Ronald D. Moore envisioned a season of premium television, broken into one-hour segments, as soon as he read Diana Gabaldon’s first book in the historical fantasy romance series “Outlander.” It’s how his mind works. He saw the world, respected Gabaldon’s attention to research and detail — and her ability to write a bodice-ripping romance (more than 25 million copies sold worldwide) that’s packed with unexpected plots twists. Having worked in the “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica” universes, Moore knows how to create a grounded, immersive world with engaging characters who carry you through the narrative. (Eight Season One episodes are on available on Netflix.) “Outlander” may be a fantasy, but it’s believable. And sexy as hell.
We spoke as “Outlander” Season 2 was unspooling on Starz, leaving behind the rugged Scottish highlands for Jacobean intrigue in Versailles. “It was great to do something fresh and completely different,” Moore said. “A lot of television is doing the same show. We have the ability on this show because of the nature of the books to completely evolve the show and change … It was like creating a whole new TV show.”
The time-travel plot certainly sounds like femme fiction: after the war, Claire and her PTSD husband Frank Randall take a vacation to rekindle their marriage; they go to the Scottish highlands, where one of his ancestors fought the 18th-century Jacobite rebellion. It’s working, until she disappears after touching an ancient rune stone in a forest clearing. She’s whisked back in time to 1745, where she encounters the very same Captain “Black Jack” Randall, and falls in with a clan of Highlanders who are fiercely opposed to the British.
This rough band of warriors look after her as they travel the moors on horseback, but eventually she must marry – luckily, it’s the hunky Jamie Fraser, whose wounds she’s been tending. He’s been tortured, at great length and with great pleasure, by Randall, who has clearly gone to the dark side and nourishes a wee sexual crush on Jamie and is willing to torture Claire as well, although she is saved before he does too much damage. Jamie’s wounds, however, run deeper than the lattice of scars across his muscled back.
What’s fascinating about this series is not only the well-matched attraction of a well-educated 1940s woman and an 18th century Scottish Laird, but how they navigate their clashing views and mores –in his world, men tell their women what to do and women obey, and they get spanked if they don’t. Healers tinkering with herbs and potions can easily be accused of witchcraft, even drawn and quartered as punishment. (In one scene a surgeon explains the gory details to the horrified Claire.)
“Outlander” Season 2, following the books, takes a dramatic turn as the young couple escape from their troubles in Scotland and sail to France, where they get involved in the burgeoning Jacobite rebellion. This means learning how to conduct themselves at the French court in Versailles; costume designer Terry Dresbach went all out with some stunning period gowns for Claire. “It wasn’t cheap: amazing costumes and sets, a completely different palette than what we had year one,” said Moore, “when we had more rustic heavy stones and the dark woods of Scotland and castles. Now it’s the aristocracy, crystal and china and expensive fabrics, more talk, more conspiratorial political machinations and back room double dealing.”
Moore was bent on making this world authentic, and demanded a premium budget to do so. “You’re asking the audience to go on this fantastical journey, to travel through time.” he said. “The more grounded and real the world and characters seemed to them, the more willing the audience would be to take a leap of faith. If the characters are taking it seriously, then I will too. If you did it with wink toward the audience, they’d distance themselves and not be as willing to engage emotionally, to feel something.”
Moore’s job as showrunner is to supervise the writers room (two women, two men, and him, “the first among equals”): “It’s a jump ball, we argue about how to get the best scene and I pull the best ideas out of the group.” And the men and women, two fans of the books and two not, get to write various genres, from a western and a road show, to political intrigue. And they often have pitched battles about what to include. Moore makes the final call.
He also approves the casting, which was “tricky,” Moore admits. They cast Sam Heughan as Jamie first, though they thought he would be the tough one to find: “He’s the perfect man, we call him the King of Men.” Tobias Menzies had to play two characters in two time frames: “You wanted someone who isn’t going to make either man a caricature, both had to be legitimate people.”
Caitriona Balfe was actually the last one in: “I thought the role of Claire would be easier to cast, the 20th-century smart British modern woman. She turned out to be the one who took the longest to cast, once we started looking at the tapes. This was a specific, very demanding role. It’s a first-person narrative, we’re going to be looking at this character intently. The actress had to be able to carry every scene every day. We watch her think on camera, her voiceover is talking to you all the time, we ask the audience to engage in a very intimate relationship with this actress. We couldn’t find somebody to embody all those things. Her dominant characteristic was her intelligence, everything flows from that.”
Moore was responsible for setting the tone, look, and sound of the entire production, hiring directors and cinematographers to shoot blocks of two hours, and supervising the rhythm of the show in post-production. Filming on location in Scotland proved a blessing and a curse for “Outlander” Season 1, which is basically one long exterior road movie shot in harsh elements without benefit of cover sets: “The crews were out there in the mud hauling heavy equipment up slick slopes in the dead of night.”
For the pivotal Season 1 wedding episodes, Moore brought in Anna Foerster to direct, and hopes to hire more women. Foerster is adept at handling the rigors of outdoor filming on horseback as well as the indoor intimacies of lovemaking. “I wanted a woman to direct this key moment in the entire series, when we do a lot of sex in the show for the first time,” he said. “It’s a big component in the books, a wedding night with two people who have gotten married before they’ve fallen in love. It was my gut instinct. I wanted a woman to do it, not to give it the traditional perspective on TV, which is not the way we do human sexuality, I find it boring. I don’t find TV sex particularly sexual, it’s just not the way human beings usually have sex. ‘Let’s do something different, make it more honest, how do they actually treat each other? How could we differentiate the lovemaking in the episode?’ They make love three times: let’s get it over with, then they explore their sexuality and the fun of it, then there’s a meeting of souls, an emotional component. We take the audience through that journey.”
Much of the show is dealing with the impact of war on people, and how they recover. This includes scenes of intense torture as Black Jack Randall has his way with Jamie. “It’s about power and trust and vulnerability,” said Moore. “How long do you look at something, and when you cut away, are tools in the storyteller’s box. I wanted the audience to be horrified and shocked, but I didn’t want them to turn the channel.”