Kicking off the big weekend I attended Outlander Executive Producer Ron D. Moore’s panel on Friday to get myself ready for Saturday. It was at a smaller venue near the mammoth Javits Center and so it was more intimate. Chris Parnell, the Sony Pictures Television Co-President, along with Mark A. Altman a “trekspert” and author, both moderated the discussion.
Here are some fun facts about Ron and the beginning of his career:
- Failed out of Cornell in his senior year when he realized he didn’t want to become a lawyer nor go into the navy.
- Moved back to California after a friend said, “You like to write. Come out to California with me and become a writer!”
- He worked as an animal hospital receptionist and other odd jobs.
- His girlfriend at the time knew he was a Star Trek fan and she hooked him up to take a tour of the sets so in the six week interim he decided to write a spec script thinking “This is my chance!” He gave the script to someone on the tour who ended up being an Executive Producer’s assistant. After months of being in the slush pile the script was re-discovered and he was hired as a writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
- As a child he put on plays and was obsessed with space. He was a big “Lost in Space” fan but then discovered Star Trek and was “profoundly” affected. It changed his world view and politics.
- The old adage “write what you know” does not really apply to him since he doesn’t know what it’s like to be in space or time travel. It takes stories he’s heard and might know from others. He’ll take history whether Samurai or Norse mythology to parallel a story for Klingons for example.
- He’s interested in characters who have a hard moral choice to make. It might be difficult to tell what’s right or wrong and the answer doesn’t always satisfy.
- He prefers television where the writer is king whereas in film that power shifts to the director.
Let’s talk about Outlander!
- People were surprised that the ground-breaking sci-fi guy would produce a sweeping romance. “It was not a big leap” seeing as Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek were period pieces. It didn’t feel different or stretching too much he said. From a business standpoint it already had a built-in audience and story wise it was, as he put it, compelling to experience a woman’s adventure in the past.
- In the first drafts of the pilot, there was more of Claire’s voice over. Ron also broke her POV by cutting to Dougal and Colum but the network didn’t want it. “Make it her POV” since the book is first person narration. Ron deduced that you can shift POV to someone like Jamie (which they eventually did) so he rewrote the pilot with her POV.
- Now that the show has been guaranteed two more seasons, there is a bigger pot of money where the writers can expand and plan the story better.
- Ron and Maril call Outlander a “road show” since the story doesn’t stay in one place. Ron joked about Diana Gabaldon’s stories, “Can’t you go somewhere and stay there?!” It would be easier if Claire traveled back in time and stayed at Castle Leoch forever! Instead, they are always building new sets every season and changing locations. Ron said that this show is like making movies on a TV budget. They’re constantly pushing and squeezing production i.e. saving money on an episode because the last one went over budget.
- About writing female lead characters: He liked writing lead women into his stories because on a show like Star Trek it was different. He thought, “What if a woman was the captain instead?” which sounded more interesting. He’s more attracted to stories that have different POVs.
- Ron was asked about Frank and how important is that relationship for Claire? Frank is foundational to character of Claire. In the first season, she’s trying to get back to him so he had to be worthy in order to understand her. Now Frank is a part of Brianna’s life. The writers liked Tobias Menzies so much they wanted to keep writing for him. When asked if we will see him again Ron was coy and gave the obligatory “in a show about time travel…” (but fans on social media have an indication we may see Frank again).
- In Season 4, the story takes place in the colonies which is a big shift. They had to use different locations than where they went before and Scotland has stone edifices whereas the colonies had wood so the visualization was different including hair, costumes, and sets. Also, there’s more visual effects this season to make Scotland look like North Carolina. This season we’re delving into American history after being in Scottish history.
Finally, Ron talked about showrunning. As a showrunner you are the leader (they are commonly the head writer). While overseeing writing they are also in charge of production and setting a tone. It’s important to ask if everyone has ownership? Are people screaming at each other? You have to know a little bit of everything (“I know a lot about costumes!”) and enough to lead a team. If you’re over budget, start asking where can you cut a couple of pages? Are there superfluous sets that maybe you can cut or combine with another? What can be sacrificed?
I appreciated hearing him talk about showrunning and how important it was to be a leader. Particularly making sure that crew felt like they had ownership of their contributions and the show. As a person who works in the industry, I can’t tell you how great it was to hear that coming from him. I appreciated his understanding that when people have a sense of ownership they want to ensure that a show like Outlander succeeds and is the best they can make it. This morale boost has dividends when production can be up to ten months of grueling hard work and long hours.
It was great hearing about his experience in a more intimate venue and to hear fans of his other shows ask their burning questions! Obviously Outlander fans like me are not the only ones in awe of him. Unfortunately I wasn’t permitted to say hello to him after the panel which was a bummer but I’m crossing my fingers to bump into him someday. Hopefully by then I’ll have watched Battlestar Galactica!
Well Friday was the jump-off for me and the next day was gonna be the BIG day…