Preacher Showrunner Sam Catlin: ‘Anything Can Happen’

Garth Ennis’ wild and shocking supernatural comic book comes to AMC this weekend.

You’ve never seen anything like Preacher – unless you’ve read the comic book series by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, which may prepare you for the weirdness, bloodletting and insanity that is coming to AMC (a network that knows a little bit about all three). Developed by, of all people, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Preacher is the dark tale of the title character, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) his ongoing battles with supernatural demons inside and out, and his relationships with fiery ex-girlfriend Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga) and an Irish vampire named Cassidy (Joe Gilgun).

Preacher takes place in an America and a world where the normal rules of reality don’t really apply, which was one of the most attractive things about the story to executive producer/showrunner Sam Catlin. A TV veteran best known for being one of the creative geniuses behind Breaking Bad, Catlin is entering a whole new kind of crazy with Preacher. Den of Geek and several other outlets sat down with Catlin at WonderCon in Los Angeles not long ago to talk about bringing the world of Jesse Custer to life on the screen.

What was the impetus for this project and when did you start getting involved with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg?

Sam Catlin: There’s not an interesting answer to that, other than we both had the same agents. It’s sort of just like a dead-eyed, crass commercialism was how it started. I didn’t know them. I mean I knew who they were and they were big Breaking Bad fans and they were huge Preacher fans. I had never heard of Preacher. But they were like, “Hey, you should meet Seth Rogen!” and they gave me the comic and they were like, “Dude, you never heard of Preacher? What the fuck, man! You gotta read this!” So I read it and I was like, “That’s incredible. It’s not a TV show. There’s no way that’s a TV show.”

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That was like two years ago that we sort of first got together. They’ve been great. They’ve been great collaborators. And Seth has talked about this, but it’s been really good that I’ve been sort of the outsider to it and they’ve been the sort of geeks to it, like saying, “No, dude. This is essential.”

I wouldn’t say I’m the adult, because they’re actually, in many ways, more mature than I am, which is just shocking and humiliating. But they really are. But I would say, “You can’t pace it that way for a TV show. We won’t be able to do X, Y, and Z then, because where would you put your sets and stuff like that?” Because they had never really done TV before.

Anyways, it’s been a great collaboration. You know, you never know what you are getting into when you are dealing with celebrities, like really powerful celebrities, because they have every opportunity to fuck you up, and throw their weight around, and be egomaniacs and just say, “Because I fucking want to!”

But Seth and Evan are just the nicest, most down to earth…like, they have less ego than I do and 10 times more reason to have an ego. So they’ve been great collaborators and they are super smart and great directors. I think people are going to be really impressed by what they did with directing the pilot. They were able to show off their sort of cinematic stuff, but, you know, in Neighbors they’re not going to be doing like crane shots and stuff like that. So I think people will be really impressed.

What is interesting about it in terms of the comic is that it does seem like a very kind of slowed down version of that narrative. What was your approach to that?

I’d never adapted anything before, so when I read the comic I was like, “Oh, so wait. I’ve got to do…we’ve got to go there and then we’ve got to do this.” But then once I started to think about it and think about where it could start, I think to me the sort of entry point to it was like, “Well, maybe he hasn’t given up on God from the beginning. Maybe we see him actually as a preacher trying to be a preacher.” I mean he’s still a hot mess. But once I figured out where we could sort of start with him, and then without compromising…because it’s not Little House on the Prairie. It’s Preacher. It gets crazy bloody, over the top. It’s got to be that week after week after week, but it also has to be airable.

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What struck you about the comics in the first place that, even though you said this is not a TV show, made you say, “All right. I’m going to try to turn this into a TV show”?

The characters. And this sort of…what’s the word? This sort of exuberance of the world, like anything can fucking happen. You can go to the south of France. You can go back in time to the old West. There’s fucking vampires. There’s angels. There’s Satan. And it’s done with such confidence and such bravado… It’s crazy.

There’s nothing like it. There’s certainly nothing like it on TV. I didn’t know what else to compare it to. But once I figured out, like, “Actually, I can see a show that’s really dark, really violent, but it’s got these really great love story and this kind of love triangle in the middle of it, plus all these supernatural elements, I could see…yeah, I think that could work.” I mean it may not work. We may understand why a show like this has never been on the air. I don’t know. I think it has the potential to be a lot of fun, hopefully.

What’s interesting about this is you are coming to a text that has a beginning, middle, and end, but you can’t do that in a single season. You want to do a show that has some life. Did you say you want to do like three books a season? How did you break that down? Or do you break that down?

Obviously there’s great sort of chapters and episodes all throughout it. But what I kinda like about Preacher is that it has…this is going to sound like a pretentious word, but it’s sort of modular. You can kind of lift and place stories all over the place, sort of like episodes. There are these chapters to it, which is really liberating. So you can kind of tell stories all over the place. As long as you still have that drive of what Jesse wants, who he’s looking for, you can go anywhere you want.

Do you know where this season ends? Do you sort of have an idea…?

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Yeah. We just broke the last episode yesterday.

There’s three specific elements that we haven’t heard about that I am curious about. One is The Saint of Killers. One is Heaven. And the third one is the “Fuck Communism” lighter and how you’ll get around language restrictions with that.

I’ll say this. We don’t get to (the lighter) in Season 1. We’ll distress one of the letters on it. But it’s not a Season 1 thing. That’s my big breaking news for you. We won’t see that in Season 1. 

And the Saint of Killers or Heaven?

They’ll definitely be involved in the show.

But just maybe not Season 1?

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I can’t tell ya. I could not tell ya. I can’t remember.

What are some of the obstacles you came into having it on AMC, in terms of you have to be a lot more creative and you have to work within different constraints than you would if you were in feature form.

I don’t think people are going to watch the show and say like, “Oh, God. I wish it were on HBO, because then they could really fucking go for it.” I don’t think people are going to think that. I really don’t. And I don’t think people are going to be like, “Wow. They left money on the floor.”

I mean I think people are going to have strong opinions about the show. But in terms of AMC, we’ve never gotten word one from them about, “Well, it’s got to be…’ It’s a TV show. Don’t forget it’s Preacher TV. They want us to do Preacher. A lot of people over there and at Sony, they are like geeked out fans of the comic. They are not just dead-eyed widget makers. There’s a lot of people that are comic book nerds. And they love Preacher. And they don’t want to see us fuck it up by doing sort of the PG-13 version.

In terms of the language? There’s a little bit of restrictions to that. But Cassidy swears so much in Irish that it gets past (Standards & Practices) every time. The violence — you’ve seen the violence. And it gets really hectic.

I was just telling my writers yesterday, because a lot of them are new to television, I was like, “Just do not think this is the way it normally is, because usually you are having network interference every day—can’t do this, can’t do this.” They are fans of it and they want us to do Preacher.

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Do you think part of that is your history with Breaking Bad?

Maybe it’s part my history with Breaking Bad, but it’s also their history with Breaking Bad, their history with Walking Dead and stuff like that and what they’ve gotten away with just taking big swings. There are so many television shows now, obviously, and so many really good television shows that you can’t just have the moody cop with a secret anymore. It’s not going to hook people. They are constantly looking for things. It’s harder and harder to put something on TV and be like, “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” So I think they’re excited. And we are. People will tune into a TV show, even in this sophisticated age of TV, and they’ll say, “God. I did not know they could do that on TV.”

Can you talk about building a world big enough to sustain all of the things you were talking about earlier—the vampires, the Saint of Killers? How do you begin that process of making the edges big enough to contain all of that?

Well, that’s easy, because that’s just in the comic. One of the things I love about Preacher is its, “Yeah, there’s vampires. And there’s ghosts and there’s angels…” I love that it’s sort of unapologetic. It looks like the world that you live in, and a lot of times it is and appears to be that way, but there’s vampires and there’s angels. That’s what I love, is just that he doesn’t have to make it a magic pixie world for these things to happen. It’s just like there’s Satan, and there’s a vampire, and people are surprised or they are not.

The big scary X factor was Cassidy because he was such a big character. You think of actors but you are like, “I don’t see it.” First of all, you nailed it. He’s amazing. How did that process unfold and when did you realize you’d found your man?

Joe, I’d never heard of him. But after the pilot got picked up to production, literally a day or two after that a friend of a friend sent me a link, a reel, where it’s a collection of his movie clips, this guy Joe Gilgun. I’ve never heard of him. I was like, “Oh my god. That’s Cassidy.”

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But we hadn’t even hired a casting director yet. So we went for months auditioning Cassidy’s. I was like, “I want this Joe Gilgun!” And the more I learned about it, it was like, “Well, here’s the thing. Joe lives in the woods. He doesn’t have easy access to technology.” I was like, “Oh my God! That’s Cassidy!”

So I had to sort of wrangle him and get him to meet with me and talk to us. But it was weird. It was a really weird thing because I was at some AMC sort of…I think it was a Better Call Saul premiere a year ago. And one of their execs was like a total Preacher geek. He was like, “So have you thought about casting?” I was like, “No. We haven’t even started casting.” I was like, “Well, there’s a guy I have in mind for Cassidy, but I’m not going to say anything yet, because they’ll kibosh it.” And he’s like, “OK. But I gotta tell ya, there’s a guy on this show called This is England. His name is Joe Gilgun.” I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? That’s the guy in my head!” So it was meant to be. And I agree, I think he nails it.

How about Dominic? How quickly did he rise to the top? Were there other names in the mix or was Dominic pretty much on the radar from the start?

When we saw him that’s who we wanted, for sure. There’s so much television. There’s so much competition for actors. There’s so many jobs out there. And we were casting during pilot season, which was crazy. But, again, I saw his reel in pilot season. And when someone of Dominic’s stature isn’t a movie star…well, not yet. He’s gonna be. But still, he has stature enough where the game of agents is like, they don’t audition. They don’t audition, you offer to them, so it’s this whole game.

So I looked at his reel. I was like, “He’s awesome.” I saw Devil’s Double, which has sort of like…those are two certain colors of Jesse. It’s like, “Hey, he’s a nice normal guy, but he’s also a fucking maniac.”

But it was a roll of the dice; you’re not auditioning this guy. So we cast him, and then once we started production, once we started doing scenes for the pilot, it was like, “Oh, he can do that. Oh! He can do that. Oh, he can be really quiet. Oh, he can be a fucking badass.”

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So it was literally like an experience as we were watching the pilot, I was like, “We’re geniuses,” because he’s great.

Talk about how crazy the show gets…visually, the pilot is very down to earth, so can you talk about how you sort of balance that with bringing in angels and Satan and all these other things?

I think it’s sort of like we want to do it step by step, because I think if we showed in the first episode DeBlanc and Fiore in heaven in their floating space station with a hole in it…You know what I mean? You sort of need to ratchet these things up. I think the idea of the show is that, like, “Oh, you are OK with vampires now? OK. Well, what about this? What about this, and this, and this?” By the time you look upon Satan, you are like, “OK! Yeah! That makes sense.”

Any sense of how AMC is going to educate audiences who aren’t fans of the comics?

As many Preacher fans as there are, there’s many more people who haven’t heard of Preacher, too. So we want everyone to get the show from the beginning. I didn’t know the comic. I didn’t know the world…Hopefully people see the show and aren’t like, “What the hell was that sort of hot mess?”

We hope that people take the show at its face value, which is just about a guy who is searching for answers and kicking ass along the way, and he’s got this girlfriend who is a sociopath, and a best friend who is an Irish vampire drug addict. You know, it’s a simple story one can identify with (laughs).

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Preacher premieres Sunday night (May 22) at 10:00 p.m. on AMC.