There are few figures in the realm of genre TV as respected as “Outlander” executive producer Ron Moore, the mastermind behind the critically acclaimed revival of “Battlestar Galactica” and a sci-fi stalwart whose previous credits include “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager,” along with cult favorites like “Roswell” and “Carnivàle.”
After taking a beloved (but admittedly cheesy) ’70s space romp like “Battlestar” and imbuing it with cinematic scope, pathos, and philosophical and theological ruminations about the very nature of what it means to be human, it makes sense that Moore succeeded in adapting what, at first blush, seemed un-adaptable — a sprawling series of novels that blend historical fiction with time travel, romance, adventure and political intrigue. “Outlander” is based on the first of eight bestselling books penned by Diana Gabaldon, following the journey of 20th century army nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and 18th century Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) who meet after circumstances — and a mysterious circle of Standing Stones — transport our heroine back to 1743.
The lavish series premieres on Starz on Aug. 9 (although the first episode is currently available online and on-demand as a free preview) and Variety spoke to Moore ahead of the show’s debut to discuss the process of adapting such a beloved literary property, what the show does differently from other high-concept series like “Game of Thrones,” and the appeal of its strong female lead.
How would you describe your collaboration with Starz and the genesis of the project?
Moore: We were on the same page from the very beginning; I wanted to do a very faithful adaptation of the book. And they said “we want you to do a very faithful adaptation of the book,” which is kind of remarkable, actually. Most of the time in this business, when you’re taking a property like this to a studio or network, they will buy it and then probably say, “hey, you know what? We bought this for the cover. We don’t really care what you do with it.” And Starz just didn’t have that attitude. When I pitched it to them, I pitched them the pilot and the first season, and then sketched out subsequent seasons. And we left a stack of these giant books on their desks when we walked away. And they actually read the books. So when they bought it, they were like “we’ve read them.” [Starz CEO] Chris Albrecht had read them. They knew the story and they were committed. And Chris said to me, “make this show for the fans and trust that anyone who’s not a fan will be swept up in the story the same way all the readers were.” And I was like, “yes, sir!” It was just great. That’s exactly what you hope that they’re going to do.
“Outlander” doesn’t have much in common with “Game of Thrones,” but it seems like the comparisons are inevitable given that you’re both big literary adaptations. Do you feel like you owe them any kind of debt in terms of opening the door for these blockbuster franchises on TV?
Oh, sure. “Game of Thrones” proved that you can do this — that you can take a big literary franchise and convert it into a big television hit. And be faithful to the source material and do it right and do it big, and then an audience will come [for] big serialized ongoing mythology. Absolutely, they opened the door for us.
You’re also beating “Game of Thrones” on episode order — you have 16 versus their 10, probably much to George R.R. Martin’s chagrin.
Yeah, Diana had said that he’s grumbled to her about that fact. [Laughs.]
Why was it so important to have 16 versus a more traditional cable order?
It’s just a big story, you know? The book is a big tale. It travels a lot and it goes to a lot of different places. And as I looked at it… the rights holder initially was trying to do it as a feature and I knew that it was never going to be a feature. You would lose everything that was special about the book once you stripped it down to two hours. And still, if you want to do the story justice, if you want to actually enjoy the experience the way the reader enjoys the experience, you have to take your time. You have to sort of drink in the landscape. You have to get to know the people. You need to let the moments breathe. You need to let the story just unwind a little bit. And to create that feeling in television, it just required a bigger spread of hours.
And it was actually Starz who saw that first, to be honest. It’s not like I went in demanding, “you’ve got to do this in 16 episodes.” We went in knowing what their episodic pattern was and we assumed at the outset that they’d probably only order 10. And I knew that that was going to be a challenge and we’d have to make some sacrifices and the story would have to be a little faster-paced and we’d have to rip through some places in order to make it in 10.
And I said that at the outset, just to let them know that 10 is pretty short, because my mind was more geared towards 13 as a standard order. And it was really Chris Albrecht who came back and said, “you know what? I think this should be bigger. How many episodes do you think it should be?” And we started talking and I think he might have said 16 first, and I said, “I think that’s right. Let me go back and talk with the writers and look at it.” And we stroked it out and it was like, “yeah, 16 is a good number for it.”
That’s kind of the dream scenario as a showrunner, I’d imagine.
It was. Without just trying to be their PR machine, the relationship with Starz has been a dream. It’s been as good as you can possibly ask for as a showrunner, to have that kind of relationship with a network who understands what you’re trying to do, who’s supportive of what you’re trying to do, who you know comes in when you need them to come in. You have notes conversations with them like any other network, but sometimes you can say, “look, I understand your note, but here’s why I don’t think that works, and here’s what I’ll do instead.” And they’ll listen and they’ll go, “okay, we hear you, great.” And you want to drop the phone. You’re like, “you mean I don’t have to scream and stamp my feet and threaten to quit?” They’re reasonable. It really is quite refreshing.
Why do you think the TV landscape is so fertile for these high-concept literary adaptations right now?
Our habits of television viewing have changed so radically over the last 15 years or so. The ability to binge watch, the ability to catch up allows for serialized programming in a way that it didn’t before the DVR era. In the olden days when I was doing “Star Trek,” Paramount was adamant that they did not want the series to have continuity. They wanted them all to be episodic because they were terrified that anyone who missed an episode wouldn’t watch next week. And we live in a different environment. They’ve discovered that people like continuing stories; they like watching the next one and the next one and the next one in order. And you can only do that today. So it’s just radically altered the method of delivery.
What is “Outlander” bringing to TV that might have been lacking in other series? What do you think you’re doing differently?
I think it’s a show that I’ve never seen before. It’s a different kind of story. There’s not a home base — it’s not like there’s the police station or the hospital or even the starship. The show evolves and continues and it’s a journey. So even though Claire goes back in time and she ends up at Castle Leoch right after the first episode, she’s not there that long. She’s only there for a little while. Then she leaves and she’s pretty much on the road and going to different places. So it’s not like each show is similar to the one before. Generally speaking, with a television show you can usually come up with what’s the stereotypical episode of “Lost,” of “CSI,” of “Battlestar Galactica”? There’s usually a format and there’s usually some version of what the show is.
This one, what we’ve really discovered is that all 16 are individual, none of them are alike. We’re making 16 movies as opposed to episodic television because the story keeps changing, and characters that you meet early on that you think are now regulars, nope they’re gone, you’re never seeing them again. Here’s some new characters. Oh this location, you’re not going back there again. You’re moving on and the story just keeps evolving. It’s a yarn, really. And as you look ahead into the subsequent books (SPOILER ALERT) the yarn keeps embroidering. We’re leaving Scotland. Right now everyone talks about, “this is a Scottish show, and we’re all about Scotland, Scotland, Scotland.” Well guess what, after year two, we’re leaving Scotland! So it’s a unique story. I think that alone is sort of priceless in the television landscape.
The books already have a wildly supportive fanbase, but do you have a strategy for appealing to viewers who haven’t read the novels?
I don’t have one, to be honest. I’m just adapting it and I’m trusting in what it is. And I do believe what Chris told me at the outset, which is, “just trust that anyone who doesn’t know the book will just be swept up by the story just like the fans are.” I think it’s just a great story. And I think you’re hooked into Claire and what she’s going through and fascinating things happen to her. There’s reversals and twists of fate and fortune and love and sex and death and war and mystery. So I’m not particularly worried about attracting new viewers. I think if people try it, I think they’ll get hooked and they’ll just keep coming back.
One of the main selling points of “Outlander,” in my view, is that it’s a female-driven story, and Claire is every bit as bold and resourceful as the male characters, despite being trapped in this oppressive time period. What do you find most appealing about her as a character and as an entry-point to this world?
What I always say about Claire as a character is that her defining characteristic is that she’s intelligent. She’s smart, and everything flows from there. Her strength comes from there. I think her sex appeal comes from there. Her wit, her resourcefulness, her skill set, it’s all because this is a very smart woman, and this is a woman we’re going to watch think on camera a lot. You’re going to be in her head because she’s talking to you in voiceover. So she has to be somebody really smart. And that to me defines what I found appealing to the character in the book pages, and we had to find an actress who conveyed that idea as well.
Describe the process of casting Caitriona Balfe and what you think she brings to Claire. I recall it being a lengthy search to find someone for the role.
It was a very long search. We saw a lot of really great, talented actresses and you just kept looking for that special quality and depth and performance and intelligence and wit and warmth. You’re asking a lot. Plus we’re doing a first person point of view; she’s every scene, every day on this show.
And Caitriona… it’s remarkable. It’s hard to say enough good things about Caitriona, in all honesty. And I’ve worked with a lot of actresses who I love and adore. But Caitriona, she just never fails to answer the bell. She’s there every scene, she’s always in the story, she’s always the character. And this is a grueling shoot on her. We’re shooting on location in Scotland and she’s in every scene, every day. I think it’s easy to say she works harder than probably any other member of this entire production because she’s also, on her days off, doing voiceover work. She’s learning lines. She’s doing ADR. She’s doing publicity on the weekends. It’s an enormous well of stamina this woman has. And she’s pleasant and she’s funny on the set. The crew will be dying and exhausted and standing in three inches of mud and the rain is pouring down and it’s two o’clock in the morning in the winter in Scotland and everyone’s dying, and Caitriona is cracking jokes and making people laugh. It’s amazing. I can keep singing her praises for the next hour. It’s just really something.
Jamie is also a very different kind of male lead from what we generally see on television, with many facets to his character and a story arc that new viewers probably won’t expect. How appealing is that subversion to you as a storyteller?
I think it’s great, because like you just said, it’s unusual. And as a storyteller, it’s a treat to get to deal with a character and a character arc that is unusual. And I think there’s gold in that because the audience is very familiar with stories. We all know the act structure from childhood. We know heroes. We understand what they’re supposed to be. You get it on so many levels. So anytime that you’re introducing a lead character like this who is different and who is taking a non-traditional arc like that is amazing. So it’s really fun to have somebody like Jamie where, if you’re a new viewer to this show and you just tune in and you have no idea really what this whole series is about and you meet Jamie in episode one, I guarantee you you are not going to know where this guy’s going by the end of the season.
What do you think Sam Heughan brings to Jamie, since he is this dashing, romantic hero but also has so many layers?
Jamie, he has a certain twinkle in his eye. There’s an easy charm, a charismatic quality to him. And you see the humanity in him. We had to believe that this is a guy who was nearly flogged to death and has endured enormous tragedy in his life — I mean there are really some horrible things in this guy’s backstory — and yet he can still get up every day with a smile and still feel like it’s rolling off his back. But also understand that the tragedy and the pain is there at the same time. And Sam has that… it’s a certain ineffable quality. You see it in him. There’s an easy charm and yet there is something darker back there that he can touch on periodically. So he just embodies the idea of Jamie.
“Outlander” premieres Sat., Aug. 9 at 9 p.m. on Starz.
This interview has been edited and condensed.