Fans of science-fiction might naturally gravitate toward any new series bearing the words “From Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore.” But Battlestar Galactica addicts coming to Outlander who are unfamiliar with the Diana Gabaldon books the new Starz period piece is based on should know this going in: Despite its time-travel plot device, the show is not science-fiction. The story line follows a British woman named Claire Randall from 1945 who, while on a second honeymoon in Scotland, is sent back through time to the year 1743, where she encounters her husband’s nefarious Redcoat ancestor and falls in with a clan of locals. Moore refers to the show as magical fantasy. “Sci-fi is just a different period piece,” Moore told Vulture over lunch at a Mexican restaurant during a recent visit to New York. “It’s a period of the future, and this is a period of the past.” He spoke to us about what Outlander has in common with Game of Thrones, why he didn’t cast anyone from Battlestar Galactica, and what’s under his kilt.
So you’ve started a fashion trend: men at Outlander fan events dressing in kilts.
[Laughs.] Really? That’s great. That was the idea. I have four kilts now, but I can’t wear them every day, especially if I’m getting in and out of cars or sitting in chairs.
Are you wearing your kilt in the, um, traditional sense?
There’s only one way to find out! [Grins.] I wear it in the traditional style.
That has to make things easier when nature calls — which is something we get to see from the 18th-century Scotsmen in the show.
There was access! [Laughs.] You can see in the second episode, though, how complicated the female costumes are. That dressing scene took a good 20 minutes at first, from shift to underskirt to corsets. It’s so much easier to take them off.
There are a lot of fun period details like that. But this show isn’t strictly historical fiction — there’s time-travel, romance, adventure. What genre is it?
I would call it magical fantasy. It’s not science-fiction, because it’s not technologically based. The time-travel has something to do with the forces of nature, and it’s built into the fabric of the universe. And time-travel will be bigger later. But for now, we’re going to take it one season at a time, and for the first season, it’s just a mysterious, unknowable aspect of the show. Claire doesn’t understand how or why it works. She just hopes she can get back to her own time. And we don’t really define it, so the audience won’t know either — is this a magic thing, the standing stones? An alien artifact? We don’t give them any real clues in any particular direction. I’m just going to help myself … [Grabs some chips.]
Part of the joy of doing a show like this, or Battlestar, or Star Trek, is that we get to create a world that doesn’t exist. Here’s an entire world that used to be, and isn’t any more. And people can lose themselves in the details, the customs, the clothing. There’s a whole world of detail. A Game of Thrones–type show is more fantasy, because they create entire landscapes and buildings that don’t exist, but this is a lot more practical. We’re building practical sets. We haven’t had a single green-screen day. This is the best guacamole I’ve had in months, by the way …
Although Outlander does have a few things in common with Game of Thrones. For the fictional Castle Leoch, you’re using the same location they use for Winterfell, the real-life Castle Doune.
The courtyard, right? Right, right, right. It’s also [from] Monty Python and the Holy Grail! If you go there on a tourist day, you have people yelling lines from Monty Python, and you can get the coconuts in the gift shop. Hopefully, when this is over, they’ll be selling our stuff in the gift shop. It’s almost impossible to shoot inside the castle, though. So many restrictions. You can’t hang lights. Even the exterior, the courtyard, where we had the little structures and the blacksmith? You’re not allowed to anchor anything in the ground. Everything had to be able to lift off. It just made everything so complicated. This is probably the most logistically complicated production I’ve ever done, as a show to produce day to day. When you have a home base, you rely on those standing sets a lot — the CIC in Battlestar, the bridge in Star Trek, or someone’s apartment building, or the police station, or the hospital, wherever the home base is. It’s usually the place you can go to to save time, money, and energy, because everyone’s familiar with it, and there’s a certain relief, Okay, we’re going back to it. And this show doesn’t do that. Each episode is like its own movie. Episode five is outdoors, big and sweeping countryside. Episode six is like a two-man play. As a result, you’re constantly having to reinvent the show, and whatever lessons you learned last week don’t help you this week, because you’re in a completely new place with new characters, new locations.
Another Game of Thrones connection: Tobias Menzies, a.k.a. Edmure Tully, has a dual role as Claire’s husband, Frank, and his stone-hearted ancestor, Black Jack.
We had to find someone who could play both roles without making either one a caricature. I did say to Tobias in our first meeting that I was interested in finding something similar in them, a tie, or an echo, and Tobias did it with very subtle things, how he physically carries himself. I remember going to the costume fittings early on and he’d be in the fedora and coat as Frank, and I came back later, and he’d be in the red coat as Jack, and he was just a different person!
He’ll have to go to some pretty dark places as Black Jack, if you stay true to the books.
The books are adult books, and they deal with adult themes. They have graphic passages in them. They have sexuality in them. We wanted to take it to a place where we could do the book as close as we could without constant arguing over content with the network. And premium cable lets us do what we want to do. As I was reading the book for the first time, I could see it as a show in my head, because it’s a real page-turner. I fell in the world. You get pulled into what happens next. I’m a firm believer that audiences don’t tune in for the stories every week as much as they tune in to follow people they’ve fallen in love with. And in something like this, Claire, the woman at the center of this, pulls you in. She’s the audience’s eyes. Even though she’s from the 1940s, she’s still a modern character, a recognizable modern woman to us, and she’s taking us to an alien world. We don’t have to say, “Here’s a cool take on the 18th century,” because we have a modern character taking us to alien world, and it’s alien to her, like, Oh my God! How does this work? So we get to go on that journey, too. And the trick is how we do it. The plot details are out there for anybody who wants to find them. The only thing we have to hold the audience in surprise, the people who really know the books, is how we do it.
Such is the case with an exorcism scene a few episodes in, which helps ground the tensions about Claire’s appearance in this world. Or extra scenes with an important book character named Geillis Duncan.
We sometimes know what’s going to happen next, and it’s easy to get into a routine of, This is going to happen, but you want to sit up and go, “Wait! I wasn’t expecting that!” You might even get scared periodically [and go], “Are they really going to change that?!” So when you meet Geillis, you start to realize there’s something mysterious about her, and I like having the audience wonder, “Is she in charge of the stones? Is she a witch? What is this universe about? What are the rules?” But we sit on that for a while, because I didn’t want this to become a big fantasy piece. We hide the card in the deck a bit, and let the audience wonder if that’s the direction we’re going, so hopefully, when her story is revealed, it’s a little bit of a surprise.
Was there any temptation to use folks you’d worked with on Battlestar before for any of these parts?
Maybe in an early conversation? But not seriously. I don’t think we were tempted, because we said right away it was best to go with actors who weren’t identified with any other role so they didn’t bring any of that with them, so they could come in fully formed and you could accept them as their own person.
You took a break to attend Comic-Con and then hit New York, but you’re still shooting, right?
We’re still shooting. Once we wrap in late September, if we get a second season, the writers will start rolling into scripts, and post will continue. The season is split in half, and we don’t have a date for the second half yet. But I designed the story with a natural mid-season break, so where we end in episode eight is a real cliffhanger. Claire will be in Jack Randall’s clutches, and you’ll be wondering, “What’s going to happen next?!”