Bryan Fuller Interview: Hannibal season 3, Red Dragon, American Gods

As Hannibal season 3 arrives, we chat to showrunner Bryan Fuller about origin stories, Francis Dolarhyde, David Bowie & more…

The long wait to find out who survived The Red Dinner (aka Hannibal’s spectacular season two finale, Mizumono) is almost over. Hannibal season three is almost upon us, and to mark its arrival, we caught up with showrunner Bryan Fuller to find out what’s in store.

Firstly, we’re due to meet a different kind of Hannibal in a very different kind of setting. Fuller’s James Bond fandom has leached into the first seven-episode chapter of the season, which sees Mads Mikkelsen’s chicly dressed predator living undercover in the upper echelons of Italian society. The season’s second six-episode chapter introduces Richard Armitage as Francis Dolarhyde, a character familiar to Red Dragon fans.

We chatted to Fuller about the show’s revised take on Hannibal’s origin story, James Bond, Red Dragon, David Bowie, Star Trek, and Starz’ in-development adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

You wrapped season three last month, congratulations!

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[Laughs] We’re actually still in exile in post, so it feels like it’s still going on.

Can you take us back to the precise moment in production for season three when you realized that the show needed more time?

You mean why it was pushed back? Essentially what happened is that the show, which was only able to be produced in the first two years with eight days of main unit shooting and a couple of days of second unit shooting and a considerable amount of overtime, was then reduced to seven days of shooting, no second unit and no overtime. It was horribly misguided and not particularly smart and the shows were incomplete.

When, in December I sat down to go through and edit the first part of the season, so many themes were missing and so many shots were not picked up. We would have scenes that had footage on both sides of the access line, but the shot that actually connected the access lines to make it cut together was lost because the producers didn’t want to go into overtime, and it hurt the show incredibly.

For four months there was a refusal to move off this approach to producing the show and for four months we were crying out to the studio for help to try to get the show on track. We were haemorrhaging money because of bad decisions, and sets were being built at the very last minute, so they cost three times as much as what they should have cost, so it was really kind of a horrible confluence of bad ideas in terms of how to approach producing a season of Hannibal.

But you won the argument eventually?

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We did, thankfully!

You’ve talked before about season three completely reinventing Hannibal’s origin story. Can you be specific about what it was in particular you found dissatisfying about the one given in Hannibal Rising?

For me, in Hannibal Risingit’s a book that I’ve never finished because there was always a point where something rang false about the approach and promise of a character who says, I believe in The Silence Of The Lambs, “Nothing happened to me, [Officer Starling]. I happened”. Then what Hannibal Rising suggests is that it took that statement away and refuted it and said essentially ‘no, actually what happened was Nazis ate my sister, and that’s why I am what I am.’ I felt very deeply that what was true to the character of Hannibal Lecter is that nothing happened, he happened. That felt more powerful. That felt more mythological in its origin story as opposed to ‘Nazis ate my sister.’

Did you ever consider just not delving into Hannibal’s origin story? You said before about the Star Wars prequels that seeing a villain as a child can de-fang them?

The origin story that we do in season three is very tricky in that we don’t do flashbacks. We meet people who survived that era and have a tale to tell about that experience. But they don’t tell the complete tale, and neither does Hannibal, so there’s information but there’s not too much information about his early life. Enough to suggest a story happened but not enough to detail anything that we felt would demystify our Hannibal Lecter in this series.

We were very tricky in that in terms of selling an origin story that was not necessarily a story, but a reference. That’s how we walked that very fine line.

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And I suppose that’s where Lady Murasaki comes in?

That’s another shift we took. We were originally setting down Lady Murasaki when we were plotting out the third season, what to do and how to approach it. We had crafted what the character needed to do in terms of the story and understood how this character would have reacted to the events in her life, and as we were casting it became clear that a lot of what we were planning to do with the character hinged on a less mature woman. If she were sophisticated and mature as a human being she may not have been party to certain events that happen in the series, so we made the decision—particularly when we learned that Tao Okamoto was interested in the role—that, well, there’s another character in the book who is actually a much, much, much younger character, somebody who was much younger than Hannibal even, when she met him and that is Chiyo, Lady Murasaki’s attendant. So we replaced Murasaki with Chiyo and the plan would be to introduce Murasaki in a fourth season, should that come to pass.

Do you have a clear idea of how you want to end the show overall? You know that ‘drop the microphone’ moment from Hannibal at the end of season two, do you have that for say, three seasons down the line in mind?

We have another ‘drop the mic’ moment at the end of this season. Once again, we approach this show always working under the assumption that every season is our last season. We have an ending to this season that is shocking and striking and sad and earned, and we also have a way to un-paint ourselves out of that corner should there be a fourth season. 

Part of what made season two such a satisfying fan experience was seeing seeds sown back in season one – Abigail Hobbs, Miriam Lass – crop up. Were there other seeds sown back then that are being harvested in season three?

Yes, there are a few seeds that crop up in season three. The beauty of season two is that we laid so many of the stones down, that we were able to take a clear path. A lot of seeds that were laid down in season two—the Mason Verger story, where Will Graham and Hannibal’s relationship was left—we get to mine those in an exciting way in the third season, particularly in the first half, which is our Italian half of the season. Gillian Anderson’s character, Bedelia Du Maurier, has a very significant role in that arc. There’s lots in season two that sets up that first chunk, then when we get into the latter half of the season, which is the Red Dragon story, there are still repercussions from the past joining through that second arc.

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Am I right in thinking that we’ve already had a glimpse of Francis Dolarhyde’s work? The very first crime scene that Will visits in Aperitif was originally intended to be an early murder of his, wasn’t it? Unless that’s just a mad internet theory I’m spouting!

That was an embellishment that we had designed to come back to. What we found in the telling of the Red Dragon story—because there was so much more information going on in terms of Francis Dolarhyde and Reba McClane and the arcs for our survivors of the Red Dinner—was that there was little room to go back and say ‘oh, this thing happened.’

That was always the original intention and then we found in breaking the story that it became clumsy to try to go back and re-weave something in that started the season, and it became unwieldy so we ended up not weaving that through in the interest in telling a more complicated and richer Francis Dolarhyde story instead.

For which role you’ve bagged the wonderful Richard Armitage, another great UK actor.

Oh! I can’t speak highly enough about the man as a professional and how he has brought this character to life in such a unique way. The tragedy of Francis Dolarhyde in the literature, I find to be so poignant and so romantic—you have this man who is capable of horrible things in that he’s a murderer of families, yet he is eloquent enough to take a blind woman on a date to the zoo where she can’t see the animals, but he has arranged for her to feel the animals—it’s one of the most romantic things I’ve ever read, ever!

To be able to allow the audience to meet that man first and see the tragedy of his situation and then be exposed to the horrors of what he is capable of, and then be able to return again to the story of a tortured man whose mind is eating him from the inside out, takes a very particular actor to navigate and garner sympathy from the audience.

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I’m currently looking at episodes with Richard’s work and there is one in particular where both the editor and I were crying in the edit room because he communicated so eloquently the pain of Francis Dolarhyde and the torture of his existence. It’s very effective in its purpose of setting out to confuse the audience. We wanted the audience to be confused, ‘am I looking at a horrible murderer, or am I looking at a man who is in such torment and pain that he can’t control his own actions?’ That was the grey area that I felt would be interesting to explore over six episodes that would separate us from a standard television crime procedural where the villain is the villain and we don’t get access to his or her life as much as we get reasons to loathe or resent them. Our prerogative is really to complicate heroes and villains, there’s a tremendous amount of grey.

Returning to your chief complicated hero/villain then, can we talk about that motorcycle jacket in the season three trailer? Are we about to meet Hannibal the action star?

We wanted to start season three with a ‘pop’ and I knew very early on that season three had to start with Hannibal Lecter in a coal Belstaff motorcycle jacket riding a great Hog through the streets of Paris.

Ha! Did that come to you in a vision?

[Laughs] It was, I’m sure, an amalgam of many movies I had seen of action stars racing through streets. I just wanted to reintroduce the character to the audience in a way that they get to see a completely new perspective of who this man is, from the three-piece suited gentleman cannibal that we’ve experienced in the first two seasons, to a new level of almost James Bond spymanship with him assuming a different identity, being in a different country, moving among people as a predator.

 That’s not to say that we get rid of the fancy suits, because he has beautiful suits too.

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Oh, I’ve seen the promo pictures, he’s still very chic.

It’s very important that he’s styled as chic as is humanly possible. We wanted to start with a slightly new Hannibal and then ease the audience back into a different kind of gentleman who, at one moment is speeding through Paris on a motorcycle, and at the next is wearing a tuxedo, and the next is wearing a three-piece green pin-stripe suit with a bow-tie… It was important to keep the fashion plates rotating around Mads Mikkelsen, because he just wears them so well.

It’s interesting that you mention James Bond. You once said that Hannibal’s plastic kill-suit was a deliberate Dr. No reference.


So this is one in a long line of Bond references in Hannibal?

I am a big fan of James Bond and there have been a couple of references to Bond in Hannibal, not least of which is the Dr. No kill-suit. The idea of this gentleman killer, which is exactly who James Bond is, being impeccably dressed, going to fancy affairs and moving amongst prey is something that felt like it resonated with this arc for Hannibal Lecter, so we embraced a little bit of the Bondian ‘I’m undercover and I’m also deadly.’

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What other Bond references can we look out for in season three?

There was Dr. No, then of course in the first episode of season three there are a few Bondian things, a big ballroom dance, for one. They’ll be peppered through, little subtleties such as those, that we used to buttress our Bond fetish!

I was interested to see that Alana has her own plaid tailored suit in season three. Is that a deliberate channelling of Hannibal for her? Can we expect her to become more of a force next season?

Absolutely. Absolutely. Chris Hargadon, our costume designer, and I sat down at the beginning of the season and one of the things that was important to me is that we see Alana in a new light. I felt like in season two that she was plotted in as the girlfriend and the leg of the triangle that connected to both Will and Hannibal, but she didn’t necessarily have her own story. That was something we were very conscious about needing to rectify this season. Part of her new aesthetic is seeing the influence of Hannibal on her life, and dressing her in gorgeous three-piece suits of her own style, giving a reflection of the impact Hannibal Lecter has had on her life and her own psychology. So that’s a very good catch, and exactly what we were trying to do.

I have to ask because it’s such a great idea, how far did you get in discussions with bringing David Bowie in to the cast?

The trick with David Bowie right now is that he is so incredibly busy. He’s got a new musical that he’s plotting, he’s got new albums that he’s plotting, so he’s simply not available right now. We’ve reached out and he knows that we would love to do something the moment he has any room to do something. We just hope our calendars schedule. We’ve had several conversations with his people and the feedback is always that David loves that we’re approaching him and to keep approaching, and hopefully the stars will align. Right now, between his new musical and new batch of songs, he is maintaining radio silence as far as any other projects are concerned, which I applaud because I can’t wait to see the musical and I can’t wait to hear his new music because he continues to be a vibrant and modern voice in song.

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So you’d be flexible about which character he could play should he become available in future?

Even if he has a day… What I would love to do is collaborate with him and craft a role that uses his skillset as a comedian, because his comic timing is so good. I would love to write a very dark comedic role for him.

Please do! Keep up the campaign. Now, if you’ll allow me a bit of a conspiracy theory here. Mark Gatiss…

I adore him. I have such a crush on that man.

He regularly Tweets pictures, usually some medieval grotesquery, accompanied by the meme phrase “Today’s mood.” He recently Tweeted William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed In Sun [a plot point in Red Dragon].


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Coincidence? Or a coded message that you two are finally working together?

Oh, no. I’m on Twitter so sporadically when I’m in the heat of things, and I missed that Tweet. How lovely!

We have Tweeted back and forth in terms of conspiring on doing something together and I do hope that comes to pass because I find him incredibly talented and funny and handsome and I would love to work with him.

Before I go, we can’t not talk about American Gods because it’s top of our list of in-development projects right now. Can you update us on your progress there?

It’s going along nicely. The first two scripts have been written and we have been working with illustrators designing the world, so we’ve got these fantastic illustrations of Jack’s Crocodile Bar, the Bone Orchard and Zorya’s rooftop with all the telescopes looking up at the bear constellation. There are also some new things that are going to be unique to the series and weren’t in the book.

We are going to do a visual presentation to Starz, who are very happy with the two scripts that they received, and then we go from there.

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In terms of casting, are you making offers at this stage?

We haven’t made an offer but we’ve made an approach to one actor in particular. It all hinges on the final trigger being pulled by Starz. We have several people lined up that we would love to get in various roles and plan on making approaches.

And when that trigger is pulled, what timescale are you looking at?

As soon as the go-ahead has been given, we’re looking at early 2016 production with airing later in 2016.

When might we expect casting announcements to start arriving?

Neil [Gaiman’s] plan—and Neil’s very internet savvy—what Neil would like to do is cast Laura and Shadow and Wednesday and Mad Sweeney and Bilquis, because Bilquis will be a major character in the show, and the Technical Boy and then drop them all out on-stage at a Comic-Con coming up. That’s his plan. He’s saying ‘I don’t want to make any casting announcements, I want to announce the cast in full when they walk out on stage at a Comic-Con.’

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The last time we spoke about casting, it was cheering for you to talk about making sure the cast wasn’t whitewashed in terms of ethnicity…

One of the things I’m most excited about for American Gods is the diversity in the cast because there’s such a wide range of ethnic Gods in the world. Right now, we’re imagining two white roles and everybody else is non-white, so my goal, Michael’s goal, certainly Neil’s goal has been to have a very ethnically diverse cast. That’s important to all of us.

Also now, we can cite Empire and we can cite The Walking Dead as being primarily non-white in their casting, and they’re the two biggest shows in the world right now, so that has to say something. We have to be moving forward with a representation that is accurate to the world.

It has to look like 2015 up there.

It really does, and there’s no excuse with American Gods. There’s absolutely no excuse to cast say, Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel as… those should be African-origin actors in terms of their heritage.

Finally, whereabouts on your list of priorities right now is bringing Star Trek back to television?

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It’s very high up. Unfortunately there’s been no movement and I’m not in those circles, but given half the opportunity I would love to work on a new Star Trek series and the captain would be a non-white female.

Bryan Fuller, thank you very much!

Special thanks to Den Of Geek’s resident Fannibals, Laura Akers and Gabriel Bergmoser.