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Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Inside Outlander’s Hunt for Claire Fraser
An exclusive adaptation from the book The Making of Outlander: The Series.
For full VF article
In this adaption from The Making of Outlander: The Series, author Tara Bennett goes behind the scenes of the show’s early production, including the long search to find the right actress to play Claire and the major effort required for the show to be filmed in Scotland.
For two decades, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels existed exclusively on the page and in readers’ heads. Fans had free license to imagine their own Claires, Jamies, Murtaghs, et al., mentally casting and re-casting based on Diana’s descriptions, celebrity crushes, or doppelgänger acquaintances until the cows came home. As with any beloved book or series, everyone has their own mental picture of what those characters look like. And suddenly the show’s producers and the series’s casting team had to find real-life actors to be the public, official face of those characters, shouldering a Mount Everest–size burden of fan expectation.
As one of those longtime readers and fans, executive producer Maril Davis felt the responsibility keenly as they embarked on the casting process with Emmy-winning casting director Suzanne Smith (Band of Brothers). “I love casting, but, normally, when we go into a project I pretty quickly have a prototype in my head of who some of these characters are,” Davis details. “This is the first time I think I have approached a series where I literally had no idea in my head, because Jamie and Claire had been in my head for so long. That was a little daunting when we started the process.”
From her London-based casting office, Smith admits she had not been familiar with the books before she began work on the show, which enabled her to approach the process with a clean mental slate. She was, however, very aware of how invested the fandom was in who these characters were and who should play them. “I know the fans have an idea that it has to be a certain set of eyes,” she says, explaining that fans often focus on the physical descriptions provided in the books. “But it is the acting that comes into it and what each of those actors brings to the table.”
Smith adds that often means that a high-profile actor who might seem like a dream casting might not be right for the role, or available, or even interested in a television series. “Sometimes ‘names’ are mentioned,” she says of early casting talks. “Other times I mention names and then bring them in, or sometimes we get show reels for more-prominent actors. The lovely thing about Starz and Sony was I was given the opportunity to cast unknowns, which is wonderful, because casting is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes names take away from a character.”
As it turns out, primary casting did lean toward unknowns and character actors, in part because Smith made it a priority to bring a sense of authenticity to the casting. “We have utilized a lot of Scottish actors,” she says. “There are some actors who are not Scottish pretending to be Scottish, but a Scottish friend of mine said their accents are great. I have a casting associate who is with a casting director up in Scotland, so we work together in tandem to create everything, and we discuss it with our writer-producers.”
When it came to casting the core three characters—Jamie, Claire, and Black Jack/Frank—Davis and Smith said they were prepared to cast wide nets and potentially commit to a long search. Jamie, in particular, was assumed by all to be the casting unicorn of the bunch. “I said to [show-runner] Ron [Moore] that there’s no way we’re going to find Jamie,” Davis laughs. “We call Jamie ‘the King of Men’ in the writers’ room. So it’s strange that we found him so quickly.”
When they released the casting call for Jamie, a process that Davis explains involves her and the writers collaborating on a character description and sending it out into the world, piles of taped auditions came back from actors around the globe, including from Scottish actor Sam Heughan.
“We saw Sam and we really liked him,” Davis enthuses. The writers discussed his audition, which then prompted Davis and co-executive producer Ira Behr to book a Skype interview with Heughan. “We thought he was really good and we wanted to give him a little feedback about doing a scene. As soon as we got on the Skype call with him and I talked with him, I was like, ‘Oh my God, he is so charming,’” Davis laughs. “Sam is naturally very charming and in some ways has a lot of Jamie there.” Not long after, Heughan earned the title of first actor cast onOutlander.
Next came the alt-Randalls. Smith says she knew British theater and television actor Tobias Menzies very well from previous casting and asked him to audition. “He read a scene for Black Jack and he read a scene for Frank so [producers] could see the two sides to the characters,” Smith details. “The Black Jack scene was quite long, as it was the interrogation scene with Claire. He did it seamlessly.” Menzies was given some notes and a new scene to read for show-runner Ron Moore. “Ron met him, and we did a studio test with just him and some of the scenes. From that, he was chosen. It was very quick. Sometimes it’s like that.”
And, no, the violence and incredible darkness of Black Jack Randall’s character was never a concern for either Smith or Menzies, Smith offers. “Starz asked me to ask Tobias and his agent whether he would be uncomfortable playing a sadist.” She smiles. “He laughed and said, ‘Of course not.’ British actors don’t think of it that way, because they want to be stretched. They know when it comes down to it that it will be handled in the right way.”
With Jamie and Black Jack cast, all that was left of the core three characters was arguably the linchpin of the entire series, Claire Beauchamp Randall, and for some time she was nowhere to be found. “Weirdly, I thought she would be easier to cast, and I was so wrong,” Davis reveals. “There are so few great parts like this for women, but so many amazing female actresses, I just assumed that we would find our person. We saw some amazing people, so that was not even a question, but it just wasn’t Claire. I remember Ron and I were sitting in our office in Scotland and we were literally three weeks away from shooting and we didn’t have Claire yet. We had a couple of female actresses on hold and said, ‘If we don’t get Jamie and Claire right, we might as well not do the series. We will be dead before we start.’”
Producer Toni Graphia had seen pictures and video clips of Irish actressCaitriona Balfe online and, intrigued by her potential, flagged her audition tape for a second look. She was asked to do another self-tape, which Smith says made them decide to bring her in for a chemistry read with Heughan. When they first put the two actors together in a room, it was clear that the show had found its Jamie and Claire. Moore says Balfe was committed to her role from the start. “You could see she was in it,” he says, recalling the first day of filming. “Then in the scenes with Frank, there was a charm and fun to it. Then her running to the woods in the white shift. Then her scene with Jack Randall. With Cait, it was very apparent, very quickly, that this was going to work. She’s it,” he enthuses.
A MAP OF OUTLANDER’S SCOTLAND.
While Diana Gabaldon’s original novel is set in Scotland, it wasn’t clear from the start that filming there would ever be possible. The location, as with any show, would ultimately be decided by many factors, including budget, available crew, stage facilities, and a myriad of other issues. At various times, Eastern Europe and New Zealand were both in the running to simulate the Highlands, until Moore was able to persuade the network and studio to commit to filming in the wilds of Scotland.
“The show is a love letter to Scotland in a lot of ways,” Moore says. “It’s a specific country with a specific look to it. We talk a lot with the director of photography,Neville Kidd, about the quality of light.”
As a native of the country, Kidd was eager to present his home as one of the main characters of the show. “The good thing about Outlander is that there’s very little of Scotland that has been filmed for U.S. television,” he says. “So I think you generally feel like this is a new world that nobody has filmed or seen before.”
In addition to showcasing his beloved country, Kidd says, he also wanted to keep the series feeling true to its 18th-century setting. “In 1743, it’s an environment with no pollution,” he explains. “Everything was very clean, though incredibly gritty. Yet it still has a wonderful quality of light, which we wanted to pass across in our filming. So when we’re filming 1743, we used a lot of reflected lights in the studios to re-create outside scenes and different colors of woods to give a unique feel and quality. We’re also trying to maintain the real color palettes they would have had at that time.”
With that goal in mind, Kidd says, they don’t use contemporary lighting such as L.E.D. or fluorescents on the show. “We have avoided that for 1945 and 1743,” he says. “When in 1743, we use a lot of candlelight flames. We use flame sources or tungsten lighting to replicate candle lighting. All of these techniques give a nice, warm, and inviting feel.”
Kidd also explains that, whenever possible, the camera is used as an extension of Claire’s point of view. “We make it feel like you’re not on a set. If everybody thinks you’re in a castle, then my job is done.”
Making sure the series showcases as much of Scotland as possible was a task that fell on the shoulders of series producer David Brown and locations managerHugh Gourlay. Both are longtime professionals in the U.K. production world, so they established Outlander’s studio base and the database of location partners the series features in any given episode.
“Being able to build an infrastructure for the show was really important,” Brown says. Production began in an older warehouse complex near Glasgow that now features 200,000 square feet of soundstages, as well as workrooms for the costume, construction, and prop departments. “For Season 2, we built another two stages. So in the same time that we invented the show, we built the only studio in Scotland. And in terms of infrastructure, we’ve also employed over 800 different people. In a relatively small environment like Scotland, the show has an enormous impact.”
Meanwhile, Gourlay was out exploring, cataloging, and brokering the use of towns, parks, museums, historical locations, and private properties that could be dressed to fit the needs of the show. Outlander is not a small production, so even when an ideal location is found, a lot of work goes into making it feasible. “We have so much equipment for the crew of a 125 people,” he says. “We need to be able to get them into these locations.”
Adding to the logistical complications is the fact that many of the locations are protected historical sites, including Doune Castle and Blackness Castle. “Because these properties are ancient monuments, there are a lot of restrictions on what you can, and can’t, do in them. It’s very important that they are left as we found them and there is no damage. Actually, it is a criminal offense to damage any of these monuments, so if we had damage, I could in theory end up in jail as the person looking after them,” Gourlay explains.
As to the specifics of turning a 21st-century location into an 18th-century one, production designer Jon Gary Steele says it encompasses a variety of physical alterations. “We have greensmen work two to three weeks per location covering up all the things that are not period,” he says. “We put our own windows in front of existing windows in every location, because they need to have leaded glass, which looks a little bit pebbly. We add shutters. We add thatched or tile roofs on some things. We add cobbles on some streets. There are truckloads of dressing sometimes that come for locations that will play a day or two. I am blown away how much happens per location,” he says.
Adapted from The Making of Outlander: The Series, by Tara Bennett, to be published October 18, 2016 by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group; © 2016 by the author.