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THE MAGICIANS Showrunners Talk Magic In The City

By on January 11, 2016

Pictured: Jason Ralph as Quentin -- (Photo by: Rodolfo Martinez/Syfy)

With onsite reporting assistance from Joseph Zitt.

What do you do when your entire identity is based on fantasy, childhood dreams and whimsy?

If you’re like The Magicians’ Quentin Caldwell, you might end up in a psychiatric hospital, disillusioned with whatever reality—and the future—hold.

If you haven’t heard of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy, now might be a good time to get into it. That’s because Syfy’s bringing the story to the small screen beginning, Monday, Jan. 25.

When Quentin magically stumbles onto Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy’s campus, the stuff from his favorite childhood book, everything he wanted to believe but everyone said wasn’t real, is suddenly before him. There’s a dangerous cost to Quentin entering the world of magic, however. The least of which is his friendship with Julia Wicker, who after failing the college’s entrance exam follows a different path to learning magic.

Many people are calling The Magicians adult Harry Potter and being compared to J.K. Rowling’s famous series isn’t the worst thing, but it’s also not entirely accurate. Although The Magicians certainly has elements of fate, impervious villains, and magic (duh!), these kids are dealing with power—and beasts—on a whole other level. At Brakebills, magic is not drawn from the things that make us strong or happy, but from our very own pain.

The series, with its urban setting, sex appeal, relatable humor, and angsty drama has garnered serious anticipation from critics and viewers alike after Syfy added the show to its expanding—and maturing—programming slate.

ScreenSpy shares in that excitement, which is why we sat down with showrunners Sara Gamble and John McNamara to talk about adapting Lev Grossman’s dark and tantalizing world for the small screen, what they like about urban fantasy, and the series premiere’s “arresting” opening scene.

Do you feel any pressure taking on Grossman’s well-loved trilogy?

Sara Gamble: Luckily we have a writers room full of really thoughtful, really smart writers so we road test every idea really thoroughly. Then we have this map of these three books and Lev has dreamed these worlds up. Now it’s just up to us to do the TV version of it.

Was there a particular episode when you were writing that felt like the clinching point for the audience in terms of bringing them into the world?

John McNamara: The opening is pretty arresting.

Gamble: Mike Cahill directed the pilot and he’s —

McNamara: So good.

Gamble: He’s the real deal. He’s such a good director and such a lover of fantasy.

McNamara: It opens in a mental hospital. Quentin is in a mental hospital. That’s kind of arresting. ‘Cause he can’t leave. [Laughs]

Is the story going to be really grounded, really character driven, or will it focus on the much prettier, fantastical elements of traditional fantasy?

Gamble: I think we have both, so it depends on what kind of fan you are, really. Our main character is exactly the kind of guy that would go to comic con in full costume, for sure. So if you are looking for a show where you see main characters who are not like that perfect cut out guy who knows he’s a hero and has a clear destiny, than this is the perfect show for that. If you like the feeling that maybe magic is real in New York city, it’s the perfect show for that. I love that.

McNamara: Me, too.

Gamble: That’s one of my favorite things about the show. When we shoot a scene that’s just a bodega full of people and in the back room of the bodega all this magic is happening.

Were there any challenges to shooting magic in a city where there are millions of people versus the more typical, country landscape fantasy?

McNamara: This is one of the reasons why I wanted to write fantasy myself. This is a book where, when the magic doesn’t work in the city, the characters go “Fuckin’ hell! My fuckin’ spell didn’t work. Dammit.” They don’t do that in Game of Thrones. They talk like they’re in Shakespeare. Which is good, but I like to talk how I talk. We really nailed that. Though the way they talk in Fillery I just think is hilarious.

So it’s more grounded, more realistic?

McNamara: Yeah, I think so.

Gamble: You know, it goes into places that are pure fantasy, but it spends a lot of time in a very grounded, real place.

McNamara: Yeah.

Gamble: And the characters stay very grounded in the real world no matter how fantastical the world they enter. As time goes on in the show, they’ll be faced with more and more fantastical things at times. But we get to answer the question of “If you were 22 in New York City and you realized you could do magic, what would you do?” And it has a lot to do with magic-ing up ATM machines–

McNamara: It’s like “Dude, I can do magic!”

Gamble: [Laughs] Right! It’s showing off to your friends, keeping your boyfriend happy, juggling a double life.

The Magicians premieres Monday January 25th (9:00 -10:00 pm ET) on Syfy.

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