The Magicians' Sera Gamble on respecting Lev Grossman's fans and the chemistry of casting

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Dec 17, 2015, 6:08 PM EST

Syfy’s The Magicians aired a special advance preview of its new fantasy series last night, and we were given a peek into the wizarding world of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, with an eye-popping finale that left us shuddering in our sofas.  The official start won’t be until Jan. 25, but the network wanted to give fans an early Christmas gift to urwrap.

Blastr was in Vancouver, B.C., earlier this month for a memorable tour of the sets and chat with The Magicians’ stars and creators.  This writer was suitably impressed by the attention to detail and artistic commitment to making this darker, more adult version of the familiar Harry Potter/Chronicles of Narnia kingdoms the best it can be.

In the third part of our visit to The Magicians’ Canadian production headquarters, I sat down with co-executive producer and showrunner Sera Gamble (Supernatural, Aquarius) for an exclusive interview on the origins of the project, the spellbinding allure of the books by Lev Grossman and the obstacles she and partner John McNamara (who also wrote the pilot) overcame in adapting this provocative material to the small screen.

Mike Cahill (Another Earth, I Origins) was hired to direct the pilot for The Magicians. How was he chosen for the job?

It was sort of a mutual love affair.  We, too, loved Another Earth and I Origins.  He has such a distinctive point of view, and he’s very emotionally grounded in his work and also very technologically savvy.  We knew we needed somebody who would give us realism and character depth and also know how to do really cool s*** with the camera when it came to the big magic scenes.  So he just seemed like the perfect person to set the template for what our worlds look like.

Who found MGMT’s indie anthem “Time To Pretend” that plays in the pilot during the opening party scene introducing Quentin Coldwater?

Mike and I did.  We tried a bunch of different songs and we were in the editing room and I said, “Should we try some MGMT?” and I mentioned a different song and then he found that song and it was very exciting.  When a song is perfect, that’s my favorite thing!

In every interview and panel discussion, you and John (McNamara) have an infectious enthusiasm for this project.  What is it about this particular show that drives and inspires you?

Well, I love the books.  They scratch a certain kind of itch for me as a fantasy fan.  The subject matter feels real, and it feels grown up, and it fully embraces the fantasy element.  And I really like both.  I want a story that is both fantastical and also emotionally sophisticated.  That’s what Lev’s books are, and that’s why we wanted to do the show.


The rare chemistry of this young cast you’ve assembled is palpable.  What particular qualities did you look for in the actors when casting for The Magicians?

We got really lucky.  Casting is such a huge percentage of getting it right.  The show will work if the casting works.  If the casting doesn’t work the show will not work.  We had some great casting directors.  We were very specific about the kind of attributes we were looking for.  We were dialing it in overtime.  I had worked with Stella (Maeve) and Arjun (Gupta) on a pilot a couple of years ago, and I knew they were really talented and was looking for roles for them. So I was happy and relieved when they came in and they knocked it out of the (expletive) park.  Quentin was the first and most important piece, and Jason Ralph was guesting for us on Aquarius.  He’s a theater-trained New York guy, and he walked in to play the character of Quentin as someone very curious about the situation and working very actively to fix himself.  There was something so alive about him, even in a mental hospital at his most depressed, and that was irresistible.

What were some of your greatest concerns with preserving the distinctive style and tone of the three books for the fan base?

We want the fans to be happy, that’s number one.  It’s not possible to please everyone all of the time, but we would like for this series to be something that the fans come to and enjoy and see a reflection of the story that they love.  We’re doing this on the sort of “run and gun” time and money of a television show, so there are changes that are necessary along the way.  We try to hold tight to the underlying principles and themes of the books.  That’s our single most important guiding principle.  It’s never about how big or small something is.  It’s always about, “is this the flavor of magic that is our show,” or “is this the flavor of character drama that is our show?”  And if we can do the epic blockbuster version of it, we will, and if we have to do the smaller version on the run in a day, then we’ll do that.  Luckily, the template from Lev’s book is specific, it’s good, and it works for a TV show.


Why is this the right time for a more sophisticated, sexy, darker take on the magical fantasy genre?

We live in a very fortunate time if you like superhero shows, and there are plenty of great ones to watch, but if you are a true fantasy fan and want a show that is about magic and spellcasting and creatures and you want the grounded, adult version of that, I think that’s where we plant our flag on television.  I don’t think there’s another show like this.  As much as anything else, John and I made this show because we wanted to see it and it wasn’t on the air.

Your work on Supernatural helped solidify the fan base and push the series into new depths of popularity.  How has the adaptation process and showrunning of The Magicians been different from Supernatural?

Supernatural was the best possible education for me.  I learned a lot about how to bring these fantastical elements to life and to do them in a cost-effective way and I got to cut my teeth and make a lot of rookie mistakes on Supernatural.  I got a master’s degree in producing this kind of television from Eric Kripke and Bob Singer.  At its heart, Supernatural is sort of a horror procedural.  There’s a monster-of-the-week and an overarching mythology and it’s also a domestic drama.  It’s about family.  The Magicians is a coming-of-age story and it’s more about fantasy for the pure love and sake of it.  Though we do have a haunted house episode coming up later in the season!  So, I do embrace the horror a bit!  (Laughs)