The Shannara Chronicles is based on the novels by Terri Brooks, starting with "The Elfstones of Shannara." It’s his second novel, and the first trilogy of about twenty six books. It takes our world and pushes in thousands of years into the future. Its unique in the early world of fantasy in that it does not create a completely new world for readers to get lost in, but rather expands upon our current planet, creating something new and familiar at the same time.
Shannara is not a character at all. It is a title referring to the main family of the series—a bloodline. The family of Shannara is the last surviving line with magic running through their veins. The book tells the story of young Will Ohmsford (Austin Butler), the last son of Shannara; Amberle Elessedil (Poppy Drayton), a princess and a member of the Chosen; and Eretria (Ivana Baquero), who is a human Rover. Along with Will and Eretria, Amberle must go on a quest to save the great home tree of the Elves in order to stop the coming of the Forbidding.
We got the chance to sit down with a few other journalists and talk to the cast and crew behind the new television series, The Shannara Chronicles, and talk about how they brought the world and characters to life.
Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Writers)
With such a fantastical story, even with it being set on our own planet, the effects have to be spectacular. Practical for the show, yet able to transport the viewer into a completely different time with a completely different set of rules. How did the writers deal with the balancing act between the two?
MM: We have incredible CG. So for example, the city visuals and city landscapes created [in the series] are done by the same company who did Game of Thrones’ cities. But also we have Were Wad Shop in New Zealand who did all the practical effects and makeup effects for Lord of the Rings. The villain in the first season is called the Daglemor, and the makeup effect [was] designed and created by Wettle. So it’s a combination of CG and practical, and we wanted it to feel real. We didn’t want it to feel animated.
AG: It’s real. It’s real landscapes; we went to New Zealand and shot everything there, and we added stuff. So nothing was done on a green screen stage.
MM: There’s a lot of CG in the show, but it’s more CG enhancements rather than fully realized CG, which always has an animated feel.
There’s a lot of ground to cover in books, and not everything can jump seamlessly from page to screen. There are some things that cannot be made by the prop department or magicked into existence by the makeup team. How do they ultimately decide what goes through the process of CG, and what gets made into a corporeal prop or landscape?
MM: A lot of times it’s about production, designing, and conceptualizing the enviroments. And really for this one it’s about originality. It’s a fantasy show, but it’s set in the future, so there’s a science fiction element. It’s a lot like Star Wars than it is Lord of the Rings in many ways, in terms of the visual design. We’re really very sensitive to the idea we’ll be compared to Game of Thrones, so with the design elements we try to stay clear of that and be unique and different. So I think we feel good and confident that our visual landscape and the visualization of this world is very unique and very original.
Not every show or movie adaptation of a novel or series involves the original writers. Honestly, if I made something as wildly popular as The Shannara Chronicles or Harry Potter, I would want to be part of it every step of the way. So how important is Terry Brooks’ input on the show?
MM: Terry has been integral from the beginning in terms of the inception of the show. We sat down with Terry when we first read the book and said, “This is our plan, this is our intention, this is our vision for the show” and Terry has been with us every step of the way. It is very loyal to the book and very true to the book but is also its own thing and I think it feels very contemporary and very cutting edge in terms of what it deals with and I think we expanded on themes and relationships in the books. Obviously we don’t have the budget to do epic battles that are in the book, but we have expanded the relationships and the emotions that Terry outlines in the book and made it much more of a television show.
Fans have known about the launch of the television series for a while now, but its official launch is at ComiCon this year. Several of the actors are experiencing their first time at San Diego’s ComiCon because of the show. How does it feel to be a part of that hype, and to be launching it at such a well-known convention?
MM: Well Terry’s a living legend at ComiCon, as he should be. His contribution to fantasy is second to none, and it felt like the right place to launch the show, with such an avid fanbase that spans generations. It felt like the perfect place to get a sneak peek at what we’d done over the past year in terms of making this a reality. So it felt like the perfect place for it.
Terry Brooks (Author) and John Rhys Davies (Eventine Elessedil)
We know John Rhys-Davies from his role as Gimli in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy among other things. He is very recognizable, and keeps popping up all over the fantasy realms. So what draws him to take all of these different mantles?
JRD: I’m a science fiction man, not a science fantasy man. At least I was until I did this. I’ve read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings before I actually did it—it didn’t really interest me. Different people, different strokes. What is extraordinary about this show is our writer here has really created an imaginative world. There aren’t many writers who can actually do that. Conrad did it rather well, and of course Tolkien. But he’s filled his world with real people and real concerns, and there’s such a bubbling of his imagination.
Taking the leap and trusting a production company with a world that you have worked so hard to create can be tough. It’s like handing over the keys to your pristine new car. It’s understandable for writers to have doubts about whether or not to put their faith in an adaptation of their work. Was it hard for Brooks to take that step and trust the team?
TB: No. I’ve always worried about that because readers are very attached to my work and told me over and over, “Don’t sell it down the river! Don’t sell us down the river by doing something that’s slipshod.” I really felt that with this particular approach—with this particular group—the more I became involved…I thought, “This is right, this is the best shot you’re going to have.” And it didn’t bother me at all. And now that I’ve seen all of the episodes, I’m here to tell you it’s amazing. It’s really, really good.”
With the fantasy genre making such a huge impact on today’s readers, a lot of different writing is popping out of the woodwork. Seeing as how it is so popular, fans wonder if Brooks ever considered writing something now as opposed to 40 years previously.
TB: Well I always thought I’d be 30 years dead, actually, just like Tolkien. Then my heirs would share in the profits and I’d be in the ground. That’s what I was really worried about. I don’t know, when I wrote the first Shannara book, fantasy was considered the throwaway. No publisher believed you could make money on it, but I had one that did. And it was on the bestseller list forever. That was the start of the current fantasy bump. Then we had a little help from JK Rowling, the return of the movies with The Lord of the Rings, but it’s been a process; and now, really, in the field of publishing and the field of gaming—any kind of art activity you want to talk about—fantasy is the 800-pound gorilla.
Returning to filming in New Zealand must bring back some memories for Rhys-Davies after filming Lord of the Rings and his amazing career in film. How was it coming back to the landscapes for the Shannara Chronicles?
JRD: Shannara is set many thousands of years into the future, so it’s an alien world like Lord of the Rings, and the advantage of shooting in New Zealand is that 80% of the plants are unique to New Zealand. New Zealand separated from Gondwana before the evolution of mammals, and its whole ecology developed differently. And it’s a subconscious thing, but when you put drama in a New Zealand landscape, it is slightly otherworldly. It’s a beautiful country, and it’s a great country to film in because…they are absolutely filled with enthusiasm. It’s a new industry there, they’re having to get into full stride now, they know they’re one of the great filmmaker countries of the world. This is extraordinary, and I tell you now, I do not believe that you will find any other show that will compare with this in scope, in scale, in humanity, and in passion. It is fabulous.
Austin Butler (Will Ohmsford) and Poppy Drayton (Amberle Elessedil)
We almost didn’t recognize Austin Butler with such long hair! It’s been years since his character graced our screens in Life Unexpected, and since then he’s had cameo appearances on popular shows like Arrow. I mean, he plays an agent for the League of Assassins, but we can overlook that because he’s really cute.
So who is this character in The Shannara Chronicles? We know Will is the last son of the Shannara family line, and probably has some magic at his disposal. But who is he, really?
AB: [Will] is a farm boy. He’s never been five miles out of his little village. In the beginning he’s just trying to take care of his mom, and she’s really sick and he’s just trying to keep her healthy. He thinks his life purpose is to go become a healer. While he’s on that journey he gets pulled off those tracks by this druid (played by Manu Bennett) and he says, “You need to save the world.” So then it’s Will trying to find a place in the world, and realize there’s a hero in there even though he’s a scared boy. He’s gotta pull that hero out.
We’ve already heard the reaction from the writers, but now we need to know: how does it feel, as an actor, to be launching this kind of show at San Diego ComiCon? At a convention that has grown so big, so popular, over the years?
PD: It’s bonkers, isn’t it?
AB: Yeah, this is my first time at ComiCon.
PD: It’s my first time as well. It’s Ivana’s as well, so we’re all a little fresh and new. But we’re loving it, it’s been really fun.
Butler and Bennett are each pretty recognizable from previous roles in television and film. Do people know Poppy Drayton and Ivana Baquero?
PD: I’m left alone. This poor boy’s never left alone.
Each new role brings a new set of skills to the table, and actors need to learn a basic understanding of those skills in order to play their roles effectively. Was there anything they had to learn for The Shannara Chronicles that they particularly enjoyed?
AB: Horseback riding. I’d ridden a little bit. My grandpa was a cowboy, so all my relatives were into horseback riding. I grew up in California, so I never really did that. We were trained by the best guy, this guy Wayne. He’s incredible. He was the guy who supplied all the horses and trained the guys for Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit.
PD: Always wore his cowboy hat. You never saw him without his cowboy hat. He was so happy because when I first came for my first riding lesson, I had my cowboy boots on, and he was like, “I’ve done this job for like 50 years and no one’s ever worn cowboy boots and I’ve wanted them to wear cowboy boots!”
Being based on a bestselling fantasy book, the show has a very interesting history. Just as we saw Daniel Radcliff reading the Harry Potter books on the film set, we’ve seen other actors brushing up on their lore and plot devices when off camera. Was the first book of The Shannara Chronicles required reading, or did the actors have a choice?
PD: They didn’t make us. They didn’t hold us at gunpoint and sit us down. But as an actor you want to do as much prep as you possibly can, so for me reading the books was really important. Also because Terry was one of the producers and he came out to New Zealand and he was so active in the whole process, it was lovely to be completely on the same page as him. To make sure we were doing justice to his vision.
AB: In think it depends on the project. And it’s hard, because sometimes you read the novel and you love every page, then you realize that it’s a different medium, television, than reading by yourself. So things are going to have to be changed a little bit, and that’s kinda hard. So I can see why some people may not want to. I like to kinda know everything, and then if you realize that there’s gonna be changes, then at that point you have to let that go. But having Terry there kind of letting us know that everything was OK, that each person was gonna bring their own life to it. Seeing his excitement was really cool.
PD: Terry was so completely amazing and understanding that there were two separate mediums. The books are never going to go away, the books are always there, and it’s nice to give something that’s already been created, give life to something else. They are their own separate entities. But he was just so hugely supportive, which is just so awesome for me.
Ivana Baquero (Eretria) and Manu Bennett (Allanon)
Like Austin Butler, Manu Bennett stared in several other shows and films before landing his role on the Shannara Chronicles. He recently left Arrow after several season’s as Oliver Queen’s island mentor and later his adversary, Slade Wilson. Joining the Shannara Chronicles cast as a helpful druid and guide is a bit of a flip for him.
MB: Well, it’s interesting talking from the perspective of baddies or good characters, because I don’t mind playing the baddie. Baddies are very complex characters. You gotta really dig deep and find dimensions. So normal is probably a good word. It’s been great to have a host of characters that segue between. Like Deathstroke and Slade Wilson, he was between good and bad, and that gave you a kind of roller coaster ride as an actor. Allanon’s another roller coaster ride. When I asked people about the book originally when I hadn’t read it, some friends of mine had read it, and they said, “You playing Allanon? Man, Allanon’s like badass!” But he’s dark and he’s ominous, and he’s the guy that leads Will Ohmsford into this transition of a young man who becomes, through a Jedi process, becomes the man who’s going to fight for the four lands. The character has huge scope. Is he a good guy? Yes. But he’s also not a good guy. He’s a character with range and flaws. He’s a great character.
What about Baquero’s character, Eretria?
IB: Well my character is pretty dark. She’s one of the few humans in this world—basically humans have been almost extinguished, And [she] kinda comes from the wrong side of the tracks and a pretty dark background, but I think deep inside her, Eretria has a really big heart, and all she wants is a better life and to better herself. And then she meets Will and Amberle, and she doesn’t realize, but she has the chance to expand her horizons, and to go on this journey to discover herself and do some good.
MB: The cast that’s been pulled together for this show is really diverse, like Ivana from Spain, Poppy from England, Austin from America, and me from New Zealand, John Rhys-Davies from the Isle of Man. It’s an epic story about races, and unlike Lord of the Rings where you had the evil and the good, there’s actually kind of a disparity between all the races in this story that mimics kind of what our world is. And yet it still hinges that the humans were responsible for a giant battle that destroyed the planet. These are the races that have come up and taken over. It’s like looking at the ruins through a kind of fantastical lense, but it’s also a real lense. These are just different tribes, different groups now that have occupied the planet. And then you end up with this mix of people who are fighting for their own rights.
What say you, PopStars? Are you excited to see new and old faces in The Shannara Chronicles? Filming is already underway, and we can’t wait to see the final result! Be sure to check out The Shannara Chronicles on IMDB, Terry Brooks’ official letter to fans on his webpage, and the official first look below!https://youtu.be/crjkQHnDYu0 The Shannara Chronicles will air on MTV in January 2016.