Stories are endowed with the power to transcend time. Millenia-old epics like Beowulf and The Odyssey are still read in high school and college classrooms, their themes discussed in the context of modern day. Grimms’ Fairy Tales are regularly re-imagined for film and TV. And these ancient fables continue to influence contemporary literature. As Ray Bradbury once said, “I deal in metaphors. All my stories are like the Greek and Roman myths, and the Egyptian myths, and the Old and New Testament.”
The recently released Netflix documentary series Myths & Monsters pays homage to this narrative history. Over the course of six episodes—themed “Heroes & Villains,” “The Wild Unknown,” “War,” “Love & Betrayal,” “Change & Revolution” and “The End of All Things”—narrator Nicholas Day unravels the origins and influences of these timeless stories, each one beautifully illustrated through eye-catching images and animation. WD Editor-in-Chief Tyler Moss tracked down the show’s director and co-producer, Daniel Kontur—currently in Budapest—to discuss the making of Myths & Monsters and whether we can expect a Season 2.
Watch the intro to the series' first episode, "Heroes & Villains," and check out the interview with Kontur below.
What led you to create a TV show about storytelling?
The project was actually given to me. The show was pre-sold to Netflix on a pre-pitch basis. I work with a production company called 3DD Productions, and the Executive Producer, Dominic Saville, approached me with this project. It was in its early stages, so the first concept of the show was to explore certain monster myths. And each episode should travel to different realms and explore different monsters that lived in the realms. One episode on a snowy landscape, next episode in a desert. That’s the stage the project was in when I was brought in [in 2016]. The other person that’s quite important is Will Simpson, the co-producer and actual writer of the show. Together we started to develop the concept.
We actually thought it would be more effective to divide the episodes based on universal themes. So, you know, essential human desires, fears, challenges. Basically the things in life that move, drive humans. Things that are relevant to us. We saw we could group the stories more effectively into the episodes.
We did a lot of research, we looked at what are the most important and most told themes across all of storytelling. People have different lists. But basically the handful of themes we found [were]: the desire for justice, love, order, pleasure, validation, fear of the unknown and the fear of death. Across all of these you could put the challenge of morality. Choices have to be made by all characters in all kinds of stories. Basically, we had five themes. The fear of the unknown became “The Wild Unknown.” We have “Love and Betrayal,” of course. We’ve got death [in “The End of All Things”], the last episode. We’ve got the desire for order [in “Change and Revolution”]—how humans cope with social change, how myths develop through changing societies, and so on.
But we needed to have an intro episode, so we were thinking about how we could introduce people to the realm of the show. And the answer was, why don’t we try comparative mythology. What connects different cultures—what they have in common. The best person for that, of course, was Joseph Campbell, [author of Hero With a Thousand Faces]. Being able to illustrate Campbell’s idea of The Hero’s Journey through Star Wars … we thought that would be good because we could give the audience something they were familiar with. We thought that would be an easy in to the series.
How did you decide on which myths to include?
The research and writing and choosing the myths was very much Will Simpson’s department. As director I was in charge of the overall themes, visuals and emotional aspect. His department was very much the research and choosing which myths should go into the episodes. Will studied Classics at Cambridge, which made him literally perfect for this project. These stories that we’re talking about are all classical myths. So he was perfect for that.
Each episode has one story that is broken into parts, [illustrated by] the book animations, which were done by the Hungarian animation company The ODD. [It’s the myth] the narrator reads from the book. The challenge was to find one story that could be broken up into four parts, but each part could lead into a myth we talk about in a specific part. It was [also] challenging to find a myth that obviously represents the theme of the episode. But I think Will did a really good job in researching and finding these myths. Helped him decide which authors and playwrights to focus on. The next challenge was actually finding the format, and forming the structure of the episode. First you have an intro to the theme, where the experts give their first comments. Then we have the narrator introducing us to the mainframe story. Our editor, Ashley Hall, was also a big force in finding that structure. I’m a very visual person, so I was in charge of the art.
Where did you find your experts?
The experts were sourced by Will. Again, being a Classics student, he was connected to a few of them, which helped. We filmed and interviewed the experts. It was quite tricky finding these people because it is a relatively narrow field of study, mythology. It’s not like there’s going to be thousands of professors to choose from. There’s only a few. But we managed to find really good professors who are not just extremely knowledgeable in their field of study, but are also really engaging and good in front of the camera.
The majority of myths discussed in the show are of European origin. Did you consider including myths from other regions of the world (African, Native American, Asian, etc.)?
The reason we narrowed it down to European myths, that was purposely done, precisely for the reason that we wanted to be able to have future seasons be about different continents. Basically focus on one continent per season. I’m not sure that’s what it’s going to be, but the reason we did Europe only is because we could say, OK, Season 1 is Europe. [Europe] had many famous and accessible myths, so perhaps that’s best to start with. If more seasons are coming, this gives us the potential to focus on one or two continents per season.
The world map of mythology is literally ginormous. There are so many mythologies across the entire globe. This could go on to have 20 seasons. The four main mythologies we focused on [in Season 1] were: Norse/Germanic, Slavic, Celtic, and Mediterranean (Greco/Roman). We tried our best to include one from each in each episode. [It’s like how] each episode in “Planet Earth” is divided by a theme or a realm. An episode about forests still jumps to forests all over the world. We’re still jumping from culture to culture within Europe.
Why include “monsters” in the title? What about old monster stories made you feel like it was vital to include that aspect?
The title was actually in place when I was attached to the product. It was coined by our Executive Producer. There’s a lot of shows [and] a lot of books called Myths and Legends. Changing “Legends” to “Monsters” was to spark excitement. But I really like it because, to quote Nick Day in the show, by exploring the monsters that lurk outside, we’re better at understanding the monsters within ourselves. I think that strikes quite nicely. The embodiment of the monsters we tell stories about are direct mirrors pointing toward the people or societies that were telling the stories about these monsters. It can be seen as kind of a metaphorical title as well.
The art featured in the show is really striking, bringing an impressive dynamism to literary concepts. Are these original drawings? Did you have an artist on staff?
That was an interesting process, to be honest. When asked how to visualize this process, I straight away said we had to use paintings. Mythology is one of the main subjects of paintings across the history of paintings. Mythology has always been an inspiration for painters. And making these paintings move was important to me because it could teach by entertainment. To keep the audience engaged visually, as well as musically. Sometimes it’s emotional and driving and epic. It was important to me to have exciting, beautiful moving images that bring these stories to life. By doing so, it also gives people a nice, academic background and history to these stories.
To tell you the process, what I did basically is I contacted loads of concept artists who have their work online. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of people. I personally wrote to these artists asking if they were willing to license their personal work. These were paintings and illustrations that already existed, and I sourced these images and contacted these artists. If they agreed, they licensed the pictures to us. Then I forwarded the pictures to our animators, who took the images and basically made them move. That was done with [Adobe] Photoshop, After Effects, and a couple of animation applications that they used. They were able to make these paintings move.
From Episode 2 onward, I started working with so many artists that close to working relationships started to form. By Episode 4, I had three or four people who were able to create paintings for us from scratch. So rather than me having to source every single image for each myth, I was able to actually commission images for each myth. The good thing about that is we could have one artist focus on one story. We had an image system—a visual language that is consistent throughout a particular story. Each artist received one myth, and each myth had about five to six illustrations that they painted and that we then brought to life. You might be putting the puzzle together as a director, but each person gives their own little puzzle piece to you to place in it.
I noticed that some stories, like The Aeneid, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Dracula came up in multiple episodes. What about these kinds of stories do you think makes them so enduring?
Some of these stories were mentioned in different episodes, but they were always mentioned in a different light. The Iliad is a good example. It’s a story of war and bloodshed, but also a story about love and family, and what it means to lose those things. Some of these stories are so rich in themes that we were able to just have them in different episodes. Of course, The Iliad is a huge epic. A lot of mythological characters and creatures are in The Iliad—The Odyssey is a continuation of it. These stories, especially in the Greek world, intertwine. So that’s why we return to these stories over and over again.
In putting together this show, what did you learn about the function stories provided in a society? Do you think stories serve the same purpose today?
They definitely do. I think storytelling is a never-ending dialogue between our past, present and future, to quote our narrator again. Stories are the most effective way to explore what it means to be us. To live, to love, to hate, to fight, to die. Stories are very important. It’s probably the most important way to communicate to anyone, whether fairy tales for children or complex theater plays for adults.
Will there be a Season 2 of Myths & Monsters? If so, what can we expect?
Nothing confirmed yet, but I’m pretty sure there will be. I’m being optimistic. As I said earlier, delving into other continents for future seasons would definitely be the way forward. A lot of feedback we got from viewers is that [Season 1] is so Europe-centric, but that was done on purpose. Now it would be great to move on to different cultures I know a lot less about, personally. When it comes to Western Lit, Greek myths are fundamental building stones. But other myths from other cultures are lesser known by Western people. So it would be great to explore some of these stories, because it would be something new for me, and hopefully everyone else.