After what seems like an eternity of waiting, American Gods is very nearly here. Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have adapted Neil Gaiman’s fantasy road novel masterpiece about a grieving ex-con thrown into the middle of a war between old gods and new deities and, from what we’ve seen (read our review of the first episode here), it’s going to be incredible.
We’re huge fans of Fuller’s from Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies and (of course) Hannibal, so we were thrilled to get to sit down to talk to him about the challenges of taking on such a beloved book, expanding characters like Laura and Bilquis, what difficulties face people who have risen from the grave, and why American Gods should be both entertaining and provocative.
What was the ratio of excitement to terror when you realised you’d actually be adapting American Gods?
It was mostly excitement because both Michael and I were so enthusiastic about the book and the world that Neil created and the opportunity for conversations that we don’t usually get to have because they’re political and religious in nature, which are subjects that most try to avoid in polite society because you never know how somebody’s going to react to something.
So it felt like we get to engage in that fearlessly because that is the nature of the book and that is what the book is asking of the audience. So I think maybe 98% excitement, maybe 2% not necessarily nervousness but a little bit of caution in knowing that they are sensitive subjects but we felt very confident and resolute in our approach to not mock any religion. And not deride any point of view, and because we were representing so many of them, it’s hard not to be inclusive, and that felt good to us as storytellers because we’re both fascinated with religion and religious mythology and it was a treat to be able to have characters have conversations that we would have. So sitting down and writing this show, wanting to dig deeper into certain elements felt like an organic way to instigate a conversation.
What got me excited about the show was the opportunity to tell not stories about gods, because God’s not relatable to us as human beings, but all of the gods in Neil’s novel had human stories and mostly because of the immigration story and mostly because: who can’t relate to being a place that you initially feel you don’t belong and that initiates a journey of a search for not only your people but a sense of home?
It’s been in development in various incarnations over the years. What do you think the challenges have been?
I don’t understand what the challenges would be in adapting it for a television series because it felt like for us it was such a wonderful toy box filled with so many wonderful characters filled with wildly divergent points of view that it was exciting to dig deep into that. I do understand why it would be complex to adapt as a film.
But the TV series, it was interesting for Michael and I because we sat down and we just were like “This is the way that you do it and this is the story that you tell.” These are the avenues that we can take tangent journeys down to greater explore Media and The Technical Boy and Mad Sweeney and Bilquis and Laura, who simply weren’t as represented in the novel because it was Shadow Moon’s story and Mr Wednesday’s story.
We’re definitely very excited about seeing more of Laura.
It felt like as fans who also love writing female characters we also wanted to bring in much more of a female point of view and I love writing women, and I particularly love writing dead women, so Laura was the character that I was most excited about digging into and expanding because it felt like in some ways there were a lot of things that I wanted to do on Pushing Daisies that I couldn’t because it was much more of a family show and it was on ABC, that we get to do with Laura.
With Pushing Daisies the reason I made Chuck Jewish is because you don’t process a Jewish body, you get them into the ground immediately and you let them decay and you don’t pump them full of chemicals and remove their organs, and there was an aspect of what was going to happen to Chuck in Pushing Daisies with the formaldehyde in her system and the fact that her organs weren’t connected, and I remember very early on in that process the studio saying “We don’t want to think about our leading lady pooping formaldehyde.”
So the realities of those fun aspects of what it would be like to be dead were sugarcoated in Pushing Daisies, and Michael and I got to be much more literal and specific with what it would be like to have all of your organs in a bag in your chest cavity, which is what they do, they don’t reassemble, they put them all in a bag and then seal them up and just stick them in there. So that’s going to have certain affects of what it’s going to be like to be back alive and be reanimated as a corpse. So that was a lot of fun for us as well, because it was going back to a familiar well for me and telling stories about dead women but also giving it a slightly different spin that was perhaps more conducive to a high end cable drama than a traditional network show.
Bilquis, too, is so memorable and yet she’s barely in the novel…
She’s in one chapter and she’s kind of a footnote at the end. We weave Bilquis through the story in a way that is keeping her a bit of a mystery in the first season and then platforming her at the end of the season to indicate a greater story for her to be had in Season 2.
But that was also out of the inspiration in the casting process, when you find an actor that surprises you and speaks to you through the character in a way that you didn’t anticipate like Yetide Badaki did with Bilquis, because her audition scene was the scene in the book. So she’s in there saying naughty things to a guy who is saying naughtier things to her as they’re engaged in sex, and she’s essentially auditioning by pretending to eat a man with her vagina which was the strangest audition that I have ever been in. And she did it with such dignity and power that we just thought “We have such a gem in this actor,” and she was inspiring to us and we’re excited to further explore her character in the second season. We definitely expanded her in the first season in what you’d seen of her in the book, and she’s got wonderful, wonderful places to go in the series.
What was the process of finding Ricky Whittle and Ian McShane for Shadow and Wednesday?
Well Ricky earned that role. Ricky auditioned something like 16 times and we kept on bringing him in and making him jump through a variety of hoops that we set on fire and put spikes in and he just kept on navigating them so well, and the thing that I absolutely adore about Ricky Whittle is that he is the person that you want to be number one on the call sheet because he shows up on stage with smiles and hugs and humour and embraces the crew and works very hard to keep the sprits of the crew up and they work much longer hours for a lot less pay and there’s a championing of the environment in which we make this show that Ricky played a big part of by having such a fantastic attitude.
And Ian McShane was who we originally offered the role of Czernobog to. Michael had worked with Ian on Kings and he called Ian and said “What do you think about Czernobog?” and he said “I read the script and it’s a lovely role but really the role to play is Wednesday.” And we were like “…Of course, he should be Wednesday!” and so that kind of snapped into place in a delightful way as well. So the casting of the show has been a really interesting experience, and I marvel at the folks that we have gathered together. Some that I’ve worked with before and a lot that I haven’t but I think that’s one of the biggest assets of this show is the wonderful cast.
I have to say, I’m very excited to see Peter Stormare play Czernobog!
Peter Stormare as Czernobog is such a delight and he had such a fantastic attitude. He was only in two episodes of the first season and we want to get him in every episode of the second season because he is so thrilled to be there, has such a wonderful sense of humour and also walks onto the set and levitates the crew with his energy. He would chant “CZERNOBOG! CZERNOBOG!” before takes to get energy up and that just makes it all so much more fun. Generally making a show is a lot of difficult scheduling and there’s never enough time, there’s never enough money and when you have an actor who comes to the set and brings so much cheer, you just don’t want them to ever leave.
How involved was Neil Gaiman in the process?
He’s an executive producer of the show and we wanted to have him write an episode of the show but he had a baby and that kind of took up the time dedicated to writing an episode, but he reads all the scripts and watches all the cuts and gives us feedback, and we’re hoping that in Season 2 that he will have an opportunity to actually write some of the show because this is his world!
Hannibal is such a visually distinctive show and from the look of it, American Gods is too. How important is it to you to have these directors with strong visual styles like David Slade working on the series?
We are working in a visual medium and I love the power of cinema and I love working with heightened visual directors and everybody that we had this year, Vincenzo Natali and Guillermo Navarro and Floria Sigismundi and Craig Zobel, they were all visual stylists first and foremost and embraced visual storytelling.
Also, it’s kind of a treat for a television director to work on one of these shows because I encouraged them to be as pretentious as they want to be with cinematic language because I am not afraid of pretension, I think pretension is a wonderful tool to be used strategically. So a lot of these directors come to the show and it’s like oxygen for them because a lot of times a show is about over, over, master, out, and that is the rhythm, whereas the demands of American Gods are that you be very artistic and visual with how you’re telling the stories.
There were a lot of things that we reshot because they weren’t as visual as we needed them to be, whether it was because our schedule was too tight and it didn’t permit them to do certain kinds of shots, but we were very fortunate in our partners at Starz and Fremantle to really make sure that we got it all right and they were very supportive of the steps that we needed to produce a show in this television climate which is very competitive and they wanted to make sure that we had enough time in post to do all the visual effects and enough time to really craft the show in a way that was representative of the high end storytelling hat they want to be a part of as the new wave of television.
As a final question, is there anything that you’re particularly excited for fans of the book to see come to life?
The World Tree, the Bone Orchard, Bilquis eating a man with her vagina, and a lot of the coming to Americas were really fantastic opportunities to challenge the television landscape and to have a feature mentality in terms of the scope and the production value so there were a great many things that I’m very proud of. One of the coming to America sequences is completely animated and the visual style for the animation is gorgeous and feels so complementary to what we’re doing with the rest of the show but also an extra added level that you weren’t necessarily anticipating.
That’s the thing that I love about this show, because there’s so much that plays in present day but we’re also on slave ships crossing the Atlantic and we are in early America with Essie Tregowan and we are in ancient Babylonian sex temples 5000 years ago and we get the opportunity to see what it’s like for the black experience in America or the Mexican experience in America or a woman’s experience in America and using the different gods’ experience as immigrants to the Americas as a metaphor to tell really human stories.
And I love that the aggressive visual style matches the poignancy of these character stories that are not about gods but about fundamental human experiences through the eyes of people who have been worshipped at one point and are now lost and searching for a new role in a world that has forgotten about them and that’s very exciting, and it just feels like there’s a lot to talk about with this show and a lot of opportunity to have conversations that hopefully will translate.
I feel like the show exists on one level as entertainment and then on another level as something that is much more thought provoking and wish fulfilling as a destination where we need to go as a people now. If that makes sense!
American Gods airs on Starz in the US on 30 April and on Amazon Prime Video in the UK on 1 May. Read our review of the first episode here.