John McNamara & Sera Gamble: The Magicians
John McNamara & Sera Gamble discuss finding the best version of the moment, the importance of not knowing what happens next, and the value of treating everything as practice.
He’s the screenwriter of Trumbo, creator of Aquarius, and writer/producer of numerous other series that span a 30-year career in television. She spent seven years writing for Supernatural, including two seasons as showrunner, and is an executive producer on Aquarius.
Most recently, John McNamara and Sera Gamble adapted Lev Grossman’s popular series of books The Magicians for television. Now entering its second season on Syfy, the dark fantasy show follows a group of students enrolled at a school of magic, battling a terrifying, faceless villain.
McNamara and Gamble spoke with Creative Screenwriting about their partnership, and the unconventional approach they took when making The Magicians.
How did you first meet?
Sera: John gave me my first job in television! I was a hilariously green, wannabe TV writer, and John had a show for ABC, called Eyes. He gave me a job interview.
Tell me about adapting Lev Grossman’s novels for television.
John: Initially, I actually wasn’t aware of the books, or of Lev.
I was co-producing a movie I’d written with Michael London, and I’d always thought Michael would be a good television producer. At the time, Sera and I had a pilot that we’d written, and we thought Michael might be interested in it. He kind of liked it, but had other ideas. Then after Sera left the meeting, Michael said “Oh, I forgot to mention that I’m just going to get the rights back to something I developed last year at another studio, called The Magicians”, and asked if we were interested.
So I called Sera and said “Do you know about this series of books called The Magicians?” and she…
Sera: Completely freaked out! You know how Amazon recommends books based on your purchases? The Magicians had been recommended to me shortly after it was published. I was about 100 pages into that book when I called my agent to find out if the rights were available – which they weren’t, because Michael London had them!
So it felt like a moment of fate when John called me. I said “Read it and let me know what you think…and just stick with it, because it gets really crazy about two thirds of the way into the book”.
John: I’m not well-versed in fantasy…it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just one of the few genres I never got into. So for me, all of these things in the book were completely new and surprising. I had no idea how meta and self-referential the book was. I’d never even seen more than one Harry Potter movie.
So it was incredibly exciting to me, but in a different way than it was for Sera. I was way outside, looking in. I really liked it throughout…and when it revealed who The Beast was and why? I still had about 20 or 30 pages to go, but I called Michael and Sera and said “I’m in. I’m totally in. Now I get what this is. It’s not fantasy – it’s a metaphor for surviving trauma. And how you survive and how you choose to deal with your trauma. If we can do that, then let’s do it.”
Then we decided to option the three novels with our own money, and not go to a studio or network until we had a script.
I think that was the smartest thing that the three of us did, and it was in large part thanks to Michael’s really great relationship with Lev over the years. But it was a decision that only Michael, Sera and I thought was smart! Every person who in any way represented the business interests of the three of us tried to talk us out of it.
I vividly recall the day each of us were going to write our little checks to make one medium-sized check. And I was on the phone in my bedroom, having a screaming fight with my agent and my lawyer, who were on the verge of firing me as a client. They were saying “This is so crazy – you’re taking something that’s damaged goods, it’s been impossible to develop for years, it’s going to sound to the world like you’re just doing Harry Potter, the world is not full of fantasy fans who are going to get that this is smart and meta”.
Apparently I screamed so loud that my son ran outside – he was 6 years old at the time. My wife had to tell him “Dad’s mad at someone and is using bad words”.
But Lev could not have been better to deal with. Once we had a pile of scripts, which took about two or three months, he became even more invaluable. He was just this super open-minded guide and kind of a shaman.
What was most shocking to me was that the more we were faithful, the less he liked it. The more we would invent stuff, the more he liked it.
Which is not to say he doesn’t like his own work! He does and he’s very proud of it, as he should be. But he really appreciates riffing and inventing off of existing ideas. And he’s very tough on himself. In some cases, I recall very odd, sort of Mad Hatter tea party conversations of us saying “No, Lev, we like that scene in the book, we really want to leave it the way it is!”
Sera: The experience was pretty blissful. I think that’s sort of the cost and condition, paying your own money to get to write a script. I really wanted to write something I loved, and only work with other writers. The Magicians’ script was born out of that, and I think you can tell. The pilot has that personal feeling – the DNA of it is really intimate.
John: Then we sent the script out to all of the studios and networks, and had medium interest here and a lot of interest there. But it’s never as much as you want!
Since we’re talking writers to writers here, I’ll tell you about a meeting the three of us had at a studio, never to be named. Now, I’m not advocating this as a strategy, I’m just saying this was kind of peculiar to this project, and I should preface it by saying that I’ve been married to a television studio executive for fifteen years.
So in this meeting, one of the executives started to give us notes and changes that they wanted like to see. I stopped the meeting and said “I don’t understand what you’re saying”. They said “if you’ll talk to us about these changes, we might option the script”. And I said “I’m not here to talk about your ideas for the script we wrote – we’re here to talk about whether you’re going to make it or not. We’re only interested in hearing about that”.
Now I know Michael London pretty well, but he had mostly seen me in movie meetings where I don’t know anything, as a producer or a writer. Trumbo is the only movie I ever wrote and may be the only movie I will ever write. And that was a wonderful experience where no one was ever rude or mean or disrespectful, lowest to the highest. Michael London had never seen the “TV showrunner” me. Until that day.
We walked out and he said “My god that was a terrible meeting”. And I said “Yes, it was – because of them”. He said “we’re never going to work here,” and I said “I don’t care. There are five thousand places we can sell this thing. I don’t want to hear people’s thoughts, I want to see checks written to make this. And that’s what we have to all bond on.”
Everything I know about making a movie, I learned from Michael. But in television, I’ve had every experience you can have. It’s like I’ve been in the Vietnam of TV for 30 years. I’ve had great, amazing experiences as a staff writer, mid-level producer, showrunner, creator…But I’ve also had horrible experiences where every day it was “kill or be killed”.
So I do have this attitude that I’ve developed in my 50s, which is “if it’s not going to be exactly the way I want it, I’m just going to go do something else”.
That often leads you to either getting fired or people just not wanting to work with you. But in what I consider to be a very rarified number of situations, it can also get you left alone and in more control of what you do. Particularly then if one or two things happen to be successful, which, thank God, The Magicians was.
And that’s in no small part due to the fact that it ended up at a wonderful studio where they didn’t have a lot of notes – in fact, we had more notes on what we would want to change than they had.
All pilots are difficult and this was no exception – there were tough debates and tough choices. But since the pilot being shot and a lot of those debates having been settled, and agreeably so, the series has been incredibly smooth, creatively speaking. It’s a hard show to produce, but it’s incredibly fun to write, and the network and the studio have been nothing but almost supernaturally supportive.
The series has a surprisingly creepy villain. Tell me about creating The Beast, and the scene where he first appears.
Sera: I have such a lifelong love of horror storytelling. And because The Magicians kind of skips its way through so many genres related to fantasy, we do get to bring in horror elements at times. And that scene in the pilot where The Beast is introduced? The soul of it is pure horror.
To make a scene scary, you have ask “what is the most universally frightening version of this moment?”
And I have to really hand it to Mike Cahill, who is not only a truly brilliant director, but also really fun and generous to collaborate with. He was pitching us the oral version of his storyboard for that scene. In the script, The Beast rips out a set of eyeballs. And he says “So he rips the eyeballs out, he sets them on the table, and then, with his bloody fingers, he draws the mouth of a happy face”. He wasn’t even asking, he was just telling us “this is the best version of that moment” – and he was totally right!
An interesting thing happens when you’re in a writers’ room for a TV series and you’re inventing it. You start to forensically look at the clues your own story has left behind. It’s like you’re building the house as you go along – what are the bricks of your foundation? You lay some of them unconsciously, but now you’re taking a really good, hard look at those bricks and you’re saying “what do they mean and how do we create more of those?”
So we’re in the writers’ room talking about The Beast, who’s a character that we start to get into more and more as the series goes on. And that smiley face really ended up being a huge clue as to his personality.
Season 1 ends on such a cliffhanger. Had you already been renewed for a second season at this point?
John: No, we weren’t renewed automatically. But I have this theory that one thing that can help you get renewed is to not give the network a satisfying ending. I mean, it adds maybe 1% to your hundred percent pick-up and it may even annoy some networks if they want to cancel you – but I really love cliffhangers.
Sera: It’s something that John and I have been talking about for as long as we’ve known each other. It’s actually a lesson I learned in his writers’ room when I was a staff writer. We were breaking an episode of Eyes, and I pitched what I thought was a really slick end of Act 4. And he said “that’s great – put it at the end of Act 1”. I said “OK…but just so you know, I really don’t know what happens next” and he said “well if you don’t, then neither does the audience”.
That’s kind of the philosophy that we thrive on in the writers’ room now. “Let’s just put ourselves in the most messed up situation possible and not really know the answer as to how our characters are going to get out of it”. Because if we don’t know, then the audience doesn’t know and we’re all in the same place.
Do you have any advice for our readers?
John: Get into television. I’ve written a couple of movies that weren’t made – Trumbo is the only one that was. But that experience was so uniquely collaborative, and I have so many friends whose experiences as screenwriters of movies were so nightmarishly horrible, because writers of movies have no power. It’s not their fault – it’s the nature of the beast.
A movie doesn’t exist without a star or director, and they have to attract each other and a studio. That’s how movies get made. With TV, a writer has an idea for a script and someone wants to make it. Then you add the director and then you add the star.
Sera: I don’t know if I have any advice, but I can tell you the psychological mind trick I use when I’m writing. I treat absolutely everything as practice. No matter whether I’m sitting down to write or rewrite or rewrite again for the five hundredth time…I always say “OK, this is practice for the next thing I’m going to write that I couldn’t possibly write if I didn’t learn whatever I have to learn writing this thing”.
Because the truth of writing professionally is that ninety percent of things fall through, or acquire life in a completely different way than you expected. Nothing ever happens on the schedule you thought it would, and the difference between the script you wrote and the thing that is shot and you then see in the editing room is so vast. Being a professional is the art of letting go of your original idea and running with the idea that’s in front of you.
So I think it’s unwise to put too much of your heart and soul into any one idea. I think you completely devote yourself to what you’re writing while you’re writing it, but you also have to keep a level head about what your job is, and that’s to write every day of your adult life! Try to see this as a trajectory that’s really long – if I stay healthy and I’m lucky, we’re talking about many decades.
I take the pressure off myself by saying “you might think you’re writing the pilot for premium cable right now”, or “you might think this is the season finale of a show that a lot of people are watching around the world”, “but really what’s happening is you’re practicing”. I don’t know if that would be helpful for anyone else, but it’s how I get through the day, and get past my stage fright with the page.
I think a lot of the fight is just doing whatever you need to do to loosen up, shut the committee up for five minutes, and get the page written.
John: It’s better to have a shitty first draft than no first draft. You can always make a shitty first draft better.
I always love what Clint Eastwood said about his years in television. Before he was a movie star and a director, he was the third banana on a long-running western called Wagon Train. He said “I learned from that experience that one day you’re great, one day you stink, one time it’s terrible, the next time it’s good…just keep going. Don’t get bogged down.”
I think that’s why I admire his career so much – I love the unevenness of his movies. He’s made so many bad movies and a few masterpieces. He made what is to me the greatest western movie ever made. And probably followed it up with something awful. But I love the idea of not being afraid to fail.
Which goes back how we run The Magicians – we try to encourage everyone on there to not be afraid to fail. We tell them “You’re not going to get in trouble for having a bad idea, or even executing a bad idea. You’re only going to get in trouble if you’re doing that in order to sabotage our show because you secretly work on Game of Thrones.”
Featured image: Hale Appleman as Eliot, Jason Ralph as Quentin, and Summer Bishil as Margo in The Magicians, Season 2. Photo by Syfy/Carole Segal/Syfy – © 2016 Syfy Media, LLC
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