It’s been a long journey for Neil Gaiman’s American Gods to reach our television screens, but Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s adaptation is finally arriving soon. The fantastic, dark and beautiful story of ex-con Shadow Moon and his travels across America with the shadowy Mr Wednesday seem the perfect fit for long-form television, and Fuller and Green seem like just the people to do it justice.
In an incredible career full of highlights, American Gods still stands out as one of Gaiman’s most thrilling and important works, and we were delighted to have the chance to talk to him about seeing his novel translated into a different medium, how he still has plans to write a sequel, and how the story’s themes feel being broadcast to the world in which we’re living right now.
How does it feel watching the episodes of American Gods? Your story adapted for TV?
Really weird! Good weird! I’m very much an executive producer and there have been things in scripts that have crossed my desk and I have read them and said “You’re not doing that” and they’ve gone “But but but…” and I’ve gone “No, you’re actually not doing that.” And they’ve gone “Oh, OK.” And all that kind of thing.
But this is so much Bryan and Michael’s vision, and you don’t hire visionaries and then do all the work for them, you hire visionaries and you let them get on with it. And Michael and Bryan have done some absolutely amazing stuff. Some of my favourite bits are completely new things they’ve done with some of the characters.
My favourite single episode is probably Episode 4, which is the Laura story. It’s Shadow’s wife before he meets her and then their courtship and then their marriage and then what happens when he goes to prison and what happens to her life and what happens when she gets killed in a road accident and what happens to her after that. And you’re going, “This is just so great, it’s beautifully done, it’s real, it’s wonderful, it’s moving and none of it’s in the book.” Emily Browning basically just steals the show whenever she’s on the screen as Laura. She’s just amazing.
What made you think that Bryan and Michael would be a good fit for the show?
I think it was a few things. It was the glint of madness in Bryan’s eye and the glint of absolute normality in Michael’s that makes you go, “OK, they are a really, really good team.” It’s like Bryan is this multi-coloured balloon on a piece of string that just sort of floats and bobs and Michael’s the guy on the ground holding the piece of string. And the combination of the two was really what convinced me that they could do it and they had it in them to do it.
I was definitely a fan of theirs, although I didn’t know that I was a fan of Michael’s until I started looking into what he’d done. And then going, “Oh, you did Kings!” But I’d been a fan of Bryan’s since all the way back, and one of the things that I’m loving about American Gods is how much it’s obviously part of the Fuller-verse but how very far from the Fuller-verse it is. It is still brightly coloured and beautiful, it looks glorious, but it’s very much American Gods. It doesn’t feel like any other show.
How would you describe your role as executive producer?
I think mostly my role as executive producer is to be a weird combination of voice of reason and occasionally, you remember in Annie Hall where Woody goes and gets Marshall McLuhan from behind the pillar? He goes “That’s not what Marshall McLuhan was saying at all” and he brings out Marshall McLuhan who says “You have completely misunderstood my work!”
So every now and again my role is to turn from being helpful encouraging, useful, making nice suggestions to being Marshall McLuhan stepping out from behind the pillar going, “No, no that’s wrong.” Or “Yes.” Or occasionally, it’s to say “Look, if ever in my life I get to write American Gods 2, this is going to become important, this is going to become important and this is going to become important. So I know that this scene might not seem huge but you make sure that it’s in there and you make sure this line of dialogue is in there because we’re going to need it four years from now if I got the book done and you are about to start making your first TV series beyond the scope of the original American Gods, we’re going to need that line.”
You’ve had several adaptations of your work now, do you ever get used to the feeling of someone else working on your story?
You never quite get used to it, and you are always asked the same question over and over again which is: “Is it what you had in your head?” and the answer is always “No.” And then people look disappointed and then you try and say, “But when I said they were in a meadow, the meadow in my head could not be replicated in the real world!”
What I love is watching good filmmakers taking something that I created and then having a wonderful time with it. Whether it’s Henry Selick making Coraline or Michael and Bryan making American Gods, what’s fun is I’ve gone “OK; I’ve made the book, now let’s see what you can make inspired by the book.” And that always becomes hugely enjoyable and occasionally you say “Don’t go there, don’t do this,” but most of the time you’re going, “No, this is really good.” Sometimes I’ll get phone calls from Michael where he’ll say “We’re stuck on this, what do we do?” and I will say “Oh well, that’s easy. It’s this, this, this and this,” and he’ll say “Why didn’t we see that? and very often the answer will be “I know these characters. I thought that through and very often it’s because I built that thing into the book years and years ago and I know that it’s already there.”
How was it watching the casting process for Shadow and Wednesday?
Well, I got to watch two different processes that no one else in the world did because I got to watch offers going out as well as offers coming back in, and what was interesting to me with Shadow was watching Ricky Whittle going from being number five on a list of five to just putting the work in, working and training and working his way up to number one, which was really huge and impressive.
With casting Ian we had a fascinating process because Bryan and Michael wanted Ian to play Czernobog so much he wasn’t on their Wednesday list. Then they sent the script to Ian to play Czernobog and he took one look at it and said, “Well, I’d love to be Wednesday.” And everybody, including me, went “Why didn’t we think of that? Are we very stupid? Well, obviously!” And there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. And he’s amazing, he’s loveable and monstrous and he can turn on a dime and you love to trust him and you absolutely shouldn’t!
Does putting this story out there now feel different to how it did back in 2000?
That’s a really good question. I think with the world that we’re in right now, things seem in a weird way much more transgressive and important and strange to do now on TV than they did when I did them in a book. It seems much more important now that we have a show in which most of the leads are black. A show in which we have a mixed race lead character, in which we have a storyline running through of an Arab salesman in love with a genie who is driving a cab in New York and what that means for both of them and what happens after they wind up swapping identities.
We have powerful women in the story and a lot of powerful women. It feels more important to have this on television now in this world, just as actually it feels more important to be doing a television series about which the bottom line is to talk about immigrants to America as good things. And the fact that everybody who came to America is the child of immigrants. That seems much more important to be saying it right now in this sad era of Trumpery than it did when I was writing the book 17, 18 years ago.
Did you have any idea when you were writing it that it would continue to have this incredible life?
When I wrote American Gods, I built into it sort of hooks and levers and bits of Velcro that I knew that I could attach a second book to. And I always felt fascinated by Shadow, it’s always lovely to go and check in on him. Thus the occasional novellas. But, had you told me, “17 years from now there would be a TV series,” I definitely wouldn’t have believed you.
It was a very slow process. I used to get phone calls in the first five years after American Gods came out from famous directors, and ones that even I had heard of, and they’d say, “Hey, I read American Gods and I really want to make it into a movie, I only have one question.” I’d go, “Sure, what’s your question?” and they’d go, “How would I do that? Because it’s not shaped like a movie and it’s too big and it’s too weird!” And I would go, “I have no idea!”
It’s not movie shaped and it’s not movie shaped because I spent two and a half years writing it and I wrote it partly because I’d been writing whole bunch of screenplays over the last two years and I was very tired of 120 page stories with 3 act structures. So I enjoyed writing this giant great big messy road thing and I would tell these directors I had no idea and they would put down the phone and I would never hear from them again.
I think it never occurred to me back then that American Gods could possibly be a TV series because nobody was making giant TV series with the kind of budget this would need, that would feel like novels. And American Gods is and it does. So I guess we got lucky.