Bryan Fuller interview: Hannibal season 3, American Gods

We chatted to Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller about season 3, adapting American Gods, and the cancellation experience…

Bryan Fuller is a man with more TV pies than fingers to stick in them. With a background in geek favourites from Star Trek: Voyager to Heroes, WonderfallsPushing Daisies and Dead Like Me, he’s currently showrunning NBC’s ultra-stylish grotesquerie, Hannibal (a show that’s about to provide Fuller with a career-first by entering its third season), as well as having an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods in the pipeline.

As Hannibal season 2 is released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, we spoke to Mr Fuller about plans for season 3, what it feels like to have a show cancelled, and the great things he and co-writer Michael Green have planned for American Gods…

Let’s start with Hannibal, when we last spoke it was just starting in the UK and you had a definite plan for the coming seasons. It went bromance, ugly break-up, fugitive situation, then Red Dragon. How, if at all, has that plan evolved over the past eighteen months?

I think the evolution would be shoring up the structure. We found out as we got into season two what was exciting for us was breaking the season into two chapters, so we had the asylum chapter and then we had the post-asylum chapter. That gave us a creative freedom to not tread water in either of those stories, so I would say that the only thing that’s evolved. Originally, we were only planning on getting into Red Dragon in season four, but we’re shoring that up into season three and doing a similar seven episode arc and then a six episode arc.

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And I gather you’ve substantially changed Hannibal’s origin story from Hannibal Rising?

Yes. It was always one that I was a bit frustrated with because there were certain promises that Thomas Harris gave his readers as to who Hannibal was or is and what he’s capable of, and then Hannibal Rising sort of rewrote that in a fashion. So we’re rewriting that again to more align it with those original statements of what kind of creature Hannibal Lecter is in Red Dragon.

Going back to the source then?

Absolutely.

When a lot of TV seems to be in a race to move faster and faster, there’s a beautiful serenity to so much of Hannibal, especially the season two finale. Was that a conscious decision to move against the trend?

Yes, it was also a conscious decision to go against the trend that I’ve been in with the shows that I’ve done. Working on Pushing Daisies, it was so rip-roaring and quickly paced and everything was cut for timing and comedy, whereas with Hannibal, it’s such a thoughtful thriller and you’re dealing with one of the most elegant, refined villains in pop culture history, so it felt like the show had to have a tone and pace that was reflective of the title character.

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You’ve said in terms of storytelling and finales, you’ve learnt to approach every season like it’s the last one.

That’s right, given my experience [laughing].

How does that affect your approach to the storytelling?

In the finale of the second season, there was a version of Hannibal walking out leaving all of his friends…

Dying?

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Right, dying! And going off to his new life. There was a version of that as a finale for the series that I think could have been very bold and satisfying because it would have wrapped up the FBI tale, so that was the goal with that story, to kind of waterproof it for cancellation, or cancellation-proof it. We just wanted to make sure that we were ending on something that could feel like it had a finality to it. Because Hannibal is the first show I’ve done that’s made it into a third season…

Hooray!

Hooray, exactly! Every additional season is a bit of a gift, so we just want to make sure that we end things in a way that is satisfying for the audience in the event that we don’t get another season. That was also part of the reason to shore up the structure and get to Red Dragon in season three. Because so much of the tale of Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham was about seeding that novel and scattering those seeds across two seasons to set up the novel in a fun way. So there is a sense of like, oh, if we end on Red Dragon, there is a satisfying ending there. But preferably, we will go on and explore The Silence Of The Lambs and how that character, whether it’s Clarice Starling or ‘Shmarice Shmarling’ depending on how the rights shake out, which opens up a new chapter for Hannibal Lecter. The fun for us would be integrating Will Graham into the story of The Silence Of The Lambs.

There are other options these days for a TV show that doesn’t get renewed though, other buyers?

Absolutely, and that was one of the instances where we knew in the second season that if NBC didn’t pick us up for a third season there were other parties interested. The rules tend to change in those dynamics though. Whenever you go from network to network, if it’s an instance where a struggling show on one network is being picked up by another then it’s rare that the new network is going to say ‘let’s put more money into this show!’. Generally what happens in those instances is that it’s picked up because it’s been marked down and so if we had been picked up by another network, there would be no telling for us whether we would have the same budget or the same abilities to tell stories that we had with NBC. It’s never a guarantee, it’s always like, ‘that’s great, let’s look at that bridge and see if we can cross it’.

Can you let us in on the experience of waiting for confirmation of renewal from your side? It’s nail-biting enough for fans, but what is it like from where you are? Do you approach each one with optimism, or do you have to prepare yourself for the possibility that it won’t happen?

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You’re always prepared for optimism. I can’t help but think of where the path goes beyond the wall of an end of a season. It’s hard not to think of what happens next for these people and that’s the beauty of television as opposed to a film. When the film’s done, it’s done, you walk away – unless it’s a big franchise, then you’re going to come back for another movie and it’s essentially television on the big screen – but for us, it’s hard not to think about the sprawling road in front of these characters – if they’re still alive – and how that path is going to wind up for them and what fun it would be to watch them on it. I’m always optimistic and prepared to move forward. But it’s never not a bummer to have a show cancelled.

Can you tell us which new characters are being introduced to season three?

Let’s see, we have Inspector Pazzi, Saliato, who’s another Italian character in the Italian chapter, then Cordell and Lady Murasaki are the big new characters to introduce, as well as Francis Dolarhyde, and Molly.

On the subject of adapting the Harris literature, we’re thrilled that you’re one of the people to bring the American Gods TV series out of the morass it’s been in for the last few years…

Oh, yay! I’m thrilled about that too.

Why do you think it proved so tricky for HBO to get right?

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I wasn’t part of any of the creative conversations when the property was at HBO. I’ve heard from people who were involved with it that there were differing opinions about what the show should be. It was simul-developed with Game Of Thrones, which is a big sprawling world that is fantastical and a heightened reality of sorts, so I think there was probably nervousness about cross-pollinating those worlds and concern about keeping them very distinct from each other. When you’re developing something you have to look at it individually. You can’t sort of compare and contrast it to the projects around it, because that way madness lies. You need the project to be what the project needs to be, as opposed to ‘no, it can’t be that, because this other thing is that so we have to find another thing for it to be’. That would be one interpretation of what happened, just given what I’ve heard from people who’ve been around through that process.

What we did is to go in and say, ‘what does this want to be and what does it need to be?’ If it is a television series and not a novel, and you have the toys of the Gods to play with, then there’s a big, bold, sprawling world that is at our fingertips that is going to be so much fun to explore. We’ve broken the first three episodes, Michael Green and I, and we’re having so much fun. It’s such a different muscle to Hannibal.

Neil Gaiman once called it one of his most divisive novels. Why do you think that might be?

I’m not sure [laughing].

I was a bit baffled when I read that, because I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s read it and isn’t a fan, but then perhaps that’s my limited sphere…

Most of the people I’ve come across adore the novel, and they love Neil. In fact, last year on the last day of filming Hannibal, we finished filming Hannibal at like 7am on a Saturday morning and Neil Gaiman got on a plane from New York and flew up to sit down with me because we were like – is Hannibal coming back? We don’t know – and we were sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Toronto and it was interesting to see the reactions of people… Neil’s a rock star. People’s heads were turning, they recognised him. The moment he got up to use the restroom, gentlemen would come over and say ‘is that Neil Gaiman?’, not that they wanted to meet him, they just wanted to know they were in his presence.

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Breathing the same air as him…

Exactly, so he’s got that wonderful light about him as a human being and as a storyteller. It’s a really great world to be a part of, and it’s also fun to platform that world and say, ‘okay, if these are the rules of this universe that you’ve created, then it would also apply in these circumstances’. That’s been great for Michael [Green] and I because we’re recognising the rules and then also allowing ourselves to navigate those rules and expand the story in a fun way where those rules are supporting a greater, grander world than you’re able to see in the novel. I haven’t been exposed to anybody who’s been like…

‘Hate that book!’

Everybody that I’ve been exposed to has been like ‘American Gods? What a playground!’

It’s not without its oddness is it? A moment like when the Goddess Bilquis ingests that man through her…

She eats him with her vagina.

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She does. So what do you do with a moment like that?

I think it’s beautifully written in the novel. What I love about how Neil’s laid out that sequence is that you’re in the gentleman caller’s point of view for his climax and you feel the reeling of that. I mean, what is it like to cinematically deliver an orgasm to an audience that… more than likely is not experiencing an orgasm at that moment? Although you never know!

Being in his point of view in the novel, he comes out of his orgasmic revelry and then he realises that he’s kind of hanging upside down, chest-deep from her. We plan to deliver that moment as it is written, because I believe that we can, and that’s very exciting for us because we were breaking that story and thinking, we are just going to lift that right out of the book and drop it right into the show.

That’s music to my ears. In every Neil Gaiman novel, there’s a point which I’ve come to think of as “the unadaptable” moment. It’s usually around three quarters of the way in, and involves an extended dream journey or a fantasy realms. With American Gods, there are at least two, if not more: first the Carousel, then Shadow on the tree. How do you approach sequences like that?

I think you have to ground it in the emotional reality of what Shadow is experiencing in that moment, or what Wednesday or Laura is experiencing in that moment. One of the exciting things for us in adapting this is that we get to expand characters, so Bilquis, who is only in a chapter of the book, then you don’t see her again, she is a major player in this world. Laura, who is kind of lurking in the background, she’s a major player in this world.

One of the things that’s important for anybody adapting source material that is primarily a male buddy picture is to find ways to latch on to strong female characters in the piece and bring them to the forefront and celebrate their point of view alongside the men, otherwise it becomes a sausage party and it’s a singular point of view.

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Thematically that makes sense, because American Gods, with all its plurality and multiple names and cultures and histories, is definitely not about a singular point of view.

Right.

Gaiman said in an SFX Q&A that in terms of adapting the novel, “I think the most important thing is to try to keep all the races of the characters intact”. Have you honoured that in casting discussions?

Absolutely. In our conversations about who our ideals are for specific roles, Shadow is described as… Is he a gypsy? Is he Hispanic? Is he black? Or is he all of those things in one? So we know that he is not white! I think if we cast a white man to play Shadow we would be the biggest assholes on television.

Can you let us in on any of your ideal types for casting? I know we all have our own ideas…

We can’t just yet, because it’s always tricky in that situation, because if I said ‘oh, we want to get this person’ and then we don’t, then I can’t say in a future interview that the person we did cast was our only choice [laughs]. I could tell you off the record who we’re imagining for Wednesday and Shadow when we’re writing it…

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[He does, and they’re great choices. Seriously good].

We’d really like Mark Gatiss to play Mr Ibis, so if you could make that happen, that’d be great.

I have such a crush on Mark Gatiss. I’d like to cast him in anything. I think he’s hilarious and brilliant, and such a talented actor and a talented writer, so I would love to work with him in any capacity.

Neil Gaiman wrote in the introduction that he had the title and the book cover – the lightning strike on the American road – pinned up on his wall before he’d even written it. Is there one particular image for you, seeing as you work with such arresting images and tableaux in Hannibal, that encapsulates ‘American Gods’?

There are so many, it’s hard to pick one. One of the fun things about the television series we’re crafting is that for every moment that takes place, there are alternate points of view of that moment. So we will see an episode that is primarily from Shadow’s point of view, and then the next episode will be primarily from Wednesday’s point of view, and then the next episode will be primarily from Laura’s point of view so there’s a fun to point of view when you’re adapting a novel like this, because it gives you the freedom to expand the world and the characters.

We’ve already talked about it, but one of the most amazing sequences for me when I was reading it was Bilquis eating a man with her vagina! That came up in the Starz meeting, they were like, ‘how are you going to do that moment?’ and we said, ‘we’re going to do it exactly as written’.

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And Starz should be fine with that. We’ve all seen Spartacus.

Yes, exactly.

So you’re looking ahead past one single season of American Gods?

Yes.

Tell us a bit about High Moon. You’ve described it a Spielbergian romp with gay Russian space spies?

[Laughing] Yes exactly. That was another project that was a lot of fun and something I co-created the story for with Jim Danger Gray. He wrote the script and I helped to produce it, so it was fun to be supervising a writer that I had worked with on Pushing Daisies and on Heroes and the first season of Hannibal, so I was excited to be able to help him shepherd his first project to the screen. I’m very proud of it, it’s a lot of fun.

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What can people expect from it?

A brand-new retro space romp. The style of it is brand-new retro. We took the idea of putting James Bond on the moon but wanted to have all of our fun toys, so there is this throwback quality to the show that I find to be infectiously fun.

Bryan Fuller, thank you very much!

Hannibal season 2 is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday the 22nd of September.