5 June 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Director Ciaran Donnelly discusses Amazon Prime's Wheel of Time ahead of season finale
23 Dec 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Rosamund Pike in The Wheel of Time.
Amazon Prime Video were hoping for a major debut season when they greenlit the adaptation of Robert Jordan’s bestselling novels, and that is exactly what The Wheel of Time (WoT) has delivered for the streaming giant.

It only took the new fantasy series three days to rack up over 1 billion viewing minutes and ultimately amass 1.16 billion during its debut week, according to Nielsen.  As a result, Wheel of Time, which is led by Rosamund Pike, tops Neilsen’s Top 10 SVOD Lists as the No.1 original series of 2021.

Furthermore, the recently released metrics also place the show’s debut as one of Amazon’s top five launches of all time, becoming its most watched series since Hunters in 2020. “The reaction to The Wheel of Time series has been utterly phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Irish director Ciaran Donnelly told IFTN.

The show also features some recognisable Irish on-screen talent with Michael McElhatton (Game of Thrones) appearing as lead character Rand’s mysteriously wise and skilled father, Tam al’Thor; Maria Doyle Kennedy (Kin), who heads the Tuatha’an clan (or Travelling People) as Ila; and Daryl McCormack (Peaky Blinders), who features as Aram, fellow Tuatha’an clan member and sidekick to Ila.

Behind the camera, audiences had the chance to watch the work of one of Ireland’s leading TV drama directors, Ciaran Donnelly, when they tuned in for the shows penultimate seventh episode last Friday. “The reaction to ep 7 has really taken me by surprise too, especially the opening sequence, known as The Blood Snow,” said Donnelly. “It’s a big moment in the books so it had a lot of weight on it from the beginning. But then again, everything in Wheel of Time does.”

Three weeks on from its launch, The Wheel of Time continues to top the streaming chart, but Donnelly explained that the biggest achievement was earning the blessing from readers of the book series. “The big relief is it seems the WOT community, the people who have read the books, love the series,” Donnelly admitted.

Donnelly was asked to take on the final two episodes of the series, which has gained huge momentum as the first season has unfolded, a challenge the Irish director says he relished. “There’s something special about concluding a series as a director,” said Donnelly. “A show on this scale is very exciting for me because it’s all world building, all the time, and the process is highly collaborative and inventive.”

“The story lines tend to conclude while new strands open up for the next season. The characters story lines peak and on another level,” Donnelly continued. “And production wise everyone can see the finish line, so there’s a whole other energy that comes into play, especially when they get behind my approach to the episodes. So I can harness that energy.”

“It’s a lot to be entrusted with, so I’m honoured and thrilled to have directed these two episodes.”

The Wheel of Time offers audiences a fresh take on the fantasy genre by turning the traditional gender tropes on their heads. Something that feels very pertinent at this moment in time.

“The backbone of the story is that the ‘one power’ the universal energy, which is drawn from every atom in the universe, can only be drawn and used by women who have the gift and have been trained in The White Tower,” Donnelly explained.

“This evolved after a schism between men and women over how this power might be used... basically the men blew it and the women were left to clean up the mess, so yeah, it’s prescient alright,” Donnelly joked. “But there’s always politics even within the White tower, so it’s nicely complicated between all the characters, there are trust issues and agendas all round!”

The Wheel of Time is a juggernaut of a show, boasting a budget in the region of €75 million (est. $10m per episode). As such, Donnelly has no doubt that the WoT budget eclipses anything he’s worked with before.

“Wheel of Time is a staggeringly big series to work on, it’s like a small town, there are so many people, stages, locations and workshops,” Donnelly explained. “The expectation on all the directors,  cast, writers, producers and all HoD’s is very high, it’s 110% at all times. It’s an expensive sandpit!”

“And yet it was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had, which is down to the showrunner Rafe Judkins and producer David Brown, and the ethos of involvement and development of ideas between the directors and the writers and the team,” Donnelly continued. “The sense of community on the production was beautiful.”

Donnelly is no stranger to big budget international TV Drama, having previously worked on major shows such as Netflix’s Altered Carbon, History’s Vikings, and SYFY’s Krypton. “I’m quite comfortable on these larger shows and having the big toolkit, but in the end it distils down to how are we telling the character’s story,” Donnelly told IFTN.

“The cold open of ep. 7 is a great example of blending emotion and action.  I suggested we could really use the Bolt camera system to great effect for this sequence,” Donnelly explained. (see behind-the-scene clip below). “Once I showed some footage of its capabilities, it was ‘yes please’. And then we designed the action to fit round that.”

“I’m not interested in an action sequence or a fight  for the sake of it, we have to be involved on an emotional level,” Donnelly added. “And this seems to have landed. The audience has reacted really strongly towards it, so, yep, I’m quietly happy with how it’s turned out.”

“The finale, episode 8 lands on Christmas eve....  and it moves onto a whole new level!”

The past two years have been massively successful for Donnelly. They have seen him feature as executive producer on one of the biggest home grown Irish dramas in KIN and also work as director on one of the biggest international productions in Wheel of Time.  All against the backdrop of the pandemic, no less.

“The reaction to Kin has been brilliant,” said Donnelly. “Diarmiud Goggins and Tessa Hoffe did fantastic work directing through the thick of the pandemic and turned in a great series with Peter McKenna the showrunner.”…….. “I was to direct, but there was a terrible pandemic related clash of schedules between WOT and Kin. Bring on the second season!” Donnelly exclaimed.

Watch the finale episode of The Wheel of Time on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, November 24th.

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