A Discovery of Witches Q&A — Jane Tranter & Lachlan MacKinnon (Executive Producers)
A Discovery of Witches executive producers Jane Tranter and Lachlan MacKinnon look back on Season 1 and offer fans a tease of what's to come in Season 2.
Q: What originally attracted you to the Discovery of Witches book series and what inspired you to adapt it?
Jane Tranter: I think probably it was three things, and not in order of priority. The first one is that it was contemporary fantasy, and it takes a big premise that the fantasy is amongst us, that these creatures are hiding in plain sight. And what the novels did was look down the microscope at how these different species live, so rather than doing what fantasy normally does, which looks at the effect on others of their powers and their differences, it looked at the effect on themselves. I loved the fact that it was grounded and I loved the fact that it was set in our world. I think that I was personally very moved by the themes that were underlying the novels. All great fantasy has something important to say beyond the movement of the pieces on the fantasy board, and for me, the themes of acceptance, of otherness, and those themes of how humanity can bring itself down by its prejudice and its fear of those who are different particularly spoke to me, and I felt that it was a fun and good way to get that message across. And then I felt that the novels were Deb Harkness writing a love letter to our world, both in terms of her appreciation of the beauty of our world, and I was attracted to the number of different locations and, as a filmmaker, the variety and scale of those different locations. I could see what a strong piece of visual storytelling this would be. And those were the things that really made it stand out. When you’re tackling a trilogy, one of the things you have to ask yourself as a filmmaker is, do I want to live with these characters over a number of years? Because you will be. … It was a long journey -- and we’ve still got Book 2 and Book 3 to get done. So you have to know that you really love the characters and that you want to stick with them for a period of time, and I really love these characters.
Lachlan MacKinnon: I think fundamentally at the heart of A Discovery of Witches is a brilliantly engaging love story that’s really well-characterized, and the characters themselves just happen to be witches, vampires and daemons. So it’s quite unique in that regard. And it’s a story that happens to be intelligent -- it’s gripping, it’s fun. Ultimately at the heart of the story there’s something that’s really important to us all over at Bad Wolf, from a personal and professional standpoint of the acceptance of the diverse, that sense of people who are different, in many ways, regardless of race, gender and sexuality -- there’s a space for everybody. That was one of the key parts of it.
Q: What was it like getting all of these top actors on board, and then watching them bring these characters to life?
LM: A: It was a delight! It was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had. We were just working with such an illustrious cast, and so many of the cast members really breathed so much life into their characters. … It was one of the joys of the production, that we had such an amazing cast and a happy cast, and we’re all very, very excited to be coming back for Season 2.
JT: I love the casting process. I always love the process of going out, and when you’re passionate about something, that always shows through to the cast. You begin to watch their faces when you talk about what you’re doing and why. … I always think in a way that material acts as the great divining rod, and it kind of chooses the actors for you. All you have to do is keep a really open mind, and cast according to the spirit of the characters as opposed to the shape of the characters. So you’ll notice that some of the characters that we cast aren’t exact replicas of the characters in terms of looks and physique that Deborah has on the page, but I would like to think that the spirit is what we captured. … And after a while, the actors just become the parts and you never remember anything else.
Q: How do you balance making the series for die-hard fans of the book and also making it accessible for a general TV audience?
LM: Quite often the challenge when you’re adapting a novel for the screen is generally novels are written in first person, in this case from the point of view of Diana. And obviously there’s many different characters in the novel, all of whom we grew to love, partly through casting. Oftentimes we had to find various different ways to explore the other characters in the series .In the novels themselves, it wouldn’t always be on the page, and therefore there would be some creative license taken. But Deb was really supportive with us on that, and we’d have a lot of conversations about making sure the character remained true to the essence of the novel, but at the same time creating a three-dimensional character for the television series.
JT: That’s one of the things that’s exciting about any adaptation -- being able to take from the central beating heart of the whole thing, the novel, and then reach out to the broader audience that visual storytelling brings with it. And I think that one of the things that you’re going to benefit from if you’re doing a trilogy, is that by the time the novelist gets to the end of the third book, they’ve learned things about their characters that you can benefit from when you go back to the first book again. The characters go on a journey, both in terms of the narrative that the novelist knew they were doing in the first place, and sometimes the characters take the novelist places they didn’t necessarily know they were going. ... So you’ve got a great deal more in terms of doing an adaptation of the first novel, because we’ve seen the expansion of characters that happens in the second and the third. So, that was one thing we were able to benefit from.
Q: What was the process of expanding on the other characters' worlds outside of Diana's perspective narrative from the books?
LM: It was something that [Kate] Brooke and the producers and the other writers got together and we would brainstorm how best to bring the novel to the screen. Quite often, like in Episode 1, we’ve got Marcus whose friend James is knocked over by the car, and we see a simulation of a siring happening. And that’s something that happens in the novel, probably like 75 percent of the way into the novel, but it was something that we felt was really important to establish very early on in the series, just so we understand the rules of the world. I think for a television series and a television audience, you really want to explain what the rules are and what the characters are. So, simple things like that. And there were times when we would slightly reconsider some of the structure. And this was with Deb’s blessing, since we’d involve her in the process as well just to make sure we weren’t breaking any of the tenets of the series.
JT: The novels are obviously written from Diana’s point of view, and Diana obviously lets us know the world that she exists in: She’s in a world where 10 percent of the population is not human but made up of three other species and they hide in plain sight, and this is how she recognizes when someone is a daemon, witch or a vampire, through a kind of feel, and how she’s thinking about stories from the past. But we can’t do that in an adaptation. We can only take the dramatic scenes that Deborah has given us and dramatize those, and if there’s a piece of information that we need to get to the audience that happens internally, we have to find a way to dramatize it - and that’s really where we use the presence of the other characters to open up the novel. The most obvious example of that is Satu, and I thought that the sequence where Satu kidnaps Diana and takes her to La Pierre and tortures her was absolutely brilliant -- but we’d never met that character before. So how much more would that sequence mean if we had got to know Satu? … You start pulling at those threads. Normally what you do in adaptation is you take a thread, like Satu’s character, and you tug it -- and you go, “Okay, if I tug this further, will this thread break, or will it keep on going?” In the case of Satu, that thread just kept coming and coming and coming, and that’s how you do it. The characters always tell you.
Q: Season 1 follows Diana from reluctant to use her magic to wielding fiery arrows, making a pact with the Goddess and presumably about to walk through time. What was it like crafting this personal journey for her?
JT: It was a really interesting thing to do, because I think part of the real core of the novels is the story of Diana and the journey she goes on, and I think it’s really interesting for women of all ages. We were very mindful of that when we were crafting the adaptation. And I think it’s very easy, particularly when you’ve got male vampires -- we had a lot of very powerful male vampires around the place, and we were sitting on great mountains of history -- these vampires aren’t powerful just because of their strength and all the normal ways that vampires are powerful, but they’re powerful because they know so much because they’ve lived so long. They’re great contemporary beings striding like a colossus across the history of time. Miriam is 2,000 years old -- it’s extraordinary. And so pitting Diana up against all of those -- Diana is a woman who hasn’t quite found out who she is, and against the certainty of the other characters, it felt like a very authentic and very realistic struggle. [In Episode 1], she takes out a library book and changes the world, and in Episode 8, she’s literally firing arrows of fire through the heart of Juliette. That journey is by no means over -- her journey of discovery of herself will go on for another two seasons. And it’s not because she’s asking the same questions of herself in Season 2. The questions become more complex. I think that one of the great things about casting Teresa Palmer is you couldn’t have an actress or an individual more willing to go on a journey of openness and personal discovery and self reflection, either as an actress or a as a person. So it was a very exciting thing to do, and continues to be so, because it is by no means done.
Q: How did you decide to craft the visual language of the magic and otherworldly elements in Season 1?
JT: That grew during the production. We started off wanting to do as much of it in camera as possible, so a lot of the Witch Wind, for example, was done through wire work and wind and stunts in camera. As we went through, as we began to discover the tonal heart of the show -- which in truth I think we discovered in post, I think as is often the case in a first season, that the more you edit and the deeper into the episodes you go. It wasn’t until we had really laid out almost all of the episodes that we went back and started re-editing the early episodes and really began to get the sense of what we were doing here, and then we began to use more and more visual effects -- so we took what was very authentic and grounded and in camera, and we built on it and we enhanced it. One of the things I can safely say about Season 2 is that the visual effects work to show Diana’s growing relationship with her magic will be increased. I think now we’ve worked out what her relationship to her magic is, what we need tonally and visually to bring it to screen. There will certainly be a lot more magic in Season 2, as Diana uses her magic much more. That is a frequent companion for her in Season 2, whereas in Season 1, she was just pulling back.
LM: Authenticity is something we spoke a lot about, and is something that ultimately grounds the series. When you are working in a world with vampires, witches and daemons, if you want the fantasy in a contemporary world, you just have to do it with a lot of authenticity. If you want to believe that vampires, daemons and witches are actually walking around us, it’s a new idea for the audience -- they’ve got to believe it. It’s something we made a point of. Like with the Bodleian Library -- that had to feel really authentic to the space, and a lot of people know the Bodleian Library, so we ended up recreating that. Our production designer, James North, who is just awesome, ended up replicating it on a one-to-one basis, and Deb saw this and was so moved by it she was actually in tears, which I think is a testament to James’s work. But it just kind of reinforces the fact that authenticity is important. It probably sounds a bit mad to say this, but we actually shot most of the interiors in Cardiff, instead of being in upstate New York, or Venice or Oxford -- it’s just the way we like to work at Bad Wolf, because it lets us focus on the text and on the performance, and not having lots of location moves. It gives the actors a chance to work in a set that’s designed to tell a story instead of being slightly restrained by the location you have to go through and the form that that takes.It just gives you creative control and allows you to focus on the details and subtleties of the set design.
Q: Season 1 ends on quite the cliff-hanger. Why did you decide to end the season at that point?
LM: It was organically the end of the novel in many respects, and I think time travel is something that Diana has been trying to master the art of, and it’s very risky and dangerous, and who knows what could go wrong. It’s such a great hook. Have Diana and Matthew successfully time-walked or not? So I think it’s a good and authentic cliffhanger because that’s ultimately where the book ends.
JT: Originally, full disclosure, we actually didn’t end it at that point. That’s what we found out in the end that it worked best in the edit. I think it was because we felt that this was the moment that Matthew and Diana are saying goodbye to our world and are going into an unknown place with an unknown set -- which I think is a very human emotion. Lots of people make a leap of faith at various times or go to a strange place that they don’t know what it’s going to hold, and we felt that was a very empathetic moment for the characters to end. And then obviously we wanted to get across to the audience that Matthew and Diana are on a journey somewhere, but here’s the rest of the world that’s going to be after them. Matthew and Diana can run but they can’t hide. Will they make it, will they get there in time? And if they do, are they going to be left alone? And it just felt ultimately like the most satisfactory tying up of all the different pieces in the end.
Q: Without giving too much away, what are some things fans can look forward to in Season 2?
LM: Obviously the hook for the finale is, “Have Diana and Matthew successfully time-walked?” but anyone who’s read the novel -- spoiler alert -- will know that Matthew and Diana time-walk to Elizabethan England. And it’s going to be amazing in Elizabethan England. And we also will go on some travels around the world, so there’s all that to look forward to as well.
JT: Well they can obviously look forward to seeing Diana in a different period in time. Everyone knows Diana is a historian, but that’s not going to give you that much armor as you head into a whole different world. And of course Matthew is in a world that he’s very familiar with, but the modern version of Matthew de Clermont -- he’s not the same man that he was previously in this century. So there’s that to look forward to. The story is very focused on Matthew and Diana and their growing relationship. Diana's journey in Season 2 is like Diana weaponizing herself and getting used to the powers that she has, and Matthew’s journey is almost humanizing himself a little more.
Read a Q&A With Alex Kingston, who plays Sarah Bishop.
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