‘Hannibal’ producer Bryan Fuller on cannibal cuisine, renewal and more

NBC”s “Hannibal” concludes what”s been a fantastic first season tomorrow night at 10. What could have felt like a bad retread of – well, of all the other serial killer dramas and movies that have been ripping off the original Hannibal Lecter stories for the last few decades – turned out, under the guidance of producer Bryan Fuller (“Pushing Daisies”), to be a riveting, nightmarish story about the impacts and causes of violence, and the effect investigating the crimes of a man like Dr. Lecter (played in cool, hypnotic fashion by Mads Mikkelsen) would have on criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy).

Last week, I spoke with Fuller about how he chose to approach the material – the show spins out of a few passages in Thomas Harris” first Lecter novel, “Red Dragon” – the casting of Mikkelsen, the care taken to creating Dr. Lecter”s disgusting and yet beautiful meals, and more. I’m splitting this interview into two parts: 1)This first one about Fuller’s approach to the familiar source material(*), his philosophy about Dr. Lecter’s meals, and other things that won’t spoil the finale; and 2)A second interview that will be published after the finale airs, discussing the events of it and what may be coming down the road (including when or if the series might be adapting the main plots of “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs”).

(*) Note: Because I’ve read the books, seen the movies, etc., this interview alludes at times to things that will happen down the road for Graham, Lecter and Laurence Fishburne’s Jack Crawford. If you’re ignorant of the future of these characters and want to remain so, you might want to skip.

Let’s talk about your approach to the material when you started. This is very well-trod material: “Red Dragon” has been adapted into two different movies; everyone knows Lecter in some way. What was your approach going into this to make the material seem like something people hadn’t seen before?

Bryan Fuller: I think it was about covering a portion of the story that literally people hadn’t seen before. We hadn’t seen Lecter as a practicing psychiatrist and a practicing cannibal. That felt like it was fresh territory, even though it’s so intrinsic to who the character is. We understand him as this cannibalistic psychiatrist, but we never saw it. It was all told to us in backstory. For me, that felt for me like a great opportunity to really see, arguably the most interesting part of Hannibal Lecter’s life.

But the way you write, and Mads Mikkelsen plays, the character, it doesn’t feel like it’s a rehash of Hopkins or Brian Cox or anyone else.

Bryan Fuller: One of the reasons I wanted to cast Mads Mikkelsen is that he is not either of those actors. And he would be doing something completely different from what people expected. I was a fan of his for a while, not just seeing him in “Casino Royale” and “Clash of the Titans,” but films like “After the Wedding” and “Valhalla Rising.” “After the Wedding” was really the movie that cemented him as Lecter in my mind, because it’s such an emotional performance. He’s so vulnerable. American audiences who had been exposed to Mads were probably used to seeing him as some kind of villain, or a character with an eyepatch. They hadn’t seen the bulk of his fantastic work as an actor in Danish cinema. So I felt really compelled that we could do something different with the character, keeping his European mystique from the literature, but giving it this sobriety and taking away the wink. That felt like it was a really grounded way to deliver the character to audiences who may have been familiar with who he was, whether it be Brian Cox or Anthony Hopkins, and give them a completely different version of the character, in an unexplored part of his life.

How did you, whether on your own or with (director) David Slade, come up with the visual depiction of Will Graham’s gift? We’ve heard in those films, and in all the Thomas Harris imitators, about profilers who learn to think like serial killers, but I’ve never seen it visually portrayed quite this way before.

Bryan Fuller: There’s one line in the “Red Dragon” book. The pendulum device is all in the scripts. It’s a very precise method to do not only the decriminalization, but also a little bit of time travel and psychic protection, all wrapped up in one lightsaber/windshield wiper aesthetic. That started from Thomas Harris, who said when Will Graham goes into the Leeds house and starts to think about how the killer maneuvered in that space, very expressly, that he closed his eyes and a pendulum swung. That, to me, was all I needed to kind of create a new visual motif for it. Also, it was important for me to see the character of Will Graham and the actor Hugh Dancy performing the murders so we can feel as an audience what it’s like for him to project himself into someone else’s shoes that we now are given a device to see him actually commit those crimes, and understand how hard it is to think about killing people – even though it’s to save a life.

How much thought do you and the other writers put into coming up with these really baroque, memorable images from the murders? How much is it about what the visuals are supposed to mean, as opposed to, “Oh my gosh, it’s going to look so cool and creepy if we see flesh angel wings”?

Bryan Fuller: (laughs) What we figured out in the process is there are a lot of crime procedural shows that show a lot of different crimes. The bulk of them are kind of rapey, stabby, shoot-em-up, direct types of murders. For me, as a fan of Thomas Harris, and a student of the literature, I felt it was important that we do murders in the show that are representative of the Thomas Harris-ian purple, operatic quality of the villains we read in his literature. So we have Hannibal Lecter, who is a cannibal psychiatrist. You have Francis Dolarhyde, who is a man experiencing a midlife crisis and also may or may not have a serious personality disorder and sees himself transforming into a godlike creature. And Buffalo Bill, who wants to be a woman so badly he’s willing to make a woman’s suit out of real women. The bar was set from those types of villains. I felt we had to rise to that and have this purple operatic quality to our crimes in order to be Thomas Harris. So having a guy who is looking for connections in the world, so much so that he doesn’t relate to human beings as much as he does to mycelium, which is always in a state of trying to connect, felt not only purple, but a little poetic, and not like something you’d see on another show. And a gentleman who is suffering from a brain tumor that causes him to see people in a different light and wants to turn them into angels to watch over him as he sleeps, it felt once again like there was a poetry to it. So we’re constantly looking for, “What is the poetry of the murder? What is the art of the murder?” Initially, it was like, “Well, Hannibal Lecter as the Chesapeake Ripper provides these fabulous death tableaux.” But then it becomes, “I want the Ripper to be killing every episode, because i want to be dazzled cinematically and philosophically and poetically with these murders.” It’s in order to heighten them from a standard kill. The more real the murder is, the less interested I am in seeing it. It’s hard enough to watch the news. If there’s going to be some kind of murder or death tableau investigation, it’s gotta be above and beyond something that feels real. So all of these murders have a heightened quality to it. If we were doing real-life, ripped from the headline murders every week, I would swallow a bullet. it’s depressing enough to write about murderers, but then to make it real is compounding the problem. So for me, the only way to write this show is to give the villains a larger than life, operatic quality. So I, as the writer, can be very clear that I am writing a work of heightened fiction, as opposed to documenting horrible things that happen every day in the world. Which I have no interest in doing.

How much of what Hannibal serves should we assume features human ingredients? All of it? Some of it?

Bryan Fuller: (laughs) I think if there is some kind of meat product on the table, whether it be a broth or an organ of some kind, that that is very likely a human being. But when, for instance, he served Dr. Sutcliffe, and it was very clearly a pig leg, I think that was somebody from the Island of Dr. Moreau. No, not literally. In those cases – when it’s visually a piece of chicken bone or something like it that is visually indicative of an animal – then it’s the animal. Everything else is people.

I know you’ve put a lot of work into Hannibal’s meals, and consulted with Jose Andres about it. How do you feel about the fact that so many people say that watching the show makes their mouth water?

Bryan Fuller: I think it’s wonderful, because food is art, I believe. If you are going to be serving a living thing, you have to honor that living thing with some kind of care and thought and preparation to rationalize the taking of that life in some way. Where if you’re just grinding up hamburger at McDonald’s, I see that as a bit of an affront to living things. You’re not really honoring the life. So as an animal lover and as a sometime-meat-eater, I’ve read so much about the emotional sophistication of pigs and cows and sheep that I do think twice when I do still eat them on occasion. When I’m at home and I’m preparing my own food, it’s all gluten-free, or fish and it’s healthy, but when I go to someone else’s house, I’ll eat what they put in front of me because I don’t want to be an asshole. But I do think it’s very interesting to blur the line between eating human beings and eating animals, because I do think people should think more about what they put in their bodies, whether it is nutritionally or philosophically. I’m not saying meat-eating is wrong, because I do think it is a personal choice. But I think it’s interesting to blur those lines, because I do love animals so much, and have a great respect for them emotionally and intellectually, because they are so different from human beings. One of the things I loved about working with Jose Andres is that he wasn’t precious about eating people. It’s like, “Well, it’s kind of there.” Obviously, there are greater philosophical issues that I’m making light of, but it is an interesting discussion to look at all that food, that is beautiful in its presentation, and to know in terms of the story that it is another human being. There was the episode where he was having the dinner party and he wrapped the heart in bacon and stuffed it full of delicious things. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten heart, but I hope when I do, it tastes as good as that looks.

How relieved are you that you’re going to be able to do a second season? Was there a point during this season, when the ratings were what they were and NBC wasn’t saying anything at all, and the upfronts came and went with no decision – how worried were you that this would be it? And were you surprised when they called you up to say season 2 was a go?

Bryan Fuller: I knew there was going to be a second season, regardless, whether or not it was on NBC.

Because of the foreign deal?

Bryan Fuller: Because of the foreign deal and because of other interests that had stepped forward and said, “If NBC doesn’t pick up the show, we want to.” So I knew there was going to be a second season. I just didn’t know whether it was going to be on NBC.

They had this property, they seemed really happy with it, to the point where (NBC entertainment president) Jennifer Salke has said they passed on “The Following” because they had you and loved you. And yet you wound up being held for a very long time in the season, get put into a timeslot where they’ve really struggled for a few years now. What do you think happened?

Bryan Fuller: I think there was certainly caution on NBC’s side. They supported the show creatively and really allowed me to make the series that I wanted to make and tell the story that I wanted to tell. There was relatively no interference and a lot of support on really delivering a very complicated psychological tale. What happened is that you have the people who are supporting the creative and championing the show with me, and when you get to programming, which is a different head of the hydra, that there’s no telling where the programming department will feel safe putting a show. But that had no reflection on Jen Salke’s support, or Vernon Sanders’. The day to day executives who interacted with the show were all, “We believe in this show. This show is amazing.” Part of what made the show so doable on a network was that they were so supportive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can influence who’s programming the schedule or where they put the show based on advertising dollars. The reason they didn’t announce us at upfronts is that they wanted to remove this show from a ratings conversation. Upfronts are all about ad sales. The advertisers are like, “Wait, you’ve got 2 million people watching it live, and 5 million watching it time-shifted,” and that doesn’t necessarily give them a lot of confidence. So I think them removing “Hannibal” from the upfront conversation was a way to safely pick it up for the future – to keep it as far away from a ratings and ad sale conversation as possible.

In terms of NBC being hands-off and supportive, I know you talked to Kate Aurthur at length about the decision to pull episode 4. In hindsight, are you comfortable with how that all played out?

Bryan Fuller: In hindsight, it probably would have been fine to air. But at that time, every time we would open the Daily Beast or Huffington Post, there were children with crosshairs over their faces who had just been killed due to gun violence. It was really indicative where we were media-wise at that time. In retrospect, it would ahve been fine to air, but at that time, I feel like that was the informed decision to be cognizant of what was happening in the nation regarding children and violence and particularly gun violence. Hindsight is 20/20, and if I was faced with that decision right now, I probably would jave just said, ‘Eh. Air it.’ We can only react to the time in which we are living. At that time, it felt like it was the best decision on behalf of the network, on behalf of the creatives on the show. Maybe it was making more of something than it should have been, and maybe it wouldn’t have gone as noticed and maybe it was reactionary, but in that time it felt like the right decision to make. Now it’s a different time, we’re at the end of a season, and there’s been such a satisfying story told that maybe it might not have been a distraction to the show. It’s tricky with that sort of thing, because you want to be honest with the audience and the story, and also tell something that – at the time we were telling that story, it felt so heightened and unreal, that it felt like a place to go for the show creatively, and then it became a little too real. It was a little too real for a while. I’m torn. Part of me thinks that if I were to do it again, I would just push for the episode to air, but I don’t have a time machine.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com