With the release of the Outlander season four Blu-ray and DVD sets, executive producer and show runner Matthew B. Roberts spoke to Parade.com about the choices he and his writing staff made in condensing author Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn into 13 TV episodes, and the difficulties that lie ahead for season five, which is only 12 episodes and is based on the very thick The Fiery Cross.
“We always start off with, ‘Okay, let’s try to do this as close to the book as possible,’” Roberts said in this exclusive interview. “Then random events keep us from doing it, and that’s why it falls apart sometimes.”
An example of that from season four was the fact that Laura Donnelly, the actress who plays Jamie Fraser’s (Sam Heughan) sister Jenny, had a prior commitment and wasn’t available to film, so they had to write around her, and the gap was filled by adding scenes for Laoghaire (Nell Hudson), Jamie’s ex-wife.
“We had to very quickly revamp the story,” Roberts continues. “That’s really one of the big differences between the book and doing it as a television show. In the book, everybody in every place is available any time. That’s not the case with us. Sometimes random things dictate what ends up in the story. As a fan or audience member when you view it, you can go, ‘God, why did they make that decision? Diana did it this way in the book.’”
A big issue for season five will be the fact that Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) is still alive. Not only is he alive, but Jamie has been tasked with hunting him down and bringing him to justice.
“There’s some fantastic stuff coming up with how Jamie and Claire [Caitriona Balfe] have to navigate this,” Roberts teases. “Let’s just say Jamie is clearly between a rock and a hard place, the rock being his signed oath to the Crown, to Governor Tryon [Tim Downie], for the land that they live on, and his loyalty and his love for Murtagh. So, that is going to cause the Frasers some trouble as we go forward in season five and we’ll see how they get out of it or if they get out of it.”
When you sat down in the writer’s room initially to talk about season four, how did you go about deciding what to include from the book? Do you look to characters? Do you pick a theme?
We initially break down the chapters of the book. So, we do an initial breakdown and try to find the main spine of the story from the book and pull that out. We also actually try to find what we call tentpole moments in the story. In season four, clearly when Jamie and Brianna (Sophie Skelton) meet is a tentpole.
You find as many of those as possible, you see where they land in the season, and then you have to guide the story to get to those in the most organic way, because sometimes you get to them in a different way than in the book. Sometimes you practically just can’t get to them the same way in production.
Diana has the ability to write any character in any setting at any time and we’re not able to do that. One great example is in the middle of the season, we had a story planned and the actress who was playing the part couldn’t come back.
So, overall, we break down the chapters, we find the main plot line, and then we find the tentpoles — the big huge moments in the book that are sometimes very clear and then some of them are smaller. We get into different conversations in the room because some people love different moments and there’s so many moments in all these books. You have one person in the room loving one thing and someone from the network loves something else, and they’re smaller moments. It’s not like the Jamie-meets-Brianna moment.
Of course, we’re going to include when Roger (Richard Rankin) or Bree come through the stones. There are certain moments that are just a given that you’re going to do. It’s trying to thread those and tie those all together in the place you need them during the season.
From watching the special features, I understand you actually spent some time in North Carolina.
In the middle of season three we knew we were going to do season four, we knew that this big transition was coming to the American colonies story-wise and there was a thought: Could Scotland play America? So I flew to Atlanta and I rented a car and I drove through North Carolina because I wanted to physically see it for myself.
I wanted to actually walk the walk. I wanted to walk the ground and I met with the Cherokee. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation are there, so I met with them. I wanted to talk to them and get their feelings on things because that was a big part of season four as well. It was important to me to actually go there and see it.
I realized the scope of what we were going to do, we could play in Scotland. We talked about this with everybody — the studio, the network and Tall Ships, and it was determined, “Let’s stay with our crew, who’ve been with us for a long time. They’re very loyal and dedicated and they love the show.”
We could play Scotland for North Carolina because essentially when you’re in the trees, it looks very similar. Then when we did the big, wide, sweeping shots, we did a little bit of composite. Believe it or not, some of the mountains in Scotland resemble the Blue Ridge Mountains, where they are technically in the story in North Carolina. So, that’s why I went there. I’m a research person. I like to do research in the writing, so to me it felt important to actually physically go there.
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