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'Outlander' discovers a New World — in its old one — for Season 4

'Outlander' discovers a New World — in its old one — for Season 4
Jamie (Sam Heughan) and "Outlander" come to the Colonies in Season 4. (Aimee Spinks / Aimee Spinks/Starz)

A short drive through the leafy forest of Cumbernauld, a town just outside Glasgow, leads to a dusty lot where an 18th century version of Wilmington, N.C., has been built for the fourth season of “Outlander.” Wooden shop facades line streets that dead-end into the dirt and promise wares residents would have needed in Colonial times.

But if the narrative setting of the Starz series, based on Diana Gabaldon’s novels, is shifting to America, the show remains firmly rooted in Scotland. So rooted that Scotland’s only film studio, Wardpark Studios, was built to accommodate the show. So instead of relocating its production from Cumbernauld, “Outlander” has recreated this Southern port town as it was a decade before the Revolutionary War.

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“Every year we seem to reinvent the show, and that’s always a challenge,” says producer Matthew B. Roberts, sitting in his office in Wardpark Studios, which has expanded since 2013 to four soundstages, multiple workshops and the new Wilmington backlot. “The typical television show will be centered around a place, and then you flow story in and out of that place. But we don’t usually have that. In the first few seasons, when you needed a location or you needed a castle, we just went outside. In the new season, they land in America. So that was the challenge for season four: America in Scotland. We can’t go out and find that castle. We have to build everything.”

Sam Heughan (Jamie Fraser), Caitriona Balfe (Claire Fraser) and Lauren Lyle (Marsali) in "Outlander" Season 4.
Sam Heughan (Jamie Fraser), Caitriona Balfe (Claire Fraser) and Lauren Lyle (Marsali) in "Outlander" Season 4. (Aimee Spinks / Starz)

The 13 new episodes, based largely on “The Drums of Autumn,” the fourth book in Gabaldon’s series, brings the newly reconnected Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) Fraser, as well as Young Ian (John Bell), to North Carolina to make a life in the New World. There they encounter Jamie’s aunt Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who presides over a vast plantation called River Run; Jamie and Claire eventually build their own homestead in Fraser’s Ridge.

For Heughan, the storyline felt like a chance to explore the roots of what makes America so special.

“We get an opportunity to show America in its infancy,” Heughan says. “It’s exciting to show that America is this land of immigrants and different cultures coming together and really sharing where they came from.”

Prior to shooting season four, Heughan traveled to North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains and spent a week exploring the area to better understand Jamie’s journey. “I was amazed at how similar it was to Scotland,” he says. “The landscape is much bigger, but it does have a wild, old feel to it. There were times when we were on set and you’d look out and you could almost be looking at the Blue Ridge Mountains. They’ve got a history to them that feels very familiar.”

Caitriona Balfe (Claire Fraser) on the set of an upcoming episode of "Outlander."
Caitriona Balfe (Claire Fraser) on the set of an upcoming episode of "Outlander." (Aimee Spinks / Starz)

For time-traveling Claire, who previously lived in 20th century Boston, history lies in the past and the future. Now, returning to America in 1767, she knows what’s to come — the Revolutionary War and the rapid growth of slavery in the South.

“She knows what she’s walking into, in many ways,” Balfe says. “She has a lot of concerns about staying anywhere near River Run because seeing slavery firsthand, knowing that all of this is going on and the extent of it, is very hard for her. But she also thinks there’s a possibility of a new opportunity. It’s a safe place to settle before being forced to take a side in this impending war. It’s strange, but it’s also beneficial for her sometimes. Trying to work around knowing what she knows and knowing what’s coming in the future, but also using it to her advantage.”

Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe goof around behind the scenes on the American set of Season 4 of "Outlander."
Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe goof around behind the scenes on the American set of Season 4 of "Outlander." (Mark Mainz / Starz)

In order to create Colonial America, production designer Jon Gary Steele built separate interior and exterior sets for River Run and Fraser’s Ridge, a cabin where Claire and Jamie build their new home. The interiors were constructed, with great attention paid to details like custom chandeliers and ornate wallpapers, inside the soundstages; the exteriors were erected on location in the Scottish wilderness. These set pieces, along with the Wilmington backlot, will stay in place for the next two seasons, which also take place in America. The fake Wilmington will even be expanded for next season. Steele’s goal is to keep things both truthful and in line with the overall aesthetic of the series.

“We do tons of research to make it as historically accurate as possible,” Steele says. “There’s not much to show what Wilmington would have looked like during this period because the paintings would be more from [the years] later, but we went from plans drawn of the city and etchings, and we tried to make it as close as possible.”

Still, the new setting had to fit in with the show’s tonal palette as well, which meant taking a few liberties when it came to historical accuracy. For example, the walls in River Run don't necessarily match the time period. “A lot of the plantations had very pale walls and pale colors. When we started doing samples, it didn’t look like ‘Outlander’ to me. It wasn’t rich. So I switched it. I wanted to make River Run more in line with the colors of ‘Outlander.’”

The exteriors were especially tricky since there needed to be a visual continuity between North Carolina and Scotland.

“We can’t use the quintessentially Scottish landscape,” says Hugh Gourlay, who is the supervising location manager. “But if you take a little bit longer to look and examine Scotland in comparison with aspects of North America, it fits very well. The woods, the rivers, the hillsides all work very well. It will be a fun thing for fans to find out what was filmed in Scotland and what was used as stock shots from North America. There’s plenty in Scotland that delivers very nicely for us.”

“You need to create a coherent world the audience can settle into and believe is the world of Jamie and Claire in North Carolina in the 1770s,” adds Gourlay. “That’s as important as the actual physical location we’re in.”

Behind the scenes photo of Caitriona Balfe (Claire Fraser) and Sam Heughan (Jamie Fraser) from the upcoming fourth season of "Outlander."
Behind the scenes photo of Caitriona Balfe (Claire Fraser) and Sam Heughan (Jamie Fraser) from the upcoming fourth season of "Outlander." (Aimee Spinks / Starz)

The actors especially enjoyed spending time on the new sets, which helped fully situate them in the feeling of Colonial America.

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“We’re used to working on sets that are very old — old castles that have a heritage and history,” Heughan says. “We’re suddenly on these new sets, and you get the feeling because that’s literally what America was. People just going and building things.”

“That Wilmington backlot reminds me of watching some behind-the-scenes thing in Hollywood,” Balfe adds. “As an actor. being on that is very cool because you really feel like ‘Wow, this is TV.’ I still get that feeling every time I walk onto those kind of sets. They create these little worlds.”

Since production on the show began in 2013, Wardpark Studios has grown immensely – and will continue to grow as work on season five begins in early 2019. What was initially an unused warehouse is now a fully integrated studio that employs more than 200-250 people during filming. Wardpark is, in fact, the only film studio in Scotland, a fact that has prompted a recent push for the creation of at least one more. It is just one example of what is known as the “Outlander Effect.” Almost immediately after the show debuted, fans began flocking to the Highlands in search of the show’s castles and standing stones; a cottage industry of location tours continues to thrive.

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“Throughout our story, Scotland really is one of the characters, and we never really leave her,” Roberts confirms. “There are things the fans and the audience will see.”

“I was always slightly confused by Americans coming to Scotland and trying to reconnect with their Scottish culture,” adds Heughan. “Now I realize ‘Of course they are.’ We’re only a couple of generations removed from the people who actually went [to America]. I’ve come to realize that we’re distant cousins really. In our show, there’s a celebration of that. Scotland is definitely still a really strong part of the show.”

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