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Interview Exclusive HTF Interview: Terry Brooks (Author) - The Shannara Chronicles (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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Author Terry Brooks has been writing Shannara books since the late 1970s, with almost 30 novels set within the fascinating world of our distant future where Elves, Gnomes, Dwarves, Trolls and Humans now exist together. But this future is in jeopardy as the Ellcrys, a magical tree holding evil forces at bay, is slowly dying and with each fallen, dead leaf that falls, a new evil is let loose upon the world to wreak havoc.

Brooks is prolific in his writing, auspiciously building worlds that deepen and expand with each new novel. With the expanse of his literary world-building, inspired favorably by the works of Tolkien – and his writing approach influenced by William Faulkner – Brooks continues to flesh out the world, trials, and magical adventures of this tomorrow world that looks, reads, and feels both ancient and other.

Having explored adapting his Shannara tales to the big screen for many years, the translation challenge was cracked when Al Gough and Miles Millar, showrunners perhaps best known for Smallville, came aboard to adapt the stories as a television series to be aired, perhaps surprisingly, on MTV. A lush production, shot in Auckland Studios and on location in the green and otherworldly wonder of New Zealand, with visual effects work produced by WETA digital, the scale and scope of the production sought to equal the expansive weight of Brooks’ work. And the results are solid. While leaning young adult, The Shannara Chronicles smoothly establishes the framework of a world in which magic, mystery and mythology are explored; where remnants of humanities past – decayed radio telescope and crumbled monuments – occasionally dot the landscape.

It’s a fun, intriguing and quick-to-capture-your-imagination show, anchored in Brooks world and rules, but not a locked literal adaptation, giving even fans of the books something new and curious to find within the major stories and plots Brooks has established over the years.

Terry spoke with Home Theater Forum from his Toronto home. The Shannara ChroniclesSeason One is available now on DVD and Digital HD.

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HTF: Let me start with perhaps an obvious question about translating literary works to either the small or the big screen, because there is always ripe risk. The mediums are completely different, but, obviously, there's been a long healthy line of successes that managed to do. What was the most important thing to you in the adaptation and translation of your works to television? And where did you struggle, if at all, between finding the right tone and balance and the right mix between the 2 mediums for a world that you have spent almost 30 years creating and exploring?

Terry Brooks: Well, I think that most book writers involved with adaptations get into trouble when they start imagining that any kind of film adaptation is going to be exactly the same thing. I don't think you can go into it with that attitude. It's foolish and it's wrong-headed. I learned a lot from writing [Star Wars: Episode I] The Phantom Menace with George Lucas back in the day when I did that adaptation. And he basically told me to go ahead and do it the way I thought it should be done, and not to worry about the film, and not to worry about particulars to that, and to use whatever I thought I wanted, to create some new material if I wanted. In fact, he wanted me to do that. That was very enlightening, I must say. That's what I did, and it worked out well.

“You have my blessing to rearrange, rework, readapt. What I want you to do is keep the bones of this story together. That's it…”

So I brought that attitude with me when I came to the show, because I wasn't going to be writing the show. The showrunners were going to be writing it, and what they told me was very respectful, and I felt we hit it off right from the beginning. And I told them, "You have my blessing to rearrange, rework, readapt. What I want you to do is keep the bones of this story together. That's it. Don't wreck the basic story, because that's what people want, and story is what's important for whatever you do. They'll put up with the characters being changed in some way or leaving parts out. They won't like it, but they'll put up with it. But you can't change the basic story." And they didn't try to do that, so that was I think when things came together in a way that made the show possible.

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HTF: And you mentioned the showrunners, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. They're veterans of the industry. Talk about how you were approached first for an adaptation of your works, and then working with them and what you might learn from them about your world, about your stories, as they're interpreted through the creative and showrunner team.

Terry Brooks: Well, I have had this general project under option almost from the day that the book was published, so it's gone through a whole series of failed efforts always in terms of it being a movie. I think we got off on the right foot with this one when it was determined early on that they were going to do it as a television show, and I think that the scope and size and production values that they envisioned persuaded me that this was a good idea. We had Jon Favreau on board early, and then the showrunners came on, and I really liked Al and Miles right from the beginning. We hit it off the first time we sat down and started to talk about how the story was going to develop, and I felt like I could work with them, and I hope they felt the same way about me, but I think they did.

“So my job was really to act as kind of a godfather of the project, and when I have something that I think needs to be done, then they listen to me…”

So it became pretty easy for me to sit back and just say, "Well, you go ahead, do what you are going to do, and I will look at it, and I will tell you if I've got any serious suggestions, or if you have anything you need me to contribute, I'll contribute it." That sort of thing. And that was kind of the relationship all the way through, and it was good to not have to do more than that, because I'm still writing books for crying out loud [chuckles]. I don't have a lot of time for this sort of thing. So my job was really to act as kind of a godfather of the project, and when I have something that I think needs to be done, then they listen to me. They're very respectful about it, and most cases, they find a way to make it happen. So that part of it was really good and I learned. I had a pretty good attitude going into it about how it was going to develop. And I knew they were going to change things around, and they were going to have to do that. And when I had questions about that, they explained to me why they did it the way they did it. That made the whole project I think really easy for me to work on.

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HTF: Now the show is shot in the Auckland Film Studios and in some beautiful locations in New Zealand. What's it like to see spaces and moments from your work realized visually in so many beautiful locations in New Zealand? It's just such a great place to shoot. What's it like to see these things come to life; to see the Ellcrys tree for the first time, and to see the characters in their costumes? Take me through that experience.

“…when we saw it, we were pretty astonished at the size and the sweep off the whole thing. It was just much, much larger…”

Terry Brooks: I was over there. My wife Judine and I went over there for ten days when they started shooting. And so we got a chance to go on set where they were filming outdoors at that point. We also went to all the sound stages and saw the castle as they constructed it, and the trees, they constructed it. I think going in, our vision of this was a whole a lot smaller than what it actually was. So when we saw it, we were pretty astonished at the size and the sweep off the whole thing. It was just much, much larger.

And it was fun to watch the shooting of much of the first episode on the locations with the actors, and to talk to the actors-- we spent quite a bit of time with the actors, both on and off the set getting to know them, and I thought the best thing about it was that by the end of the whole thing, we really felt that all those actors had succeeded in inhabiting the characters that they were chosen to play. I didn't have any single situation where I thought the actor didn't do a great job. And as I tell everybody-- I told Poppy [Drayton] several times now that after I saw her as Amberle, I can't ever think of Amberle as in any other way. It will always be her.

HTF: Well, I was going to ask you that if seeing the actors take over these roles, if the image you had in your head of these characters has been replaced or changed by watching these actors play them, so it's interesting that you say that Poppy's portrayal of Amberle has taken place in your mind for what that character looks like and sounds like.

“When I create my characters you may notice I don't do a lot with physical attributes. I might talk a little bit about size, maybe there will be a hair color, an eye color or something like that. I'm much more interested in the nature of how they think and move and act and respond to things. I'm interested in their weaknesses…”

Terry Brooks: Well, I think that unlike a lot of writers, I am not real wedded to physical characteristics. When I create my characters you may notice I don't do a lot with physical attributes. I might talk a little bit about size, maybe there will be a hair color, an eye color or something like that. I'm much more interested in the nature of how they think and move and act and respond to things. I'm interested in their weaknesses, so I spend a lot of time thinking about, what is it they're struggling with? What is it that makes it difficult for them to function? What are their passions? And that for me defines the character.

So it helps, I guess, with doing a film adaptation if you don't have preconceived ideas about physical appearance. And I keep trying to tell this to readers - but I don't know if they believe me or not - that it doesn't matter to me who the character is physically-- [that it’s] how well they interpret the character and how well they come across as that particular character. Manu Bennett is a perfect example. He's not seven feet [chuckles]. We couldn't get anybody from the NBA to come over and act in this thing, but Manu, on screen, you can't look away from him. He dominates, so when he's on the screen, he definitely conveys the gravitas for the character like Allanon has to have. So, for me, he was a complete success in that world. And a lot of people griped about the fact that he wasn't seven feet, and I just kept saying, "So what? That doesn't mean anything."

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HTF: Well, he carries himself very, very large even though he's not seven feet, as you say. And I think that speaks to the portrayal-- that speaks to the actor understanding what that character's function is in the story. So, yeah, he's fun to watch. A very popular, or at least one of my favorite characters on the show. He's very, very good.

“I heard over and over again on set how much [the actors] worked to help everybody whenever it was needed. How they would step up time and again to help the crew as well as other members of the cast, how much they bonded as a family…”

Terry Brooks: Well, he is, and you know, one of the other things that gets overlooked a lot is the fact that these actors are nice people. They do not have huge egos. They are very respectful of each other. I heard over and over again on set how much they worked to help everybody whenever it was needed. How they would step up time and again to help the crew as well as other members of the cast, how much they bonded as a family. And I like them very much as individuals. That's kind of more of a touchstone for me than anything else. I felt like that made the whole thing successful in a way that might not have been otherwise. All of them that have been killed off ask if there's any way I can bring them back for the next season [chuckles]. That to me was sweet, and I really liked it quite a bit.

HTF: I recently watched John Cleese talk about creativity. His secrets for creativity about finding the right space, carving out the right amount of time, carving out the right space to fall into that creative process, and how interruptions can really set you back from that creative flow. But when you take yourself back 30 years, when you were just starting out to write these books, when you were staring at the blank page, I'm curious to know, how did you first begin? Did you map out the world? Did you start sketching character notions, ideas, their weakness and strengths as you talked about? Or did you start typing and just see where your writing took you?

“I didn't have any particular skill or talent that I knew of, and I just wanted to try this, and I loved it. I loved the idea of storytelling, something I've been doing since I was very young…”

Terry Brooks: Well, I've always been kind of an anal guy even as a kid. So I was working on finding a way to make the story come together before I ever started actually writing it. And I did do a lot of outlining, and I did do a lot of mapping, [carved?] out the world itself, and writing a lot about the individual aspects of it. And what happens with something like this-- obviously, I didn't set out thinking, "Well, I'm going to write 50 books in this series [chuckles]" or something like that. I was going to write one book in this series, and I didn't know if I could do that. I didn't have any particular skill or talent that I knew of, and I just wanted to try this, and I loved it. I loved the idea of storytelling, something I've been doing since I was very young.

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So I just sat down, and after I had a basic outline of the story, I just started to tell the story, and it came together. And you finish one book, I've discovered, then that tells you what needs to happen in the next book. And it's true that if you let yourself get interrupted too much or distracted too much by almost anything, it can throw you off quite a bit. I find that if I don't write on a regular basis, I become nervous and tense about where the story is going to go next, if I let it hang too long without doing something with it. So I basically work all the time. I mean not to the detriment of my family relationships, except now and again, but in a way that allows you to keep that thread going all the time, because you carry your stories in your head, and you're always thinking about them. It doesn't matter. You can't stop

HTF: Fascinating. Well, thank you very much for speaking with me this morning. It's a good, fun show, and it looks fantastic. The story, of course, is absorbing. The visual effects are top notch for television. The locations are just beautiful. It's a wonderful show to watch visually, and then be absorbed into the world…

Terry Brooks: Well, I thought so, too. Thank you very much. I'm glad to hear you say that, because that was really my take on it, too. And I think it's going to get better. I think the acting, and the writing, and all the rest as the show's going to grow, the way good shows do, and I have hopes that that's going to be the case with this one as well. But I can't imagine the production values being any better or that the settings are going to get any better [chuckles], because when you film in New Zealand, you've got everything you need to a great fantasy story right there, and people see that.

HTF: Well, all the best to you. Thank you very much. Looking forward to more of your writings in the future. Thank you very much.

Terry Brooks: Thank you very much. I appreciate talking with you.
 

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