Bryan Fuller, Michael Green, and Neil Gaiman: Bringing the World of American Gods To Life
When it comes to creative teams, I think it’s been a while since we’ve seen a tour de force like the one coming from American Gods. Similar to the creative genius behind Game of Thrones, American Gods is helmed by a two-man team of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, with the author of the novel, Neil Gaiman, playing an active role in the creation of the show. You can’t really beat a team like that.
For Gaiman, the process of turning American Gods into a television show began long before Fuller an Green were a part of the picture. Long considered too big and shapeless to be made into a movie by Gaiman himself, he would get calls from big name directors who would ask him how he could cut the book down to a two-hour movie, and he wouldn’t know how. Coming off of years of writing movie scripts, Gaiman explained that if he could have turned it into a movie, he would have done it. For him, at the time, television hadn’t been an option. It was only after writing the Doctor Who episode, “The Doctor’s Wife,” that he started seriously considering television.
After an unsuccessful set of talks with HBO on creating American Gods the tv show, they eventually found success with Starz. Then on April 1, 2014, Gaiman met with Bryan Fuller at the Shangrila Hotel lobby in Toronto to meet for the first time regarding American Gods. After finding Fuller, Michael Green then signed on, and the show was a go. A year later, the show began production in Toronto. “I went off to Toronto and I watched Ian and Ricky meeting each other on an airplane, and I thought, ‘Okay, this is in good hands,'” Gaiman said.
Creating the Vision
“He’s really in a place of enjoyment, of seeing his baby come to life, which is so lovely to see,” actor Pablo Schreiber (“Mad Sweeney”) said, in regards to Gaiman. “It doesn’t always go that way, writers are not always happy with what they’re presented with.”
But for Neil Gaiman, it was something like fate. Developing a strong relationship with Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, he was able to both give his input and be a sounding board for the showrunners. “It’s a two-way relationship,” Gaiman said, in talking about working through roadblocks when it came to writing and developing the story for tv. “They will phone me and say, ‘We’re stuck on this, here’s where we are in the plot.’ And I can say, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ Which is [because] I’ve known these characters for a long time. Some of it is me saying, ‘You can’t do that.’ Whether it’s a scene that they wrote where somebody goes out of character, I’ll say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ They’ll go, ‘We think he would,’ and I’ll say, ‘No, he wouldn’t.'”
On top of it all came Starz, who were not only fans of the book, but encouraged the creative team as they moved forward. “They have a lot of experience making large things, so they were excellent guides along the way. When they could see us potentially make a misstep or bite off more than we could chew, they would gently warn us, as concerned, but enthusiastic partners,” Green emphasized, praising Starz for their active role in the creation of the show.
“It’s no walk in the park to make a television show,” Fuller admitted. “There are a lot of battles. We had the same instinctive vision for the material so it was really about lockstep.” In creating the vision for the show, it wasn’t just about the three producers working together, but also working with directors and production designers as well. Fuller gives a lot of credit to director David Slade for the aesthetic of the show.
“Whenever you’re trying to recreate physics by telling your audience that magic exists,” explained Green, “you have to tell them what the real world looks like, what your half steps look like, and what your full measure God’s hand will look like. [Slade] was able to show us some things that really helped us see the show for what it might be. He opened up that window so we could see outside.”
On top of that, Brian Reitzel, known for his work on Hannibal and Friday Night Lights, worked as a music supervisor and composer for the show. “Our goal for the show musically was a very complicated task because it’s a very psychological score at the same time that it is playing on the traditional elements of scoring. It was about letting Brian do his thing and allowing us to collaborate with him,” Fuller said. When creating a show like this, one with as many layers as it has, it’s important to develop a strong foundation through things like the set design, color palette, and music composition. For Green, it was about developing a vocabulary for the show, “You begin a vocabulary so you can say more interesting things later.”
The Immigrants’ Story
“At it’s heart,” Bruce Langley (“Technical Boy”) said, “this is a story about immigration.” And he is not wrong. This sentiment was echoed no only by Langley, but by all of the cast and the producers.
Ian McShane mused on the topic, saying:
“It might seem like we’re telling you something, and we’re not. We’re trying to hint at something. This country is built on immigration. And America’s a great country, it just happens to be going through a really weird time, but a lot of places do, and they’ll recover from it. But that’s what the show talks about, [it] talks about the electronic age. It’s saying there’s nothing wrong with an iPhone, but if you choose to ignore the past, you’ll be condemned to repeat it.”
For Neil Gaiman, it’s about all of that and more:
“It’s about a lot of things, it’s about the immigrant experience, it’s about America, it’s about what happens to those cultures when they come here and what we leave behind. It’s about the New Gods: the things that pull our attention, our love, our belief, and our interest. And it’s about all of those things, but it’s also about the people in the story and caring about what happens to them, and following them around.”
Langley added that in talking to Gaiman, the author talked about where he felt America is now. “[Neil] mentions how he feels America is one of the few countries, perhaps the only country, that is still searching for its soul, that doesn’t know what it is, who it is, what it is at its heart. And that it is an amalgamation of all these other cultures, all these other ideas, and that it is evolving into this strange mix and trying to define itself in that maelstrom.”
Elaborating on that, Gaiman commented not only on his experience writing the novel almost two decades ago, but the media reaction to the show and its production:
“What’s fascinated me is two things. One of which is how little we’ve had to change [in the story] and how much of what we did when I wrote it 17 years ago, which seemed fairly non-contentious, and even when we were writing the scripts, seemed very non-contentious, like, ‘Well, nobody’s going to argue with this stuff’, ‘Well obviously, we’re in America, it is a country of immigrants, everybody came here from somewhere else.’ It’s a racially diverse cast because it’s a racially diverse country. These are the things that seemed self-evident, and at least things that you couldn’t argue with. And then I was being interviewed at the red carpet of the Empire Film Awards, and I just talked about this as a show that was fundamentally about immigrants, and that being a good thing, and [about] people coming to America and the racial mixture. And as I’m looking at the comments when the
And as I’m looking at the comments when the Daily Express puts what I’ve said up online, there are people going, ‘Well, we’re going to boycott this.’ And I thought, ‘Well first of all, you’re not going to boycott this. What you’re actually going to do is, technically, what is called not watching. Which is a different thing. Slightly less impressive.’ But the fact that you would get people who [feel that] their entire identity, their entire world view is now being threatened by a show, which is talking about things that seem fairly fucking obvious, is kind of astonishing to me. And the fact that stuff which did not seem contentious when I wrote it, and now you get headlines saying ‘Will American Gods be the most political show of 2017?’ In terms of pop culture, we probably will be. Did we set out to be that? No. The world went mad, and we’re still doing the same stuff we were doing before the world went mad.”
Gods on Gods on Gods
When it came to adding the gallery of gods to the show, the obvious ones came first. But, with the renewal of the show for a second season, the question on my mind is if we’ll be seeing more gods from other places take the stage. “If there is any regret in the first season it is that in eight episodes we haven’t hit all continents,” Michael Green lamented. Bryan Fuller added to that, saying, “We are trying to represent everybody, and we just scratched the surface.”
While the new gods are created from a world that we are all too familiar with, the old gods have endless tomes and texts dedicated to them and thousands and thousands of years of history that can be drawn from. “Myth has been the single most driving force in terms of how we communicate, what it means to be a human being throughout our many cultures,” Bruce Langley said, “With that said, that’s been changing and evolving a lot. We’ve been losing our myths because we can’t integrate them into our cultural lexicon as fast as new ones are being made.”
In regards to the new gods, for Michael Green and Bryan Fuller, it was about changing the definition of worship. “How are they worshipping? You’re giving your time, attention, services, goods, and affection to things without even knowing. It’s sort of taken off you. It’s a bit of a grift at times. Do you really worship what you think you do?” Green asked. Fuller went further than mere technology, criticizing people, saying, “[There are] conservative Christians, who clearly don’t understand anything about Christianity, because nothing Christ ever did was ever conservative.” The two hope to continue to explore more of the religious gray as the show progresses.
For a show like this, with such an extensive cast, it can be hard to impress everybody. But as far as we can tell, everyone seems to be a fan of this series. “We’re all fans of the book and the show,” Emily Browning said. “I think in Neil’s writing, what’s so amazing about it is, he can write so compassionately and humanely for a sci-if fantasy writer that you can identify with all of them in some way.”
“What I really love was [the] dialogue,” actress Kristen Chenowith (“Easter”) praised, her character makes her debut in tonight’s season finale. “And I thought, ‘Wow, it has everything.’ It has the strength of this beautiful language, which is its own music. And you have this incredible character-driven [story] each character is so clear. And then you have the look of it. If you just have the look, it’s like having dessert. You love it, but after a while, how much dessert can you have? When you have both? It’s so rich. It’s the meat, potatoes, and dessert, and the appetizer. So, for me, it’s got it all.”
“Everything is a reveal upon a reveal upon a reveal,” said Ian McShane. He commended it, saying, “A lot of shows say they push the envelope, I think this one actually does a little bit.” For him, it’s not just about the source material anymore. The show itself is an amalgamation and evolution of the novel. He criticized those who put too much weight on the accuracy to the book. “We’re doing a tv show, it’s not a fucking book. That’s the problem that most people make when they go, ‘Oh, it’s not the book.’ Well, you’re not making the book.”
And while the show might not be a duplicate of the novel, it certainly has inspired many people to discover to the seventeen-year-old novel, including McShane’s co-star Ricky Whittle. “I’m the perfect advertiser for this show. I didn’t know American Gods, I didn’t know Neil Gaiman’s work until I knew of him. It was a page turner, a huge page turner.”
McShane also praised Gaiman for his open communication; “Gaiman is one of those people who really likes talking about his work, which I think is a gift for writers. He’s not a reclusive kind of writer, he’s very much involved with people who like his books.”
But McShane is right, it’s not just about the book anymore. Now the show exists and it’s bringing with it a whole new generation of fans. Television has gotten really good in the last few years, and Neil Gaiman was eager to talk about just why that was the case:
“You no longer have networks and standards and practices that go, ‘People aren’t going to understand this.’ Even more than that, what we’ve lost, which is such a beautiful thing to have lost, is the idea that every episode of every show has to work for everybody [as] their first and only episode. We’re now in a world, in which continuity is wonderful, which means things become chapters in a novel. Or even pages in a novel. Which means that depth and intelligence, rather than becoming bugs, become features. And I watched it happen with comics, so for me, this is kind of strangely familiar.
When I started writing comics, we were just in the early days. Sandman and Watchman were probably the first two comics where being a critical success was not also synonymous with being a commercial failure. Being intelligent was not the kiss of death. Actually, there were people out there that thought intelligent stuff was pretty good and wanted it. And the fact that it was a serial media meant that you could put more stuff in. Right now, we have that with television. We’re in a world in which being intelligent is not the kiss of death. Actually, intelligent people watch TV too, and they would rather watch something that makes them think and has power, with all of the impact that long-form narrative storytelling can pull off.
With Bryan and Michael, the best thing about both of them is that they’re script writers who work well together and they are show runners who work well together and they play well with others. And that, for me, is important. It’s weird for me, moving from Neil their friend to Neil the author of the book from which the show is based to Neil the guardian of the integrity of the [show]. They are very good about letting me go there sometimes.”
And we’re glad about that. The visual stories told by Fuller and Green are not just a development of an existing story, but an added layer to the chronicle of American Gods. Not only are we grateful for the fact that this project was picked up by Starz, but we’re grateful for the team that has handled this story with such precision and dedication that it’s honored the source material without simply mimicking it. Given the way the series has been written this season, it goes to show just where the creative process can go with an existing story when there is a collaboration between the author and the developer.