We chat to Bryan Fuller about Hannibal, emulsifying human eyeballs, Lucifer, and elegant vs. exploitation horror…
I have a confession to make. Not one that reflects well on me, but one that bears airing as proof that Hannibal’s Bryan Fuller is a gentleman, a scholar, and - why not - an acrobat.
In the window of Covent Garden’s The Hospital Club, the chic venue for our chat with Star Trek: Voyager, Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies writer Bryan Fuller, is a sculpture called Gold Digga. A pair of gilded deer antlers atop a glittery Mondrian painting, it’s a piece about the commodification of art, but to someone – me – fresh from watching episode one of Hannibal, it’s an apt coincidence. Stag antlers play an arresting role in the Hannibal opener, and this flashy, glitzy pair seems quite Fuller-y (remind yourself of the opening credits to Pushing Daisies and you might agree). It’s a symbolic meeting of his past and present work. More importantly, it’s something to chat about in that awkward taking-off-your-coat-and-choosing-a-chair bit of any interview.
Puffed up with the promise of this ground-breakingly insightful opening gambit, I walk into the room, bid Fuller a cheery hello, bring up the antlers, then brilliantly, for the next seven minutes, forget to turn on my Dictaphone.
Unfazed by my - as he generously terms them - “tech issues”, Fuller reassures me that we’ll catch up, and when the PR comes to shoo me away, tells a chivalric white lie on my behalf. We need more time, he says. It’s his fault, he had to take a phone call. I mouth “Thank you”, Fuller wrinkles his nose sweetly, mouths “That’s fine”, and keeps talking. Bryan Fuller everybody: Gentleman. Scholar. Acrobat.
[For the record, those lost seven minutes took in Fuller’s current reading material: Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse, his plans for a seven season arc of Hannibal with the first three structured as the “unpublished novels” leading up to season four’s Red Dragon adaptation themed respectively around Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham's "bromance", their "ugly break-up", and then a fugitive situation.]
You were talking about negotiating with MGM about the use of some Thomas Harris characters for Hannibal?
Yes. We reached out to MGM in the first season because I really wanted to tell the story of Benjamin Raspail and how that head ended up in a jar in The Silence of the Lambs.
And Buffalo Bill?
Exactly, Jame Gumb. We knew that Benjamin Raspail was romantically involved with Jame Gumb and Benjamin Raspail was a patient of Hannibal Lecter’s, so I was very excited about telling that story as a fan of the movie and the books, and wanting this to be the definitive Hannibal Lecter experience. We went to MGM and asked ‘Can we use this character?’ after we arc-ed it out in the first season and had that character integrated into our storyline, and they said no. Then we said ‘Pretty please’ and they said no, and then we said ‘Can we have a sit-down and tell you what we want to do?’ and kind of offer it up, because while they have the rights to every character that originated in The Silence of the Lambs, we have the rights to every character that originated in Red Dragon, so that means they don’t have Hannibal.
And you don’t have Clarice Starling?
We don’t have Clarice. But we can do a Clarice-like character and they can do a Hannibal-like character that can’t be Hannibal… but both Clarice and Hannibal are more powerful with the other. Fortunately for us, Clarice wasn’t the only foil for Hannibal Lecter. He had Will Graham first.
For whom you have Hugh Dancy
The wonderful Hugh Dancy. Have you seen it yet?
I watched the first episode this morning.
That’ll put you off your breakfast.
[Laughs] Oh yes!
I thought it was terrific, I’m so looking forward to watching the rest.
How did it come about that NBC skipped the pilot-stage and went straight to a thirteen-episode order?
I think the studio, Gaumont TV, that was kind of their edict, ‘If you want it, you want it for thirteen episodes, and otherwise we’ll take it someplace else’, so NBC said ‘No, we want it.’
I think that they were bold in embracing the show because we sat down and said, ‘Why should we do this on NBC?’ And they said ‘Because we’ll let you tell the story that you want to tell’. Nudity and strong language aren’t really kind of cornerstones of the way I write anyway so…
You didn’t need to go to HBO?
I didn’t need HBO for that, but I did need graphic imagery and I did need the ability to embrace that component of the brand of Hannibal Lecter. NBC said ‘We will be very lenient with standards and practices and we will allow you to do the show that you want to do if you do it with us’ and so they’ve been much more lenient with us than any other network would be.
Some of our imagery is hard R, it’s graphic, and NBC has really kept true to their word because I think you have to have a certain amount of graphic imagery with this story, so because we’re telling the story of an aesthete, an erudite dandy, a sophisticate, it was important - even though we do have some graphic imagery - for it to be beautiful in the way it was presented.
As you say, it’s elegant horror
As opposed to…
Inelegant, rape, pathology slab…
Where it’s just raw. We won’t tell a rape story on Hannibal. If it’s too real it’s no fun for me. I’m very sensitive. The horror that we do on the show has a heightened quality to it and I kind of need that vibrating above reality-sense in order to enjoy the work, and have fun with it. If it’s too real, then it’s not as much fun.
The visuals you’ve created are remarkable. How did you collaborate with your three directors, Brian Slade, Guillermo Navarro, Battlestar’s Michael Rymer… You have some good people.
We have some great people. It was about finding directors who I knew had that visual style. David Slade of course, who directed the pilot and set the paradigm for the show is very important. I thought Hard Candy was a beautiful looking picture that had some very disturbing images and was elegant in and of itself and certainly 30 Days of Night I though was an elegant horror film.
David was so meticulous and so inspired by Thomas Harris, which I was as well, so it was great to have a partner to craft the show. David came back and directed three episodes and came up with some beautiful, beautiful imagery, and then Michael Rymer came aboard and provided his own aesthetic to his episodes.
That aesthetic is quite different from the visual style of much of your past work. This isn’t ‘kooky’, there are no bright flowery colours, talking animal figurines… it’s a visual departure for you.
Yeah, the whole show is a departure, in some ways.
Well, it’s a different genre.
Which I thought would be really fun to do. I was kind of ready to do something that was a little unexpected because I think Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies and Mockingbird Lane all have a similar kind of fun to the ghoulishness. Wonderfalls wasn’t really ghoulish, it was really a Joan of Arc story in a way, but it was also about a woman dealing with mental illness, possibly, and Hannibal is a story about a man struggling with mental illness so it kind of has this odd connection to Wonderfalls.
There are other connections too, and not just the recasting of Fullerverse characters. Your leads seem disconnected from the rest of the world, they often have a strong affinity with animals.
I love animals. I’m not necessarily a big meat eater - although if I go to someone’s home I will eat whatever’s put in front of me and I’m not precious - but if I’m left to my own devices I’ll have gluten-free pasta and fish. With land-roaming animals, I’ve just read so much about the sophistication of their emotional lives and their intelligence and the way they process information that betrays a greater intelligence.
There’s an interesting parallel here isn’t there, between carnivorism in general and cannibalism. There’s Hannibal’s idea of ‘If you’re going to behave like a pig, you deserve to end up as somebody’s bacon’, and the whole messy ethics of humans eating intelligent creatures (can you tell I’m a vegetarian?).
Right, right! Which is one of the reasons I loved working with José Andrés, the chef who’s our culinary consultant. When we sat down with him he had an attitude of meat is meat is meat is meat in terms of not judging eating a human being versus eating an animal, and not making that distinction. I was like, ‘What could you eat on a human being?’ He was like, ‘You could eat everything. You can emulsify eyeballs, you can grind the bones to make jello gelatine.’ There was no kind of censorship which I, as an animal lover appreciated, I thought: that’s fair.
You realise your culinary consultant is probably going to be on a bunch of FBI lists now you’ve said that.
[Laughs] Right! Well I asked him, I said ‘Is it common for chefs, as you’re constantly looking for the next flavour profile, to think about, hypothetically, eating people?’ and he was like ‘Oh sure, it comes up’.
Changing the subject to something slightly less gruesome, can we talk about Twitter? You live tweeted the first episode of Hannibal as it went out in the US?
The first three.
How has that level of engagement, and making yourself available to your audience in that way, changed your job?
I think it’s taking advantage of social network as a promotional tool and also providing additional content to the show of things that, if I were a viewer… I mean, it’s hard to deny that Twitter exists.
Some people try.
They do, and with good reason, there are ups and downs to it, but I found that, I would say, 85-90 percent of interactions on Twitter are very positive.
Do you use the block button?
Oh yeah. Block the rude! [a motto of Lecter’s is ‘Eat the rude’]
Ha! That’s brilliant. I want that on a t-shirt.
[Laughing] If somebody is mean or rude I just, I don’t engage, just block and say, well that’s not very polite. But I think it’s kind of fun to share, like Will Graham’s psych evaluation, the letter on his file.
Yes! The psychological profile, I read that.
I thought like, this is cool, if I was a fan of the show I would want to read this and I would want to see what the set drawings were as a curiosity of what production is like behind the scenes pictures.
With the likes of Twitter and Kickstarter though, do you think there’s a danger at all that fandom might become even more entitled?
There is that aspect and that danger I think, but also because it’s Twitter, it’s sort of like when Will Graham says about his students, “I’m not interacting with them, I’m speaking at them”. I empathise as somebody who is a fan and has been a fan and has questions and has passion about the entertainment that I engage in, and so I’m empathetic to what the audience wants and I sort of think, ‘What would I want if I was standing in their shoes watching The X-Files?’.
Speaking of which, you have a very exciting actor coming up on Hannibal. In Gillian Anderson, you’ve cast one of TV’s most famous FBI agents. How did that come about?
Well, originally the role was written for a much older woman. It was the character of Hannibal’s psychiatrist, so the idea was that she was going to be retired and he kept her working and then I thought, oh wouldn’t it be cool to hire Angela Lansbury and have Jessica Fletcher sitting there.
That’s a mash-up and a half!
Yeah, and you know, that didn’t work out with Angela Lansbury’s schedule and then I went to NBC and said, ‘Is there anybody that you guys are excited about?’, and they were like, ‘If you go younger, what about Gillian Anderson?’, and I was like, ‘Let’s go younger!’
That opened up this whole door where the character isn’t retired because she’s of retirement age, but because something traumatic happened during her practice, and then it opened up this whole story between her and Hannibal Lecter and how much she knows about him and what is the nature of their relationship… We kind of build to a great place by the end of the series when we’re wondering how much does she know? How much has she figured out? How much is she in danger? You have this icy, sexy woman across from this icy sexy man and there’s a vibration that happens between them that is really rich and exciting to watch. Not only was I a fan of The X-Files, but I was a fan of her Miss Havisham (in the BBC 2011 Great Expectations), in which I thought she was brilliant.
Another role that’s traditionally taken by a much older actress.
You must be like a kid in the proverbial, with her, Laurence Fishburne, Mads Mikkelsen… Is it right that Mikkelsen turned down Thor 2 for Hannibal?
Yeah, he had that choice. He gets to be more than the villain in Hannibal, he gets to be a really dimensionalised character. One of the things I loved about sitting down with Mads for the first time was that he said he didn’t want to play Anthony Hopkins or Brian Cox. He wanted to play Hannibal as Lucifer and I loved that.
The fallen angel
Who has awe for humanity and yet still could be hellishly punitive to those he feels are less than human, or the rude…
Or the Twitter trolls…
[Laughing] Yeah, exactly! So I thought that was a really great angle into the show that I hadn’t seen before. Also as somebody who loves genre and loves that sense in which you can watch the show as it exists in this reality and it’s very grounded, and then look at it with this extra added level of Hannibal Lecter is…
Celestial yet demonic?
Yeah, but we don’t have to play any of it, we just suggest it with the storyline. There are some images that we have in the show coming up later in the season where, here, I’ll show you some of the things that we see [reaches for his phone and starts flipping through images].
Will Graham has a very vivid imagination, so this is an image that he sees when he looks at Hannibal in a compromised state. [Shows me the image]
It’s a little bit of Korean legend. We have a very distinct visual style. That’s a David Slade image.
[I can’t tell you what I’m looking at, but it’s strong, beautiful, otherworldly. Fuller is obviously proud to bits of Hannibal, and with very good reason.]
[Whispers conspiratorially] That’s actually from the finale. So, good stuff coming up! [laughs].
Bryan Fuller, thank you very much!