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For Steven DeKnight, writer and producer for Starz’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand, this year’s Comic-Con International offers something close to a victory lap: Returning to San Diego a year after the series was first announced to celebrate not only the success of the show, but also talk about its first spin-off, Gods of the Arena.
Speaking to press before the show’s Friday panel, DeKnight — veteran of fan favorite shows like Angel, Smallville and Dollhouse — said that returning to Comic-Con with such a successful show was something of a relief.
“We weren’t quite sure [the show would work], we had an inkling, we thought we had something special, but we’re very happy with the reaction,” he said, later adding, “It’s great to have a franchise. You never think that far ahead. You just try and get each show done. When I got started, I said to Rob [Tapert, executive producer], ‘I’m not going to be happy until we’ve got an Emmy nomination.’ And he said, ‘Steve, I’d be happy getting a season two.’ Well, Rob got his wish. … We just love working on the show, it’s an incredibly difficult show to work upon, and write, but it’s so rewarding, there’s nothing else like this on TV.”
He talked about the freedom the show has been given by its network, Starz: “The great thing about Starz is that they’ve always said, ‘We want you to tell the story you want to tell, and we’ll tell you when you’ve crossed the line.’ And the only time in season one when they told us we’d crossed the line was in episode six, when we had the orgy scene. Some of the footage was a little bit too much, but when you buy the DVD, we put it back in. Sometimes they’ll ask us to trim a frame off here, a frame off there in terms of violence. Obviously, in season one, the most violent thing you see is in episode four, with the guy getting his face taken off. But it’s so quick. The show [is stylized] on purpose. We only ever use the really graphic stuff very rarely on purpose; those are very brief moments. Otherwise, we go for a very operatic-type violence. … When we started, Starz told us, ‘We want a hard-R rated show.’ And it’s funny, because in early conversations, they said, ‘We want a hard-R 300-type show,’ and I said, ‘That’s not hard-R. That’s R, but we can take it hard-R.’ We never wanted to push any envelope, we just wanted to be able to tell the very graphic-novel story that we wanted to tell, without having to worry about standards and practices. I remember when I was on Angel, every episode I wrote, I had to deal with standards and practices. It was a vampire show and the one thing they didn’t want us to show was blood. They were always so upset over the blood. We always got it in, but it was always a fight. Weeks and weeks of fights. It usually ended with them saying, okay, you got it in this time, but consider yourself warned. But we did it each time.”
When talking about the new series, Gods of the Arena, DeKnight said it takes place a couple of years before the beginning of Blood and Sand, but that the second series came about as a result of Spartacus himself, actor Andy Whitfield, having to take time to recover from treatment for an unexpected diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“It came about because Andy was not available,” he said. “We’d planned to do a flashback episode with John Hannah’s character during season two, we had one quasi-planned out. And then, when this happened, when we had to delay shooting, I called Rob Tapert, who’s one of my partners, and said, ‘Hey! How about a two-hour prequel?’ And then it became a four-hour prequel, and then it became a six-hour prequel. The key was that John Hannah was available and was interested.”
DeKnight went on to say that, even though a writer wasn’t supposed to have favorite creations, he was drawn to Hannah’s Batiatus because “what he says is what I’m thinking all the time.” A lot of his excitement about the six-episode Gods comes from being able to write Batiatus and Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) together again. But even though his focus is on the prequel, which starts shooting next week, he’s still very conscious of the show’s future.
“The show will hit major touchstones in history, ending with the slave uprising,” he said. “I’ve always said we’ve got about five to seven [seasons]. … We’ve got a good idea of the first five years. It’s not entirely written, but we know historically, this [will have happened] by the end of season two, this will have happened by the end of season three. We know where we’re headed.”
Gods of the Arena will air next year, followed by the second season of Spartacus, on Starz. You can watch a teaser trailer for Gods of the Arena below.