Adapted from the hugely popular Neil Gaiman novel, the upcoming Starz series American Gods focuses on the mysterious Shadow, a man who is released from prison a few days early, after serving a three-year sentence for bank robbery, when his beloved wife Laura is killed in a car accident. Flying home for the funeral, Shadow is seated next to a man who introduces himself only as Mr. Wednesday, who he comes to learn is, in fact, a real god from mythology and that all of the gods that mankind has ever believed in are alive in human form and live among regular people.
While at a recent dinner with a small group of press for the Blu-ray/DVD release of Hannibal Season 3, Bryan Fuller, who wrote the pilot with co-showrunner Michael Green, and producer Loretta Ramos gave some insight into how things with the show are developing, what they’re looking to focus on, how they’ll be expanding the story, making sure to include the iconic locations, working with no restraints, and putting together an ethnically diverse cast.
LORETTA RAMOS: Really well, but it’s still early days. We won’t start shooting until March or April. The writers’ room has been up and running for a couple of months now, and the goal is to have all of the scripts done before we go into production. We’ve been hiring department heads and working on casting.
Are you focusing the show primarily on Shadow and Mr. Wednesday?
BRYAN FULLER: It’s much more ensemble. There’s Mr. Wednesday and Shadow, but there’s also Laura. If there are three faces on the poster, it’s Wednesday, Shadow and Laura.
Are you covering the entire book in the first season?
FULLER: No, we’re only doing part of the book in the first season. The book is the Reader’s Digest version. Everything is expanded. We’re making room for more story. We learned a lot of lessons about adaptation doing Red Dragon and Hannibal. There are characters in the book, like Bilquis, who you see for one chapter, and then you see her at the end, real quick. She’s got a huge arc and is a very important character for the show. Laura is a huge character for the show. There is an opportunity for representing culturally ethnic diversity that is authentic, so that you don’t get into conversations about whitewashing characters. There are going to be so many characters represented. The only character that we’re really color-blind with casting is Laura because everybody else is culturally specific and they have to be authentic to how that culture looks. Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jaquel have to look like they belong in ancient Egypt. Not Middle Eastern Egypt, but black Egypt. So, that’s exciting. I’m always jealous of The Walking Dead for having such a diverse cast that’s so organic. We’re going to give them a run for their money, in terms of diversity.
Are you going to be sticking to the story in the novel?
RAMOS: It’s definitely adhering to the novel’s plot points and characters, but when translating to screen, you’ve got to take certain liberties. And we’re beefing up some of the female characters to even out the world a little bit. We’re beefing up certain characters just to make it TV series appropriate. Otherwise, you burn through a lot of material and you don’t have a series. The book is several seasons worth of material, by the time you get to the end of it. So many of the chapters are just one-off, isolated stories, and all of those are fair game to throw in. You’ve got the main people that you follow in the book, like Wednesday and Shadow, but you definitely have to start pulling in some of those characters and integrating them a little bit more, in order to flesh out the world. It will be an expanded version of the book’s world, and Neil Gaiman is totally involved. He’s in on the pitch meetings, he reads the outlines, and he’s on board. He’s giving his blessing to everything that’s happening, so it’s definitely of his world still. I think fans will appreciate it. It’s hard to take a much-loved property and not piss off everybody.
After having to work within broadcast network constraints for Hannibal, how are you going to approach sexuality with no restraints, since American Gods will be airing on Starz?
FULLER: In the book, there is a famous scene where Bilquis, who is Sheba, the goddess of sex and sexuality and love, eats a man with her vagina and you’re in her point of view. And then, in a later episode, you’ll see where you go.
How are you going to do that visually?
FULLER: Like the sex in Fight Club. That’s mostly CG. They scanned Helena Bonham Carter and Brad Pitt in various positions, and it’s mostly digital. We have the guy who did that scene in Fight Club and said, “You have to top that, and not spend $1.5 million.” The cool thing with American Gods is that we are not necessarily creating new technology, but we’re re-purposing existing technology in a way that would give you photorealistic CG. If you look at a lot of shows or movies, you can tell it’s not real. We’re developing stuff to actually do photorealistic manipulation on people’s faces. For 30 Days of Night, David Slade’s vampire movie, they digitally altered people’s eyes and made them bigger and pulled them apart and adjusted them, but it looked photorealistic and they did that all in post. So, we’re using technology to do that scene.
Are you also including the locations from the book?
FULLER: We went to House on the Rock last week ‘cause that’s a big part of the book. David Slade is so technologically precise. If you haven’t been to House on the Rock and you have a weekend, seriously, it’s the coolest thing I’ve done on this continent. It’s in Wisconsin, and it’s a weekend trip. You fly in on Friday night, stay at the House on the Rock Resort, and then you spend all day Saturday at the House on the Rock. You’ll be glad you did. You will not have any other experience like it. I went to one room where they have the largest inside carousel in the world and my eyes were stinging ‘cause it was such a primal childhood joyous experience. You’re inside imagination, in such a great way. The house was built by this guy who got money from his family. He would basically get high every day and say, “I’m going to build a giant whale wrestling with a squid,” and it’s there and you can go see it. So, take a weekend and go. You’ll love it. We were there and David was photographing it to figure out how to photograph it for the show. They keep it dark so that you don’t see the seams of it, so when you’re shooting it on HD, it picks up all this information. You have to treat it so delicately that we’re talking about using infrared types of film to crush the black, so that it feels like wherever you go in that space, you’re just hanging in a star field. It’s exciting to be working with somebody like David again. Hannibal was very contained and intimate, in many ways, even though it was bonkers in other way. But, American Gods is such a huge canvas and I feel like everybody is determined to pull it off.
Are you looking to cast a Native American actor for Shadow?
RAMOS: It’s never specified in the book, what his ethnicity is. There are so many different opinions, and Neil has never come out and said. He could be African American, he could be Middle Eastern, or he could be a mix of everything. He never actually says in the book what his ethnicity is. You just know that his mother is probably Middle Eastern. You can’t whitewash a show like American Gods. I think there would be such a revolt from the fans. And they’ve always said, from day one, that they’re committed to a diverse cast. The obvious characters that are white, like Mr. Wednesday, will be white. But, Bilquis is a goddess from the Middle East. It will absolutely not be a whitewashed production, but that comes from everybody, including the studio and the network. Nobody thought otherwise, which is great.
How are you going to top your Hannibal cast on American Gods?
FULLER: We haven’t cast anybody on American Gods, but I’m terrified because I can’t imagine how it could be better than it was with [the Hannibal cast].
You clearly love the actors that you work with and like to continue working with them. Have you already started thinking about which characters you could cast people as, who you’ve already worked with?