Interview: Bryan Fuller Finds the Humor of Eating Innards For ‘Hannibal’
For a television show, NBC’s Hannibal goes to some fairly dark and bloody places. Sticking to the nature of Thomas Harris’s “Red Dragon,” television honcho Bryan Fuller has made a series faithful to the mood of the writing. Will Graham is no longer the smooth and reliable Edward Norton we saw in Brett Ratner’s movie, but rather a damaged man whose own genius eats away at him. Giving Harris’s fans that version of Graham was important to Fuller, as well as turning Hannibal into a “psychological and kinky” program, not another procedural with Hannibal thrown in.
While many would wager some of the suspense behind Will Graham and Hannibal’s relationship is weakened by the fact we know the psychiatrist likes him some Ray Liotta brain, Fuller cautioned that isn’t the case. This isn’t the Hannibal we know from movies and pop culture.
Here’s what else the man behind Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me had to say about showing the bomb under the table, carnage on network television, and more:
When [Hard Candy director] David Slade came onboard, how did you describe the tone and feel of the show?
We sat down and we talked about mood. There is a certain parliament of black humor in the piece. It’s really dark material, but if you look at the Thomas Harris books and the Hannibal Lecter character, there is a dark humor to the character, and he makes jokes that there is a levity to those observations of himself and how he operates. The rude concept is his motto. Barney, in one of the books, said that Lecter was describing people that he ate as free-range rudes. So there is a certain amount of humor in it, but we didn’t want to betray the tone or the genre, because we are making a horror show, and Silence of the Lambs is a horror movie.
We’re making elegant horror as a TV series. So we wanted to make sure that our tone was consistent, that when we were supposed to have dread that we would be soaking in it, and when there were moments of levity they were very rye and dry.
When it comes to building that dread, how much blood can you show?
We show a lot of blood. I mean we go back and forth with standards and practices about what we can show and what we can’t show. And since we are on at 10 o’clock we get to show a little bit more than you traditionally can on television. But I go back to working on that first season of Heroes where we were on at eight or nine, and we were showing severed heads. We had Hayden Panettiere on an autopsy table flayed open. We had a lot of gore. There is a heightened quality to the violence in this show. If you look at the villains in Thomas Harris’s world, there is an operatic quality to that. Buffalo Bill was not just a guy who’s killing women. He’s a guy who is experiencing a psychological transformation that he wants to make physical, so he is making a woman suit out of real women. And it’s heightened. It’s not kind of a standard kind of procedural stab and rape sort of mystery. It’s psychological and kinky.
Since we already know who Hannibal is, is that why early on you hint at his cannibalism instead of playing him as completely normal?
Well, for me it’s all about Hitchcock’s basic principle of suspense, which is show the audience the bomb under the table and then it’s their problem to sweat it that it’s going to go off. So the audience already knows. So our big issue was to make sure that the characters don’t have enough information to put it all together, because once they do have enough information, then they just look stupid because the audience is already ahead of them.
So we were very careful in constructing the story so that the other characters were only exposed to so much of Hannibal’s deeds or misdeeds. And the cast was dedicated to making sure that balance was struck. Laurence Fishburne was fantastic, because he was like, “I think this gives Jack too much information. Can we find another way to say this that doesn’t betray what Hannibal is doing?” And it was very important for him and me for that character not to look foolish, because he hired this man, and he’s sitting down and having dinner with him, and sharing drinks, and opening up to him as a human being. And we see how seductive Hannibal Lecter is. So, as you are going through these stories, the audience knows, but the characters don’t. And we really had to be very careful of not crossing that line.
In a movie, you can sustain that bomb under the table effect for 90 minutes or two hours. For a television show, how long do you think you can hold out on fully showing the audience what they already know about Hannibal?
Well, we show the audience. We let the audience in on…
The cooking, and we do see him commit acts of violence. And those things we wanted to be very careful with because we didn’t want to overexpose the murders and him murdering, because if we did too much of it, then it stops being special. And so, when we do do it it’s very particular.
When you are dealing with a character like Hannibal, do you write it purely for fans?
Well, I think for me, the reason I got involved in this project was because I wanted to make sure that whatever version of the Hannibal TV show that was being made was something that I wanted to watch. So my concern as a fan of the books, and as a fan of the movies, and as a fan of the genre, I felt like my instincts and taste would be compatible with the kind of Hannibal show that I wanted to see that also had to fulfill certain obligations and sustainability over the course of several seasons, we hoped.
I read “Red Dragon” in high school. I subscribed to Fangoria in 7th grade. So I’m very much deep in the genre, as is David Slade. That’s one of the things that we very much bonded on. We’re both big horror fans and felt like we could do something that was humanizing with Hannibal Lecter in a way that we haven’t seen him in any of the previous incarnations, because you see him in the movies and he’s a lone wolf, and he is incarcerated, and he has a certain…he’s not pulling any punches because we know who he is. Everybody knows who he is and he knows that they know, and they know that he knows. And so, he’s not putting on any kind of false face.
Here he is pre-incarceration. So he’s not damaged by any of those events, and he is able to peacock much more openly as a member of high society than he was in the movies because everybody knew he was a monster.
When you started work on the show, did you look at the movies or was it mostly going back to the novels?
I went back to the novels. For me, “Red Dragon” was the bible. There are scenes in the pilot that are lifted right out of the book and are very loyal to what Thomas Harris wrote. You know, the voices that he created in his novel I wanted to make sure that we were being true to, because, for me, regardless of the films, which I have enjoyed, I wanted to find something in the source material that hadn’t quite been explored in any of the films. And one of those things was the psychological complexity of Will Graham. And in the movies we’ve seen him as very competent, very together. And in the book he’s a little neurotic, and he has all of the deep fears that we are able to know from being in the book because the book is telling us what is going through his mind. But when we see the films, we see a stoic man in an investigation trying to navigate the horrors of humanity. Whereas, in the book we are told the damage that it does to Will Graham. So I wanted to make sure that we were seeing that version of Will Graham, because I feel like we hadn’t seen him before.
There were certain things in the book that would describe behaviors of his and people’s reaction to his behaviors, and the fact that when he talks to somebody he picks up the cadence of their speech, which is an example of like a modern form of echopraxia, which is a disorder where you have too many mirror neurons. And we all have mirror neurons when we’re born, and that’s what helps us socialize and sort of reflect our parent’s behaviors and gives us an ability to connect. And what happens is those mirror neurons melt away as we get older and our own identity comes in and sort of takes their place. If you have echopraxia, they don’t melt away as completely, so your own grasp on identity is a bit slippery.
So that was something that I found to be very interesting and an avenue for Hannibal Lecter to exploit Will Graham. Because, for me, Hannibal is so unique in his crazy. He’s unquantifiable. He doesn’t have a category. It was interesting to have him meet a man who had the ability, because of this neurosis or disorder, or whatever you want to quality it as, doesn’t have the judgment of bad behaviors that stop him from understanding why people act the way they do. So, for Hannibal Lecter, this is the first opportunity in his life to have a genuine friendship with somebody who he can try to condition to his own views of the world. And so, it’s really about Hannibal Lecter’s need of a friend.
Hearing you describe Will, it’s kind of easy to make connections to previous characters you’ve worked with who were loners.
I think there’s something about disconnected people who want to connect that is very relatable to me. I think it’s a very human condition that we are all trapped in our skulls, to a certain extent, that, yet, we’re not aware of defenses. So when we start to break down our perceptions of the world as they pertain to being within the confines of our skulls, it’s hard to feel connected all of the time. There was even this great passage in “Red Dragon” where Thomas Harris is writing about the experience of a man who, as he is approaching his 40s and into his 40s, that is the time in development where we realize we are alone. And no matter what kind of relationship you are in, you are disconnected because of the human condition.
And so, the idea of whether it is George from Dead Like Me, who is somebody who is avoiding life because it just felt overwhelming to her, by dying she was forced to confront and deal with life in a way that she can’t escape from. And in Wonderfalls, Jay was somebody who was doing the same kind of avoidance behavior, and the universe forced her to connect. In Pushing Daisies, Ned was very disconnected and then he found his lost love, and even though there was this barrier where he couldn’t touch her, he found a way to be with her that was his journey to connect. And I think with Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, these are both men who have disconnected in their own ways and they need each other to not only just to connect to one another, but also to connect to the world. I find that to be a very heroic journey to kind of realize that you are alone but still spite to belong.
After Mockingbird Lane, you and NBC immediately moved on to make the next project. I imagine that’s maybe a nice part of TV, or your relationship with the network, being able to move forward that quickly after a project doesn’t workout.
Yes. When I first was approached about it and my friend Katie O’Connell at Gaumont was like, “Do you think there’s a show in Hannibal Lecter?”, I had no doubt that there was a show and a story to be told. I was just fascinated with so much of what we hadn’t seen about the character and the world, because there is this whole chapter where….You’ve got Hannibal Rising, which is him as a young man, which I wasn’t a huge fan of.
[Laughs] No one was.
Yes. And that was also kind of reflective of the Hannibal Lecter of a certain age and demographic that he would have been alive during World War II and Nazis could have eaten his sister and made him crazy, turn into a cannibal. I was glad and excited to place our version of Hannibal into a modern setting because, automatically, it took away that backstory, because it became impossible to do it with age. So I was like, we’re not being apocryphal. We’re just being true to our timeline, and that timeline does not exist with this Hannibal. So whether we actually see it or not, and I’m inclined not to see it because I think he’s enough of an enigma, and to find out like, oh, what made him a cannibal, it’s never going to be satisfying. Let the audience answer that question.
I think who he is right now is so much more interesting than who he was as a young man. We are coming into this character at a point where he is a fully formed man. For me, a part of the reason the younger Hannibal didn’t work emotionally, it was because he was so young he couldn’t fully grasp the meaning of life, whereas Hannibal in his forties has enough experience to know what it is he’s doing, in terms of taking lives and eating people. He’s a fully formed villain, as opposed to a punk.
Despite having a character who eats people, there is still some of your dark humor in Hannibal. What about that tone appeals to you?
I think that’s the tone I gravitate towards: dark material pulled through a fun lense. There are certain things I like to write, like, having fun with dialogue, which could break the tone with Hannibal. This is a different kind of writing. I don’t have as many as my crutches with Hannibal that I did with the other shows I created, since those were more purely from my imagination and, with Hannibal, I’m adapting someone else’s work. I have to be true to them. There is a wacky Pushing Daisies of Hannibal, but I think I’d be the only one who would want to see that [Laughs]. It would be valid, but not honest.
Hannibal airs on NBC, Thursday nights at 10e/9c