‘Outlander’ a great fit for TV writer Anne Kenney
Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie Fraser on “Outlander,” with writer Anne Kenney on location in Scotland. Courtesy of Anne Kenney.
“Outlander” writer Anne Kenney’s cozy home office on the Westside is a world away from the fan-intense Writers Bloc event (Inside the eye of the Outlander storm) where we first met last month. As part of the press tour for the show’s second season, Kenney joined her fellow writers and lead actors Caitriona Balfe, Tobias Menzies, and Sam Heughan for a panel to discuss the challenges of adapting for television Diana Gabaldon’s much loved and complex series of books about a World War II combat nurse who accidentally time travels back to 18th century Scotland. It was a rare on-stage appearance for the writers. The shows actors are usually the stars of such occasions, but on this night they seemed happy to let the writers have the spotlight. Members of the always passionate Outlander fandom filled the audience at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, many possibly realizing, for the first time, just how vital a role the writers play in bringing their favorite piece of literature to the small screen.
I visited Kenney a couple of weeks later to find out what life has been like for her since starting on the Starz show in 2013. “I’ve never done anything like this,” the veteran writer/producer said of working on a project with such a huge built-in fan base. “I went from having four Twitter followers — my family — to almost 10,000 and it’s all about “Outlander.” I usually don’t tweet about anything else.” Kenney still finds it strange when fans come up to her at events and want to have their picture taken or have her sign things. “But actually,” she says, “that’s been kind of fun and mostly people have been positive.”
Known for her work on “L.A. Law”, “The Big Easy”, “Greek, and “Switched at Birth,” Kenney had read (and loved) Gabaldon’s books and jumped at the chance to write for a show that combines so many genres. There is historical fiction, adventure, fantasy, romance, and refreshingly, a strong female lead character in Claire Randall (played by Balfe.) “This show is great for women. It’s from a woman’s point of view,” says Kenney. She earned high praise from critics and fans last season for writing episode 7, “The Wedding,” in which Claire is forced to marry the young, virginal Highlander Jamie Fraser (the show’s other lead character played by Heughan) in order to protect her from the British army. Much was written (see How Many Women Does It Take to Make the Perfect Sex Scene?) about the episode’s groundbreaking female-centric depiction of intimacy between lovers who start off the night as awkward near-strangers.
Originally from Oregon and Ohio, Kenney always knew she wanted to be a writer. After earning a journalism degree from Ohio University, she worked on small newspapers until classes in playwriting and television writing led to a move to Los Angeles in 1987. She met her husband, writer/producer Fred Golan, the same year. A voracious reader, particularly of historical fiction, Kenney enjoys the process of adaptation but acknowledges that Outlander can be problematic. While the first season was fairly straightforward, with Claire mostly trying to find her way back home to the 20th century, the second season, now well under way, was far more complicated to adapt. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t yet watched, but as Kenney says, “there was so much exposition, so much more explaining to do.” Things won’t get easier for the writers if the show continues on to season three. Gabaldon’s books are famous for their geographical reach and huge jumps in time.
The Outlander writers are based in Los Angeles (the writers’ room is in the Valley and Kenney crafts her scripts at home) but all are producers as well, which means periodic stints in Scotland to supervise production of episodes. The show is shot at a studio in Cumbernauld, just outside of Glasgow. The cast and crew also spend a huge amount of time on location. As a supervising producer “you’re there at the beginning and during prep when we’re deciding what the locations will be and what scenes stay or go for production reasons,” says Kenney. “We work with the actors and directors and there’s a give and take. Sometimes there’s something I’ve heard in my head and one of the actors will come up and say ‘this sounds really weird to me’. There’s a negotiation that goes on.”
For example, she points out that it’s “very interesting” working with Menzies, who plays a dual role: Claire’s twentieth century husband Frank and his 18th century ancestor, the villainous Black Jack Randall. “I think the assumption is that actors want more to say, rather than less,” she says. “I’ve found that’s generally not the case…especially with Tobias. He often feels he can tell the story more effectively with fewer words, and frequently he’s right.”
Kenney was in Scotland for two months last fall, overseeing one of her own episodes for season two as well as one written by Gabaldon. It was the Outlander author’s first attempt at adapting her work into a script. Kenney says working with Gabaldon was “really fun…we had a good time. My experience was she really put her student hat on. She was there to see how it goes and she was such a trooper. It rains a lot and we were out in the cold and wet. She was fun and funny and didn’t complain once. Like all of us, she got notes and certain things would get re-written and she was very cool about all of it.”
Outlander production has been a boon to the economy in the areas where the show shoots, as Kenney saw one day on location with Gabaldon. “Diana and I were in a coffee shop in a place called Culross. We had our headsets around our necks…our names were on the back. After picking out some stuff, the guy followed us out, went up to Diana and said, ‘oh my god, are you Diana Gabaldon? You’ve brought us so much business..everything’s on the house for you.’ After that the joke was that we all should write her name on our headsets to get free food.”
In addition to dealing with inclement weather, Kenney has found some differences in the way Scottish sets are run. The typical working day is 10 hours (unless the crew agrees to go over) unlike the usual 12-14 hour day in the U.S. There is also a “right to walk” rule that allows the public to legally access any location where the crew is shooting. But so far “people have been very respectful and the actors have been extremely gracious with fans who show up and want to talk and have pictures taken,” Kenney says. She admits that one of her (and fellow writer Toni Graphia’s) biggest problems is understanding some of the Scottish accents. The desk clerk at their hotel was one of the toughest to decipher. “He could have said ‘there’s a serial killer on the third floor’ and we’d be like, great!”