We recently sat down with Steven DeKnight, executive producer, head writer and creator of “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” to ask about the 6-episode prequel to “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” which premieres Jan 21, 10pm, on Starz.
CableFAX: There was a subtlety to the writing and characters in the prequel that wasn’t there in Spartacus season one. Clearly you’ve improved the product.
DeKnight: Yes, honestly, when we started off on Spartacus in season one it didn’t start off subtle. I love the subtle stuff. We were able to find that in season one, eventually. But the great thing about that learning process is that we were able to apply it all to the prequel. So in episode one we were able to do all that subtle stuff, the set-up, the character interaction, and not lose any of the excitement or the spectacle.
CableFAX: What are your favorite subtleties in the prequel’s first episode?
DeKnight: Oh, gosh, there are so many things… I really like the interplay between Batiatus (John Hannah) and Solonius (Craig Walsh-Wrightson), where we realize they were good friends, they were like brothers. I love the stuff between Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) and Gaia (Jaime Murray), where you have that sense that Lucretia was trying to be a proper woman, but there’s something in her past where she’s not been on the up and up. Later we find out she doesn’t come from a good family, she doesn’t have that background and Gaia is a good example of that shady past. And I get to play with Oenomaus (Peter Mensah) and Gannicus (Dustin Clare) and Ashur (Nick E Tarabay), who get to see in a completely different light. It was such a joy to work with all those characters and do it with a little more fine attention to detail.
CableFAX: Part of the attention to detail is seen in the walk-and-talks [where characters deliver dialogue while walking through a street scene, for example]. There’s a street shot that includes nude slaves and a public men’s room. It sounds prosaic, but I thought it was a great insight into life at that time.
DeKnight: Yes. A lot of that is [executive producer] Rob Tapert and the crew down there. I will write a walk-and-talk. I remember getting the dailies and saying, ‘Oh, there’s naked slaves in the background!’ You know it’s incredibly expensive to get that extras to fill the scenes. So Rob called me up and asked if we could have [the characters] visit a latrine during the walk-and-talk. I thought it was a great idea. I was imaging they stop, they urinate and move on. But, oh no. And I saw that scene [where the characters talk as they defecate] and thought, this is such a great slice of Roman life. I can’t say enough about Rob and his crew.
CableFAX: The scenes during the gladiators’ fights showed main characters and extras screaming for blood. Is this an effort to show the widespread bloodlust of those times?
DeKnight: Oh, yes. Everything we’ve read indicates they had this bloodlust. The great thing in the prequel is we have the old arena, which is much more historically accurate to the way they were built, which is small, down, dirty. The other great thing about using that arena set, instead of a big, sweeping CGI thing, is we had the extras there every day and it had that kind of life and vitality.
CableFAX: So many of the situations in the prequel translate to today. Batiatus is basically mounting a PR and marketing campaign for his gladiators.
DeKnight: Absolutely. I always imagine Batiatus as kind of a boxing promoter. He needs to get his guys in there, he’s got to maneuver, he’s wheeling, he’s dealing. And in true Batiatus fashion, it gets him into trouble.
CableFAX: I found the prequel’s pilot to be so strong. Clearly you’ve learned a lot from season one and feel more comfortable.
DeKnight: Absolutely. Across the board, on all aspects, from production to writing, we really feel like we’ve honed in on the show.
CableFAX: So I guess you can always learn.
DeKnight: Absolutely. Always.
(Seth Arenstein is Editorial Director of CableFAX).