Very few people in the TV industry are as calm as Ron Moore.
His Starz drama, “Outlander,” is full of big battles, time-jumping adventures, swooning passions, and epic reunions. The electric encounter that took place in the most recent episode of the show is just one example of the ways in which “Outlander” successfully mines not just war, friendship, loyalty, personal crises, and star-crossed meetings, but the realities of intimacy as well.
My favorite moment of the episode was when Jamie and Claire, who were finally reunited in the Oct. 22 episode, accidentally clunked their heads together as they finally went to bed after their long-awaited meeting. (Claire thought her nose was broken, but it wasn’t, and their bedroom encounter otherwise met or exceeded expectations). “Outlander” has always been good at injecting nuance and even wry comedy into the hopes, fears, insecurities, and sex lives of each half of the core “Outlander” duo. That was apparent in Matthew B. Roberts’ script for “A. Malcolm,” and also in evidence were reminders of Claire and Jamie’s challenging histories — together and apart — and proof of their undeniable chemistry. Despite their innate compatibility, little has been easy for the couple, who spent much of the current season separated by a time gulf of 200 years.
Given all that turbulence and all those travails, perhaps it’s appropriate that the captain of the ship is not easily flustered. In conversation, Moore is usually calm and even-keeled. And though it has its contemplative scenes and quietly lyrical moments, unruffled placidity is not something fans necessarily always want from “Outlander,” and that is understandable. Part of what has made the show a success is the intense emotional, romantic, and political lives of its characters, most notably Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and her past, present, and future true love, Jamie (Sam Heughan).
What fans want, what they think they want, what they ask for, hate and don’t want — these are all topics Moore knows well. He himself grew up as an earnest fan of genre fiction before going on to claim a spot in the nerd Hall of Fame: As Moore put it, “I killed Kirk!”
For the non-nerds among you, Moore is referring to the script for the 1994 film “Star Trek Generations.” Moore is one of the credited writers of the film, and it featured the demise of James T. Kirk, which, let’s say, was not universally celebrated. Between his time on that film, his stints writing for various “Star Trek” TV shows, and his experiences during the making of “Battlestar Galactica” — yet another property with extremely dedicated and opinionated viewers — Moore is pretty experienced with the workings of fandoms.
“It’s like, I killed Kirk and I made Starbuck a woman,” says Moore. “So bring it on.”
Though he appreciates the “Outlander” fans — and digresses at length to talk about how women have played key roles in almost every modern-day genre fandom — he’s also glad to be reclaiming his time away from them, at least to a degree. Things are slightly less intense for Moore these days on the “Outlander” front.
“I’m still the showrunner, but a lot of the day-to-day showrunning is done by [executive producers] Matt Roberts and Toni Graphia,” Moore notes. “I’ve delegated more authority to them. Matt is on the ground a lot in the U.K., and Toni is in charge of the writers’ room. And they both report to me and I still sort of oversee the whole production. But I’m not on the front lines like I was.”
“They’re competent, and good, and smart, and they add different things than I would to the production,” Moore says of Roberts and Graphia. “You want your people to take on more responsibility, and you want them to grow within the show, and you give them room to do that. Sometimes you just have to be willing to delegate, and not feel like you’re the only one with the answer.”
In addition to developing various other projects he can’t talk about quite yet, Moore is an executive producer and writer for the Amazon anthology series “Electric Dreams,” which features an array of adaptations of Philip K. Dick stories and comes out next year.
“Each [of the 10 episodes] is literally a movie — new cast, new location, new period setting. High-concept stuff. It doesn’t look like anything else I’ve ever worked on,” Moore said. “You know, I’ve been away from ‘Galactica’ and ‘Caprica’ for a while, and it was fun to get back into science fiction, and really think outside the box again.”
As Moore noted in a previous interview, this year is certainly a time of transition for “Outlander,” which recently lost major characters and will be shifting its focus to other locations and will continue to add new storylines in coming years (the cast of the show discussed some of those changes in another interview). Moore talks about the reunion of Jamie and Claire, fans and their desires, how “Outlander” has negotiated the book-to-screen transition, and much more in the interview below.
One of the big engines of your show is keeping this core couple apart. Do you ever wish that didn’t have to be as big a part of the show? Or is there not enough drama if they’re together all the time?
Yeah, that is part of the edge of the show. Keeping them apart builds this [desire] to put them back together. I think it’s a good component, it allows them to operate independently, it gives them something to be striving for, and yearning for, and the audience really climbs onboard that as well. And then they’re different people when they come back together.
And when they get back together this season, it’s been 20 years apart, right?
Yes, 20 years.
I’m just trying to think about how it would be if I was apart from my spouse for 20 years.
You’d be different people. You’d have lived very different lives and had different experiences. Jamie in particular has a very circuitous route he takes before he hooks up with Claire again. Claire has had a little bit more of a straight shot. She returns to this 20th Century and has this one life, with Frank and Brianna, and then she decides to become a doctor. Whereas Jamie… it’s somewhat more episodic, in that he goes here, he has this experience for [a few] years, then he moves on and has a different set of life experiences, and then moves on again. So they’re contrasting journeys as well.
How far ahead have you read?
When I first took on [the show], I primarily read the first book, and then most of the second, and then I read synopses on down the line. By the time we actually got the show going, I’d read much further on. Initially [the show] was about the first book, and I just wanted to know the general storyline of the books beyond that.
What I’m really trying to ask is, did you really know what you were taking on? Especially in terms of how many different kinds of shows you were going to end up making?
I did. But I still underestimated how hard it would be to do that. It was like, “Oh, this will be different. I’ve never done a show like this before. This will have its challenges.” But it really has its challenges, because you are creating a different TV show every season. I don’t know anyone else who’s done it this way. I think that might come to a bit of a stop after Season Four, because [around then] they get to Fraser’s Ridge, and they stay there. Suddenly we’ll have standing sets for the first time. We’re not going to continue to travel the world. It’ll be a little bit more like, “Okay, now we’re in America, and the story is going continue there from that point.” [Note: Though the show may do some location filming outside the U.K., as it has in the past, “Outlander’s” production base will stay in Scotland.]
You have had a few standing sets, but do you just not get them to use them for very long?
Yeah. Probably the longest set that we ever had standing and used was the Paris apartment. And that was only half that season. And Castle Leoch hung around for four or five episodes of that season. And that’s about it.
Frank and Claire’s house in Boston — was that just an actual house? Or was that something you built?
That was actually a re-do of the Paris apartment. We remodeled it and changed the backdrops and repainted. It is kind of interesting — Claire was living in this place where she lived with Jamie, but then with Frank. You can see the bones of it. It has the same courtyard, it has windows [in the same spots].
As you were saying, there are many modes to the show. When I was watching some episodes, I was thinking, ”This is like making ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ — but all within one season of TV. It’s a lot to knit together. Is that one of the primary challenges of “Outlander”?
It is. Diana’s always talked about how she always struggled with booksellers about where they would stock the book. You know, which aisle, and a lot of them would default to the romance section. She hated that. [The story] does have all those different components. So as you’re structuring out the season, you try to be aware of the rhythm of that, and how many beats you’re playing in which of those keys. [You think about] where the audience is, where you left them, where they’re going to go, what’s the next big event. You know — how sudden are the changes of tone and story. You’re just trying to smooth that out as you go through the whole storyline.
You don’t want to wrench someone out of a battle and put them right into a society dinner.
Yeah. And it’s tricky, too, with Season Three in particular, where you’re cutting back and forth between Claire’s experiences in the 20th Century with Frank in a domestic drama, versus Jamie’s completely different adventures.
Eating rats. All that stuff, prison and the Hellwater [an estate where Jamie worked]. The tonal shifts — you have to be careful as you’re intercutting those pieces. Sometimes you want the shock, to yank the viewer into a different place. And other times, you really don’t. You don’t want to disrupt the mood, so you have to kind of [experiment with] it in the editing room.
It’s clearly it’s about editing to some degree. But it also seems like some directors really understand how to make it seem all of a piece. Brendan Maher, who directed the Season Three premiere — I thought he did a really good job in that first episode of uniting the different pieces. There are scenes of battle, and of Jamie trying to recover from that. And then there’s Claire with the loss and the separation and pain that she’s feeling. It feels like it’s all united in this difficult psychological realm.
It is. And yeah, we talked about that in prep. It really was “The Battle Joined” on both fronts, because Claire is joining a new battle for her daughter and for herself in the 20th Century, and trying to navigate what that means to her. Jamie’s had a literal battle but he’s trying to get on with his life. He is going to survive somehow. Now, what will his life be?
Obviously the actors know their parts really well. And you’re in the writers’ room prepping and mapping things out and writing, and shepherding that along. But is it also about choosing the directors, choosing the DPs? Is that how you make sure that, visually and thematically and tonally, it’ll feel united?
Yeah. And the production is so separate from where the writers are. We always send what we call a creative producer to go and oversee production — a writer who’s written one of the two episodes in a block of shooting. It’s important that that writer is present in the U.K. throughout prep and every day of shooting. They’re there to not just shepherd the script, and make sure that it’s shot in a certain way, but also, they have the overview of everything else that’s been going on in the writers’ room. They know what preceded this episode and what’s going to come afterward. Because you do want to have some unifying tone and feeling for the overall piece.
With a show like this, there’s a temptation to make each of them its own movie. They can seem like mini-movies, because [to some degree each episode is] starting from scratch. Or there’s a lot of new locations and new characters. You want the director to embrace that aspect and really create something special, but they can’t get too far away from everything else in the series. It’s not a mini-movie — it is another chapter of this ongoing saga. Sometimes it’s a struggle to make sure that we’re all doing the same show, even though each episode is unique, and isn’t like all the others. It still has to fit.
I can remember getting that first email that Sam had been cast — four years ago. Sam and Caitriona were unknown to the wider world. And then it was like Beatlemania at the “Outlander” Comic-Con panel this time around. Did you ever think it would go this way?
Well, you know, I guess at the beginning of any project I always have the same hope, which is that it’s going to be wildly successful and critically acclaimed, and it’ll be a major thing. Every show I take on, I’m like, “And that’s what it’s going to be.” And it’s usually not. [laughs] So it’s gratifying.
It happened to some degree with “Battlestar Galactica.”
Yeah, with “Battlestar.” I’ve had it enough where you kind of go, “Well, yeah, it can happen.“ It’s just always amazing, and it is surprising when it actually does happen, but this what I had hoped that the series would become.
The way “Outlander’s” broken through in the pop culture is on a whole different level than “Battlestar Galactica,” I think.
It’s very different. I think it appeals to a different general audience than “Battlestar” and “Star Trek.” They were much more genre pieces and much more for the Comic-Con crowd. And “Battletar” took a while to kinda permeate out into pop culture generally. It hit first with the science-fiction fan community, then the critics, and then it kind of went to the general population. With “Outlander,” definitely the book fans were at the door, ready to go, as soon as we started. But it felt like it kind of crossed over into more of a general audience rapidly. That did surprise me — I thought it would take longer for general audiences to come around.
What’s your experience of the fan base? Do you have men telling you how much they like it?
There are some, but in all honesty it does skew very strongly female. When we do fan events, I look out into a crowd and it’s mostly women. I think that comes largely from the books, and the book fan base is predominantly women. And they become, then in turn, the most active, passionate fans that you encounter the most.
It’s an intense fandom.
It’s pretty intense. They don’t seem more intense than the “Star Trek” or the “Galactica” people though, in all honesty.
Is it the case that, with every change the TV show makes from the books, those alterations compound over time and affect more things down the road?
Yes. You have to keep an eye on what you’ve established on air versus in the book. Frank is the easiest example. For [the show], he was told about the stones by Mrs. Graham in Season One. He goes up to Craigh na Dun and stands there, and he thinks he might hear Claire’s voice. So he had a specific experience in season one that was not present in the book.
As you move forward with our Frank, when he reunites with Claire again in 1947, he has all that. Now when Claire comes and says, “I went through the stones of Craigh na Dun,” it hits him in a different way than book Frank, who never heard any of that and just thinks it’s all madness and it’s crazy. But our Frank had actually been told that. He’d actually stood on that hill. So he is much more predisposed to believe here. That’s a pretty big change in the two Franks.
And once you go down that path, on the TV show, you’re obligated to keep telling the story of our Frank. Even though we want him to hit certain markers and do certain story points that are in the books, it always has to be informed by the knowledge of what we’ve established. Those paths keep separating a little further and further over time. And you have to do that with all the characters. Whatever the book said, our first obligation to the characters we’ve established for the [TV] audience, because that’s what they’re following.
Has the show’s audience has been OK with that? Has there been pushback about anything?
Some. There are fans that object to certain things. But, I feel like that just goes with the territory. [In every fandom there are] the elements that are always convinced that they are the keepers of the flame and the people who work on the show don’t [understand it]. There are also fans that never read the books, and don’t care about any of that, and they’re just all about what the TV show is. It’s fine. There’s always going to be those elements. And you just have to screen them out.
What has been something that ended up being a much bigger wrangle, internally or externally, than you thought it would be?
I think the biggest battles are always about how close to the books are you, and where do you vary it. Where are the points that you choose to change the story in the book and why? There are debates that go across the production, you know. That’s in the writers’ room, that’s with the studio and the network. That’s with the cast. That’s with the writers themselves. You’re just constantly trying to figure out, “Okay, here is the story, and this is the material that is beloved.” And now you’re translating that to a different medium. You’ve got to pick which elements work and which don’t. And whenever you’re making those choices, someone usually is disagreeing with you.
“How much Frank are we going to show in this story?” That’s been an ongoing conversation with fans. There are some fans that don’t like how much time we spend with Frank. They kind of get annoyed about it. There are fans that have told me to my face things like, “Why do you like Frank so much more than Jamie? Why do you hate Jamie? Why are you such a Frank fan?” “Why do we even have to spend any time with Frank in the show?”
And I go, “Well, by my reading of the text, understanding and embracing Frank is key to understanding and embracing Claire.” Because there’s this triangle that’s established from the very beginning. Here’s the man that she struggles all through the first year of the show to return to. Her whole drive in season one is, “I need to go home.”
If Frank is some nobody, why would you care about her quest to get back to him?
And you think less of Claire. If he’s some schmuck in the 20th Century, and everyone in the audience is going, “Why would you go back to this guy?” then she looks like an idiot. You know? What kind of a man could compete with Jamie Fraser? To me, that’s a fascinating question. So, I felt like we had to build up Frank. He’s in the book. But I felt when you’re watching it week-to-week, you’re going to forget about Frank, unless he’s really something special. And if we didn’t touch base with him in the middle of the season, and build him up more and understand that relationship more, that it just diminished her. If I played the show the other way, and it did diminish Claire, and it did feel like she was kind of an idiot for wanting to go back to this guy that we barely even see, [those fans] would like the show as much. Sometimes some fans say things, and you just have to screen it out, because you know that if they actually got what they say they wanted, they wouldn’t like it.
This story’s reference to the “Star Trek” film in which Kirk dies has been corrected. Apologies for the error.