It's been 21 years since Vertigo released the first issue of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's blasphemous horror/action/comedy mash-up comic Preacher, and 20 since a screenwriter first attempted the seemingly impossible task of adapting it for the screen. Over the last two decades, Ennis watched his baby pass through many hands, none of them quite knowing what to do with it, before the improbable team of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Breaking Bad vet Sam Catlin turned it into an actual show, which debuted on AMC on Sunday night.
(Due to Memorial Day weekend, AMC will be rerunning the premiere this Sunday at 9, followed by the debut of the Chris Hardwick-hosted Talking Preacher. The second episode will debut June 5 at 9 p.m.)
I liked the TV take on Preacher quite a bit, even though it takes many enormous liberties with the source material. (Roth Cornet and I recently discussed some of the comic moments that will most defy adaptation.) And Ennis – having seen other writers and directors fail with versions that were much closer to what was on the page – is fine with it, too.
Last week, I spoke with the Northern Irish writer about the long journey to bring Jesse Custer and friends to the screen, why he feels Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin have captured the spirit of what he was doing, the influence of John Ford Westerns on the story, and a lot more. (There will be some comic book spoilers in here, so don't read if you haven't read and don't want to know.)
Who was the first person who tried to adapt this? I know it's been through a lot of hands over the years.
Garth Ennis: In the beginning, it was Rachel Talalay. That would've been starting back in '96. I actually wrote the script, but that went nowhere, and it took a few years to finally drive a stake through that one's heart.
Of the different versions prior to this one, what was the biggest or most surprising change?
Garth Ennis: None of them are really memorable enough for me to consider them in that context, to be honest with you. There was a screenplay written at one point. I think Sam Mendes commissioned it, and it was written by a chap named John August. And it was actually quite faithful – too faithful, actually. It taught me the lesson that it's far too easy to overload this. If you do a straight adaptation, you are simply going to overload the story with grotesque characters and over-the-top bloodbath fight scenes. You're going to create a whirling maelstrom that will simply bewilder a mainstream audience. It has to do with the difference in form between the screen and the page. That's the problem that I think Sam Catlin and his team have solved, which is really pacing. That's the main difference between comic and TV.
Seth has said that you went to them and gave them permission to change anything so long as they could make it a good show. But are there certain elements of the comic that you feel have to be there for it to be Preacher, or it doesn't matter, because you already told the story that you told?
Garth Ennis: I think Seth is really giving me too much credit there. After I heard his initial pitch a couple of years ago, I said, essentially, “I think you're on the right track. Just keep the spirit.” I think all I did was to confirm the suspicion they'd already formed, which is you're not going to be able to make a straight adaptation. I think they already understood that.
As for particular elements? I think there's enough of it there for it to be Preacher.
But if it turns out down the road that AMC says to them, “You can't do the Messiah,” would you say that's a necessary thing, or it's ultimately not?
Garth Ennis: At that point, you'd have to ask me again, and I'd have to consider it in the context of what I'd seen up to that point. Right now, we've got the three leads, we've got the Saint (of Killers), which is crucial. Arseface is in there. I like how they realized the little Texas town. I like that they've given the thing more space to breathe, so what was over and done with in 20 pages in the comic is now properly considered. So we see Jesse be a preacher. We see him get his power, not understand it, misinterpret what he's supposed to be doing, give himself the wrong mission. I like all that very much. Particular elements that might or mightn't appear, I would need to see at that point how much else is in there. I would like to see, I take it you're talking about the weird little freak child?
Garth Ennis: I'd like to see him dancing up and down and belly-flopping into the Allfather's belly – literally. But ask me again nearer the time.
In one of the early episodes, we find out that Tulip was raised by her mother, which is very different from the backstory you gave her. In the present, she's very much in the spirit of the character you wrote, but does a change like that trouble you at all?
Garth Ennis: No, that doesn't bother me. I quite like the new iteration of Tulip, where instead of being an incredibly reasonable person, polite and good-natured, who accelerates to attack speed when the fun and games begin, she's actually more uniformly like that. I think that's a tad more believable, if anything.
Both Preacher and Hitman are an outsider's view of America as filtered through American popular culture. So I find it interesting that the bulk of the cast is from the UK and from Ireland.
Garth Ennis: Yeah, Seth and Evan are Canadian. Steve and I are both Brits. You'd have to ask (Dominic and Ruth) what they're bringing to the table as seeing America as outsiders, but that's a crucial part of the story for me. I filtered it largely into Cassidy's story, because the story of the American immigrant is a crucial one in Preacher. It's certainly my story, and I wanted to communicate that, the idea of arriving in a place like New York and never having seen anything like that before. Quite a breathtaking experience.
What was your impression of America as someone growing up where you did?
Garth Ennis: It was obviously through the movies, TV, books. Not comic books. That was the one aspect of American culture that I didn't see. But really the movies, but that goes back to watching John Wayne films as a tiny kid, and then growing up a bit and seeing the Clint Eastwood Westerns, and crime films, war films, action. Really, it was the movies. That was the interesting thing about this: Preacher was primarily influenced by the screen, and here it is, coming home.
I hope they get to film in Monument Valley one day.
Garth Ennis: That would be quite expensive. It might have to be green screen.
What do you remember of the version that was being developed at HBO?
Garth Ennis: That was about 10 years ago. I worked with Mark Steven Johnson, briefly. I don't remember a great deal about what we did. Mark was the one who told me, essentially the problem was there was plenty of grassroots support at the junior level, but higher up, people were mystified by it. Things changed, people moved on, and our support went with them.
I would think – and we'll have to see what AMC allows – some of the more blasphemous aspects would be safer there than on a network that airs commercials.
Garth Ennis: I don't recall us even getting that far. The sense I get, anytime you run into trouble with Preacher, it's just that they're absolutely mystified. They open it, and they start flipping through it, and they see this maelstrom of disparate elements, and they don't know where to begin with it. So long before we settle on any one particular controversial aspect of it, they've already been put off. It's taken a while. It needs those junior people to move up the ladder and keep their passion with them. But whenever you're trying to anticipate trouble, I always find that what you anticipate and plan for never happens, and what does hit you comes out of left field.
Way back when you pitched this as a comic, what did you tell the people at Vertigo?
Garth Ennis: God, you know, I did write an outline, but it's long gone. I'd be interested to read it now. I can't remember what I said to them. I can remember roughly the process of thinking, “Okay, I've got a creator-owned book. Anything I want. It's gonna be supernatural, it's gonna be American. That's it: it's going to be an American story. I'm going to fill it out with American myth from American film and TV.” But it was very much a case of taking building blocks and gluing them together on instinct, rather than having a definite sense of how the thing would proceed. It's hard enough remembering how I put it together, how I pitched it. I'm afraid that's long lost to the mists of time.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org