The Starz series "Outlander," tells the story of Claire Randall, a married British nurse who goes back in time from 1945 to 1743. A romance develops between Claire and a Scottish warrior named Jamie, and she’s torn between two worlds that are two centuries apart.
But Outlander is a family affair. Moore’s wife, Terry Dresbach, is the show’s costume designer, and the couple has since set down roots in Scotland where the series is filmed.
With period dramas like Downton Abbey, Boardwalk Empire, and The Knick capturing audiences lately, viewers have developed a discerning eye for historical accuracy. For the creators of Starz's Outlander, there were similarly high expectations. Dresbach has a knack for period costuming, she's also got a great blog where she documents the process in detail.
The couple stopped by the Frame recently to talk about how they met, how they balance work with home life and why "Outlander" has such a devoted and passionate fanbase.
How did you get started as a screenwriter, Ron?
Moore: I was in LA trying to be a writer and I had taken a variety of jobs like messenger and animal hospital receptionist and one day I started dating a girl who found out that I was a Star Trek fan because I had Captain Kirk posters in my apartment.
Dresbach: Always good for a date.
Moore: Worked for me. And she said, hey I have a connection to Star Trek the Next Generation ‘cause I used to work on it and I could get you a tour of the sets. I said, oh man that would be amazing could I go see the sets please, please, please. So she made a call and there was a regular schedule of the set tour that they used to do in those day. I just decided I was gonna take a shot, ‘cause I had been sort of trying to write scripts on and off with varying degrees of discipline over a couple of years. I just thought this was my opportunity. I wrote a spec script and I brought it with me on the set tour and I convinced the guy that was giving me the tour to read it.
You gave it to the tour guide?
Moore: He was one of Gene Roddenberry’s assistants it turned out. He liked it and gave it to a woman who became my agent. She submitted it to the show and it sat in the slush pile for seven months. A new executive producer came aboard...and bought it and asked me to do another one. I did another one. Then he brought me on staff and I was there for the next 10 years and it was just an amazing cinderella story.
As I was watching Outlander, it occurred to me that you're not making a period drama. Terry, what can be a producer's challenge of shooting in two time periods seems like a costume designer’s dream. Is that what appealed to you?
Dresbach: I call it my best dream and worst nightmare all rolled into one because, yes, on the page and in a purely creative sense it does give you this amazing opportunity, but the logistics behind it and the execution are quite daunting. But it's a remarkable opportunity. This is a book that I read when it first came out. I was very familiar with the material and I was involved with bringing it to Ron and it was something that just felt like it should be on screen. I didn't really want to be involved with that process because it was so huge. But it is a remarkable story and creatively quite exciting.
Is it accurate that you essentially semi retired?
Dresbach: I all the way retired. I was out of the business for over ten years...I was really tired of the process of the business. It's a difficult business and it's a difficult business for costumes and it had become very corporate and there's a lot of pressure of sexualizing female characters that I didn't like. Prep times were getting shorter. It was just the nature of the beast was getting less creative and more and more daunting.
What convinced you to come back? A little arm twisting from your husband?
Dresbach: Yes! A lot of arm twisting. I worked pretty hard to stay out of it.
Moore: I just said please!
Dresbach: He did not! He said please about five times and I just kept saying no. They actually interviewed other people. I agreed to come back and get it off the ground. So I would be there for about three months. Well that was almost four years ago. I now live in Scotland. I look back on it and it was kind of meant to be. I get it. I don't know who else would know the characters or the story as intimately as I do. I’ve read the books at least eight to ten times and so I know it really well and that helps in the production because I don't have to wait for scripts. I can go ahead and design based on my knowledge. That saves us because it's such a huge production. You couldn't wait and make air dates.
So you worked on Star Trek, Ron, and you were also the executive producer of Battlestar Galactica. Those were largely studio-based pieces and now you're shooting a big epic period piece on location in Scotland. Big transition for you?
Moore: It was but in between Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, I ran a show called Carnivàle for HBO. That's where Terry and I actually met. She was the costume designer there and that’s where we first got together. That show was a big period piece. It was shot in Southern California but it was an enormous production.
Dresbach: Five thousand extras.
Moore: It was spread everywhere from Valencia out to Malibu Ranch and points in between. That was the first time I had actually dealt with a lot of the issues that I deal with now. The size of the production, doing a period piece and trying to find vintage everything. Also doing a combination of studio work on location.
The series Outlander is unapologetically romantic. It's something you don't see a lot of on TV anymore. How much do you think romance has to do with the show's popularity?
Moore: I think it's baked into sort of the material itself. Diana Gabaldon will tell you that she struggled for many years with booksellers not to stock it in the romance section of the bookstore. Men don't go down that aisle ever. The books had more to it than just the romantic quality of it. I think of the books and the show as being romantic in the broader sense. It's a romantic idea of the past. It's a romantic idea of idealism and heroism and honor. There's a romance to the nature of the story itself. When you talk about romance with the capital R as if it's a bodice ripper -- I think that element on the show is probably not as big as people on the outside think it is.
Dresbach: I think that it's how you define romance. I think there's so little of that in today's media. It seems like something it actually isn't. If we were making this in the 40s it would just be an adventure story. You could say robin hood was a romance. It's a romantic adventure. It's big in scope and it's period and big on costumes. It's an old-fashioned, epic drama. For me what was appealing about it was that it was a very strong modern woman of the 1940s who travels back to an old fashioned misogynistic culture and how she makes her way in that. That's really fascinating to me as a woman and probably as appeal to women as well. It's not just the "Romance." It's a great tale.
Speaking of romance, tell us the story of how you both met?
Moore: We were working at Carnivàle and we were sitting in a production meeting and I was looking casually down the table at her and I happened to notice that every time she sat forward it was like the sun came out and every time she sat back it was like the sun went behind a cloud. A week or so later I was sitting in her office -
Dresbach: And he told me that!
Moore: And I told her that casually.
Dresbach: Just casually like part of the conversation. Nothing had happened - we both had crushes on each other - but that was his opening line. It was a staggering thing to hear somebody say that to you. I'm less of a romantic than Ron. I think and I said something like, what exactly do you mean by that. I wanted a very clear definition. It was fascinating. It's fascinating to be married to someone as romantic as Ron.
Now that you're working on the show, what does that do for putting pressure on your relationship? Can you think of a time you didn't agree on something on the how and you had to work through it?
Dresbach: Is there any time that we do agree?
Moore: It's tricky. It definitely puts pressure on the relationship. Especially because I run the show.
Dresbach: He keeps thinking that he can tell me what to do.
Moore: Yeah there's that thing. Cause she's one of my department heads and she's also my wife. So I'm also trying to take care of the overall production and say I know you need this but I can't give it to you right now.
Dresbach: It's funny because some people think that because of the nepotism that it somehow benefits me. He overcompensates to make sure that he's not favoring me.
Moore: People assume that she gets special treatment, but I do work overtime to make sure that I don't do that. But the thing that adds to the relationship is that, at least for me, now we're working on the same thing all the time. It's not a case like in Battlestar where I was working on this thing that was very separate from my home life. I would go to the office or I'd be on the phone or I'd be dealing with emails or flying to Vancouver. It was like I was living this completely separate life and interacting with Terry and trying to tell her about these things. But it takes so much effort to explain who Baltar is this week.
Dresbach: I was so separate from the business at that point and wanting to be separate from the business that it would be like, how was your day dear? Great. Fabulous. Let's move on. I wasn't as engaged.
Moore: Now we are truly living the same life. Even though we're separate.
Dresbach: We can really fight like cats and dogs over work. Our relationship has never had to take that kind of pressure before. We have a really strong marriage and that gets us through. We put it away the end and we're good. I think our relationship has probably benefitted from it. I can really see though how much of a challenge it would be if you didn't have an incredibly strong relationship because it's tricky. It's really tricky.
Ron, the show is shot on location in Scotland. It's beautiful, but what does that add and how does that complicate things for you? Was there ever an option of shooting somewhere else?
Moore: Early days there was brief conversation about looking at places like New Zealand, but that went away quickly. I thought, the best way to do this is to do it in the place where the show was actually set. There's an authenticity to it and a unique quality to the way Scotland looks and the quality of the light that gives a certain truth to what we're doing. We also have access to all the craftsmen and artisans in the area who know traditional ways of making things. Everything from baskets to weaponry that has been handed down, everybody knows. So you have this huge base of knowledge to draw from. There's also very attractive tax credit in the UK these day that made it all economically feasible. It was just, every way you look at it, the smart move was to make it in Scotland. On our preliminary scouting trips we realized, yeah it was possible to do it so let's just commit.
So now you have a residence there?
Dresbach: Yeah, we have a house there. I live there full time and Ron commutes back and forth which is fascinating.
Moore: Sometimes I go three weeks in Scotland and three weeks to the States because the writers office and post-production is still out here.
Dresbach: I designed the show with pencil and paper here in Los Angeles before I went to Scotland. But when I got to Scotland I just threw it all in the trash because it is such a powerful entity, that you have to accept it as another character on the show. The people there are the descendants of the people in our story, so you can look, in terms of costumes, at what they wear every day and that too is a descendant of what they would have worn in the 18th century. Everybody wears a scarf in Scotland every day. You take it on and you take it off depending on what the weather is doing. That translates. They have an innate integral understanding of the way things work that, as Ron says, translates to the crafts they do, the textures and the colors. You wouldn't get that if you were shooting this in another country.
I want to go back to the costuming and the accuracy. In your blog there's a great story about shopping in a fabric store. Tell us what happened.
Dresbach: It's my favorite store. It's called Britex Fabric in SF. I've been going there since I was a kid. It's a remarkable place as things up there often are. It's kind of like Paris. They do everything to the max. Ron and I were there and I said to them, have you got anything squirreled away that no one else wants to buy. They said, yeah let's go look. They come out of the basement with this crazy piece of fabric, unrolled it across the table and I just fell in love with it immediately. A woman across the way, a customer walking by, stopped and said, have you ever seen a show called Outlander? That looks like a fabric from Outlander. Yes, as a matter of fact I've seen it. I'm the costume designer. She said, oh my god. The executive producer on that show is Ron Moore and he did my other favorite show Battlestar Galactica. I pointed to Ron and said, you mean this guy. I thought the poor woman was going to have a heart attack. She started screaming in the middle of the store. That became a costume on season 2.
I didn't actually start watching Battlestar Galactica until it was mentioned in an episode of Portlandia. Ron, how did that come to be? Did they approach you about using the series as part of a sketch in the show?
Moore: Yeah. I got a call from my agent who said that they wanted to do this episode where they do a riff on the show. They wanted to see if some members of the cast would be interested in doing it and if I would be interested in doing it. I said, seriously? They said yeah, do you want to do something like that. I said, sure why not. Sounds like a kick. So I flew up there with James and Eddie and spent a day and it was fun. It was really down and dirty guerrilla style filmmaking. They didn't have a huge crew at all, but they were really sweet and funny. It was just a great time.
There are nine books in Gabaldon's series. Would you want to carry out making the entire series?
Moore: It makes me tired thinking about it, but I think that's the goal. I think it is a show that goes the distance and doing all the books would benefit everyone.
When you're in the business and you've been in the business as long as you've been. You always have to be thinking about what's next. In the case that this doesn't go all the way to nine books, do you have any desire to work on feature films?
Moore: Now and again I get an idea for a feature that I think is interesting. But the feature business is so different from TV. I've done a couple of features but it's always been a slightly unsatisfying experience to be honest. in the feature business you're basically a hired gun and you know that there are three other writers lined up behind you. They could fire you and hire that guy to punch up the comedy and then this woman is going to punch up the action. It's very disheartening for a writer because the director is king in the feature. In TV it's the opposite. In TV the writer/producer is king and you get to oversee the whole thing and you can really take the characters through the journey and the directors come and go. I guess I'm a control freak, but I like controlling the show and having the ability to deal with the whole creative vision from the beginning to the end and not just do one piece of it.