The old adage goes that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and with the debut of Starz original drama series “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” (January 22 at 10p.m. EST/PST) there’s been a whole lot of buzz, and some grumbling, about how the show’s visual aesthetic and gleefully gory battles are just like its cinematic predecessors “Gladiator” and “300.”
Guess what? The minds behind “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” did that on purpose.
Executive Producer and head writer Steven S. DeKnight (“Smallville,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) was drafted by fellow executive producers Rob Tapert ("Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Legend of the Seeker”) Sam Raimi (“Drag Me to Hell” and “Spider-Man”), and Joshua Donen (“The Quick and the Dead”) to bring to life their original pitch to Starz – “epic tale Spartacus using modern day technology.”
The series is a raw retelling of the ancient tale of a former soldier named Spartacus (played by Andy Whitfield) who is enslaved by the Romans and thrown into their gladiator pits to fight to the death. After time, he is able to rally his fellow slaves into an uprising against their captors that in turn became the Third Servile War.
As an avowed fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film “Spartacus” starring Kirk Douglas, DeKnight says he was originally daunted by the idea of tackling that interpretation in any medium. “But the more they talked about how they wanted to do this and how in this version we spend awhile with [Spartacus] in the gladiator school, fighting as a gladiator which is something they didn’t really do in the movie, I thought it sounded great.”
Tapert was also adamant about using visual effects technology to make the ambitious project feasible for the television medium. By using CGI to overcome some of the priciest production hurdles, “Spartacus” would be able to bypass some of the budgetary landmines that ultimately killed HBO’s critically lauded, but short-lived series “Rome.”
“We were both huge fans of “Rome” and we thought it was a staggeringly brilliant piece of work, but much like the Roman Empire it collapsed under its own weight,” DeKnight explains. “It was incredibly expensive. I’ve read a lot of stuff online that unfavorably compares us to “Rome” but there is no comparison. Our budget isn’t anywhere close. It’s the same with “300,” which if you crunched the numbers is twice our budget for a two-hour movie and we have 13 hours. We don’t have the budget to look like that or be as sumptuous as “Rome” and shoot in actual locations in Italy, which is a plus and minus. It forces us to be more inventive. I think people would actually be shocked at what this show actually costs compared to what it looks like.”
Knowing that the CGI path would mean they could create the show’s aesthetic virtually, DeKnight says they embraced the look of other recent sword and sandal epics to model what they wanted “Spartacus” to be on the smaller screen.
“We always wanted to tell this story in a very graphic novel way,” says DeKnight, who has also written several comic book arcs. “Frank Miller is such a huge influence on our generation of filmmakers so we were heavily influenced by Miller and Zack Snyder. It makes me chuckle every time I read something online that says, “Frank Miller and Zack Snyder should sue ‘Spartacus’!” In every interview we give we sing their praises. What Snyder did was advance filmmaking in the same way that I think George Lucas did in the 70s, and James Cameron advanced it with “T2,” and The Wachowski Brothers advanced it with “The Matrix.” [Zack] took a giant leap forward with what was possible with “300” and we definitely wanted to see if we could take elements of that technology and apply it to TV in a way it hasn’t been seen in TV.”
“It’s highly stylized,” he continues about the show’s liberal use of gorgeously splattered blood, hacked off limbs and gorings. “I have read a couple of things saying it is “pornographically violent.” I understand what they are saying but we did that for two very conscious reasons. One was to stick with the graphic novel presentation we were shooting for and the other reason was because we didn’t want to turn people off by making everything brutally realistic. There are moments in the series where we do go realistic and we pick them very carefully. There is a moment in episode four that one critic called “shocking” and it was meant to be shocking. There are a couple of times in the season where we do switch it up and are incredibly realistic but it’s for a very specific reason when we do that. Otherwise, Rob and I both want to present it in a very operatic way. We want it to look and feel epic but not turn people off by having it horror show graphic.”
To further offset the budget, filming for “Spartacus” was set up in New Zealand, while DeKnight’s writing team works out of their Burbank, California offices. On location visual effects supervisor Charlie McClellan guides a beefy CGI team that works in tandem with production designer Iain Aitken to achieve the show’s stylized, yet historically relevant look.
DeKnight also clarifies, “Some people might be confused that everything is green screen and virtual but it’s not. We built some absolutely gorgeous sets. In episode two, you’ll see Batiatus’ (John Hannah) Ludus [a gladiator camp] that Spartacus gets sent to and it’s an amazing set. Our virtual backgrounds are basically sky and fields, forests and extensions and the arena is mostly virtual.”
But the copious use of visual effects doesn’t mean the show is skimping on story. From the beginning DeKnight says he and Tapert “were always on the same page, that the effects needed to serve the story and the characters. It took us a few episodes to really find the right balance. In episode one, which I think people will find a hoot to watch because it is an origin story and there is so much fighting and battles going on, it leaned heavily towards the effects side. But then once you get into episode two on and the meat of the story, it’s much more character driven. There is still action but we find the proper balance once we get into it. And the interesting thing about this show is they green-lit 13 episodes with no pilot, which is a plus and a minus. With 13, you know you will have 13 and with Starz you know they will air 13 so you don’t have to worry about it getting yanked. The downside to not doing a pilot is you have no shake-out period and you can’t fix things. You have to move onto episode two. We are very proud of the pilot but Rob and I agree that if we had shot it in the normal way you shoot a pilot there are things in the writing that I don’t think I had found yet and there are things in production we were fine tuning. So we get denser and richer as we go on and find our footing.”
DeKnight says as the first season unfolds audiences will get an entertaining balance of history, eye-popping action and romance. “All of the historical facts about Spartacus aren’t that many, perhaps 40 or 50 pages of scraps you can read in the writings of [Greek historian] Plutarch. In the scraps all it said was that he deserted so that was the building blocks of the story we put together and I was interested in why he deserted. And for me any great, epic story is a love story. “Spartacus” the series has multiple love stories. I’m a big softy when it comes to romance; it’s not all hacking off legs and arms,” he laughs. “So his driving motivation in season one is his wife, Sura (Erin Cummings) and at the end of the day, everyone else can go to hell. But over the course of the series, we want him to realize there is something bigger than just one man and his desires.”
Already developing the second season arc entitled “Spartacus: Vengeance” (the series was renewed by Starz before the first episode aired), DeKnight says the series will continue to hit the historic landmarks that define the era in which Spartacus lived.
“We aren’t a documentary and our first goal is to entertain,” he explains. “It’s why we are different from “Rome” too. I loved the history but we never want the history to overwhelm the drama. And to be honest there are also things we do because it looks really cool on-screen. We like to say we bend history and we try not to break it,” he laughs.
Teasing where the story will head in season two, DeKnight reveals, “We discovered what we love most about the show is the intrigue. As the story progresses everyone wants something, you can’t trust anyone and it’s the part of the story that interests us most. And as you may notice, we kill an awful lot of people in this show. It has an incredibly huge body count. By the end of season one, a lot of people are dead. It’s a by-product of the story and the violent times. We’ve had talks that we just don’t want to just kill villains. We will kill people you love and it will be gut-wrenching. Ultimately, Spartacus is the story of one man instigating a war against Rome and it was bloody and thousands and thousands died. No one is really safe. We’ve even gone so far to talk about the famous [chant] of “I am Spartacus!” [as shouted by the slaves trying to protect Spartacus’ true identity from the Romans]. We said shocking would be for Spartacus to die and someone to take his name because he was an idea. But I love Andy Whitfield so I can’t say that will happen…but you do see in season one…no one is safe!”