The cast and showrunner of Ridley Scott-produced Arctic horror The Terror tell us why the ice isn’t the thing you have to worry about…
Where adventure meets misadventure, that’s where you’ll find AMC’s new show The Terror.
The ten-episode series, set in the mid-1800s, centres on the Royal Navy’s perilous voyage, known as the Franklin Expedition, into uncharted territory as the crew attempts to discover the Northwest Passage. Faced with treacherous conditions, limited resources, dwindling hope and a fear of the unknown, the crew, lead by Captain John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) is pushed to the brink of extinction.
Frozen, isolated and stuck at the end of the earth, The Terror highlights everything that can go wrong when a group of men, desperate to survive, struggle not only with the elements but with each other. And whatever else is out there on the ice…
“Rather than supernatural, I would articulate it as an investigation of the unknown,” explains Tobias Menzies, star of Outlander and Game of Thrones who plays Captain James Fitzjames. “I think that goes for both the internal, because all these men go to this place and discover things they didn’t know about themselves – some good and some not good, and the external because it’s about this place they find themselves in that they shouldn’t be in.
“There are larger themes, too, about empire-building, what it means to invade, that’s woven in with whatever the thing is that’s out there in this alien environment, disturbing both the place they’re in and themselves. It feels more psychological than being a straightforward supernatural show.”
It’s understandable that some might draw a comparison with the likes of John Carpenter’s The Thing. There’s isolated men at the end of their ropes, the unforgiving icy environment and a creature picking them off one-by-one. Indeed, Menzies confirms: “That was certainly a film that was talked about and we watched it. It’s a reference that was circling around this.”
However, it’s not all about Carpenter, as star Jared Harris (who plays Captain Francis Crozier) reveals: “There were also other ones such as Picnic At Hanging Rock – that was an unexplained event that they never got an answer to.
“With The Terror, the idea of there being this creature, it’s not just about that one thing because there are several monsters in this really,” he continues. “The thing that’s out on the ice, our characters aren’t even supposed to know about it and the indigenous Inuit people, in their culture, they’re not even supposed to say the name of it. There’s always a question about us trying to define what it is in the story. It has a sort of mythical element.”
When it came to embracing the struggle, the men on board the boat were forced to endure, it was something Menzies relished, having actively sought out the role.
“Even in real life, I certainly find psychology is a big part of my coming to terms with who I am. I tend to be drawn towards that kind of work and this is no different,” he explains. “There’s so much scope here for an actor, it’s a highly character-driven piece, that is the engine that drives it forward, how these men respond to these extreme challenges both physically and mentally. Stuff that is this well-written doesn’t come around that often. There are no really bumpy, expositional bits where they just have to take time out from the story to get a load of stuff out there.”
“It takes a lot of pressure off you as an actor,” Harris chips in.
“The world our characters find themselves in is one of the most inhospitable, demanding environments on the planet and obviously they were there and being confronted with it in 1845. It’s sort of unimaginable what that would’ve been like,” muses Menzies. “One of the greatest challenges, and excitements, about doing the show was both imagining yourself back 170 years, imagining yourself in that place and then getting to bring that to the scenes.”
The Terror, which is a gothic horror as much as it is a suspenseful thriller, comes from executive producers Ridley Scott, Soo Hugh, and David Kajganich, the latter of whom has dabbled in genre with The Invasion and Blood Creek before wowing with the screenplay for Luca Guadagnino’s incredible A Bigger Splash.
“I knew about the Franklin Expedition, the historical story, for many years because I used to be a wilderness guide” Kajganich tells us, “When you do that for a living you have stories that you tell people to illustrate different things and I used that sometimes. When I heard Dan Simmons, who is an author I really love, was writing a book about the Franklin Expedition, I was really excited. When it finally arrived, I read it and thought it was the perfect story to tell for cinema or television. It took a number of years to find the right sort of form and home for it but we have.”
With that incredible, unforgiving landscape, it’s easy to see why The Terror was originally set up as a film adaptation but Simmons’ novel proved to be a tough nut to crack. “Everyone knew it was something interesting but no one knew quite how to make it,” Kajganich remembers. “Finally, AMC came forward and said: ‘How does a ten-episode run sound for this?’ Having ten hours to tell this amazing story rather than two was perfect! We made this with people who get character-driven material but they also know how to honour and embrace genre projects and this is both of those at the same time.”
Co-showrunner Hugh (best known for work on The Killing and The Whispers) adds: “Obviously, there is the temptation when you’re making a something that is a genre show to really play on the horror moments, the jump scares, the cliffhangers. We knew, telling this story, that the monster in the show is just one of many terrors. We wanted to convey what it feels like to have your body riddled with lead poisoning and scurvy and it should feel just as terrifying as going around an ice formation and having a creature jump out at you. We wanted all of those experiences to be visceral.”
Combining authenticity with genre tropes was something they knew wasn’t going to be simple with The Terror but had to be done right if it was going to work. Kajganich is honest about a key change being embracing real world social and political narratives as well as the fantastical: “What Dan did with the book is he created an allegory. This is, as much as anything, now a story about the perils of Western hubris and we embraced that fully,” he explains.
“The audacity and the arrogance and the ignorance required to go and claim a land that isn’t yours, it’s appalling. To be on a ship with characters that are essentially agreeing to that kind of expedition, who are of their day and age and who wouldn’t think of it in the same way we do, it’s unique,” he continues. “You can’t be polemical about that question, you have to earn every answer and I think we really tried that. Also, making sure that the Inuit culture as expressed in the show is accurate, both to the period and to the way that people think about it nowadays.”
The casting of Nive Nielsen as Lady Silence is just one example of how they achieved what they set out to do. Although she has acting experience, she’s perhaps best known for her work as a singer-songwriter and her band Nive And The Deer Children, she’s Inuit, an Inuk from Nuuk, Greenland.
“Lady Silence isn’t her real name,” Nielsen explains. “That’s what the people on the ship call her. She’s an Inuit woman, she’s a strong woman and very independent which you have to be when you’re living in the Arctic. All of our ancestors were that way; they had to be to survive. She’s also trying to minimise a lot of damage. I’m so happy they went through the trouble of finding real Inuit actors to do this right. My culture is really important to me and I talk to people about it a lot, people have lots of questions.”
“We grilled you daily,” interjects Adam Nagaitis who plays crewmember Cornelius Hickey. “I picked up a lot of knowledge, things I had no idea about before. It’s such a beautiful culture and it’s something I’ve never seen represented in this way, this accurately, before.”
That voyage of mutual discover wasn’t the only surprise that The Terror threw out for the cast.
“The scripts are really good, we were always all so excited to get the next one,” recalls Nielsen. “We knew where it was going, in certain ways, because it’s based on a true story and we’d read the book but every time a new one would arrive we’d be genuinely excited to read what they’d done.”
“The book is obviously out there so anybody can pick it up and read the story but our story is very different and there are many, many surprises that the book doesn’t go anywhere near,” adds Nagaitis. “I stole so many scripts out of runners’ bags to try and read ahead. I vividly remember one day actually seeing the words ‘Episode Ten’ on a script poking out at the top. I didn’t care, I couldn’t resist it, I had to read it so I pulled it out of the bag. I went and locked myself in the bathroom and rush read it then put it back.”
A key ingredient in recreating, and sustaining, the realism was the design of the show which included using physical sets and recreating the harsh conditions of the Arctic on set. It’s fair to say that cast members suffered for their art.
“The sets were huge, they were one-to-one scale. They recreated full interiors and exteriors of the ship, they made full-scale decks for us to walk, it was massive,” Nagaitis explains. “Being able to use green screen helps you do many things but physically being on the massive ship in these hangars, it made you feel like you were there. Of course, then you add in the lighting, the wind machines, and the fake snow – which would vary between plastic to soap, depending on the look they needed for the shot – it all got very real. They would keep the temperature down to minus 10 as well. You don’t have to bother to act when you have the physical condition, you’re experiencing the cold for real and not pretending.”
However, while the cold was a problem for some, the authenticity on set caused different issues for Nielsen.
“I was wearing an actual caribou outfit which was something you can wear when it’s as cold as minus 50 or so, while the rest of the cast were freezing, I was actually hot the whole time,” she laughs. “It’s not because I’m used to the cold, I actually get cold very easily, but this was real caribou, one of the warmest materials on Earth, and I was wearing it from head to toe. I had to have a cooling vest as I was going to faint.”
This adaptation of The Terror already has the approval of Dan Simmons, something that was very important to the showrunners. “There are ten things that probably every fan of The Terror wants to see on the show and we can give you eight of them probably because we can’t afford the other two,” Kajganich explains. “But we’ve also given you ten other things that you’re not expecting that really feel like they could have fit in the book. Fans want to be surprised, not in a cynical way, but they want to see the ingredients made into a slightly different cake.
“I’m really happy with how it turned out because I think we would all agree that the kind of horror that doesn’t reveal itself immediately is always the more interesting kind of horror. It allows space for character in a way that those set piece, after set piece, after set piece shows don’t. We have plenty of those but, over ten hours, you can tell several kinds of stories at the same time.”
“We’ve heard from Dan by the way,” adds Hugh. “He’s a huge fan of the show and he’s so proud of being part of it and giving us the trust he did that enabled us to do our vision.”
“One thing we knew from the start was that we never wanted the landscape to be the villain in the show, as stark and unforgiving and harsh as it is. We’ve always felt that the landscape was indifferent because that’s how nature is, it’s different to us,” she concludes. Sadly, the show acted as a reminder of how much we’ve changed the world. “In terms of the Arctic, we couldn’t film there because that Arctic in the book doesn’t exist anymore. I think that’s one of the biggest tragedies. Man, perhaps the biggest monster of them all.”
This article was originally published in Issue 143 of SciFi Now magazine. It has been transcribed here for accessibility.