American Gods, the new Starz series based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name, is unlike anything else on television. The series touches on ideas about worship and godhood, and is alternatingly abstract, meditative, and really, really bloody.
It tells the story of ex-convict Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) who, thanks to the machinations of the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (Deadwood’s Ian McShane), finds himself caught up in a war between the manifestations of Old Gods like Loki (Jonathan Tucker) and Anansi the Spider (Orlando Jones) and the so-called New Gods of media and technology, like the goddess literally named Media (The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson).
Fuller and Green have been working in fantasy for years
The series comes from the minds of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. Both men have been working in genre for years, and have left their stamp on the industry. Fuller, known for series like Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and Hannibal, was most recently attached to the new Star Trek: Discovery series. Green is a co-writer on Logan, Alien: Covenant, and Blade Runner 2049, some of the biggest films of the year. Together, they’ve made a series that looks and feels ambitious, thanks to the stellar cast, sumptuous production design, and boundary-pushing sexual content. (There are a lot of penises, as if the show is determined to singlehandedly break television's nude male taboo.)
I had the chance to speak with Fuller and Green ahead of last night’s premiere, and we discussed how they managed to adapt Gaiman’s work for the present day, what kind of performance goes into playing a god, and why Starz was the right place to launch the series.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What is it about American Gods that made you think it would not only be good for TV, but worth stretching across multiple seasons?
Bryan Fuller: Well, the [book] was just so layered and had a wonderful arc for the protagonist to go from non-believer to believer, that we felt that if we did it as one season, it would force us to eliminate great portions of the novel that we adored. It needed to be an ongoing series to accurately tell the tale that needed to be told.
“It’s a lavish, lush, literary book.”
Michael Green: It's a lavish, lush, literary book. All the good L words! It's luscious. It has labia. It was about subjects that we were very interested in writing. It has rich characters and it was a platform to bring to life incredible visuals.
Bryan, the show definitely has your visual stamp, combining a sense of awe and whimsy with the macabre. Did Starz let you go all out with this series in a way that you haven't been able to do before?
BF: I think with the collaboration with Michael and [executive producer] David Slade as we were developing the aesthetic for this show, we understood that there were so many things in the book that needed to be lavishly produced. So much of the awe of the novel are in those moments of spectacle and transportation. We needed the financial support from a studio and a network that would allow us to go to the places that neither Michael nor I had been previously allowed to go, due to budget restrictions. The dedication to this novel and bringing it to screen as authentically as possible required a budget to accommodate that ambition and we were fortunately afforded that.
What were your conversations with Neil Gaiman like when it came to adapting the original novel?
BF: Neil was very involved in the process of developing the show, and also realized that there were things that he wanted to accomplish in the novel that he simply didn't have the real estate to do. He knew he was at a point in his career [at the time] where they wouldn't allow him to write a 2,000-page novel. They would now, but then he had to make some hard choices and focus on the Wednesday-Shadow story as the central drive of the book. [He] had always hoped that he would be given an opportunity to reexplore some of the issues, particularly with the female characters on the show. We worked with him and expanded the role of Laura and expanded the role of Bilquis and Mad Sweeney. All of those things that Michael and I were fan-fictioning as lost chapters between the chapters, Neil was right there with us either nodding his approval or cocking his head with skepticism, and asking us to reconsider.
The visuals are similarly over the top and arresting. What kind of vision went into creating the scenery and set pieces, as well as all the bloodletting?
MG: We had the advantage of working with David Slade, brilliant director who Brian worked with on the Hannibal pilot and the Hannibal series — which I was an incredible fan of. In addition, the second unit director, Chris Byrne, who became our left hand on the show and often our right hand, in terms of building those incredibly sumptuous point-of-view moments and the beautiful macro-work that you saw on Hannibal.
The visuals needed to show as much reality as possible
David Slade's approach to visual effects is he said it needs to have as much reality in it as possible. For example, going to that amazing desert vista. Through great expense and great labor, we actually went to a beautiful desert in Oklahoma. We filmed in Oklahoma for a few days and spent one of those entire days in a desert to shoot that sequence. So that he could then work with the incredibly hardworking visual effects team we have, that is actually, as we speak, slaving on finishing our finale. Raising it to a new level by painting it over, nearly entirely, with fantastical versions of the same set we had filmed there. We managed to keep the beautiful, majestic, real lighting and the gorgeous shapes of the desert behind, but then to augment it with an elaborate, imagined sky and color scheme.
Each character seems to have a very musical theme based on where they are in the story. Can you speak to the sound design, and how it adds to the mood and atmosphere?
MG: We had the good fortune of working with Brian Reitzell, who did the brilliant music for Hannibal and proved that television scores can be so much different than things we've become familiar with. They can be psychological and internal and atonal, as well as melodic and beautiful, as the situation requires. He was able to take sounds and songs and standards you thought you were familiar with and reinvent them. Throw a broken clock into a blender and merge them all together.
He came to this show with buckets of ideas and a lot of those ideas scared me, hearing them the first time. Going forward with this experience and working with Brian Reitzell, this is someone you trust and you give a shot. Then you would hear his execution and start to understand our own show in new ways. For which we're grateful.
BF: Yeah, Brian provides such an interesting soundscape that goes from tonal to melodic in American Gods. It's such a different expression than the music that he created for Hannibal and he has brought in fantastic artists like Shirley Manson and Debbie Harry to collaborate with the crew to create original music ripped specifically for our show. It's one of the many aspects of one-stop shopping that you get with a composer like Brian who has been in many bands, including Air, and knows the industry and knows the players in the industry, and can pull in favors to make our show and its soundscape even cooler than we ever imagined.
The Old God characters are so larger-than-life and oftentimes over the top. Did you encourage your actors to push the envelope and even chew scenery to really convey what it means to be a god?
MG: We were incredibly fortunate that we had very talented, thoughtful actors. Every one of them came with a specific, complicated take on the subject matter [they] wanted to work on this show. We wanted to give them a chance to shine so we wrote material that we hoped would give them some substrate. But man, there are things that we didn't know had that much electricity in them until we saw them performed by people we were fortunate enough to cast.
“There are things we didn’t know had that much electricity in them until we saw them performed.”
This isn't a show that cautioned restraint. Visually, you find in television, especially people who've held careers in network television, that artists behind the camera and in front of the camera, will censor themselves because they assume that someone in charge will tell them not to do the most interesting thing.
I think in this show we encouraged the artists we were hiring in front of the camera and behind camera, to do those things. To show them to us. Our head of wardrobe was so brilliant and when she had ideas that she thought might be too much for us, we insisted she showed them to us. More often than not, that's what we needed in the show once we saw it. You want to give the artist you're working with the chance to help you re-see your own material and not be able to see it differently again after. That certainly happened with our cast and their takes on the scenes we drafted.
In the original novel, Gaiman’s New Gods represent media and technology, but there are aspects of tech that he couldn’t have possibly foreseen in 2000. How do the New Gods capture those things in 2017?
BF: There's an aspect to Mr. World (Crispin Glover) as he's introduced to Shadow that is unsettling, in that he knows so much about Shadow and knows so much about people. [He] even has a line, "I know people," and illustrates that by revealing certain sensitive secrets that are indicative of the global hemorrhaging of personal privacy that we're experiencing at the hands of social media. That has changed since the book was written because the book was written pre-Facebook. There were aspects of Mr. World's agency in the country as a keeper, or at least an observer of our secrets. That is a scary thing when you meet somebody and they know more about you because they've consumed you online in some fashion. We really folded that into the mafioso awareness of Mr. World in his role as a shit disturber for the Old Gods.
Gaiman created the character Vulcan (Corbin Bersen) as a way of commenting on gun culture in America. Can you speak to what we can expect from him?
BF: Vulcan originated as a product of Neil Gaiman’s travels in America. He was passing through Alabama, and saw a statue to the god Vulcan. Through the course of putting his ear to the ground, discovered that a factory in the town had a couple of employee deaths every year because the railings were faulty and it was cheaper for the factory to pay out the insurance on the individual death claims than it was to shut down the factory and update the facility and repair all of the dangerous aspects of working there. It occurred to Neil that that was a form of human sacrifice. Was that to the god Vulcan?
“Those who worship Vulcan worship the gun.”
We started talking about who Vulcan would be in a modern America. How would he evolve to survive? The concept of a volcano being fire power and the power of fire that the God holds to do with what he will. There was an interesting analogy in a gun being a volcano that you could hold on your hip, and fire and cause mayhem and danger and death if you chose to. Those who worship Vulcan are actually worshiping the gun, and through the guns, the volcano. And Vulcan gets those prayers. That seems like an interesting way to address the different forms of worship in America and the different kinds of obsessions that we hold, and certainly as evidenced by the glut of news items that erupts every time there is a shooting, which is more and more frequently. That translates to a system of prayers, and it just seemed like an interesting extrapolation of worship based on Old God prospects and how they have become hybridized with the New God agenda.
Finally, the show is extremely frank about sexuality. I don't think I've seen more erect penises on any television show really, ever.
BF: You're watching the wrong channels. [laughs]
What was it like pushing for that, or allowing for that in this show?
MG: The book has a lot of sexual content. We wanted to make sure that our sexual content, when it was portrayed, was artful. By that, we mean that it was essential to character, or essential to story. That it was as beautiful [as] anything else we were gonna try to portray in the show. Which is to say, if you're going to define gratuitous sexuality as sexuality that can be cut out and not diminish the final episode in any way, we weren't gonna do that. We wanted it to be something that was essential.
“Sex as a grand metaphor for worship”
The other thing was, in conversation with Starz, they're not shy about nudity. They didn't mandate that we have nudity. They were fine with episodes that had no sex or sexual content. Just the same, they said, "If you do, we'd like it to be equal. We don't want to just gratuitously display women's bodies." We have, in our third episode, a sex scene with two men that we wanted to display honestly, graphically, romantically, and beautifully so that people who judge or jeer, to use Bryan's expression, could not say that it was unartful. Every frame of it was gonna be as beautiful as anything we knew how to make. Because it is a beautiful story, and the sex act described needed to be the most beautiful thing. Here, we were telling a story about what it is to worship, what it is to believe, what it is to encounter the divine up close. Sex as a grand metaphor for worship that you got a response to. We wanted it to be beautiful. It’s really the simple approach.