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THE MAGICIANS Cast and Creators on Adapting the Fantasy Trilogy

Syfy’s The Magicians may focus on a school instructing young people in the use of their magical powers, but it’s no Harry Potter. Based on Lev Grossman’s award-winning trilogy of fantasy novels, the series (which was just renewed for a second season) has ensnared viewers with its tales of the sexy sorcerers at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. We caught up with the show’s executive producers Sera Gamble, Michael London, and John McNamara—as well as stars Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Arjun Gupta, Stella Maeve, and Jason Ralph—at last month’s Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena. Here’s what they had to tell us about the magic behind the magic…

On how closely the show follows the books…

Sera Gamble: Our main goal with the show is to stay true to the spirit of the book. There’s so much about the spirit and world-building that Lev Grossman did that really compelled us. So I think the process in the writers room is sort of the Talmudic interpretation of Lev’s text. Sometimes we veer left. Sometimes we find another way in the door. But I think most of the big plot points that people love from the books, we’re getting to them.

Michael London: We also worked very close with Lev, and Lev was part of the process all along the way. So if we made any left turns or right turns, it was always with his blessing and cooperation.

On whether the show will continue beyond the story of the books…

John McNamara: We think there’s enough material for six seasons.

ML: I mean, the collection of books can actually go off in almost infinite directions. So we’re actually excited about doing more than exists in the three books.

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On filming the flying scenes…

Arjun Gupta: We have a really incredible team that has been around us with the stunts we had in Vancouver, with Stunts Canada and our special effects guys, that really put us in really safe experiences. We do a lot of practical magic on the show, and that was something that, I think, was really important to us, to not just have it be all visual effects but keep true to the reality of this experience.

Stella Maeve: Physically, it was super fun having to be hooked into the harnesses and stuff. And to play on what Arjun said, we had a great team. They helped us. I had a really good time doing it. I’m a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. But I think everybody here got to use their physical bodies in some sort of aspect and were able to enjoy it and have a good time… There were moments where they were like, “We’re going to hang you in the air and you just can hang there.” But I enjoyed it. Isn’t it everybody’s sort of fantasy to be able to fly?

Jason Ralph: So much of the magic that we’ve done has been practical, and there have been so many instances where we’re on set doing these tricks and the environment is responding to what we’re doing.

AG: We set things on fire all the time.

SG: Sometimes even for work.

On how the show came to be…

ML: John and I were working on film project, on Trumbo actually. And Lev Grossman and I were sort of licking our wounds from the experience of not getting the show made the first time. John said, “I have a friend who worships these books more than life itself,” and that was Sera Gamble, who I didn’t know. Sera came in with this fully imagined vision for the world that was very much in sync with what Lev wanted, which was not a show driven by spectacle, even though we have a lot of great spectacle, but driven by the idea that magic is this metaphor for young people trying to figure out their lives; and magic is not the cure-all that they’d like it to be. Because like anything you do in life, you want it to fix you. We sold it to Syfy, and we got to make the show that we wanted to make because we had sort of taken control at that point.

On Julia’s trajectory…

SM: What’s different about Julia is she does decide to go down a different path, and it might be dark and destructive for some time. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I think that what’s so interesting about this show as a whole and what drew me to it is the fact that nothing in life is perfect.

On whether or not magic can exist in real life…

Summer Bishil: I’ve always likened the feeling of when you’ve really attached yourself to the character you’re playing as magic. And it feels like a force is with you when you’re really connecting to somebody else in a scene and discovering a way of looking at things that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. So just discovering these characters felt like magic at a lot of times. As we said, there was so much practical magic. So if something was supposed to explode, it did, and it surprised you. Magic was always this force that was slowly emerging around us every day on set.

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On how far into the trilogy the first season will take viewers…

SG: A lot will happen in season one. We’re even dipping into book two a bit. If you’ve read the books, then you know that Julia kind of wanders off the page a bit, and she comes back profoundly different. And Quentin has no idea why. Then in book two, Lev cycles back and he reveals what Julia has been doing all of that time. We’re playing those two storylines simultaneously. So we’re both getting a fair amount of the way through book one as we are telling Julia’s story, kind of the origin story of her story in book two.

On the amount of horror in the show…

JM: The thing about Lev’s books that really drew me…everything that’s truly terrifying in his books, truly terrifying, is what humans do to each other. That’s also the most transformative thing in the books. So we’re going to lean right into that hard.

Images: Syfy

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