‘Outlander’ Boss Ron Moore on Eliciting Emotional Response, Season 2 and Surprising Storytelling

The Starz drama “Outlander” has reinvented itself in its second season. Gone are the windswept Highlands of Scotland and the rough-hewn castles and cottages that Claire Randall Fraser and Jamie Fraser took refuge in during the show’s 16-episode first season.

For this year’s 13-episode season, the couple is in Paris; silky gowns and candlelit dinners have replaced woolen garments and crusts of bread next to a campfire. Yet “Outlander’s” appeal endures, despite the changes: The undeniable chemistry between time-traveler Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) anchors the show’s personal and political agendas, and Claire’s quest to find her place in history — or to simply change it — gives the lush saga of “Outlander” a jolt of unpredictable energy. In love with both Jamie and Frank (Tobias Menzies), the husband she left behind when she traveled to the 18th Century, Claire is one of the most believably complex heroines on TV, and her journey has only gotten more challenging this year.

In the first part of an extensive interview, executive producer and showrunner Ronald D. Moore talks about casting Balfe, the new season of “Outlander,” what he’s learned about making this show and what drives him as a storyteller. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

The first episode of season two was very wrenching.

It’s very emotional.

Your show makes me cry a lot.

I guess that’s a good thing.

That’s a good thing. It seems like you’re really going for emotional intensity and I think you’re successful at doing that. For you as a storyteller, is that what you want to do — drive toward these very difficult and sometimes wonderful emotional connections?

It’s a very emotional story, and I think it’s important that we move the viewer. That’s part of the job on TV, to move the viewer, to touch them, to elicit an emotional response. Sometimes it’s horror, sometimes it’s laughter, sometimes it’s making you cry. I think it’s part of our basic job.

I was thinking about “Outlander” in terms of your past work, and if I had to craft a slogan — maybe a hackneyed one — for “Outlander,” it would be, “The personal is political.” They’re obviously not the same, but there are similar threads that run through this and your previous show, “Battlestar Galactica,” in that they’re often about how people relate to power in a relationship, or how they relate to power in a society and in a community. There’s a lot about free will. 

Yeah, I think that’s part of it. Not too overtly. As I approach the story, I think more about character — “What would Claire do? Am I justified [regarding] why she’s making that choice? Let’s make sure that I’m following Jamie’s [through] line,” or, “This doesn’t feel right for Jamie.” And then usually that leads you to those interesting things, and in this show in particular, because it does have a heavy political aspect to it. The Jacobites, the French, the Scots, the Restoration, the Stuarts and all that. That’s the canvas in which these characters are moving about and telling the story, so you kind of are constantly touching into that world.

But for you as a storyteller what activates it? When you look back at the first season, are the things that make you say, “This is why I’m telling the story”?

It’s mostly about surprise, to me. I’m always looking for surprise in a story, surprise in an ongoing series, taking the audience off-stride, making them feel like I’m telling them one story and then, “Oh my God, I didn’t even realize this is where you were going with that.” Or coming into a scene and feeling like you know exactly how it’s going to run, and then changing it up at the end. That’s always what I’m looking for in stories — to keep me interested.

It’s one of the things I liked about the book — it was a page-turner in the sense of, “Jesus, did that really just happen? What the hell is going to happen next?” That sense of anything can happen, it’s anybody’s game and the characters are all vulnerable. And it can go in directions you’re not expecting — like, to suddenly return to the 20th Century in this season. Going to France and the surprise of that — I love that.

Like Claire being surprised that she actually falls in love with Jamie.

Yes. That’s not what she expected. You don’t expect it when she sits down with Jack Randall in “The Garrison Commander” in season one — that he’s going to start telling her the story of flogging Jamie and revealing his inner emotional landscape to her. It’s a surprise, but then the deeper you get to know the character, the way you portray them, you go, “Well, that makes sense, given who Jack Randall actually is.”

The end of season one is very difficult to watch. One of the things that made it challenging, in some ways, was that for Jack Randall, it wasn’t about exploitation and abuse. For him, it was a different dynamic. And that is what kept the unfolding of those scenes from being rote, if that makes any sense. It was awful and wrong, obviously, but we saw what was going on in his head as well. That kept the drama of it alive.

It kept him as a real person and not a monster or somebody that’s easy to write off, because you can’t identify with what they’re expressing, what they’re feeling. You can look at Jack, I think, and say, “Well, I kind of get it. I sort of see where he’s coming from. As repellent as it is on the outside, I can kind of see that his emotional landscape runs like this.” We’re all the hero of our own stories, and he is the hero in his. In his mind, he’s been victimized by the Scots. He was posted to this land of barbarians who did all these horrible things to him and his men, and they’ve turned him into this creature. He embraces the darkness and hates himself for doing it all at the same time.

Something just popped into my head that only 20 other people reading this interview will get — but Black Jack Randall is kind of like Gol Dukat from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

Oh, Dukat, yeah. That’s not a bad analogy, really. That’s pretty good.

Casting this must have been stressful, because your story is about taking characters to surprising and sometimes really challenging emotional and psychological places. You’ve got to have an actor who can do the comedy and the adventure, the wit and the boldness, but also the crises and the intimate moments.

The casting is a very tricky thing. It’s not my strong suit. It’s not my best element, to be honest. There are people on the show that do it better than I do. [Executive producers] Ira Behr and Maril [Davis] do a lot of the casting for the show, and they weigh in far more heavily than I do. I weigh in and I look at things and I make approvals and I give my thoughts, but there is a talent to that — to see something in a read is different than seeing it on film. You have to extrapolate from one to the other, because there are definitely actors who are not good at [casting] reads that are fantastic in front of the camera, and vice versa.

So [the skills are] weeding that out, not getting involved in their nervousness or their eagerness to please and seeing what they bring to it, looking at their body of work, seeing what they’ve done in the past. It takes an immersion into actors and understanding the casting landscape, who’s available, who’s not, who’s a fresh face, but who’s too green. But you see potential or you see natural instincts. That’s a skill, and I’m happy to delegate some of those things. The vast majority of the casting on the show is not done by me. I trust the people that work for me to do that.

With Caitrona, you hired an actress who did not have a ton of experience.

Yeah, with the major roles with Cat and Sam, it’s different. Then I’m intimately involved with that, because they are foundational to what we’re doing. It took us a very long time to cast Cat. She was the last one of the main cast that was put in place because the role was so critical. If she didn’t work, the show was not going to work. It was that cut and dried, because it was a first-person narrative. You’re going to be listening to her throughout. You’re going to be just watching her think. You’re going to be so intimately involved with that particular actress, since she was in every scene every day. So just stamina and the physical chops to do it day in and day out on the set, plus the innate acting ability. She didn’t have a huge resume, but you just saw it. It was just something all of us when we finally saw that tape, we went, “Could it be? Let’s make sure. Let’s give her a screen test and make sure that we’re not insane.” But it certainly seemed like it was all there, and it just was.

So everyone gravitated toward her?

We all did. But, you know, she self-taped and just sent it in and we had seen literally hundreds of actresses at that point. Some in person, some on tape, and we just couldn’t find her. [When we got] her tape, we all just got really excited. [We] put her in a room with Sam [Heughan], to see what the chemistry was like. Certainly that had to work. And it just worked perfectly, and it was beautiful, and it was really just, “Thank God,” because we were days away from shooting and everyone was starting to get nervous. We really had to have the actress.

What did you learn about making this show during the course of season one?

The lesson we should have learned, but never have learned is that we always write too much. The scripts are always too long and too big, but that was my curse on “Battlestar” too. I just tend to have too much on the page. We always have too much to shoot. We’re constantly pruning back. And then in the editing bay, [the first version is] 10 minutes long and I’m always cutting back. But I’ve accepted at this point, that’s just my process, and I like having too much.

Once you have it all, you can narrow it down.

Narrow it down to what matters and then tighten. If you don’t have enough, there’s only stretching, and stretching is the worst. There’s nothing worse than stretching the scene that’s not meant to be that long.

In terms of lessons specifically to this show, there were a lot of lessons just in terms of the physical production of the show. There was a big learning curve shooting the show in Scotland. There are difficulties to shooting a show that does not have a bunch of standing sets associated with it. That was a huge challenge. Much more difficult than I anticipated at the get-go. There’s a tremendous amount of just logistical production things I learned.

But in terms of the story and the script and all that, we cut back on the voiceovers as time went on. We slowly started opening the show up beyond Claire and [doing more with] Jamie, and it broadened out so we could get out of the first-person narrative exclusively.

This season you’ve jettisoned a lot of supporting characters from season one, and now you’re building up a new world. Is it going to be that kind of a show, where characters float in and float out of the overall narrative? When you were on “Battlestar,” you were on that ship. Everyone was stuck there, people didn’t go away and come back six months later.

Yeah, this is very different. Characters will come and go. Going into the third season, very few of the characters even from the second season continue into the third. You’re constantly picking up and dropping things by the wayside, which is a very different style of storytelling.

It is. I have to confess that’s one of the things that I often like about a show — the world of that family, that group. But this is a show where people float in and out tangentially to the rest of the show. I guess, at times, I find it hard to latch onto that stuff.

There’s a risk. The positive of it is, well, there’s always something new. Next week’s episode is not going to be like [every other episode.] It’s evolving. Who knows what’s over the next horizon? The risk is you don’t form connections with enough people, and it starts feeling like you’re just kind of floating along. And I don’t know that we’ll know the answer to that question until we’re pretty far down the line, because the story does do that. It will establish characters, meet them for a certain amount of the journey and then move on.

For more “Outlander” features and interviews, look here. Part two of Variety’s interview with Ron Moore will post next week. 

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