Creator Terry Brooks & the Cast of MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles on Making Epic Television

January 11, 2016
(Photo: Terry Brooks on the set with stars Austin Butler and Poppy Drayton)

With The Shannara Chronicles, MTV has placed a big bet on scripted, epic storytelling, bringing the world of fantasy author Terry Brook’s long-running popular Shannara series to the not-so-small screen. Brooks and some of the cast, including fantasy veteran John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings) and young stars Poppy Drayton (Downtown Abbey) and Ivana Baquero (Pan’s Labyrinth) joined us by phone on the night of the show’s series premiere. They all shared an infectious enthusiasm for the story, cast, and the show’s cinema-level aesthetics and fantasy storytelling. Read our conversations below and catch up with the first four episodes of The Shannara Chronicles now On Demand at home and with DIRECTV Everywhere, and Tuesdays at 10/9c on MTV.

 

Terry Brooks (Writer/Creator)

DIRECTV: How did The Shannara Chronicles’ transition from books to television come about and what made you feel the time was right for an adaptation?

Terry Brooks: Well, you know, it’s been kicked around for years as a potential movie. Right from the time…it was always going to be Sword [of Shannara], of course, but then as time went on, it became clear that really Elfstones [of Shannara] was a better choice. And I think that when we got into the 2000s, and there was fantasy finally being accepted as a sort of real movie-going [genre], with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, that it became more obvious that this was a good time to start looking at some other projects.

And so the Shannara subject came up again, and I had an alliance with a group called Sonar Entertainment, which is a financier, and some other people, and the talk all turned to saying, “Why are we talking about movies when we could be doing this on television? This is a great big, sprawling epic, and you have 25 books,” or whatever I had at that time. And they said, “Why not take it to television and make it into a TV series?” And I liked that idea. So when they started looking around at people, MTV made the strongest and most aggressive pitch to do this. And I liked the idea of taking a project somewhere that nobody in their right mind thought I would take it! You know, it was the element of surprise, but also the fact that MTV wanted to reinvent themselves, which they do periodically. And they wanted to move towards network programming, and wanted to make this their big, splashy opening series. And you know, those are the kinds of things that writers love to hear. So it was that. And it was also the fact that I trusted the writers, who came on board before we ever took it to MTV or anyone else. Al [Alfred Gough] and Miles [Millar]. And we were on the same page from the moment we sat down together. And I really trusted their judgment on this and I didn’t sit in on any of the meetings and they came back and were so enthusiastic about MTV that I thought, “Well, cripes, if they feel this way, then I’m not going to throw a monkey wrench in then works and say, ‘no’,” based on the fact that I didn’t know what was going on.

That makes sense.

Terry Brooks: Well, a lot of people didn’t think so, but it’s the kind of thing where you have to go with your instincts on some of this stuff. Particularly when you’re working in a different milieu entirely. And as a book writer, I can talk all day about books. But I don’t know that much about TV or film. I’ve had some brushes with it and that’s it.

It’s good to have people around you trust.

Terry Brooks: It’s essential. Let me tell you. This group of people have been terrific. Working with the actors and the directors and the writers and everything, it’s been like a family event, and I really appreciated that.

How closely involved have you been in the creative process and what are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?

Terry Brooks: I was just thinking about that. Actually, I was involved just about as much as I cared to be. You know, there’s obviously a lot of aspects that I don’t need to be involved in, and should just keep me hands out of, so I stayed out of. And I wasn’t invited in, and that was probably a smart move on their part, because what do I know, you know, about things like marketing and so forth? So I stuck with working with the writers, which is where my expertise and help lies and my help was to provide them with a source. I obviously know the books better than anyone—I know all of them. So I was there for them when they had questions and issues and I would vet the scripts and if there were things that looked like they might be a problem, I would talk to them about them and then they would make the changes and it would get resolved. It was pretty good.

Was there any one particularly element upon which you believed the success of a TV version of your books hinged? Was there one item you felt was key?

Terry Brooks: There was a lot of conversation about Allanon. In the books he’s seven feet tall, and a big, druid-ey kind of guy. Black-cloaked and all of this. And I knew going into the TV show we weren’t going to get any seven-foot actors, you know? That was ridiculous to even think about, so I said, “We just need somebody to inhabit this character. We need somebody who feels right.” All of the characters need to feel right, but he particularly, he has to have a gravitas that carries over. And so finding someone like Manu Bennett was a stroke of luck I think. And their deciding he was right for this role was exactly right, because he inhabits that character so completely that when you’re watching him on the screen, there’s no question that’s who he is. That is Allanon. And I was very pleased with that.

It must be exciting to see something that started out completely in your head come to life after you’ve lived with these characters for so long.

Terry Brooks: Very much so. You know, I think my one expectation was…and please don’t let me have to apologize for this later… There have been so many situations where these kinds of things have happened and afterwards you wish, “Oh my God, I wish I hadn’t made that!” But never once did I feel like that was happening. Once it got underway, and I met all the actors, and I watched them filming in New Zealand, and I read the scripts, and I’d seen the rushes. And every time I got done, I thought, “Gosh, they’re so good. I believe they are the characters, they’re right for their roles, they cast them perfectly, and you had a nice mix of older actors like John Rhys-Davies and James Remar on the one hand, and these young actors, Poppy and Austin and Ivana, on the other hand. And they meshed together so well, they were respectful and kind to each other… I don’t know if that happens very often. Maybe it does, but there were no egos, I kept hearing from the cast when I was over there how kind they were to each other and how helpful they were to everybody, and they pitched in when they were needed—did extra work and so on. And I thought, “Oh my God, that’s great!” It’s a dream scenario. It just felt special. It felt special all the way along and then when you see the finished product, you think, “We really have something here.” So whatever happens… I think it’s going to be very successful because I think people are going to see what I see, but it’s nice to be able to look at it and not have to feel like you’re going to have to apologize to anybody for anything.

Is there anything you’ve watched or read that’s particularly taken you by surprise in the past year—maybe something that made you say, “I wish I’d thought of that!”?

Terry Brooks: Oh, that happens all the time. It’s funny, because I read a lot of the field, obviously. But once in a while, something comes along that leaves you breathless and thinking, “What a terrific story that was.” I know in science fiction it happened with The Martian, but before The Martian, it happened with Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, which is now getting an adaptation. And what an amazing trilogy that is. I don’t know if the Ex Machina director is the right guy for it, but that’s a challenge to adapt that because it’s all about the mystery, and you have to make it ambiguous all the way through or it doesn’t work. So that for me was a terrific story.

Naomi Novik, who also writes for Del Rey, wrote a book called Uprooted. She did the Temeraire series that Peter Jackson had under option for while. Until he got carried away with himself and decided to do not only The Hobbit, but decided to do King Kong, and he missed his golden chance because the Temeraire books are much, much better. So she’s now done a book called Uprooted, which is kind of a classic fairy tale, which is extremely compelling and well done, and I think somebody’s going to jump on that at some point.

Pierce Brown’s done Red Rising, I think that might be under option… There’s just lots and lots of things out there. Not many that I wish I’d written because…the problem is it has to be something that speaks to you personally, and an awful lot of what read that I enjoy isn’t necessarily something I wish I’d written, I’m just glad I’ve read it. There’s that aspect of it. I think when I find something that I think I’d really wish I’d written it’s never in my field. It’s some other field where I don’t write. I read something that just leaves me thinking, “What a great book, I’d wish I’d had the wherewithal or the capability to write something like that.”

***

Cast members John Rhys-Davies, Poppy Drayton, and Ivana Baquero

Can you tell us a bit about your characters and what drives them?

Poppy Drayton: I play the princess of the Elves, who very early on discovers really early on in the story discovers she has to save The Four Lands, which is the world that they live in. And for me, for my character, it’s all about coming to terms with the massive weight of responsibility that’s just sort of been dumped on my shoulders. And then trying to save the world and going on the quest to save The Four Lands.

Ivana Baquero: I play Eretria and she is a human. She’s one of the few humans left in the entire Four Lands, because now it’s inhabited by Elves and Trolls and Gnomes. So my character is a Rover. She belongs to a group of thieves that live in the woods. They have a really bad reputation. They’re very rough and my character, obviously, due to that comes from a very rough background where she hasn’t learned what love is, what affection is. But even with all that, she wants to better herself and she wants to get out of all that darkness. And when she meets Wil and Emberle, she realizes that there’s an opportunity to do that, and that’s her journey in this season.

John Rhys-Davies: King Eventine is probably the most successful king that the lands have had for many thousands of years. There’s been a war between the four Races and he has unified the country. I think he started off a good man and an idealist, but in the course of making that work, making that union, he has had to be ruthless and pragmatic. He is an exemplar of that great proposition that basically said that all political lives almost inevitably end in failure. All the things that you were determined to do, in the end, get modified, compromised, swept away, changed, diverted, re-prioritized, and that is a perennial story of all politicians, I think. And the terrible thing of a political life is, you pick the horse that you think is going to win, and you ride it. And it’s not an important horse. Winston Churchill was wrong about almost every single major issue of his time, except the only one that mattered—German rearmament. And he goes down in history as one of the Twentieth Century giants. And Eventine has made what seems to be a sensible judgment call in thinking that magic is dead. It’s finished with, and can be eliminated from our calculations. Which is a rational thing to do. But it isn’t. And it comes back to bite him at the end of his life. In a vicious and violent way.

What are you most excited about viewers discovering in the show?

Poppy Drayton: That was one of the lovely things about going to Comic Con—San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic Con—because we finally got to meet the fans. And Terry Brooks has such a wonderful fan base. And so to look people in the eye and to see their excitement for something that you’ve spent so long working on and put so much of your heart and soul, blood, sweat, and tears literally into, to then see their excitement to finally see something that you’ve months creating was just so special. And so it’s hugely exciting for people to start watching it. I mean, I think what this show does is it sort of caters to everyone. It has action and it has adventure, and it has love, and it has all the complications that come along with love. And it has magic, and it has demons, and it has darkness and so much light, too. It just sort of encompasses everything, really, so I hope people like it as much as we’ve enjoyed making it.

Ivana Baquero: I think what’s special about it is that it’s basically cinema quality put on TV, so it’s got amazing special effects and a great, great storyline. And the crew behind it is the crew that’s done The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, so there’s an amazing production put behind it. And there’s not much on TV that’s fantasy, so I think it’s a great opportunity, not only for fantasy fans to sort of get that, but also for just people in general to see that TV’s having better and better quality shows nowadays. And also for me personally, it’s just so much fun to shoot shows like where you get to act, but you get to also get to do a lot of action, and horseback riding, and sword fighting, so it’s this amazing adventure and experience.

John Rhys-Davies (King Eventine): I’ve been in an awful lot of shows in my life. And on every single one of them, there’s a point at which you say, “Well, I think we could have done that differently or done that a bit better,” or “That’s an odd choice, but…”. But you think, “It’ll cut, it’ll edit,” and this sort of thing. This is the only show I’ve ever been on where I would not second guess or make a second choice of any of the choices made. I mean, that’s extraordinary. It’s unique in the true sense of the word, as far as I’m concerned. Everything about this show seems to me to be really rather brilliant. It comes from an organization that’s being ambitious, and is putting its money where its mouth is. The execs on the show, the young MTV execs, actually do know what they’re doing, and they know when to leave well alone and when to allow the people who actually do know what they’re doing to get on with things. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been on shows where the director’s come up to me and given me some notes and this sort of thing and then they’ve gone back to the camera and the 11 execs sitting around the thing have given him a contrary set of notes and he’s come up and said, “Forget what I said, they don’t want that.” These execs really have been spot on, and the actual showrunners themselves, the writer-producers, top notch. The scripts have been fabulous, the casting is fabulous, the acting is fabulous. The kids themselves are eye-candy to begin with, but good actors, and just produce wonderful, natural, lovely, lovely performances. And the world’s going to fall in love with them. And of course, Terry’s [Brooks] got what—50 million readers or something like that? And when you’ve written 22 or 23 books in a series, you begin to know what you’re doing! Look, I will eat my Elvish ears if this is not a megahit. It’s a great show. They’ve done brilliantly well.

I know that actors are paid, not just do the job, but to help sell the show themselves as well, but I mean this. It may sound like hyperbole, but it’s true.

What have you found most challenging about your role and what do you enjoy most about it?

Poppy Drayton: Oh my gosh, that’s a really hard one. One of the reasons that I was really keen to take this role was the fact that Amberle has so much compassion. She has compassion for everything, for all living things. She loves plants, and animals, and humans, and she’s extremely, extremely compassionate. And that’s probably her most admirable quality and definitely something that I’d like to think I had heaps of already but I think you can always continue on your journey to compassion. So that’s probably my favorite attribute of hers.

Most challenging… I mean, physically, we had to be in shape to sort of deal with…our schedule was quite full-on, and all the physical activity we were doing…we were sword-fighting and we were horseback riding and we were charging through forests sort of on a daily basis. And you’ve got to be pretty physically fit to deal with all that. We had three weeks before we started where we had a personal trainer every day who made sure we were drinking our protein shakes and eating our spinach. We had horse-riding every day and we had sword-fighting every day, and by the end of it you just felt like you could take on the world! It was wonderful.

Ivana Baquero: My character, on the outside, she’s this rough, badass, even selfish, character. So I didn’t want to stigmatize her make her this one-dimensional character, like the badass girl on the show. She’s got this amazing vulnerable side to herself, she’s got this big, big heart. And I wanted to balance those two things and make sure she was a character that you could empathize with at the end of the day, and where you could know where she was coming from. So I think that was one of the main challenges, to balance her dark and light side. What I most enjoyed I guess was all of the action I got to do, because I’ve never done anything like that. We got there a month early to train, so we were able to horseback ride, learn how to use daggers and swords. So for me that was the most exciting and new thing.

John Rhys-Davies: The answer to the second is the easy one because it is generally true of most shows that you work on. The most enjoyable thing is to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and go to work and get to play with people, nice creative people. And to play pretend and end the day as friends. And go home. That’s every child’s dream, isn’t it? So that would be the constant, generally speaking, in most filmmaking or television-making. Everyone should work for at least some period of their life, perhaps just only a few months, in show business. Because in show business, we are not interested in why you can’t do something. We are only interested in, “Can you get it done?” And if you can’t, go away and let somebody else do it. And that can-do attitude is something all of us should have in our lives. When I look back on myself as a young man, you know, making excuses for yourself is just a waste of time. Don’t make excuses, get it done. If the director wants…says to you, “I’m going to shoot in that direction after lunch, and I want two zebra in the background,” don’t say, “We’re in the middle of the Caribbean, and there isn’t a zebra to had in 5,000 miles”. Go out, buy two donkeys, paint them, and stick them in the background position, you know? Because he’s going to go up afterwards and say, “So we got the zebras right in the background over there,” and he’s going to look at you with that sort of contempt that self-important people sometimes have and say, “Zebras in the back? No, no, I’ve changed my mind about that. We’re shooting the other direction anyway.” But you’ve got to learn those lessons.

The secret of life is simple. Find the zebras.

What do you think this show offers viewers that sets it apart from the many other shows on TV?

Poppy Drayton: Well, I think…and I hope I’m not speaking biased-ly, though I know I sort of am…visually I think it is quite sort of on a level of its own with regard to TV. Just because we had the visual effects and production team that went along with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings [WETA] and they’re the best of the best. They know their fields to such a high level that hopefully that has translated and people can see the quality of the work, and the visuals alone will hopefully draw people to watch it because I think it does sort of set us apart slightly from some of the other shows that are on TV at the moment.

Ivana Baquero: It’s a big bet for MTV. They’ve really put the stakes high with this show. They didn’t cut back at all. It’s a massive production with all the elements that I would like to watch on TV that I only get to watch on cinema. Productions like The Lord of the Rings, so what’s special about it is that you get to see that on TV, which is only provided by just a couple of shows like Game of Thrones. So I think this sort of adds to the cinema quality of shows and obviously it’s a very different story. The special effects are amazing; first-class special effects. I think there’s so much to offer, such a good taken care of production.

John Rhys-Davies: Look, the scripts are good, the direction is good, the production is phenomenal. What this show is going to be cursed for is it’s going to raise the standards for everyone for everyone in the television show business. Do you remember when The Lord of the Rings came out? There were a couple of major epic films that came out, and they looked like B-movies next to The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings was a game- changer. The Shannara Chronicles, I believe, is going to be a game-changer for television production. I could be wrong…but then of course…I was going to say I never am! (laughs). No, it’s hard to make these judgment calls. But when you’ve been around a long time and you’ve been on shows that were expected to be the biggest things of all time, and then weren’t. And when you’ve been on shows that really did become some of the biggest things of all time, you get a sense of the scale of achievement. I cannot see how this show can fail in any way. My bet is that this is going to be a megahit.

Catch up with the first four episodes of The Shannara Chronicles now On Demand and DIRECTV Everywhere, and set your DVR for Tuesdays at 10/9c on MTV.

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