Since his breakthrough performance in Swingers twenty years ago, Jon Favreau has gone from acting in and writing indie movies like Chef, to directing blockbusters like the Iron Man flicks and Elf, to executive producing the Avengers mega franchise.
And now he’s got a hand in the breathtaking MTV adaptation of novelist Terry Brooks’ Shannara Trilogy. Sort of like a Lord of the Rings for millennials, the story is set in the future, after The Great Wars, a time when modern technology has been destroyed and magic and demons are afoot.
We caught up with Favs, a big Trilogy fan and now exec producer of The Shannara Chronicles (Tuesdays at 10/9c, beginning this week), to find out how he brought the series to TV—and why it might be even better there than on the big screen…
“The hero myth goes back to ancient Greece and further. The superhero genre is a present-day examination of this hero myth. In fantasy, you’re dealing with similar hero myths and archetypes. There’s a lot of similarity in the soul of those two genres.”
1. Wait For Your Moment
The books were originally set up as a feature film with a big studio, and this project has been a long time in the making. The source material has been around for many decades and there are a lot of fans who’ve been waiting to see it done right. So we wanted to do something special and different. In retrospect, it didn’t really fit into a movie, but thanks to the way that television is transforming now, that finally opened up this opportunity for us.
2. Don’t Feel Beholden to the Books
I grew up reading the books. Terry Brooks thought the second book of The Shannara Trilogy (called The Elfstones of Shannara) was stronger, and we agreed. It’s just a better story than the first book. Written in the late 1970s through the early 1980s, the trilogy overall has a post apocalyptic/fantasy scenario, along with very strong female characters—like Poppy Drayton as Amberle and Ivana Baquero as Eretria—all the things you’d like to do in a television series today. Brooks has described our series as a re-imagining, and it is different. Each medium demands a different take on things.
3. Find the Right Partners
We partnered up with MTV after we’d been working on the property for some time. So I was very pleased to find out they were as enthusiastic about this as we were, and were willing to make this a priority and give it the scope and scale that the material demands. And, even though it was a new partnership and something that’s a little bit different from what they’ve done historically, they had a tremendous amount of passion. MTV knew it was a big swing for them and they wanted to take that swing.
4. Nail Your Location
Picking New Zealand to film was kind of a no-brainer—and a way of continuing the legacy that New Zealand has created in the fantasy genre; Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, the Narnia movies. There’s just a legacy of fantasy in New Zealand, and the awesome landscapes lend themselves to doing this genre.
5. Step Away From the Camera
While I’ve directed a number of movies, it felt good to change it up. Jonathan Liebesman was one of the directors we used, and if you look at Liebesman’s previous work, he was bringing a movie sensibility to the small screen. I haven’t produced on a lot of other directors’ work, so it was a very unique experience for me to watch Liebesman’s dailies and meet with him before and after and get insights into his process. But he thinks very big, he wants everything to be cinematic and beautiful. And he has a very good handle on visual effects, as did the other directors.
6. Mix Upcoming and Veteran Actors
We got very fortunate with our talent, who are all very good actors. The older actors, I’ve seen their work before—like James Remar who plays Eretria’s father. Then there’s John Rhys-Davis, who’s Amberle’s father, and he’s a stalwart especially in this genre, like The Lord of the Rings. But upcoming talent like Drayton and her fellow young actors (Austin Butler and Baquero) — I’d seen them through my kids watching shows, like The Carrie Diaries and Downtown Abbey. So to see them work together and really carry a franchise like this, I was really impressed.
7. Make the Protagonists Truly Heroic
The hero myth goes back to ancient Greece and further. The superhero genre is a present-day examination of this hero myth. In fantasy, like with The Shannara Chronicles, even though you’re dealing with magic, you’re dealing with similar hero myths and archetypes. There’s a lot of similarity in the soul of those two genres. Our young trio goes on a heroic quest to save their peoples and the world.
8. Make the Bad Guys Equal to the Good Guys
The Great Wars have obliterated civilization as we know it, thousands of years into the future. Technology has disappeared and magic has replaced it. The stakes couldn’t be higher in this world, as magic and demons are being unleashed on this culture. Through the stories of the Shannara, you get the ultimate consequence if things don’t turn out well.
9. Have a Strong, Clear Vision
Our producer and creative team had a very strong vision to help make it a cinematic experience for the TV viewer, and these viewers are coming to expect that now. HBO set the standard and now it’s, how do we reach that level in terms of excellence in television? So a lot of effort, thought and time goes into it, along with that strong vision.
10. Use Available Technology
I really like working in this fantasy genre, it’s fun. Because they’re stories you couldn’t have told before, before the (computer, green screen and effects) technology was available. And now thanks to this serialized, broad scope television, you can tell stories over tmany hours and seasons. But it’s also not so many episodes (like network TV shows), and that allows you to oversee the quality so that each of the first 10 episodes feels handmade and not rushed. It’s really a wonderful time for the small screen.