Ron Moore on Adapting 'Outlander,' 'Helix's' Future and Taking on James Bond
The "Battlestar Galactica" alum talks with THR about bringing Diana Gabaldon's best-sellers to Starz, network TV's fear of Westerns and what Syfy rookie "Helix" could look like in season two.
Ron Moore is returning to TV in a big way this year.
The Battlestar Galactica alum is exec producing Syfy's latest scripted hit Helix, which has broken DVR records for the network, and has Starz's high-profile adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's best-sellers Outlander due in the summer.
Both series mark Moore's TV comeback after Syfy's BSG prequel spinoff Caprica ended its run in 2010. In the years since, Moore developed futuristic procedural 17th Precinct for NBC, a remake of The Wild West for CBS and Coast Guard drama The McCulloch for NBC, all of which were passed over.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Moore to discuss his return to the small screen with Helix and Outlander, both of which were picked up straight to series, the resurgence of genre fare like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones as well as what he'd like to tackle next (hint: James Bond).
You had two shows, with Helix and Outlander, ordered straight to series in 2013, and both on cable. Do you think it's easier to develop for cable right now?
I don't know if it's easier. That's a hard question to ask because each of these projects has their own particular variables, and we're never quite sure which one gets the brass ring and which one doesn't. Certainly, I've had more success developing in cable than broadcast, but why is a really hard question to answer. I'm not sure if it's any easier; it's all hard. It's hard to develop anything for TV. It's not as hard as it is to develop for the feature world, which is just insane. Every network has their own particular set of requirements, what their needs are, what they think has succeeded or failed for them in the past and where they're trying to go. So every season, you're kind of starting over when it comes to what you might be able to achieve.
With Starz's Outlander, what's the draw there for you?
I really like the period -- and I get to do two periods. I'm a fan of history and historical fiction, so I get to do the 1940s and I get to do the 18th century, which is a treat for me. I really like creating those worlds; that's the one similarity to what I've done in sci-fi. With Battlestar Galactia, everyday, we were creating a world that doesn't really exist and I really enjoy that. I enjoy the challenge of it in the production sense and I like creating something that is a departure from where we all live.
Do you think Outlander could have worked on a basic cable or a broadcast network?
I don't think it could have worked in broadcast. The elements we would have had to change from the book, they would have freaked out about a lot of the sexual stuff, especially the latter part of the book and the whole plot with Jack Randall, Jamie and the prison rape. We never would have been able to touch that on broadcast television. I also don't think that they would have gone for the first-person narrative. There are a lot of things you could not have done in broadcast. This had to be cable.
Is there a note that Starz has given you that you found particularly helpful?
One of the very first notes that [Starz CEO] Chris Albrecht told me was to trust the book. He said, "We love the book. Make the show for the fans of the book and believe that anyone who doesn't know this material, when they see it, they'll be swept into the story like everyone else is. "I was really taken aback because nobody says that in this town. Generally, people [option] books and say, "We bought it for the cover, do what you want and nobody really cares." Starz had integrity.
Outlander has been referred to as a Game of Thrones for women. Would you agree?
I don't know. That's a hard label because they are such different pieces in every sense of the word. I love Game of Thrones. I didn't read the books, but Game is about a lot of different characters and a lot of different storylines. Some of the joy of that show is the continual turn of moving from this character to that one and back again and watching it all come together. Outlander is a central, single narrative about one woman and her journey. One is a fantasy world that doesn't exist; one is a real historical place. The only thing that I take from Game is that the adaptation of a successful book with an existing fan base can not only work, it can be wildly successful, so it gives me great confidence and hope that we can do that.
With Outlander, there are seven books in the series. Do you want to do one book per season?
It's really hard to say at this point; we're just trying to get season one. I'm starting to think ahead about what season two would be in the second book, and I'm starting to shape what the outlines of that would be in my head. But beyond that, it's just too far off. I think there's a comfort level and a simplicity to say that every season is one book, but it doesn't have to be. You can start moving the pieces around deciding where one season begins and another ends.
Would you like to do that Walking Dead model where you do the eight and eight split-run or should Outlander run for 16 straight weeks?
I don't know if I have a preference with that. I know I don't want to do it like Galactica where fans kept getting confused about when we were on. It felt like we were broadcast randomly at times. They would split the season and then we'd be on a different night; there was no rhyme or reason to it. I don't know that I have a preference between eight and eight or 16.
You've said before that you're using Diana as a sounding board. How does that work? Has she been instrumental in a specific scene or an obstacle you've encountered?
It was like a growing comfort level of sending her the scripts and seeing her reaction. I would pitch her things and say what I'm thinking about doing and ask for her thoughts. She was always so positive and sometimes excited. It gave me a sense of confidence of where we were going, and it was good to have her along the way. And to know that if she's signing off on it, I'm pretty sure the fans are going to sign off on it. So it just gives you the confidence to keep moving. I've asked her a couple of times if there was anything in particular she was looking to see shot and realized that she has an overall love of all of it and is just thrilled to see it. It's nice. It's not Saving Mr. Banks (laughs), which I really liked. Doing what I'm doing and watching this movie, I thought, "Wow, this could have been a whole different thing!"
The book series is very sexual. Have you had any issues with boundaries from Starz?
I haven't run into any boundaries yet. There's a lot of sex in the book, so we put it in the show where it is in the book. It's organic to the story because this is the way the story was laid out. We don't have to overdo it; we don't have to just take somebody's clothes off for the sake of doing it. I feel very comfortable about it. I've got a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old at home who know about this project and love this stuff. I've showed them some footage and the trailer, but at the same time I'm not going to sit and watch this with my 12-year-old daughter once we really get going. I wish I could, but that's not what the book is and that's not what the story is.
Meanwhile, Helix is performing well for Syfy. What's the common thread between the two shows for you?
Compelling characters. I didn't want to read the Helix pilot because I wasn't into viruses and medical stuff; it wasn't my cup of tea. I kept turning it down and telling them to give it to somebody else. They finally convinced me to read it and it was a page-turner. I really liked the characters, and I liked the isolation of the characters caught in this difficult situation. It was a pressure-cooker environment and at the end of the script I wanted to see the next episode. I was hooked. It's the same way with Outlander: When I started reading the book, it was a page-turner. I just kept wanting to see what happened next. Both of them just appealed to me as a storyteller.
With Game of Thrones, Helix, The Walking Dead and soon Outlander, sci-fi has really exploded in recent years, with lots of genre stuff among the broadcast networks' pilot orders. What do you think is behind the resurgence?
Success. Television loves imitation. Once one of these shows hit, everyone else scrambled to try and get that. Lost blazed the trail in a big way, and so did Heroes and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There were a lot of shows in the early 2000s that caught the public's imagination. Then you started to see that everyone wanted one. I can't tell you how many executives told me, "I want our own Lost." I kept hearing it over and over again. Everyone wanted to glom onto that success and then they just keep finding audiences and they just keep doing it.
Is there one show that you developed in your career that you would like to try again?
Naren Shankar (CSI) and I did a pilot of CBS and it was a very positive experience. They seemed to like it, but then they just didn't pull the trigger on it at the last minute. I loved that original show and I really liked our take on it. I've always wanted to do a Western. I grew up with Wild Wild West, and I thought it was an amazing series. I thought there was something great in that series and I wish I could get a second crack at that.
I'm still surprised NBC passed on Carlton Cuse's comics adaptation The Sixth Gun -- it's sci-fi meets Western.
I know. There's this weird allergic reaction to the Western. I don't really understand what that's about, but it's really hard to even take the meeting. They don't even want to talk about doing a Western -- and that's almost across the board at all the networks. I don't get it. It was such a giant staple of entertainment in this country for 50, 60 years and now they're all afraid of it. Watch, somebody will do it, it'll be a huge hit and then they'll be 50 of them on the air again.
How are you balancing your time between Outlander and Helix?
Outlander really takes the lion's share of my time. Helix has Steve Maeda, who is the showrunner and deserves the lion's share of the credit because he's there everyday and working in the writers' room and dealing with production problems. I helped get it up on its feet and helped develop the initial mythology, and I'd come into post every once in a while and cut some things and help out, but he's really the guy. [Outlander] is what's taking most of my time.
What kind of plans are you making for a second season of Helix?
We have some ideas for season two. Before the show was sold, we had some conceptual ideas about what the second season would be. We do have a place to start from.
That the virus can't remain on the base for the entire series.
No. The first season takes place entirely within the base. And then that's part of the concept of the show -- every episode is a day. We're going to stay in this one location, and just make a little crucible for these characters as they struggle with what's happening. The idea would be to do a similar thing in the second season -- to also go to a place and tell the story in a place.
Would season two show how this virus is taking shape in a different location with different characters?
We would have some of the same characters in a different location, but it's hard to even talk about it because we haven't gotten to the end of this season. It depends on how this season ends and that will tell you how and where the next season will be going.
Are you developing anything else right now?
Not actively. There are a couple other series ideas I had kicking around that I would like to get to, but Outlander is pretty much a full-time job.
Any dream properties that you'd love to tackle next?
I'd love to revisit Wild Wild West. I got to write a couple of the episodes of the Star Wars live-action thing that didn't happen. That was a treat. I'd love to do a Bond film. I'd have a ball doing it.
What about a Bond TV show?
In some ways, I want to go back and do a period Bond set in the 1950s or '60s and do that as a series -- like a Mad Men Bond Show. It would be really fun. The costumes, the women, the music, the whole thing would be defining cool all over again.
Sundance: On the Scene