Robert Tapert (left) and Steven DeKnight
After writing and/or producing stints on Smallville, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Dollhouse, Steven DeKnight knows genre television.
Now DeKnight finds himself ensconced as head writer and executive producer of a show he helped create, Starz’ Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
Last year, when I interviewed Spartacus co-creator Rob Tapert (who also co-created Xena: Warrior Princess), Tapert credited DeKnight with the day-to-day handling of the show.
That was all I needed to know. With the show a solid hit (and having firmly won over most of us here at TheTorchOnline.com), I was eager to do a mid-season check-in with DeKnight, to find out exactly how the show ended up where it did — and get a sense where it’s going next.
TheTorchOnline: You have to be pleased with how the show has been received so far.
SD: Very pleased. Very pleased. It got off to a little bit of a rocky start. The reaction to the pilot was not as favorable as we’d hoped, but working on the show … we very quickly found our footing, and it became a much more complicated, intricate show. The pilot is pretty cut and dry.
TTO: I don’t think the pilot was representative of what the show became. It was the weakest episode.
SD: Exactly. I’ve been very, very please that people have stuck with it. The overriding comment I’ve seen on the internet is that each episode keeps getting better and better.
TTO: I think my favorite theme of the show is that this is a society infused with violence, in the ring, but also in the different social strata. In the palaces and in the streets, among Lucretia and her friends, it’s the same thing that’s going on in the gladiator ring. They’re all having these tournaments, just in different ways. Was there an “Ah ha!” moment when you realized the two halves of the show were two sides of the same coin?
SD: Oh yeah. I mean from the start we’d planned it that way, to mirror the violence in the arena with the violence in the upper strata of the Romans. Just with our research and talking to our consultants, it was just a fascinating culture where they were really raised from birth to not shy away from violence. It’s a republic, and eventually an empire, built on conquest. That’s deeply, deeply ingrained in the people.
Yes, there are some incredibly gory fights in the arena, but there’s also some incredibly violent stuff that goes on in the “civilized” arena of the Romans. You’ve seen in Episode 9 where things go shockingly awry.
TTO: It hasn’t aired yet, so I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s a great episode, with particularly interesting turnaround for Lucretia. Usually when someone is writing about Ancient Rome, they are trying to make a parallel, whether subtle or more obvious, between Ancient Rome and contemporary America. Is that a part of this show?
SD: A very, very subtle one. My first order of business is to tell a rollicking good story. My connection with the present and the past has always been that we went through a large economic downturn, and part of that resulted in something that’s been building for years, the squeezing out of the middle class. Basically, there are the rich and there are the poor. The middle class is slowly disappearing, and the wealth is concentrated among very few.
That’s the one thing I wanted to explore this season, and I think you’ve see it most with Batiatus. The drought is his economic downturn. Here’s a guy in the middle class trying to claw his way up into the upper class, willing to do anything he could to do that. Of course, the slave class, the poor that work for outrageously low wages in modern times, were actual slaves in ancient times with that kind of uprising and revolt against the system.
TTO: That’s one of the other things I like most about the show, the sort of Upstairs/Downstairs quality to it, where the slaves are obviously real people to the viewer, but they’re subhuman to the folks over them. Is that how you, as a contemporary writer, are making a judgment about these Roman characters, by showing us their society through the eyes of the slaves?
SD: Yeah, but at [a recent press event], I mentioned when we eventually bring in Marcus Crassus, we’re going to get a different viewpoint of slavery. Marcus Crassus was the biggest slave owner in Rome at the time and made his fortune.
But the thing about slaves, and the thing we couldn’t really explore and expand on this season because in the ludus they’re just slaves, but it wasn’t always just slavery as we imagine it, beaten and locked in a cage. A lot of slaves were highly skilled craftsmen and artisans, and they were basically working for the master. They had their own homes, they had their own families, but they were not technically free.
As we progress the story, and we bring in Marcus Crassus, I want to explore the other side of slavery in Ancient Rome, and actually give the Roman side of it. The fact is, without these slaves, the society would not have flourished, and without Roman society flourishing, where would modern civilization be?
I remember when I said this at [that press event], the next day I read on the internet, the headline was: “Steve DeKnight Puts A Positive Spin On Slavery.” That’s not at all what I’m saying. But realistically, not all slaves were beaten or tortured or mistreated in Rome.
TTO: One of the most shocking elements is the degree to which people accept the system. Ultimately, where you’re going is that one of them won’t accept the system and will try to overturn the system, but the degree to which the gladiators take on this idea that allowing yourself to be killed is honorable, and if you don’t do it, you’re shamed. Shocking from a modern perspective.
SD: Exactly. They’re so far into that system. For instance, take a look at Barca and Ashur. They are slaves, but they are allowed to go out unchained and do things for their master, and they come back. They don’t just disappear. That’s another mindset I found very interesting. They could just skip out, but they don’t.
TTO: The real chains are in your head, I guess.
SD: Exactly. And that’s something we’ll definitely explore as these seasons continue. Crixus is another great example. In Episode 5, Spartacus really grills him about why are you doing this? Crixus is a very interesting character for me, because he’s completely bought into the system, and by the end, he starts to realize how the system has destroyed him.
TTO: He was eventually Spartacus’s right hand man, wasn’t he?
SD: Yeah. Spartacus, Crixus and Oenomaus led the three factions. It was another interesting thing that I find looking forward, in designing this season, I didn’t want want Crixus and Spartacus to be buddy/buddy, chummy, let’s-go-out-together. These are two men who are trying to find common ground, but will never truly be friends.
Historically, if you look at the record, when they do break out, there was a lot of contention. It wasn’t one big happy band. Crixus sets his goal. Historically, they separate, then come back together. They weren’t always on the same page, which is very important. The last thing I want going in to Season 2 is Robin Hood, everybody together with their Merry Men. It wasn’t like that.
TTO: You’re writing Season 2 now? Where are you and what can we expect?
SD: Yes. We’re on Episode 3. It’s an interesting change. Anybody that knows the history of Spartacus obviously knows where this has to go. I always read on the internet, based on Rob’s work with Hercules and Xena, everybody says, “Well, Rob doesn’t care about history.” That’s absolutely not true. Rob does care about history. We are following the broad strokes of the Spartacus story. We can’t be slaves to every detail of what happened. I’m sure you’ve heard many times: We bend history, but we try not to break it.
But this is the story of Spartacus, which is a slave rebellion, so we will be exploring that.
TTO: Do you have a five year plan? A seven year plan? How long is it going to take you to tell this whole story?
SD: I have a five to seven year plan. Definitely enough for five. It could go longer, depending on Starz and the viewership, but definitely at least five planned out. There are so many great moments in the Spartacus story and in history that I’ve never fully seen explored. I also really want the chance to explore the “villain’s” side. The Romans didn’t think they were the villains. They thought Spartacus was the villain. That’s something I really want to explore.
Moving forward, and this will be gradual thing, is not all Romans are bad. Even Batiatus, yes, he’s bad, but he has many different shades to him.
TTO: He has a point of view, but boy, when he promised Spartacus that he’d be reunited with his wife… It hits you like a slug in the gut when you realize the true evilness of that character. His code of honor is such that he’s technically fulfilling the promise he made to Spartacus even as he’s killing this guy’s wife.
SD: Batiatus is looking at a big picture. The thing I love about that character is that he is consumed by trying to get out of his father’s shadow and not being the guy that ruins the family business. That, for him, is just the overreaching goal. It becomes more and more prominent as we go on in the series.
TTO: I confess that I’ve already been shocked many times by this show.
SD: The fantastic thing about Starz is that they let us go to places a lot of other shows won’t go to.
TTO: As a result, the experience for the viewer is that you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Anything can happen, and that’s so rare to be able to say about television.
SD: Anything can happen and anybody can die. We definitely continue that moving on.
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