The Magic Of The Magicians: EP & Star Discuss Harry Potter Inspiration, Magical Finger-Tutting, & More

The Magicians
(Photo: SyFy)

Tonight, Syfy officially premieres its latest original series, The Magicians, an adaptation of the fantasy novel trilogy written by Lev Grossman that will transport viewers to a world of modern magic.

The source material has often been paraphrased as "Harry Potter for adults," following a group of gifted young magicians attending Brakebills University, a school in upstate New York where they learn to use their power. Of course, with an unofficial logline like that, comparisons to J.K. Rowling's work are inescapable. In a phone conference with ComicBook.com and a small group of reporters, executive producer Sera Gamble says she both embraces that, but feels the series is more than what the elevator pitch would suggest.

"The idea for The Magicians came because [Grossman] was waiting for that next Harry Potter book that was taking too fucking long," Gamble explains. "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 is – 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…I think the emotional life of the story is really complicated and the DNA is much more adult."

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(Photo: SyFy)

In the novels, Brakebills was an undergraduate college, and the protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, attended just out of high school. Gamble says this was something they felt the need to change for television.

"Quentin is 17 when you meet him in the book, and he is more like 22 in our television show," Gamble says. "They are headed into graduate school. And we did that for a number of creative and practical reasons."

But Gamble that she and the other writers on the series don't take any deviation from the source material lightly.

"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 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 book one. We sometimes come at them a little bit differently. We say we have the same general roadmap but we sometimes take slightly different roads than Lev did in the books."

It's encouraging to hear Gamble talk about Grossman's novels with such reverence, since so many fans are so passionate about them. Star Jason Ralph says he's experienced that feeling towards fiction in a way that transcends his role as Quentin.

"I grew up with the Harry Potter series and had had a very similar experience with that. But I say strangely enough, like the strongest experience I've had to a story is this made-up one– called Fillory," Ralph says, referring to the children's fantasy novel series (think Chronicles of Narnia) that Quentin obsesses over in The Magicians. "And I don't know what it is. But the time when I, as Quentin Coldwater, get to talk about Fillory, like my body, all the nerves in my body just spark and my brain goes crazy and I can't think and I can't make words because I'm so in love this like make-believe world. And it's very strange and I can't explain it."

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(Photo: SyFy)

The actual physical practice of magic in The Magicians is a taxing one, both mentally and physically. Part of that comes from the complex finger motions the students need to perform to unlock arcane energy. To visualize these motions for television, Gamble and her team looked for inspiration from what may be an unexpectedly modern source, finger tutting.

"When we were doing the pilot, we came across this --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," Gamble explains. "So, it was actually John McNamara's assistant. He 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. But Jason can speak more to that."

"The experience, like learning these tutts, 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," Ralph adds. "And that is – and that is like incredibly difficult. It requires like such a mind for detail and it takes like too many hours to practice and to get right.

"And 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."

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(Photo: SyFy)

There's another major difference between the way The Magicians unfolds on television, as opposed to the novels, and that has to do with Quentin's best friend, Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve). In original novel, Julia largely disappears from the story after Quentin begins classes a Brakebills, and its only in the sequel, The Magician King, that we learn of the very different path she travelled to fulfill her magical potential. On television, we'll follow both Quentin and Julia's path simultaneously, and Gamble says this changes the narrative dynamic and highlights the relationship between the characters.

"It definitely makes the story of season one a bit more of a two-hander," Gamble says. "You're with Quentin and you're very much – 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," Gamble continues. "And 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."

If it sounds like this is building a potentially explosive reunion, Gamble says that's because it is.

"Yes, there's confrontation coming between the two of them," she says. "I mean, after what you see in the pilot, it's clear they have some issues to hash out. "The confrontation – magic is the subject. The confrontation is totally human. There's a scene that I really enjoy between the two of them in an early episode in the season 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."

The Magicians double episode premiere airs Jan. 25 at 9 p.m. ET on SyFy.

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