I met Bryan Fuller to talk American Gods in early December 2016 when he and the rest of the world were reeling from the fallout of the US election. It was an uncanny experience, Fuller said, being in post-production on a show about immigration, religious belief and opportunistic power grabs while the Clinton V Trump circus played out. Inadvertently, his and Michael Green’s fantasy drama adapted from Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel had taken on real-world significance that none of them had seen coming.
Knowing this interview would be embargoed until the series launch in five months’ time, I joked that we had no clue what kind of world we’d be facing then. Will we all be taking part in an annual purge, trying to survive in a Mad Max-style waste land? “Exactly!” laughs Fuller. “Will we be looking for water and fuel…”
April 2017 turns out to be a somewhat more optimistic picture. The American Gods adaptation is terrific at least, something fans will finally be able to see for themselves (Sunday the 30th of April in the US on Starz and Monday the 1st of May in the UK on Amazon Prime Video).
Alongside politics, Fuller and I chatted about controversies ahead, telling immigration stories, powerful women, updating a 2001 novel for the world of 2017, casting Ian McShane, Pablo Schreiber’s dance moves and more…
Thinking about Mr Wednesday, the figure of the con man has scarcely felt more relevant to US politics.
And to the US Media.
Well, you have a con man who is saying ‘let’s make the gods great again’. There is a certain angle of that story that is much more resonant and relevant now than it was prior to the election in November. Being in post and watching those episodes as we’re cutting and putting them together was an interesting experience – to be watching the show before the election and then watching the show after the election and realising just how resonant it has the potential to be in that climate. Particularly as an immigration story, since both the Trump election and Brexit were platforms of anti-immigration and fear of the other and exploiting that fear in citizens, it feels like we are inadvertently tapping into a conversation that we need to have and continue to have as we figure out a way to celebrate differences and not condemn them.
This story is a ripe opportunity for social comment.
In particular the idea of people being whipped up into a war whose only purpose is to further the power of a couple of individuals…
It’s tragic on one level and then on another level it’s an opportunity to take a look at where we are. Sometimes you have to take a step backwards to move forwards. It feels like with both Brexit and the Trump election, we’re two nations taking a step backwards. As disappointing as it was to see hatred and fear rule the day for both of us, it was a great disappointment to say the least, it makes it even more vital and important for us to encourage conversations and also to encourage the fundamentals of listening to somebody. That’s the biggest issue, certainly what’s happening in America, is the unwillingness to listen to somebody else’s point of view.
That’s something that I love to do, even if I violently disagree with somebody, I’m fascinated with how they’ve come to their decisions. Talking to people in the States who voted for Trump, and not wanting to shut them down, like, oh my gosh, you are supporting somebody who has bragged about sexual assaults and has a clear disdain for many groups of people, but instead wanting to find a common ground because what I think all of us found in both of our situations was that everybody made up their mind and there was nothing that was going to change them regardless.
American Gods is going to provoke conversations I think.
I hope so.
Faith and religion, immigration… those are hot topics, the ones we traditionally try to avoid around the dinner table in Britain.
Precisely. When Neil Gaiman called American Gods his most divisive novel, he said people reacted very strongly one way or the other to the book and its themes. You’re tackling those themes and more.
We hit a lot of different issues. We talk about the Black person’s experience in America, we talk about the Mexican person’s experience in America, we talk about a strong woman’s experience in America…
Is that with [goddess of love and sex] Bilquis?
Yes. Bilquis and Eostre. We sort of tie those together in talking about queens and the men who fear them and the men who will do whatever it takes to bring them down. That scene in particular with the narration “There is no shortage of the evil that men will do to bring down a powerful woman”, watching that and listening to those words—regardless of how you feel about either of the electoral candidates—watching that on the Wednesday after the election and hearing those words stating very explicitly what many of us see very clearly daily in life, it felt like the show was more important than it was the day before.
It’s strange to say a show is important because it’s entertainment but if you’re instigating ideas and initiating conversations that is a vital function of art.
Normalising perspectives of the Other is important.
Yeah. It is about vilification and demonization. You’d see some people who have radio shows where they would say and seem to believe that Hillary Clinton is possessed by the devil and must be exorcised and murdered. Those extremities are terrifying because that is like a national personality disorder. You look at borderline personality disorders and what people struggle with is that they feel something on the inside that is not necessarily reflective of reality on the outside, so they have to take action to match what they’re feeling to what is happening externally and creating artificial dramas to validate emotions that may just be emotions. That’s indicative of a borderline personality disorder and it feels like we’re suffering that on a national identity level.
It sounds like your research for Hannibal might have fed in to some of that!
I’ve learned so much about psychology from Hannibal!
How did the division of labour go when it came to writing episodes? Neil Gaiman has credits on all of them, but he didn’t write any scripts?
He didn’t write any of the scripts, he executive-produced the show, in that he oversees the scripts and sees all of the cuts and gives us feedback. The division of labour was pretty even between Michael and I. The great thing about our collaboration, which is one of my favourite things about doing this project, is that we both like each other’s writing. We both like each other as human beings and we have similar points of view from wildly divergent perspectives. I was raised Catholic and he was raised Jewish so we have a fascination with religious mythologies, that is not one that is derisive or mocking or disrespectful in any way. We both want to represent different points of view and different spiritualities.
A year or so ago, you told me there were plans to have each episode from different perspectives? One was from Shadow’s point of view, one from Laura’s…
Ah, what’s interesting is we start the episode with Shadow’s perspective and storyline and then in episode four, we have a new pilot. So we have essentially two pilots, one from Shadow’s point of view and one from Laura’s point of view. The Laura episode backs up to before she had even met Shadow, so we explore her life before Shadow, her relationship with him, through her death and beyond and then from that point on the stories are woven together from both of those perspectives. That was really about us feeling very strongly that we wanted to represent…
More of the female voice?
You have to. Because the book is a sausage party. We wanted to have not only Laura represented but to tell Bilquis’ story as well. We have a wonderful episode with Eostre and Kristen Chenoweth playing that role. It wasn’t so much as a gender agenda as much as it was, we need more points of view in this story.
It’s a story about multiplicity, in its essence. Multiple gods, multiple comings to America…
It is. It is.
Gaiman once said that he wrote the book in order to see bits of America that aren’t put on television and film usually. In terms of locations for the show, you don’t have any standing sets for this?
We have a couple but not enough [laughs]. We went to Oklahoma to shoot some exteriors and that helped to give a nice perspective on Americana but there’s also a lot of rural areas around Toronto that gave us sweeping fields of wheat and those types of iconography as well. That was part and parcel of representing a show that is about America.
Technical Boy and Media seemed to be the two characters from the book that needed the most updating from the novel. 2001 to 2016/7 is obviously a long time in terms of that stuff. Is that where the most changes have happened?
I think the most elaborations have certainly come from the Tech Boy and what technology is because the book was written before Facebook and before Twitter and before the proliferation of social media, the Tech Boy was also representative of the fetishisation of The Matrix with the leather trench coat…
I’ve seen you’ve given him a makeover. He’s much more slick now.
Yes! There are so many exciting things happening in fashion right now involving technology so it felt like we needed to start employing those with our depiction of the Technical Boy so he has a different outfit and hairstyle every time you see him.
But it’s also about what Tinder and other dating sites, how do they improve or expand the worship of a goddess of sex? How is that a modern-day tool? So much about what the new gods are trying to do with the old gods is repackage them for a technologically savvy society. We certainly see that with the different characters. There was a distinct choice with the representation of Media, we knew that every time we saw Media we wanted her to be a different pop culture figure.
I’ve seen Gillian Anderson as Marilyn Monroe.
Yeah, she’s Lucy [Lucille Ball] and she’s Marilyn Monroe and she’s couple of others that I don’t know if I’m at liberty to say…
Diane from Cheers?
It’s in the novel! That’s canon!
That’s hilarious. No, we did not get Diane from Cheers in, but we got a couple of others that I think you’ll be even more excited by!
The opportunity for what media and fame mean now, there was a route we could have taken where she’s Kim Kardashian because that is a representation of a pop culture icon, but not necessarily somebody that we wanted to deify because the manifestations that we chose were all people who added something artistically to pop culture as opposed to just the cult of personality. Without speaking ill of Kim Kardashian, who is clearly a very savvy businesswoman and has platformed a presence for herself in pop culture, which takes wit and savvy, we wanted to be very careful about also being able to say that these people being represented are indicative of a specificity of artistic expression at a certain point in time. So those were the two characters that really kind of evolved from the book.
Thinking about changes to the book, it seems you’ve done the impossible with American Gods by adapting a book that is so loved by the geek community and cast it and made changes and so far, everybody loves everything you’ve done…
So how on earth have you pulled that off?!
I think because Michael [Green] and I are as big a fan of the book as everyone else and we were fortunate enough to be in a position where we could ensure—at least to our tastes, which we hope are shared by our fellow geeks in the community—that we want to secure our place in the audience to make sure that American Gods is the version of the show that we want to see as an audience member. I hope that we are like-minded enough with others who are as passionate about the book so that they see something that relates and resonates with them with the choices that we’re making so it’s really about staying true to our faith in the book.
The casting of Ian McShane went down particularly well.
Everyone seemed to be ‘oh yes! That makes absolute sense’
Was it Al Swearingen that brought you to him?
Michael Green had worked with him before on Kings, so what was interesting was that we originally offered him the role of Czernobog.
Who’s now played by Peter Stomare?
Peter Stomare, who is amazing as Czernobog, so much so that it’s his face on our crew shirt. He’s a delight. With Ian McShane, Michael had worked with him before so we thought he would be an amazing Czernobog and when Michael spoke to him about the role he said “Czernobog’s a great role but really Wednesday is the one to play” and so we thought… that’s a great idea so why don’t we cast Ian McShane as Wednesday? It was a slightly circuitous route to getting to cast him as Wednesday but one that we’re very happy that we took.
Did you get [UK Ian McShane series] Lovejoy over in the US?
We may have, but I have only seen snippets of it and it was interesting, I think there were some pictures of Ian with pillows over his nude body posing that I assumed were from Lovejoy.
Those were just personal snaps.
Yeah [laughs] exactly, they were taken from his iPhone. So I was aware of the phenomenon of Lovejoy, but mostly had known him from Deadwood.
And Ricky Whittle, we have to thank you for casting another Brit there. Before he did The 100, he was known over here for playing a footballer, then Hollyoaks the soap and Strictly Come Dancing.
I was not familiar with Hollyoaks, neither Strictly either. I was familiar with him from The 100 and his multiple auditions for the role. Of anybody on that cast, Ricky Whittle earned that role and showed his skill in that process which was arduous to say the least. I adore Ricky Whittle. I’m very grateful for Ricky’s spirit and attitude and approach to the show. He is a charmer to say the least.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him dance, but he has great moves too.
You know who also has amazing dance moves? Pablo Schreiber, to see him on the dance floor, that can can move.
We’re being asked to wrap up, so finally then, you’re currently in post. Can you tell me a couple of specific parts of the show you can’t wait to share with the audience?
Oh yes. Bilquis’ origin story I think is one of the most fantastically visually exciting things we’ve done on the show. It was directed by Floria Sigismondi who is a fantastic photographer who has directed a lot of David Bowie’s music videos and she brought such a unique eye to the show. There’s that sequence.
We have animated sequences telling the story of Nunyunnini that is beautiful and dynamic and there’s Mr Nancy’s coming to America story which was on a slave ship and Mr Nancy has this amazing, moving speech about what lies ahead for the black man in America and he’s giving this speech to a shipful of slaves that were all black men. After Orlando Jones did the first take where he performed the speech, all of those men applauded.
Oh yeah. They were just so moved by what Orlando was doing and also the speech about what lies ahead for them as people. There’s a line where it’s like “you don’t even know you’re black yet. You’re just people” and there’s something so powerful about how we treat each other as human beings and how easy it is to dehumanise and that’s something that we need to talk about in order to move past and heal from. That’s one of the many wonderful things about this show is that we get to provoke some thoughts on some things that really need to be thought more about.
Bryan Fuller, thank you very much!
American Gods airs on Sunday the 30th of April on Starz in the US and on Monday the 1st of May on Amazon Prime Video here in the UK.