When the pilot for AMC’s upcoming series adaptation of Preacher screened at SXSW yesterday — to rapturous applause from the fan-heavy crowd — much of the focus was on directors and executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. But the secret weapon of the show is writer/showrunner Sam Catlin, a veteran of Breaking Bad with credits like the infamous bottle episode “Fly” to his name.
Tackling an adaptation of Garth Ennis’ comic — a violent horror-drama about a Texas preacher named Jesse Cutler (Dominic Cooper) who goes on a hunt for God with his ex-girlfriend Tulip and an obnoxious Irish vampire called Cassidy — may not sound like the most obvious follow-up to the story of Walter White. After all, the pilot episode of Preacher features a boy who’s missing half his face and has Tom Cruise explode off-screen after being possessed by a mysterious alien force. But there’s some shared DNA there, and not just in the way both shows mix dark comedy and drama: Preacher is shooting in New Mexico on the same stages that Breaking Bad once did, and Catlin’s brought along some of his previous collaborators, including editor Kelley Dixon and composer Dave Porter.
I sat down with Catlin after the premiere screening to talk about the show, how he and his writers adapted such a well-known comic, and the important lessons from Breaking Bad.
Bryan Bishop: Let’s start at the beginning. How’d you first get involved with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg on this project?
Sam Catlin: It’s a really uninteresting story: we just have the same agent. It’s literally that. They had the rights, and wanted to make it into a TV show — because it’s really the only thing you can do with it, it seems to me. Better people than us have tried to make it into a movie. And so we had the same agent. They didn’t know who I was, but they needed someone that could put it into a TV show. Which was great because I’d never heard of the comic. I’m an adult male, so I stopped reading comics when I was a child. But they’re huge fans.
And therefore not adult males.
Oh, yeah. They’re children. They’re very wealthy, stoned children. And huge fans of the comic. And it just turned out to be a great collaboration between the three of us, because there were certain things you can’t do for TV, or on a TV schedule. So it was a good combination of their [passion], and "How do we turn this crazy world into something that’s accessible."
Was there anything about the comic itself that grabbed you when you first read it?
I thought it was impossible. When I first read it, I thought "I don’t know how we’re going to do this." Because it’s so big. And I’d never adapted anything before, so I really didn’t know about that process, and how you change things. But it has interesting characters. They’re crazy and over the top, but they’re very identifiable people. [There are] all these great archetypes, but as you read the comics you really fall in love with them as people. And once we started having an idea of how we could do it, just as a story, then the world was our oyster because there’s so much great fun to have in so many different worlds, and so many different genres to play in.
Tell me about coming aboard this show after Breaking Bad. That show had been such a big part of the lives of everyone that worked on it. Was there a particular type of project or challenge you were looking for after that experience?
There wasn’t a certain type of show, but what’s been fun about this is that no one’s ever going to confuse it with Breaking Bad. It’s a very different world, it’s different rules. With Breaking Bad, it was innovative in all these different ways, but it was very much ... "that’s present-day Albuquerque, and that’s a human being, and there are no vampires." There’s very specific rules of human behavior and what’s possible. It’s very limited as to what’s possible. I use "limited" not as a negative, but as [a way of saying] These are the rules.
But with Garth’s world, so much is possible. Tom Cruise can die, and there are vampires and angels. So it was great being able to be on a bigger canvas to draw on.
One thing that it does seem to share is that it combines humor and drama in some really unexpected ways. It has such a unique tone. How’d you find that middle ground?
The tone is the hardest part. It’s the hardest part for the actors, it’s the hardest part for the writing, it’s the hardest part for costumes, directing; all of it. It’s the hardest because you don’t want it to become too silly, but you don’t want it to become too heavy. And you don’t want to be disgustingly violent, but you want it to have that same sort of fun.
We talked about Tarantino a lot, as somebody that’s able to balance humor and real stakes, but also violence. But it’s sorta hard when we’re trying to figure out these stories, because there’s nothing to really compare it to. Which is what’s so exciting about it, but it’s also: Oh god, is this going to work? We’ve never seen it before. That tone, and that balance… You’ve got characters talking about the meaning of life, and God, and all that stuff which could be really preachy and navel-gazing. But to go from that, to comedy, and action — it’s the real fun challenge of the show.
There are some moments in the pilot that seem pretty far out there. Were there any problems with pushback, or AMC saying you’d gone too far?
No one’s ever told us don’t go that far! We can’t say "fuck." We can, but they dip [the audio] out. But we’ve had very little [pushback]. We are all shocked that no one has stopped us about the Tom Cruise thing. Now, it’s too fucking funny, they’re pregnant with it.
You talked earlier about the challenges of adapting something. On Breaking Bad, you guys would often paint yourselves into a corner by setting things up that you had no idea how to pay off, which led to a lot of great story turns. In contrast to that, how did you build story from an existing universe?
I think one of the reasons why we localized it and made it, in terms of Jesse’s world, a little smaller initially, is that we wanted to put the audience in a familiar setting. It’s a small town, and there’s all these people: there’s the church school organist, and there’s the sheriff, and there’s the mayor. We wanted to create a grounded, familiar world, so that the craziness that comes into it [wouldn’t overpower everything]. We didn’t want to put a hat on a hat — which is a Vince Gilligan term — we didn’t want it to be so over the top so soon that people would think they were on a bad mushroom trip. So that’s part of the thing in keeping it grounded, and finding our moments where it’s over the top.
Vince Gilligan was known for running his writer’s room in a very specific way. How many writers do you have on Preacher, and how are you running your room?
It’s me and six other writers, and we operate it basically the way Vince ran Breaking Bad. Which is we try to break the stories pretty tightly in the room, so then a writer goes and writes their episode, but everyone’s on the same page. Everything has to be figured out as a group of writers, because you can’t have people going off and saying, "Oh it would cool to have him do this," because everything is interconnected in a serialized show. So that’s the structure, and then a writer of an episode goes to be on set, and they sort of produce their episode, and they’re the voice of the writers for that particular episode. So I’m trying to steal as much as possible from Breaking Bad.
"I’m trying to steal as much as possible from Breaking Bad."
It always seemed like a great system in that it encouraged people to not just become better writers in the room, but helped build talent with a more holistic view of the process.
Yeah, I think Chris Carter did that with his X-Files people. He really tried to create producers as well as writers, and it’s great just for communication, because we’re writing in Los Angeles, and you don’t want the crew and the cast to feel like they’re at sea. So it’s always great to have a writer there saying, "This is what we’re thinking, and this is where it’s going to go." I’m trying to emulate that as much as possible.