After months of anticipation, American Gods is finally here—and its temple is one in which fans of every genre can find something to worship. Breathtakingly shot, often deliriously funny, and with an opening scene that loosely resembles an explosion in a cherry syrup factory, the Starz original series is hypnotically weird and wonderful. This melting pot of genres is perfectly at home in the modern America which the show’s characters (like half the world) are trying to navigate and understand.
Amongst those characters is Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), who is released from prison only to discover that his wife Laura (Emily Browning) and best friend died in a comprising position the day before. Before he can grieve, the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) enters his life like the answer to a prayer he didn’t know he’d spoken. As they traverse America in a sleek black Cadillac, Wednesday opens Shadow’s eyes to a world of belief and the unbelievable—one populated by the likes of the cocky Internet-embodying Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and the sinisterly seductive Media (Gillian Anderson), not to mention the ultimate one-night stand, she of the especially voracious sexual appetites, love goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki).
After catching the first four episodes available for review (and then catching my breath, and then watching them again), I can tell you you’re in for the ride of your life. And was there ever any doubt, given the capable hands the series found itself in? With Neil Gaiman (author of the original novel) onboard as executive producer, American Gods was co-developed by Michael Green (writer of the upcoming Alien: Covenant) alongside the incomparable creator of NBC’s Hannibal, Bryan Fuller. Their collaboration is nothing short of a gift from the Gods.
As a long-time “fannibal” and all-round enthusiast of Bryan Fuller’s work, I had a religious experience of my own recently when I caught up with him to discuss American Gods, horror movies, and a vagina that’ll eat you alive.
SCREAM: You’ve got a talent for exploring fairly grim topics in your shows, but you do it with a sense of humour and humanity that really resonates with audiences. What was your thought process like going into American Gods, which is about the beauty and horror of belief, or the lack thereof?
BRYAN FULLER: One of the things that both Michael [Green] and I got very excited about just thematically was everything that’s happening above and beyond the narrative of the story. There are so many different issues and layers to the tale that Neil [Gaiman] wove that we were excited about unpacking them and being able to have conversations through characters about what they believe in, what America stands for, and the hypocrisy of all of it. It felt rich.
SCREAM: What’s really fascinating is how you’ve brought this wonderfully creepy and mind-bending imagery into the show. Were there every times when you sat back and thought “I can’t believe we’re able to do this?”
BF: Ha! We have a sex scene that we wrote that was pretty visually aggressive and bizarre. We were watching it and the final visual effects had been submitted… That was a surreal moment. Because it was such a vivid part of the book and we very faithfully adapted it, but we also wanted to make sure that it had a few new layers as well. That’s a sequence in episode three, the Salim and Jinn story from the novel. Among many proud moments in the show that’s definitely a light that shines bright.
SCREAM: Speaking of the relationship between Salim and the Jinn, I know that in the past you’ve experienced pushback from studios concerning the representation of LGBT characters in your work. As a gay man, what was it like to finally portray not just an openly gay relationship but also, as you were saying, a very saucy sexy scene?
BF: [laughs] It was wonderful. I remember on Wonderfalls where Katie Finneran’s character was a gay woman and we had to cut away before lips connected. Like we couldn’t show the audience a same-sex kiss. And that was always kind of shocking in 2004 when that show came out. Now we’re showing not just a kiss, but we’re really exploring a man’s first genuinely emotional sexual experience as someone who had been previously oppressed, and whose sexual experiences are probably contained within blow-and-go back alley shenanigans [rather] than anything that would be remotely considered romantic. And so for us, in reading the novel, we saw that the experience with Salim and the Jinn in the hotel room was a blow job, and the wish fulfilment that we wanted for Salim was for someone to make love to him. And that’s what the Jinn does. We wanted that to be a powerful experience for a man who previously hadn’t known that level of romantic sex. We hope young people in environments where their sexuality and their sexual identities are oppressed can see this story and either be inspired by it to embrace themselves and accept themselves, or at the very least have something good to masturbate to.
SCREAM: Sticking with the topic of genitals: with the character of Bilquis, we get to see the concept of swallowing a person taken to a fairly extreme new level. Were you inspired by the concept of the vagina dentata (vagina with teeth) when creating that scene?
BF: The vagina dentata is one particular approach that we wanted to be wary of, because even though for all intents and purposes what you experience of Bilquis’ sex life in the first episode does seem dentata-esque, in the second episode you get a bigger glimpse of where her worshippers go and what becomes of them that is slightly less violent and painful than what the vagina dentata suggests to me.
SCREAM: It seems that Starz has less qualms about nudity and even gore to an extent than NBC did with Hannibal. I remember the story of [NBC] notoriously making you cover up actors’ buttocks with extra blood to hide their skin. Is it refreshing to see the expected boundaries of television being pushed further and further these days?
BF: You know it is nice not to have that layer of obfuscation that we had to do. But really, NBC and their Standards and Practices let us get away with murder.
BF: Literally. And so I’m actually very proud of our collaboration with our executive [at NBC] who was assigned to our show, Joanna Jameson, who is amazing and incredibly helpful. I sort of miss that relationship because it was fun to navigate with her, because she was always about trying to allow the show to be what the show needed to be. We collaborated and conspired together how to navigate Broadcast Standards and Practices and still show the audience a bloody Hannibal. At Starz, we don’t need that relationship, because we’re not subject to Broadcast Standards and Practices. It is easier because there’s no hoop there for us to jump through, but I enjoyed jumping through that hoop with Joanna Jameson.
SCREAM: What you produced with Hannibal was definitely worth all the hoop-jumping. As a fannibal myself, one of the things I’m most excited about seeing in American Gods is actually the work of [food stylist] Janice Poon.
SCREAM: I had the chance to chat to her [for the magazine] just after Hannibal season three finished airing. Can you give us a taste of what she’s cooking up for American Gods?
BF: She’s prepared a couple of different meals—most notably, the homey charms of the Zorya sisters and Russian cuisine for a dining room scene. But if anybody is eating anything on this show, Janice Poon is involved because she makes food look better. She has a fantastic improvisational instinct because she meets every challenge with “yes, and…” And I hope I am working with Janice Poon when I no longer have teeth to chew with.
SCREAM: I hope you keep your teeth but I also hope you keep working with her. Now you’ve always been a very vocal fan of the horror genre. Hannibal contained a number of homages to iconic horror films from The Shining to Motel Hell.
BF: Right? Ha ha!
SCREAM: I loved that one. Can we expect to see similar nods in American Gods?
BF: Well there are always going to be a lot of those images that you may find familiar but re-contextualise, because I think so many of them are seared on our psyches. Michael definitely has his pop culture reference points and I have mine, and it’s fun to see them all mix together in American Gods. There’s a lot of Kubrick and a lot of David Lynch once again in this production because I find them to be such inspiring touchstones for tone and tension. And we talk about David Lynch and sound editing every session. We’re constantly referencing what Lynch does with tones in a sound mix that give you a sense of upset or unease as it were. And those influences, which you might not see cinematically, are certainly there audibly for fans of those filmmakers. There will be lots of references that you can both see and hear.
SCREAM: I am very excited about that. I could definitely see the Technical Boy and Media being spiritual successors to the likes of the New Flesh in Videodrome. Is the dark side of technology something you were interested in exploring in the show?
BF: That’s the wonderful thing about this season, in that it is a world-building endeavour—we just touch the surface of a lot of those issues and kinks and alleyways that could be explored with the Technical Boy and Media. And you know that I am a massive fan of David Cronenberg, so there’s absolutely some Nicki Brand action awaiting us in our Videodrome world.
SCREAM: There’s a lot more sympathy in the book towards the Old Gods over the New, despite their bloodlust. In adapting the more traditional medium of the novel into the modern format of television, was there a temptation to redress that balance?
BF: That’s a great question because as we were exploring the story and the theme of the book and this season certainly, when we break down that both Old Gods and New are after the same resource, which is worship, each of them do a slightly different job in existential crisis aversion for humanity. They really do have similar agendas. There’s a lot of grey area to be explored with what specifically differentiates the New Gods from the Old Gods, and what specifically could allow you to perceive one or the other as the antagonist or the protagonist, because I feel like it’s very fluid. What we have learned in talking about this show and the internal logic of the novel is that New Gods are saving us from ourselves in one fashion, and Old Gods are saving us from ourselves in an old fashion, and both of them have a method to their madness and a point to it. That is hard not to see—particularly in a world where our faces are glued to one screen or another most of the time.
SCREAM: That’s definitely true for me. On the idea that both the New Gods and the Old Gods are both heroes and villains, I notice some similarities between Hannibal and Mr. Wednesday. They’re both charismatic older men; they’re both charming but vicious. Do you think they’d get along if they ever met?
BF: Absolutely. And I’m sure Mads Mikkelsen is a manifestation of Odin worshipped somewhere in this world. So the idea of those two meeting—[Mikkelsen’s] Hannibal and Ian McShane’s Wednesday—is a delightful conceit that will inspire lots of conversation in the writers room.
SCREAM: Speaking of Hannibal, you’ve never been shy about throwing buckets of blood at your actors—especially since one of your first teleplays was Carrie . American Gods starts with a deliriously bloody bang… Are you trying to out-gore yourself?
BF: You know, what’s interesting about the way we open the season is that was originally the opening to episode two. What we found in making the show is that different things were speaking to us in different ways. Originally, the “Coming to America” that is now in episode three, which concerns a Brooklyn woman’s encounter with the ancient God Anubis, that was our first incarnation of how the series should open—one of the reasons being that we didn’t want to alienate the women in the audience who would just see blood and swords and may think this was not the show for them. But when we finished both of the sequences, the network called us and said what you think about moving the opening of two into one, because for us it better sets the table of a coming war of Gods. We felt that they had a point so we made a switch. But in the projection of that sequence, we were adamant about trying to find a tone that wasn’t competitive with a Game of Thrones style battle sequence, because we were never going to beat them at that game—they do it incredibly well. We wanted it to be a little absurd, a little ridiculous… In kind of an operatic, quasi-masturbatory indulgence of blood flow to show the audience that we weren’t taking it too seriously. So when you have the severed arm whisking through frame, we want the audience to be able to laugh at the absurdity of that scene—down to like shirts and skins types of combat, but this time it’s your life you’re battling for, not the basketball hoop. All those things were us trying to do something under the guise of seriousness but with a little Coen brothers wink.
SCREAM: The sense of humour is fascinating because there are some very gory elements, there are some very weird elements, and the pacing is so quick that it leaves you almost sucker-punched. Is that something that’s going to continue throughout the series—that sense that you have no idea what you’ve just watched, but you love it?
BF: I hope so! You know, I think there’s something really fun about this world—and particularly the first few episodes when we’re just establishing it, and trying to not have it be so strange that the audience disconnects, but strange enough that the audience has questions and is seeking a better understanding of this wild world that we’ve all crashed headlong into.
SCREAM: In regards to both American Gods and Hannibal, you’ve described both essentially as works of fan-fiction.
SCREAM: Do you feel that this mindset makes it easier for you to make an adaptation your own, without the expectations of the source material?
BF: Yes. Take the things that are in your vocabulary and bring them to the forefront, until you understand the things that aren’t in your vocabulary and can better present them to the audience who’re are also trying to wrap their head around a really wild world.
SCREAM: Artistic creation is a subject that comes up a lot in your work, particularly in Hannibal. Dr. Lecter says to a man that it’s their purpose not just to create art but to become it—as he’s sewing him into his own mural of corpses. Would you ever consider filming a cameo in one of your own works, given that you fan base is very loyal to you as a creator?
BF: This sounds so horrible and selfish to say, but I really am making shows that I want to see, that I want to watch and enjoy. And I don’t want to look at myself. [Laughs] So I appreciate the sentiment. But Hitchcock is the only one who pulled it off.
SCREAM: You don’t think you could do a Hitchcock?
BF: Yeah. I don’t feel the need to do the Hitchcock—mainly because I don’t want to ruin my experience watching the movie!
SCREAM: Fair enough. Yours fans are very loyal. Hannibal fans call themselves fannibals, of which I am very much a part.
BF: You and me both.
SCREAM: Do you have an idea for what American Gods fans should be called?
BF: We talked about God Squad. Fannibals… You’re not going to beat that for clever.
SCREAM: It’s beautiful.
BF: Yeah, it’s perfect. It’s very pleasing on the eye, and it represents such a wonderful community. So I don’t think we’re going to top fannibals. The best we can come up with so far is God Squad.
SCREAM: I think that’s pretty good. I’ve introduced Hannibal to people before by describing it as a kind of gateway show into the horror genre, because I think it can really appeal to people who think that they don’t like the genre. Looking back, what would you say was your gateway into horror as a genre?
BF: I would say probably The Munsters. Because I saw The Munsters first very early on, and then because of The Munsters sought out the Universal Monsters, and because of the Universal Monsters found my way into Psycho, another Universal property. And that opened the world to stalk-and-slash. So I would say Munsters was my gateway drug. And there’s just so many aspects of horror storytelling that are powerful that I simply don’t understand anyone’s disconnect from its validity as a genre. It very often has some of the best written female roles in entertainment.
SCREAM: That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about the genre. Speaking of female roles, you’ve greatly expanded a number of female character roles in American Gods. That’s something you did in Hannibal as well in terms of actual gender swapping. Can you give us a little sneak peek into what we can expect to see from characters like Laura and Bilquis in their expanded roles?
BF: Well we completely (in episode four) re-contextualise the series with a second pilot. We rewind back before the first episode and meet Laura before she has even met Shadow Moon, and tell the story of a woman who’s captivated us. For as guarded and shut-off as Laura is, she’s incredibly accessible as a character, and one of the things we wanted to do after reading the book was to not just characterise her as the cheating wife that comes in for brief moments and then leaves. We wanted to understand everything about her. And so our mission was for the audience to empathise as greatly with Laura as they do with Shadow. After that episode, the rest of the season is now about not only Shadow and Wednesday, but Laura Moon and where she’s going in this world, and what her experience is—not as someone who’s just there to service Shadow Moon’s story, but there as someone who has an incredible story for us to tell in and of itself.
SCREAM: It’s fitting almost with your body of work, considering that characters have a little bit of trouble staying in their graves occasionally—Laura is the obvious progression of that trend. Now, horror tends to be a particularly cannibalistic genre—between the retro-throwbacks to the eighties that are happening a lot these days, and remakes and re-imaginings, it’s a genre that’s in a constant state of eating itself. You’ve proven yourself a connoisseur of cannibalism (in many ways) with Hannibal. Are there any other horror properties that you’d like to take a stab at re-imagining?
BF: Oh, SO many! I would kill to do a Friday the 13th movie.
SCREAM: I would kill for you to do that.
BF: I think Mrs. Voorhees needs her day. I would love to write that story. But really, there’s no horror stone that I wouldn’t want to take a peek under. You know, I’m a big fan of Stephen King, I’m a big fan of Anne Rice. I feel like I didn’t successfully pull off the Stephen King adaptation that I participated in, so I would love to do another one knowing now what I know and knowing what I didn’t know then. It would be an honour to adapt Stephen King, or Clive Barker, or Anne Rice in some capacity because those were my literary champions from seventh grade on. I remember reading Books of Blood in the grocery aisle and just having my mind blown. So yeah, it’s a long, long list of things I’d love to get my hooks into.
SCREAM: Well I hope that you’re able to make at least some headway on that list. That’s my last question for you—is there anything else you’d like to say about American Gods?
BF: Please watch!
SCREAM: I think people are definitely going to watch, especially after they catch that first episode. Thank you so much for speaking to me, Bryan.
BF: Thank you!
American Gods premiered on Starz in the US on April 30, and is available exclusively on Amazon Prime in the UK and beyond from May 1.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)