We recently chatted with Joshua Butler, the director of this week’s episode of The Magicians. Check out our exclusive interview below!
The process of making episodic television is an interesting one, and one that Director Joshua Butler is very familiar with. Having directed shows such as The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, Shadowhunters and The Magicians (to name just a few of his insanely impressive resume), he is one of the most recognized TV Directors around, and one whose work you’ve almost certainly seen before.
Because episodes of television are continuously filmed back-to-back to meet a show’s tight schedule of airing a new episode each week, and because of all of the preparation and post-production work involved, directors are usually hired for a single episode at a time. Butler further explains this process, and says that he usually works closely with the series creators and show runners for his episodes, though the amount of their involvement varies from show to show. “I’ve been able to work with some really terrific show runners who have given me creative freedom. Obviously I work within the parameters of what’s been established in the series so I want to make sure it feels like an episode of the show you saw last week, and not something totally different. But under those parameters there’s a lot of creative freedom, and a lot of show runners want you to exercise that creative freedom. So in a show like The Magicians or Shadowhunters, which were two terrific experiences, basically once you learn the rules of the game, once you’ve learned the basic things the series is known to do, and the characters people have come to know and expect, once you learn that and once you do your homework and read all the scripts or watch all the episodes of all the shows that lead up to the one you’re directing, then you have all of the knowledge to work within a formula but give it your own personal stamp. And that personal stamp is what show runners appreciate,” he explains.
There’s a fluidity in the process of filming each episode, and if a director is lucky to get the script in prep (as they should), then they have around a week to prep and make sure the script is in the best possible state for filming. This is also the stage that typically involves their collaboration on the script, asking any questions, making changes to the dialogue, etc. A director has a lot of input in this stage, as changes should ideally be made before Day 1 of shooting. Filming a one hour-long (42 minutes without commercials) episode of television is usually done in around eight days. To give it some context, a feature length film is approximately 100 minutes long and often gets six months to film. The same amount of director involvement is true for staging/ set design. This is a department that is mostly done ahead of a director stepping onto the set for filming, but they can make specific requests to modify/ add to an existing design. Often times slight changes to the set design will have to be made to get the best coverage in terms of angles/shots while shooting. In terms of the dialogue, not too much typically changes from the script, but there’s usually a writer on set on standby if reworking the dialogue is needed. Every show is different of course, and some of these details will vary from show to show.
The Magicians: Sex, Drugs, & Magic
Having directed an episode of Season 1 of The Magicians (Episode 1×10 “Homecoming”), Butler was already very familiar with the show before stepping in to direct two more episodes
this season – this week’s episode 2×05 “Cheat Day” and episode 2×10, whose title has not yet been released. Season 2 has a new feel to it, partially due to the fact that a lot of it is now set in Fillory, a set that he describes as resembling Narnia and Game of Thrones. “It’s a lot of Fillory. The tone is similar to Season 1 in the sense that, I call it: Sex, Drugs, and Magic,” he says. I think this is quite possibly the best way anyone could describe the show if you had to sum it up. There is a lot of sex. And a lot of drugs. And a lot of magic. It’s magic done in a way that audiences haven’t really seen before. He explains, “For people that want their magic not necessarily in the Harry Potter package, it’s about how magic can really screw people up. And turns them not necessarily into superheroes, but into people who are dealing with being different. It’s a classic way of using a genre to be a metaphor for being misunderstood, being outcast, being different and trying to fit in when you have unique gifts that are not necessarily recognized by the world as being something that’s acceptable or mainstream. That’s what the show continues to do well.”
Another unique facet to The Magicians that we got a glimpse of in Season 1 is the use of timelines and how the show explores that concept. “I think that’s what’s going to be interesting too, just the idea that we’re not necessarily living one timeline but that we could possibly see other versions of ourselves, how we lived, choices that we made. In some ways it’s like this Choose Your Own Adventure book,” he says. Timelines in the show gives creative leeway to explore the many sides to the characters.
When asked about the challenges of directing sci-fi, Butler points out the importance of character in this genre, “The challenge is to keep it grounded, to keep it real, to keep it always based on character. Because if you step out of the narrative for a minute, everything can sound really silly. And when I say silly I mean that human beings as viewers are not able to plug into it. They’re just hearing stuff that on the surface might sound just totally ridiculous or totally fantastical, but all of that becomes acceptable and then even something you rally around and you study and become immersed in, if you’re able to connect to it as a human being. It’s about identifying with characters and making sure characters are relatable.” The Magicians often achieves this through the use of humor and irony. This lends itself to the audience accepting some of the more “out there” moments. In The Magicians, Penny is particularly great at this. “If the characters are kind of winking and they know how ridiculous something may sound or how fantastical or how far-fetched something may sound and then they make a joke about it, suddenly it’s easier to accept as an audience member because you’re like ok, that’s kind of a crazy concept but because they know it’s crazy then we’re with them and we’ll go down that road with them,” he says.
The show features an unlikely protagonist in Quentin Coldwater. What I love most about his character is that he’s not your typical instantly likable main character – he’s neurotic, insecure and at times mentally unstable. But the beauty of the show is that they’ve taken Quentin’s complicatedness and made him into a very lovable character that you root for. All of his quirks are extremely relatable and as the show goes on, audiences find themselves wanting to be in his presence. This is something in which Butler gives all the credit to actor Jason Ralph, who plays Quentin. Butler points out that Ralph came from the theater scene in New York, and there’s something special about actors from there, “Jason is so incredibly talented and has such craft… there’s such a craft that he’s mastered.” He humbly didn’t want to accept any praise for the actor’s performance and instead explained, “It’s a testament to Jason Ralph as an actor, because a lot of lesser actors or different actors would not make him as wonderful and relatable and believable as he does. And that’s the challenge with a character like that. Because there’s people that try to play neurotic and they just come off as being someone you want to change the channel on, whereas you want to watch Quentin every week.”
Beyond the scope of character, the show also flourishes in its relationships. A fan favorite dynamic on the show is the begrudging friendship of Quentin and Penny. Huge shout out to Butler for directing the most epic Penny/ Quentin moment thus far (when Penny transports himself to Quentin’s room… at let’s just say an inopportune time.) Much to Penny’s dismay, the unlikely duo have paths that inevitably cross on a consistent basis and provides for some of the show’s biggest comedic moments. “The bickering of Penny and Quentin is something I would love to see go on for many years,” he agrees.
In a lot of ways, The Magicians is vastly ahead of the game in what it achieves for a network television show. Much of this Butler credits to the network itself – Syfy – who changed the standards and practices specifically for the show in the same way they did as a conglomerate for Mr. Robot. This allows for an unedited version of the show to be made that not a lot of networks would allow. (Side note: If you haven’t checked out the unedited version, you should, as this is a show that should be viewed in all its uncensored glory.) Additionally, season 1 featured a painful twist in which Quentin, while under a potion that removed emotions and his inhibitions, cheated on his girlfriend Alice by having a threesome with Margo and Eliot. What was revolutionary about this was that addressing the fact that a sexual encounter occurred with another male was not needed. The focus was much more about the emotional damage his cheating did on his girlfriend. They didn’t make this into any sort of political statement; instead it was integrated sexuality. There’s a narrative there of tolerance and making it the new normal. A decision that was applauded by Butler, “This is the world that should be, where these types of choices are not blown out of proportion or taken one way or the other. They’re just choices made by people who are choosing to love in a certain way or express themselves in certain way, in just the ‘no big deal’ nature of the narrative. I just think people don’t give The Magicians enough credit for breaking boundaries in that way.”
Understandably, he couldn’t tease much that’s upcoming for the rest of Season 2, but he did mention Julia’s arc and her relationship with Kady as being one to watch for and that will blow people away.
What’s next for Joshua Butler:
Aside from the two episodes of The Magicians he directed this season, he also directed the upcoming season 2A finale of Shadowhunters. Well establishing himself in the television world, Butler is expanding his creative endeavors in film as well. Past film credits include Prancer Returns, VLOG and Beer Money, among others. He is currently working on an independent film that he wrote and is collaborating on it with producers he has previously worked with. Though he remains tight-lipped at the moment regarding details of the film, judging by his track record, I’m sure it will be one to watch. Additionally, he is currently working on a branded web series through a commercial company based out of New York City. Both of these projects are in too early stages to share more details, but stay tuned as we will be sure to report as developments happen.
No matter what comes next for Butler, be it another episode of one of our favorite shows, a kick-ass new web series or the next breakthrough indie film, you won’t want to miss it!
In the meantime, you can catch the episode of The Magicians directed by Butler tonight on Syfy!
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