“This is the first big period thing I’ve really ever done,” said Jon Gary Steele, the production designer for Outlander. “It’s awesome and it’s fun.” And also quite a challenge. The visually impressive show, whose 16-episode first season aired last year on Starz, the premium cable network, is a sweeping romantic adventure with elements of science-fiction fantasy.
To design the British-American series, Steele had to take a deep dive into the history of 18th-century Scotland. That’s where the series largely unfolds. It was also shot entirely in Scotland, in the picturesque region between Glasgow and capital city Edinburgh.
The production designer, whose previous credits include such films as American X, The Dukes of Hazard and Burlesque, refashioned the exteriors of a number of picturesque Scottish stone castles and created detailed period interiors on sets built on four large soundstages in a studio constructed in an abandoned factory in Cumbernauld near Glasgow.
Outlander is based on a series of award-winning romance novels by Diana Gabaldon, who served as an adviser on the show. The plot begins in 1945, when Claire Randal (Catriona Balfe), a World War II nurse, is on vacation with her husband in the Highlands. Suddenly she finds herself transported back to mid-18th-century Scotland where amidst a rebellion she encounters dashing warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and also the dastardly and sadistic Black Jack Randall, an ancestor of her husband. Both are played by the same actor, Tobias Menzies.
“The hardest part was finding locations for the 18th century,” said Steele. “If there’s time and money we build a lot and we built a lot of 18th-century interiors.” But he was able to locate three very different castles which were retrofitted. Doune Castle, originally built in 1390, served as the fictional Castle Leoch in the series. Because it’s a historic landmark, “there were prohibitions on what we could do there,” said Steele.
“Castle Leoch we made very utilitarian. Tons of people lived there, either on the premises, or right outside the premises in shacks and huts,” he observed. “We tried to make it like it really would have been, and it’s not too comfortable. Yes, the laird’s part of the castle was very comfortable, but for everybody else it was kind of low end.”
Lallybroch, the home of Jamie’s family, was created on a ramshackle property with a smaller castle dating from the 15th century that was near Edinburgh. He liked the exterior. “But there were all kinds of buildings around it, and they were the wrong period, so they had to covered with walls of stone and lots of greenery,” he noted.
“I was trying to show the contrast with the first castle,” said the production designer. “Lallybroch is a private residence, and we tried to make it seem more like a real home. It was softer and much more intimate and comfortable,” he said. Filmed on a set, the elaborately decorated interiors are filled with dozens of objects that look authentic to the period.
Ronald Moore, the show’s creator and executive producer, “is really a stickler for detail,” said Steele. “We do a lot of research in every department and everything has to be authentic. At the very beginning, Ron goes through everything with each department. He checks the props; he checks every aspect of the sets.” Many of the objects have to be fabricated. Set decorator Gina Cromwell, who worked on Downton Abbey, “had tons of stuff built, like all the plates and glassware,” said the production designer. “Anything from furniture to baskets and barrels to whiskey bottles – things you can’t just go into a place to buy.” Museum pieces and old fabrics were duplicated.
Steele said he assembled his crew from throughout the British Isles, including Scotland and Ireland. Many were based in London, long a center for art direction expertise. “Game of Thrones had commandeered a lot of crew, but we found enough people.”
Ominous looking Wentwoth Prison is the setting for the climactic final episodes of the first season. “The location is actually a castle called Blackness Castle,” said Steele. “I saw it the very first day I got to Scotland and I was with Ron. What was great about it, the inside is really, really dark and oppressive. Everything had been restored because it’s a historical landmark. This one was all rugged jagged rock sticking out in every direction. When I saw it, I said, ‘This is amazing. This is the prison.’”
Outlander has been renewed for another season of 16 episodes. Steele has permanently moved to Scotland for the duration of the show, and has been at work on the second season since January. Many of the initial episodes take place in Paris, and the production designer promises they will look even more spectacular. “Paris, at this time was a center for magnificent design, and we’re showing the contrast between it and Scotland,” he explained. “Paris is way more opulent and decadent.”