Outlander Writer Shares Secrets From the Hit Starz Show

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lunch at michaelsThe city is chock-full of creative types and even more suits than usual this week, as many of the networks present their 2015-2016 slate of programming during the annual Upfronts. I was lucky enough to snag some time with Ron Moore, executive producer and writer of Outlander, who’s in town to talk up Starz’s breakout hit series. Produced by Sony Pictures Television, the show is based on Diana Gabaldon’s beloved best-selling (25 million copies and counting) eight book odyssey. The books spin an epic time-traveling tale of World War II nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe) who is transported to 18th century Scotland and falls in love with Jamie (Sam Heughan). The cinematic series has plenty going for it: gorgeous castles, swashbuckling men in kilts and of course, plenty of bodice-ripping romance.

Ron Moore and Diane Clehane
Ron Moore and Diane Clehane

According to the network, when the series premiered last August, it set multi-platform records, averaging 5.1 million viewers, with some episodes pulling in as many as 6.2 million. Outlander’s freshman season was split in two parts (the first eight episodes aired last summer) and the midseason premiere, the first of eight new episodes, will air on April 4. Fans created the hashtag #Droughtlander for their social media threads, where they dissected and discussed the series during its absence. The show currently has 500,000 Facebook fans, with 100,000 on Twitter and 50,000 on Instagram.

“It was Starz’s decision,” said Ron of the split season. “It was always going to be 16 episodes split into two groups and they told me to think of what would make a strong midseason finale.” Mission accomplished. The first half of the season focused on Claire’s search for a way home and in the penultimate episode, despite having her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), back in 1945 trying to figure out what happened to her, she marries Jamie. The bliss is short-lived when Claire is abducted and attacked before Jamie rescues her. In Act Two, she’s now embraced her new life and battles new foes to fight alongside her new husband. According to the network’s press release: “Ruthless redcoats, volatile clan politics, and a brutal witch trial force Jamie and Claire to escape to a new home. Just when their life as a married couple begins to take shape, Jamie is once again drawn into Captain Randall’s darkness. Ultimately, Claire discovers there is a fate worse than death as she struggles to save Jamie’s heart, as well as his soul.” Proving, once again, that the first year of marriage is always the hardest.

Ron arrived fresh off doing an XM Sirius broadcast with the Outlander cast and is gearing up for the big premiere tonight at the Ziegfeld, where a few thousand fans (broken up into two screenings), along with assorted VIPs, will get to see the first new episode and attend a Q&A with the show’s stars. Having gotten his start in television writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation (more on that later) and later creating the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, Ron knows a thing or two about dealing with a franchise’s fervent fans. I asked him what it’s been like adapting material so revered by the books’ legions of fans in another medium. “It’s an interesting balance,” he told me between bites of Cobb salad. “This is my first time doing an adaptation. I’ve always appreciated fans going back to my days on Star Trek. Fans always come from a position of loving the show. [As a writer] you just don’t want to screw it up.”

Fat chance of that happening. A lifelong fan of sci-fi on television (as a youngster Ron bought The Making of Star Trek at an elementary school book fair and “was hooked”), he headed out to Los Angeles “to become a writer” and slept on the floor of a friend’s home in Studio City after flunking out of Cornell. He landed a job as part of the writing staff of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he worked on 27 episodes, including the two-hour series finale All Good Things, for which he won a Hugo Award in 1994. That same year, Ron scored an Emmy nomination and was named a producer on the series. He went on to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and when that series ended, he created Battlestar Galactica, for which he nabbed an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. In 2008, he won one for the Battlestar Galactica webisodes. He was also showrunner and executive producer for HBO’s Carnivale, where he met his wife, costume designer Terry Dresbach.

It was Terry that turned him on to Outlander, said Ron. “She was a fan of the books and when I read the first one, I could picture the episodes in my head.” It took six years to convince the rights holder of the material that the books were better suited to television than film. “I kept checking periodically and then three years ago, we finally convinced them.” Terry is now the costume designer on Outlander which is, said Ron, “a huge job.” It involves a tremendous amount of research and keeps her in Scotland, where the series is shot, during the duration of production. The couple have two children, ages 14 and 16, and Ron spends much of his time commuting back and forth between Los Angeles and Scotland. “I’m a husband and father — but seldom both at the same time.”

Despite the challenges his schedule poses to maintain any semblance of a work-life balance, filming in Scotland is a huge advantage for the show, explained Ron. While some of the series is shot in a studio, there is no shortage of stunning locations in the Scottish midlands, many untouched by time, that help transport viewers to the 18th century. “We shot in Doune Castle, which was built in the 14th century and we don’t have to build anything. It’s ready to go. We’ve also shot in plenty of villages that have not been seen on film before. It all adds a degree of authenticity.” I noted that like that other wildly popular costume drama, Downton Abbey, Outlander features a cast of actors largely unfamiliar to American audiences, which helps make the show more of an immersive viewing experience. “We discussed some names, but I think we always thought we’d wind up going that way because of that reason,” said Ron. “It makes everything more believable.”

One aspect of the production that does pose “enormous” logistical challenges is changing locations as the story evolves. “In season two, we’re in Paris and everything is different — the costumes, the sets and because of the time travel, we’re always shooting two different periods,” explained Ron. “With most television shows, there’s a ‘home base’ which saves a lot of time and money. With this [show] we shoot and move, leaving things behind, never to return and there’s always new cast members to dress and sets to build. It’s incredibly expensive but Starz really puts their money where their mouth is.”

I was fascinated listening to Ron talk about the creative process and it was clear that bringing an idea from the printed page and seeing it come alive is truly his passion. He is “first among equals” in the show’s writers room, where six others are charged with writing full scripts. The best ideas are culled to create the episode that gets shot. “It’s a happy room,” he said, noting that this team is comprised of all but one writer he’s worked with on previous projects. For the most part, he’s enjoyed every writer’s room he’s been a part of — except on Carnivale. “That was not a pleasant place to be. We didn’t like each other.” You’ve got to enjoy writing to make it work. “I do think you have to love it,” he said. “You see shows where you can tell people are phoning it in and that has to be a soul sucking experience. You have to work just as hard to make a bad show as you on a good show so you might as well do a good show.” Clearly, Ron’s talents have yielded the latter. As we said our goodbyes, I told him that there must be something unique to his creative talents that have resulted in making these wildly popular shows hit.  “You can try to make it good but you can’t make it successful,” he told me. “It takes a lot of luck.”

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