Based on Lev Grossman’s best-selling novels, the Syfy series The Magicians centers on Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), a brilliant grad student chosen to attend Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a secret upstate New York university specializing in magic. He and his friends/classmates soon discover that the magical fantasy world they read about as children is all too real, and the dark and dangerous side of magic poses a grave danger to humanity.
While at the TCA Press Tour, executive producers Sera Gamble and Michael London spoke to Collider about their new fantasy drama series. During the interview, they talked about what drew them to The Magicians, why it’s important to center the story with the characters versus the spectacle of it all, drawing from books 1 and 2 for Season 1, not trying to top Harry Potter, expanding smaller moments from the books, assembling this cast, not shying away from the more intense material in the story, and having seasonal arcs to carry them through six seasons. We’ve compiled a list of 20 things that you should know about The Magicians.
They were drawn to The Magicians because there’s nothing like it on TV. It’s the fun of magic and fantasy, tied to characters that are struggling with real things. It’s two different things that are on TV, but not together.
- Executive Producer Michael London has been trying to bring The Magicians to TV viewers for a few years now, with a previous version set up at Fox. The first version of the script was all spectacle. It was all in Fillory with these giant Game of Thrones fantasy sequences.
- Executive Producer/Writer Sera Gamble came to the show with an idea of how to ground it in character, so that the magic is cool and interesting to watch, but the human stakes are what drives it. All of the spectacle in the world doesn’t help, if you don’t care about the characters. The priority is always with figuring out the story they’re telling about these people, and then all of the magic is the icing on the cake.
- When asked what attracted her to the story in Lev Grossman’s book, Gamble said, “The feeling I had when I was reading the books was, ‘Oh, this author sat down and wrote the book about this feeling that I’ve been having.’ As I would read and re-read books like Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, I would wonder, ‘What if this happened to me now?’ The circumstances of your life are so different when you’re in your late teens and early 20s. Nothing is black and white, and you start to question everything, top to bottom, starting with your family and going all the way to God. And that’s what Lev did. He took the fantasy tropes and applied the problems of adulthood to it. I find that irresistible.”
For Season 1, they’re mostly drawing from Book 1, with the significant exception of Julia’s story happening simultaneously with Quentin’s, which comes from Book 2. They wanted to show the contrast between the primary group, as opposed to Julia who is learning on the fly.
- Knowing they were never going to top the Harry Potter films, they didn’t even want to try. Instead, they wanted to come at it another way. A tremendous amount of the time and energy producing the show goes into figuring out how to slice that pie, and how to enjoy enough spectacle and see enough magical vistas, and then still only bite of a chunk big enough that we can actually execute it.
- They have a nice long journey laid out for the characters in the books, so they’re opening doors one at a time, walking through them and trying things out. They are not worried that they’ll run out of story for this show because they can really take the time to get inside of all of the small moments in the story. Throw-away moments in the book can get an entire episode on the show.
- In the first season, these individuals are just learning about their magic. They’re not good, at first, so they don’t need to be world-class creators. They’re discovering how hard it is to do little things. The audience can become more invested that way because it feels real.
The heart of the show is the story of these characters growing into who they are. It is the coming of age of these characters who are in their early 20s. They’re talented and intelligent, and they live in a world where magic is real and they can do it, and that leads to tons of complications.
- As far as where the dangers are coming from this season, there is a big mystery that’s unraveled in serial form, in regard to a threat that’s not a traditional boogeyman, but a manifestation of some of the themes that the show is playing with. What that’s all about is intense, personal and frightening.
- Brakebills teaches people who can do magic how to do it more easily. Julia is a character who doesn’t have access to Brakebills, like the rest of the characters do. She has this pasted together magic that’s been found by very shady characters underground. It’s almost the black market of magic, where some of it works and some of it doesn’t.
- So far, they’ve found a way to execute everything they really care about including in the show. Sometimes it’s very close to what’s in the book, and sometimes it captures the spirit of what’s in the book. Any changes they do make are done with the blessing and cooperation of the author.
- There’s a sequence from the book where these individuals turn into geese and fly all the way to the South Pole. They did turn them into geese for the show, and then you see them arrive at the South Pole, but you don’t see the entire journey to get there.
The show explores three worlds, with the real world of New York, Brakebills, and Fillory. The story very organically takes them to all three places, and balances them evenly. The great mystery of the series is very tightly wrapped around the idea of the mythical land of Fillory.
- When it came to casting, they didn’t have to go after famous faces or names, so they just tried to find the actors that really brought the characters to life. Gamble had previously worked with Jason Ralph on Aquarius, so they asked him to read for Quentin. She had also done a pilot a couple of years back, that ultimately didn’t go to series, with Arjun Gupta and Stella Maeve. But, it was up to the individual actors to win everybody over for their roles.
- Mike Cahill (Another Earth, I Origins) directed the pilot episode and brought his unique sensibility to the project. He read the script and then he read the books, and the characters became real people to him. He was able to really translate the story visually and set up a visual style that they’ve stuck with. He brought his independent film approach, solving so many problems with no money, to this show.
- The show pushes boundaries and doesn’t shy away from the content of the material in the books. The books tackle stories of intense violence, and even sexual violence, which is inextricable from what’s being said about human nature and being a monster. It would be disingenuous not to include that in the TV show.
The balance between what they answer and what they leave open is something they’re always talking about in the writers’ room. Sometimes they even decide to take something out and hold off on it once they’re in post-production.
- When it comes to how close they stayed to the plan they had for the first season, Gamble said that if the season were like a road map, and they said they were going to start in Los Angeles and end up in New York City, that happened. They didn’t always take the same roads that they marked on the map on the first day, but they stuck very closely.
- In the most general way, they have a skeleton for each season of the show, and they’re ready to keep going for several seasons. They see seasonal arcs that could take them through five or six seasons.
The Magicians airs on Monday nights on Syfy.