Set Visit Report: MuggleNet Meets “The Magicians” – Part 2
We’ve already shared with you all the amazing things we saw on our visit to the set of Syfy’s adaptation of The Magicians (which premieres January 25!) – now we want to share with you all the amazing things we heard! After we were done touring the sets, we sat down to speak with executive producer Sera Gamble, author Lev Grossman, and several members of the cast, including Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil, and Arjun Gupta!
First up, Gamble was asked about her process for tackling the adaptation of a beloved book series, which she undertook with co-executive producer John McNamara.
Sera Gamble: We co-wrote the pilot. We started by wooing Lev a little bit. We were big fans of the books and met him through Michael London, our producer. And we had a lot of initial chats about what we like and don’t like in this kind of show, and it was sort of a narrowing-down process, starting with just talking about the themes and the feelings and the weird [stuff] in the first book that we definitely wanted to capture. And we knew we were going to anchor it with the Beast, and it actually was a fairly delightful process start to finish. The material is so good. It wasn’t like we were fixing anything; we were just trying to figure out how to make it visual and how to make it an hour.
Hollywood has been going nuts with adaptations lately, especially movies to television. What, for you, made The Magicians feel right for television rather than film or something else?
Sera: There is so much material in the books. It would suck to only be able to do an hour and a half. I think there are years and years worth of… first of all, there is all this story that Lev wrote. But he built… he did so much world-building. He built a lot of worlds to live in. And that, to me, says, ‘Make a show and be there for years and do a deep dive.’
For any of the cast – what’s it like doing the magic scenes? Because I imagine there has to be fun along with oddness because there is probably a lot of waving of things that are going to be added later. Have you gotten used to that process?
Olivia Taylor Dudley: I think we’re pretty lucky on the show. We do a lot of practical magic, if you will. I mean, there is some CG and stuff, but we get to do a lot of fun stuff that… we get to watch it happen as it’s happening, which only helps the performance and only helps us get in the spirit of it. I don’t know, every time I get to do something that… wind is moving in the room, and things are flying around for real, it’s great.
Arjun Gupta: We have an amazing special effects team… I think we explode something daily.
Hale Appleman: Something shatters or there’s fire.
Arjun: We lit something on fire yesterday.
Arjun: And the day before as well. Yeah, so it’s really… they do an incredible job. We do a lot of stuff with wind, a lot of stuff with ignited glasses exploding and different things… as actors, that’s just such a gift because it makes it so much easier to respond to that.
For the actors, how have you found being able to work with Lev has changed or enhanced your experience of being your characters? And then, for Lev, how has it been sort of being on this journey with these people, not only seeing your world come to life but also helping build it in a different way than you built it in the books?
Hale: Lev laid such an incredible blueprint in the books, and to be an actor and be given the gift of playing one of these characters in the series, there’s just so much that enriches the backstory of what we can pull from as actors, and to have him around and available to us is a tremendous gift. So it’s really just a deeper well of information, and that’s a beautiful thing. And rare.
Arjun: He’s been incredibly supportive. I think that’s been… well, you have been incredibly supportive.
Lev Grossman: I have been incredibly supportive.
Lev: Oh, it’s my bit. There was a question for me.
Yeah. So you obviously wrote the books and then you’re seeing this world come to life, but you’re also having a hand in making this visual adaptation of it. So just how has that experience been watching it all come together?
Lev: It’s been really marvelous. I came to it with some trepidation. Being a novelist, it’s a real control freak’s medium. You do everything yourself: You do the costumes, you do the dialogue, you play all the parts, you tell everybody how to say everything. And it’s a real transition coming to a medium that’s as collaborative – it’s hard to even say that word – as TV. But it’s really been a wonderful surprise. These people do things with the characters that I never would have thought of, but I wish I had. I mean, I’m pro-books; books are my medium. But to hear people say things out loud, to watch their facial expressions, even to watch them acting when they’re not talking… when they’re not speaking… off the action. It’s really wonderful. When you’re a writer, one of the best things that happens is when your characters surprise you, and these guys surprise me all the time in really wonderful ways.
Arjun: I just wanted to say that we all love the books and are huge, passionate fans of the books, and there’s a pressure that can come with that in wanting to honor these stories. I think the biggest gift I’ve received… and I don’t know if everyone will agree, but having his blessing has really been monumental in allowing me to free myself in taking some level of ownership of Penny, and that’s a huge gift that I thank you for.
I guess just kind of building on that, I’ll direct a question to Sera. When you are doing a show, you’ve got this kind of built-in expectation. Does it change the process for you at all?
Sera: It does, yeah. I put myself in the fans’ shoes sometimes. Because if someone else were making the show The Magicians, I’d be like, “Oh, really? Let’s see because those books are very good.” I think telling a story over a season of television is a very particular beast, and ultimately, that’s the master we have to serve as writers. And that means knowing that sometimes we’re really going to hit the thing that the fans love, and sometimes we’re going to take a left turn, and we’ll beg their forgiveness or ask them to see it in another way or just take the criticism. I would so much rather have people be passionate about something that I’m working on, even if it’s a little bit divisive – I think it’s going to naturally be a little bit divisive. I don’t want to be too optimistic about it, but I do feel a sense of goodwill from Lev’s fans. I do feel like they’re happy that these books are being made into a TV show, and all of the writers go to work just wanting to do the project justice and make our own weird little beast the best possible version it can be.
This question is for Sera: What was it like breaking down the intricate magical systems and spellcasting from the books and translating them from page to screen?
Sera: Oh, that was awesome. It’s so fun. I think it was actually maybe the moment when I was reading the books that I knew that they would be great to adapt. There’s a very strong point of view about how magic is accomplished, like a single spell requires a lot of arduous practice. You have to learn to move your fingers in very strange and difficult ways. It sounds like learning the piano or something but old school. And that is an opportunity to do something different with magic than maybe you’ve seen on other shows or movies where they wave their wand. No, it’s hard. And we have hired a choreographer who has helped us to develop a visual language for how spells are cast. We spent a lot of time in the writer’s room differentiating between, first of all, how each character’s magic manifests. Because in many ways, it’s an expression of your personality. So the way that Eliot casts a spell is very different from the way Alice casts a spell. We would order up a different level of intricacy from our choreographer. And then, on the other side of the planet, we have Julia, who is learning magic kind of underground without the benefit of a classic education, so that’s sort of like another dialect. It’s really fun – I geek out on it hard.
Lev: Writing about people doing magic… it was one of the things that I felt like I had never seen it quite right and wanted to take a crack at it myself. But I didn’t know in advance whether it would work on screen. There are things you can write on the page that just… they work or you’re describing them. But to actually see someone physically do them, you don’t know if it’s actually going to work. So it was one of the things I was quite nervous about, watching them cast spells. But it’s crazy; it works so well. And it also doesn’t work unless people really commit to it. There’s a bit in the books where somebody says that when you’re doing magic you have to mean it. It’s really cool watching these guys do it. They really sell it; they really mean it.
Arjun: I feel so good right now! This is great!
Was there any particular scene or set piece that you just really couldn’t wait to see?
Lev: I was very invested in the scene where Quentin first manifests his magical ability, and he’s getting his exam for Brakebills. I really wanted to see it badly. And that was sort of a make or break moment for me. Are we going to get what’s important about the books, and is it going to get on screen? And you’ve probably seen it because it’s in the pilot, right? They really crushed it. It really works. It’s very beautiful. One of the important things to me was that magic be beautiful [and] that it just be lovely to look at. That was very important to me. I geek out a lot over the magic; any bit where they cast spells, I get a lot of enjoyment out of that. I have a special attachment [to the part] where they turn into geese. I haven’t seen that yet. How did that go?
Olivia Taylor Dudley: That’s one of those things where in the book, they take their clothes off, and they turn into geese. On TV, they take their clothes off, and they turn into geese. It was cold!
For the actors, how did you guys get into your role? Did you guys study magicians or anything like that to prepare for the role?
Arjun: I didn’t. I think for me… the books are so much about people, and I think that’s the beauty, to me, of the books, is that magic is a lens through which to speak about very human things, which is how we grow up and that whole transition into adulthood. And so I think for me, I really tried to honor that when I was approaching the role and really get as specific and detailed as to who Penny is, where he came from, and what magic meant to him. But that was a peek into how I started; that was my way in.
Olivia: Yeah, we all got to do some fun work with magicians, and they had a magician come when we first arrived, and we got to learn some cool tricks. And I think for Quentin’s character, he does play a little bit more with the traditional sleight-of-hand things. But I do agree with Arjun. At least for me, with Alice, it was much more of the internal [part of] what it was like to be Alice and where she came from. And that does involve a lot of magic, but for her, it’s not about the magic – it’s more about being human.
Hale: And it’s about the characters that Lev created in the books, so to have read the books before shooting was pretty essential to ground in the character for me.
Well, sort of going off of that, I’m curious about what made you guys most excited about your characters. And for Lev and Sera, what you were most excited about these particular characters coming to life on screen versus the books.
Summer: I think for me, I get more excited as each week goes by and each script that comes out, uncovering the layers and dimensions of Margo and being surprised about how many layers there are to her and her being surprised as well. So just, for me, going on the journey with my character and everybody else is really exciting.
Arjun: I didn’t know the books before I auditioned. I’d worked with Sera before, so when I got called in for another project, I was like, “Yeah, okay, let’s go and do this audition, then.” I read the script, and I was thrilled. I was like, “This is taking a risk. This isn’t something…” so that was my initial why I was so excited about the project. I was auditioning, actually, for both Penny and Eliot, which would have been a disaster if I’d been Eliot. That would have been not good for anyone. But as I started to… Penny is, one, very different than I am in a lot of ways and similar in some ways, but… it’s dark [stuff], guys. There’s crazy… Sera, John, and the whole writing… they take us to crazy places, and as an artist and as an actor, I’m constantly challenging myself. How do I honor this? How do I fully bring this to life?
Hale: I think what I love most about Eliot is that he’s this mass of contradictions, and you can’t really put your finger on him. He’s a sinner, and he’s a broken little child, and he’s masculine, and he’s feminine, and he’s powerful, and he’s vulnerable. He’s just very complex, and I have never had such an opportunity in my life, and that is so incredibly gigantic and such an honor for me to be able to tackle him. So I completely love him.
Where there any parts of the book that when you guys read it you said, “Holy crap, I can’t do that”? [Was there] anything that scared you?
Olivia: I mean, there'[re] a lot of things that we just practically can’t do in life. I think that we’re so lucky that we get to tell these really intricate human stories in a landscape that’s so beautiful like Brakebills and through the language of magic that you wouldn’t be able to do in any other story. And I think that… I don’t know, getting to turn into geese and foxes and whales and all that sounds scary, but for me, it’s the human relationships. I was really hoping that when I got here, we’d get to really get into them, and every week something new unfolds in the scripts and with the other actors that I could never have imagined. It’s all there in the books, but then getting to experience it is mindblowing.
I think we were all really impressed by these sets. This one is great, but the dorm one, especially, we were kind of looking at every nook and cranny and corner. What’s it like working on those sets? What was it like seeing them for the first time?
Arjun: This is the magic.
Hale: I cried.
Arjun: The whole production team and the art department… these guys are… I mean, look at this! This is insane. And the level of detail. I still go in the Physical [Kids] Cottage, and when we’re on set, that’s actually where I put my chair. And I always find something different that I hadn’t… do you know what I mean?
Hale: It’s constantly evolving.
Arjun: Yeah! It makes our jobs so much easier. There’s like a level of suspens[ion] of […]belief that’s required because there’s magic, and it’s not real, but this makes it feel easier to believe that and then do that.
Lev: That’s one of the things that you can’t quite do in the books. In the books, a detail only exists if you specifically name it, and you can’t spend a hundred pages sitting around, just saying, “Oh, there’s a lamp here, and there'[re] cocktails on the ceiling…” you can’t do that. But you can have a visual canvas where you can put in that level of detail, and it’s very fun to see. It gives the world a real richness. It’s very fun.
Arjun: Vancouver has been amazing for us from that same point also. The way they dress… location is everything. And we’re creating other worlds, and we’re going to create Fillory, and the way that they’re able to do that is, again, something that I definitely want to honor because that’s remarkable in its own right.
Lev, since you created the books, why was it important [for] you to have a queer character in there? And Sera, of course, that’s a part of the show as well. Talk about why it should be a part of the show or the books.
Lev: One of the things that drove the writing of The Magicians was that I read fantasy all the time; I’m a huge fantasy fan. And yeah, there were ways in which the stories I’ve been reading just weren’t like the world that I was living in – there were things that were missing, and I wanted to fill them in. My rule with myself was that everything that exists in our world has to exist in The Magicians world, too. Except for C.S. Lewis. But everything else. And so I wanted to have characters with different sexualities. And I didn’t want to make it… it wasn’t going to be an issue book. This wasn’t going to be the book, the fantasy novel, that had a gay character in it. It just made sense that somebody should be gay because many people are gay.
And Sera, you made sure that was a part of the show as well.
Sera: Yeah, I agree with… my thought process is I think very similar to Lev’s. It’s important to me to write things that reflect the real world, and the real world has a wider spectrum than what we’ve seen on television. It’s such a natural part of the story – it’s about people in their early twenties getting to know each other – that there’s actually a fair amount of exploration of our characters’ sexuality in Season 1 just period, and that’s just part of it. And I agree, it’s not… I don’t think it’s any kind of flag that we’re waving. I think it’s just in any given crowd of over ten people, you’re not going to have all straight dudes. It’s just not going to happen, so it doesn’t happen on The Magicians.
Transcribed by Shelby Dale DeWeese, Tracy Dunstan, Rachel Iversen, Delaney Pfister, and Tracey Wong.
Believe it or not – we’ve got even more Magicians coverage coming your way! Stay tuned for our video interviews and our exclusive interview with none other than Lev Grossman himself!