Showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara explain how they created The Big Bad — from moths to edible eyeballs to bloody smile.
The most stunning — and terrifying — sequence in The Magicians season premiere was the final scene, lifted right from book one of Lev Grossman’s book trilogy. In it, a faceless man freezes Quentin’s classroom at the magical college, Brakebills, and wanders around eerily, pausing here and there to torture students with anticipation. As creepy as it is in the novel, experiencing it visually is profoundly disturbing — especially with the showrunners’ tweaks and episode director Mike Cahill’s bloody twist (all Grossman approved!). Here, we break down the infamous scene in which we meet The Magicians’ first Big Bad, The Beast.
In the book
Grossman sets the scene in a classroom. Over the course of many excruciating hours, The Beast — in a neat, gray suit with a leafy branch masking his face (“It evokes Magritte so it’s a little surrealist, and you’re like, is it a human face behind there?” says Gamble) — walks around singing nursery rhymes and terrorizing students, who are paralyzed by his spell. It’s not revealed until later, via one stark declaration at the end of the chapter, that: “He didn’t know yet that Amanda Orloff was dead. The Beast had eaten her alive.”
In the script
The biggest challenge, according to the EPs, was how to make The Beast cinematic.
Step one? Choose something that could really obscure the character’s face. “John and I had a conversation: What if this is a creature that can control the elements? Should we have it be sort of an active whirlwind of leaves? We started talking about stuff you find in a forest that’s creepy and disgusting on its own. And I’m not a huge fan of insects,” Gamble says. They replaced the branch with a fluttering swarm of moths, but as it turns out, creating realistic CGI moths is pretty difficult. “If John and I had known how many hours would be spent giving notes on visual effects to do with moths,” Gamble laments, and they both laugh. “It was going to have to be something, right? And whatever it was going to be, it was going to take up our entire year. So 2015 was the year that John and I talked about nothing but moths.”
Step two? Give The Beast a new victim and craft a grisly attack — the opposite of Grossman’s casual murder in the novel. “So, I’m Quentin, I’m frozen. What would be the absolute coolest, scariest, freakiest version of the scene?” Gamble says. “In order to make this a worthy adversary, we needed to throw the best magician we had at him, Dean Fogg. Seeing a classmate killed, that’s pretty bad. But seeing your teachers go up against this creature and lose is worse.” The Beast then plucks out Fogg’s eyeballs and was supposed to eat one of them. (Fun Fact: The ones on set were edible.)
But director Mike Cahill had even more terrifying plans. “He said: ‘And then we put Dean Fogg’s eyeballs on the table and [The Beast] is going to make a smiley face with the blood,’” notes McNamara with glee. “Mike’s idea was better, and the best idea always wins. He was really smart. It called back the first time [we get a hint of The Big Bad], with the fog and the mirror where he drew the smiley face. It was more closely hued to the personality of The Beast we were creating for the pilot.” The original smiley face moment was so important to the writers that they included a drawing of the perfect smiley face in the script, so it was the icing on the cake to echo it in the final scene of the pilot.