get to explore how he got to where he’s at. He’s the most physically in shape man that I think I’ve ever met in my life, and he’s got that wonderful voice.

Gannicus, who is the focus of the prequel, seems to have a little problem with hubris. Is that going to play out over the run of these episodes?

DeKNIGHT: Oh, it certainly will. Every great man has his downfall, it’s just a matter of when and where. He eyes every single woman that passes by. That’s the great thing about his character. He’s definitely a charming rogue.

Will that hubris affect the way that Crixus looks at Gannicus?

DeKNIGHT: Crixus’ relationship with Gannicus is kind of similar to Spartacus and Crixus, although not quite as antagonistic. Where Spartacus came in and had to learn how to fight, and Crixus was better than he was, it’s a bit of a role reversal. It’s not quite the same. In our prequel story, Crixus very much looks up to Gannicus. That doesn’t mean that they won’t, at some point, try to kill each other because that’s just the nature of the game and the Ludus.

Will the prequel have the same amount of blood, violence and nudity that the series became known for?

DeKNIGHT: Absolutely. We will follow the same tone and style that we set up in Season 1, with the blood, the violence and the sex. It always comes from the story. We never set out to throw in a sex scene or throw in a violent scene. But, the great thing about being on Starz is that, when it comes naturally in the story, we don’t have to cut away from it and we don’t have to water it down. We can go to that place, and they let us go to that place, which is very liberating, as a storyteller. On network television, you are always censoring yourself. One of the hardest things to do, in network television, is finding euphemisms for cursing because, oftentimes, it just sounds lame. So, it’s great to be able to just take the gloves off and really go for it.

Were you surprised at how much talk there was about the sex and violence on the show?

DeKNIGHT: I was a little surprised. The biggest surprise for me was a very loud outcry that the show was pornographic, mostly from America, and it made me seriously concerned about the sex lives of Americans. Spend five minutes on the Internet and you’ll see that there’s nothing in our show that you won’t see in an R-rated movie. There really isn’t. I think the surprising thing is that you see it every week in our show and we don’t shy away from it, but to call it pornographic is just ridiculous. I saw one comment from a fan recently that said, “I love the show. It’s great. It’s a good story with hardcore pornography.” I was like, “This guy has obviously never seen hardcore pornography.” It’s nudity, but it’s not anything you don’t see in an R-rated movie. It’s kind of tame, really.

I was shocked that everyone was shocked. A classic example is the famous fluffer scene with Batiatus (John Hannah) and Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) in Episode 2, where they are fluffed by their slaves before they have sex. Everybody just went bananas over that, about how pornographic it was, but you see nothing whatsoever in that. It’s all suggested. It is salacious, and I really like to look for the ways to explore that. Out of all the sex scenes in Season 1, I’m most proud of that one because you see practically nothing, but it was shocking. It commented, very clearly and visually, what world you were in, how there was an upper and lower class, and how they were treated like objects and not people. It really solidified that world, in one short, salacious scene.

Were there any storylines that were mentioned in Season 1 that you were able to go back and expand on for the prequel?

DeKNIGHT: There are two big things that are mentioned in Season 1. First and foremost, Batiatus mentions his father, and his father plays a large, powerful part in the prequel. There’s only a couple of lines about his father, but they’re extremely loaded, and you can tell there are a lot of mixed feelings that Batiatus has for his father. There are feelings of inadequacy, that he’s not living up to his father’s image, which really is one of the driving forces with Batiatus. We really got to explore that. And, the other thing we got to explore was that Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) had literally one line about his wife, when he was talking to Spartacus in Episode 6, and we expanded that into a very important part of the prequel.

How are you bringing the Spartacus character into the prequel?

DeKNIGHT: Obviously, since we’re telling a story before Spartacus arrived, we can’t cut to Thrace and see what Spartacus was doing. Also, Erin Cummings, who plays Spartacus’ wife Sura, is in Detroit shooting Detroit 1-8-7, so we can’t have her either. Spartacus exists in this merely as a bookend, at the beginning and end, as a wraparound to connect the prequel to Season 1. He makes a very brief appearance, but the importance of what happened in Season 1 is our bookend for the entire prequel. We’re doing it more for a thematic reason in the prequel. It’s very, very important to know what happens to Batiatus in Season 1, and how he came to his end. It’s basically what led Batiatus to that tragic end, at the end of Season 1. That’s the reason the bookends are there.

Because his fans are obviously concerned, can you give any sort of update on how Andy Whitfield is doing with his health?

DeKNIGHT: Andy, of course, is being very private about his condition and what he’s going through with his family. The last thing I heard – and it’s been a little while – was that he was attacking it like a true champion. I have the utmost faith that he will pull through with flying colors.

Is there an overall theme for the prequel that will make it worth the venture back in time for fans?

DeKNIGHT: Well, we deal with the obvious grand themes of love and the struggle for life. Also, a really important theme in this prequel is that you reap what you sow. Your actions will lead you to your ultimate fate, which is something we also explored in Season 1.

What is the time difference between Blood and Sand and Gods of the Arena?

DeKNIGHT: We never actually specify an exact time, during the show. I’ve seen some things that say it’s five years before, and it’s vaguely in that period. We were very careful to not actually say how long ago it was, but you can infer from the events that happen that it’s probably in the neighborhood of about five years.

In Season 2, will there be anything that directly correlates to Gods of the Arena?

DeKNIGHT: Absolutely. I never wanted to do just a prequel. I wanted it to inform Season 1, and to really enrich Season 2. It is very much the connective tissue between both seasons.

It was recently announced that Liam McIntyre was hired to play Spartacus for Season 2, which you are going to start shooting soon. What can you say about him?

DeKNIGHT: Season 2 is shaping up to be a hell of a ride. We’re actually almost half-way through figuring out Season 2. We’re obviously deeply saddened that Andy [Whitfield] couldn’t continue with us. He was a huge part of the show’s success. We wish him the best, and a speedy recovery. We did an exhaustive search to find somebody, not to replace Andy, but to step into the role of Spartacus, and we feel very fortunate that we were able to find Liam, who we felt really embodied everything we were looking for in the character, moving forward.

Do you know where you want to go with the story for Season 2?

DeKNIGHT: We have the broad strokes all mapped out. We know how it ends. It’s got a truly spectacular ending, I will say that, but I won’t ruin anything else. A lot of people have asked, “How do you top the Season 1 finale?,” but the way we approach it is that we’re not trying to top it. Whatever the Season 2 story is, we’re trying to make it a satisfying conclusion to that. It will obviously be different, but we’ve got some very exciting things planned for the end of Season 2. And, in typical Spartacus fashion, throughout the entire season, nobody is safe. A lot of people you love will probably die, and it will be tragic and uplifting, at the same time.

What will be Spartacus’ motivation now?

DeKNIGHT: It is called Spartacus: Vengeance, which is a good indication. Not everyone responsible for what happened to Spartacus is dead yet. What always interests me about the story of Spartacus is that here’s a guy who escaped with the other gladiators and, if you read the tiny bits and pieces of the fragmented history about it, they did not get along very well. There was a lot of in-fighting and large groups of 20,000 people breaking off and going to do their own thing and then coming back. It is not a merry band of people.

So, I look at Season 2 as that middle ground between when Spartacus breaks out, for very selfish reasons because he wanted vengeance against Batiatus and everything else is secondary, and when he becomes the leader of this massive force that almost took down the Republic. Season 2 really is about how that ball gets rolling. They don’t break out and say, “Okay, now we’ve got an army. Let’s attack Rome.” Spartacus’ speech at the end of Season 1, about seeing Rome tremble, is part propaganda and part heat of the moment. Once you get out and you realize that you only have 40 people, you see that it’s not easy to make Rome tremble. They can be a nuisance, but making them tremble is something we’ll get to by the end of Season 2.

With so much written about Spartacus in the history books, how much room does that give you to tell your own story?

DeKNIGHT: Actually, what’s known about Spartacus is very, very small. I went back to the actual scraps of information that are available about Spartacus. There’s a great book about the Third Serville War where they just give exactly what was the bits and pieces and scraps about Spartacus. For example, there’s no mention that he ever actually fought as a gladiator, but just that he was a slave and was being trained as a gladiator in Batiatus’ ludus. The bits of information before he broke out, you can read in about five minutes. There’s basically almost nothing about the man before he broke out, and a lot of what they have is contradictory.

Nobody can agree if his name is really Spartacus. A lot of people think that was just the name he was given. We used that in the show, that it was the name given. There’s a big debate about whether or not he was a Roman or whether he was a Thracian, whether he was a Roman soldier or he was in the  auxiliary. We took the version that we thought was best. You can read everything that anyone knows about Spartacus in about an hour and a half. It’s literally 40 pages of little bits and pieces. Most of what’s known about him is after he broke out and, only then, it’s all about the battles and who won and who lost. We have an amazing latitude for the story we tell. All I’m trying to do is hit some of the major historical points. The great thing about it is that so little is known about the man that we have a wide-open canvas to explore the story.

Without it being clear about what was made of his fate, does that give you more of a never-ending possibility for the story?

DeKNIGHT: It does, but there was that final battle against Crassus, where Spartacus’ body was never found on the battlefield. Unlike the Kubrick movie, he was not crucified with his 6,000 men. You could certainly say he escaped and follow his further adventures, but his entire army was slaughtered and a slave rebellion was ended. I don’t think you really want to follow Spartacus as he sneaks away to the mountains. I think that should be the end of the story, whenever we end it. But, that said, we’ve got enough latitude to easily explore the story for five to seven seasons.

Do you have any desire to direct any of the episodes, in the future?

DeKNIGHT: Yeah, I was actually supposed to direct the finale of the first season, but we got into such a crunch that I bowed out, and Jesse Warn did an amazing job on it. I’m supposed to direct two episodes in Season 2, if the timing works out. It’s really all about timing and whether or not we’re also working on Season 3 when we’re doing Season 2. To actually shoot an episode, I would have to be gone for six weeks, to go to New Zealand, prep it, shoot it and edit it. Hopefully, I’ll be back to directing in Season 2. I’m itching for it. It’s been almost two years since my Dollhouse episode. I’m also really interested to go shoot something where I never leave the soundstage. Going on location is always a bit difficult.

What originally made you want to be a storyteller?

DeKNIGHT: I grew up, from the earliest age I can remember, watching movies. The great thing about my parents is that they really didn’t censor what I saw. They were very open. They were children of the ‘60s and were very bohemian. So, some of my earliest memories are of them taking me to the drive-in, back when they were common. I grew up in New Jersey and drive-ins were the grindhouse of the rural areas. I just grew up on a steady diet of exploitation films, horror movies and kung fu movies, and I saw everything from Enter the Dragon to 2001 at the drive-in when I was a little kid, and I was just enthralled with the world. I always knew, in some fashion or another, I wanted to be a storyteller. Originally, it was as an actor, and then I switched to play writing, and eventually found my way into television and film.