Anglonerd magazine had the opportunity to ask Sam Leifer a few questions about Plebs, the sitcom he co-wrote and directs. With a degree in Classics, majoring in history and literature, Leifer spent ten years working on this sitcom about young men living in Ancient Rome.
What was the initial idea that became Plebs?
The script Tom Basden (my co-writer) and I first wrote was entitled Barnabus, Roman Playboy. And we spent literally years working out what we wanted to do with the plot of our first episode – whether it was to involve an orgy, a gladiator or a religious cult (the orgy was always going to be the winner). But apart from that it’s stayed pretty close to the initial vision. The idea was that people never really change and so men in their 20s probably had the same sort of fixations they do now. So we took a modern style of flat-share sitcom and plonked it in a fairly authentic Roman environment. And then added a banging ska soundtrack.
What is your favorite behind-the-scenes anecdote?
After we’d filmed a scene where the boys get into a waterfight in the fountain of Neptune, they were getting warm in a tent nearby. The exec from the network came down to visit the set and she started talking to one of our cast. During their conversation, his penis popped out of his boxer shorts. He tried to bravely continue the chat but she noticed his penis and just said ‘oh dear’ and walked off. He’s been trying to recover from the embarrassment ever since.
If you could go back in time to Ancient Rome, what would you most like to do there?
I’d like to hang out with some of the poets who were around the court of Augustus Caesar. Writers like Virgil and Ovid and Catullus (the Woody Allen of his day) would be interesting company. I’d definitely make sure I was rich. The Plebs had a pretty rough ride. And above all, I’d try not to get ill. They were a pretty advanced society but I think a trip to the doctor or the dentist wouldn’t be much fun.
Where was Plebs shot?
Plebs is shot about 50/50 studio and location. We shoot the whole thing in Bulgaria at NuBoyana studios which has an incredible ancient Roman set. They built it about 10 years ago for a cable TV version of Spartacus and miraculously it’s still standing. The main challenge for me is that Bulgaria is quite far away from my family in London and so I miss them when I’m filming. That and it also gets quite cold out there.
Where do you draw the line between cultural accuracies and artistic license for the sake of the joke?
The joke is the hero. I would forego every historical accuracy for the sake of a joke. But we try to be as true to the world of ancient Rome as we can. And we often find that our stories are funnier for being properly rooted in historical fact. But yeah, we wanted Grumio to burrow through a tunnel into a prison even though Rome didn’t really have prisons. They mostly just pushed their criminals off the Tarpeian rock or sent them into exile. Thankfully most people watching it know it’s not a documentary on Rome and so forgive us the historical inaccuracies.
Sam Leifer’s Ultimate Recommendation List
- Inside Number 9
- Catastrophe, “which is a sort of Anglo-American hybrid”
- last series of Peep Show, “which included episodes that were up there with the best”
- Robert Harris trilogy about the life of Cicero (“I know, give it a break, right?”)
Plebs is available on Hulu.