The Terror showrunners break down the party from hell in ‘A Mercy’

Interview by Tara Bennett for SYFY Wire, 23rd April 2018

This week’s exclusive The Terror postmortem digs into some major book-to-screen moments with showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh, and actor Jared Harris (Crozier).

As Crozier is sidelined with the effects of his alcohol detoxification, Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) decides to allow the men to stage a Carnival masque on the ice to counter the men’s worsening spirits and declining health from their poisoned food stores. Lady Silence also tries to make amends with the Tuunbaq after speaking its name to the outsiders.

First off, I was really moved by the scene between Crozier and Jopson (Liam Garrigan) as the captain is drying out. It’s not a typical TV sequence, so did you have to fight to keep it intact?

David Kajganich: I’m so glad you brought it up. We really love that scene and the kind of scenes that it represents, particularly because it has a corresponding scene later when the roles are reversed. We always knew that that was really crucial to us as a way of investing in these characters. But certainly, when you’re looking at not making your days, when you’re looking at shrinking the costs of a shoot, those kinds of scenes are the ones that people will quickly propose be cut.

We used that scene as an audition scene for Jopson, so we had the chance to hear a lot of different actors play it. After hearing that, we knew how valuable it was. Not just for their character arcs, but again, for this show to reassert that it wasn’t going to be paced like an action film, or paced like a horror movie. That you had to give yourself over to its pacing. We didn’t want to have four scenes of Crozier throwing up with the shakes. We thought a conversation like that, where he is forced in that moment to realize what a gift he’s being given by another character, was a more effective way to show how vulnerable he is in that moment. The story’s about Jopson, but the consequences are really for Crozier to sit with. People are sacrificing so much to help him, so he ought to be willing to sacrifice as much to help them.

Soo Hugh: And it turned out the audio of that scene was not usable.

Kajganich: I remember the ADR recordist and the ADR editor when Liam Garrigan came in. He did it in like two takes or something. And they said, “We have never seen somebody nail an ADR performance like that.” It was something.

Jared, what does Crozier’s relationship with Jopson reveal about him?

Jared Harris: You know, an interesting question about maintenance came up because one assumes, “Well, he’s a drunk, so drunks are slovenly.” And I said, “No, Jopson looks after him. Jopson’s job is to make sure he’s presentable, so that would mean Jopson wasn’t doing a good job. So, we can’t play that note.” And then it became, once he’s turned the corner in [episode] six and he’s dried himself out, the idea then was that maintaining his appearance was an act of maintained discipline amongst everybody else, but also about morale. You’re sending a signal to everyone that we’re gonna follow these rules and that we are gonna get out of here.

In the book, Lady Silence does not have a tongue from the start, so her contribution to the story is limited. But in your adaptation, she makes the sacrifice of her tongue to the Tuunbaq in this episode. Tell me about the choice to change that up so dramatically.

Kajganich: The way we thought about it when we were designing the season is, we knew that the endgame was that we wanted to start the season with an audience really firmly entrenched in this British point of view about what they were doing, and what they were owed, in a sense, by the expedition. As we went through the narrative, we would take a wider and wider view. To have started Lady Silence off without the ability to speak, or a lot of agency in terms of her own arc, which was not subservient to the arcs of these British sailors, meant that we needed her to be able to articulate concerns that had nothing to do with them. To articulate a point of view about the world, and have a journey that she was on, that was as high-stakes for her, and her community, as this expedition was for that community.

So, it was really a no-brainer in the writers’ room. We knew we weren’t going to able to have her be the “other” in the way that the book does. The book has a different endgame. The book keeps her at arm’s length as the “other” for almost its entire duration. We knew that adopting that same structure of waiting until the last episode to [explain her cultural history] that would really have unbalanced the pacing of the show. That was also a factor in deciding to give her her tongue, and try to create as many scenarios as we could where characters’ choices were driving the plot.

Certainly, her decision to finally be as brave as she’s asking Crozier to be, in terms of leading his men and stepping up to his plate, she then realizes, “Oh, I have to do the same thing here. I have to try to step into this role that I’m afraid of, that I know I’m not particularly prepared for. But someone has to do this and I’m the only person who has a shot at doing it.” That’s a great arc for a character, and it’s not an arc that is subservient to anyone else’s arc. That’s hers and hers alone, and that excited us quite a lot in the writers’ room.

The Carnival masque scene was a sequence you knew you had to adapt from the book to the series. But it’s a pivotal point in your story as it represents the end of the ship’s story and a major shift in tone going forward.

Hugh: It was a fan favorite, so we knew it had to be on the table. We loved how Dan Simmons did it, but we made an important realization in the writers’ room that we couldn’t have it be a Tuunbaq attack. We tried to break it down in many, many ways for the Tuunbaq to attack the actual Carnival celebration, or the Tuunbaq attack one of the ships and then the men have to leave Carnival and go to the ships. And then we realized what was really frightening about that scene, or at least psychologically interesting, is we think that the thing we’re most afraid of is this monster’s attack. But honestly, what’s more frightening is what comes from within. Once we took the Tuunbaq out, then it became the men’s evolving psychology. That was really the release point where the visuals and the sound design and the editing and pacing were able to lean into that.

Kajganich: And we wanted it to have a surreal feel. We’re at the point in the story where we realize, the lead is starting to take effect and people’s spirits are starting to curdle. So, we made another change from the book, in that we took as the theme of Carnival: nostalgia. Not only did we think that was a more interesting set of reveals from a character point of view, it’s also legitimately a symptom of scurvy, is nostalgia. We wanted the surreality to come from them trying to mimic memories from home. In each of those tents and in the show, there’s a different place that they want to get back to: the racetrack, or their mother’s kitchen, or a wooded glade, etc…. We really had a lot of fun trying to figure out, “How do we drive this set piece, out of character choices and out of character anxieties?”

Hugh: And once again, it’s all seen from Crozier’s subjective point of view. It’s not us saying, “This is a surreal world,” because that feels too imposed. It’s the way Crozier, who is now sober, subjectively is experiencing that event and looking at his men in this non-judgmental eye. We call it the prerequisite orgy scene that every show seems to have where the characters are drunk, or on drugs. And then the surreality comes from that forced-use perspective. We thought it’s actually much more surreal if you’re sober taking it in.

Kajganich: Crozier can see the ways all of these men’s id is leaking in. I mean, when he gets to that last tent and there’s basically a cook pot full of men! They don’t realize, probably, what that image implies about what they’re thinking in the backs of their heads. But Crozier sees it and immediately is like, “Oh fuck, that’s a people stew! We got to back out of here. We got to end this party because this is an instruction manual for disaster!”

This article was originally posted on SYFY Wire but has since been deleted. It has been recovered and reposted here for posterity.