Alexandra Daddario as Rowan Fielding in Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches
Tongayi Chirisa as Ciprien Grieve in Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches
Jack Huston as Lasher in Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches
Executive producer and showrunner Esta Spalding
Executive producer Mark Johnson
Executive producer Michelle Ashford
Adapting a novel into a television series is challenging enough. It's even trickier when the source material spans 2,000-plus pages, like horror author Anne Rice's trilogy, The Lives of the Mayfair Witches.
Wisely, executive producer Mark Johnson (Better Call Saul) — who'd been looking for a reason to collaborate again with Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), with whom he had previously worked on the short-lived '90s series L.A. Doctors — only sent her one novel, The Witching Hour.
"That first book is 1,000 pages, so it's pretty daunting," says Ashford, executive producer-writer of the eight-episode series Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches, which premieres January 8 on AMC and AMC+. Ashford brought in her fellow Masters of Sex scribe Esta Spalding to serve as showrunner, executive producer and writer, and they started reading.
Spalding was especially taken by the book's middle section, which chronicles thirteen generations of healers and midwives persecuted for using their life-saving powers.
"The world that Anne built, this family of witches she created, felt so compelling and of-the-moment as we're talking about women's power and women's bodily autonomy — subjects she really wrangles with in the book," Spalding says. "We were gripped by the idea that this character, Rowan Fielding (Alexandra Daddario), is a descendent of these healers, and we meet her as this amazing neurosurgeon."
Rice's death in December 2021 made the writers keenly aware of the need to preserve her legacy while expanding the Mayfair world to a new medium.
"It's always a very delicate balance," says Ashford, who once visited Rice at her iconic First Street home in New Orleans, the real-life inspiration for the Mayfair house. "You understand there's a huge fan base. The books were written in the '80s, however, so the world is very different now. We needed to really look at that, and it became this back-and-forth of, how do you honor the intention of what Anne created while making it relevant?"
Having Rice fans in the writers' room helped.
"They would say, 'The airplane has to be in the show,'" Spalding says, referring to a scene involving an interaction with a ghost that anyone who's read The Witching Hour will remember. "I can't write what every fan wants, but I can write what I as a fan love and want."
Condensing so much material led to hard decisions, like combining two characters — Michael Curry and Aaron Lightner.
"We really wanted to focus on Rowan, and it felt like having two men beside her took away from her agency, and in combining them we could be more focused on her journey and her drive," Spalding says. "We love both of those characters, so we weren't going to choose one over the other."
They combined Michael's ability to touch an object and see the past with Aaron's role as a member of the Talamasca, a mysterious organization that monitors all things paranormal, to create a new character, Ciprien (Tongayi Chirisa).
Another challenge was depicting the otherworldly Lasher so he's both terrifying and beneficent.
"Deirdre [Annabeth Gish] values him, but we want him to be scary when he's with Rowan. How is he both of those things?" says Spalding, noting that those questions, and more, were answered once Jack Huston was cast as Lasher.
Johnson loves that nearly every character on the show is hard to gauge.
"We don't truly know what any one of them wants," he says, "There's a subtext to all of them. On one hand, they seem to be who they are, but they're not that at all. Everybody wants something different. To juggle that many balls in that much storytelling is hard — you don't really know what success for any character is, but somehow you want to see them get there."
By now, all three have read The Witching Hour more times than they can count.
"That's true of almost every adaptation," Ashford says. "You read it once, you read it again, then it becomes this weird thing that you devour in all these different ways. It's hard to explain how the text becomes so integral to your thought process of trying to break the story."
Johnson also executive produced Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. "I went from one set of books to another — and more — since AMC has eighteen of her books with which we get to, in one form or another, play. So I'm a little confused," he says with a laugh. "Honestly, the most important thing to remember when you're adapting a book is you're never going to get all the details right, you're never going to be an exact translation. You want to make sure you have the spirit, the essence of it. That's what Esta and Michelle pulled off."
Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches is executive produced by showrunner Esta Spalding, Mark Johnson, Michelle Ashford, Michael Uppendahl and Jeff Freilich.