THE MAGICIANS Scoop: Interview with Jason Ralph and Sera Gamble

Syfy’s new drama fantasy series THE MAGICIANS follows a young twenty-something who finds himself invited to join a very special graduate school — one where magic is real.  After a lifetime of thinking he was slowing losing his mind, it is a relief initially to find himself amongst those who know magic is real and who can awaken it at will.  But for Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), unfortunately, there is a dark side to magic that must be faced as well.  Paralleling Quentin’s journey into the magical realm is his friend Julia’s (Stella Mave) rejection from that same world and how it sends her on a downward-spiral in search of magic on her own.

In a recent press call, star Jason Ralph and executive producer Sera Gamble talked about what mysteries THE MAGICIANS shall unfold in its first season.

How the story is going to kind of be similar and yet differ from the book series, on which the show is based?
SERA: The first most obvious difference that the fans will notice when they tune in is that we have aged the characters up a little bit.  Quentin is 17 when you meet him in the book, and he is more like 22 in our television show and they are headed into graduate school.  We did that for a number of creative and practical reasons.  When we realized that this is a choice we might have to make, John McNamara, my writing partner, and I took it very seriously.  We didn’t want to change anything from the books that we didn’t have to, so we sat down with Lev Grossman, the author, and hashed out what that change would mean and we all realized that we really loved it.  So I think that’s been for the best.    And I think throughout the season, we’ll be hitting a lot of the greatest hits of the first book.  We sometimes come at them a little bit differently.  We like to say that we have the same general roadmap, but we sometimes take slightly different roads than Lev did in the books.

Since the character of Quentin is older in the show, what was behind that decision?
SERA: Once we wrapped our head around it, actually, it wasn’t hard at all.  The Quentin story is a coming of age story.  It’s a story about someone who is young and walking into the problems and the wonders and the challenges of the adult world and becoming the man that he is going to be.  And that story is perfect to tell about someone in their early 20s.  I think that kind of matches up with where we are as a culture right now.  I think we do a lot of our maturing in our early 20s.  And I don’t know.  I think it ended up working out really organically.
JASON: Yes.  I mean, I had a very similar organic experience with it — of getting to read the books and falling in love.  And then filtering through that, that through me then through the lines of the show, I don’t know.  Something just sort of like spewed out that is my Quentin Coldwater.  And it came very naturally, and it was very fun to do.  And at the same time, from an academic perspective of really going back to the books as much as possible and re-reading the sections from the books that we happen to be shooting that day to bring the spirit of him through me.  Or at least the spirit of him that I experienced, like through the filter of me.

What about Quentin Coldwater attracts you to the role and you see parts of yourself in him?   
JASON: I like that he’s not a classic hero and never will be.  He’s not the chosen one but he is sort of thrust down the throat of this hero’s journey and is kind of coming to terms with that and coming to terms with that fact that something that he’s always wanted and sort of ill-equipped for it.  I like that he’s like not always likable.  There are things about him that are despicable and like those are fun things to get to play.  But there’s something about him that keeps you rooting for him because I think that’s what makes it relatable, that none of us are like perfect human beings.  And I think the show really explores the flaws in humanity and in these characters.  And that we’re forced to embrace them in order to move forward.

It seems like the show emphasizes more of the female characters than in the books.  How did that come about?  
SERA: We inherited these great female characters from Lev and one of the great things about making this as a TV show is we get to deep-dive into more of the characters.  I think when you read the books, you first and foremost are kind of inside the experience of Quentin Coldwater.  But because we spend many, many hours in this world, we get to spend a lot of time in Julia’s (Stella Maeve) point of view and a lot of time in Alice’s (Olivia Dudley) point of view.   It’s not something I think about when I’m writing.  We break the story in the room and we do what makes instinctual sense to us.  But I do have to say that in the editing room, there are times when there are scenes that are three female characters talking about these important things that are happening in their lives and all the conflict that’s going on.  And as a viewer in that moment, I get a little charge.  I get excited to see all of these interesting three-dimensional female characters kind of figuring their shit out together.

One of the things that most struck me about the show is that we are getting to see Julia’s story parallel to Quentin as opposed to kind of catching up with her halfway through the novel.  What kind of effect that’s had on the approach to the over-arcing story in the show?
SERA: It definitely makes the story of Season One a bit more of a two-hander.  You’re with Quentin and he’s very much our way into Brakebills and we’re deep into his story.  But, at the same time, we’re seeing a very parallel story unfold for Julia.  She’s the one who didn’t get into Brakebills. She has to either 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.   It also, I think, really heightens the relationship between Quentin and Julia.  And if you saw the pilot, they’re life-long best friends and there’s a lot of layers to that friendship.  It became really clear as we were writing these two stories at the same time that she doesn’t just sort of fade away from his life in that, “oh, well.  I’ve outgrown my friend,” kind of way.    There’s an active hurt and an active antagonism that grows from the way each of them handled the fact that one of them got into the school and one of them didn’t.

With the separation of Quentin and Julia — how does that affect your friendship going forward and will there be a confrontation — magical one — down the road?  
JASON: I mean, I feel like their lives are sort of like destined to keep running into each other.
SERA: I can give you kind of a minor spoilery answer that.  That kind of goes to what we do a lot on the show.  Which is:  yes, there’s confrontation coming between the two of them.  I mean, after what you see in the pilot, it’s clear they have some issues to hash out.   The confront – magic is the subject.  The confrontation is totally human.  It’s – there’s a really – there’s a scene that I really enjoy between the two of them in an early episode in the season that is – that would not be out of place on a show with no magic.  And there’s a ton of magic in that episode and they do a ton of magic in that episode.   And magic is the reason that they’re having a conversation that they’re having ostensibly, but they’re having the talk that two former best friends need to have because both of them have tripped up and they have damaged the relationship.  So, we really try to make sure that the – that the character journeys on the show would make just as much sense if you tuned in a show in a world where magic weren’t real.

How much are you adhering to actual magic in the sense of spells or items you might be using and would anyone recognize certain aspects of this stuff?  
SERA:  When we were doing the pilot, we came across — essentially, it’s a form of dance, called “finger tutting” — which is an offshoot of tutting which is a little corner of the world of hip-hop because we were searching for a way to kind of codify the language of magic which is very specific and arduous and difficult and intensive, and it’s done with the fingers, primarily, in Lev’s books.  So it was actually John McNamara’s assistant who recommended we go on YouTube and just search the term, Finger Tutting.  And as soon as we saw that, it felt really fresh and good to us and we hired a choreographer to work with the actors.
JASON: The experience, like learning these tufts, I found like very similar to the experience of learning the magic that I had to learn for the show, like the practical magic, the card tricks and the coin tricks and things.  And that is like incredibly difficult.  It requires like such a mind for detail and it takes many hours to practice and to get right.  There is something about learning how to learn those kinds of things which was very useful in getting into the head of these kinds of people and into Quentin.  There’s people who can like dive into material for hours and hours and hours and work on one tiny little specific thing without getting bored of it.  Learning how to do that was like very useful.
SERA: And as for the Google-ability of the other spell elements, I would be curious to hear from an actual practicing witch, if any we’re getting anything right.  We might.  I don’t know.  I do know that we Google the craziest shit all day long in the writer’s room and I had been reading about this sort of New Age solution to the radiation that comes off of computers, if that in fact exists, which I’m not sure if it does.  I don’t know.   But I was reading about this kind of crystal grid that someone had set up to kind of minimize the bad stuff that comes off your computer and that turned into a “mind meld” with our production designer about what they would have to do at Brakebills in order to use conventional electronics — because essentially, Brakebills University is a place where people have been doing spell upon spell upon spell for many generations and so the air is very thick with enchantments and a lot of your “Muggle” hardware malfunctions at Brakebills.   So They don’t use cellphones very much, and they don’t use computers very much because they’re just not reliable in that atmosphere.  So there are little rooms that the students have kind of jury-rigged in order to do things like play video games and use their cellphones and look things up on Google.  It’s one of my favorite sets, though it’s quite tiny.  Alice and Quentin sneak into this little supply closet that students have jury-rigged with a bunch of crystals to be able to use computers in there.  The visual — it’s really beautiful and it came from this random Google in the writer’s room.

Were there any special challenges for you in just working on the show, putting it together, and everything?  
SERA: Well, we’re trying to do justice to the spirit of the books.  That’s probably the thing that wakes us up in cold sweat the most.  But the good news is that we have this amazing cast.  And I think we, across the board, lucked out.   And that’s the first most important piece of the puzzle I think for a TV show.  Every challenge is the challenge of making the show on the schedule and the budget of a television program.  But I’m not being facetious when I say this:  I really believe that those constraints also make the work better in that we have to pick our moments really carefully.  We have to make sure we really know what these beats are about.  We don’t have any room to waste time or money on the show.   So we put every line and every page through boot camp before we go shoot it.  And hopefully that makes the end product better and more exciting.

How would you say this show differs distinctly from Harry Potter and separates it from that?  
SERA: When Lev wrote the book – and by the way, you don’t have to have read the books by any means to — enjoy the show.  I think the books can be enjoyed on their own and the show can be enjoyed on its own or you can do both.   But for Lev, the idea for The Magicians came because he was waiting for that Harry Potter book that was taking too long.  And he kind of did this thought exercise that was instantly appealing to me when I read the books that I think it’s something that a lot of people do, which is apply the tropes and the stories of a fantasy story to your own life.   And in the case of Harry Potter, it’s like, “OK.  Here are these kids who have magic and they have the problems of heroic children.”  And 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 does magic mean in that kind of circumstance.  That was one the core ideas that The Magicians was borne out of.   So the inspiration of Harry Potter was a knowing one and was one that I think those of us who really love Harry Potter enjoy because it’s kind of an adult story.  It’s a story for us now.  It doesn’t have the same kind of black and white ideas of good, evil, destiny, heroism.  It kind of takes that through the blender of adult life when everything gets much, much more complicated and sort of less easy to chart.  And that I think is also maybe the answer to the question of how it differs from those stories, I think.  I think the emotional life of the story is really complicated and the DNA is much more adult.

To discover the dark, mysteries and at times terrifying world of THE MAGICIANS, be sure to tune in for the 2-hour premiere on Monday, January 25th at 9:00 p.m. on Syfy.