INTERVIEW: Magic comes to Comic-Con: Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy

Two of Merlin’s creators were in attendance at this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego. Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy are in the midst of filming the third season of the hit BBC series as executive producers, and both took time out of their hectic filming schedule to participate in a roundtable press discussion before the Merlin panel at the Comic-Con International in San Diego.

Between them Johnny and Julian have worked on numerous successful series such as Hex, Demons, Dis/Connected and As If. I was fortunate enough to get to speak with them and you can find their interviews below.

Johnny Capps

How was your trip over?

Very good thank you! Julian and I flew over together and we storylined two episodes, so we’re feeling very pleased with ourselves.

Great! Is that for this current season?

Yes. Because the production cycle is quite tight, we basically, we start filming in October – sorry – we start filming in March, but we’re prepping it in December while doing post-production on the previous series.  So we’re basically always in some production cycle.

That’s pretty intense. So you’re doing post-production on season three?

Yes, we’re doing post-production on season three and filming season three. This is sort of the interesting part of the year. We’ve just signed off on episodes one, two and three, so they’re in the post-production thing; we’re storylining the final five episodes and shooting the middle section of the series.

So this is the busiest time of the year basically, and it’s sort of a rush now because when we get to September, we’re airing the series while we’re still filming it. It’s this great sort of stressful moment of us going “If we make any mistakes and we don’t deliver…” ‘Cause of the CGI and the timetable for the CGI is so tight, that if we don’t get the CGI ready, then the episode won’t be ready, and it’ll be either me or Julian on live television apologizing “Sorry guys but you know…”

We appreciate you taking your valuable time to come out here to promote the show.

It’s a pleasure! So basically, episode thirteen ends up – last year, we signed off on the CGI on the Thursday, it went through the tech for the BBC on the Friday, and then it was aired on the Saturday. So, there’s no room for mistakes, which is always entertaining.

Have you been to Comic-Con before or is your first time?

I’ve never been to Comic-Con in San Diego but I’ve heard about it and I’ve seen it. It seems to be an extraordinary experience. There are a few in England but not quite as big as this. But Merlin’s got a big fanbase in England, so I’ve done a few. We did a big one in May – [Expo?] yeah Expo, which is great. You know, it’s always, when you’re making these shows, you’re always in this bubble of production, so you’re always just worrying about, you know, are we going to film in time, what’s the storyline, are we going to achieve it; so you’re in this kind of production bubble and you forget that there’s an audience and people who watch the show and enjoy it. Coming to these events where you meet fans who love the show, it’s always sort of, it makes all the stress and angst…[laughter]…puts it all into perspective and it’s all very nice.

I’ve that when you originally first did a public appearance, were prepared for basically, kids, and were surprised when there was a huge adult audience. Has the knowledge that you’re fanbase is largely women in their 20’s & 30’s changed the direction or tone of the show at all?

No, not at all. You know, I mean, when we first started creating Merlin, the idea that all of the shows that Julian and I make at Shine is that we wanted an international audience – we don’t make it purely for a British audience.

And so therefore, for us, this is all about making a family action-adventure show to appeal to all generations. And it was always, we used “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, those kind of movies, as a sort of blueprint of the tone and appeal we wanted. So we never kind of go “Oh actually, we’ve got a much bigger teen girl audience, so let’s, you know, tell more stories about Arthur with his top off…” [laughter] Well you know, he’s got his top off anyway… [more laughter] We actually can’t get his top on him now.

To us, you lose the heart of the show, we always stay true to the heart of the show, and I think if you’re true to that, then your audience will stay with you. It’s not about – you always adjust the scripts to your actors strengths, but you never adjust the show because you’re getting a certain type of audience. You just stay true to your own vision.

And I think that’s where we’ve been very lucky about with Merlin, in that, the execs at the BBC totally trust us creatively, and so we’re allowed to create the show we wanted to create and have been allowed to do that throughout the series. So its never sort of been compromised or watered down in any way. Which I think is to the strength as a show.

So you’ve pulled in a lot of different threads from Arthurian legend, so you had the Lady in the Lake and Lancelot, can you tell us a little bit about any of those that we’ll be seeing in season three?

Yeah in Series three, we start to play more with the Morgana story; we bring back the Lady in the Lake in a surprising way; we’re beginning to bring in the Knights of the Round Table as well. So, we have Lancelot, who comes back, we have Percival and we have Gawain, so there’s those knights. Excalibur comes back and we start to begin to tell the story about the Sword in the Stone.

So, I think you know, that’s the great thing that Julian and I have this sort of benchmark of moments of the Arthurian legend that we sort of work towards each season. And laying the foundations for that is really nice because you can kind of bring things back.

It was really exciting because Excalibur is such a well-known part of Arthurian legend but there’s very few stories about where it came from, so its really exciting for us to sit and go “Right, you know, let’s start the story of Excalibur.” And make up our own interpretation.

So you know, Series three is a really nice balance of lots of Arthurian legend and also new interesting stuff as well.

Does the fan reaction to certain characters or events change anything? Cause I know you guys compare your show to Smallville a lot and that’s something that they’ve always done; they’re affected by things that fans like. For example, Leon coming back this series — was he always meant to be dead at the end of the last series or were you always going to bring back Rupert Young?

Well, what was interesting with Rupert was that we brought him in for a few episodes and he was actually very good. And to find an English actor that can actually walk with a prop without falling over…[laughter] And as he was very good with a sword and was able to walk with it and not fall over – and I’m joking really!

Rupert’s just a great actor and he’s nice and he’s sort of grew into the part, so we kind of kept on bringing him back. In episode thirteen, we wanted to leave it sort of ambiguous. Just because we wanted some sort of hook – um we found all the fan thing, was immensely – you know, it was really good that he caused such a huge reaction, but we didn’t go “Oh my God, we have to bring him back otherwise we’ll upset all those fans.”

We brought him back because we had some good stories to tell with his character.

What about bringing back Georgia Moffett?

Georgia Moffett? Yeah she was brilliant – really, really good. Um, I think it would be great to bring those characters back but it’s always about finding the right story for them. Um because you know, I think that when you get into Series four and five, I think you can then start bring back creatures and characters.

But the trouble is there’s so many other stories to tell and other interesting things we want to do with the series, that at the moment we’re not ready to bring back too many characters. I mean obviously Lancelot is important to bring back, the Lady in the Lake is important to bring back, but sort of our guest artists, only if we had a good enough story. But you know, we never say never to those things.

That was a really fun, lightweight episode.

Yeah – that’s what we love about the series – that you can tell big epic stories, you can tell Merlin meeting his dad, discovering that he’s a Dragonlord and it’s a big kind of emotional huge episode. And then you can tell – like in the Georgia Moffett episode – sort of a Shakespearean rom-com basically.

How are the American fans different from the England fans?

Um, I’ll tell you later today! [big laughs] They seem – you know, it’s always great to have a huge fanbase of people that enjoy your work. The English fans, the hardcore Merlin fans that we call “Merkins” [loud laughter] – which apparently is the word for a pubic wig but I don’t think we knew that before…[more laughs]. They went through a big phase of gifting vegetables.

Julian Murphy

So we’ve seen a lot of the guest stars appearing – like the Harry Potter alums. How do you cast for that — do you have someone in mind for a role and then you go out to them and ask? Or do they come through regular channels?

We have our casting director who is aware of people who want to do the show; often, we have people in mind. And it’s nice on Merlin because we found that [it’s] pretty easy to get anybody we want really. I think especially if they have kids – they want to do the show because their kids want them to do the show! [laughter] So you can get some unlikely people. And yes we probably do – Harry Potter employs every good character actor in England so it’s hard not to use people from there.

Going back to the Season one guest stars, I have to ask you about Alexander Siddig – how did you get him and why did you cast him as such an evil, evil man?

Yes I know, that was odd wasn’t it? Do you know, Jill (Trevellick, Casting director) knew him and told us, you know, he’s the guy that should do it. Of course, we had doubts; once we saw him do it, he was very very good at being evil. There’s another thing about Alexander that’s amazing – he’s an incredible horseman, which I didn’t know at all. It was just a fantastic bonus. All that stuff where he’s rearing around, that’s just him.

He’s an absolutely brilliant rider — which is very useful because riding and teaching actors to ride is one of our big things. I mean, our cast now, are good riders. People like Anthony have always been because they’ve done it enough. But our younger cast obviously, any of them, hadn’t ridden at all. But now, they’re amazing horsemen — just as Bradley is incredible with a sword. Its fascinating watching that – we can have them galloping around the woods now. It makes it a lot easier.

Have you ever had to change any of your storylines to accommodate certain things they can’t do? Like rewrite a scene so they didn’t have to do something?

In the early days, we were very careful about what riding stuff we do – we do a lot more now. Because you just, you could double people on a horse but it’s pretty obvious unless you’re very wide. You can’t get these guys galloping across cobblestones because it would be dangerous.

What about the choreography for the swordfights – you have quite a few in the tournaments and so on.

Yeah, I think, we have a special sword choreographer, Andreas Petrides, who does all of the swordfighting. All of the stunts are done by a French company; they’re probably the best horse stuntpeople in the world and Andreas teaches the moves to the actors. Bradley is now as good as the stuntmen to be honest. And he’s so quick now, they put fights together in twenty minutes because they’re so good at it and they’ve done it several times. The new actor who plays Gawain, Owen, is a swordfighter as well.

Are we going to see some of the women actually picking up swords?

Morgana fights in series three.

Is it like five minutes or does she get a big scene?

She gets quite a big scene – which was quite a challenge for her as she’s always saying “I want to fight, I want to fight.”  And then she had to do it. [laughs all around]

How about for Angel?

Angel does some more action but she doesn’t fight. She’s less – she asks us less. Katie’s asking us to fight all the time.

Well I think in Arthurian legend, Guinevere was a little more active.

She was and she will get there, we just have to be patient.

It’s not that she’s a wallflower but she seemed more physical in the stories.

I think her part grows and grows and she gets to be a more powerful part of this. Actually much more powerful than I even thought she would be in the beginning, so that does change. We’ve some stunt stuff with Morgana now – Katie does a lot of horse work; we let her do some big stuff on horses because she got good enough.

Is there anything they won’t do, they say “Oh no – uh uh!”

No it’s the opposite.

They want to do everything.

[Big laughs] We stop them more than we need to encourage them.

Can you give us an example?

Uh yes, there was a very good example recently. There was a big, big jump probably a thirty foot jump into a haycart Gawain and Merlin had to do and obviously it was doubled – they did the first take and Gawain jumped. I mean, it was safe because there was a massive box rig underneath but yeah, he was in a lot of trouble for it! [laughs] Um in fact, it’s in the outtakes that you’ll see.

Does that influence you when you think “They’re going to actually try do this, maybe I don’t want to write this in.”?

We’re quite careful – it’s good for actors to do stunts don’t get me wrong because it sells it. There’s a scene where Bradley has to come off the ceiling on a wire and it’s quite a scary stunt because you go very fast an inch from the floor and he did that and did it very well and it looks brilliant.

So you don’t even hesitate when you’re writing anything because “Of course they’re going to do it, it’s going to be brilliant!”

You worry more about, there’s certain things that are just too dangerous and you don’t like doing it. The worst stunt on this series was, we had to do a stair fall down the castle steps and steps are horrible because you can’t fake them.

The stuntwoman just basically has to go down these barrel steps and it’s really a horrible stunt to do. And we split it in two to make the fall smaller – it’s all sorts of tricks we use. But it’s still – those are the stunts I hate. If a guy is going a fifty foot off a wall, that’s curiously much less worrying because you know you’re in control of it and you know they’ve done it before. It’s the stuff that’s, like down the stairs, that’s really not nice. The horse guys do the really big stuff.

[Colin doesn’t see Julian and goes to sit down, then notices.]

Colin can take over!

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One comment

  1. I have a question, but first let me say that it is so enjoyable arriving home from a frustrating day to watch Merlin. Merlin makes me laugh. I have watched each show at least 3 times each! I bought all 4 seasons from
    My question is, why can’t Merlin bring Morgana back to good magic? In season 2, episode 3, Merlin tells Gaius that Merlin knows what it is like to be lonely, before he came to live with Gaius he was in that state.

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