Irish director Ciaran Donnelly directed about 80 episodes of television across more than 20 different shows and mini-series before taking the helm for the last two episodes of The Wheel of Time’s first season. While directing the finale might sound like a straightforward continuation of the previous six, this might as well have been a completely different production. In this block of two episodes, not only would the director have to figure out complex sets like the Ways, Fal Dara, the Blight, Tarwin’s Gap and the Eye, introduce Machin Shin and orchestrate a Trolloc battle, but also convincingly adapt an already confusing ending from the books. All during a pandemic, working around two production shutdowns, moving set locations, and dealing with emergency rewrites due to the unexpected departure of a leading cast member.
In the cold open for episode 7, the “Blood Snow” scene, Donnelly delivered one of the most iconic scenes from a fantasy show in living memory. But there was more significance to that scene than, for lack of better phrasing, pure awesomeness. It showed how an adaptation can successfully draw from the source material and at the same time give back to it. We cannot imagine any reader of the Wheel of Time books who’s watched episode 7 will ever be able to come across mention of Tigraine, Shaiel, or the Blood Snow without conjuring a mental image of that riveting cold open. That scene was not explicitly written in the books, but now it is forever part of the story, sure as words on a page.
WotSeries recently interviewed Donnelly about his directing mindset and work on The Wheel of Time.
WotSeries: What inspired you to want to become a director?
Ciaran Donnelly: Great question. It was a piece of music, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. I had an English teacher at school who used to play us pieces of classical music as well as take us through Shakespeare and the curriculum. In the Pictures at an Exhibition piece, the composer and the orchestra literally paint pictures being exhibited at an art gallery, as my teacher explained this, I could see exactly what the music was describing. My cinematic imagination sparked into life. So I really think that was the moment for me, I didn’t know it then…
What are your goals when you make a film/tv show?
My goals as a director are to really try and dig into the characters and their story, to help bring about the best performances and moments for the actors and to create visuals and moments, with the cinematic tools; lighting, framing, moves, score, atmosphere creation, that draw the audience into a highly involving experience, it must be appropriate to the story and the world in which it’s set. I always want my episodes to stand out.
How did you become involved in season 1 of The Wheel of Time?
I had met with Mike Weber, one of the EP’s on the show, previously, and he reached out to me about the show. Then I met Rafe the show runner and the connection was immediate, the scripts were really strong and I could see the commitment to the world of Wheel of Time was immense from all sides of the equation. The team was absolutely first class. And the casting of course, was just great. It was a potent combination.
What is your general philosophy on directing and how did that influence your approach to The Wheel of Time?
My general philosophy mirrors my goals mentioned above. Additionally, I always want it to be a great experience for everyone. If you think about it; there’s so much talent and effort and finance involved, it’s really a privilege to be part of something like Wheel of Time, or indeed any other show with a great story, people and values.
What was the process like to prepare for shooting your episodes?
It was really detailed in terms of the sets and the world building and designing sequences and gaining the necessary understanding of the mythology and what it all meant. The story moves forward through different worlds every two episodes- so everything I had was new! Which is a joy. It’s almost like starting from the beginning. So, lots of exploration of how places might look and feel, How I’d shoot, the lighting of the sets and locations, the detail on every level was truly immense, from costume to spear heads! We saw several versions of everything before finalising anything. I had good rehearsal time with the actors too, which was vital. The story is complex with a myriad of world rules and reasons why things are they way they are. The mythology of Wheel of Time is really a deep well, so we had lots of conversations about all that. And there’s was lots to figure out- The the Tigraine/Blood Snow sequence, Fal Dara, Rand is the Dragon, The Blight, the Ways, The Eye of the World. Thinking back, it’s breathtaking.
What Wheel of Time scene was your favorite to shoot?
Tough question! There was such a wide spectrum of scenes from epic action to deeply personal and emotional. It’s really hard to answer. The reaction to the ep 7 cold open, the Blood Snow, has been amazing and I love that sequence, also the Eye of the World. But then the moments between Egwene and Perrin, Nynaeve and Lan, Moiraine and Lan, Rand/Egwene….. have so much depth. I just can’t choose.
You had a scene done completely in the Old Tongue. Was that challenging?
I’ve been there before! With the Vikings, we did some scenes in the Saxon language. It was amazing to hear a language which did exist and is no longer spoken. So, similarly with the Old Tongue. The achievement there is really with the actors who learned it and made it second nature to themselves, and the translation by Naomi Todd, otherwise it would not be convincing.
Which Wheel of Time scene was the trickiest to film?
The Blood Snow, The Ways, The Blight, The Eye of the World, the battle with the trollocs at the end of 8. They all had specific issues to resolve. All were really tricky and complex. Some of our plans for various of the scenes were upended by the pandemic, so there was lots of rethinking and reconfiguring, The Blight and the Final battle particularly, but in the end, the audience should never be aware of our problems… I hope we made it look brilliant is all.
In terms of production size: crew, personnel, locations, sets, cast. How does the Wheel of Time compare to other projects you’ve worked on?
This is probably the largest scale show I’ve worked on, Altered Carbon and Vikings were large scale shows with complex world building and drama and no doubt those shows gave me the experience whereby I was 100% comfortable in the Wheel of Time scale of production. I like being up to my neck in it!
What is your philosophy on adaptations and trying to appeal to the source-material audience within the larger audience?
It’s fair to say I think collectively, we wanted to honour the millions upon millions of fans already there for the books, and to bring a new world of fans to the Wheel of Time world with the tv series. The experience of reading a book versus watching a series or movie on screen are two different experiences, books work in our imagination and we respond emotionally and intellectually in a way specific to each of us, where as on screen, someone has to decide- this is what it looks like… and there are many other influences now coming into play, schedule, budget etc. But I get the sense, there is a generally great reaction to the series. With any adaptation, there’s a reason it’s being adapted, because it’s a great story with great characters, and those elements have to land on screen. So, put simply, my philosophy is to make sure we have what’s great about the book on screen, not just the world, but the feeling. When we read, we really respond and feel it in a very deep way. Great books derive a lot of passion and can be very formative for a reader, like your favourite albums as a teenager, its all about how the reader or listener relates to it. Working with that relationship is a real responsibility.
Most of the time we talk about Covid having negative effects on productions. Did the Covid break offer any positives for this project?
I think the fact we couldn’t travel forced us to think harder on certain sequences, The Blight and the finale especially. I think they benefitted in fact.
Any upcoming or recently released projects you can share with our readers?
After WOT, I directed some episodes of the new Vikings Valhalla series which was great fun. I’m developing some new series and films of my own… one or two in the world of Irish mythology… I’m determined to be the one get that world on the screen.
A big thank you to Ciaran Donnelly for his work on The Wheel of Time. We wish him the best of luck on his future projects — those Irish mythology works sound particularly interesting — and hope to see him back on a later season of The Wheel of Time.