Deborah Harkness on her upcoming A Discovery of Witches adaptation: 'I walked onto the set and I cried'
Deborah Harkness is capable of magic.
Her best-selling All Souls Trilogy, which has been published in more than 37 foreign editions, took the publishing world by storm beginning with 2011’s A Discovery of Witches. Called “a Twilight for the tweedy set” by EW, the series follows Diana Bishop, a historian who is a witch, and Matthew Clairmont, a scientist who is a vampire, on a magical and dangerous adventure across time and continents.
Harkness saw her life as an academic and respected history professor at the University of Southern California upended as she became a best-selling author with a rabid fan base anxious for more information about her characters and their world.
Nearly as soon as it was published, fans were speculating about when A Discovery of Witches might be adapted for the screen and who would be the perfect people to bring the witches, vampires, and daemons of the novel to life.
Six years later after a circuitous journey, the dream of so many book lovers is poised to become a reality — A Discovery of Witches is set to begin filming this fall, and Bad Wolf Television and Sky Original productions announced their two leads via Harkness’ social media channels on Tuesday morning: Matthew and Diana will be portrayed by Downton Abbey’s Matthew Goode and Hacksaw Ridge’s Teresa Palmer.
In the wake of the casting news, Harkness, who will also executive produce, talked with EW to discuss her series’ six-year journey to the screen, why seeing her characters brought to life is like sending your kids to college, and why Goode and Palmer are her dream cast.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you’re finally here – you have a cast and shooting is starting soon. When you first started writing the first book, was this something you envisioned even in your wildest dreams?
DEBORAH HARKNESS: No, because my wildest dreams literally extended as far as perhaps this being published and maybe being on the bottom shelf at Barnes and Noble. For the books to have been so successful was certainly beyond my wildest dreams, and for it to be optioned for television or movies was beyond my wildest dreams and then for that television production to actually get going and get off the ground — we’re in the realm of magic and pixie dust for sure.
It’s been a long journey to this point – from a movie option at Warner Bros. to the BBC to Bad Wolf – can you walk us through that a bit and how you ended up at Bad Wolf? Why do you think that’s the one that stuck over the others?
The book, A Discovery of Witches, and the rest of the series was optioned by Warner Bros. shortly after A Discovery of Witches came out, with Denise DiNovi and Allison Greenspan producing, and they hired a writer and we worked for 18 months on bringing that to film. But by the end of that 18 months, we were all pretty convinced that it was going to be pretty difficult to get A Discovery of Witches into a 90-minute timeframe. I really also needed to put the project of adaptation aside because I had another book to write, and then another book to write and promote. So I told my agent that when I got back from the book tour for The Book of Life (the third and final book in the series),I’d be ready to talk, and so the next day he called me and was like “I’d like you to meet Jane Tranter. She’s with BBC America and BBC Worldwide.”
I met with Jane Tranter and we just hit it off right away. Jane has done phenomenal adaptations of books for the screen — Dickens, for example, and has an amazing track record with her partner Julie Gardner. They’ve done Torchwood, they did Doctor Who, they did one of my favorite shows, which is MI-5 or Spooks as it’s known in England. So, I just felt like I was really entrusting the books to someone who really understood what a book adaptation was all about and who really understood how important the book was to its readers and really wanted to honor that relationship. So, Jane decided to set up her own production company with Julie called Bad Wolf, and happily I was one of the projects they took with them under the Bad Wolf wing and decided to produce it there.
And you have your Jack Harkness connection [a character in Torchwood which Tranter and Gardner produced], so it’s like fate…
Yes, I know, it’s fated to be that the two women who brought us Jack Harkness are adapting my books, especially since my father ‘s name was Jack Harkness. Every time Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) pops up on the screen, I think of my dad, so it’s nice to have it be with Bad Wolf.
This is your first foray into the entertainment world and you’re executive producing. What has that been like having the learning curve of that coming from an academic and writing world, along with also bringing to bear the things you have to contribute to the production as a historian, as the creator of the series, etc.?
I alternate halves; at one point I’m the student on that steep learning curve confused by the language, confused by the lingo, not really understanding the process very well, learning as fast as I can on the job, and then having to put on the other hat, which is the person who knows the characters the best, or for the longest, certainly. It’s this really interesting swap between being the student and being sort of the professor. I love learning, so being an executive producer has been an amazing experience from that point of view. And the production team of Jane [Tranter] and Kate [Brooke] and Juan Carlos [Medina] have been so concerned throughout with authenticity and groundedness and really capturing the fine detail of the world of the All Souls Trilogy. It’s been an amazing thing. And also a very inspiring and humbling thing to see how much it matters to them to get these sort of fine grain details right, whether it’s what books would Diana have in her room at college to “when you imagined this, did you see such and such?”
Diana Gabaldon (Outlander), J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) are all fairly involved with the adaptations of their work. Do you think that’s something that’s expected of authors now and is it something you always wanted?
I definitely always wanted to be involved in the adaptation. I very much hoped that whoever my partner was would be willing to sort of let me be. At Warner Bros. with Denise and Allison, and at Bad Wolf with Jane and company, everyone has been quite generous about letting me take part and play a role. I think every writer has got to make their own decision about how they’re going to balance out their productivity with the demands a production make on you, but this is the right balance for me. And it’s probably made easier by the fact that I’m used to sort of juggling a couple of different hats being a professor, teaching my classes, writing my books, interacting with my fans, and so, it just all sort of fits in that model of being a communicator and an educator and a collaborator in that way.
Speaking of that balance, how involved were you with the casting process?
I was never in the room during any of the auditions or chemistry reads. But I was always really eager to see them when they were available and for the discussions that preceded them and followed them. So it’s been really collaborative decisions by the team, and we’re all in complete agreement about the casting, which is, I think, maybe rare and really exciting. But it’s absolutely clear, to everybody, when that magic moment happens and an actor clearly is the right one for the role. That’s what happened in the case of our cast for the show and certainly with Matthew and Teresa.
Obviously, everyone is so excited and so nervous in anticipation and it’s a dream cast, they are a dream cast, and I think it’s just going to be really excited to see this production come together and get off the ground.
Was Matthew Goode someone you ever thought of when you writing? Were you a fan of his from his previous work?
I am a huge fan of his because I am really struck, when I look at his body of work, by the extraordinary range of roles he’s played, both on television and on film. That takes a certain kind of courage and integrity as an actor to be able to do that. Of course when I started writing it was 2008, so Matthew Goode was quite a bit younger than he is now. The reality is, decades can pass between a book being written and it being made into a television show or a film. I had very clear visions of them in my mind, but I really resisted the casting urge. And then come to the moment, Matthew Goode is the perfect age to play this character, he is so perfect in every way — hearing him say the lines, watching him act with Teresa, the layers of meaning he brings to it; it’s astonishing. When we got to the moment when we were casting, I said, “What about Matthew Goode?” I will take credit for saying, “He would be perfect, he is my Matthew, he would be great.” For him to be available, for him to be willing to take on the role, all of those things, it was almost too good to be true and you sort of have to pinch yourself.
Yeah, I mean he has an appreciation of wine just like the character as evidenced by his television series with Matthew Rhys.
I know — it’s uncanny, is what it is. Again, it’s like having Bad Wolf make a book by Harkness into a show. He is absolutely perfect for it in every respect. And he’s a damn good actor. I mean really, he is a damn good actor. And what I always say to my readers, they say, who do you want to play the role? And I say, “a good actor” and I got it in spades with Matthew Goode.
With both him and Teresa, what most excites you about them? And what clinched it for you with the two of them?
Well, with Matthew it really was a combination of knowing his work, knowing the range of his work, the complexity of characters he brought to the screen. Obviously, physically he’s very like the character. And again just being able to really envision him inhabiting that role, that was the clincher. Teresa, similarly, I had seen in her Hacksaw Ridge, and I had been really struck by her performance. I was shocked that she was Australian because she was such a convincing American. Obviously that was a period piece, so seeing pictures of her today in a contemporary sort of setting, I was just so struck by her warmth and her intelligence and her vivacity. I could just immediately see her as Diana. She has this amazing range and this quiet authority in the way that she performs. And she just lives inside her characters and quite difficult moments and quite intense moments. Then I saw a chemistry reel — it was just breathtaking to see them acting a very, very small scene with no props, nothing around them, just the strength of their own acting abilities. I was absolutely clear they were the right pair to play Matthew and Diana.
You prepped fans with a very eloquent Facebook post asking everyone to keep an open mind and acknowledge the realities of taking something from page to screen. What made you decide to do that?
I really wanted to recognize that my readers have a sense of ownership and loyalty to these characters and that this is a moment when all of us have to make room in our brains for these whole new facets of our characters’ lives. I imagine it’s a little like seeing your children go off to a new city or to college or to a new school. I really wanted to acknowledge that and to recognize that and to say, “I get it, this is a new moment for all of us, and we’re in this together.” It was done out of a sense that this is a really exciting time, so be open-minded and embrace it because I think you’re really going to like it, even if maybe that’s not who you saw as Matthew or Diana. I think everybody’s going to be absolutely thrilled.
What has it been like for you as this has been coming together to see the beginnings of sets being built, the start of another Bodleian Library coming to life, etc.?
Ohhhh, it’s just been amazing because again you carry all this in your imagination, but when it starts to become three-dimensional and people start walking and talking and places start being built, it sits on a whole different feeling and charge. To have Bad Wolf in their new studio in Wales building amazingly detailed sets so that we can really feel what it’s like to be in the Bodleian and spend a lot of time there; to filming on location in Oxford, Scotland, and Venice in this first series; and also just seeing how they’re rethinking Welsh locations — I had no idea how complicated and how thoughtful a television production like this was, and it’s just amazing to see them all care so much.
The Bodleian Library has been around for centuries, and it must be incredible to see that attention to detail bringing a version of it to life and know that it was because of your vision.
Absolutely. I walked onto the set and I cried. Someone was working on part of the set, and I recognized the grain of the wood as being the Bodleian. I didn’t even have to ask, I knew exactly what it was — I said, “That is a column base from the Bodleian.” ‘Cause I have stared at that column base for so many years in Duke Humfrey’s, I could tell that’s what it was, and at the level of wood grain, to be able to know what something is, that’s pretty amazing.
Moving ahead, what will your involvement be like? How much will you be on set?
I have a book to finish this fall, which means that I can’t spend maybe as much time on set as I would like to, but I will be going back and forth regularly to keep in touch with things and for the table reads and for particular parts of the shoot. Otherwise, I’m going to be working to get this book finished and into readers’ hands next year. So, I continue to lend a hand whenever I can and to be there whenever I can as well. It’s lovely to be part of a collaborative team.
This new book is an extension of the All Souls trilogy?
I always said there were three main characters in the All Souls trilogy – Diana Bishop, Matthew Clairmont, and Ashmole 782, so that story is over. We know that story. But obviously their lives go on and there are lots of interesting backstories to explore in the case of our historical characters, in the vampires. As a historian it’s pretty difficult for me to keep my hands off of them, so once I took a little bit of a break and had a think about it, I realized what I most wanted to do was to explore that relationship between past and present and future that was going to be part of the ongoing lives of these characters. So that’s the book that I’m working on now. Matthew and Diana are still in it for sure, but the focus has shifted a little bit to Marcus and Marcus’ present and his relationship with Phoebe. And also with his past — the things that shaped him that led up to him becoming a vampire and then how he dealt with the challenges of being an Enlightenment vampire. Matthew’s a medieval vampire, but Marcus is a creature of the 18th century, so how did his experience of being a vampire, how was it different because of the world he came from?
Are you starting to hear Matthew Goode or Teresa Palmer’s voices creep into your writing? Or anyone else?
The person who I have heard creeping more into my attention is the person who’s playing Marcus because I’m spending so much more time with Marcus. But it is true that when I tweak dialogue now, as a writer, I’ll write a line of dialogue, the next day I’ll look at it and I’ll run it a different way or put it in a different order, make it a question instead of a statement, and if it doesn’t kind of work, keep massaging it. Normally I just hear my own voice saying the lines over and over again, but occasionally now, yes, Matthew or Teresa or one of the other cast members’ voices intrude on that, and I hear it with a slightly different inflection than I might have previously and that’s just a lot of fun.
What are you most excited about moving forward?
I’m really excited about the beginning of the process and the end of the process. I can’t wait to get into the room with the cast as an ensemble for the first time. I’ve only seen them individually with the exception of Matthew and Teresa, so I’m really looking forward to that. I’m excited about that. And I’m excited about seeing that room at the end — when we’ve done everything and it’s the final version that will get transmitted to viewers, and seeing the work of so many people over so many months brought together into one brilliantly amazing episode of television.