The Terror showrunners explain the big twist in ‘The Ladder’

Interview by Tara Bennett for SYFY Wire, 3rd April 2018

Only three episodes into AMC’s limited series The Terror, showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh prove they aren’t messing around when it comes to the stakes at hand for the crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

In “The Ladder,” expedition Commander Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) is unceremoniously massacred by the creature that has been stalking their ships since the Inuit shaman died in their hull. Ostensibly billed as one of the leads of the series, Hinds, and the writers, pulled the rug out from under the audience, and have changed the dynamics of the entire series moving forward.

In the first of our ongoing episode post mortems featuring showrunners Kajganich and Hugh, the cast, and some of the production department heads who created the series costumes, sets, and visual effects, we talk about the decisions behind the shocking story turn, and the visual distinctions between the two ships and their captains.

Let’s talk about how you decided where the death of Franklin would land in your adaptation. He dies in real life, so it was coming, but where it lands in the episode order, and how it is portrayed, I’m sure was a huge decision for you.

David Kajganich: We should say off the bat, in the writers’ room we tried to follow the archaeological record as much as we could. We know, for instance, the date the ships were frozen in, because there was a note that was left that references that date. And we also know the date that Franklin died, because that was on a revised note that was left in a cairn. We tried to plot the season as if those dates would stand and see how that worked for us as a show. What we found was that we could pretty much, almost to the letter, follow the timeline in what actually happened, while adding the supernatural elements to it.

The question then really became about casting. Knowing that this character was going to die in Episode 3, did we want to pull a Hitchcock move and cast someone that you wouldn’t imagine would be killed so early in the show? Or did we want to spend our casting dollars somewhere else? We just thought it would be a heck of a lot more fun. We wanted the audience to believe, in many ways, that Franklin is the main character of the show. He’s the commander of the expedition. Crozier (Jared Harris) certainly is put in a subservient role to him in the earlier episodes. We wanted there to be some confusion on who is the main character, so when Franklin is taken out of the show there was this big, empty space somebody was going to have to fill, and the audience would have to decide who they thought was up to it. Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies)? Crozier? Neither seems like a perfect choice. We really wanted the audience to feel that vacuum when Franklin leaves, and to do it early enough so it would help us with character development.

Soo Hugh: We also thought in terms of setting up the creature, we didn’t want to go the “redshirt” route that a lot of horror/genre shows do where you build up terror by killing off people that you don’t know. We didn’t want to be the show that scares you but really aren’t making any investments by not hurting any of the characters you care about, because that feels disingenuous.

The death of Franklin by the creature is also the first time that its kills feel purposeful. There’s nothing specific relayed, but there’s more of a feeling that this is not how a polar bear would pick its prey, right?

Soo: The truth is this is an intelligent, sentient creature when we start to understand him. He makes valuable, targeted choices, and it shows what a smart, strategic action it was for him to go for Gore (Tom Weston-Jones) and Franklin.

David: We wanted very much to embrace a certain ambiguity, because things are much more frightening when you don’t know the rules. And this certainly suggests part of a set of rules, but doesn’t confirm them. My favorite moment of the whole sequence is when it’s over and you’re closing in on Crozier. Who knows what he’s thinking? In that moment, it might be that he’s now in command of the expedition. Or he might be thinking, does the way this happened have anything to do with how we buried this Inuit man? There’s a lot he could be thinking, but it was always important to us, as far back as the writers’ room, to make sure we weren’t answering questions the audience didn’t need answered. The audience would have more fun exploring.

Explain the very unique flashes we see as Franklin is being moved, and then killed, by the creature.

Soo: If you look at how the season progresses, every time our “monster” appears, he is always going to be within a subjective point of view, whether it’s someone witnessing it or someone experiencing it. The only way to show Franklin’s death in terms of this really fantastic sequence where he’s pulled down, is ask where does his mind jump? It jumps to John Ross, or his wife, because he can’t yet recognize the monster is there. Our character is unable to admit what is happening to him, and his psychology has to jump elsewhere. If we had shot that as a traditional horror scene, where we see the gore and see the monster, then we’re not in our character’s point of view, because that’s not how he would have experienced it.

In creating the very disparate looks of the Erebus and Terror captains and their crews, costume designer Annie Symons researched maritime history to get a clear idea of how to craft uniforms that said everything about the men who wore them.

First of all, what aspect of The Terror, as a piece, appealed to you most?

Annie Symons: I was initially very drawn to the abstract nature of the piece. They were traversing these extraordinary worlds, from British naval etiquette, which was extremely symbolic, to the allegedly savage Inuit, and everything in between, really. Also, the narrative of it was very much a visceral one, how the inside came out, and to show how these costumes broke down, and how body fluids emerged. It seemed quite important to me that you saw the animal in the man, in a way.

In the first three episodes, Franklin and Fitzjames are really the poster men of British naval perfection from a visual point of view. How did you approach dressing them to achieve that?

Annie: With Fitzjames, he was allegedly the most handsome man in the British Navy, and he was a kind of peacock, and very proud of that. And I think the men look so handsome and sexy in these things, and I really wanted them to feel good in it. The fit of it’s really important. The British Naval fit is very particular. It was just getting them used to that and having that bearing, making them feel like they were British naval officers.

With Crozier, because of his experience on the ice, his uniform was older to start with. On Erebus, Fitzjames’ and Franklin’s uniforms were box-fresh, squeaky clean, and commissioned for the voyage. And on Erebus, I gave all the officers these ivory waistcoats. On Terror, I wanted to try and give a sense that these men were more experienced, around longer, so it was a bit more worn, and a bit more aged-looking.

How did you create an immediate visual class system between the officers and the seamen just with their clothing?

Annie: Differences between the officers and the able seamen, it’s vast. Things like the buttons, they’re clear indicators of rank. Any seamen would be able to tell at a glance who was a captain, who was a lieutenant, who was a petty officer just by the configuration of their buttons, or which side they wore their epaulette, whether they had two or one. 

As the production designer of The Terror, Jonathan McKinstry was tasked with making the ships that serve as the series standing sets look accurate and real for the actors, and the audience. However, with a TV budget, he had to use every trick in the book …

Because both of these ships were real, with actual documentation, how close to accurate did you feel you needed to be in re-creating them on camera?

Jonathan McKinstry: In terms of being as faithful to the real drawings and lines of the ship, there were very, very few minor changes that we had to make in terms of making [them] a practical shooting set. Aside from that, we were trying to be as faithful to reality as we could.

What were the realties in building these boats for the production?

Jonathan: Obviously a compromise from our side of things was that we could only afford to build, and only had the space to build, one of the ships. So our one set had to convert into both ships. We made panels and doors and stern windows and obviously the names and dressing on the ships that we could reconfigure. When we were in Erebus mode, we were one thing, and then we could change things around and become Terror.

What were the visual indicators that delineated the boats?

Jonathan: The rationale from a storytelling point of view was Erebus was the flagship. Franklin was a slightly pompous guy and made Erebus slightly more decorative. Its great room had a little bit more cabinetry and brass work and so on. The officer’s cabins all had polished wood sliding doors. Whereas Terror and Crozier, as a character, was more of a businesslike sailor. So we made Terror, from a visual point of view, also go in line with the character of the captain. It was much more simple, and so for the officers’ cabins on the Terror, we took all the sliding doors off and put curtains there. It just made it feel that little bit more basic.

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