Bringing the 'Unfilmable' and Sensational 'American Gods' to TV
Showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green chat about adapting a show that was stuck in development hell for years.
There's a scene in the new Starz show American Gods where Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba, is having passionate sex with an older man. As she climaxes, she starts pushing him inside her, until she swallows him whole. Yes, her vagina basically eats him.
It's scenes like this, and the need for massive special effects, that are indicative of why many originally deemed Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel as "unfilmable" for television. Yet, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green—who are no strangers to fantastical television, having met on Heroes— were up to the task. And judging from the rave reviews the show is garnering, they've succeeded. We chatted with the Fuller and Green about the difficulties of adapting the book, technology, and creating a new god.
VICE: How did you guys get involved with American Gods?
Bryan Fuller: My agent had called and said, "Are you a fan of American Gods?" And I said, "Yes." And then, the last day of filming on Hannibal season two, when we were anticipating no season three, Neil came to Toronto, and we had a conversation about immigration and the themes of the book. And he said, "Would you like to do this?" And I said, "Yes, with Michael Green."
It's been 16 years since Neil Gaiman first wrote the book. The timing of the show is pretty relevant. What kind of current events helped inspire how you adapted it to television?
Michael Green: It was less about current events and more about universality of theme. The book resonated when it came out. It resonates still today, perhaps, even more so than when we started writing the script for it. But it was really just... the goals were to create a show that was beautiful enough to be called a correct adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel, which is voluptuous and thoughtful and unafraid.
What were your biggest challenges as far as adapting this show from the novel?
Fuller: Really, the challenges were primarily trying to produce a road show in a television framework. Television functions best when there are standing sets that the group can return to and shoot efficiently, so it was logistically a challenge to figure out how to represent America and also travel to new locations every episode. And it almost became like a pilot every episode because there were brand-new sets that all had to be designed and built, and that was perhaps the most challenging aspect of it. But as far as accomplishing some of the things that were deemed "unfilmable" in the book when it was first released, television has evolved to the point and technology has evolved to the point where we knew we could put those things to film in a capacity that would honor how they were originally written.
The book is about this impending war between the old gods and the new gods of technology and modern living. And yet, you're adapting this novel to television, which would be considered one of the new gods.
Green: I love that the nature of your question suggests that you've entered a life of thought behind the book and that it might bring people to ask themselves those types of things. Am I in the moment, worshiping what I think I'm worshiping? Am I a believer in something old or something new, just by virtue of spending as much time as we do in the making and consuming of television? And I mean, specifically us, in the making and consuming of television. We are, by definition, great lovers of the new gods of media and technology, which allows those things to come to us and be celebrated. "Old" doesn't necessarily mean better, and "new" doesn't necessarily mean better, but the grand conflict between the new and the established is nothing we're going to resolve, but we certainly have opinions about.
You guys created a new god, Vulcan, specifically for the show. How did that come about?
Bryan Fuller: It came about from, like the book, Neil's adventures in traveling across America. In one of those adventures, he passed through the town of Birmingham, Alabama, and there was a massive statue to the god Vulcan. There was also a factory nearby that occasionally had accidents that cost workers their lives due to faulty railings. What Neil had discovered was that this factory found that it was cheaper to pay out the insurance settlements for the dead employees than it was to shut down the factory and replace all the railings. And that concept was something that spoke to him as a form of human sacrifice to this god, and we started talking about who the god of Vulcan would be in modern times and how do you extrapolate the god of the volcano into something that is immediately identifiable and accessible to modern audiences.
It occurred to us that the volcano is an interesting metaphor for a loaded gun. And so, linking guns to volcanoes as firepower and the power of fire felt like it was something that we could use to take a closer look at America's obsession with guns.
How involved was Neil Gaiman in the making of the show?
Green: He was very involved. He obviously has a vested interest in the show being a correct, faithful, and artful adaptation of his work, as did we. He was extremely attentive in that he read every outline, every script. He watched all the dailies. So, he was able to tell us what he felt about what he was reading. Similarly, we would reach out to him from time to time, talking about what we were doing, asking him what he thought was the better move at certain crossroads, to tell him what ideas had sparked us or structures for the season that had evolved. He says in a subsequent season, he will write scripts for us so we intend to hold him to that.
If you had to pick a single favorite moment in developing the series, what would it be?
Fuller: We talked at length about our favorite aspects of the novel very early on, and we both cited Salim and the jinn as one of the most memorable, touching romantic chapters of the novel. And so, we took great care and were very deliberate in how we brought that to life so it reflected the romance of the novel. We also added a few notions about a particular gay experience, coming from a man who originates from a country where you can be thrown off a rooftop for being gay.
As far as projects that you both worked on before, how did your prior experience in sci-fi, comic books, and drama help feed into this particular project?
Fuller: It's the accumulation of [years] working in the genre that enabled us to provide the audience the experience that we had as fans.
Green: And then, the experience of working on Heroes together during season one. That's where Bryan and I first met and became fans of each other's writing. It allowed us, some ten years later, to pick up very easily. We had a great time.
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