Outlander’s Season 3 finale, from script to screen

Shipwrecked souls
Behind the scenes of Claire and Jamie’s incredible journey

It’s a crisp June morning on Silverstroom Beach, a secluded bay located on the western cape of South Africa. The normally pristine stretch of soft white sand is littered with the debris left behind after a catastrophic shipwreck — barrels, rigging, and jagged chunks of wood.

There are two bodies on the beach, a man and a woman, both damp and dishevelled. She lies motionless as he crawls towards her, his movements desperate despite his obvious exhaustion, and sweeps the sand-matted hair from her face. For a moment, she doesn’t stir, then a wracking cough shakes her body, and relief blooms on his face.

They’re both weak, but they find their way into each other’s arms as if magnetized, momentarily oblivious to the three well-dressed strangers approaching them, carrying news that will change their lives. Their ship, which left Jamaica headed for Scotland, has been blown considerably off course, depositing them in the New World, in the colony of Georgia.

It’s the last scene of the Outlander Season 3 finale, a moment full of trepidation and possibility, as Claire and Jamie Fraser face an unknown future in America — but at this moment, stars Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan still have two weeks of filming ahead of them before the episode wraps, during which time they’ll shoot the bulk of the episode.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

With eight books and three seasons out in the world so far, we eagerly devour Jamie and Claire’s love story and demand more, more, more, but rarely get a deep look at what a herculean task it is to bring their adventure to the small screen. So with the gripping finale behind us, let’s pull back the curtain on how the latest chapter of the Frasers’ story came to life.

The journey really began in the spring of 2016, when the Outlander writers’ room gathered to begin “breaking” the season — a process in which the staff plots out the narrative for the coming year as a team, starting with the big, tentpole moments from Diana Gabaldon’s books (in this case, Voyager, the third novel in her ongoing Outlander series) which shape the overall arc, then figuring out what else needs to happen to get our characters from point A to point B each week.

Executive producers Matt Roberts and Toni Graphia once again partnered to write the finale, as they did in Season 2, with Roberts also making his directorial debut on the episode. While scripts are usually assigned to writers over the course of breaking the season, the duo always knew that episode 313 would be theirs.

“The finale is something you’re talking about all season,” says Graphia. “Starting on day one and then all through the season, everything that happens has a ripple effect and affects the finale, so we’ll take room notes literally all year long.”

Room notes keep track of all the episode ideas that the writers come up with throughout the season, and Graphia says that for the finale, “we broke our record… it was 277 pages of room notes.” For the sake of comparison, on a general episode, “you’d have maybe 25 pages,” she says.

When adapting a beloved book series, the writers at least have a framework to follow, rather than creating a season completely from scratch. But that approach also comes with its share of challenges — chiefly, choosing which fan-favorite moments will inevitably have to be left out, given the constraints of TV production.

“There’s a lot of things that really play well in novel form. They work on the page, and they’re exciting to read, and you really get into it — you feel the emotion because you put in all of your life experiences as you’re reading it,” says Roberts. “But we don’t have that luxury; we have to actually show it and we have to film it. And we only have a certain amount of money for the season, so we have to make creative choices.”

The outline of the finale (back when it was titled “Sea Change”) was written in mid-February, and it’s fascinating to see how the story evolved from there; this early version not only featured Geillis giving Young Ian back to Claire at Rose Hall without a fight, meaning that the cave ritual took place without him, but also contained another major set piece from Diana Gabaldon’s novel — an intense ocean chase between the Artemis and the Porpoise, which happened before both ships were overtaken by the storm.

“He’s been there we’re thinking about a month, getting questioned, getting seduced. He’s fed up, and this is what’s culminating in it now: he’s going to gut her if he gets the chance,” says John Bell of Young Ian’s relationship with Geillis. “He’s conflicted because he knows that this woman is not who she says she is, she’s playing a game with him, but he’s also a hormonal, sexually active teenager. He’s like, ‘why do I want this?'”
“That’s a very extensive shoot; it’s extensive visual effects, so we had to make the choice: Do we want to see Captain Leonard on the Porpoise chasing Jamie? Or do we want to see Jamie and Claire fighting a hurricane?” Roberts says. “The choice for me is always easy, I want to see Jamie and Claire.”

The writers’ guiding principle, according to Roberts, is that “the one story we absolutely have to service is the love story” between Claire and Jamie — which is why, when characters or arcs from Gabaldon’s books are omitted, it’s generally because those plot points don’t have much of an impact on the Frasers’ relationship, or would be too costly or complicated to film. But the writing staff also tries to keep fans on their toes, especially if they’ve been immersed in Gabaldon’s world for years already.

“To give the book readers a surprise, you shuffle things around a little bit and you give them something they want, but just not the way they expected it.” EXECUTIVE PRODUCER MATT ROBERTS

“Readers know the books so well that they expect things, and we have to make this enjoyable to them along with the non-readers,” Roberts explains. “To give the book readers a surprise, you shuffle things around a little bit and you give them something they want, but just not the way they expected it.”

After the outline phase, the showrunner, network, studio, and other writers give notes on anything that they think needs changing, and the scribes incorporate those ideas when creating the first draft of the script. Most scripts will go through several revisions to address further notes, plus a pass from the showrunner — who may make slight amendments or basically rewrite the whole script, at their discretion — before a production draft is locked. Even during filming, it’s common for scripts to change as scenes are being filmed, if the actors and director feel that something isn’t working on the day.

I received a “studio network draft” of the finale script in April, at which point the title had become “The New World,” mostly because Roberts didn’t like “Sea Change,” he admits later. By now, the major beats of the episode had solidified: Young Ian remained in Geillis’ clutches until Claire and Jamie rescued him in the cave, and the Porpoise wasn’t seen again after John Grey put Captain Leonard in his place and freed Jamie from his spurious arrest.

While the rest of the episode was filmed in June in South Africa, the confrontation between Lord John (David Berry) and Captain Leonard (Charlie Hiett) was shot in Scotland back in February, before the finale script was completed, because a scheduling conflict prevented Berry from traveling to South Africa to shoot his scenes in the back half of the season.
And because the writers knew that the season was building towards the same dramatic climax that ends Gabaldon’s book, the production was able to plan accordingly.

“This is one of those unusual episodes where we knew that we were going to do a storm, so we started working on that prior to the actual script,” Roberts reveals. “The idea for the storm and the chase preceded the script. Storyboards went into the script, rather than the other way around.”

My first day on set, while Balfe and Heughan are rolling around in the sand in the middle of the South African winter (it’s sunny, but there’s a distinctly Scottish nip in the air, and unlike the soggy stars, the crew are snugly wrapped in puffy jackets and hats), I duck into a cozy tent to catch up with executive producer Maril Davis, who flew in the day before and is just as jetlagged as I am.

“We’re already deep into Season 4,” she reveals, despite the fact that filming on the new season won’t begin until October. “It’s a year-round machine at this point. I think [the fans] do wonder why we’re not on sooner, it’s just, I don’t think we could churn them out any faster.”

Outlander usually films episodes in blocks of two, consisting of 24 shooting days (12 per episode) and an equal number of prep days — and that’s not counting the post-production process of editing, visual effects, scoring, sound design, additional dialogue replacement, and color correction.

The finale is “particularly unusual,” Davis explains, because the episode is being filmed as a standalone rather than as part of a block, and the storm sequences and visual effects are so elaborate compared to a normal episode, post-production is expected to take three months.

“I think it surprises people that end of March, beginning of April was the first time we had a completed episode done,” Davis says of episode 301. “We started shooting that in August of last year.”

A couple of days after filming the finale’s last scene on the beach, Balfe is back at Cape Town Film Studios, Outlander’s home away from home for the past three months, where she’s spending the day facing off against Claire’s old nemesis, Geillis, played by Lotte Verbeek.

While the studio is being lashed by one of the worst storms on record just outside the door, in front of the cameras, Claire and Geillis are placidly drinking tea (or faking it, in Claire’s case) and subtly trying to pump each other for information in a riveting game of cat and mouse. The tea-drinking half of the scene won’t make it into the final cut because, as showrunner Ron Moore later tells me, “you realized at a certain point you didn’t need it, and then it actually had a little more momentum to it without [that section],” but on the day, it all seems very cordial, with an undercurrent of arsenic.

“I think the Geillis-Claire relationship [has] just always been really interesting,” Balfe says in a break between camera setups. “It’s nice to see these two women who have this very unique position struggle with what their bond is, because obviously they sit at very different ends of the spectrum — Geillis being a murdering, sort of machiavellian [character], and Claire, who just accidentally kills people.”

“The stakes are higher now,” Verbeek agrees. “It’s nice to see my friend again, but this time she’s messing with my cause, and nobody gets between my cause and me.”

“It’s been a long time in the Caribbean where it’s hot, and I think I kind of lose my inhibitions a little bit.”

Verbeek points out that while Geillis hasn’t changed much since Claire last saw her (must be all that virgin blood she’s bathing in), she did want to show the subtle ways that life has worn on her character: “We’re in the Caribbean now, and this is 20 years later, so not only have I aged visually but also my patience really is wearing thin. It’s been a long time in the Caribbean where it’s hot, and I think I kind of lose my inhibitions a little bit.”

Graphia admits that she’s always had a particular affinity for Geillis — she also wrote episode 11 of Season 1, “The Devil’s Mark,” which sees Claire and Geillis on trial for witchcraft — and says that she “considered this round two” for the resilient women.

In the book, Jamie and Claire go to Rose Hall together, but the writers decided that our heroine should face Geillis alone “because it really is her battle to fight,” Graphia says. “Geillis is her opponent and her avatar and we wanted a cliffhanger at the end of episode 12 leading into the finale, and so we went away from the book in the decision to have Jamie arrested at the end, so that he’s held up and Claire does the initial confrontation.”

Geillis has been a pivotal character in Claire’s story since the series began, so it’s immensely satisfying to see her return now at such an unexpected moment. Composer Bear McCreary reveals that the music he initially used for her back in Season 1 ties all the way back to the first episode of the series — the “Stones Theme,” which was introduced in the Druid dance sequence that Claire and Frank witnessed at Craigh na Dun.

“Up until this point in the story, she’s always been associated with mysticism, magic, time travel,” he says. “When I got here, suddenly, that story takes a very different turn. I realized I needed to do something different with that theme, that would make it distinct enough.”

McCreary says he turned to an instrument called a yaylı tambur — basically a five foot banjo — to “distort” the notes of the Stones Theme and create what he calls the “Bakra Theme,” which becomes Geillis’ signature sound in Season 3.

“I use that theme all throughout episodes 12 and 13, to heighten the tension, to create this sense of exoticism,” he explains. “There’s dissonance in there that is creepy, but not quite horrific, because we like her…. It was a great opportunity to create tension through weirdness.”

Roberts describes the finale as “three separate vignettes” more than a typical episode with a three-act structure, hanging on the tentpoles of the Claire/Geillis showdown, the voodoo ceremony, and the new beginning.

“The voodoo ceremony is the perfect example of something that was in the book but what we did, trying to be a little different, is a little comparison to the dancers at Craigh na Dun and trying to do something reminiscent of that, even having Jamie and Claire looking on that ceremony like Frank and Claire did that first time in the [series premiere],” Davis reveals.

In the book, Claire comes face to face with a live crocodile before the ceremony which, as you can imagine, would’ve presented some logistical challenges while filming. Instead, the script has Claire and Jamie stumbling across the decapitated creature hanging from a tree, although the moment isn’t in the final cut.

Still, the experience of filming such a surreal and ritualistic scene isn’t lost on Heughan, considering where the show started.

“We were shooting the other night in the jungle and there’s this crocodile being strung up and there’s this voodoo ceremony and you’re like, ‘we’ve really gone from the days in Castle Leoch and people drinking whisky to this brave new world,’” he chuckles.

Because there’s so much going on in the voodoo scene — from the ceremony itself to Claire and Jamie’s conversations with Mr. Willoughby, Margaret Campbell and her slimy brother Archibald — Roberts reveals a trick he used to help keep the continuity consistent: using a circle of tall grass (which stands in for sugarcane) to fudge the timeline.

“I knew in the script we were going to have a timing issue, because everything happens at the same time in the script, but it just can’t on screen,” he notes. “I wanted to be able to point the camera somewhere and for Ron to be able to go, ‘Okay, I need to use this now,’ and not be tied into a background, since it all looks the same, that you can really go back and forth.

“I did play around a lot with that sequence,” Moore says of editing the scene. “How often to cut back to the dance; when you come to them; how long to stay with them; then trying to build the momentum because there’s a murder that takes place towards the end. Then it felt like you needed to speed up the intercut a little bit to create that momentum.”

In an effort to “streamline” the season, Davis says, they also took particular liberties with Willoughby and the Campbells’ storylines, which, in the book, involved Margaret having fallen in love with a soldier who died at Culloden, Archibald being a serial killer (yes, really), and Mr. Willoughby having betrayed Jamie to the excisemen back in Edinburgh.

“Willoughby and Margaret get together, which I think is a nice thing,” she says. “And we have a happier ending to Willoughby’s story than we had before, and I feel like it wraps it up a little better.”

But the biggest challenge of the voodoo ceremony landed on McCreary’s plate.

“It’s a 10 minute drum circle performance that is loud — it can be heard a mile away — but then once they get there, there’s also this drama and revelation and discussion and conflict that happens right there, and the drums don’t stop,” the composer laughs. “Ron showed that sequence to me and he was like, ‘What do you think?’ I thought, ‘Oh my god, how are we going to do this?’ But it became this really cool sequence.”

The solution, McCreary discovered, was to create two pieces of music — the drum circle performance itself, and a score that drifts in and out depending on the action and conversations taking place on screen, so that one doesn’t drown out the other.

“The drums subjectively get a little quieter and it’s almost like when we get in tight with their conversation, the drums reach a point where they slow down a little bit, but it all exists in two simultaneous worlds,” he says.

Since its inception, Outlander has become known for its attention to period detail, from Jon Gary Steele’s production design to Terry Dresbach’s costuming, regardless of whether those precise touches will be visible on camera or not.

That’s especially true of the voodoo scene; while we never directly see the slaves’ transformation from their servants’ clothes to their ceremonial garb onscreen, Dresbach conceived an ingenious and realistic solution for how these otherwise repressed men and women might privately express themselves.

You’ll notice that when Claire encounters the slaves leaving Geillis’ property at the beginning of the episode, they’re wearing drab, neutral linens — but when Claire and Jamie discover the ceremony later, they’ve stripped off their heavy skirts to reveal more colorful layers beneath, and unwrapped their turbans to create more dramatic headwear.

“We’ve all seen the voodoo ceremony in a thousand bad movies over the years. Our basic premise on this show with everything we do is to find a practical, logical reason. ‘Where would you get that and how much trouble would you go to?’” Dresbach explains. “I used to always say about Scotland, ‘you’re living in a little tiny house with four goats, a cow, and all your relatives. How much time could you spend getting the perfect shade of pink?’ You’re now talking about slave culture. What are their resources and how elaborate and how complicated can their costumes be? They’re cobbling together things from their environment, and so it’s adding on bits rather than, ‘Let me go put on this incredible costume.’”


Go through the stones to read more at the source: Shipwrecked souls
Behind the scenes of Claire and Jamie’s incredible journey