Interview: ‘Spartacus: Vengeance’ Creator Steven S. DeKnight On Replacing Andy Whitfield, Sex & Violence, & Working With Joss Whedon

Next week sees the return of Spartacus, the Starz original series chronicling the life of the titular slave who rebelled against his Roman oppressors. The show’s official second season, called Spartacus: Vengeance, has been long in coming, and brings with it many questions in the wake of the tragic death of the first seasons’ star, Andy Whitfield.

The Flickcast recently partook in a discussion with series creator/exec. producer Steven S. DeKnight where, among other things, he talked about the transition from his original star to new Spartacus Liam McIntyre (check out our interview with the actor here), where the show is going from here and working with Joss Whedon.

On Liam capturing the essence of Andy Whitfield’s Spartacus –

…that’s really what drew us to Liam is that we didn’t want to try to duplicate (Andy). I mean, that will never happen. He was such a singular, amazing talent. But we wanted to find somebody that had the same base qualities of compassion. And I told all the actors when they auditioned that even though Spartacus may fly into a rage now and then, he never comes from a place of anger, it’s always from a place of a wounded heart. And we really felt like Liam captured that essence.

On no character being safe on the show – 

…on this show characters literally get the ax. I think really ultimately for me it’s always – it comes from the story is how is the story best served by a character death. I don’t ever want somebody to just die. It needs to have ramifications either emotionally or towards the plot. So that’s always the number one driving force of – on who do I kill.

 And do I re- do I miss people? I don’t regret killing anyone, but of course, you know, John Hannah, number one. His presence was just so fantastic on the show and he was such a joy to work with and write for. You know, he’s definitely – he had to go, but that was a painful one.

On Spartacus’ journey in Season 2 – 

Well with Spartacus this was always planned to be the season where he goes from a man really searching for his personal redemption in the death of his wife and his feelings of responsibility for that, that’s why he wants to exact the vengeance, and transitioning him into a true leader. And it’s a very, very bumpy ride for him to go from someone that we see in Season 1 who he’s a good man, but he is much more concerned about himself and his wife. Everybody else is secondary. And this is where he starts to move into caring more about the group and putting their needs above his own eventually.

On adjusting the show based on negative feedback – 

Yes, of course. I mean, I think the show just welcomes criticism. Especially when we first started out, if everybody remembers back that far, this show was universally hated. You know, we got off to a rocky start. Rob Tapert, my incredible producing partner, and I always say that, you know, that first episode was by far our weakest one where we were trying to figure out the show and it took a while to get going.

So we took a lot of criticism for too much sex, too much violence, everybody hated the language, not the cursing but the actual language of the show. It just took a while, you know, for everybody to warm up to it. So early on I got a lot of criticism about how people speak, which I steadfastly refused to change.

One of the other things that I’m still to this day getting comments about is, and I put this in air quotes, all the ‘gay shit’ in my show. And people asking me to tone it down, which I always say no. I mean, as far as I’m concerned it’s barely in there to start with.

And it was part and parcel of this world and it’s part and parcel of our world now. So I just – yes, I ignore that. If people want to stop watching the show because two guys kiss, well, I shrug my shoulders. You know, that that will always be in there.

And every now and then somebody will say something about oh it’s too violent, oh there’s too much sex, but that’s the show it is. So basically I guess my answer is sure we get criticism, but, you know, thankfully STARZ is very supportive and we get to tell the story we want to tell.

On which character he relates to most – 

Well, I’ve always said that, you know, for me, my inner voice is Batiatus. You know, that’s – that strangely his ranting profanity-filled monologues I have all the time. But now that he’s gone, I guess I don’t really have an inner monologue on the show. But, yes, but Batiatus was definitely my – that’s the Steve.

On how far in advance he plans out the show –

I’ve got history as a guidepost, so it’s just basically each season being, okay, well, how far along do we want to be in history and so we know the basic tent poles of where we’re going. And the way it works for us is that at the beginning of each season I get together with the writers and we spend two weeks basically laying out the gist of each episode. The big idea and where we’re going with the characters. And then we spend the, you know, the next six, seven months writing the episodes.

On how working on Spartacus compares to his previous work with Joss Whedon – 

It is. And, you know, I just got to say, first and foremost, I always credit Joss Whedon for really starting my career. I was working on Undressed when he hired me on to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then I went to Angel where he gave me a chance to direct and then I linked up with him again on Dollhouse. I, you know, I cannot – words can’t describe how much I’ve learned from the man.

The biggest difference with this show for me is that all my other work was on broadcast network and this is premium cable. So Al Gough, my old boss from Smallville who watches this show, I bumped into him and he chuckled and he said when he watched Spartacus, he calls it DeKnight unleashed.

And that’s exactly how I felt when I got the – got this opportunity that I didn’t have to deal with standards and practices anymore. I didn’t have to water things down, I could, you know, go to places, not just sexually, not just with the violence, but good characters could do bad things, which is often very difficult to get the network to sign off on. And bad characters could do good things. So it’s – I got to work in a very gray world, which I think is where the most interesting drama is.

And it’s also been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Because I had the bright idea of kind of creating a very different kind of language and the way people speak, which is not natural and it doesn’t come naturally to write it. So it takes a lot longer to write and it’s a bit more of a pain in the ass, but the result I think was very successful in conveying the sense of a different time in history.

Spartacus: Vengeance Premiers on the Starz channel Friday,  January 27th at 10:00 PM.

 

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