Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy has won legions of fans, in large part thanks to its vividly described world. And now, Syfy is bringing that world to life, and we’ve been there. We sat in the front row at Brakebills’ magic lab, hung out in the Physical Kids’ Cottage, and met the cast of The Magicians.
Syfy’s The Magicians doesn’t debut until January 25th, but Syfy was excited to show off the magical world they’ve summoned into being, and with good reason: the sets are in-fucking-credible.
We were whisked through some secret sets that I am magically bound from disclosing since they feature in later episodes, and into the airy, wood-paneled Brakebills magic lab. In The Magicians book one, protagonist Quentin Coldwater is given the opportunity to attend Brakebills College For Magical Pedagogy, a boarding school with Victorian trappings and a supernatural curriculum, instead of college.
On the TV show, Brakebills has become a grad school, and the characters have been aged up accordingly. The students no longer wear uniforms, but Brakebills’ lab still has a refined feel from another century.
The Brakebills lab sports a massive stone fireplace bearing the Brakebills crest, warm wood walls, shelves full of magical and scientific equipment, paintings on the walls of distinguished magicians and mystical scenes, a Periodic table of elements both natural and magical, and a side “test room” to try out dangerous spells. Basically, the dream classroom you always wanted—and a far cry from Harry Potter’s dank dungeon potions room.
A cabinet of curiosities
The magic testing room
We were told this enhanced Periodic Table is the prop Lev Grossman is most likely to steal
View from the front of the classroom
Proper form for magical hand-gestures
It’s immediately apparent how much creative time and energy went into The Magicians’ set and production design. Exploring the lab, there’s always another easter egg to find, another magical contraption to explore. Every piece seems selected with purpose.
The magic lab is impressive, but the crown jewel of the set has to be the Physical Kids’ Cottage. In the book, the Cottage serves as a kind of clubhouse for those whose disciplines center around the manipulation of physical magic. Many of the descriptions from the story are manifested there—there’s a piano, a pool table, and a lot of alcohol—but the designers have taken the text and expanded it. Here’s how The Magicians describes the Cottage:
...a shabby but comfortable library lined with threadbare rugs...Books overflowed the bookcases and stood in wobbly stacks in the corners and even on the mantlepiece. The furniture was distinguished but mismatched, and in places it was severely battered. In between the bookcases the walls were hung with the usual inexplicable artifacts that accumulated in private clubs.
On set, the Cottage is atmospheric and sprawling, with multiple rooms and hallways that lead off to cozy nooks and gathering spaces. Every area is accented with painstaking attention to detail, like ashtrays full of cigarette butts and keys on a TARDIS keyring (the Cottage is much, much bigger on the inside than out).
What’s so cool about the Cottage is that it’s both a realization and an expansion of Grossman’s work. Whatever image we might have had in our minds was blown out of the water, and the many rooms and fantastic decorations make it a place to wander—there was hardly enough time to take it all in, and all my pictures don’t do the Cottage’s eclectic decor justice.
Wherever you look inside there’s something else to discover, from framed group pictures of past Physical Kids to Harry Houdini posters to the voluminous library that contains books related to the students’ esoteric studies.
Author Lev Grossman in one of the Cottage nooks
The Cottage feels lived in, and like a genuinely great place to party. So it’s probably not surprising that the cast members like to set up their chairs to hang out there between takes. The proof of many a magic-laced evening is apparent from objects like chairs and tableware stuck to the ceiling—the product of drinking games for young magicians, showrunner Sera Gamble (Supernatural) told us. The actors revealed that none of the booze is real, however.
What you do as a young drunk Magician, apparently
The Physical Kids know how to party
They are not messing around
We hear they study magic sometimes
When not playing Brakebills foosball
The creative team—led by production designer Rachel O’Toole, art director Kendelle Elliott, and props master Pat O’Brien—have put in funky additions that aren’t even in the books, but which demonstrate how much thought has gone into set creation, like an opium den-inspired cubby bed where Alice, Quentin’s shy and powerful love interest, likes to hide out. And behind the pool table is wallpaper featuring bunnies, a theme that readers will know is inspired by Fillory, The Magicians’ fairytale other world.
The “mom jeans” chair
A reading nook
Since the Physical Kids spend a lot of time having dinner parties and drinking (facilitated by resident lush Eliot), the collection of bar implements and bottles is overflowing. Author Lev Grossman, who was on the tour with us, joked that on his first visit he thought he’d need to tell them to add more alcohol, only to find the Cottage sufficiently stocked.
Hale Appleman (Eliot) demonstrates Eliot’s technique
We also saw Julia’s Brooklyn apartment, which after the Cottage was like stepping into a universe as distant as Fillory. A sprawling hipster pad with a retro feel, Julia’s modern world is far removed from Brakebills’ eccentricity—as is her storyline.
In the books, Quentin’s childhood friend Julia doesn’t pass the Brakebills admissions test, and her quest to learn magic through other means is a subplot that’s slowly revealed. On the TV show, Julia’s hardscrabble magical education will be shown in parallel with Quentin’s, giving the audience the chance to experience her origin story firsthand. It’s a sort of Ivory Tower versus self-education set-up. In Julia’s apartment, you can stare out at the New York City skyline, inspect the mystical herbs on her counter, examine the jewelry scattered on the sidetable, even explore her full bathroom and bursting closets. Then it was back to Brakebills magic lab, to talk with the cast and creators.
We got a chance to chat with some of the castmembers, author Lev Grossman, and showrunner Sera Gamble about their experiences making the show, and what’s been changed in adaptation. We’ll have lots more Magicians details for you, as we get closer to the series debut January 25th on Syfy.
Summer Bishil (Margo, ne Janet), Arjun Gupta (Penny), Hale Appleman (Eliot) and Olivia Taylor Dudley (Alice) turn the tables and take pictures of the reporters
The creatives behind The Magicians have built an immersive space for their characters to learn, play, and work all kinds of magic in. We’ve seen the pilot episode, and the show fills a modern fantasy niche that’s been lacking on TV since the days of Buffy.
This is clearly a grown-up fantasy series, with elements of horror alongside its humor and time for sexy escapades in between magical exams. But fans of the books can rest assured that The Magicians is in the hands of people with a deep appreciation for its source material, and we’re excited to see the world of Brakebills and beyond brought to life.
Full disclosure: Syfy paid for our travel and accomodations for this set visit.