One of the best written and best acted dramas currently on network (or any) television is Hannibal, from show creator Bryan Fuller. Based on the characters from Thomas Harris’ classic novels, the series follows the unsettling relationship between psychiatrist-turned-serial-killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and gifted criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy).
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, executive producer/writer Bryan Fuller talked about how the series came about, how he gauges the level of violence on the show, how he ended up with Dancy, Mikkelsen and Laurence Fishburne as his lead actors, how fascinating the character relationships are, that knowing the eventual destination of these characters is a huge gift, when Hannibal Lecter’s famous face mask could appear, how the Red Dragon story would come into play in Season 4, adding some female characters to the mix, how they decide what meals Dr. Lecter will prepare and serve, future romantic relationships for the serial killer, and what Gillian Anderson brings to the show. He also talked about the possibility of a Kickstarter campaign for a Pushing Daisies movie. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: How did Hannibal come about? Was it something you had the idea for, or did the network come to you with this concept?
BRYAN FULLER: How it started was that I was on a fateful plane trip to New York. I had just finished a draft of a script and I was like, “I need to go see some shows on Broadway to cleanse my palate.” I happened to be on the plane with a friend of mine, who randomly was just sitting one row ahead of me and across the aisle. We were catching up and it was like, “Oh, we’re sitting close and we’re chatting!” She was like, “I just got this job to be the CEO of Gaumont U.S. TV, and one of the first properties we’re acquiring is the Hannibal Lecter character. Do you think there’s a TV series there?” Not even asking if I wanted to do it or if I was curious, at all, but I was like, “Yeah, just saying the name Hannibal, I’m curious.”
I read Red Dragon in high school and I was a fan of the Thomas Harris books, so my first question was, “Do you have the Will Graham character?” I feel like Clarice Starling was done so iconographically with Jodie Foster that that’s a pretty bar to reach. You had William Petersen and Ed Norton play Will Graham in previous incarnations of Red Dragon and Manhunter, but I always felt like there was so much more between the lines of Will Graham on the page than had ever been seen in the way that he was presented on screen. He’s such a complex character. What I loved about him, reading him, was that he has personality disorders and he has neuroses, but I felt like I didn’t really see those things as apparently on screen before. I thought, “God, if you have an empathy disorder and you’re putting yourself in the minds of serial killers to catch them, how damaging and traumatizing that would be.”
So, I was really interested in that character and how he existed on the page. I thought, “Well, what if there’s this relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal, that didn’t exist in the books?” In the books, Will Graham met Hannibal twice. He went to his office and asked him some questions, and then he went back again because he had a feeling about something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, and that’s when he realized that Hannibal was the man he was after and Hannibal gutted him with a carpet knife, but Will brought him down. So, they only really had two encounters, but there’s that line from Red Dragon where Hannibal says to Will Graham, “Do you know how you caught me?,” and Will Graham says, “Well, because you’re insane,” and Hannibal says, “No, you’re actually more like me than you care to admit,” or something along those lines.
There’s a section in the book where Alan Bloom, who’s now Alana Bloom, and Jack Crawford are talking, and they talk about how Will sometimes picks up the cadence of another person’s speech as he’s talking to them, which seemed to be indicative of some form of echopraxia. We’re all born with mirror neurons. We have a flood of them in our brains and it helps us socialize. When little babies are mirroring what they parents do, or what adults do, or anyone around them, those are the mirror neurons in the brain at work. As we get older and achieve our own identities, those mirror neurons are absorbed into the system and they don’t play as active a role. But, if you have echopraxia, they’re still pretty active and also prevent you from clearly establishing your own identity, or your own identity is a little bit slippery because you can shift in and out of it, depending on who you’re with. So, I just thought, “If he has a little bit of that and he has an empathy disorder and he has all of these things, he’s in danger, in these situations, just psychologically.” That’s a version of a crime story that I haven’t seen, that would be interesting to explore.
Since Hannibal really pushes the boundaries of what’s been seen on network TV, how do you gauge just how far you’ll take the violence on the show?
FULLER: I think it’s what feels right for the story. It’s also what’s right for the genre. Keep in mind that The Silence of the Lambs is a horror movie, and Hannibal is a horror anti-hero. To a certain point, we have to honor the genre and deliver certain elements of the genre. I love horror, fantasy and sci-fi. Those are my genres of love and devotion. So, as a member of that audience, I want to make sure that the other members of the audience are protected in getting certain things out of the show. I don’t think we could do a Hannibal that was too soft because it would have no business being on network television. We’re at a point in network TV where things are changing. Networks have to change because cable is now doing better ratings than most of the network shows, so they have to start adopting more of a cable model and a cable attitude. Networks are hemorrhaging viewers. CBS is always gonna be fine because it knows exactly who its demographic is and how to service that demographic. But, NBC has a great opportunity to be at the leading edge of evolving networks into a hybridization of a network-cable model.
Your three leads – Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen and Laurence Fishburne – are so fantastic on the show. What was your casting process like? Did you have any of them specifically in mind, or were you just open to any suggestions that were brought to you?
FULLER: I didn’t have who Will Graham was in mind. And then, our very first conversation with the network about who this should be was Hugh Dancy. There were three names that came up – Hugh Dancy and two other actors – and everybody said, “Let’s go to Hugh and see if he’s interested.” We just thought that he has an innate likeability and this character is very complex. Like it says in the book, “Fear makes Will Graham rude,” so he is anti-social and complicated and in his own world. You have to have somebody who has an innate likeability, otherwise they’re just going to come off like an asshole, and Hugh has that. You want to be invited into a world by an actor, and Hugh Dancy, as an actor, invites you in to the world that he’s inhabiting. So, that was a very clear, easy choice.
And based on getting Hugh, Mads was interested because they had worked together on King Arthur. They were friends. So, we sat down with Mads and pitched what the show was to him. Even in that very first meeting, he said, “So, this character is a bit like Lucifer. He sees the beauty in the world and in humanity, but is also punitive to those who don’t recognize beauty in the world and in humanity.” If you look at his performance, he is playing Lucifer, as opposed to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal. I don’t think any of us wanted whoever we cast as Hannibal to go anywhere near Anthony Hopkins because you would be slain. There would just be no way to live up to that. So, we had to go a different direction with Hannibal. With Mads, who has this beauty, elegance and grace, and was a dancer, as well as having played several villains in prominent movies we had somebody who was going to bring something so unique to the role. Hannibal Lecter is not American. In the books, he is Eastern European, so he is other and he is different. So, getting a foreign actor to play the role was always at the front of my mind because I wanted to have some indication that he couldn’t be American.
FULLER: This is a stellar cast. It’s a feature film cast. One of the things that I was really attracted to, about this story, is the bromance between Hannibal and Will Graham. Here are two crazy men, who are so unique in their insanity that they need each other to understand themselves. That felt like a great place to tell a story, and to tell a different version of the Hannibal Lecter mythology. What we had been exposed to was essentially an incarcerated psychopath who had done his villainy, and everybody around him knew what he was capable of. And now, we have him peacocking in the open, and he is functional in society. He has relationships, and not only the relationship with Will Graham, but the relationship with Jack Crawford. I love seeing them friends, at the dinner table, laughing and raising glasses in toasts. And there’s the very touching relationship that he develops with Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl), and how he feels very protective of her and responsible for what happened to her. I love that relationship, and the irony that she traded one cannibalistic father in for another, but she just doesn’t know it yet. I find that really satisfying. You get a great sense of a man who never thought he’d have friends or relationships, and then he’s discovering himself in circumstances where he is getting those opportunities and he is taking advantage of them, and we never know to what end. You’ll get an idea by the end of the season. It is fascinating to see someone who is making connections through their psycho-pathology.
When you know where most of these characters eventually end up, is that something you always have to keep in the back of your mind, or do you try not to think about that?
FULLER: It’s a huge gift to be able to know the destination of these characters and know that, in Season 4, we’re going to be telling the Red Dragon story. That’s a buoy that we’re swimming to, in the storyline. So, it’s exciting, on that level, to know that we have a destination, but we’re also mixing things up. Events that have happened in the books will happen, but they may not necessarily evolve all of the players that were involved because we are creating a new introduction to Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter that didn’t exist in the literature, and everything has a ripple effect. There will be folks that are hardcore fans of the novels who will say, “Oh, my god, they totally told that story, but they’re telling it with this character instead of that character, even though the events still happen.” I’m hoping that it is as satisfying to fans of the movies, as it is to fans of the literature, and also welcoming to new audiences who aren’t familiar with either of those properties.
Have you already given any thought about if or when Hannibal Lecter’s famous face mask will appear?
FULLER: Yeah, that would be Season 4-ish. We’ve got some fields to play in, before we get to Hannibal incarcerated, in all sorts of ways. We’ll definitely be getting there. Red Dragon was the first book in the series. Imagine that there are three novels that were unpublished, and we’re going to tell those three novels before Red Dragon. And then, we’ll try to sync up with the timeline of the other books.
FULLER: Both, actually. It’s a pretty male world. You have William Graham, Hannibal Lecter and Jack Crawford, as your three leads. And then, there’s Alan Bloom and Freddy Lounds. Really, the only female character in Red Dragon, besides the blind woman is Beverly Katz, and you only see her for a little bit. So, I just thought that we need more female energy because I love writing for women and it was just too male. The piece needed women. So, when I was first developing the project, I called Caroline and I was like, “Okay, there’s two roles. The bottom line is that I want to work with you, so which of these roles sounds more interesting to you.” She was like, “Well, actually Alana Bloom sounds more interesting to me,” and I was like, “Great, it’s yours!” Then, we were so lucky to find Lara Jean Chorostecki. I had gotten the news that we were going ahead with Hannibal at NBC, as I was on a plane on my way to the U.K. Of course, all over London, at the time, there was Rebekah Brooks and the News of the World stuff going on, and I thought, “Wouldn’t that be interesting, if that was our Freddie Lounds,” as opposed to the sleazy tabloid reporter. She’s someone who’s a little savvier and a little more of a political animal, with those great shocks of red curly hair. I just saw Rebekah Brooks so clearly, as our Freddie Lounds. That’s where she’d be going, if she doesn’t get doused with kerosene, set on fire and be in a wheelchair, in Season 4.
Why did you decide to focus so strongly on the relationship between Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and his wife (Gina Torres)?
FULLER: If you’re a Thomas Harris fan and have read the books, you know that Jack’s wife is dying of cancer, and dies of cancer in The Silence of the Lambs. I really wanted to tell that story, and I also really wanted to work with Gina [Torres] again, having worked with her on Pushing Daisies. I was curious how people would react to that, ‘cause it’s a different story for the show. It’s a cancer story. It’s a departure from cannibalism, but it’s all faithful to the canon of the stories and where Jack Crawford would be by the timeline of The Silence of the Lambs. Also, it’s fascinating to see Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen), who’s a cannibalistic killer, be so empathetic for someone who is having their life slip away. So, it was interesting to see that color from Mads, and I think Gina is amazing in those episodes.
How do you decide the meals that Hannibal Lecter will make and serve?
FULLER: We have a James Beard award-winning culinary consultant in José Andrés, who’s a world famous chef and has restaurants all over the country. I was a fan of Jose’s from going to his restaurants, and just being a viewer of Top Chef and being educated that way. I’m also a little bit of a foodie. So, one of my first thoughts about doing this was, “I want to work with José Andrés on this project, as the voice of Hannibal.” I called my agent and was like, “How do I get in contact with José Andrés?,” and they were like, “Well, we represent him and he actually just won an award and he’s having a cocktail reception at his restaurant in Los Angeles. Why don’t you come as my date and I’ll introduce you, and you can present the idea to him directly and see what he has to say?”
So, we went to his reception and they introduced me and I said, “Hi, I’m working on this adaptation of Hannibal Lecter as a TV series,” and he said, “Oh, I want to be a consultant!,” before I could even get the invitation out. He was so enthusiastic! He’s so passionate and infectious with his enthusiasm that he immediately pulls you in. He had so many ideas, right off the top. One of the very first ideas that he said to me, right there at the reception, was, “Lungs! You could do the lungs of a smoker. You would clean out the tar from the inside layer of the tissue. The smoke has been in there for awhile, so it gives you this flavor to the lungs. They would be pre-smoked.” It was fascinating to hear his lack of judgement. It was one of those things where it was like meat is meat is meat is meat, which I thought was very fair.
I only eat meat, if I go to a nice restaurant and there is an exceptional dish, or if I’m at somebody’s home for a dinner, I’ll eat whatever is in front of me. Otherwise, I don’t eat anything that walks around and has a face. I’m not doing it for health reasons, and I don’t have too large of a soapbox under my feet about it because it’s a personal choice. If I go to your home and you’re cooking me a meal, I will eat whatever you put in front of me. So, it was interesting to hear this chef, who is world renowned, speak of eating people in the same manner that he would about eating a pig or a cow or a duck, without any kind of distinction between them as creatures of higher or lower intelligence.
One of the things that I always think about now is the emotional sophistication of animals and how much we’re learning about the emotional sophistication of animals. If you’re eating a pig, you’re essentially eating the equivalent of a four-year-old human being. A pig is actually much more intelligent than a four-year-old and much more emotionally sophisticated. I see both sides of the argument about why to eat meat and why not to eat meat, and it was refreshing to talk to José , who also was judgement free, in terms of making the distinctions.
You’re not really sure what to make of Hannibal Lecter for a few episodes. Was it intentional to play on that and make viewers wonder, if he really could be doing such horrible things?
FULLER: No. For me, it was like, “You know who he is.” I figured it was a chip that I could only play so often, so I didn’t want to overuse it. In Episode 3, when he rams Alana’s head into the brick wall, it’s the first time you’re like, “Oh, shit, he’s a bad guy!” Up until that point, he doesn’t really do anything on camera. You see him cooking the lungs in the first episode, but until he acts violently against another character, you realize how ruthless he is and how much of situational ethics come into play with him.
With the great and heartbreaking performance that Anna Chlumsky gave, it must have been difficult to let her go.
FULLER: I thought Anna did a wonderful job in the episode and was our Clarice Starling, but made it distinct from Jodie Foster, in her own way. That’s our The Silence of the Lambs episode, where we’re looking at the archetypes that have been previously established and said, “Yes, these archetypes are in our world, but not necessarily in the roles you’ve grown accustomed to.”
Is there any chance you’ll be exploring romantic relationships with Dr. Lecter?
FULLER: Oh, yeah, we absolutely are going to go there. There are two distinct flirtations that we’re playing with, and the intention is absolutely to go there with his character. I imagine he would be a fantastic lover. Mads and I have talked quite a bit about how Hannibal loves beautiful things, so he would love women and he would love a woman’s spirit. Unless she’s an asshole, she’s not in danger. So, that is absolutely going to be in the cards. I’m excited for those stories and the opportunity to see that other side of the character. We will see him in romantic situation, not necessarily in the first season, but the players are all set up in the first season.
How did Gillian Anderson come to be a part of the show?
FULLER: I loved working with her and writing for her. That was very much a career highlight, being able to work with her. I was such a huge fan of The X-Files. Beyond The X-Files, she was amazing as Miss Havisham (in Great Expectations). She’s a fantastic actress, and she’s great in the show, as Hannibal’s psychiatrist. Originally, the role was written for a much older actress that had retired because of age. Then, as we were talking about actresses and about who was appropriate, the casting person at NBC said, “Well, if you make the character younger, what do you think about Gillian Anderson?,” and I was like, “I’ll make the character younger.” So, I rewrote the character and the retirement hinged not on her leaving the industry because she’s of retirement age, but because of an event. Hannibal Lecter is her only patient because she retired and he is the only one who ignored her retirement. They have a very specific relationship around an event that we will explore over the course of the season, in a very subtle way, keying up a bigger story for them, down the road. What’s fascinating for me about having those actors in a scene is that they each have an icy control to them, but they’re both very sexy. You have these two cool, sexy people in an environment where they are talking about intimacy and deepest thoughts, so there’s this sexual tension that vibrates under their scenes, in a really nice way.
Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me were all great shows that didn’t get as long of a life as they should have. When you saw what happened with Kickstarter for Veronica Mars, did it give you hope about reviving any of your past work?
FULLER: When I saw that announcement, I was like, “Oh, my god, this is amazing!” I emailed Rob Thomas immediately and said, “I have so many questions for you!” He was like, “I’m so swamped right now. Call me in two weeks and I’ll tell you all about it.” They’re slightly different playing fields because Veronica Mars is so much about the wit of the dialogue and the charm of the performers, and the style is a tonal issue, whereas Pushing Daisies is a world that we have to create. Veronica Mars exists in this world, through the lens of film noir, but Pushing Daisies doesn’t exist in this world, so we’d have to build it, which requires a lot more to produce than Veronica Mars would. So, I’m asking questions and seeing what is required and what we could do. It’s a different ball game, and I don’t know if it would be possible. It’s certainly easier to ask for $2 million of crowd funding, as opposed to $15 million. At that point, it begs all sorts of questions like, “Okay, shouldn’t we be contributing that money to a cancer foundation?” So, it’s a complicated issue, but it one that I am actively exploring and trying to find out if it is, at all, possible given what is required for a Pushing Daisies movie. I would love to return to that world, and I would love to return to that cast. It was a very satisfying, creative experience. I love that cast and would love to be on a stage with them again soon. I just have a lot of research to do and a lot of questions hat I need to get answered before I can determine if it’s realistic. But, yes, I would absolutely love it, I would make room for it, and I would make it a priority, if it is possible.
Hannibal airs on Thursday nights on NBC.