Neil Gaiman’s bestselling novel American Gods was never going to be adapted, successfully at any rate, by people who like to play it safe. It’s challenging material, sprawling and metaphysical, that demands depth and style. So when it came time to bring the saga of Shadow Moon, an ex-con dragged into a society of deities living in the contemporary United States, fans were heartened to learn that it was being executive produced by Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Kings), two showrunners who know a thing or two about pushing the limits of the medium.
American Gods premiered its pilot episode at SXSW 2017 yesterday, taking fans through the first few chapters of the novel as Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) encounters the tricky Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), and sets out on his journey to punch out leprechauns (Pablo Schreiber) and share limos with modern gods like Technical Boy (Bruce Langley). It raises questions, it boasts some truly bizarre imagery, and it sets the stage for what should be fascinating explorations of contemporary culture when American Gods begins airing on STARZ next month, on April 30.
I sat down with Bryan Fuller and Michael Green in an out of the way dining room at the Four Seasons in Austin, Texas, where we delved into the big ideas of American Gods, the challenges of the adaptation process, and also what’s to come with Amazing Stories, the revival of the classic anthology series with Bryan Fuller is producing, and which is also being written by Patton Oswalt, Jane Goldman, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon.
Let’s get to it, shall we…?
[Correction: An earlier version of this interview left out Emily Gordon’s name from Bryan Fuller’s list of Amazing Stories writers. We apologize for the error.]
Crave: Having seen the first episode, I guess my first question is, when are you going to settle down and make something stylish…?
Bryan Fuller: [Laughs] I’m a hack. Well, one of the things I love, venturing into this with Michael in particular, is that we both have an aggressive cinematic style. I don’t know if you’ve seen… of course you should have seen, if you haven’t you should seek it out: Kings was very aggressively stylized as well. So I think our worlds collided in a wonderful way because we have aggressive tastes but we have different tastes and so American Gods has turned out to a wonderful amalgam of both of our visual instincts.
You guys are adapting Neil Gaiman’s book, obviously, but you are very distinctive storytellers. What are you getting out of each other? What are we getting out of American Gods that we wouldn’t get from one of you, individually?
Bryan Fuller: Balance. [Laughs.]
Michael Green: Probably the most pleasurable part of it is Bryan and I come in and work together on it, and it isn’t the same show as if I had done it or if Bryan had done it solo. It’s something that’s greater than the sum of the parts. Bryan, as you started saying, he is aggressively stylish and cinematic and my own instincts have to pushed and folded. And I love that because there’s no penny on this show that we don’t want to pick up and shine, and sometimes you might forget. You might not have seen the penny that could have taken the shine. And Bryan’s eyes are as sharp as anyone’s I’ve ever seen. I just find that there’s always another layer to add, there’s always another moment to improve, there’s always another color that can be more vibrant. It’s a pleasure and it makes the result that you’ve seen a few episodes of.
It’s been a while since I’ve read the book but I believe the first episode gets us through the first couple of chapters?
Michael Green: It bums around…
From the perspective of Shadow Moon it seems like we’re only getting to the first small piece of the puzzle.
Bryan Fuller: It’s like 30 or 40 pages [of the book].
Michael Green: Yeah. Put it this way: the third episode ends with Shadow walking into a hotel room and the hotel room number is “55,” and we put it there because the scene occurs on page 55 of the author’s definitive edition. It’s also my visual marker. Every time we see that door I’m like, “Oh that’s right! We’re only on page 55 now!”
Did you honestly think anyone would actually get that?
Michael Green: It was [just] for us.
Bryan Fuller: Oh yeah…
Michael Green: Yes.
Bryan Fuller: But there are people who would get it.
Michael Green: We love the book, but not in comparison to the people who… Orlando [Jones] was telling us he met a fan today who read it 20 times. There are sections we may have poured through 20 times but these are people who love it. These are people who tattoo large fragments on their bodies.
You’re playing the long game. It’s not like Game of Thrones where you get through a book a season…
Bryan Fuller: Oh god, no.
Michael Green: There’s only the one.
Well, there’s Anansi Boys…
Michael Green: Yes…
Bryan Fuller: Which we don’t have the rights to yet.
You DON’T have the rights to that…?
Bryan Fuller: Not yet. But I’m hoping that we somehow procure them.
So you have to stretch the material out. You have to find the stories within the story you have in order to build upon it…
Bryan Fuller: Chapters between chapters…
How long until we start seeing whole episodes that are entirely new material? Or is that even necessary?
Bryan Fuller: Episode four is almost all new material. That’s the Laura episode, which you’ve seen, and I don’t think much of that is in the book…?
Michael Green: No, it’s a lot of different lenses on things that were discussed either earlier in the show, or seen earlier in the show, but from [Laura’s] point of view. I don’t know. It’s not “When do we have to start inventing?”, it’s “When do we GET to?” Because the book, we’ve got all these beautiful old LEGO pieces and you get take them apart and rebuild them. You just get to keep building and building. It’s been fun talking about that with Bryan. It’s been fun talking about that with Neil [Gaiman]. That was his biggest blessing. He said “Make it your own.” There were things we wanted to keep fidelity too and there’s in between. One of the first questions we asked it, “Where the fuck is Laura when she’s not on screen?”
Was Neil Gaiman adamant about anything? Was he ever like, “You have to nail this one part?”
Bryan Fuller: There was only one time where he said “Don’t do that or I’ll throw myself in front of a bus,” and so we didn’t.
What did you almost do?
Bryan Fuller: Well…
Michael Green: It yielded a better moment than we would’ve eventually had.
So it was like a plot thing…?
Bryan Fuller: It was just something that Shadow reacted to, that Neil felt he wouldn’t have that reaction, and so we did not have that reaction.
Every episode of American Gods, at least for the first season, is going to be the story of how a god operates in America, or how they got to America. Is that something you want to continue throughout the entire series?
Bryan Fuller: Oh yeah.
Is there a particular God you’re excited to get to?
Bryan Fuller: There’s quite a few.
Michael Green: Yeah, actually Neil drafted a beautiful “coming to America” for Czernobog and the three Zorya sisters. At one point we were talking and he said, “Oh, I wanted to do one.” We have it, we’ve read it, it should be published but instead hopefully we’ll film it!
Bryan Fuller: And we’re excited to start expanding the mythology of thoughtform in Season 2, where we it’s not just gods but also urban legends and things of that sort. That will give us a similar quality from a different angle.
One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is the idea that all it takes is for someone to worship something to manifest it as an “American God.” Is the president a god…?
Bryan Fuller: Uh, no, he’s mentally ill.
Michael Green: People can believe in horse shit. It doesn’t make more horse shit. It just gives the horse shit voice.
So we have the coming to America. Are there earlier versions of those gods in Europe or in Asia?
Bryan Fuller: Yes.
Is that something you want to experience…?
Michael Green: A god meeting him or herself?
Bryan Fuller: We get into that later in the season when we discover that Jesus Christ is not a trinity but a multiplicity, because there are so many different representations of who Jesus and what Jesus has done, and we see a small handful of some of them.
I want to talk to about the absolutely phenomenal fucking introduction to Anansi.
Bryan Fuller: Yeah…
Now I know not everyone’s seen this yet, and I don’t want to ruin it for them, but can you tell me where that scene came from? I think everyone’s going to want to know.
Bryan Fuller: Very early on we knew that we wanted to do Coming to Americas, and we talked about what is the tone to these Coming to America stories, because we didn’t want them to play too sincere or genuine. We wanted them to have a small sense of absurdity and a Coen Brothers-esque tone, which is a wonderful alchemy of comedy, immersion and extreme politicking. […] So we talked about being on a slave ship, and what would Mr. Nancy say in this day, if he could talk to black people, 300 years ago.
Michael Green: Knowing what he knows [now]. The other inspiration was casting. We had an idea for it. We had a draft of it but it wasn’t until we spoke to Orlando [Jones] and he answered the phone in his Mr. Nancy voice, and I just looked to Bryan and said “We’re done. He’s it. This is the guy.” But similarly, we wanted to do the slave ship [scene] and we wanted to make sure he was interacting with someone who spoke the language. Our amazing casting directors searched far and wide until we found someone who could speak one of the many native languages from a region [where] Anansi was worshipped, and we almost weren’t able to do the scene until we found this wonderful actor Conphidance, who spoke in current [Ghanaian] language and taught the other actors how to say their few lines. But we wanted Mr. Nancy to be worshipped in the language of his origin.
Bryan Fuller: It was really the first indication in the filming process that we were hitting on some hotbed issues of race, because when we were filming it, Orlando, after his first monologue, the rest of the cast in the scene, forty black actors, stood up and gave him a standing ovation. That moment when we were in post, watching dailies, we thought, this has an opportunity to go above and beyond entertainment.
Do you have a dream cast? You have so many gods, so many you can get to, in your head is there someone who’s an American God that you have a dream of getting?
Michael Green: I mean our cast is kind of a dream cast as it is.
I meant in the future.
Michael Green: Yeah, but it bears mention that the vast proportion of cast are people who we said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get someone LIKE…?” and lo and behold we got to work with. Watching them elevate our best intentions is one of the most pleasurable parts of the whole process. Going forward, oh yeah, there are more gods to meet and we have our dreams. We’re thoughtforming them into existence as we speak.
How many seasons are we looking at right now? Is there a distinct plan or is it flexible?
Bryan Fuller: It’s flexible, because one of the things that we found out in doing this season is that we didn’t go as far into the book as we originally intended. And part of that is these Coming to America stories take up some space and we found that the more we lived in them the more that we could slather ourselves in their respective themes. One of the big eye-opening sequences for us, in terms of our current political climate, is Bilquis’s Coming to America, and Mr. Nancy is narrating that story, and it essentially boils down to the horrible lengths that men will go to bring down a woman of power. And of course that resonated in a significantly different way pre-November, than it did post-November.
I actually want to ask, since it’s been a while since I caught up with you about it, how is Amazing Stories coming along? Is it still “amazing”?
Bryan Fuller: It’s still amazing, and we are working on a variety of scripts from a variety of sources, and we’ve got a lot of really great writers involved. So it feels like I’m curating the Amazing Stories magazine and I get to work with Patton Oswalt and Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon and Jane Goldman…
Patton Oswalt is writing a script for Amazing Stories?
Bryan Fuller: Yeah, so that’s very exciting because I get to collaborate with other writers and just let them do their thing under that umbrella, which is a relief.
What it’s like collaborating with Patton Oswalt? He seems like he’s got such a sharp mind.
Bryan Fuller: He’s brilliant and I think the best way to collaborate with Patton Oswalt is to let him do his thing.
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Top Photo: Sandra Dahdah / Getty Images for SXSW
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.