This is not how Matthew B. Roberts envisioned shooting season 6 of Outlander. “We wanted to keep our momentum from season 5,” the executive producer explains, noting the latest season of Starz’s century-hopping romantic drama was one of its most-watched ever. “The cast and the crew, and I think even the fans, were very excited to get right into season 6. And then we decided to hit the brakes.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down TV and film production across the globe last spring, Outlander joined the list of series postponed as the industry determined how to make entertainment safely. “It was really heartbreaking in a lot of ways,” Roberts says. “Understandably, the health of the world was way more important than a television show. We knew that too.”
Now, Outlander is officially back in production, filming in Scotland with safety guidelines in place, and Roberts is adamant the delay won’t affect the content of the new season. “I didn’t want me or the staff changing what the story is for COVID,” he explains. “We have a lot of intimate scenes—that’s where we live and breathe.” The solution was relatively obvious: “testing, testing, testing, testing,” Roberts says. “We had to figure out how to make sure we tested everybody a million times before they walked onto set and keep that bubble as safe as possible. That was our main focus—making sure everybody feels safe walking onto a set in the studios and locations.”
Did the filming challenges affect the way you approached script-writing?
I don’t know how to write “COVID-friendly scenes,” certainly not an Outlander scene, because we are going to have people next to each other, being emotional—you talk close to people, and that’s where it transfers COVID. We had to figure out, how do we keep Outlander, Outlander? So we wrote the scripts [as originally intended] and dove in with production: Our producer in the U.K., Guy Tannahill, and our new production designer, Mike Gunn, and our staff over there who have worked on Outlander for a long time. We said, “Okay, this scene can’t happen like this. If we did this, this, and this, then we can make it happen.”
We put a lot of people in scenes, and keeping everybody safe is paramount. We’ve tried to limit the amount of SAs (supporting artists), and we’re trying to utilize visual effects. In the deep, deep background, we can use digital people instead of what we would normally use, real extras. Every year, Outlander has a big event and we’re still planning that event. We’ll film [the background extras] at a separate time, [then] put it all together in post, and it’s seamless. We have a really amazing visual effects team, and I have full faith in their abilities to do that. We’re actually pretty experienced with it because many of the Alamance battle scenes had digital people in them. We added to the crowd and to the battle numbers with digital soldiers and conflicts in the background in post, and I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it. When no one notices a visual effect, that’s a good thing.
What do envision when you think of season 6?
I think what’s going on in the world at the time, 1775, is really similar to what’s going on with Jamie and Claire. There’s going to be a revolution with them as well, and I think that’s what’s going on throughout the season: You have a foundation and when that foundation is shaken and there is a revolution, you have to deal with it. That’s kind of the theme of the season.
Season 5 had some really bold experimental scenes—the silent movie treatment for Roger’s hanging and the “Never My Love” dream sequence. Can we expect more of that in season 6?
Yes. Diana’s books get deep into the characters’ feelings and emotions in their heads, and what we’ve discovered over the course of five seasons [is] that’s really hard to do visually onscreen. You could spend hours with Claire reading those passages in her head, and those are hard to dramatize visually. From day one, we wanted to push that, push the boundaries of getting into Roger’s head with the hanging and getting into Claire’s head with the rape and abuse. We’re going to try to do that again in season 6 but not deviate from the story. That’s the key to doing the series and doing it well: In every scene, we want to keep the essence of the book if we can’t do the book. There’s so much more material in the books than we could ever hope to produce, so it’s always a struggle and a challenge.
Did you feel like you had more time to work on the scripts due to the production delay?
Yes and no, because you can write a script, but it doesn’t live and breathe until you get it to production. You can write something and you’re going, this is magical. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. And then you get it to production and they go, “Yeah, but we can’t film all this stuff.” So the scripts really don’t start existing to me until we get into the hands of production. That’s when they start to get a pulse and take on a life. And we rework them—that’s why you see the different colored scripts, pinks and yellows and greens. They’re living and breathing through production and changing. “We can’t do this location so we moved to another location,” or “Hey, can this take place in the parlor instead of the dining room because of this?” Then, even when we get to post, the story isn’t finished for me until the audience sees it.
The season premiere is titled “Echoes.” Is that a nod to An Echo in the Bone?
It is not, which is funny, and I know people are going to leap all over that.
When you see the first episode, the title will speak for itself. Each character will be dealing with something from their past and it will help us tell stories going forward. There was a different title on my very first drop. Sometimes that happens. You read it again and you go, wait a minute, hold on a second, there’s something better here.
Are we looking at a significant time jump from “Never My Love”?
No, not significantly, because there’s a lot of story we need to connect. There were a lot of things left in the finale of season 5 that we still have to tell. It wouldn’t make sense to a new viewer, especially with a lot of the new viewers coming on to Outlander. We know we had one of our most successful, most-viewed seasons ever in season 5, so we know we’re getting new viewers and a lot of them have not read the book. Those viewers have to be told the same story and get something from it as well as the book readers who know everything that happened—or think they know everything that’s going to happen. Certainly, we keep them on their toes and move things around a little bit so they don’t know exactly when it’s coming.
I’m not looking to change the story. We just run into challenges. We can’t get an actor or we can’t get a place. It’s very difficult to make it all work together sometimes. Diana can say, Oh, I need Lord John in this scene? Here he is. And we don’t necessarily have that access. We ran into it a couple of years ago, where Laura Donnelly was not available when our story went back to Lallybroch. We had been hoping to get her and just didn’t have her, so at the last minute, we had to make adjustments. That’s what happens sometimes.
Talk about working with Caitriona and Sam as producers.
They really, really took on the challenge of wanting to learn what it is to be a producer and what goes into it. It’s something, to them, they’re taking on to broaden who they are in the industry, so when the day comes that there is no Outlander, they can go out and produce their own things. It’s a testimony to wanting to learn and to make yourself not only a better actor but producer, too. The sky’s the limit for both of them. They’re crazy talented.
Did you have any advice for them going into their new roles?
When they’re in production meetings, they’re listening and learning and seeing how it all gets put together, and they take on the challenge when they’re going to set as an actor. They’re going, Okay, these choices were made for these reasons. Being a producer is all about making decisions, and you’re hoping to make the right decision. There’s a difference between a production producer and a creative producer. I’ll use “Never My Love” as an example. For me, to take on the decision of, This is what we’re going to do and we’re going to do it like this—those are the choices, and you have to live with those choices.
That’s also part of being a producer, living with the choices you make. I never come from the standpoint of “the audience will feel, or the audience won’t understand, or the audience will understand.” I have no clue what the audience will like or dislike. I can only go with, “This is the product we’re going to give them and I hope they enjoy it. I hope they like it.” I think that goes with every producer, writer, director, actor, anything—they hope someone is getting something from it, and that’s always my intention in producing every one of these episodes.
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