Often considered one of the most impossible-to-adapt properties on the market, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon‘s cult graphic novel Preacher is finally heading to screens in the form of an AMC series. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, self-professed megafans of the comic, have taken up the challenge of reimagining Preacher’s insane world for the screen and picked up Breaking Bad‘s Sam Catlin to showrun the series. The result (at least based on the stellar pilot) is the best kind of adaptation; one that honors the source material without becoming beholden to it.
Just before Preacher‘s WonderCon screening, I joined a handful of journalists to talk with Catlin about why he had to be convinced Preacher could be turned into a TV show, shaking up the pace for the televised format, what Breaking Bad taught him about writing characters, knowing he’s making something that’s going to piss everybody off, and a whole lot more. We even went deep on why Cassidy can’t wear his signature sunglasses all the time.
QUESTION: I’m sure you already kind of noticed that Preacher has a very devoted fan base as most adaptations tend to have, so going into that what was the most important part for you to kind of keep true to the essence of the original story and stuff like that? What was the most challenging part?
SAM CATLIN: The most challenging part? Where to begin, definitely. In terms of the story, where to start was the most challenging part. But the spirit of it is what we really hope is in the show, from the beginning, that crazy Garth Ennis world. We changed some things narratively from where we begin, but hopefully the world is recognizable as Preacher.
Where to start is just one thing in a huge amount of story, how did you guys approach the line of staying faithful and doing what you wanted and changing things?
CATLIN: Well, I’d never adapted anything before, I didn’t know what the rules were. I didn’t know you could change things. So when I first started reading the comic, Seth and Evan brought it to me, and I was like, “I don’t know how you make that a TV show. That’s not a TV show, that’s an amazing comic book.” But once I started to figure out, “Okay, if the characters are here…” How do we make – Because if we were to shoot the comic book of Preacher, it would be like $400 or 500 million, we would be unproducible. So how do we make a show that is a TV show but pushes all of those boundaries in a similar way that doesn’t feel like “Preacher Lite,” or “Preacher TV.” So, yeah. Once we figured out a way to bring the characters together and started to realize how we could parcel out the story, once we figured out where we could start.
I think that first idea came when – You know, he’s sort of a preacher in name only in the comic book. You never see him as a preacher — very little — but he’s immediately disillusioned and on his way out. And I think once we sort of figured out, well no, maybe we can still have this gonzo world and have all these crazy things happening and he’s still trying to be a preacher, still kind of trying to do preacher shit. And help people, but not in a boring navel-gazing way, but sort of a spiritual sheriff to this town and once we came up with this idea of this really sin-soaked town that needs redemption, that needs a good preacher, it felt like that was a good place to start with it.
Previously, you worked on Breaking Bad, so what if any sort of similarities do you see between Jesse Custer and Walter White?
CATLIN: Huh. Well, I don’t know, I had never thought of that. Well Walter White is, if I’m going to give an overly simplified answer, I’d say Walter White is a good man trying to turn bad and Jesse Custer is a bad man trying to turn good, in a lot of ways. That’s not really true because Walt was really, he was what he was all along underneath that. Walter White makes so many things possible in terms of protagonists and we learned a lot on that show about how dark we can push a character and still have the audience be in his corner. And just pushing the boundaries of what’s doable in a lead character. So, that’s one of the things that’s very exciting, because Jesse, and Tulip, and Cassidy, and a lot of the characters, kind of really do some bad shit. As a writer, and I’m sure for them as actors, it’s always exciting to see how far you can push someone, and still not be a bad guy, you know? So, I learned a lot in terms of how dark you can go and still get away with it.
Is that the way that Seth and Evan brought the material to you? That it’s full of these characters that do incredibly bad things and yet you still love them all the way through?
CATLIN: When they brought it to me, they were like, “Dude, you gotta see this thing, you haven’t heard of Preacher? Man.” No, I don’t read comics since I was like, a kid. And he was like, “No, no you gotta read this.” So I read it and it was great, but like I said I didn’t know how to turn it into a television show. But,to me, what they brought was it’s a world where anything can happen, it’s just crazy and upside down. There’s god, there’s angels, there’s vampires, there’s cowboys. There’s the south of France, there’s cults, in a lot of ways it was liberating to come from – it’s been challenging in other ways, but coming from Breaking Bad, things were very clear, it’s people, it’s present day Albuquerque. All the rules are still like – you’re painting within numbers that are normal human behavior. But with Preacher you sort of have to make up your own rules about what’s possible. So that’s been sort of liberating. You can’t just be anything goes, because there always has to be limits so it doesn’t feel like children playing with finger paint, but it’s just been a very different experience than Breaking Bad. Liberating, just like “What if they do this? What if they go there? What if they just go to hell?” So, that’s fun.
Have you had any trouble, as far as the gore, with AMC, or are they pretty open to blow up however many people you want?
CATLIN: No, there’s a sequence that’s under discussion towards the very end that is very – that’s the only time there’s ever been anything that’s like, “Is there a way to maybe…?” But they’ve been great.
What is the sequence?
CATLIN: I can’t tell you, but it’s pretty fucked up. [laughs] But they’ve been really great. And the violence, there’s been very little… From the beginning, I’m sure people were like, “Well, I wish it were on HBO because you could do whatever you wanted and it would be so awesome,” but I’m telling you this is not Preacher TV, this is not Preacher for basic cable, it’s fuckin’ Preacher.
We’ve all seen the pilot and it’s great by a way, but it makes you wonder, how far can this go? In the books, Steve Dillon illustrates the arseface suicide, is that something that’s going to be shown in the show? Because that’s a very touchy subject.
CATLIN: Yeah, it is. Well, I won’t say specifically about that, but Garth really pushes the envelope in terms of those stories, and I will say we really did too. In terms of, there’s some silly violence and there’s some crazy perverse violence but there’s also some real violence and some real sin. It’s not just – to me, there’s all different kinds of violence in the show, there’s Cassidy in the plane and it’s sort of silly and playful, there’s jazz music, but then there’s Jesse’s going to break a guy’s arm just because.
That was great.
CATLIN: Because he wants to hear the sound. So, yeah, hopefully. We just have had very little… The sex will be [laughs] the sex is also a really fun challenge, too. It’s obviously a big part of Jesse and Tulip’s relationship, but it’s also a big part of the comedy. And that’s something that we’re really excited to play with.
How far does season 1 go in the timeline of Preacher?
CATLIN: Well, I won’t say exactly, but in terms of Jesse’s journey, we look at where he’s at, in one way that Season 1 is a prequel a little bit, which doesn’t mean that characters or situations or people obviously don’t appear until the end of the season. We push some stuff later and we bring some stuff earlier.
Can you at least tell us, and we can do it off the record, do we get Saint of Killers in Season 1?
CATLIN: I can’t tell you.
CATLIN: I can’t say. But I will say that we’re very much aware –
Of characters that are in this world that people want to see, right?
CATLIN: Right. And they’re going to see them. Yes.
Do you guys have it arched out for a certain amount of seasons?
CATLIN: No, we don’t. What’s so exciting about it too is you sort of know how it starts — well, now we know how it starts, because we started — and you sort of have a sense of how it’s going to end, but there are so many chapters in between that are these vignettes or chapters, different stories, they’re sort of seasons unto themselves. They feel like worlds unto themselves, whether it’s the Bayou or San Francisco or New York or any of these places we want to go or invent ourselves or transpose together. And also the way he plays with time, there’s ways of going back in time, so it’s a little different than Breaking Bad where he gets diagnosed with cancer, and you can flashback all you want but it’s a real line from A to B. There’s no time for dallying, and Preacher has all sorts of great opportunities for fucking around and going down the wrong road and stuff like that.
I have a very important question. How often will Cassidy be wearing his glasses?
CATLIN: How often will he be wearing his sunglasses?
Yeah. Trust me, that’s a point of contention with some of my nerd friends is that you saw him without his glasses.
He’s very upset about this.
CATLIN: Are you the friend?
[laughs] It’s me. When I went into the pilot I was like, “He’s not wearing his sunglasses,” and 10 minutes in, I was like, “Shut up.” And it was great, but I’m just curious. But I was talking to someone and they were saying that it’s very difficult to act when you can’t see someone’s eyes.
CATLIN: Well you can act all you want but you can’t understand what they’re feeling. You really do need to be able to see the actor’s eyes. It’s sort of a reveal in Preacher – and then his eyes are all jacked up like that. I think it would be hard to really connect in the way you would need to over time with him, but he’s going to have his sunglasses on plenty. But there’s something about a guy that’s always in his sunglasses that, I don’t know, it’s how we communicate with other people, we read their is the eyes. After a while, we just thought that it would a ceiling or a wall to Cassidy. But yeah, I hear you. Get over it.
Jumping back to the timeline a little bit, the pilot takes its time to luxuriate, it doesn’t take off on the action right away. Do you guys feel pressure knowing that fans are going to want to get places and how much do you feel comfortable just really slow rolling it?
CATLIN: That was sort of what I was talking about when I said that I first read it and didn’t think we could do it as a tv show, because it starts like a bat out of hell and it doesn’t really slow down. So, it’s just, the pace of it, the narrative is just not a television pace. You can’t tell a story like that. It’s not even just that you couldn’t afford it, you just can’t just do people driving from one town to the next to the next to the next, because of the production of it, but it’s also going to tell a story, if it’s crazy 100 MPH all the time, it could saturate. But I feel like once we figured out how great and crazy and perverse the world of Preacher could be, in a location, in one place and let the trouble come to them in certain ways. I don’t feel like we’re vamping or anything like that. By the end of this season we’ve only just scratched the surface of the stories that we can get to. But I don’t feel like we’re playing it out. There’s a bunch of stuff in Season 1. I don’t think that people at the end of Season 1, people won’t be like, “Well, they sort of didn’t have anything to do there so they sort of like, it was kind of like My Dinner with Andre.” There’s plenty of stuff that happens in our slow moving Season 1.
Well even in the pilot it was slower moving than the comics but there was a ton that happens.
Are you ready for the protests? I mean like, One Million Moms protesting Lucifer on Fox. Like, nothing compared to this. God’s a deadbeat that leaves heaven. Are you ready?
CATLIN: I tell my wife, that if we do this right, our lives won’t be worth a nickel. They’re going to come for us. Between the comic book people and the religious right, yeah, Tom Cruise, yeah. I don’t know if anything, I mean with politics, the political year, anything can happen like that where people get their hands on it and are just like, “Oh, they got the pothead Canadians and the guy from Massachusetts kicking the shit out of religion.” But it’s really not – the show is really crazy, it doesn’t pull any punches or anything like that, but I wouldn’t say it’s anti [religious] — it’s sort of anti everything, in a lot of ways. It’s not pro-atheism, let’s put it that way. It sort of just takes on anything and everything and in a way that I feel is fun. But not socially irresponsible. It takes on these big institutions.
But, again, Jesse is this, he’s a preacher, he believes in god, he’s a very devout man in a way. His father was a preacher, so he’s steeped in religion and knows the bible backwards and forwards. And it wouldn’t be a very interesting lead character if we were just writing him as a dick or an idiot or a sucker. It’s our job and Dominic’s job and everyone’s job to absolutely make the argument for the necessity of believing in god. Because that’s certainly where he starts. I don’t think anyone’s interested in a Hollywood takedown of religious people, you know? It’s just too easy. I think Christian people, young Christian people – there are a bunch of Christian people that aren’t even going to look at it, they’re going to throw their television out of a window, but I think there’s going to be a lot of Christian people that are going to love this show. We have a Jesuit priest on our writing staff, we have a Christian, both her parents were ministers in west Texas. I think there’s a tendency to think it’s a huge monolith, especially with younger Christians, and I think they’re going to dig it because to have somebody like Jesse Custer as a guy who’s trying to get answers from god, who’s pissed off, I think it’s pretty universal. I think people are really going to dig it.
Some of the humor in the comic, and even some of the menace and threat, now could be viewed as homophobic. And even Garth Ennis himself has said that he was in a different place when he wrote a lot of the material in the ’90s. How do you approach the fact that “getting buggered” is a common threat in the book or a common joke?
CATLIN: Yeah. Oh god, Seth and Evan were saying movies they wrote five or six years ago are homophobic now, the sense of what’s appropriate has really changed a lot in the last 15 years. Yeah, we’re not going to be homophobic. But we may have a character that’s super homophobic. But he better watch his ass because he’s going to get in trouble, we’re going to fuck him up. [laughs] There’s going to be all sorts of people like that. But I mean, it’s a 20-year-old comic and there’s a few things that like you said, Garth said are a little dated. And we’re not going to, it’s not like there has to be buggery! We’ll update it. We’ll make it offensive but in brand new ways.
Kind of piggy backing off that. Tulip’s character in the book is white. There’s a lot of themes of racism and racist characters in the book. How will that play into the different race of Tulip onscreen, or will it?
CATLIN: Well, it has to. She’s black, she’s living in west Texas and it will come up when it comes up. I don’t think she’s a very political animal, I don’t think she thinks of herself as an African-American. I think there’s all sorts of great stories that are going to come up about that. We love that there’s, you know, I don’t think we cast her as black because, “Well, it’s time to really roll up our sleeves and get to the issues.” To us, we just like “He’s a vampire, Jesse’s Jesse — he’s a fuckin’ mess, she’s black and she’s a mess,” and It’s a big ugly pairing and we love it. They don’t really fit together which is why they fit together so great. In their own way, they’re all sort of outcasts. But it wasn’t a mandate she be African-American. She’s not even American. We haven’t cast any American actors in the show, really.
Everybody has the opposite accent than you would expect.
CATLIN: He’s British, she’s Irish-Ethiopian, Joe is English. And we’ve got like three other English people on the show. I don’t know what happened.