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Interview with “Spartacus” Creator Steven S. DeKnight

Spartacus Featured
Steven S. DeKnight already has geek cred out the wazoo, having been a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, and Smallville as well as serving as a producer of the latter three. Since 2010, he’s been up to his ears in sandals, sex, and severed arteries as the creator/producer/head writer for Starz’s Spartacus series. Its third and final season, given the subtitle War of the Damned, premiered Friday, the 25th of January. We spoke to Mr. DeKnight about the decision to end the series, how the epic nature of the show has changed, and what corner of genre TV he plans to tackle next.

NERDIST: War of the Damned is the third and final season of Spartacus; What can we expect from the culmination of the story?

STEVEN S. DEKNIGHT: A lot of triumphs and tragedy, really. I think this year’s subtitle is particularly apropos, War of the Damned, and really all sides are damned. I think people can expect what they’ve always come to expect with Spartacus which is the grand spectacle, but also the really heartfelt drama and some extremely gut-wrenching moments onscreen.

N: Not too many shows get to choose when they end, and how they end, and too often shows go on for longer than they probably should; When and how did you guys make the decision to actually end it after this season?

SSDK: Yeah, there was a lot of discussion about that. I feel the same way; I watch quite a bit of television… probably shocking to everyone, but I do feel that sometimes [it goes] past the point of really strong, creative motivation and it becomes a financial motivation. Because it’s a big hit, it’s making money, it fills a necessary part of a network schedule, and it becomes kind of a test of wills between the viewer and the show of who’s going to blink first. We definitely wanted to avoid that with Spartacus. Originally, I had planned on 5-7 seasons, and when we were getting close to this season and looking at the war years, it becomes exponentially more expensive and complicated to produce. And the history itself becomes somewhat repetitive and a little more difficult to tell an exciting new story each season. So we thought, you know, a little bit outside the box, why not tell 10 fantastic episodes, ramp up the series on a high note and actually leave the audience wanting more? Historically, that gave us the leeway to take some of the most interesting events that happened during the war and (this season’s main villain) Crassus’ chronology and move a couple of events around and combine a couple of characters. There’s a lot of fantastic stories about the battles that Spartacus fought and what we did is we gave most of those to Crassus so we had one antagonist that was going through all of the historical story points for Spartacus. We actually knew, or were 99.9% sure, after writing last season that this season would be it. So, that gave me the leeway, of course, to really plot and plan way back at the end of last season to wrap it up.

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N: Did you have a list of beats you wanted to hit that you had to cut out or not do because you were only going to have one more season?

SSDK: I don’t think we cut out anything that we had originally intended to do. I always say I approached this like The Princess Bride, where we just cut out the boring parts. Cut out a lot of shoe leather of the Romans sending wave after wave of their generals to go after Spartacus. You know, I can’t think of one thing that we’d talked about that I went “Oh, gosh, I wish we could have had time to do that.” We really did approach every single episode of this season like a precious gem. We didn’t want to squander any of it.

N: Starz as a network has given you a lot of freedom, content-wise, to kind of do what you want. Through the course of making the show, have you imposed any rules or guidelines on yourself for how far you want to go and what kind of stories you want to tell?

SSDK: No, no; That’s one of the great things about premium cable, and definitely one of the great things about Starz, is that they just gave us complete creative freedom. There were many, many times over the last four years where they nervously questioned, perhaps, some of our choices, but in the end said, “You guys are the creatives; you know what you’re doing. We trust you.” And it always turned out very, very well. So, they never imposed anything, and for us – we just always wanted to be as open as possible. Sometimes, specifically, you come up with something in the room, usually sensual, and we’d look at it and go, “Ehhhhhh.” There’s a fine line between sensual and titillating and just gross. So, we tried to avoid landing on the just “Ugggh” side of things, and I think mostly we were successful.

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N: What sort of challenges did you face going from season one, with gladiators fighting in arenas, to now dealing with the onslaught of war and huge battle scenes? Obviously, that’s really what happened in history, but what kind of writing challenges arose from that?

SSDK: It’s definitely tricky. One of the trickiest things is, (co-executive producer) Rob Tapert and I always planned that end of season one, Spartacus breaks out. We had stretched 13 weeks of television from a very, very small mention in history that basically says Spartacus was a gladiator who was a slave in Batiatus’ ludus, or school for gladiators, and he broke out with 70-some men. That’s pretty much all it says and we took that and made 13 episodes out of it. So, for Rob and I, Spartacus, or the story most people know about Spartacus, is his war against Rome. We intended to get to that and neither one of us realized that the show would become very popular and at the end of the first season, when it’s a hit, we’re just blowing up the entire paradigm and changing it into quite a different show. That made everybody very nervous. Rob and I felt that we weren’t telling the story of just some slave in a gladiator camp; we’re telling the story of Spartacus so you have to tell the story of Spartacus. And there was a lot of discussion about, should they attempt to escape and the escape fails and we spend another season in the ludus? Rob and I felt like that was just the tail wagging the dog. We were doing that not for story purposes but for safety reasons. As an audience member, I think I would have watched that and thought, “Oh, this stinks; this is just treading water so they can keep doing the same thing.” So, again, Starz gave us their blessing to do something unheard of, which is to completely change the dynamic of a hit show.

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That was very challenging when we got to Spartacus: Vengeance, figuring out a different way to do it since we no longer had the inherent upstairs/downstairs of the dramatic storytelling. And, of course, Andy (Whitfield, who played Spartacus for the first season)’s passing was devastating and the most difficult thing from which to continue forward. We came very close to ending the show after season one, but Andy very much wanted us to continue, so that’s where I pulled the idea of a prequel (Spartacus: Gods of the Arena) out of my ass. Which, I like to think, out of that tragic circumstance, we were able to do something unique and heartfelt and it actually, I think, enriched the entire series being able to do that six-episode prequel and really give the backstory and introduce Gannicus (played by Dustin Clare). We were always going to introduce Gannicus, but this gave us a way to introduce him that had a lot more meaning. With Vengeance, we had to reinvent the wheel and figure out what we were doing and once we go to War of the Damned we had figured out, really, how to make that war feel work. And I think the series is really invigorated by bringing in the final “villains” in Marcus Crassus and Julius Caesar. Crassus gave us such a rich arena to play in, if you’ll excuse the inadvertent pun, with the Roman side of things. I think people will be just mesmerized by Simon Merrells’ portrayal of Crassus. It’s really, really fantastic.

N: Part of what I really like about the show is the language used in it. That kind of baroque dialogue peppered with filthy, filthy swear words. As a writer, how do you tune your ear to that kind of speech, which, obviously, nobody talks like today?

SSDK: Yeah, that was challenging. That’s another instance where my hat’s off to Starz for letting me do that. I remember early on, when they got the first script, there was much concern that the audience wouldn’t know what the hell anybody was saying. It’s a very odd structure; I always call it Shakespeare meets Robert E. Howard. There’s a fine line. We’ve had scripts that go too Shakespearean and we don’t want to go all the way to “Thee” and “Thy” and “Thine” and “Forsooth.” You know, that’s a little bit too far, but I wanted to do something different that would give just that flavor of antiquity to elevate the language just a bit. And, of course, with the cursing it’s kind of like these two worlds crashing together. I remember when we first aired; a lot of people were complaining that the anachronistic cursing took them out of the story and I had to keep explaining that, no, every single curse word you hear in Spartacus has a Latin equivalent. I had my historian give me a list of curse words and I was shocked! “These are the same ones that we use!” If I could go off on a tangent – the word “fuck” was the one that people were really outraged that I would use a modern word like that. And, no, there is a Latin word that means exactly the same thing. I think people got confused because the English version of that word originated in the 13th, 14th Century, somewhere around there. But, the Latin equivalent is scrawled on walls in graffiti, so we actually stuck very close with the cursing. And, you know, some people curse more than others. I don’t know if people have realized that Spartacus never swears, he never says the word “fuck.” He’ll say “shit” and “ass,” but that’s about as far as he’ll go. Then you have the other side of the coin which is Batiatus (John Hannah’s character in season one and the prequel), who is a lower-class Middle-Class Roman, and he just lets it fly.

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N: Now that Spartacus is winding down, what’s next for you? What are you working on now?

SSDK: I am deep, deep, DEEP into the next project for Starz, which is a very, very complicated science fiction show. That’s the one genre I haven’t gotten to play in yet and it’s, like, my favorite genre. I, about a year and a half ago, pitched them this completely insane idea of doing, basically, Band of Brothers meets Halo.

N: Oh, wow!

SSDK:  And, much to my shock, they said, “We love that idea!” So, it’s called Incursion; it’s set hundreds of years in the future and it’s basically a classic war tale. It follows one squad and it’s humans versus aliens. Each season’s a different planet, and it’s very much a ground-based show and it’s soldiers in the thick of war against an enemy they don’t completely understand. With Spartacus, which is about gladiators fighting a war, there were a lot deeper things I wanted to explore, and with Incursion, I really wanted to explore how a war changes a person, how your image of the enemy changes as you continue a war, and also lots of scenes about religion and how war can alter your thoughts about God. And we’ve got all the trappings I think people who love the genre will really like, but at its heart it’s a war story.

N: That sounds really, really good. I’m really excited to watch that.

SSDK: I can’t wait for people to see what we’re doing. Right now, we’re writing the scripts and we’re designing the aliens and the weapons and I can’t wait for people to see what we’ve come up with. I think it’s some incredible stuff. We’re gearing up, full bore, and we’re still waiting for the official green light, but we’re hoping it’ll be on the air some time in 2014.

N: Lastly, do you have any parting thoughts for the fans of Spartacus as they watch this final season?

SSDK: I gotta say, it’s so hard to end a series, and I am just so incredibly proud of our finale. I think it is just a phenomenal job by everybody, by Rick Jacobson the director, Rob Tapert producing the hell out of it, Liam (McIntyre who’s played Spartacus since Vengeance) does his best work. I mean, everybody is just fantastic. I think the audience will be really swept away by it. I think it’s a phenomenal piece of work.

Watch Spartacus: War of the Damned Friday nights at 9:00pm on Starz.

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39 comments

  • I stand disappointed… you all say that the ending was horrible and you were expecting a happy one with Spartacus as victor.  This is a HISTORICAL drama, meaning this nears what actually happened minus embellishment required to make it a full series.  Does it lift heart to know truth or have I salted grievous ass-wound?

  • Thanks for elevating the language and making a show for people who don’t want car chases and guns and bombs. The story is a timeless one of freedom and tyranny but what you have done is produce a great story with intelligent dialogue and I must admit that the cursing and sex added a wonderful dimension of reality to the show. Fantastic series!

  • Spartacus was Such a good show. Im so very disappointed in the explanation of its ending on a high note and extremely disagree. It was a cop out on its fans.
    Like going to a great movie watching half to where it gets really good and then they turn on the lights and say sorry we employees feel like going home early and this is the only showing but you can suck it. Its left unfinished with a bad excuse to its fans and its meaning.

  • please i am a Nigerian studying Mass Communication. i am currently writing a project on The influence of western movies on the cultural values of Nigerian youths. i will need to j have an interview with the producer or director of Spartacus to find out some of the values the movies tend to promote or has preached.

  • Flabbergasted i thought he’s going 2 have he’s wish accomplished but at long last he’s dead inde handz of his enemiez poor ending furious!,,,,,,, it dsn’t make a sense! Ganicus,,crixux ,, spatacux ,,, both of dem ar death wat is de essence of this story ?

  • After all of that rome wins and we all wasted are fuking time. Im so angry i wasted my time with this show. You fuking producers should fuking die. Way to end a series like fuking idiots you fuking assholes!!!!!!!!!! Thnxs for absolutely positively nothing douchebags

  • Spartacus is the best series movie i have ever watched. But i do not like how a hero like spartacus ended in the hands of his Roman enemies. pls do something better in season 5. spartacus was fighting to end slavery so what does this sad ending of a hero depict since slavery is still there.
    cheers!

  • Spartacus rocks is just a pity it been screen so late in RSA, please coutinue the show with season 5 where the slave gladiator prevail over its enemy Rome, don’t give its the same ending of 300 where the Spartans die and the tyran wins, let good truimph over evil. Please nicely ask for a final victorious ending of spartacus.

  • I dont watch series…but spartacus is the first series ive layed hands on…and im hungover with such am amazing series..hats off to the actors n everyone involved in the making of this masterpiece…i wish for season 5,6 n more..im sure dis team can pull off something with the remains of war of the damned…give it short…spartacus ill c u in the afterlife.

  • What a marvelous story you told! I love historical drama and would very much like to see you produce a continuing series about the 12 Caesars. Producing 12 episodes per Caesar would be fantastic in the same style that made, and will make Spartacus the series immortal.

  • This was the only way the series could end. I’m actually really glad it didn’t follow the original Spartacus and end with him on a cross next to all the others along the Appian Way. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of the “I’m Spartacus” “No, I’m Spartacus” back and forth, but I thought it was a really inventive way to hold to the “history” and make it his own. Well done and we’ll miss you, Spartacus.

  • Is spartacus goin to have season 5? I want to know what happens to ganicus, agron & others. The film should not end like that;spartacus should accomplish his quest-to free his people from slavery.

  • spartacus is the best season movie i will ever watch in my life. I love every actors and bad people in the movie, i love the graphys, the intonation, the actions, the way they speak indirectlly. In short i love every part of the movie. Bt i want to see the end of NASIR, AGRON, CESER, ND OTHERS GLADIATOR THAT ESCAPE WITH AGRON. DIS IS my questio: what happen to first NAVIA? PLS iF U GOT D ANSWER send it to my email address at ibrhimmurentes75@yahoo.com or to my number +2348137844446. Bye

  • Hurray for Spartacus , i am in love with all of the actors, and your writing was Great, please bring another series with gladitors, and i know you will get a great audenice . i felt like i was part of it, and can not find anything that can compare to Spartacus. Thank you very much, maybe there may be a chance to create something simliar to spartacus.

  • i loved watching sparticus from the gods of the arena to the finale liam did such an honourably job playing sparticus after grant , i thought it got toned down a bit but it was one of the most original tv series i have ever watched i wanna marry Spartacus and have his babies, thank you for making me believe in tv again i am hoping for a tv series on an Egyptian theme dealing in the black arts slavery and themes of the day war etc scandals maybe set around cleopatra then we could have romeo ceasear back in there and horrable maximus etc any chance of steven getting something going on that after his thing with aliens please pass on message to him zarzar

  • How can ssdk give and ending to a legeng like that. Poor poor ending. Nowing spartucus fought all his , gir triumph to Rome. I feel he should have succeed in his quest of Rome. Yet undercome an faithful death in his enemies hands. Poor ending to a great series. Fairwell Spartucus.

  • Wish incursion all the best, hope the aliens are truly otherworldly and horrific with landscapes somewhat familiar but twisted and uncomforting. All the best DeKnight, the best.

  • The decision to interweave in the dialogue present day curse words with that contrived accent – which I assume is meant to signal the viewer that the events being depicted took place long, long ago, may very well be viewed by literary historians someday as the most idiotic concept attempted during this era.

    How about these:

    “The one about whom thine speaks is, and always was, a total douchebag, as well as a complete tool.”

    “Thou has made clear he would entrust this man with the task, despite his being considered a complete goober by any standard.”

    “May I remind thou, I am not the Costanza to thines Seinfeld.”