Central and Eastern Europe has traditionally hosted film and television shooting locations. The sites are suitably grandiose, variable and old; local expertise, honed by decades of back-and-forth Hollywood productions, is high-level and relatively affordable. Brown therefore first looked at Hungary. But, he said, “I spoke to friends in Budapest who had worked there, and they just said, ‘You won’t come in.’ Then he tried Prague, and found that the waiting list for the production space was just as long. So after some thought, Brown and his production partners decided to start their own studio from scratch. “You know, we’re a big company,” Brown, who is demanding and English and who has worked on everything from The phantom menace To Foreigner, noted. “The show is extremely ambitious creatively. So how do you fill that out? That is why we are in this 350,000 square foot building.
And so Jordan Studios, where the Wheel of time production is headquartered in a remote corner of Prague, in a giant pale blue complex of industrial buildings that was once the warehouse of a trucking company. They do their own visual effects here. They have their own stunt room, with archery targets and a climbing wall. They have a gunsmith, who’s also a jeweler, and he has a 3D printer. They have a costume department that could outfit an army. They have individual desks for writers and a writers’ room and pretty much endless space for those same writers to stand outside in the cold and smoke. The accounting is there. The same goes for decoration and unit advertising. They have their own massive soundstages the size of a football field, on which they employ four different Czech construction companies to build various intricate interiors.
Judkins has a free but spacious office on the corner of the first floor. He’s 38, curly-haired, and a book reader, in the parlance of the whole-the Wheel of time the books are long, and there are 14 of them, plus the prequel, and so most of the production, whether they are actors, producers or directors, have yet to get past the former. But Judkins has been a fan of the show since childhood and knows the books as intimately as any fan. He was born into a Mormon family who moved from Salt Lake City to Pittsburgh when he was young. He realized he was gay when he was 18. “When I first went out, it was a bit difficult with my family,” he told me in his office. “My parents were amazing, but even the understanding of what it was, what I was going through …” The wheel of time– which Judkins read with his mother – helped, in complex ways, which Judkins would later channel to present his side of the series.
What to say about these books? Robert Jordan, the pen name of a man named James Oliver Rigney Jr., born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1948, began working on The wheel of time in 1984. By this time he had already graduated from the Citadel, had completed two decorated tours as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam and had started a career as a writer. He had a beard, preferred wide-brimmed hats, and generally maintained the vibe and pipe collector demeanor of someone Ken Burns might have interviewed about the Civil War. The first volume of the series, The eye of the world, was published in 1990; 17 years and 11 installments later, Jordan died of a rare blood disease, with The wheel of time still unfinished. Eventually, Jordan’s widow and former editor Harriet McDougal Rigney asked a 32-year-old fantasy novelist and former Mormon missionary named Brandon Sanderson to complete the story, using notes and audio recordings on the deathbed that Jordan had done before his death. It took three more sequels and five more years for the series, which has sold over 90 million copies, to come to an end. When I say that I have read these books for more than half of my life, I mean it literally.
Jordan was, to put it mildly, a world builder – an iterator of hundreds of characters and many nations, all with their own complicated pasts and uncertain futures – which makes his plot almost impossible to sum up. But the first book begins relatively simply, much the same as The Lord of the Rings done, with a few cursed young people in a small remote town whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of a wise and mysterious figure. Battles, quests, and a fair amount of twists and turns ensue – one of the first impressions Amanda Kate Shuman, a writer of the show, had about the books, she told me, was that “a lot of the characters take a lot of walks to a lot of hostels.