Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the real-life love story between Ronald D. Moore and Terry Dresbach begins and the fictional one they depict on “Outlander” ends.
Mr. Moore, the executive producer on the Starz series about a 1940s British nurse who is transported to 18th-century Scotland, met Ms. Dresbach, the show’s costume designer, in 2003, while working together on the HBO drama “Carnivàle.” After a long production meeting in a fluorescent-lit room, Mr. Moore confessed his feelings to Ms. Dresbach.
“I told her when she leaned forward, it was as if the sun came out, and when she leaned back, the sun went away,” Mr. Moore recalled.
“I stood up and walked around the desk, and that was the first kiss,” Ms. Dresbach said. “We were engaged six weeks later.”
Cut to the pivotal first-season episode of “Outlander” in which that nurse, Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), marries the Jacobite warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). He tells her: “I’ll never forget when I came out of the church and saw you. It was as if I stepped outside on a cloudy day and suddenly the sun came out.”
“When I wrote that, I thought, ‘Wait ’til Terry reads this,’ ” Mr. Moore recalled. “It’s a little love letter to her.”
“I started crying,” Ms. Dresbach said. “He’s a hopeless romantic.”
Swoonworthy moments like that have helped propel “Outlander” to rapid success. The recent midseason premiere drew 1.2 million live viewers, a 69 percent increase over its debut last summer.
In a recent interview at the Manhattan offices of Starz, the cable network that distributes “Outlander” in the United States, Mr. Moore and Ms. Dresbach — who joined the conversation via telephone from Scotland, where she’s working on the show’s coming second season — discussed the challenges and joys of working together as a couple on a project with such a rabid fan base.
“Outlander” is based on the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s series of best-selling novels, which have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. Ms. Gabaldon has now written eight books, all of which straddle the genres of historical fiction, romance, fantasy and adventure, and a ninth is on the way. Each volume (many run more than 800 pages) is expected to be covered by one season of the television show.
Ms. Dresbach’s sublime costumes are a starring attraction. Yet before she and Mr. Moore decided to collaborate on the project, she had retired from show business and was spending much of her time helping to raise his two young children from a previous marriage, as he worked on sci-fi series like the highly acclaimed “Battlestar Galactica” revival.
Still, she couldn’t resist the lure of bringing to life Ms. Gabaldon’s best-selling historical novels, which she started to devour soon after the first one was published in 1991.
“As Ron kept pointing out, ‘Who the hell else is going to do this other than you?’ ” Ms. Dresbach said. “He was kind of right.”
It turned out to be a perfect fit. The couple share a similar philosophy when it comes to period costumes: Make them as authentic as possible. “I want them to look lived-in, beaten-up and home-repaired,” Mr. Moore said. To that end, his wife assembled a 15-person aging and dyeing department, whose primary objective is to weather the costumes and “make them look real,” he explained.
Occasionally, they clash when the needs of story and the reality of costumes collide. For instance, when the villainous redcoat Capt. Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) literally rips Claire’s bodice, Mr. Moore said, “Terry tells me in excruciating detail how impossible it is to rip open these dresses unless you’re the Hulk, because there are many layers of thick fabric.”
Ms. Dresbach continued: “Then Ron says, ‘I don’t care. Make it happen!’ ”
“That’s when we’re going to bend the reality of the period,” said Mr. Moore, who settled on having Black Jack slice open Claire’s dress with a knife.
The show’s stars cite their costumes as keys to getting them into their characters. “Once you’re sucked into these corsets, you realize just how repressed women were,” Ms. Balfe, an Irish model turned actress, said. “Your ability to emote, vocalize and be physical is so restricted, purely because of the clothes.” Lotte Verbeek, a Dutch period-drama veteran (“The Borgias”) whose character is accused of being a witch, agreed: “The costumes help, but they also kind of hurt.”
The male actors have fewer complaints about their wardrobe. “It’s a totally freeing experience wearing a kilt,” said Graham McTavish, who plays a Scottish war chieftain. “It represents something from the past that has style and elegance — you’re not going out dressed in sweatpants, sneakers and a baseball cap.”
Not all the men share his enthusiasm. “It’s an awful thing, the kilt,” sneered Mr. Menzies, perhaps channeling Black Jack’s roguishness. “I don’t know why you would wear that. Put some trousers on.”
All these costumes come off nearly as often as they’re put on, as “Outlander” maintains Starz’s reputation as a purveyor of historical flesh, built on earlier opuses like “Spartacus: Blood and Sand.” Yet despite a sadomasochistic (er....really NYT?) spanking scene in the series’ recent midseason premiere, Mr. Moore and Ms. Dresbach resist comparisons to another piece of erotic literature recently hitting the screen, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“Our intention as filmmakers is not to play that,” he said. “But if the audience wants to bring that to the party, that’s all well and good.”
Ms. Dresbach noted: “In our 20th-century brains, corsets are sex get-ups. But in the 18th century, they were like T-shirts. You always have to know that a modern audience isn’t going to look at things through historical eyes.”
Still, the overall appeal of “Outlander” is less about sex than it is about chivalry. “It’s unashamedly romantic, and that’s very rare nowadays on TV,” Mr. McTavish said. “A lot of shows are cynical, lacking in hope and nihilistic, and we go against that trend.”
Mr. Moore agreed: “Even as there’s tragedy, it has a moral center, heroism and belief, and that comes from the books. It’s an adventure you want to take.”
That’s certainly been the case with the novels. Mr. Moore initially had trepidations about pleasing the books’ devotees, but Ms. Gabaldon, who’s a consultant on the show, was certain he was the right man for the job as soon as she read his pilot script.
“I told him, ‘This is the first thing I’ve ever read based on my work that didn’t make me turn white or burst into flames,’ ” she said from her home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Mr. Moore and Ms. Dresbach acknowledge they take license in altering some details, but the fans have come to understand. “At first they were like, ‘Wait, there aren’t little flowers on that dress like Diana wrote,’ ” Ms. Dresbach said. “I just came clean and said, ‘Look, guys, I’m a fan of the books, but I’ve got to design what’s in my head. It’s not done without love and care, but it’s got to be my choice.’ ”
One choice that was nonnegotiable was to shoot on location in Scotland. And Mr. Moore and Ms. Dresbach have so fallen in love with the nation that they now live in a 700-year-old house near a castle where the series films. “It’s got secret passageways,” Ms. Dresbach said of their home. “You pull down a wall sconce and a corridor opens up.”
Mr. Moore and Ms. Dresbach frequently host cast and crew members for dinners and holidays, earning them the nicknames of Papa Bear and Mama Bear from Ms. Balfe, among others. “Part of my job is to take care of the family,” Mr. Moore said. “‘Do they have food today? How long have they been in the rain?’ ” Ms. Dresbach added: “I’ll whack Sam Heughan on the back of the head if he messes with his costume too much. It’s like I yell at my kids: ‘Pick that up off the floor!’ ”
These father and mother figures often also find themselves compared with their show’s central characters. “The fans say we’re the real-life Jamie and Claire,” Ms. Dresbach said. “I’m a lot like her — I’m outspoken, pushy and brash. Ron is true, solid and heroic. He’s Prince Charming. He’s one step short of having that white horse.”
Mr. Moore shook his head in disagreement. “I’m more deeply flawed than Jamie is,” he said. “But you are very much like Claire.”
Ms. Dresbach concluded: “There are a lot of moments when you’re yanking me out of the fire right before I’m about to get everybody killed, just like Jamie does with Claire. Wouldn’t you say, dear?”
“Yes, dear,” Mr. Moore said.
y'all are adorable.
y'all are adorable.