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‘A Discovery Of Witches’: Female Creative Team Finds That It Takes A Coven

A Discovery of Witches is brewing a slow-simmer success. The supernatural drama made its commercial television debut last Sunday night on AMC and BBC America (9:00 PM ET/PT) with a cast led by Teresa Palmer (Hacksaw Ridge), Matthew Goode (Downton Abbey), Alex Kingston (Doctor Who), Valarie Pettiford (Being Mary Jane), and Owen Teale (Game of Thrones). After his Emmy nomination last year for The Crown, Goode might rank as the most illustrious name from the show’s ensemble but make no mistake: A Discovery Of Witches is a television adaptation that echoes with the female voice in every phase.

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A Discovery of Witches was adapted to screen for Sky 1 in the UK by writer Kate Brooke (Mr. Selfridge), who also serves as executive producer. The other EPs include two Doctor Who veterans, Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner, as well as author Deborah Harkness, whose All Souls trilogy is the basis of the smoldering saga about forbidden love in supernatural circles. Those secret circles include witches, such as historian Diana Bishop (Palmer), and vampires, such as enigmatic geneticist Matthew Clairmont (Goode). Two women, Alice Troughton and Sarah Walker, directed six of Season 1’s eight episodes. Seven of those episodes were written by a woman (either Brooke, Charlene James, or Sara Dollard) while the eighth was co-written by Brooke and Tom Farrelly.

With strong reviews, plans are already ramping for both Season 2 and Season 3 which will follow the same rollout recipe that was used for Season 1, which premiered back in January on Sundance Now and Shudder, AMC’s two streaming services. The series delivered some much-needed magic for the premium platforms, too: A Discovery of Witches set a Sundance Now record for most views and accounted for more than half of the platform’s streaming activity. AMC reports that Sundance Now also enjoyed a 30% spike in subscriptions in the weeks leading-up to the series premiere. To find out more about the brewing Witches success, Deadline caught up with Brooke, the show’s executive producer and writer.

DEADLINE: The creative team for the series is led by women and the story is built around a powerfully capable but refreshingly complicated woman. Can you talk a bit about the experience of working on a project that has those attributes and how they connect to each other?

BROOKE: In the book, Diana is a magnificent heroine. We wanted women to empathize with her in the show, even though she is magical, powerful, and extraordinary. The marvelous Teresa Palmer imbues her with charm and intelligence. We thought a great deal about how to keep Diana relatable. For example we decided we shouldn’t give her endless costume changes. Diana only has two coats that she wears throughout the whole season. This kind of detail probably came about because the creative team were women! There are challenging aspects to the novel, which we needed to approach carefully, particularly a sequence when Diana is tortured by another female witch, Satu. To ensure this was not gratuitous, the writers’ room worked at getting under Satu’s skin, and understanding her motivations. The book presents dark female characters but it doesn’t judge them. A female writers’ room is a safe space to explore those characters.

DEADLINE: Adapting any supernatural bookshelf hit is going to bring unique challenges with it. Early on, what did you see as the most nagging challenge for this project?

BROOKE: In A Discovery of Witches, three species other than humans live in the world: witches, vampires, and daemons. They live amongst us, hiding in plain sight. Humans see them but don’t recognize them for what they are. This mythology was an exciting challenge to dramatize. Our heroine and hero, Diana and Matthew (witch and vampire), are “other” but their otherness is subtle. How to present them without fangs, pointed hats and glowing eyes? Well, in our opening episodes, we make sure to place them in very recognizable human environments – a pub, a café, a library, a police station. Humans clock them, their difference, but just slightly…there’s a tension, a question mark. It was a delicate balance to achieve.

And if that wasn’t hard enough, in the mythology of the books the existence of these three species is under threat. Witches are losing their magical powers, vampires are failing to sire, and daemons are becoming increasingly unstable. We wanted to draw an audience into these dilemmas. So in our first episode, one of our key vampire characters, the irrepressible Marcus, tries to “sire” another vampire and fails horribly. It’s a messy, bloody scene. Marcus is traumatized. He fears he can never make a family. So the audience understands, in a visceral sense, what he, and other vampires, are up against.

DEADLINE: Is there an aspect of the show that has surprised you? One that has gone in a different direction you wouldn’t have predicted when he or she was still on the page? Or an aspect that veers from the book series?

BROOKE: The show has an epic love center at its core. A witch and a vampire fall for each other. Their attraction is sexy, spiritual, tantalizing – and massively problematic. Interspecies relationships are banned by the ancient and powerful assembly, which controls species behavior – the Congregation. In the book, the Congregation is just a shadowy threat, but in the series, we bring it to full-blown life. We play out the political tensions, and the behind-the-scene scheming and skullduggery. This strand was huge fun to create, and upped the tension of the show, and the threat to Diana and Matthew.

DEADLINE: Witches were rarely portrayed in a positive light in popular culture before Bell, Book Candle in the 1950s (and, later, Bewitched and Bedknobs Broomsticks) but the Harry Potter global success has flipped the script on that tradition. What do you see as the most alluring aspects of witches, from a storytelling perspective?

BROOKE: For me, it’s simple as to why witches are cool, they can do magic. It is very satisfying watching Diana’s elemental magic build. She begins the season believing she is no good at magic, but by the end she rocks. Diana’s burgeoning magical powers are a metaphor for her spiritual journey as she comes to terms with her traumatic past and finally accepts her own power. Diana’s aunts, Sarah and Em, live in a house which has a life of its own. I’m not going to give away spoilers, but the set design for the house is ingenious and magical in its own right.

DEADLINE: The show’s settings are really striking. There’s a sense of antiquity and authority that fits the show’s tone and themes. Can you talk a bit about the locations? Is there one spot you’re especially intrigued or awed by?

BROOKE: A Discovery of Witches boasts stunning locations: Oxford, Venice, rural France and Upstate New York. We wanted our show to be a love letter to the beauty of this world. If I had to choose a favorite location, it would be Oxford — the skyline, the light, and the ancient buildings, which hold mysterious secrets. I love Deb Harkness’ brilliant premise that the whole magical plot kicks off because Diana opens a musty old book in a library. Oxford’s history is so rich that somehow this is entirely believable.

DEADLINE: Vampires are by far the sexiest supernatural entities, correct? That seems to be a consensus in popular culture. Zombies never really had a chance with their decaying flesh. Werewolves are terrible kissers. What do you see as the allure of bloodsuckers?

BROOKE: Vampires are definitely the sexiest supernatural entities. It was imperative that our hero oozed sex appeal and we had the wonderful good fortune of casting Matthew Goode as his namesake, Matthew Clairmont, who is the most civilized character imaginable. He has perfect manners and is always in control. And yet he is constantly battling his desire to latch himself on to Diana and taste her blood. It’s the sexiness of that control versus that animal need.

DEADLINE: Connecting with heritage has never been a more topical theme considering all of the DNA test kits these days and their clarifying insights about our genetic path. How would you describe the power of heritage discovery, the complications that come with it and how those things fit into the series?

BROOKE: The vampires are repositories of history. They have lived for hundr and hundr of years. They have stalked the valleys of France, and the alleys of Venice since medieval times and before. Although it can be challenging to tell these epic backstories on the screen, this longevity gives our vampire characters great depth and wisdom. And it gives the plot intrigue. Diana realizes it will take her more than a lifetime to discover Matthew’s secrets.

DEADLINE: You mentioned that the Congregation was a component of the novel that you expanded for the series. But is there any other element that you had to set aside for the screen iteration?

BROOKE: We tried not to set aside any of Deb’s book in the adaptation to screen. We wanted to show the world she had created on the page in all its glory. If anything, we had to add rather than take away. The book is written from Diana’s perspective. We felt it was important to give Matthew as much point of view as Diana. Also in the book, characters appear as Diana meets them. We decided we wanted to meet some of these wonderful characters earlier in the action. So, in consultation with Deb, we created ‘prequel’ [sequences] for characters such as Diana’s nemesis, the witch Satu, and Matthew’s enemy, the vampire Gerbert.