It’s always the supposedly ‘unadaptable’ properties that seem to beg for an adaptation. Take Neil Gaiman’s doorstopper novel American Gods: the book collects a massive ensemble of characters across continents, millennia, and the planes of existence itself, frequently breaking with reality for densely symbolic sequences of dreamy abstraction. It’s a producer’s aneurysm waiting to happen, but Gaiman’s vibrant imagining of a great Ragnarok between the mystical old gods and material new gods has an unmistakable cinematic bent to it as well. Reading the the book, it’s impossible not to gaze out the window and visualize the fiery-eyed portentous buffalo, the sex goddess who reverse-births her coital partners up inside her, the un-shy union between a young Muslim man and the enchanted being known as a djinn.
Leave it to TV veterans Michael Green and Bryan Fuller to render the impossible possible. Traces of their former TV work flit through American Gods — the show’s penchant for finding the extraordinary in the everyday harkens back to their joint work on Heroes’ debut season, and Fuller’s wild experimentation with style and surrealism on Hannibal came in handy for the more outré sequences — but their latest effort presented them with an unprecedented technical and creative challenge. As they tell it, the only thing tougher than breaking a thick tome on the battle for America’s spiritual conscience into discrete hourlong chunks was figuring out where they could shoot it. Fuller and Green sat down with us to break down the process by which they brought American Gods down to Earth, from the challenges of mounting a project on a scale truly deserving of the descriptor “epic” to keeping sexuality meaningful even when graphic.
This novel has had a long path to adaptation. Could you walk us through that?
Michael Green: In 2001, Neil Gaiman writes this wonderful book that’s unfilmable as a movie. And it would take the people who buy the rights to books a good ten years to figure out that it’d make for a good television show. To force that novel to conform to the necessities of a three-act structure and a two-hour, 20-minute time limit would be to shave the burs that make it spikily interesting. Neil met with very impressive people about adaptations, and they’d ask him how to make it into a movie point-blank, and he’d say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know.” He deliberately wrote this book in opposition to the screenwriting he was doing at the time. Which is to say it’s strange, meandering, expensive, lush, lavish, luscious, really all the L-words. And, hey, here’s one more — literary.
Bryan Fuller: I first read the novel about a year and a half after it came out, paperback. I loved the alchemy of tones that Neil was balancing. It was mythological and relatable and funny and a deeply philosophical picaresque. I loved the vignettes, the departures from Shadow and Wednesday’s story. It was important for Michael and I to provide the full book experience even if they haven’t read it, and that includes going into those tangents.
Green: Neil met with Bryan, who I had been friends with since the first season of Heroes, and we stayed fans of one another. We’ve always been interested in working again, having run shows alone and knowing how insane that job is, but still having appetites for much larger work. We knew it would be a lot of fun and potentially more sane to run a show together again someday. He got involved with American Gods when he was working on the second season of Hannibal with no expectation of a third, but then when that happened, he knew he’d have to get a partner. He called me like, “Do you know American Gods?” and I said, “Yeah, I haven’t read it in fifteen years, but I could pitch you the entire thing, top to bottom.” I remembered it that vividly.
Fuller: Our budget for American Gods needed to be bigger, because the spectacle of the book needed to be represented. Early on in the process, there were hopes that we’d eliminate certain aspects because it would make the production much more efficient. They’d have been more comfortable not doing the coming to America sequences, because those were the things that would be more challenging for TV to pull off. Focusing solely on Shadow and Wednesday’s trip around America would’ve been more grounded, but it removes the extraordinary aspects of the novel in a way we didn’t want to. If it’s a book about gods, we gotta show some godsmanship. Gotta show something holy. If it’s a Harry Potter movie, people come in expecting to see some magic.
Was this a tough sell for Starz? What was your relationship with the network like overall? Bryan, Hannibal almost seemed to continue in spite of NBC.
Fuller: There was a tremendous amount of support — most importantly, financial support — from Starz. We tried to help them understand our approach to the storytelling, which may have been less conventional than they anticipated. We had to negotiate and navigate their expectations.
Green: Any time you’re pitching an adaptation, there’s the benefit of it being a known quantity. This known quantity was especially well-known and well-liked. We could go into the pitch meeting with the knowledge that if half of Gaiman’s fans from Twitter alone turned out to watch the show, we could probably declare a numerical victory. And that’s not a bad thing! They were interested in the visuals of the show, too, the boundary-pushing content which we just considered “content.” But there was nothing that the book was about, or our attack on the book would be about, that Starz or Fremantle said anything but “Yes, please” to. If there was ever any pushback, it was only about budgetary concerns, and that’s just physics.
Fuller: NBC was always incredibly supportive of Hannibal. They allowed us to get away with murder [chuckles] on their network. Their broadcast standards and practices executive was an amazing asset and ally to accomplish what we did in terms of violence, blood, and stylization. I’d call and say, “We need this character to cut off his face and feed it to some dogs, how best can we prepare that to get on the air?” She’d say, “Make the blood darker, hide what you can in shadow, and I’ll do everything I can to help you get that through the process.” Their investment in [Hannibal] was smaller than Starz’s on American Gods, yeah, but [NBC Entertainment president] Jennifer Salke promised me that if we did Hannibal on the network, we’d be allowed to do the show we wanted to do. And she kept her promise.
From the looks of it, this production was more involved than your past projects, both visually and in the sheer scope of the story. Were the challenges mostly creative or technical?
Green: Truthfully, the nuts and bolts of physical production are much harder than the artistic challenge of getting a beautiful, bananas image right. Specifically: American Gods is, at core, a road show. Television series, at core, survive by revisiting specific locations and re-using sets. You’re supposed to have standing sets that you can own and become comfortable navigating. In a road show, scene by scene, you’re moving to new places that need to be found, driven to, scouted, or built. On a normal TV show, the hammer stops swinging from time to time. New walls don’t need to be built for every sequence. We had one standing set, that we shot on three times. Everything else had to be augmented, which was a massive undertaking.
I’ve spent more time in our color sessions with our brilliant colorist Dave Hussey — I think his stuff has been calculated as the most-seen on the internet, because he just does so much — than on the other shows I’ve worked on collectively. Each episode has a specific look, and the show itself has a specific look. These were not recipes you can hand to the line cook.
What about the buffalo that shoots flames out of its eye sockets, how’d that come together?
Green: It probably would have been easier to hire a genetic engineer to birth a white buffalo with flaming eyes who speaks in the voice of Ian McShane. That might have been simpler than what we did. But what we did was build a cave and the trunk of a tree to give a real foundation that we could augment with CGI. The buffalo itself was nothing more than a reference image of a guy holding a stick that had two gas-flames on it, so we could tell where the eyes would be for interactive lighting and positioning and scope. The buffalo itself was created by computer in Russia, that’s where our visual effects supervisors are.
The novel tackles just about every Big Theme there is: politics, religion, modernity, sexuality. Do you two think about America in these grand terms as well?
Fuller: It’s hard not to think of America in grand terms in the current political climate because the country has shit the bad. We’re facing a violent time of great crisis, and that calls into question what we believe in, where we’ve placed our faith, how we navigate the secular and the search for something more meaningful. Then there are those who are not searching, because they’ve made up their minds that they’ve experienced the extent of the world that they need to, and have no cause to look further. That’s so limited and narrow of an approach to living, so you’ve got to challenge people on what they believe. Challenge the conservative Christians who don’t understand the concept of Christianity, or else they’d never pair those two words together.
Green: The book is sexual, and that’s nothing we’d ever shy away from, but we wanted to make sure our depiction of sexuality would be relevant to the show. Where nudity becomes dicy for me, as a viewer, is when it’s cuttable. That’s the definition of ‘gratuitous,’ when it doesn’t need to be there to enhance enjoyment of the show. And that’s not the show we set out to make. We wanted all the sexuality to be grounded in character, so you can’t tell Bilquis’ story without the scene. We wanted to do the scene between Salim and the djinn with fidelity to the book, but also give a graphic depiction of gay sex that no one could say wasn’t beautiful. We wanted to show the majesty of this religious experience mediated by sex, and put it beyond judgement from those viewers who usually feel uncomfortable with same-sex depiction.
American Gods is a finite work, but the nature of TV is that when something’s going well, people want more of it. What do you think about the future of this project? American Gods has an end; does the show have one as well?
Fuller: I think the show should have an end, but that does not mean the show cannot spawn other shows that live on beyond the scope of American Gods. If we were to secure the rights to Anansi Boys, that would be our first choice for a spinoff. We love Orlando Jones and what he brings to the mythology of this series, and we love the story of that book. We’d love to get our hooks into that and branch that off if this show ends up being successful.