Starz' epic "Spartacus" franchise goes into battle for its final season when "War of the Damned" begins Friday, an experience that has been bittersweet for series creator Steven S. DeKnight.
"I'm sad to see it end," he told me recently. "On the other hand, I think it's such a good ending that if it's got to be sent off into the night, this was definitely the way to do it. I think we end on a high note."
"War of the Damned," which premieres at 8 p.m. CT Jan. 25, is the third proper season of the franchise that also included a prequel called "Gods of the Arena." You can learn more about the franchise's history in the retrospective video above. DeKnight politely declined to rank the seasons.
"I can't rate my children!" he said, laughing. "I love all my children."
DeKnight certainly demonstrated that love during our phone conversation as he has other times we've chatted since the series began. The guy obviously loves his job, and loves that viewers enjoy the show.
In the interview excerpts below, DeKnight talks about "War of the Damned" and its new Roman characters, Crassus and Caesar, how Spartacus is handling being the leader of an army, and what special challenges were involved in writing the final season and the finale.
With this being the final season, how did you approach it once you started writing? Did you know that when you started writing?
Yes. We were 99 percent sure at the end of last season that this would be the final season. And we knew this would be the final season before we started working on it, which is great because we had an opportunity to really map it out. So basically our plan was to, historically, take everything that happens and condense it and press it, move a few events around to make it a bit more linear and follow that path.
There were several waves of increasingly powerful Romans that went after Spartacus. We wanted to take, basically, the juiciest bits of their stories and give them to Crassus. So we had one clear antagonist through the season. So a student of history will see very, very many bits and pieces of this Spartacus War sprinkled throughout the season in a bit of a different configuration. Not everybody will die when historically they say they die and battles and locations have been moved around for dramatic purposes.
I'd like to say we're historically adjacent this season.
Was Crassus in history the one who...
Yes, Crassus was the last one sent after Spartacus. Historically, there's no mention that Caesar was a part of the war. And this is an interesting bit in the show. We account for the idea of having Caesar work with Crassus, since Crassus and Caesar are very closely aligned along with Pompey later in history when they overthrow the Republic, and they have a history together. We wanted to bring in Caesar because we felt like it would be historically interesting and would add a great flavor to the show. And we asked our historian, Thomas, if we would be breaking history. He said actually not that much because this is the one time period where the least amount is known about Caesar. And many historians speculate that he was probably apart of this campaign against Spartacus. Everything we put in is purely fictional.
But again that goes to our [being] historically adjacent because he could have been a part of it. And also just having him interact with Crassus, knowing where they go later was just dramatic gold.
So you're historically adjacent, like your Caesar is blond?
[Laughs.] Yes, yes. You know, you play the hand you're dealt with, so Caesar is blond.
Which, you know, no problem with that; that's fun.
Caesar survives historically. Crassus survives historically, but ...
Historically, yeah. I mean, and honestly, ... there's a good chance Crassus will survive. But you never know. You never know.
I talked to Liam (McIntyre) yesterday and he said that he thought he knew the history and how this is going to end and everything. And then he was surprised by your ending.
Yeah, yeah. That's the big trick with something like this. It's like doing a story about the Titanic. Everybody knows the ship sinks at the end, but it's how you get there that really, really makes it special. Ending a series is always difficult. And I'm extremely proud of our series finale. It was difficult; it's probably the biggest episode we've ever done. But it really, really is just emotionally so powerful, which to me was the most important thing, that it had an emotional impact at the very end.
Right. Do you feel that that was probably the most difficult part of the season? Or even maybe the series?
This season, getting that emotion, that depth of emotion was definitely more difficult than previous seasons. Basically because of the storyline; it is a gigantic war. We didn't want to get lost in just tactics and maneuvers of battles. There had to be an emotional element. And I think we were successful. There are moments in this season that are as powerful, if not more powerful, than anything done before, especially the finale.
And like you said, that's the only way you can tell a story that everybody sort of figures they know the ending.
Right. You've definitely got to give them an interesting ride to get to that conclusion they think they know. And also most people think they know how Spartacus--how it ended because of Kirk Douglas' movie, which historically is not exactly what happened.
Where is Spartacus at the beginning of the season?
Spartacus is in command. Gone are the days of hand-ringing and the soul-searching over what he should or shouldn't be doing. He is in charge. He is the general. He is the leader of this vast army that he has collected. We jump ahead about six months where thousands and thousands of freed slaves have joined the cause. And he is very clearly in charge. The downside to that is that he is also using this mantle to shield himself from his wounded heart. He very much feels that anyone that gets close to him, male or female, anyone that he lets in will die. From what happened with Sura and Varro and Mira, you know. He really feels like he can't let himself love anyone. So that's very much an internal struggle for him this season, is he has become the leader of an army that's threatening Rome but there has been a sacrifice for that.
He can't really shut himself off completely, we see. I love the two scenes with children early on. One in each of the first two episodes-- kids are eating the discarded horse meat and the death of the Roman child.
Yes. He is still deeply affected by the cost of the war. And that weighs heavy on him through the whole season. And that's something in the second episode, we really wanted to hit and explore. The idea that these rebels, these escaped slaves, it wasn't always clean and pretty. Historically, they raped and pillaged and murdered Romans who in the grand scheme of things were innocent. But it's collateral damage in the war. And that really, really affects him in Episode 2.
Are we going to see Pompey in this season?
Well, you'll hear about him; I can't say if you'll see him, but you'll certainly hear about him. He is a constant presence in the season, especially for Crassus.
I suggested this to you at Comic-Con and it's a big old rumor: Spartacus might be ending, but maybe we're going to get a Caesar series?
It has been kicked around. We kicked around various permutations of stemming off this world. We all loved the world that was created, visually, stylistically, story-wise, dialogue-wise, character, and there are so many other rich stories to tell in this time period. I would love to see a spin-off of this show. I think it would be fantastic.
It's a gimme. You've got to the politics, the war, all the double-dealing and everything with Caesar's story.
It has all the elements we love.
And we could all stand to see more of Caesar, I think.
Who couldn't? I mean, he's not an unattractive fella. And extremely charismatic. You know, we looked high and low for just the right feel for this Caesar character, and when we saw his audition, we all said, "That's it; that's definitely it." He has all the qualities that we're looking for.
Your casting folks must be just amazing, because Simon Merrells is great as Crassus, too.
Simon was a revelation. That was the single hardest character to cast for this season, because it's such an iconic role. Laurence Olivier, in the Kirk Douglas movie, is really seared into people's minds. And we really wanted an actor who could portray the power, the intelligence, the shrewdness, but also the depth of emotions, and his own heart. That plays very strongly into this story. And Simon just had all of those qualities. He was a fantastic find and I think people are going to be blown away by his performance.
I wrote in my notes how magnetic he is. All those scenes with him drilling with his gladiator trainer and him talking to his son and Caesar.
And that's another thing, historically he was a fighter. He actually had a title; I believe he was called The Hero of Colline Gate, where he did some maneuver in a previous conflict that won the day. And we really wanted a character from the very beginning that it was clear if he ever faced Spartacus one-on-one, it wouldn't be a complete slaughter. He would in fact have a chance, because he is not only well versed in the way that gladiators fight but he's also very shrewd. I think Simon just exudes the power and the intelligence that you think, "OK, this is a guy who could go up against Spartacus and really give him a run for his money."
That's got to be difficult casting, because you guys have had some excellent villains.
We have. I think we have been, on the villain side, we have been extremely fortunate. And those characters for me are usually the most fun to write. I mean, John Hannah was fantastic; Nick Tarabay is wonderful, Craig Parker fantastic--Viva Bianca, Lucy Lawless. We have just been blessed with an abundance of fantastic talent.
Which relationship of Spartacus' is kind of the most important this season, of all his cohorts?
That's a good question. His three generals--Agron, Crixus, Gannicus. His relationship with Crixus is very, very important. And his blossoming relationship with Gannicus is something we really, really explore. And his relationship, honestly, with his own heart and looking in to his heart and seeing what's there, what's left is very important for him this season.
Nice job again with the Agron and Nasir relationship. I applaud that you've always included the same-sex relationships.
Yeah, that was really important to us from the beginning, is to create a world where race, where sexual orientation--none of that mattered to our rebels. They were slaves, and they were all equals, as far as they were concerned.
But Agron and Nasir, what I really love about that storyline is that we've had others same-sex relationships, but this is the first one we've seen from the very beginning. From the moment they met to the moment they fell in love, the giddiness of realizing they were both attracted to each other. It's been a great, great thing to write.
And Pana-(Hema Taylor) and Dan (Feuerriegel) have just done a beautiful job with it. And I'm also delighted that the fan reaction has been so strong in support of this relationship. I get, even though we're in between seasons, I'm still inundated with messages begging me not to kill them. Just everybody knows on this show that, it's but a foregone conclusion, things don't end well for anybody.
But yeah, I am very, very proud of that storyline.
What you just said leads me to my next question. What message do you have for fans about that, that, you know, be prepared for sadness?
Yeah. I mean, you know, historically the story doesn't end well. And I remember that I saw probably about a month ago, I saw the finale. It was a rough cut, just a rough cut of the finale, and I cried my eyes out--and I wrote the damn thing! I knew what was coming. But it is so powerful and I'm just so proud of everyone that worked on it. It is so difficult to stick the landing on a series and end it.
It ended with a sense of completion and emotion and I really, really think we were able to do that. I think people are going to be really, really moved by the finale.
Are you often surprised, even after writing the episode, when you see the finished product?
Oh, definitely, definitely. I mean, the finale is one of those cases, and I am so relieved and so thankful, one of those cases where it's better than I could have imagined. Everybody just brought 110 percent to it. Liam, who just does great work this season, does absolutely his best work of the entire series in that finale.
You've started a new project with Starz called "Incursion." Do you want to tell anything about it?
"Band of Brothers" meets "Halo" is the basic idea. A very witty war story with a science fiction backdrop, following one squad during a war with an alien race, each season a different planet. These are boots on the ground; not a lot of space battle stuff. It's really exploring the war and the cost of war and the personal price that soldiers pay in a war. I'm hard at work on that. We've got three scripts written; we've broken through Episodes 5, hope to start shooting some time (in 2013).
And when do you think you'll start the Caesar spin-off? I'm really pushing for that.
You're not the only one. You're not the only one. I think once we get to the action of this season and the Caesar character, I wouldn't be surprised to see that get some traction.
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