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The Magicians’ Sera Gamble on making great fantasy TV without a Game of Thrones budget

“I don’t think having less money is an excuse. ... This shit should not be cheesy.”

The Magicians
The Magicians creates full-fledged fantasy worlds on a fraction of the budget of other fantasy TV shows.
Eric Milner/Syfy
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“This shit should not be cheesy,” Sera Gamble says.

She’s talking about the visual effects and production design on the terrific Syfy fantasy series The Magicians, for which she serves as showrunner. The show just completed its third season, and it’s a cinch to make my top 10 of the year. While The Magicians is one of TV’s most inventive shows, it has a fraction of the budget of something like Game of Thrones, which makes finding interesting ways to present otherworldly scenarios without breaking the bank a creative challenge.

Fortunately, Gamble is up to the task. Her work on the long-running CW series Supernatural won her fans, thanks to her affinity for deeply creepy but weirdly touching monsters. And The Magicians, though in the fantasy genre, is one of TV’s most thoughtful shows about mental illness and the tough choices you have to make in your 20s, when you’re still trying to figure out just who you are.

So when she joined me for the inaugural “Writers I Love” episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I was eager to talk to her about solving these problems and about finding creative ways to tell big, epic stories at a scale that makes sense for all of those non-Game of Thrones TV shows.

She didn’t disappoint. That portion of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Todd VanDerWerff

We can’t talk about fantasy TV without talking about the 2 million-pound gorilla in the room, Game of Thrones. There was recently a report that for their final season, they’ll get $15 million an episode. I’m guessing The Magicians’ budget is not $15 million an episode?

Sera Gamble

It is not!

Todd VanDerWerff

I don’t know it, but I’m guessing it’s lower.

Sera Gamble

It is much, much lower. [Laughs.]

Todd VanDerWerff

I think the show is as visually interesting as anything on TV. How do you make visually engaging fantasy television that tells this fantastical story when you don’t have all the money in the world? Where do you compromise?

Sera Gamble

The approach to the story has to be a little bit different. I have never worked on a show that has $15 million an episode. Anywhere near that! That is several episodes. Don’t get me wrong. I lust for that show [Game of Thrones]. I just want to watch it all of the time. It’s gorgeous.

I don’t think having less money is an excuse. I don’t think people turn on The Magicians and say, “Well, you know, they’re in a different category, so excuse them if they’re cheesy.” No. This shit should not be cheesy. But my whole career has been training in that. Supernatural was training in that too.

This is part of a long tradition you can see in horror movies, which tend to be extremely effective at monster building while usually being very low-budget. It’s about that truism that it has to be just as important what you don’t see as what you do see. Where I think this is good for [The Magicians] is that throwing scope at a story problem is rarely the most satisfying way to get to a solution. It’s a way to just expand out and out and out, instead of doing what we talk about in the writers’ room, which is diving straight down into a problem.

I think The Magicians benefits from the fact that we frequently run out of money because we have to ask ourselves hard questions about, what is really going on between these two characters right now? What does he really want? How do you solve this problem if you can’t throw a giant piece of 3D VFX at it? And we pick our battles. If you’ve seen the last episode, the sequence where you go to the underside of Fillory — that’s all giant VFX.

A+E Networks' 2018 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour
Sera Gamble.
Jesse Grant/Getty Images for A+E Networks/Lifetime

Todd VanDerWerff

There’s a dragon in season three that looks very convincing too.

Sera Gamble

We save up for those a little bit, or we balance things out.

This happens at every level. If you think like a line producer when you’re watching Game of Thrones, you’ll see that for every giant battle, there is a scene that’s just a bunch of people in a room, and Cersei’s wearing something awesome and getting drunk and talking a lot. That’s how we on TV save the money to do the big battle, and everything else is just a question of scale.

Todd VanDerWerff

You’re talking about approaches to solving these story problems. And in season three of The Magicians, the main character, Quentin, who suffers from depression or anxiety, you could have a scene where he battles himself in a CGI landscape or something, but instead, you just have two Jason Ralphs, and one is telling the other, “You’re going to fail. You’re terrible. Nobody likes you.”

My wife, who suffers from depression, said that was one of the most effective depictions of depression she’s ever seen because it’s such a small-scale, smart way that I think you can hook into it more, instead of making it a big thing. That sort of small scale is easier to approach on a human level, as much as I love ice dragons breaking down walls.

Sera Gamble

Sure, and in that case, there was never a giant VFX landscape version of that story. We’re all depression professionals on The Magicians. [laughs]

And I actually think the tone was set when John [McNamara] and I were writing the pilot because we were trying to find a place to start. And it is implied strongly throughout the book that Quentin is battling depression, but he doesn’t start in a mental hospital in the books. We talked a lot about it with Lev [Grossman], and we said, “We’d like to make this explicit. We’d like to start him really at a low moment in the ongoing story of his mental health.” And I think from there on out, the tone was just set, and every writer who comes in understands that that’s part of the story.

It was interesting because Dean Fogg [head of the magic school Brakebills] takes away his antidepressants. It’s the first thing he does in the pilot. And then we had all of these discussions about the honeymoon period when something great comes into your life, and we knew as soon as we got into the writers’ room for season one, we were going to have to find ways to bring this back again and again and again, because it’s just not realistic that something’s great in your life and then your mental health ... changes for life. It just didn’t make sense to us.

For so much more with Gamble, including her thoughts on what makes a good monster into a great monster, check out the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.