In the fifth and final part of Blastr's December visit to the Vancouver, B.C., production headquarters of Syfy's (Blastr's parent company - Ed.) new fantasy series The Magicians, I sat down with amiable author Lev Grossman in the laboratory classroom set, surrounded by grinning skulls, bubbling beakers and fantastical vintage maps to talk about the inspiration for the novels and the process of bringing these realms into reality.
Grossman is a respected genre author and Time magazine editor whose best-selling trilogy of books, The Magicians, The Magician King and The Magician's Land, have been attentively adapted for the small screen by executive producers John McNamara (Aquarius) and Sera Gamble (Supernatural).
While in town for the press event, the unassuming New York writer marveled at the manifestation of his wizarding worlds and was suitably impressed by how much of the darker aspects of the books the creative team managed to get on screen.
Catch up with our enlightening excursion to the Great White North for a sneak peek at the sets and interviews with the cast and creators, executive producer Sera Gamble and star Olivia Taylor Dudley; then sink into this chat with the original orchestrator of the magic.
What was the genesis of The Magicians?
It was in 2004, and with novelists, it’s never one thing, it’s always an intersection of several different lines. I was at a defining point in my career, I’d published two novels, and yet I found that I had something to say and hadn’t quite figured out how to say it yet, still, after two books. A number of things happened at the same time ... I had my first child, which really brings up a lot of raw emotion in you, the first time you see her, that little baby, it’s yours. That changed me a lot and gave me access to a lot of emotions I was keeping back. And at the same time, I was reading these fantasy novels that were doing things that I didn’t realize fantasy could do. American Gods, something Kelly Link was writing, but particularly Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
I read that book and I thought, “Wow, I’ve been preparing to write a fantasy novel my whole life.” I had read so much, and I suddenly realized that stuff I’d been trying to say, I can say it, but I need magic in the book to say it. I was reading Harry Potter as well, and I thought, “I love this story, it’s so primal, it’s such a great anthem, the story of the education of a wizard, what would it look like if it looked more like my life?” What would I have to put in and take out to tell a story like this, but about my life and the things I’m struggling with? Then, it all started coming out. I moved it to America. You have to take an aptitude test to get into the school. The person who runs it is not a wise mentor, he’s just another adult who’s full of crap who’s trying to tell you who you are. There’s no Voldemort that they’re fighting. They’re just trying to figure out for themselves what magic is for and what they’re supposed to be doing with it. It just all came pouring out.
In deglamorizing the whole wand-waving world of Harry Potter, what strategies or tools did you employ to achieve a more realistic take on a fantasy novel?
It’s a super interesting question. I had great models. And I thought about this quite consciously and I looked at what John le Carre had done to the spy novel, what he had done to the Bond archetype. In particular, I looked at what Alan Moore had done to the superhero archetype in Watchmen, and also Miracleman. To some extent, I looked at what William Gibson had done in Neuromancer too. And I thought, if you performed that operation on fantasy, on Harry Potter, what would it look like? In some ways, it was just pushing the logic a little bit further, weaving in things that would ordinarily be airbrushed out. There’s so much sex and drinking going on at Hogwarts, but it happens in the margins, it never gets described, they don’t point the camera at it.
What if you got that stuff into the frame? How would it change things? And then there’s just a level of specificity. If you use the kind of language more associated with literary fiction or think about how would Hemingway describe magic, how would Virginia Wolfe, or Sadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen? How would they describe magic if they were writing a fantasy novel, which they would never do. It looks a little bit different. And I thought about that every day. What if you used the tools of realism to write about these fantastical stories? That was my mandate every day when I worked on The Magicians.
What instilled confidence in you that John and Sera were the right people to adapt your books and bring them to life at Syfy?
Obviously, Sera having worked on Supernatural was important to me. What they did with character on that show is really great. The Magicians is about characters, it’s not about magic. I had a rule for myself. That if you stripped out all the magic and just were telling a story about people at a college, would it work standing on its own without magic? That was the standard I wanted to meet. And Supernatural is very good with character.
This was not our first go around trying to put The Magicians on TV. We had worked with other networks, most notably Fox, but other ones as well. And one of the things networks do when they acquire a property is they match-make you with writers and they tell you this is who is going to be writing your show and I’d had good luck and bad luck with that, and I didn’t want to roll the dice any more. John and Sera were willing to option the books with their own money and write the pilot on spec and then take it to networks as a package. That meant that they would have to be the writers, it wouldn’t be up to the network, we would know, and that appealed to me very much, especially when I met John and Sera. They were fans, and there were ways and reasons that they got the books that were really special. And also, I like them. I like hanging out with them!
John McNamara's previous shows, like Lois & Clark, Spy Game, and Vengeance Unlimited were far ahead of their time. Is today the right time for this type of provocative fantasy material?
The Magicians is tricky in some ways. If you just take the bare bones of the plot, you could make a very conventional show out of this book. The things that make it interesting and sexy and funny and subversive is all in the details, it’s all in the dialogue, it’s all in the tone. You have to be willing to really sweat that stuff to make it an interesting story and when you do it really comes to life. But networks had been trying to take this book and tell a very straight story, which was just Harry Potter where the characters are a little older and a little sexier. I didn’t want to see that. It needs to be more. And Sera and John were ready to do that.
What were the compromises necessary in portraying the books' frankness and brutality for television?
I don’t have a complete answer because I haven’t seen a couple of the really challenging scenes where they have this violence in it...and I know they’re coming. They took it further than I thought they could, further than I thought a cable network would sign off on. When you see violence visually on screen, it has a visceral power that’s different than reading about it. You see this with Game of Thrones. You know how many murders and rapes there are in those books, and it makes you very uncomfortable, but you read through them. When you see them on screen they’re twice as shocking. So, if maybe every single last bloodletting doesn’t make it from page to screen, the impact is the same. There’s some stuff in The Magicians, that, when you’re supposed to be uncomfortable, you’ll be uncomfortable.
Syfy's The Magicians materializes on January 25, 2016 with a special double episode premiere.