BE AFRAID...BE VERY AFRAID
‘The Terror’: Inside the Making of TV’s Most Terrifying New Show
Creators David Kajganich and Soo Hugh discuss their stunning mix of historical fiction and gothic horror, airing Monday nights on AMC.
The only thing more terrifying than an arctic monster is man—at least according to The Terror, the chilling new series that debuted on AMC this past Monday night.
Based on Dan Simmons’ 2007 novel, and executive produced by Ridley Scott, the show operates from a real-life event—the disappearance of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during their 1845 voyage to discover the Northwest Passage—but fictionally fills in the blanks of what actually happened to those vessels’ crewmen, who were never found again. Part historical drama, part creature feature, it’s a show that underlines the awfulness of 19th century oceanic life while exploring the corrosive hubris, selfishness, ambition and madness that such an expedition might breed in individuals’ hearts.
Led by fantastic performances from Jared Harris, Ciaran Hinds, Tobias Menzies, Paul Ready and Adam Nagaitis, The Terror is primed to become a must-watch spring sensation. Thus, we chatted with its showrunners, David Kajganich and Soo Hugh, about the perils of adapting Simmons’ book, the research that went into bringing its historical tale to life, and their approach to their fiendish beast, the Tuunbaq.
The Terror is an adaptation of Dan Simmons’ 2007 novel, but since that book’s publication, both the HMS Erebus (in 2014) and HMS Terror (in 2016) have been found. Did those discoveries alter your approach to the material or provide new insights into what might have actually happened to the ships?
Kajganich: It resulted in some fairly seismic changes in certain elements of the show. Luckily for us, the discoveries of the ships happened early enough to let us accommodate everything we were learning, and the implications of those things, in the story. And I prefer what plays out in the script now, compared to how it did before the ships were discovered. It’s just a more interesting, richer arc for those ships to have. Because before they were discovered, people just assumed they were somewhere close to where they had been frozen in and abandoned. The fact that they were found so many miles from there, in two different positions, clearly having been piloted there—as opposed to having been carried there by the ice—meant there was even more human agency in the disaster than we had expected. It gave us a chance to do some great fancy-foot last-minute alterations to faithfully represent what people were discovering in the real world.
Hugh: Dave and I felt a responsibility, given that this was based on a true story. Yes, we were basing it on an adaptation of Dan Simmons’ book. But I think the amount of research that Dan, Dave and I did, reading biographies about [Francis] Crozier, reading original letters that the Royal Maritime Museum had scanned for us, we want to make sure it’s really clear to people that of course we’re fictionalizing some elements and there’s some artistic license, but we felt a grave responsibility knowing that these stories were based on true people.
A few months ago at the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich, they had this fantastic exhibit celebrating the Franklin Expedition. Crozier’s descendants were there, and they were so thankful that the story is being told. The reason that we bring this up is to counter an argument that some people may have made about how a show that’s based on a true story could take artistic license within a genre world. That happens all the time nowadays, but we knew that we also had to have our research in order.
Did you learn anything particularly illuminating during that research project when it came to understanding both what had happened on the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, and in terms of life on 19th-century ships?
Kajganich: One of the things that comes to mind is that, at the time, these ships were considered the way we would consider spaceships. They were full of the latest technology, they were really state of the art, and they had been outfitted for polar travel in a way that no other ships had been before. So there was every reason to feel optimistically about the technology involved in the expedition. This isn’t really a spoiler, because anyone who’s read even ten sentences about this expedition will find out that, at some point, they stopped waiting for the ice to thaw and tried to walk into mainland Canada to safety. And in that situation, all these things that you brought with you that help you sail, suddenly you’re on a hiking expedition instead of a sailing expedition. A lot of those things had to be repurposed and reimagined to remain of practical use to the men.
What was it about Dan’s book that first gripped you—and made you think it was ideal for an adaptation?
Kajganich: I knew a fair amount about the Franklin Expedition’s factual history before Dan’s book was published, and any story that is about the consequences of hubris is timely in any era. These cautionary tales are always of great value. For Dan to have crossed what would have already been a fantastic story with a genre that was about taking the anxieties of that era and cranking them up to a level that made unpacking them more fun—you know, this is a fairly morbid story, and to have elements of it that are pure horror mixed in with elements that are pure survival and adventure, it just meant we could tackle the themes of this story from a number of different directions. To have that opportunity, it’s rare. There aren’t a great deal of novels that can be adapted in the way that we were able to adapt this—which is, embracing the character-driven drama, but also embracing the horror and all the other genres the book touches on. As writers, it just gives you so many tools.
Hugh: It’s one of the Royal Navy’s most perplexing mysteries, and I think Dave and I also like narrative challenges. We’re drawn to this puzzle of a narrative. It’s interesting: people know [Ernest] Shackleton, but Shackleton survived. In terms of disappearances or tragedies, there aren’t that many stories on this scale. For a history like this to be as unknown as it is, Dave and I really wanted to reclaim it and give it a wider audience, because we think the story is amazingly gripping.
Were there any creative inspirations for the show—from film, TV or literature—in terms of style or atmosphere?
Kajganich: The obvious one is right there before the credits: we felt we had to make a Ridley Scott homage that was full of love, because of how his work has inspired us. So we have an Alien breakfast scene homage in our show, which was certainly deliberate. But as early as when we were staffing the writers’ room, Soo and I decided we didn’t want collaborators who were too steeped in horror in their careers. We knew the horror elements were going to be there, and that we could lean on them when we needed them, but we didn’t want writers, directors, editors, designers or actors who were on too familiar a set of terms with the genre. Because a) it’s our primary genre in the show, but it’s not our only one; and b) we didn’t want people to bring bad habits from previous work in that genre. We wanted people to be intimidated by it a bit, because we wanted to try and create a different, fresh dynamic.
That proved to be a great choice, I think. It just meant the references we had all through the production were weird, unexpected ones—including war films, Westerns, character dramas. I think maybe the strangest thing we had the writers’ room watch was Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which is about a dance marathon in the ‘30s. The way that film takes apart the dynamics of a subculture, in a competitive and—by the end—almost apocalyptic way, it proved really useful. [laughs] It’s just not the first reference you grab for an arctic show about a polar bear god.
Hugh: Dave and I talked about whether to show people what they would expect, just because some of our writers had never seen some of the basic horror cannon. We went back and forth, and we’re so glad that we wound up not showing them things like The Thing, because it would have influenced our show in a too-blatant route. I loved the response after showing them [Elem Klimov’s 1987] Come and See—there was just this immense silence. It’s a pretty devastating film, and none of us could speak after watching it. Then, I remember someone making a joke: “How are we going to incorporate that into our show?” And when you look at all ten episodes, my god, we did in some way. This is a war film, in many ways.
The show conveys a potent sense of how awful life must have been on these ships. What was your approach to the nastier aspects of that experience, and was there any pushback from the powers-that-be about making it seem so unpleasant?
Kajganich: We preemptively made sure AMC knew we were going to treat that as naturalistically as we could. It would be details in the frame, but we wouldn’t fetishize them. In addition to that, to try to ameliorate the constant stream of that stuff that would be in the frame, we reassured AMC that we would never lose touch with what would have been the core experience of an expedition like that, which would have been wonder. Even as these men start to fall ill, or starve, or turn on one another, they would always be connected to a sense of wonder about the fact that they had come into a region of the Earth that was new to them. There would be amazing vistas and amazing architecture all around them—glaciers bigger than any building known to man yet, and auroras, and quaking stars in the sky. Everything in the natural world would be impressive, and alleviate the dour tone of the survival story. AMC, thank goodness, saw the value in that, and the ways that would keep the show from getting too grim too often.
Hugh: It also helped that we’re on the network of The Walking Dead, so there was a high bar in terms of gore. [laughs] Dave and I are not those people who were going to test the boundaries of the gore level. And neither Dave nor I are very cynical people. In terms of terms of the disturbing content, we approached it always with as much understanding as possible. Later on in the show, when our characters have to make some stark, bleak choices, we really feel we didn’t pander with that bleakness. Those scenes have more warmth than bleakness. That’s one way we wanted to modulate the difficult material.
Kajganich: The show has a really strange sense of humor, which I don’t think is something people are going to expect. We’ve read a lot of these men’s letters and journals from other expeditions, and they were warm, witty people. They wouldn’t have lost that, even in a slow-motion disaster like this, because they really believed, probably until the moment each of them fell to the ground for the last time, that they were going to make it out. They had to believe that. When you are in a survival story as opposed to a tragedy, all of those warmer aspects of your personality, and the lighter parts of the community you’re in, you need them.
That mindset is part of what’s so fascinating about the show, because you both understand it and yet also feel like these men are insane for having ever thought this was a good idea.
Hugh: No other expedition had disappeared before, so it wasn’t like they had precedents of disaster looming before them. It’s one of the tragedies that we don’t have a Space Age anymore, because every generation is going to want to go to the stars. That’s never going to disappear.
Kajganich: These men, they must have had confidence absolute in their leadership. That’s one of the aspects of the mystery about how this disaster took place to begin with: how much responsibility do you lay at the feet of someone like Captain Franklin? Ultimately, the show makes up its mind, in the same way Dan Simmons had to make up his mind, and anyone writing about real history has to make an educated interpretation of what we know. But I think the mindset of a lot of these men is that they were in great hands. And in many ways, they were. They didn’t have the luck of other arctic expeditions that had gone to this part of the world; they ended up in the wrong place at the wrong moment, when there were three summers where there was no thaw. That’s not something leadership can fix. But questions remain. Were they as prepared as they could have been? Did they make the right choices in terms of how they’d outfitted their ships? Did they make the right choices once they were confronted by being frozen in? There are a million questions that were in their control that we can unpack.
For all these real-world obstacles, there’s also a monster known as the Tuunbaq in The Terror. How did you approach designing and utilizing the creature, which looms over the action as merely one—rather than the central—threat facing these characters?
Kajganich: What was so interesting about Dan’s novel was that, by crossing this real expedition with a gothic horror story, it allowed the monster to be an allegorical figure, and to represent, in some way, a heightened sense of what the consequences were for having come to this part of the world with the agenda—and level of hubris—that they did. We decided, first and foremost, that we should treat this creature thematically; that, to the degree it was helpful in unpacking the themes of the show, we could deploy it. And if it was just for plot, we would try to resist that temptation. Like you said, it would become one of a dozen terrors in the show, but it would be our chief terror in terms of trying to communicate the consequences this expedition incurred. Once we decided that, it became quite easy to know when it should pop out, and what that should mean.
In terms of designing it, we decided to keep it a neutral element. I would use, as an example, the moment in the first episode when David Young is sick in the sick bay, and he sees an Inuit figure at the foot of his bed. For him, that is a terrifying encounter, because he’s probably only been told terrifying things about Inuit culture, given that he’s an undereducated young man from Victorian England. We wanted the audience to feel his fear, but not to feel that the show was pointing a finger at that Inuit man as an antagonist, or as a monster to be afraid of. And we felt a similar way toward the creature. Once you understand the wider context of how that creature functions in the Inuit mythology, you can’t easily put a black hat or a white hat on it, because it has its work to do, and it’s working in a larger mythology. Certainly, if you are a British sailor who’s trespassing into that territory and has incurred its attention and wrath, it’s a terrifying creature. But in and of itself, we didn’t want to peg it as a monster in a traditional sense, because it has a more complicated identity than that.
Why, unlike in Dan’s novel, did you avoid explicitly revealing the Tuunbaq’s backstory or purpose?
Hugh: Our Lady Silence [played by Nive Nielsen] is different than the Lady Silence in the book, and because of that, the architecture of the Inuit storyline is different in our show. And thus the story of the Tuunbaq has to follow those lines as well. Furthermore, because none of the white characters in our show can answer what the Tuunbaq is—it’s not their mythology—we felt like we had to be a little more honest about how we treated it. We couldn’t over-explain the Tuunbaq because none of our white protagonists understood it. It’s an Inuit story that had to be told, and no one bothered to ask the Inuits what it was.
How did you go about casting the Inuit characters?
Hugh: It was really important for Dave and I, from the start of our casting journey, to cast Inuit actors for the Inuit roles; we didn’t want to go the Eurasian route. Then, a few months in, Dave and I started sweating a little bit, because we weren’t able to find our actors. So we partnered up with this filmmaking team, and the director is an Inuit director, and he was able to help us reach a much wider acting community within the Inuit world in Northern Canada and Greenland. Just being able to reach out to those small-town communities, we got 500-600 submissions for Lady Silence. When we came upon Nive’s tape—and she was already a natural performer, because she was a singer-songwriter with this fantastic band—the relief Dave and I felt was tremendous. And all of other major Inuit speaking roles are Inuit actors. That was just very important to us, that we were able to do that for the show.
It’s not a huge spoiler to reveal that this saga isn’t built for multiple seasons. Was that a concern for AMC, or did everyone agree the show should tell a self-contained story?
Kajganich: After the success of a number of anthology shows, AMC actually built a business model for an anthology series, to be able to bring The Terror to AMC. We’re quite happy they did, because from our point of view, ten episodes is the perfect amount of time to tell this story. Knowing that it was going to be a slow-burn, and knowing how much time and geographic distance the show has to cover, and how many characters we wanted to include, we knew we needed that much time to do it. But also, it’s such a gift to close this story down after ten episodes. It just meant we could apply a level of rigor to each episode in terms of pacing, and when characters are introduced, and when characters that you think are unimportant begin to become important because of the nature of the disaster. All of that takes time, so ten episodes wound up being the perfect amount.
At the end of the day, AMC came to us and said they couldn’t get their heads around how to do this until they agreed that this is best served by a closed season. And if the show will continue, it will continue in other seasons to tell other historical genre stories. So we were completely delighted that they found their way to giving us a single season for this story.
So further seasons are in the cards?
Hugh: Yes. AMC would love to continue The Terror. We’d all love to see The Terror continue.