On Monday, Syfy debuts its latest show adapted from a beloved book. The Magicians is Lev Grossman’s best-selling series about magic in modern day New York. Executive producer/writer Sera Gamble (Supernatural) and star Jason Ralph took a moment to talk about adapting the book, making magic through hip hop and a NYCC post-panel discussions in the men’s room.
Often called “Harry Potter for adults,” Sera explains that “the idea for The Magicians came because Lev was waiting for the next Harry Potter book and it was taking too fuckin’ long. He kind of did this thought exercise that you apply the tropes and the fantasy stories to your own life. In the case of Harry Potter, here are these kids who have magic and they have the problems of heroic children. Then the question is what would this be like in actual, current day New York City among older people who have the problems of everyday adult life? What would magic be in that kind of circumstance? That was one of the core ideas that The Magicians was born out of.”
The story of The Magicians begins with Quentin Coldwater (played by Jason Ralph) and his best friend, Julia (Chicago PD’s Stella Maeve), unexpectedly receive an invitation to apply to a mysterious college.
Jason describes Quentin as “not a classic hero and never will be. He’s not ‘The Chosen One.’ But he’s thrust down the throat of this hero’s journey and he’s coming to terms with that. I like that he’s not always likeable. There are things about him that are despicable and those are fun to play. But there’s something about him that makes him relatable. The show really explores the flaws in humanity and we’re forced to embrace it to move forward.”
While Quentin’s story is the main focus, we also follow Julia who didn’t get into that mysterious college, Breakbills College for Magical Pedagogy. Sera teases that Julia “has to give up magic or figure out some way to get it on her own and it turns out to be a much more dangerous and unreliable way of getting magic.”
Sera is excited about Julia and a few other ladies who will be more prominent in series: “We inherited such great female characters from Lev. I get excited to see all of these interesting, three dimensional female characters figuring their shit out together.”
In adapting the beloved books for a series, some tweaks have to be made. Sera states that “the most obvious difference that fans will notice is that we’ve aged the characters up a little bit. Quentin is 17 when you meet him in the book and he’s more like 22 in our show. They are headed into graduate school.” This change has the blessing of Lev since, Sera continues, “we sat down with Lev Grossman, the author, and we hashed out what the change would mean and we all realized we really loved it.”
She and the writers are not taking any changes lightly since “that’s probably the thing that wakes us up in a cold sweat the most. We’re trying to do justice to the spirit of the books.”
Sera affirms that “Lev is an active part of the making of the show. He reads the scripts before our bosses do. We’re very transparent with him about the process and we ask for his advice, at times. He sends us really thoughtful, interesting, good notes.” She describes the writers’ plan as “hitting a lot of the ‘greatest hits’ in book one. We sometimes come at them a little bit differently than the way in. We have the same general roadmap, but we sometimes take different road than Lev did in the books.”
In addition to finding the right way to build the story, the creators had to find the right way to bring magic to life in a realistic, modern setting. Sera laughs: “I’m curious to hear from an actual, practicing witch if we’re getting everything right!”
To set the look for the show, Sera says they went a little hip hop: “When we were doing the pilot, we can across this form of dance called finger cutting. It’s this little corner of the world of hip hop. We were searching for a way to codify the language of magic; it’s specific and arduous and difficult and intensive and it’s done with the fingers primarily. We searched YouTube for finger tutting and, as soon as we saw that it looked really fresh to us. We asked a choreographer to work with the actors.”
“All of the slight-of-hand-magic is real and I have been practicing that,” enthuses Jason. “I sent the director a video of me doing that and he was like ‘oh man! You just saved us seven grand!’ And I was like ‘alright! You owe me a really nice bottle of wine.’” No, he still hasn’t gotten that bottle of wine yet.
In addition to learning magic, Quentin discovers that world featured in his favorite Narnia-like book series (called Fillory and Further) might actually be real. This world is something that gets Jason really excited: “I don’t know what it is, but every time I, as Quentin Coldwater, get to talk about FIllory, all the nerves in my body spark. My brain goes crazy and I can’t make words. I am so in love with this make-believe world and I’m very strange and I can’t explain it.”
The Magicians had a successful preview last fall at New York Comic Con where, Jason recounts “I had such a wonderful time. A lot of people came a little skeptical, as they should be. I think that what they saw from the show and from the panel and they came away very excited and very supportive.”
After the panel, he headed to the men’s room and had an informal “post-panel” with some fans who were also in line. Despite the awkwardness of the location, Jason was “glad that I happened to go to that bathroom. It was kind of one-on-one with all the fans and, I’ll tell you what, it was the best. They had such great questions and were very honest about being skeptical at first and we changed their minds and left them with confidence.”
Sera reassures people that “You don’t have to have read the books to enjoy the show. The books can be enjoyed on its own and the show can be enjoyed on its own, or you can do both.”
Syfy is so confident in the show that the first hour had a surprise preview last month. On Monday, the show officially begins with a two-hour premiere.
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