Sunday, March 18, Los Angeles—Just before the Outlander panel is about to begin, an announcement comes over the PA system inside Hollywood’s Linwood Dunn Theater: “Will the person who owns the white SUV, license plate number xxxx, please return to your car. You left the motor running.”
This makes perfect sense, of course—that’s how excited members of this select audience are, that someone would be in such a hurry to get inside, they’d forget to turn off their car. There is knowing laughter as a flustered woman tears up the aisle, and out the door. It’s a small venue (it was chosen based on availability), so small that STARZ had to make the unusual decision to schedule a second panel to accommodate the demand from Television Academy members. Tickets were coveted and hard to come by, the kind of panel people want to earn plus-one status for.
It’s Outlander weekend in Southern California, and STARZ has brought stars Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan over from Scotland, along with some of the producers, to do as much For Your Consideration press as they can pack into three days before they return to Glasgow to continue shooting Season 4 of the time-traveling hit show.
A little more Emmy love would be an important score for the second most popular scripted series among female viewers (Game of Thrones holds the top spot). But even with that enviable standing, Outlander fans have been nervously awaiting word of a Season 5 (and perhaps, beyond?) pickup.
This evening, Twitter news flashes through the crowd: Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore has told Entertainment Weekly magazine during the red carpet media scrum that the show’s coming back, but despite his remarks, it’s still not official, and fans need it to be.
Chris Albrecht, CEO and President of STARZ, tried to quell the unrest at this past summer’s Television Critics Association tour: “I wouldn’t worry,” he said when asked. “I think our biggest problem will be making sure we don’t kill Caitriona and Sam…We have joined legions of fans for Outlander around the world and our partners at Sony and we are having very productive discussions around the future of the show.” The translation: it’s always about money, and it’s likely business negotiations are the only thing standing between Ron Moore’s tease and the imprimatur of a joint SONY/STARZ press release.
Tonight’s event begins with a Season 3 compilation reel, which highlights the twenty years that have come between 18th-century Highlander Jamie Fraser (Heughan) and his wife, time-traveling 1940s nurse Claire Randall (Balfe). Claire has returned through the standing stones to her own time at Jamie’s insistence: he’s most assuredly going to die in 1745’s Battle of Culloden, which she knows will not end well for his Jacobite clansman, and he’s at peace knowing she will safeguard their unborn child, under the protection of her first husband Frank (Tobias Menzies).
Yes, Outlander requires a suspension of disbelief, but it’s the foundation of novelist Diana Gabaldon’s writing (there are eight books—the first of which was published in 1991—and Gabaldon is busy finishing the ninth) that keeps this long-anticipated television adaptation on track….though the book fans and the TV fans don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to which scenes are cut and which are included in the show.
Two women who have been invested in the series since it was first announced are book disciples Heather Insley and Leona Barad, who arrived early for the evening’s panel and are seated up front. They are the co-founders of the fan group Outlander SoCal Edition, which numbers over 2,000 members. Early on, they supported the idea of Gabaldon’s work being translated to the small screen, which delighted and encouraged STARZ execs. Insley praises Heughan’s embodiment of warrior James Fraser, a hero so strikingly attractive and principled, he has been jokingly referred to as “the king of all men” by the show’s writer/producers and some fans. But Insley admits Caitriona Balfe’s casting was a bit harder for her to accept, noting book Claire is short and not exactly a waif. “But I got over that real quick,” she adds. Insley believes “the book is one thing and the show is something different. I can separate the two and enjoy the show for what it is. It’s pretty darn good television…and it’s a great opportunity to get together with a bunch of friends at least once a week, so I’m grateful for that.”
Her friend and colleague Barad, who Insley says is the Outlander savant between them, didn’t have the same issues: “When I read, I see the faces in my mind, but they’re not exact. When Caitriona was cast and I saw her picture, I was really in favor of her. She looked very close to how I imagined Claire. When I reread the books, I don’t see Sam and Cait. It’s almost like having two sets of Jamie and Claire.” She admits: “I get that you can’t copy books for a TV show. But I miss the smaller moments from the books that don’t make it on the screen. That’s what makes the Jamie and Claire relationship so strong.”
Both hour-long panels, led by GoldDerby founder Tom O’Neill, also included audience Qs and As. The topics were wide-ranging and revealing [For full coverage of panel one, click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUXV_KXM4jM ]: why Season 3 was seen as transitional in terms of character development, Heughan and Balfe’s takes on how Jamie and Claire changed in the two decades they spent apart, how the hurricane that almost costs Claire her life was created, the theory that costume is character (including the Claire’s hand-sewn Bat Suit), and the nearly impossible task of creating bigger and better sets for a show that switches course each season. As expected, book-to-series discrepancies are broached and explanations requested.
When asked how those decisions are made in the writers’ room, Moore jokes: “There’s this big dart board…” But he underlines how important the text is to his team: “We always start with the book…At the beginning of the process we have assistants and researchers…who literally break down the entire book, chapter by chapter and then scene by scene…you put the whole thing up on these big white boards that essentially lay out the plot and the story. Step one is to break it down into thirteen hours [the basic equation in almost every season has been thirteen episodes to cover each book]…and you quickly realize what’s going to get condensed and moved around. Once you’ve decided these are the thirteen hours, then you go deeper into each individual show.”
Given that Gabaldon’s books often number more than 900 pages, it’s inevitable there will be some moments that simply can’t be lifted directly from the source material. “Some things that are iconic moments to the fans, whether it’s a line of dialogue or a scene or even just a visual doesn’t fit, we’ll sort of set it aside and figure out a way to work it in later,” Moore acknowledges, “even if it’s next season or two years from now…so there are certain things that feels like maybe we’ve forgotten, but we never really forget and we’re always looking for ways to work them back into the narrative.” But he goes on to stress: “It’s a very subjective process, and in all honesty, every show runner and every writer would do it differently. We approach the books with a lot of respect and a lot of love, but as the series goes on, year by year you are essentially creating a certain reality for our characters and our version of this story you have to honor.”
Such is the case of the much beloved character of Murtagh, Jamie Fraser’s clansman and godfather played by Duncan Lacroix, who Gabaldon kills and Moore and the writers decided should live. The subject of Murtagh’s resurrection comes up in both panels. Moore explains the writers all agreed: “We all felt we didn’t want to let go of him, that he was part of the family.” Moore says they used the TV Murtagh differently than Gabaldon, especially in Season 2. That’s when Moore realized Jamie, Claire and Lacroix’s taciturn Scotsman had become a trio in Paris. “Once we decided to bring [him] into the secret that Claire was a time traveler, we were now committed to a Murtagh who is different from the book… [He] was really part of the inner family structure…I didn’t want the show to take that kind of a loss at that point.” Moore adds, “Our stories are taking you down a path you need to keep going down. You’re always trying to honor the spirit of the book. You’re not trying to violate the fundamentals of the characters and what a great story Diana has laid out for us. It’s always with the intention of what is the best version we can do on television.”
One of the other oft-discussed Outlander moments involves a mysterious scene early in Season 1, and an audience member references it this night as well. It is a rainy Scottish evening, before Claire travels back in time. She and Frank are on a second honeymoon post-World War II, and as he is headed back to the inn where they are staying, he spots a man in full Highlander regalia staring up at Claire, who is visible in a window brushing her hair. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6pdbEZBZ8E When Frank approaches the man, the Scotsman sweeps past him and disappears into the mist, leaving Frank shaken and not at all sure he hasn’t seen a ghost.
Diana Gabaldon has weighed in on the mystery: Is the Highlander beneath the window Jamie? Will he time travel back to Claire? Somewhat cryptically, the author has said that Jamie will not travel back in time, and “The ghost is Jamie—but as for how it fits into the story, All Will Be Explained—in the last book.” So when the question is raised in the second Outlander panel, Executive Producer Maril Davis confirms again, yes, the ghost is Jamie. “It hasn’t been explained and hopefully we get to that point where we can explain it.” Sam Heughan chimes in, and reveals: “Diana has written that scene, and she showed it to a few of us…to be revealed.” To which Caitriona Balfe exclaims: “Oh, really?”
Balfe may have been teasing about the ghost scene pages, but there was one true revelation for her during this night…the truth about how the producers found her. When she is asked where she was in her career four years ago when she first auditioned for Outlander, Balfe laughs ruefully: “Well, I didn’t have a career. I was a struggling, jobbing actor in Los Angeles. I had bits and pieces of jobs every now and then, but I was going through a particular dry spell. You get sent to these auditions through your manager, and a lot of the time you put yourself on tape and you send it off and generally, you never hear anything back.” That was true of the first Outlander tape she sent in. For that audition, she had been given a two-line description of the character. “I didn’t even know it was a series of books,” Balfe admits. “It was… a nurse from the 40s, she’s confident and she does something …so really you have nothing to go on.” When no word came, Balfe says, “I was just like, well, that’s just another one.” But a resourceful UK agent thought she should give it another go, and got his hands on a more extensive breakdown of the part and an extra scene. “I re-taped [my audition] and that got sent off and I think Toni Graphia…[was] trolling through tapes and came across [mine] at the last minute.”
But Executive Producer Toni Graphia interrupts Balfe with a completely different story of how it happened. “Actually, we didn’t come across [the tapes],” Graphia says, and shared for the first time how the actress, who had never done television prior to Outlander, came to her attention. “Maybe it’s the first time anyone’s heard [this story],” Graphia says. “I’d been up all night Googling things like ‘undiscovered acting gems in the UK.’ Yeah, I put that out there….You were being interviewed about a web series you’d done, or something. It was a personal interview… And I…was just watching you naturally, who you are as Caitriona. I went, ‘Oh my God, I think that’s Claire.’ I knew it was risky…but I sent it to Maril and said we should look at this girl. And [they told me], ‘She’s sent in a couple of tapes.” You know, you didn’t have a lot of credits at that time. But we went back and looked at them and thought, “Wow, she’s pretty good.” Adds Graphia: “We got really lucky because you were the perfect Claire. I can’t imagine anyone else doing it.”
As the night comes to a close, an audience member asks each of the panelists if there is anything they’d fallen in love with and took home from set or wardrobe.
Even though Davis dutifully states, “We’re not actually allowed to take things from set, quite honestly,” they all spill the beans. She says that hanging in their Cumbernauld office in Scotland is one of the original Fraser family paintings that graced the walls at Lallybroch: “It’s the picture of Jamie and his older brother.” Production Designer Jon Gary Steele chimes in, “Everyone wanted that particular painting because it was a mistake. Instead of all the fingers, his hand looks like a claw.”
Steele was surprised by his carpenters, who installed all the panels that were inset in the columns of Castle Leoch’s Great Hall on the back wall of his office. Executive Producer Matt B. Roberts claimed the A Malcom print shop sign. Toni Graphia’s souvenir is from “Faith,” the episode where Claire loses the baby. She says: “Catholic girl that I am, I decided to smash the Virgin Mary statue, which I’m sure I’m going to hell for. Matt brought back the head…I loved it, it’s the best present ever. I have it on the top of my computer, just sitting here… It inspires me every day. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.” Sam Heughan admits he wanted Jamie’s sword, but admits “they quite wisely said no.” And Caitriona Balfe put Outlander Costume Designer Terry Dresbach on notice: “I’ve been promised many outfits…I’m still waiting.”
[NOTE: I’m not sure if /when the second FYC panel will be posted by Starz/TV Academy, and I couldn’t post every story that was told, but if you have specific questions, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment, and I will be happy to supply whatever answers I have from Sunday night’s event]