Spartacus: Blood and Sand - Andy Whitfield and Erin Cummings
Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) and Sura (Erin Cummings) © Starz

He’s written and produced for some of the most successful series on TV, including Smallville, Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now Steven S DeKnight is hooking up with Sam Raimi and his partner Rob Tapert to bring ancient Rome to the Starz cable channel, with their new series Spartacus: Blood and Sand. And you know what ‘cable’ means? Nudity, sex, explicit language and graphic violence!

Forced into slavery, Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) is reborn as a gladiator, condemned to the brutal world of the arena where blood and death are the main entertainment for the wealthy citizens. Ultimately he will become the leader of the rebellion against the Roman republic.

Last year it was announced that although the show would be historically real, minotaurs and monsters would also be a part of it. Is that still part of what you’re doing with the concept or has it changed?

Spartacus: Blood and Sand - Andy Whitfield
Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) © Starz

Well, not minotaurs and monsters. There’s an episode called Legends where you find out how some of these gladiators became legendary, Crixus the undefeated, Barca the beast of Carthage. These are bigger-than-life stories.

We never go to the fantasy land part of it. It’s always based very heavily in reality. And we do have a fearsome gladiator. It’s kind of like the gladiator version of the boogie man, called ‘The Shadow of Death,’ that plays pretty prominently in it. But it’s never a fantastical creature, it’s all very real.

Where are we going to find ourselves at the end of the first season?

Well, we start the first season before Spartacus is sentenced into slavery. And by the end of the first season will be the revolt where he breaks out of the gladiator school. So that will be the scope of the first season. Historically there’s very little written about Spartacus before he breaks out and starts the rebellion. So we had a lot of leeway.

One thing we had always wanted to do is, he’s a slave in a gladiator school, so we just took it one step further and actually have him became a gladiator. He becomes one of the top gladiators, and actually loses the mission statement, gets sucked into the gladiator life, the limelight, and it’s only later in the season that he discovers it’s all a lie, and he gets back on track.

Will there any references to the Stanley Kubrick film?  I know I’ve already joked about the ‘I am Spartacus’ scene.

Absolutely, we love the Kubrick film. I was blown away by it when I saw it as a kid. And I loved it through the years, later when I actually discovered what it was really about and the political social statement. There are nods to certain things that happen in the Kubrick movie. You will hear ‘I am Spartacus,’ but it will be in a very different way.

What was the most gruesome and horrific gladiator weapon, form of death or torture? Was it the animals that were hidden?

Spartacus: Blood and Sand - Peter Mensah, Andy Whiltfield and Manu Bennett
Doctore (Peter Mensah) , Spartacus (Andy Whiltfield) and Crixus (Manu Bennett) © Starz

I think at this time period it’s a little before they started using animals. Really, the most gruesome, violent, twisted stuff happened in imperial times as the empire started to decay. How many gruesome ways are there? It’s basically getting stabbed, hacked, slashed and beaten to death.

One of the most gruesome things that I had never heard of is if a gladiator wasn’t quite dead, a guy would come out with his big hammer and smash him in his skull and make sure he was gone. That was one of the most gruesome things I remember reading about.

The interesting thing about the miniseries Rome was that it balanced pre-Christian civilization morality with the action. Are you trying to do something similar with this, or is it just an action series?

There’s a lot of morality in it and a lot of struggle. It was a very harsh, violent time. Pre-empire, gearing towards the last days of the republic and every day was a struggle. We don’t get into so much classic Judeo-Christian religion.

We do delve more into the religions at the time with the gods, and one of the fascinating things that I discovered with the gods; it wasn’t worship like we consider worship at all. Most times how they worship is that they would pray for good fortune. It was really what can you give us? And if you’re not giving me what I need, I must have done something wrong to offend you so let’s do some sacrifices and clear that up. But it wasn’t praying for salvation like we think of it today at all.

How important was creating a buzz down in Comic-Con? Did you take feedback from the fans there?

Comic-Con is always great. I was from the Joss Whedon world, and we always loved to go down to Comic-Con and connect with the fans. And this was the first time we ever showed the trailer to anybody. So we were very excited to see what the reaction would be.

As to feedback from fans, it’s a little early since all they have seen is the trailer. And quite frankly, by the time they actually see episodes, we’ll be done with the first season. But we wouldn’t have shows or careers without them.

What was their reaction to the trailer?

Their reaction was fantastic. I hung around about a day later to go to a couple of the parties, because I wanted not only to gauge the reaction of the fans, but gauge the reaction of our peers. So I basically ran around parties for two days, showing everybody that would watch the trailer on my iPhone.

I showed it to Joss Whedon, I showed it to Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, and all the network people. I was really interested to get feedback from the people I’ve worked with and we all respect, and overall the reaction was fantastic. They all loved what they saw. They can’t wait to see the show, and a few of them would love to work on it.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.