Okay, so perhaps it’s a bit disingenuous to say I had an exclusive interview with Ron Moore. It’s more like I happened to show up in the parking lot for the Writers Guild Outlander panel at the same time as him, and I snagged him for a selfie and some questions about seasons three and four (which, by the way, he graciously answered. He seems absolutely lovely).
Here are the short answers: Yes, we are going to be seeing Lord John William Grey again next season. Yes, Caitriona and Sam will have to be aged a bit, but don’t worry—we’re not going to get all silly with old-age (read 45-year-old) makeup. It will mostly be done through mannerisms and, you know, acting.
I did ask Ron if this was a consideration for him when he decided to try and produce this series—that his main characters would have to age up during the production. And his answer, like all good show runners, was that he figured, “We should be so lucky to have that problem.” Well, they’ve got that “problem” now, since the show’s been renewed for seasons three and four! But I think we can all agree that it isn’t luck. The show is just damn good.
At the meet-and-greet before the panel, I got to chat for a bit with Matthew Roberts, one of my other favorite writers from the show (hell, they’re all my favorites, come to think of it)—he wrote Je Suis Prest and Best Laid Schemes this season. Matt was also lovely and talked with gusto to several fans about his writing process. (The Scotch-and-ginger drinks they were making for everyone might have loosened a few tongues, to be honest.)
He mentioned that in the writing of Jamie, his main concern is not to make him seem like a “Superman.” In the books, Jamie can seem a bit infallible, and they’ve been trying to keep him human and show his flaws within the show. Personally, I think they’ve been nailing it.
Matt also made some interesting comments about trying to keep voiceover to a minimum—something that also came up during the panel itself—and about, well, sex. Someone asked why there wasn’t a sex scene at the end of Je Suis Prest, and Matt reminded us that it was Diana herself that didn’t include it there. Why? Well, there’s no time, people. The Redshirts are coming! And apparently it was Diana who reminded the writers that “this isn’t a Harlequin Romance.” If the sex feels gratuitous or doesn’t make sense, then don’t use it.
Okay, so now that everyone was good and boozed up, we headed to the panel itself.
The writers present were Anne Kenney (writer: last season’s The Wedding and this season’s The Fox’s Lair), Matt Roberts, Toni Graphia (writer: Faith) and Ron Moore himself. In the audience were producer Maril Davis and Ron’s wife, the soon-to-win-an-Emmy-if-you-ask-me costume designer Terry Dresbach. (Writer Ira Behr couldn’t make it.)
Also in the audience, quite interestingly, were the four new writers for the upcoming seasons! Three women and a young man. Don’t worry, the seething laser beams of jealousy-induced ire that I cast in their direction seemed to have no permanent effects. (I’m just kidding. Congrats to these new additions! Can’t wait to see what they write… so I can judge it mercilessly, hold it up to my own writing, cynically at first, then later decide that they’re better than me and drink myself to sleep. *Note to self: learn how to make those Scotch-and-ginger things.)
All right, I will now sum up some interesting moments in the panel.
Ron was asked at what point in reading Outlander he thought it could be a show. And he responded that he read it with the intention of adapting it, after it was brought to him by some people who had read it, including Matthew Roberts and his wife Terry.
He immediately felt it was a page-turner. He said, “I can see how it’ll arc,” which is exactly what writers look for in good material. Later on, when he read the other books in the series, he was already excited about it. He said “he had never seen anything like it on TV,” which couldn’t be more true.
So let’s start with…
THE WRITERS’ ROOM
The writers room was staffed with a crew he knew quite well from other shows. Toni and Ron worked together on Roswell and Carnivàle (remember those?). He knew her strong suit was dialogue and structure, and those would be needed for this multiple period piece. (I think we can all agree, by the way, that truer words have never been spoken. God, I love this woman’s writing.)
Matt and Ron’s collaboration goes back to Caprica. They also, apparently, were in a short-lived rock ‘n’ roll band together, bonding while on the tour bus. And that, my friends, is something I would love to see.
Ron and Matt wrote the pilot for Outlander together, and Ron knew they had a similar story sense. Matt also knew the books, and introduced them to Maril.
Anne was chosen because she’s “fun in room,” which was true even in the room last night, and because of her strong story sense.
Ron said this was his first time adapting an existing work, and one of the new considerations that arose was “what to keep, what to change.” He talked more about this a bit later. But I thought it was interesting that he knew from the get-go that he’d have to “serve two audiences”—the book readers and those who were new to the material.
The writers all agreed that there was an “active argument in the room,” and that the balance of opinion was necessary to their discussions regarding how to adapt the material.
Ron also, being the TV guy that he is, mentioned that as he was reading the first book, he was already visualizing the pilot of the show.
Okay, let’s talk about…
Anne was asked about the Wedding episode from last season, and how it was praised for its depiction of female sexuality. Anne—who’s a hoot, by the way—summed up the three sex sessions in The Wedding thusly: awkward at first, then “let’s try out this shiny new car sex,” and finally the “love sex.” (The guys on the panel, I should probably mention, protested audibly at the assertion that they had referred to Sam Heughan’s ass as a “shiny new car.” But the women didn’t seem to remember the men talking at that point.)
I loved that Anne said she wasn’t trying to write “feminist sex.” She was just imagining what she would want to touch or look at if she were in that scene. (Oh, Anne. You are so one of us.) And it’s exposing for a writer, she pointed out, because you’re sharing what you personally find erotic. You don’t want people to watch it and say, “Ew!” (Don’t worry, Anne. Nobody said, “Ew.” Nobody.)
Matt threw in that “good sex should involve a knife to the throat,” which explains some of his writing. (He was kidding, by the way. Please don’t call the police.) And he knows his mother has watched it when he gets a text from her that simply says: “Matthew.”
Toni is the one who asserted that she does not read ahead because she doesn’t want to “write towards the reveal.” A very good point. (So whatever you do, don’t Tweet Toni and tell her who dies in book five. She’s not there yet, people!)
It was also Toni, by the way, who decided someone simply had to have sex in that French day bed, which was what led to the absolutely gorgeous “find me in the dark” scene between Claire and Jamie where they reconnect after his rape. She also wanted to make sure Claire was depicted as still being sexual while pregnant because—spoiler alert—we have sex even when pregnant. I loved that.
Ron agreed that he didn’t want to do “TV sex” with a wind machine and candles. They want to keep everything feeling real.
And it was Anne’s decision that, when someone knocks on a door during sex, it shouldn’t be Jamie who wants to break it off and answer the door. Rather, Claire should suggest opening the door, but Jamie should insist that he wants to finish pleasuring her first. (In case anyone is wondering, yes, that is the female fantasy right there.)
Okay, enough about sex. Let’s talk about…
Matt included Claire’s WWII flashbacks throughout the script for Je Suis Prest at moments where he thought they would best complement what was happening in the A story with Jamie and the men preparing for war. But what came up at this point—so good to know if you want to be a writer—is that “the final draft is always written in editing.”
Writers know that their work is going to be shifted around. Lines will be cut, whole scenes will be cut, bits and pieces will be taken from elsewhere and placed where they weren’t intended, and of course, voiceover will be added or omitted.
For Je Suis Prest, Matt said a lot of his ideas about where the PTSD flashbacks should go remained where he had placed them, but some moved around. It comes down to the director and the editors to make what works on paper also work on the screen. And for that episode, their goal was to make her war memories stem directly from watching the men prepare for battle.
Matt made the great point that it’s not that PTSD “isn’t in the books,” but rather that it “could be in the books,” we just don’t see it there. But Claire’s experiences are very much with her, and in the books we can get a sense of them through first-person narration. You don’t have that luxury in a TV show, and as he mentioned earlier, you want to keep voiceover to a minimum because it’s a passive way to tell a story.
So what’s an active way to tell a story? Seeing it, of course. We know that Claire was a nurse, that she saw battle, that at some point she picked up the phrase “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.” So it seemed a natural progression of thought to illustrate how and when those things happened.
Besides, Matt and Terry joked, every now and then they like to “stick Claire in trousers” so we can all remember where she comes from. He also made the point that her PTSD wasn’t triggered when she was attacked by Black Jack Randall last season because she “wasn’t almost raped” in WWII. But watching men go to war—especially now that it’s men she knows and loves—that triggers her.
Okay, let’s talk about…
This was my favorite moment of the panel, because the brilliant Toni detailed her writing process for what has been my favorite hour of this show (and pretty much any other)—the episode entitled Faith. Toni knew she wanted to write this part as soon as she read Dragonfly. She called it “scary waters,” and mentioned that she wanted to do justice to women who had experienced something similar.
And then she did what we writers do when something scares us—she avoided the scary part. Her first draft was called “His Majesty’s Pleasure,” and it focused a lot more on the King and the bits in Versailles. And she handed it in to Ron, who said it wasn’t there yet. He gave her pages of notes, but the most important one—the one that stuck in her head—was, “it’s all about the baby.”
She was in Scotland, working on another episode. It was rainy and dark. She holed up in her hotel room, away from Los Angeles and the 405 and all the other distractions, and she drank whiskey and cried and dug deep. And then she began a page-one rewrite (for non-writers, this is when we literally throw out all our work and start over. It sucks, but it’s usually the beginning of something big).
She retitled the episode simply “Faith.” And the rest, ladies and gentlemen, is history. What she ended up writing is some of the most gorgeous, pure television I’ve ever seen. She said she “trusted in her actress,” a wise decision when your actress is Caitriona Balfe, and she let the character be still. There was originally quite a bit of voiceover, which got cut when they realized Caitriona was expressing all of it without words.
They found a moment of pain so deep, it would have “broken up any other couple.” But for Jamie and Claire, it brought them even closer together. Originally, the episode ended with them back in Scotland, but they realized quickly all that would have to wait until the following week. So they ended it with the graveyard scene. Toni mentioned that just seeing the little black veil Terry designed for Claire made her cry all over again.
And let’s not forget, this is the episode with the Star Chamber as well. She said there were times when it felt like all that should have been a different episode, but she realized that it was all tied together because it was all the price she had to pay to get Jamie back.
And someone on a podcast made the brilliant point—Monsieur Forez is in both sequences. M. Forez, whose job is to “reach into someone and tear out their beating heart,” which is exactly what he did when he reached into Claire and brought out that baby.
I can’t even.
Let’s talk about…
Throughout the show, the writers have been trying to keep everyone human. As Anne pointed out, “No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘I think I’ll be evil today!’” And so when it comes to humanizing Black Jack Randall (and others who could be considered villainous, like Colum, Dougal and Laoghaire), their goal is to find the motivation that makes sense. No “cartoon characters” for them.
And so, especially last season, they had to think of interesting ways to illustrate Black Jack. That was why they chose to tell the story of Jamie’s flogging not through his own eyes (because his version of it would probably have been: “It sucked. It really sucked. It sucked some more.”), but rather to have Black Jack give his version of events. And I gotta say, that was probably what made watching those scenes as harrowing as it was—having to see them through Jack’s eyes.
They mentioned that there was a lot of rehearsal for both Sam and Tobias when they had to shoot the Wentworth Prison scenes last year. There was a lot of trust between the actors, as you can imagine. Never easy to shoot stuff like that. The writers have asked a lot of these actors, and they’ve been given a lot in return.
Matt also made some good points about Laoghaire—yes, it’s easy to dislike her. She’s done some bad stuff. But when you think about it through her eyes—her boyfriend takes a beating for her and then makes out with her. She’s 16 years old. She’s head over heels, thinking, “I think this guy likes me.” And then suddenly he comes back from a brief trip and says, “Oh, hey, guess what? I married this other lady.” From her point of view, her actions make perfect sense.
Speaking of actions, let’s discuss…
All the writers agreed that writing action sequences is a pointless exercise in frustration. Why? Because when you actually get on set, the fight choreographer and the director are going to change whatever you wrote anyway, based on what’s available to them and what they can shoot.
But if you try to do what Anne has done before, and simply write “And then they fight,” the director’s going to ask you what you had in mind for that. So you tell them, and then they change it anyway. It is, as Ron pointed out, “a total Catch-22.”
And while we’re on the subject of fighting…
WRITERS’ ROOM BRAWLS
Toni insists that the biggest fight they’ve had in the writers’ room was about the Star Chamber scene. The crux of the problem was that in the books, Master Raymond introduces the idea of poison as a test. But in the realization of the scene on paper, it became clear that that simply wasn’t going to work. The man on trial doesn’t get to introduce the means of testing guilt, after all.
It apparently got very heated in the room about how to solve this problem, with Toni at one point declaring that she simply wanted to throw the whole scene out, and Ron insisting that that wasn’t possible because it was a ten-pole scene and they needed to figure it out. (Also, production designer Jon Gary Steele was apparently very excited about building the room!)
So they put on their best “Law and Order” hats and decided that the evidence—the poisons and vials from Master Raymond’s apothecary—would be in the room. And from there, they came up with the idea to have Claire introduce bitter cascara—Claire not wanting to kill anyone, of course, as she’s not a murderer. And so then they needed Raymond to do a slight of hand, which only made sense if they had already established that this was something he was good at.
Cut to them rushing to set, where they were filming episode 204, and quickly adding the bit about Raymond and the bone fragments that “magically” appear in the tin he gives Claire. (I know, quick thinking!)
Matt mentioned that the scene that didn’t work when he first wrote it was the introduction of John William Grey in episode nine. Originally, young William overheard Jamie and Claire talking and decided Claire was a hostage. But Jamie and Claire’s dialogue—she was telling him to eat an apple so he wouldn’t get scurvy—was so clearly a wife and husband talking that it didn’t make any sense.
So in the end, they made William’s introduction a “closed scene,” in which he hadn’t overheard them talking, but had merely seen Jamie and recognized him as “Red Jamie.”
And Anne mentioned a fight with Ron from season one in which she and Toni had been very excited for the sequence in which Jenny and Claire take off on horseback to rescue Jamie, who’s been taken to Wentworth. They had the girls riding off to save the day, when Ron broke in with the annoying question: “And then what?” Well, they didn’t know.
These are the moments we don’t see when we watch the show, but every scene has to be mapped out at some point. And sometimes it’s not clear where exactly something is going.
Matt pointed out that it can be hard as a writer to “understand what somebody else wants,” but that is your job—create the vision of the showrunner.
And then he and Anne said the most beautiful thing about Ron. They said a lot of writers can only hear their own instrument—the oboe player who can only hear the oboe. But, according to Matt, Ron “hears the whole symphony.” Isn’t that lovely?
Toni, who started her career as a researcher on China Beach in her early 20s, said authenticity is the thing she’s learned to appreciate from writing. You need to do justice to the people who have actually lived through the things you’re writing about. And when they were in Scotland, especially, seeing the landmarks for places where important battles occurred, they were very aware that they needed to respect the living history of their subjects.
Perhaps most interestingly, as far as Novel2Screen is concerned, is this comment from Ron regarding the difference between adapting a written work and writing something original: the two jobs “use very different muscles.” With original work, like Battlestar Galactica (which, of course, was based on a pre-existing show, but did not uses the plot of the original), he was free to decide where the story would go. And he would tell his writers, “show me something I wouldn’t expect” about the characters. That can be a blessing, but also difficult when the “end game” isn’t always clear.
With existing work, like Outlander, you know what the end game is. But how to get there is another story.
Anne said that having Diana’s books is like “writing with the world’s best writing partner. But you don’t always have to do every idea they suggest.”
Ron pointed out that sometimes there are things he would rather throw out, but he can’t. From the beginning, however, he said Diana has been incredibly trusting and generous with her work. She’s not shy; when she has an opinion, she shares it. But she has said to Ron that she doesn’t do what he does. And she trusts him to serve the story the best way he can.
Anne also mentioned that finding a balance for Claire on the screen has been an interesting journey—again, things that work on the page don’t always work on screen. If Claire is too assertive, she can seem bossy… and that makes Jamie seem like a dope. So where is the balance between them? That’s the thing they’re always trying to find.
SPOILERS FOR THE FUTURE?
Well, sorry, folks. There aren’t too many, except for the ones we already know. Namely, Bree and Roger (that little cutie we saw in episode 201, all grown up) are coming up pretty soon. But by and large, their story will have to wait until next season. Matt and Toni wrote the upcoming episode in which their story is interwoven with Claire and Jamie’s. Apparently, they had the A and B stories pretty well interconnected in the script, but then the director shot it linearly (meaning it’s one story and then the other). It sounds like in post, however, the writers got their way and put it back the way they had intended it.
Also, we’ll be seeing Sandringham again in the very near future, and resolving a bit of that storyline. But don’t look for too literal a translation of the books. As Toni said, “they’re going to keep us on our toes.”
Personally, I can’t wait!
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