How TV's new Spartacus will 'bend' history

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

We got a chance to chat with Rob Tapert and Steven DeKnight about their upcoming one-hour drama for Starz, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which stars Andy Whitfield and sci-fi icon Lucy Lawless in a retelling of the sword-and-sandals tale.

Tapert (Lawless' husband and producer of Xena: Warrior Princess) and DeKnight (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) explained why they decided to "bend history," as DeKnight put it, for the new show.

"It's a tale everyone knows, that nobody actually knows anything about, so the chance to work within history and take ownership of it in a different way, ... it's a great human drama story of a guy who has an emotional awakening," Tapert said. "It's a great journey."

DeKnight added: "It's a guy who was an absolute no one and almost brought down the Roman republic. Almost, kind of by accident. He never set out to do that. The Romans basically sent him into slavery and trained him on how to defeat the Republic inadvertently, and it's such a great story. ... The way we're telling it, Spartacus is not a golden person. He learns to be something more than a man."

Viewers can expect lots of action. "Somebody's ass gets kicked every episode," Tapert said.

Tapert sets the scene. "They begin before Spartacus was captured by the Romans," he said. "We start when he actually joins the Roman auxiliary. Historically, the Romans had invaded Thrace. So a lot of the Thracian soldiers had signed up for the auxiliary. So we have a whole story before he actually gets to a ludus [a gladiatorial school], where he's sold into slavery. This is based on some scraps of historical evidence. Some say that he was a soldier in the auxiliary, and he deserted and got sentenced into slavery."

Tapert said that it seemed like a traditional comic-book origin story (a companion graphic novel is available now) and that it naturally had breaks for seasons. Convenient of Spartacus to hook that up. DeKnight gave us a little insight to what historical evidence there actually is about the man. And there is actually very little. "It's .. .a bunch of scraps here and there that you can read about in an hour and a half," Taper said. "And even those scraps, before he broke out of the gladiator school, there's practically nothing known about the man. What is in these historical documents is all contradictory. ... So it left it wide open for us to actually craft who the man actually was."

The footage revealed a very graphic novel/300 look. "We were liberated by 300," Tapert said. "300 was a bold statement. And Gladiator, to its credit, was beautiful, and I felt like I was in Rome. And when they made Rome, which was a very expensive series, I felt like I was in Rome. But we didn't have the financial resources, and those guys has already covered that all, ... and Zack Snyder brought a style, brought Frank Miller to life. And the upside of that we'll see going forward. Hopefully, there are other TV shows who are doing it. ... And we've done it in this style, which is to ... generate backgrounds that don't have to mimic Rome 100 percent, or Capua, as ... a lot of our series is talking heads inside empty rooms, and that's what's actually going to carry the series going forward."

Obviously, the producers were pretty happy to take on a topic that didn't actually have a lot of facts to stick to. Tapert talked about approaching DeKnight about the subject. "I said, 'Do you know anything about history?'" he said. "He said no. And I said, 'Good, g-ddamn it, because I don't care about it.'"

Tapert said that if the historical facts didn't fit the story they were trying to tell, they threw it out, believing that the "average punter, as they say in New Zealand," wouldn't have a problem with it. This is hardly a surprise, considering that he did the same thing with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. DeKnight called it "bending" history, saying that it had to be done. "But we try not to break it."

Spartacus: Blood and Sand will debut Friday, Jan. 22, 2010, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.