At the PGA-sponsored Produced By Conference, Hannibal show runner Bryan Fuller offered some straightforward advice to aspiring filmmakers: make what you’d want to see.
That’s something a lot of filmmakers say, and for good reason. At a panel focused on genre television, Fuller discussed how Hannibal, Pushing Daisies and his more unconventional shows aren’t the most mainstream pieces of entertainment. What’s hip and cool and now at any given moment is never what should dictate the creative process, and Fuller won’t let it.
If what’s trending puts him to work, though, there’s nothing wrong with that. “Nobody wanted to do horror,” Fuller told a packed theater on the Warner Bros. lot. “I had been trying to do a horror show for the last ten years. Everyone says it doesn’t work on television, because people do not want to be exposed to that for a prolonged period of time.”
That all changed when The Walking Dead came along. When AMC’s comic book adaptation became a hit, that’s when NBC and a lot of other networks came calling for horror.
But Hannibal isn’t a run-of-the-mill horror show. It’s heightened, dramatic, funny, romantic, and, yes, certifiably insane. It’s not for everyone. Would a more conventional and conventionally safe version of Hannibal garner higher ratings? Possibly, but Fuller isn’t interested in writing for an audience he’s not a part of. “I just want to make shows I want to watch,” said Fuller. “If you’re a writer for somebody else as an audience, you’re going to drive yourself crazy, because you may not know what that audience is.”
Now, that’s Fuller’s mindset as a writer, but as a producer the situation requires a slightly different attitude. “I think a producer has to have the mindset of: what is the next True Detective? What’s the next Walking Dead?”
Fuller believes he’s a very selfish writer, never coming up with the most broadly viable shows. The violence alone turns away some viewers, although the Broadcast Standard and Practices don’t seem to have many issues. “If you’ve seen the show, you know we have loose restrictions,” Fuller laughed. “There’s stuff we do on the show I would argue is X-rated. We had a guy who is ripping himself out of a human mural and chunks of his flesh are coming off. I was thinking it would never air, but Standards and Practices never said anything.” Thank heavens it did air, because it was a high point for the series.
That scene doesn’t even come close to Hannibal‘s most gruesome moments. Fuller’s right: if Hannibal were a movie, it would be R-rated, and because of its dramatic tone and harsh violence, potentially NC-17. He knows how to work the system, though, which he describes as surprisingly easy. “The dynamic between Standards and Practices is actually a very friendly one,” stated Fuller. “I’ll say, ‘We’re going to have a scene where a guy is cutting off his face and feeding it to dogs. How do we do that? How can we show as much as possible?’”
The resolution: make the blood a little darker, put it all in shadows.
With those dog treats in mind, it’s funny to see what Hannibal can’t get away with. The ratings systems in place is famous for its acceptance of violence and distaste for sex and language, and it doesn’t break stride here. “There was a quote in the book where a character describes his lesbian sister as a ‘muff diver,’” recalled Fuller. “The Standards and Practices chain of letters was hysterical, because I wrote, ‘I wanna use this quote from the book, which is ‘muff diver.’ We were told we can’t use muff diving or a bunch of other things I had never heard before. Anything that’s aurally implicated we can’t use. I asked, ‘What about button stitching?’”
When conference attendees were confused as to what button stitching meant, Fuller pantomimed it for those not in the know. Try it yourself at home.
While Fuller has fared well with Standards and Practices, fellow producers are continually baffled by the system. True Detective executive producer Scott Stephens also participated in the panel and expressed his disdain for backward thinking. “We’re hamstrung by a group of people we don’t know,” said Stephens. “What I find most frustrating is that the most basic human act of love and sex is forbidden from television, but we’re having this conversation on these acts of violence. At the very least, I think they should let audience decide what is or isn’t appropriate.”
Walking Dead producer David Alpert said they’re restricted from shooting a human in the face, despite having shot a six-year-old zombie on the show’s pilot. Fuller then gleefuly pointed out that they’ve shot someone in the face on Hannibal (which, of course, is tame compared to the average death design on the show). Mushrooms growing out of a dead body certainly tops a bullet to the face.
Then again, as we all know, dismembered bodies could never touch the horror of saying “muff diver.” God forbid if Hannibal Lecter ever said pearl diving, rug munching, diving in the bushes, lickety split, or, my personal favorite, snarling in the busby.
The hope is for Hannibal to have six seasons, so maybe there’s time for the good doctor to push the envelope and say something mildly sexual. Until that day, at least Hannibal can graphically continue to eat Will Graham’s friends.