A Discovery of Witches production designer James North on bringing the book to life
Production designer James North had quite the task before him when he signed on to help bring Deborah Harkness’ best-selling novel A Discovery of Witches to life.
The series, which premieres Jan. 17 on Sundance Now and Shudder, traverses multiple continents and infuses every setting with magic — the majority of which North had to bring to life at a studio in Cardiff, Wales, and various locations around the Welsh countryside.
“We’ve got nice big spaces which we have filled all the way to the walls with sets,” North tells EW of the soundstages at Bad Wolf, the production company shepherding the series alongside Sky One. “It’s about scale, and it’s an international show and it needs to feel that [way]. It needs to feel grand. That’s what comes across in the books.”
For North, Harkness’ book (the first in the All Souls trilogy) provided the perfect jumping-off point. “There’s always like a couple of copies of the book filled with post-it notes,” he remarks. “I think I’m on my third copy now, because we keep spilling things on them, ripping a page out to run to a meeting, but they’re always a reference point to go back to.”
To create the magical world of vampire-scientist Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode) and witch-historian Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer), North often turned to real places that inspired Harkness. Fortunately, the author is as an executive producer on the series and was readily available to answer any questions the team might have. For instance, when constructing the Bishop family house in New England, where Diana’s aunts live, the production team showed Harkness countless books on interior design, allowing her to share her opinion on everything from the grain of the wood in the floorboards to the types of chairs in the living room.
“Due to her history background, everything is based on real places,” North says. “She goes, ‘Well, this is Sept Tours [Matthew’s family castle], and this is the castle it’s based on, and these are the rooms that are in it, and that’s what it should be’ — and then we’d take [the] lead from that.”
Though the series is set in the present day, it intersects with history often, whether its settings are centuries-old castles and libraries or merely because one of its characters has been around for hundreds of years. “Although this show’s not a period piece, due to the nature of the vampires and the fact that they’re so old, there is a period element to it,” North explains. “We have to remember that these people have been on earth for 1,500 years, and that their rooms might not follow the same fashions as what everybody else’s does.” This meant outfitting spaces that include a vampire’s lab and office, as well as an entire castle.
Though Harkness based Sept Tours in the novel on a specific French chateau, North and his team instead chose to go with Castello Cini Monselice in Italy as their primary inspiration for the Clairmont family seat. It didn’t match the period or area of Europe that Harkness originally envisioned, but it’s just one example of how the team had to rethink certain elements for television. North says they wanted to use an Italian castle for exteriors since they were already doing location shooting in Venice, and they felt the architecture lent itself better to creating visually compelling interiors for television.
Though every set is grounded in reality, the series’ tale of witches, vampires, and daemons automatically calls for a heightened magical element. However, North says it’s really not all that different from production design on any project. “It’s almost a slightly heightened reality we’re producing,” he says. “You do things which aren’t normal. You would never color-coordinate how your cereal boxes line up in your cupboard, but that’s the sort of thing we would do.”
One thing they had to get exactly right, however, is Oxford. The English university town, which is where is the events of the story begin, is really a character unto itself. As a result, the series committed to shooting on location there, capturing many of the city’s iconic landmarks, including the Radcliffe Camera, Sheldonian Theatre, Bodleian Library, and boathouses along the Cherwell.
Anyone familiar with Oxford will instantly recognize the timeless exteriors on display in the first few episodes. “It’s a love letter to Oxford, really,” North says of the locations they chose. “We don’t shoot little backstreets [where] we could be anywhere. We go to Oxford, we’ve got to go, ‘This is f—ing Oxford!’”
The Bodleian Library, which houses more than 12 million items and is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, plays an integral role in the story — but it was one place the crew decided not to go after lengthy scouting trips. “There’s so many complicated elements that happen in the story there, between the magic and books flying and all sorts of stuff,” North says. “It was getting a little problematic, and the space is, first and foremost, a learning space for students.” That left the daunting task of recreating one of the world’s most renowned libraries from scratch.
Working from measurements and photos, the team set out to recreate the space out of wood, nails, and miles of polystyrene books lining the shelves. North says they built the library’s most recognizable Selden End, where Diana conducts her research, as a 1:1 scale model with a few minor changes. Harkness previously told EW the set felt so right to her that it moved her to tears. North also shares that another famous Oxonian, Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, was blown away by their handiwork when touring the studio.
Despite some minor tweaks made for practical reasons, North’s team captured the essence and soul of what has made the Bodleian a sacred space to centuries of scholars. “Emotionally, it feels the same, and that’s what Deborah was so attached to. It wasn’t a carbon copy by any stretch,” he says. “But emotionally, the space felt perfect. It felt magical.”