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.
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.
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.
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.
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.