Partners for many years, Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert were the Executive Producers of the landmark syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: Legendary Journeys, which both ran for six seasons. In 2002, Raimi and Tapert formed Ghost House Pictures which was dedicated to the development of high-concept genre films; their impressive roster of releases include, The Grudge, 30 Days of Night, Boogeyman and Drag Me to Hell.
This season they return to television with a new take on ancient Rome with the story of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Betrayed by the Romans and forced into slavery, Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) is reborn as a Gladiator. Airing on the cable network Starz, the series holds nothing back in terms of violence, sexuality or language.
What was your personal interest in doing Spartacus?
Sam Raimi: I think when we came up with the idea, I was fascinated by it because Spartacus is this legendary character who goes through this tremendous transformation of a slave, somebody who has been captured and forced to fight for his life and who became the unexpected leader of people, of slaves. He was someone who went on to lead this tremendous rebellion and faced down the Roman Empire. It’s such a great story, and only some of it is recorded.
Very little was known about him, no one really cared enough to know about some poor slave until he became this great man. So it allowed Steven DeKnight (the head writer) and Rob to create the history for this character. And they treat it very realistically. This is the stuff of great drama. And I think that’s why I was so excited about it.
Clearly there’s a 300 influence, what sort of inspiration did you take from that?
Rob Tapert: Zack Snyder brought a hyper-realistic style to that period piece. Sin City prior to that had been all digital backgrounds. Having a digital environment and not having to have ultra-realistic backdrops and an arena like in Gladiator allowed us to actually bring this to the screen.
People sometimes describe the Xena and Hercules time as being a really fun time, because you guys were away from Hollywood and making up your own rules and doing a different kind of show. Was it a special time for you?
Rob Tapert: Yes, and we knew at the time that that would never, ever happen again. We had pretty much untold creative freedom, so it was wonderful. It was a time to do something different.
Lucy (Lawless, Tapert’s wife, who plays Lucretia in the series) and I went out to dinner with her lawyer, who said, ‘You know, every five to seven years you should sell your house, change everything, and do something different.’ So Sam and I built a company dedicated to horror films, and that was wonderful and challenging.
And then Spartacus was really a chance to tell something that was entirely different than what Herc and Xena was. It’s serious, it’s dramatically moving, it always strives to be genuine. It embraces a lot of what I loved about Rome, what I loved about The Sopranos and Deadwood. So it’s part of a natural evolution.
Sam, how hands on are you going to be with all the other things you’re doing?
Sam Raimi: I was most instrumental in getting it started with Rob and our other partner Josh Donen. I was most involved in the early conversations about the direction that the series would take and the casting. Unfortunately, Spiderman is going to take me away from the project; I will be going away and having to do my duty with the webslinger.
The initial push for this series seems like ‘more blood than you’ve ever seen on TV.’
Rob Tapert: The initial rollout is to get something out there, but action is just a component that is a tool that allows you to have a resolution happen differently. You still have to have great drama, that’s what’s hiding behind the initial push out there. This is a show that has action, has blood, has sex, has nudity, has all those components that you don’t get on network television, shown in a balletic and different way, but all of that is just the initial wave, behind it a really good drama is awaiting.
Blood is very often used to sell horror, but it’s not often used to sell action. You seem to be among the first to hit on that, how did you decide to use that as one of your selling points?
Rob Tapert: We didn’t want to do horror. We wanted to show gladiators battling in the arena. We wanted to bring some of the technological tools that are available to heighten action and utilize it. And as a by-product of it, blood was spilled in a way that it was different to give it a more balletic feel. And it’s really not something new.
Sam and I years ago had the great fortune to work with the Chinese director, John Woo, who for decades had done these beautiful gun-play, balletic death scenes and blood. So there certainly is a tradition in other cultures of utilizing violence in a way that is not horrific necessarily, so as not to put the audience off, but to highlight what is happening.