Diana Gabaldon and Ronald D. Moore on ‘Outlander,’ the Books, and the Series

Ronald D Moore and Diana Gabaldon Outlander Interview
Outlander Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore (Photo © 2014 Sony Pictures Television Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

You couldn’t walk more than 100 feet at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con without seeing a display, banners, posters, or handsome men dressed in kilts promoting Starz’ new series, Outlander. Based on the best-selling book series by Diana Gabaldon, the much-anticipated dramatic series is executive produced by Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Roswell, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and stars Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe in the lead roles of 1940s nurse Claire Randall and the Scottish Highlander she falls in love with 200 years in the past, Jamie Fraser. At Comic Con to show off the series’ premiere and hold Q&As with fans, author Gabaldon and Moore also took part in roundtable interviews with a handful of journalists to discuss the show’s upcoming first season kicking off on August 9, 2014.

Ronald D. Moore and Diana Gabaldon Outlander Interview

How does it feel to see your stories become a different medium?

Diana Gabaldon: “It’s been terrific. It has been really, really interesting. That’s partly because they’ve done it so well and because we had 16 hours and not two to deal with it. I have read scripts written by very respectable scriptwriters of my first book. I told Ron when I read his pilot script, I said, ‘This is the first bit of work based on my books that did not make me turn white or burst into flame.'”

Can you talk about some of the arcs you had to expand on, like the garrison commander which was essentially a couple of pages in the book?

Ronald D. Moore: “That was interesting because it’s one of the most memorable passages in the book, and I think every fan looks forward to that scene. But then yeah, you read it and it’s really only a couple of pages. And I just felt in television, you wanted to enjoy that more and you wanted to spend more time in that room. You really wanted to go there because in the week-to-week of the show, Jack Randall is off camera for a big chunk of time and now he’s back in the show. And if he was back in the show for just two or three minutes and then we left, I think you would feel disappointed and it wouldn’t have the same impact. It’s different, reading and watching are just fundamentally different experiences and for the show, it was, ‘Oh, he’s back and let’s really enjoy this. Let’s make a meal out of this encounter with the garrison commander.’ It turned out to be one of the best episodes we’ve done.”

When you two work together, do you expand on any of the characters’ motivations?

Diana Gabaldon: “No, it wasn’t the motivation as such. It was a bit of the background of the encounter and it was the encounter itself. And the grippingness of it is due in large part to Tobias’s acting of it, because it goes well beyond what was actually in the script in terms of impact.”

Was there a need compact the first book into the first season, or could you play with the format?

Ronald D. Moore: “I think from the very beginning we kind of said we’ll do a book a season. That was kind of the general format. You know, Game of Thrones certainly blazed that trail for all of us trying to do this, because that was what they did and it was successful. We said, ‘Well, it makes sense. Each book has a season unto itself and let’s just go forward like that.'”

Scotland is almost a character onto itself in the first book, but then we don’t think as much about it in subsequent books. Will that be true of the series?

Ronald D. Moore: “It will evolve.”

Diana Gabaldon: “It will be through the second season should we be fortunate enough, but as you read the books, you will also notice that there’s this constant longing for Scotland on the part of the people who have left it. And to a certain extent, they recreate that culture in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee which are visually very similar. Far more trees, things like that. It’s not up to me to say but it might work somehow the way he’s done the flashbacks to the 1940s with Claire going back to those. We might have flashbacks to the bits in Scotland, either things that we’ve seen happen before or things that we haven’t seen happen before, but were there nonetheless.”

What was the casting process, especially for the two leads?

Ronald D. Moore: “Interesting. Not what we expected going in. I thought that we would cast Claire first and that Jamie would be the last one cast. Of course it was exactly the opposite. We just saw Sam’s tape and we hadn’t gotten very far into casting and we said, ‘Oh my God, there’s Jamie. Let’s grab him. Let’s just grab him while we can.’ And then we just thought, ‘Oh, Claire will be easy compared to that because there’s a lot of great actresses. She’s a modern character so she’s closer to the audience.’ It took a long time. We saw a lot of actresses. She was cast very late in the process. It was a similar moment. We saw Caitriona [Balfe’s] tape and we just said, ‘That’s Claire.’ And then it was just a matter of putting the two of them in a room together and seeing what the chemistry was. The chemistry was there and that was it.”

And casting Tobias as Black Jack Randall and Frank Randall?

Diana Gabaldon: “I didn’t hear anything about that. I was just informed by phone one day that he was it and they sent me his audition tapes, which were fantastic.”

Ronald D. Moore: “He had to read both roles. He had to read a Frank scene and a Jack scene. We were always looking for somebody who would make a distinction between the two characters without making a caricature. He didn’t want Jack to be THIS and Frank to be this. Some actors would just go down that road, and he had an ability to convey the similarities in the men and the differences in the men in subtle ways from just the way he would stand or carry himself, tics and slight variations in voice. It was just an interesting, textured performance and we realized this is ideal because you can see some of Frank in Jack and some of Jack in Frank, and yet they’re two distinct men.”

Now that you’ve seen the show, how will it impact your writing?

Diana Gabaldon: “It won’t impact it at all. I’ve already written that book.”

But going forward?

Diana Gabaldon: “But I’m not writing about those people in that place. I’m writing about people who are 30 years on in their life and a number of other people who have entered the story since then. They’re in the American colonies at the moment. They might potentially be in Canada at one point or farther in the American South. All of the books have at least one foot in Scotland, then go back, but there’s nothing in what’s being filmed that would affect the story that I’m writing now.”

How much were you concerned about pleasing the fan base or were you creating this and hoping the fans would sign on?

Ronald D. Moore: “Well, it’s a little bit of both. We said let’s be true to the book, let’s be as faithful as we can to the book and let’s make the characters recognizable as the characters that are in the book. At the same time, you can’t give over your creative impulses to the fans. I’ve always said a TV show is not a democracy. You can’t let the fans say what they want or don’t want, because a lot of times they don’t know what they want or they think they want this and they don’t really want that. You just have to go by your own artistic instincts and hope for the best. That’s what we did.”

What was it like being on the set?

Diana Gabaldon: “Oh, it was fantastic. It was really exciting because it’s so beautifully done.”

Was it everything you visualized?

Diana Gabaldon: “Oh, a lot more. It was just terrific. You call it ‘Outlander World’. It’s this giant disused circuit board factory that’s been gutted and redesigned and they have 400 people at a time working in there. All the plastering shops and carpentry shots and even an onsite kitchen where they make food for the feast. Part of it’s artificial and part of it’s real. They were stuffing haggises when we were there. I was amazed, not only at the level of detail but the quality of the detail and the precision with which it all works. You know, everybody is busy all of the time and they’re all doing exactly what they ought to be doing and doing it well. I’d never seen a business work that well.”

Ronald D. Moore: “It’s a very dedicated crew. Our crew is predominantly Scottish and U.K. based and they just love the show, they care about all the details and they work very hard to make the show look as good as it does.”

Diana Gabaldon: “They certainly do.”

Will you stay in Scotland?

Ronald D. Moore: “We will definitely if we get a second season. We’d definitely do it into the second season. Beyond that, you make me tired, I don’t know what to do.”

Diana Gabaldon: “Can’t think that far ahead.”

Ronald D. Moore: “Yeah, I can’t think that far ahead.”

Did you keep any of the props?

Ronald D. Moore: “You mean that she stole? Did she steal props from the set?”

Diana Gabaldon: “No, I can’t say so. I want one of those hats that people wear. That’s my husband. See if he can get me one of those. He said, ‘I can probably make you one.'”

Ronald D. Moore: “I want Jack Randall’s sword.”

Diana Gabaldon: “Really? That’s a good one.”

Ronald D. Moore: “I want Randall’s sword. I’m sure Tobias will snap it before I get it.”

There are a few changes from the book to the screen, including something Claire actually does in the series that she only wanted to do in the books. Does it change the dynamic with Jamie not being a selfish lover and Frank being more selfish, self-involved? Are you worried about the fan reaction?

Diana Gabaldon: “He’s not selfish at all. He’s not portrayed that way in the books either. It’s just that he is a more reserved lover. He’s thoughtful and sensitive and so forth, but as she says, ‘Jamie having no technique, no experience, gave me all of himself.’ That’s a different thing, but it’s just a matter of personality, not whether one is a good lover and the other one’s bad because I’m talking about the further things in that relationship. You will see slight differences but they’ll work. I thought that that worked actually quite well.

There are always the fans who will sit there with the book in their lap going, ‘What???’ And they’re cheating themselves of the pleasure both in the book and of the film if they’re not willing to accept it as being a different thing. It’s just a different experience of the same story, but it makes the entire experience much richer because now they have the visual aspect and they also have this wonderful sense of novelty and discovery. There’s little things that are not in the book but they could’ve been in the book. There are these other things that plainly happened before the book like the prologue in the military hospital. I don’t think anyone’s going to complain about that just because it wasn’t in the book. It works.”

Some people might have the misconception that there’s a lot of sci-fi/supernatural elements in the series? What can you say about the supernatural elements and how much they’ll be in the series?

Diana Gabaldon: “Well, actually it’s not supernatural. Time travel actually has a physical basis and explanation. It’s just that we experience it along with the characters who are having to learn it by trial and error because there is no handbook for time travelers. What’s happening to Claire is not magic. It’s not ghostliness or anything. Now, there is a ghost in the beginning and he’ll show up again at the very end of the series but in between, we need not worry about it. He’s just minding his own business. Really, there is not really much supernatural to speak of.

There is a fantastic element, or what my first agent described as the ‘Woo Woo Element’, but this is the main conflict of the story, at least in the beginning. This is what’s driving Claire is the need to get back to her own time. So it’s that displacement. It might’ve been a shipwreck like in Shogun but it is the precipitating instance. And again, that’s where that story, it was the need of the main character to try to get home and back to a familiar culture, meanwhile being sucked into the culture where they are and forming ties and being enmeshed by the life that they’re in while still struggling to get to the life they left. So you’re right, it is a drama. It’s just that the time travel forms the basis of the conflict there. Now in later books, the time travel emerges in different ways and we do, as I say, explore it further. But for our first book and first season, that’s what it’s for.”

-By Rebecca Murray

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