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Spartacus: Gods of the Arena – Creator Steven S DeKnight on how a one episode flashback became a six hour prequal

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Spartacus 1.02 - Peter Mensah
Doctore (Peter Mensah) in the first season © Starz

After a spectacular season on Starz, an enormous setback hit the TV series Spartacus, when its lead actor, Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer. Under treatment for several months, he is to begin shooting season two in November. With the dilemma of how to keep the momentum of the franchise alive, the producers decided to create a prequel, which will air in January 2011.

The miniseries focuses on the House of Batiatus, exploring its deadly history before the arrival of Spartacus, and the death and destruction he carried with him.

Creator/Writer/Executive Producer Steven S Knight told us of the upcoming plans.

What’s the update on Spartacus: Gods of the Arena?

We just finished week one of shooting the prequel, and I’ve got to tell you it’s pretty fantastic. I’m thrilled with what I am seeing. And Dustin Clare, who had a wonderful role as an insane hitman on the Australian show Underbelly, is absolutely phenomenal.

Was the idea to do the prequel in the works before Andy fell ill, and you had to come up with something to delay the start of the second part of the rebellion story?

Spartacus 1.03 - John Hannah
Batiatus (John Hannah) will be in the prequal © Starz

Right. The germ of the idea was there. I was planning Episode 5 of Season 2 to do a flashback episode where you saw some stuff with Batiaus. We all love John Hannah, and John expressed an interest in coming back and doing a little something. It was just a one episode flashback.

Once we found out what was going on with Andy and we stopped production on Season 2, I thought about blowing that up to a two-hour show. But nobody really wanted to do two hours so it died. And then the wonderful people at Starz came to us and said, ‘What about six hours?’ That was just right. And that’s how it really came to pass.

We’re thrilled to be able to go back and tell a lot of the things that you hear about in Season 1. Little one-liners like when Peter Mensah mentions his wife in one line, now we built an entire story around that. That’s been great. It was an unfortunate circumstance, but I think we’ve really made the most of it.

We’ll start shooting Season 2 in November. I don’t think we’ve scheduled an air date yet, but I do know we will air Gods of the Arena at the end of January 2011.

And Andy is back in full health at this point?

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

Andy looks better than I have ever seen in my entire life. He looks fantastic. He’s in great spirits. He’s recovered, he’s training. He’s actually talking about bulking up bigger this year.

I know it’s about much more than sex and violence on Spartacus, but that is definitely a calling card for some viewers. It’s probably the most graphic series in the history of TV. How did you initially approach this in terms of what you wanted to do and why did you think that would be such a key element to this?

It just seemed right for the world. If I was telling a different story, if I was doing Mad Men, obviously I wouldn’t go to these extremes. But for this kind of violent world, and Rome at that time was such a violent, visceral place, it just seemed natural. So we don’t censor ourselves.

If we think something’s a good idea we will throw it out there. It’s a very rare occasion that we say, ‘Whoa, that’s just one step too far.’  We tell the story that we think we need to tell.

We never say, ‘Okay, we’ve got this episode. How can we force in the raunchy sex?’ We always try to have it come from the characters, what they’re going through, and if it leads to a sexual place, it leads to a sexual place.

Once we get there, because we’re on premium cable, we don’t have to shy away from it. We can be a little more graphic. The same thing with the violence; our take on violence is obviously more operatic, more graphic novel. It’s very rare that we will do a horror-show-type shot. There was in Season 1 when we took that guy’s face off, which was one of the rare moments that it was seriously a horror show. But we’re going with a more grand impressionistic view of violence.

What were you thinking killing off John Hannah and Lucy Lawless at the end of Season 1? They were such great characters.

Spartacus 1.06 - Lucy Lawless and John Hannah
Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) and Batiatus (John Hannah), seen here in episode 6, are both in the prequal © Starz

I was thinking she was still twitching at the end of Season 1! (he laughs) Now, John Hannah is a little harder to bring back, obviously. The original plan with Lucy and that character was to kill her at the end of the season.

Basically we had John Hannah and Lucy Lawless for only one season. That’s what we could get them for. Towards the end of Season 1, Lucy was having such a great time, and we all loved her so much, there was interest in bringing her back. I got a call from Rob Tapert saying, ‘Starz called, and they’re really like Lucy to come back,’ and I said, ‘Absolutely not. She’s got to die.

That’s the way the story goes.’ And the next day I called him up and said, ‘Rob, I got an idea.’ Lucy will be back in Season 2. And where the story goes with her is really something special. I’m very excited about it.

Will the second season be all green screen like the first?

We had some talk about opening it up and going outside. Since it becomes infinitely more complicated to do the green screen stuff once they’ve broken out of the ludus. But our feeling is we’ve set the style and look of the show, and to switch back and forth would be very jarring. So we do stay inside, and we will continue shooting on the green screen for the life of the series.

Being a prequel, won’t the audience know who lives and dies and doesn’t that weaken the suspense of the series?

It’s pretty much the thing we were faced with in Season 1 of Spartacus. You know he’s going to live, you know he’s going to survive the battle, but you can still squeeze some mighty-fine drama out of it getting up to that. So yes, there are characters obviously that you know survive into Season 1, and there are new characters who aren’t in Season 1 that you may be suspicious of that don’t survive. But we do have a way to mix that up, so you’re never quite a hundred percent sure.

Were you prepared for the success and popularity of the series?

I’m thrilled that everybody responded to the show and responded to Andy. One of the greatest things about Season 1 was finding Andy Whitfield, this guy that nobody had heard of, and now everybody loves and everybody wants to work with. It was stunning and shocking and just a phenomenal feeling.