Like ‘Spartacus,’ Starz lives by the sword

The gladiators of ancient Rome may have endured horribly violent lives, but they also saw plenty of overheated sex. At least that’s the version of history on display in “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” a sword-and-sandals epic that Starz, the premium cable network, rolls out Jan. 22.

Viewers who recall the old Kirk Douglas film about the Roman slave who leads an uprising may rub their eyes in disbelief. The Starz take has naked flesh to spare, not to mention more blood than the Red Cross. The network, which late last month took the unusual step of ordering a second season before the premiere has even aired, is already calling it “the boldest show on television.”

So the channel’s executives may hope. The cable outlet, best known as an outlet for studio features, is joining the industry’s rush into original series programming. “Spartacus” is a flashy, big-budget attempt to forge a brand, complete with a big-name costar ( Lucy Lawless, erstwhile heroine of the syndicated “Xena: Warrior Princess”) and the heavily stylized, comic-book-like use of green-screen technology familiar from movies like “300" and “Sin City.”

The producers are hoping to strike the right balance by offering something not seen anywhere else on TV, without possibly scaring away the less adventurous.

“We tried to do the western, operatic version of violence and bloodshed,” said Rob Tapert, who serves as executive producer with his creative partners, Joshua Donen and director Sam Raimi (Tapert is also Lawless’ husband).

“We wanted to make it so it’d appeal to the widest audience possible, so we didn’t have the female audience being absolutely repulsed by bloodshed,” he added.

One way to further that aim? Cue the love story. Here, Spartacus (Australian actor Andy Whitfield) just wants to kill a lot of rivals so he can get back to his wife.

But whether all this will yield a breakthrough for Starz remains an open question. Fans warmly received the premiere of a 90-second trailer last summer at the Comic-Con in San Diego, and there’s clearly an appetite for high-energy retellings of ancient history.

“300,” a blood-soaked, in-your-face interpretation of the Greek battle of Thermopylae that was based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, in 2007 grossed more than $200 million in the U.S. “Gladiator,” the 2000 film with Russell Crowe, won critical acclaim and wide viewership.

The sword-and-sandals genre can be tricky, however. HBO’s “Rome” performed well in the ratings but was expensive and plagued by production snafus, leading to its cancellation after two seasons. ABC’s “Empire” miniseries in 2005 was dissed by critics and failed to connect with a large audience.

Many viewers who might want to check out “Spartacus” will probably have to order the premium cable channel because Starz, while widely available on DirecTV and the vast majority of cable operators, has only about 17 million U.S. subscribers. Nor is the channel considered a haven for original series; " Crash,” the contemporary drama starring Dennis Hopper that was based on the Oscar-winning film, was the channel’s first high-profile scripted effort.

But network officials say “Spartacus” can help change the outlet’s image.

“While movies are still our big driver here,” said Bill Hamm, executive vice president of creative development of Starz, “you still have to have stuff that people can only find on your channel.”

The project initially came out of the producers’ talks with NBC several years ago. Ben Silverman, at the time in charge of the network’s programming, was looking for splashy programs that could be promoted during the Olympics telecasts, according to Tapert. Donen suggested a series based on the Spartacus legend because the 1960 movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is part of the NBC Universal film library.

“We had a few meetings with Ben, tried to get a deal in place, but it never went,” Tapert said.

As it happened, Hamm had worked for Raimi and Tapert earlier in his career, and that connection helped get the project set up at Starz.

The green-screen technology enabled the producers to cut costs, with a price tag of less than $3 million per episode, less than the typical broadcast series budget. “Empire” and “Rome” were shot using Italian studios and locations, where expenses quickly mounted. “Spartacus” took advantage of tax breaks in New Zealand -- where Tapert and Lawless now spend much of the year -- and was shot entirely on soundstages, with effects and settings filled in later by computer.

“By utilizing that technology, we were able to work with the budget we had to work with on this,” Tapert said. “If we had to go and do this series like they did ‘Empire’ or like they did ‘Rome,’ we would’ve never made it. It would’ve made it waytoo expensive.”

To head up a small writing staff, the producers hired Steven S. DeKnight, a heavily tattooed protégé of writer-producer Joss Whedon. DeKnight relished the opportunity to plumb the story’s violent and erotic possibilities.

“I like the dark stuff, and I like to push it,” DeKnight explained.

Indeed, on a few occasions Starz executives found themselves pulling back on the producers’ leash. A messy scene in which Spartacus tears out a rival’s throat with his teeth had to go, DeKnight said.

And as for the sex? One orgy sequence contained “an incident with a ladle that I won’t get into,” DeKnight said. That too was nixed after pleading from executives. In retrospect, “I think I agree with them on that one.”

Lawless, who became a feminist icon with her portrayal of Xena in the 1990s, said she’d never done a nude scene before. But as shooting on the first season’s 13 episodes progressed, the actress -- who plays Lucretia, the Lady Macbeth-type wife of the owner of the school where Spartacus trains -- became blasé about the show’s rampant sexuality.

“You just get incredibly comfortable with it,” she said on the phone from New Zealand. “You’re like a tribe in a far-flung corner of the world.”

Even so, it’s likely most viewers won’t be quite as nonchalant -- and Starz executives are praying that many will be shocked into watching.

Whitfield, who plays the title role, noted that a PG-13 version of “Spartacus” is scheduled to be shown in his native Australia.

“I’m anxious to see it,” he said with a wry chuckle. “I can’t imagine what’s in it.”