Syfy’s The Magicians season two isn’t playing it safe, tackling relevant topics while delivering episode upon episode of edgy entertainment. Season two is currently airing on Wednesdays at 9pm ET/PT and when stars Jason Ralph and Stella Maeve joined executive producers Sera Gamble and John McNamara at the 2017 WonderCon, it was just days before the premiere of episode 11 (‘The Rattening’) and the much-anticipated reveal of the dragon.
Gamble and McNamara discussed the process of bringing the dragon to the screen as well as musical numbers, the importance of author Lev Grossman’s input into the series, and the rules of sexually transmitted lycanthropy in our interview at WonderCon.
Is there a possibility of a full musical episode at this point?
Sera Gamble: [Laughing] “There’s certainly that possibility.”
John McNamara: “It’s part of our universe now. I generally am the perpetrator of musical stuff, starting with episode four with Taylor Swift. I don’t have a master plan to musicalize the entire world, like a virus. But we definitely thought the musical number in episode four was really good, but it was really easy to do – relatively easy to do – because it was so impromptu. No one had to be choreographed, really. Jason [Ralph] learned the song in two seconds, it was just a piano thing, so I thought I wanted to go a little more just to see what we could do but not jump into the deep end too early. So, I guessed that Charles Mesure the Beast could sing and I was right. Then it was what would he sing? He would sing songs of his childhood and he was a child of the 1930s so it would be Noel Coward and Cole Porter. And then I thought he’s a magical being and he loves his own voice, he’s a total egomaniac, so of course when he’s really revved up he has an 80-piece invisible orchestra. So automatically the complexity rises with each of those. And then ‘Les Mis’ was a whim. Honestly, it was a whim. It was not planned. No one knew it was coming. It was not in the outline.”
Sera Gamble: “No.”
I thought you would have to have really strict outlines for this type of a series where you’re balancing so many balls.
Sera Gamble: “There’s what would be helpful and then there’s what happens sometimes.”
John McNamara: “I think an outline is helpful. I often will pooh-pooh them but I really do think they’re incredibly important on a serialized show to keep people on the same page. But, I say this all the time to young writers. If you have an idea that’s an inspiration, it’s just paper. We recycle. If it’s a bad idea, we’ll throw it away. But, don’t edit yourself. And so I just thought that this would be an interesting way to go emotionally from A to M. How do you get Eliot from, ‘I’m terrified,’ to ‘I’m going to kick your ass,’ and I tried a lot of different things.”
Sera Gamble: “Of course.”
John McNamara: “I tried a lot of different songs. It was almost going to be ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story. The problem is Sondheim writes such specific lyrics to the world he’s writing in, you can’t have Eliot and Margo singing about the Jets and the Sharks. It would make no sense. ‘Les Mis’ was really a moving and emotionally available number. I also love that know we’ve done Quentin singing alone, now we’ve done the Beast singing but with a full orchestra – time for an ensemble piece to see if we could do it. I was ready to…honestly, there was a stage I was ready to abandon it.”
The fans loved it.
John McNamara: “I remember we got one note from Lev [Grossman] and I’ll never forget this because he’s the nicest guy in the world. He’s given us a lot of a leash; I think our leash is about the size of the United States at this point. But when he got the script, because it wasn’t in the outline, he wrote some notes on the script and his last paragraph said, ‘Les Mis? Okay, I trust you guys. I really trust you guys. I do.’ And then we delivered the episode and he saw it and he’s like, ‘Goddammit, that’s my favorite moment of the season so far and I can’t get that song out of my head.’
I think it worked okay. I mean, I think it was incredibly well executed by director Rebecca Johnson and Paul Becker, the choreographer. I think the DP Elie Smolkin shot the shit out of it, really shot scope and size. I think the actors killed it. They could all sing, and some of them incredibly well. I knew Hale [Appleman] could sing. I suspected Summer [Bishil] could sing because she has a beautiful speaking voice. No idea if Brittany [Curran] could and that was the toughest part.”
Sera Gamble: “She carried it.”
John McNamara: “She was take one. We were all like, ‘F*ck!’”
You have so many interesting characters in The Magicians. Is it difficult to balance the screen time and are there times when you’re sorry you don’t get to put in more Margo or some of the other characters? Plus, you have to make sure to service fans of the books with those who only know these characters through the TV series.
Sera Gamble: “Well, we theoretically have unlimited time. It’s not like we have an hour and a half to do the movie and then if it’s not in the movie, it’s not in the world. You get to do an entire season so if Margo is light in an episode, well we’ll explore Margo a little bit more later.
Everyone in the room is a fan of the books so we come to it kind of assuming that book lovers are being serviced in that we want to see a lot of stuff that we love from the books in the TV show. Everybody is approaching the subject matter from that standpoint. We are also really lucky in that the first person to read our material is Lev Grossman, so that makes us a lot more confident in our choices.”
What happens when he nixes something or suggests you cut out something? Or, doesn’t that happen?
John McNamara: “It doesn’t happen a lot.”
Sera Gamble: “We’ve never gotten a hard nix.”
John McNamara: “Yes, and I can tell you exactly what it is. It was the pilot. It was, and I think now he might actually go, ‘Okay.’ I’d just seen Cirque du Soleil and they had this beautiful way they would twirl – I think it was ‘O’ – and they had amazing ways they would do it. I thought, ‘Well, these characters, one of them could levitate.’ So I had a kind of an oral sex scene involving levitation. That’s all I will say. It looked kind of like an upside T.”
Sera Gamble: “You had a page of description.”
John McNamara: [Laughing] “Well, because it was very specifically choreographed!”
Sera Gamble: “In Lev’s defense, it gets real porn-y real fast. You can’t just put a sentence in there like, ‘The fellatio is levitational.’”
John McNamara: [Laughing] “No. And literally he just wrote – and he didn’t know us very well and he must have been just horrified – he said, ‘This scene can’t ever really be filmed and shown on television.’ Those were his exact words! You know what? I feel like there’s no idea that’s the best idea, and I threw that out like a hot rock. I mean, we came up with something else which I think was just as sexy.”
Sera Gamble: “More often he’s the guy who asks the really good question. He is so well versed in fantasy worlds and he is the progenitor of the world that we’re running around in so if something doesn’t quite ring true for him or if something doesn’t quite make sense, if there’s a missing dot in connecting two ideas and he asks the question, it’s generally a really good clue for us that we should go and take another look at something.”
You introduced the dragon at the end of episode 10. How much weight was on your shoulders knowing you had to absolutely nail the dragon on screen?
Sera Gamble: “I was worried about it. Were you worried about it?”
John McNamara: “No.”
Sera Gamble: “Really? As you are to the musicals is how I am to the creatures. It’s the secret reason I’m doing this show. You can’t do a shitty dragon.”
John McNamara: “I knew two things. We have the best visual effects team I’ve ever worked with. Worldwide, they’re the best.”
Sera Gamble: “This season. Season two.”
John McNamara: “They’re just amazing. And, Sera very, very wisely like on day one I think said to everyone, ‘Start designing and building the dragon.’ And they did and it was an incredibly detailed, scientific, does it breathe, does it fly? I’m going like, ‘It’s a dragon.’ Anyway, the only contribution I made to the whole thing – but I never doubted it would work – was I thought that there were too many shots of the dragon in the script. I thought we’re just not going to be able to make all of those shots look amazing. We were all sitting around and a lot of ideas being tossed, and I said I remembered an interview with Steven Spielberg recently in which he said if he was to Jaws today, he would never show the shark. Not a CGI, he just wouldn’t show it. He’s of the mind that that’s scarier.”
It’s what you don’t see.
John McNamara: “Right. That’s a clue. I’m giving you a little clue. There’s a lot of Jaws thinking.”
Sera Gamble: “But then there’s a big f*cking dragon! It was even like we were fortunate that Jamie Conway who directed the episode was also directing episode eight so on top of prepping episode eight, pretty much his first day of prep, he got grabbed by a small committee of people who said, ‘You’re responsible for the dragon. Can we start talking about it now?’ So, he was actually prepping that episode even before he was prepping his earlier episode.”
Is there anything coming up in the next few episodes that fans of the books might get that viewers who haven’t read the novels might not, like an Easter Egg just for them? Is there anything you can tease?
Sera Gamble: “Yes. Penny’s storyline in a strange way is starting to move toward one of his storylines in the books.”
John McNamara: “Yes.”
Sera Gamble: “And we certainly got him there in a different way because Penny on the show is certainly a lot different than book Penny. But, his circumstances are starting to resemble the Penny in the books more. And also the hierarchy of Fillory, the stuff that people who’ve read the books know about how things work in Fillory, that just kind of comes to a head by the end of the season. I know that’s incredibly vague but I don’t want to spoil it. A lot of shit goes really bad in the season finale in Fillory.”
There hasn’t been an official announcement about season three yet. Do you have a third season plotted out already?
John McNamara: “No.”
Sera Gamble: “We have ideas. I was just texting with Henry Alonso Myers, he’s our executive producer who’s in the room with us, we were just texting about the rules of sexually transmitted lycanthropy last night. We were like, ‘Do you have to be having an outbreak to pass it on?’ It’s the really important shit of season three.”
What did you decide? Do you have to be having an outbreak?
Sera Gamble: “It may actually be about where we are in the lunar cycle, but don’t hold me to that. It’s going to be the writers’ problem when we do part two of Josh’s big problem.”