When he’s not plotting the course for the second season of Starz Entertainment’s gladiator series, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” executive producer and writer Steve DeKnight can be found playing games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Gears of War 2 on his Xbox 360. One of a growing number of Hollywood creatives who’s grown up with a controller in his hands, DeKnight talks about the new Spartacus iPhone videogame, which could be heading to the iPad, as well as the technology behind the groundbreaking TV series and the impact videogames are having in Hollywood today in this exclusive interview.
How has modern technology enabled you to bring ancient Rome to life?
In the show we use modern technology -- the graphic comic book style pioneered by Zack Snyder and 300 -- to retell an ancient story that many people think they know, but they don’t know all of the details. We really use technology to bring to life the ancient world of Rome and the Republic. Before the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire, it’s a very turbulent and violent and sexual time.
Why did you choose to use that technology to tell your story?
One of the reasons we wanted to take that technology and use it on “Spartacus” is not only because it lends itself to the graphic novel feel of the show, but also, quite frankly, it extends our budget. We can have an epic feel and vistas that we just cannot afford on a television budget. You can’t afford to go to all of these locations on a TV schedule. A TV schedule is incredibly tight. We shoot these episodes in basically 11 days, as opposed to a movie which sometimes we’ll shoot 70 days. The budget for Zack Snyder’s movie, 300, which is small by Hollywood standards, is still pretty much twice our budget. His was a two-hour movie, ours is basically a thirteen-hour movie. It really helps to stretch the dollar, and give us a different look. We really wanted to put a show on television that you can’t see anywhere else. Love it, hate it, all I can guarantee is you will not see anything else like this on television.
How did working with Starz allow you to push the boundaries to bring the world of Spartacus to life?
Well, Starz has been fantastic. To start with, it’s a premium cable channel, so we don’t have the same restrictions that you do on network television with language, nudity or violence. What it really allowed us to do is explore all those aspects as we saw fit in each episode of the show. We were always pushing the boundaries of how far we could tell the story. The great thing about this show is that we all agreed we did not want to go for middle of the road. Middle of the road is where you get run over. We were always swinging for the fences and trying to just do the most bold, audacious piece of work we could. That means, of course, that sometimes we go too far. We absolutely go too far sometimes, but we would rather go too far than not far enough. Eventually, we find the exact blend of sex, violence, and story. That’s really part and parcel of ancient Rome. It was a very visceral time. It was a very violent time. It was a very sexual time.
With “Spartacus,” how many seasons do you think this series can continue?
We’ve always talked about five to seven. The great thing -- and the slightly negative side for longevity for “Spartacus” -- is it’s a set story in history. Each season we’re going to hit certain historical points. Depending on how well the show is doing after each season, the next season we decide, “Allright, how far along do we want to proceed?” The golden number is always at least five years, and then after that it depends on where we are. The show, as designed, can go five to seven.
Can you talk about the new “Spartacus” iPhone videogame?
The iPhone game is basically a fighting game. It’s a one-on-one fighter with Wi-Fi capabilities, so you can beat the crap out of your friends because everybody loves that. It’s very bloody, very brutal. In the finishing moves, you just shock your opponent to hell.
Does the game follow the TV storyline?
We take a few different liberties with the game to streamline it, but it definitely parallels it. You start with Spartacus the Thracian. He fights Glaber. He’s transported to Capua, and from there he faces various characters that he will face on the show.
How did you work with the developers of the game?
It was back and forth. They came up with a great idea. In the early stages, it was, “Should we follow the story exactly?” We decided, “No, we should not follow lock step with the story because it didn’t really translate into the gameplay, especially such an abbreviated gameplay experience on the iPhone.” They came up with some great ideas, we refined it from there, and it was a lot of back and forth. They would send me stuff, we’d tinker with it, discuss it, and they would deploy our notes.
Have you seen Activision’s Modern Warfare 2 and its $1 billion take impact Hollywood?
That’s tough to say where I’m sitting in Hollywood, which is an office in Burbank, frantically trying to figure out Season 2 of Spartacus. Listen, when you start talking numbers like that, Hollywood takes notice and there are definitely ripples and reverberations.
What do you think it says that the writer of that game is “NCIS’s” Jesse Stern?
Yeah, yeah. I know Jesse. We’re at the same agency. I think that kind of crossover is fantastic. I think when you get really talented, established Hollywood writers to work on games, it just increases the reality of the game, and the enjoyability, and the gameplay, and the story. That really comes through in the Modern Warfare series.
How have you seen videogames infiltrate Hollywood over the years?
It’s interesting. They were really the red-headed stepchild for quite awhile. Hollywood didn’t quite understand them. Games really used them more as a marketing tool for their own films. If anybody remembers the disastrous ET game, which still haunts my childhood nightmares. To be so excited about a game, and then to get that! It took Hollywood quite a while to realize that videogames can stand on their own. What I really think the turning point was when videogames started to make as much as movies. That’s when I think Hollywood really started to consider video games in a completely different light.
Hollywood likes to follow the money.
They do. And videogames are an entity of their own. And obviously now Hollywood is extremely interested in being in the videogame business and adapting videogames to movies, often with some questionable success. I think we’re still working out the kinks on that system. Again, it’s that synergy where we want to be in business with the console games, and not just take properties and make them, or develop properties from film that are already…and translate them into videogames. I think it’s an exciting time for Hollywood and the gaming industry as we continue to move closer and help each other move into the future.
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About the Author
John Gaudiosi has been covering videogames for the past 20 years for outlets like The Washington Post, CNET, Wired Magazine and CBS.com. He has focused on the convergence of entertainment and videogames for outlets like Video Business, Home Media Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Gamerlive.TV and is also a freelance game columnist for Reuters and writes for outlets like Forbes.com, NVISION, Official PlayStation Magazine, EGM Now, Geek Monthly, PrimaGames.com, and Yahoo! Games. John also serves as the video game expert for NBC in Washington D.C. and has produced videogame documentaries for The History Channel and Starz Entertainment. John was named one of the Top 50 Game Journalists in the world by Next-Gen.biz in 2007. He is the co-author of Scholastic Books' How to Get into Videogames, Prima Publishing's Madden: Twenty Years of Videogame Football and Electronic Arts: The Official History.