Vincenzo Natali interview: Pushing boundaries and sailing ships in Hannibal

Hannibal director Vincenzo Natali talks his influences, Fannibals, Hannigram and more

In Fannibal circles, Vincenzo Natali is a man who needs no introductions. The American-Canadian director, who made a name for himself in horror with films like Cube and Splice, helmed six of the most beloved episodes of Hannibal’s second and third seasons. They included scenes like a man’s skull getting sawed open by his best friend (out of love, no less), the mutilated body of a pretentious poet being folded into human origami, and a social worker being sewn inside a horse. But the scene that fans remember best from Natali’s episodes is of a different nature.

Ahead of his appearance at fan-run convention FannibalFest this weekend, we caught up with Natali to discuss his enduring love for Hannibal and all the boundaries it pushed—and what it was like to direct the scene that launched a thousand pieces of fan art.

SciFiNow: I’m curious how you got involved with Hannibal. Were you familiar with showrunner Bryan Fuller’s work before taking on the project?

Vincenzo Natali: I actually wasn’t. But I knew of the Hannibal show, and I had seen it and thought it was really amazing. And I knew some of the people involved with it—I knew Martha De Laurentiis who was producing it, and I had worked with Gaumont, the French studio that had produced my movie Splice. My first job directing for TV was an episode of Hemlock Grove, which was also produced by Gaumont, so I think it was a confluence of all those things. I lobbied a little bit to get onto Hannibal, and that’s what actually happened! And David Slade is a friend of mine, so it felt like the stars were aligned.

One thing that really interested me was the fact that you’ve described yourself in the past as a minimalist filmmaker. Hannibal is almost the opposite of that—the production values look so lavish, and Dr Lecter’s lifestyle is rather excessive. How did you balance those very different styles?

It’s funny you should say that, because you’re absolutely correct—and yet Hannibal, in many respects, is very classically photographed. It’s effects are very simple, and the show did not have a large budget. Bryan Fuller very cleverly could get a lot of production value out of shooting small frames. All of the brilliant insert work that was done by Toronto director Chris Byrne really made the show seem much larger than it was, because it was so exquisitely photographed.

But Hannibal really didn’t have a lot of budget to do big things. So there was a kind of minimalist aesthetic by necessity that was at work. And as a filmmaker, I’m very attracted to formalism in filmmaking, and Hannibal is very formal in the way that the actors are blocked and the scenes are shot and the scenes are cut. In fact, I think what I really responded to when I saw the show was how highly aesthetic and formal it was—not just as a TV show, but as a piece of filmmaking. That felt like a very comfortable fit.

Vincenzo Natali

I know you directed six episodes in total, and that included the weighty responsibility of opening the third season. Given that there’d been such a lengthy wait between seasons that the fans had endured, did you have any trepidation going into that?

Not trepidation, no—it was pure excitement! First of all, I was really honoured to be asked to do the first episodes. Originally, I was going to do the first five episodes, but I just physically couldn’t do it. So I ended up doing the first three, and then the sixth. But it was like making a movie in a way. I did what’s called block shooting; I shot all three episodes at once, and it was so exciting. I thought the third season pushed the series into even more cinematic space than it had been in before.

Definitely.

I know there’s probably two groups of people: some who like the third season more than the first two, and some who feel the opposite. But for me, the third season dispenses with a lot of the things I thought were less interesting about the show—a lot of the FBI stuff, and the more conventional tropes of investigative mystery—and traded that for what felt like a European art film. In fact, that’s really what Bryan mandated, not just to me, but to all the directors: make an art film. So with the third season, there really were no limits beyond the boundaries of time and money, and I was encouraged to go crazy. [Laughs] And I did, and it was really fun.

Well I love the third season. And episode six, ‘Dolce,’ that you directed is one of my favourite episodes of the entire series. The emotional stakes of that episode are through the roof! After directing multiple episodes, did you feel that you could get into Will Graham [Hugh Dancy] and Hannibal Lecter’s [Mads Mikkelsen] crazy heads a little easier at that point?

Yes, I did—and I’d gotten to know the actors better, too, which I think helps. I think I also understood more what Bryan was doing with the show and doing with their relationship, which ultimately is a romance. It’s funny, you know—the first episode I did, which was in the second season, I had Mads kiss Hugh… almost kiss him. But not quite. Just speak in his ear. And it really had an impact. I feel like people responded to that very strongly, because it was something that was more below the surface, and it started to come out in that episode. And frequently when I see the show referenced in articles, it’s with a still from that episode.

I know the exact still you’re talking about. Seen it all over the internet.

[Laughs] That is the core of the show, and what makes it so fascinating and delicious is this relationship. Not to sound pretentious at all, but there’s a Hermann Hesse novel that really affected me when I was young called Demian. And there’s a very similar relationship in that book. I don’t even know if Bryan is aware of it. But to me, the Hannibal series was kind of a variation on Demian, where you have an almost-romantic relationship between two men—it’s platonic, but it’s still romantic—and one of them is pushing the other towards a morally questionable place. I thought the series really took hold of that notion and took it all the way, and it ended so brilliantly. So that was very much on my mind when I was doing those episode in the third season.

You mentioned that the third season pushed boundaries. I felt ‘Dolce‘ in particular really pushed the boundaries of what most TV shows would be willing to do to the protagonist, when Hannibal literally began sawing into Will Graham’s head. In most shows, the moment when someone would stage a dramatic rescue would be just before the blade actually made contact. When you read the script, were you shocked by how far that scene was allowed to go?

[Laughs] Yes I was, absolutely. And yet, at that point, that’s when I was prepared for anything! What I think is extraordinary about the show, and in particular about Mads Mikkelsen’s performance, is that no matter what he does, no matter how heinous and evil he is, you can’t help but love him. He’s such a magnetic, attractive character. That’s maybe the one moment where he crosses the line where you lose sympathy for him. But then ultimately, everything works out, so it’s all fine!

So yes, I really appreciated “Dolce” because it seemed to be picking at the boundaries of what would be acceptable, in every possible way. I thought of it as sort of the Alice in Wonderland episode—a number of characters were drugged, and it’s really one psychedelic sequence after another! And I was given complete free range to do as much with it as I could.

Will and Hannibal bond in Season 3 episode ‘Dolce’

It’s a marvellous episode, and it’s obviously a fan favourite, speaking as a fan. Where you aware of Hannibal’s avid cult following when you began working on the show?

I didn’t hear the word “Fannibal” until after I was working on the show. I didn’t know about the Fannibals. But it didn’t surprise me. And certainly by the third season, I knew I was working on something that would live on forever. I honestly believe that show is one of the great works, certainly of television, and it will never die. Even taking my small contribution out of the mix, I do think it’s one of the best things that’s been done on TV, and it’s kind of perfect. I actually don’t want to see a fourth season. I felt that it ended so magnificently that I’m not sure where it would go from that point, and it just seemed like the right way for it to finish.

I’m personally very torn about it. Because on the one hand, it’s so perfect how it ends. But on the other hand, I want more!

If they get the rights to The Silence of the Lambs, I would be very interested to see what Bryan does with that. But I thought that Hannibal and Will’s story was told. I know that Bryan has an  idea for a fourth season, so I wouldn’t put it past him to do something that is beyond what I could imagine. But as far as I could tell, that was really the perfect ending to their story.

I know that you’re appearing at the fan-run Hannibal convention FannibalFest this weekend. What have your interactions with the fans been like so far, either online or in person?

It’s just been online, and very limited. But obviously they’re a smart group and very passionate. What really impresses me is the art. The fan artwork that’s been produced based on the show is extraordinary. It’s so beautiful. I mean, there’s some really amazing stuff, and there’s a lot of it. That’s the thing that captured my imagination, seeing what people were doing.

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