Bryan Fuller walks us through Hannibal’s debut season (part 4 of 4)

Bryan Fuller walks us through Hannibal’s debut season (part 4 of 4)

The A.V. Club recently sat down with Bryan Fuller to talk about Hannibal’s first season. Following parts one, two, and three, this final section discusses episodes 11 through 13, beginning with “Rôti” and ending with “Savoureux.” 

Rôti” (June 6, 2013)

When Dr. Gideon breaks out of prison, a faltering Will is forced to track him down, all the while uncertain if what he is seeing is actually happening or is part of a hallucination.

AVC: In these final few episodes, you see Will descending, while Hannibal is ascending. That’s not what we usually see on television. How did you play around with that arc and still make it something people would want to come back to every week?

BF: The trick was being with Will during the story. There’s the moment in Hannibal’s dining room when he breaks down. He says, “Please don’t lie to me,” and when it feels like Hannibal is really messing with his perception of reality and causing great insecurity. That Hugh Dancy is so vulnerable and honest and accessible in that moment, that makes it all work for me. As an audience member looking at where he’s going and what he’s experiencing—and having that feel real. 

And this was an episode that was a big challenge for us because we had written an entire episode that we had to re-break on the Sunday before it started filming on a Thursday because we had actor availability issues. We had Raúl Esparza and Eddie Izzard throughout the episode. It was a big episode for those two characters, but what it finally turned out was we only had each of those actors for two days. And we knew we needed them for one day together. [Laughs.] We had to completely re-break the episode and write it as we were filming because we didn’t have the actors for the time that we needed for the story that we had originally allocated. So it’s an episode that I look at and go, “Oh my God, I’m surprised it makes any sense at all.” [Laughs.] It was written in such a craze of duress.

What held it all together was Will’s descent. If we identified encephalitis in the previous episode, this was the episode where we were going to be at our grandest in our hallucinogenic imagery. It was really about knowing where we were in the season and being able to say, “Okay, at the end of this episode, Will’s going to be hospitalized. Then we’ll have to manage how to get him out of the hospital and get him back on a case and get him investigating again.” But we knew with encephalitis, because it is such a tricky thing to diagnose and so hard to identify unless you know you’re looking for it, it’s often misdiagnosed, and often, symptoms of it will be treated—the fever, etc. But that does not necessarily cure the condition. So it was an interesting dynamic to be able to have our cake and eat it too, where we can play him as losing it but get him some help at the end that doesn’t necessarily solve his problem altogether.

AVC: You play around a lot with Jack and Alana asking if they’ve pushed Will too far when, to an audience member, it clearly seems that they have. [Laughs.]

BF: You think? [Laughs.] 

AVC: How do you keep them out of the loop in those regards?

BF: You have to construct the story so that they would be out of the loop in those instances. So when Hannibal is telling Jack Crawford that Will saw a neurologist and they didn’t find anything wrong with him, that is painting Will in a particular light that puts the focus on him and not his condition, where it could be a bit of a distraction. For Alana, who has been saying all along, “Do not engage Will Graham in criminal profiling, because he’s not necessarily psychologically sound,” and that being dismissed allows her to soapbox it at the end and really sets up an interesting dynamic for those characters in the second season. Because Jack and Alana’s relationship is compromised severely because of Jack pushing Will Graham to the lengths that he did. 

What’s interesting for us is that so many characters can be right about their perspective. For instance, Jack is right when he says to Hannibal, “Will Graham is genuine. He is always going to come back to being Will Graham.” It feels like Jack actually does know who Will Graham is, but it’s because Hannibal Lecter is doing so much wheeling and dealing in the back alleys to compromise Will’s psyche that Jack won’t know how right he is until it’s too late.

AVC: You’re good at portraying the weight of everything that Will has to see and the weight of both lives that he takes over the course of the season. How do you do that without making it feel too oppressive?

BF: I would give a lot of that credit to Hugh Dancy for really finding that balance. Because in the wrong actor’s hands, everything that we wrote could easily be oppressive, and it’s really about navigating those turns with Hugh, where we talked very frequently about what Will was going through and where he was at mentally. But ultimately, the sticking to that journey is only effective if you have a great actor. There are things where I was—particularly in “Rôti” with Will’s breakdown—where I was like, “Oh my God. Thank God we have Hugh Dancy.”

AVC: This idea of pure empathy, it seems like Thomas Harris kind of... made up?

BF: [Laughs.] Yeah!

AVC: How did you decide how to portray that and what that would look like visually?

BF: I think what’s interesting about—even the Hannibal Lecter character himself, is a complete work of fiction. He’s not a psychopath, because he experiences regret, and he’s not a sociopath, because he experiences empathy, so he is a total work of fiction because those things don’t usually travel in the same herd. Ask the question again so I can get back on topic?

AVC: In terms of pure empathy, how did you decide how to portray that visually and in the performance?

BF: Well, the visual aspect of pure empathy hinges on seeing Will Graham commit these crimes. So when he’s empathizing with the worst of us, you have to see him behaving like the worst of us. One of my favorite moments regarding a decriminalization for Will was when he’s imagining Abel Gideon killing the night nurse, and he comes out of that moment, and he’s rattled, and his emotion is vibrating really high. He’s got tears in his eyes, and he has to take off his glasses and just collect himself, and it felt like he was so saddened and sickened by the taking of a life and imagining doing it with his own hands that you couldn’t help but feel how detrimental that was to his psyche. How upsetting that was. So that’s about selling his empathy for the worst of us. Then his empathy for the best of us is something that he kind of closes himself off to, because he is so overwhelmed with other people that he has to shut down a bit. Which is why he kind of comes off as a little distant, or aloof, or anti-social. It’s because the empathy is so strong that he has to strategically protect himself by disengaging. That, in a sense, is showing how powerful empathy is for him, because he can’t bring himself to do it if he doesn’t have to. 

Relevés” (June 13, 2013)

Will tries to convince Jack and the others that a copycat killer is at work. When Jack realizes his suspicions about Abigail are correct, Will takes her back to Minnesota to attempt to clear her name, and Hannibal and Abigail have their final meeting.

AVC: The character of Dr. Du Maurier increases in both importance and in mystery as the season goes on. How did you develop that character? And why the homage to Daphne Du Maurier?

BF: [Laughs.] Yes, yes. Well, naming a character is always a very fun and also important part of developing their character, so she’s named... Bedelia is from Creepshow, actually, [Laughs; quotes movie.] “I want my Father’s Day cake, Bedelia.” And I just always had loved that name and it had a classic, old-world style to it, like Miriam, which was from Miriam Blaylock from The Hunger. Then Du Maurier, of course, I am a rabid Hitchcock fan, so I was putting all the things together that made me happy. [Laughs.] 

The mystery of her character—the intention with the character originally was to cast a much older actress, and we had actually approached Angela Lansbury first, to provide this kind of strange mother/son relationship with Hannibal and his therapist, whom he refused to acknowledge her retirement. Then, when Angela Lansbury wasn’t available, I just started thinking about, “Okay, what if the character was younger, and what if she didn’t retire because she was of retirement age, but there was an incident,” and then there was a lot of story that began to generate. What would that story be? Was she attacked by a patient? How much did Hannibal have to do with that? And isn’t it interesting that the only thing that stopped the patient from attacking her was that he swallowed his own tongue, which is something that we knew Hannibal was capable of inducing in another person by mere suggestion? 

It felt like we were setting up a very cool mystery by giving a lot of information, enough where the audience could really connect the dots if they wanted to, but not spelling it out so clearly that it was explicit. Also, expositional, like, “Remember when this happened?” Part of it was just trying to write an honest scene, that both of those characters know what happened, so they wouldn’t have to talk about it in all of the detail of it happening, because they were both aware of it. In trying to write an honest scene between two characters that didn’t have artificial exposition, the result of that was actually fostering more mystery.

AVC: How do you write this many different characters with the same profession, or the same field of study, and yet have them all have different points of view on that particular realm?

BF: I think it’s just writing them as human beings, first and foremost. Having been in therapy myself and having one very specific experience with my therapist that I was very intrigued by—and then hearing from other friends who had had completely different experiences with psychiatrists—it’s very easy to see how your therapy is going to vary wildly from personality to personality, because every psychiatrist is going to have their own personality, their own personal approach to how they conduct themselves in therapy sessions. So for Hannibal, he has a very clear approach to engaging with his clients, and I thought he was very appropriately engaged with Bella Crawford and was offering a genuine kind of counseling that asked the pertinent questions, but not in any cold, calculating way. But almost friendly. I wanted that to have the feel of—he genuinely cared about her as a human being and saw that her journey ahead was going to be a rough one, so there was a certain amount of honesty. 

With how Bedelia functions as a therapist to Hannibal Lecter, she’s in a position where she knows her client is not giving her the full picture, and she states that very clearly. She’s aware there’s a game being played, but she also engages in the game, because of who her patient is. I think any good psychiatrist would adapt their counseling technique to their client and what best suits them. For instance, that story that I told you earlier about my therapist saying, “Oh my God, do not date a cop.” [Laughs.] “Because I’ve been counseling you, and I understand your personality, I understand how that would not be compatible.” So she broke out of her role as a therapist and made statements that were more like a friend. That worked in that moment. So I think that’s what we get to see a little bit of what’s happening between Bedelia and Hannibal, is that we are in the process of a seduction, where Bedelia knows there is much more going on to Hannibal than she realizes, but she’s getting tastes along the way that will make her much more curious about who her patient is. And Gillian Anderson plays Bedelia with such inscrutability, where she’s looking at Hannibal and she’s listening to him, but you can tell that she’s smelling bullshit. But she just doesn’t know where it’s coming from. She wouldn’t be so bold as to call that bullshit so directly, because that might affect the efficacy of her therapy.

[pagebreak]

AVC: You mentioned The X-Files earlier. Was that an influence on your work?

BF: Well, The X-Files is absolutely influential. It is iconic television. I watched it from the first season, and my mind was blown at how intricately they told the stories and how they found humor in extreme situations that always gave you a sense of levity in light of the most dangerous scenarios. It’s one of those all-time great television shows, and I had been, of course, a fan of Gillian Anderson’s from that, but then also seeing her in other work, where it’s like, this is an incredibly multi-faceted actress. Did you ever see her Miss Havisham?

AVC: Yes!

BF: I thought she was fantastic.

AVC: Absolutely.

BF: So it was really about, it’s that interesting line where you see somebody. I was in my teens and early 20s when I first saw X-Files, and it was mind-blowing. Then to meet her and for us to be about the same age and thinking. I got so used to her being the actress and then meeting her as a human being and working with her, you get to see how lovely she is. It’s a neat fanboy moment for me to be such a huge fan of The X-Files and then be able to work with Gillian Anderson on this show. It was very challenging for me not to whip out my camera and get a bunch of pictures standing next to her like we’re at Comic-Con. But I refrained. [Laughs.]

AVC: Will she be able to be in future seasons? She has a new show at midseason on NBC.

BF: We absolutely want her to be. She absolutely wants to be. It’s going to be working out the schedule with the other show, and we know that it’s about the schedule. We were very flexible with her last year. Actually, she was in five episodes, and we filmed all of her material over three days. We got her for three days, got her in, did the five episodes, and got her out, because she has a family in London that she wants to spend time with. She’s very interested in coming back. Right now, she’s in the first episode of the second season, but we have to work out schedules and see if we can actually pull it off. 

AVC: This episode brings Abigail’s arc to an end. Was she always going to die?

BF: We made that decision about halfway through the season. She wasn’t always going to die. It was one of those where we were going to kill off one of the regular characters, and the character that we were going to kill off, we felt like it wouldn’t be as devastating for that person to die, because we hadn’t fully serviced that character. Someone had said, “I don’t really care about that character dying, but if you’re going to kill somebody that’s going to make me upset, then Abigail Hobbs,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s who we have to kill, isn’t it?” [Laughs.] It’s kind of as simple as, “Whose death would mean the most?” and it was Abigail’s.

AVC: Can you reveal who you were originally going to kill?

BF: No. Because we may kill them in the second season.

[Both laugh.]

Savoureux” (June 20, 2013)

Will takes the fall for the crimes of the copycat killer, ending up imprisoned in the Baltimore State Hospital For The Criminally Insane, and the season ends with Hannibal the one to walk down that long hallway and Will the one locked up in the cell.

AVC: The team that backs Will and Jack up, Hettienne Park and Scott Thompson and Aaron Abrams—this is such a cliché in this genre, and you’re playing it very straight. They have a mordant sense of humor around the edges of the story, yet you make them all feel very fresh and alive. How did you approach writing that without getting bogged down by the cliché of a million other crime procedurals on TV doing these lab characters?

BF: Once again it was going back to the literature. Going back to find the dynamics in Beverly Katz and Jimmy Price and Brian Zeller, from Red Dragon, and we knew that Jimmy was our fingerprinting expert and a bit of a curmudgeon. Brian Zeller is a younger guy who is very competitive. Beverly Katz who had a slight flirtatious quality with Will Graham when we see her in the books. So we knew we had those three paradigms for these roles. 

It is one of the load-bearing elements of these types of shows, and so in order to give them a crisp quality, we cast comedic actors who were primarily known for being comedic. It was one of those things where when I saw Scott Thompson had auditioned for it, I was like, “Oh my God, I would love to work with Scott Thompson again.” I’d worked with him on Star Trek years ago, where he played an alien ambassador who fell in love with Seven of Nine and got all drunk on the U.S.S. Voyager. So I knew his work from Kids In The Hall and had worked with him on Star Trek: Voyager years ago and was excited about working with him as a singular talent. Hettienne Park, I had just seen on Broadway and was so impressed with her that I wanted to work with her and Jerry O’Connell [who worked with Fuller on Mockingbird Lane], who was in the same play with her, spoke very highly of her. 

So I thought, let’s nab her, Aaron, and Scott, and we would at least have a rhythm and a pace with those scenes. Personally, the forensics scenes are my least favorite, because they’re the ones that hinge almost entirely on plot and very little on character, so they’re always the most terrifying for me to write. And in order to make them more digestible for me I had to put people in them that I would be inspired to write for, which is why we were very adamant about casting Hettienne and Aaron and Scott in those roles, because they would give you a point of view as actors on roles that could be very rote.

AVC: Will realizes in this episode that he’s been set up by Lecter. How much do you think he’s aware of at this point?

BF: When he makes those accusations?

AVC: Yeah.

BF: He’s aware. When he says, “You wind ’em up and watch ’em go. You wanted to see what somebody like me would do,” he’s figuring it all out there, and I don’t think we can take that back. He’s made that accusation, that observation, so we have to accept that as Will’s state of mind. We can’t magically erase his awareness from that, so we have to keep moving the story forward from that point. And not take it away because it’s a huge victory for Will Graham in that final moment. This guy who’s been persecuted and tortured and manipulated and been the plaything for the devil [Laughs.] has finally had this great moment of awareness and realization and self-acceptance of who he is, what he is, how he sees the world, and that he is right in this moment. We have to accept that as Will’s truth and move the story forward from that point.

AVC: How important to you was it that he have that moment of realization somewhere in this season?

BF: Very important. Because the audience knows from the first frame, before Hannibal is even onscreen that we are telling the story of Hannibal Lecter, who is going to be caught by Will Graham and incarcerated, Will had to figure Hannibal out in the first season. Otherwise, it would feel like we were treading water and artificially distending the story to accommodate a television schedule, and I wanted each of these seasons to feel like a novel, as opposed to episodic television. It felt like, what a great way to begin the story and then end the story at that point. And end it iconographically with the Silence Of The Lambs shot of coming down the corridor of the Baltimore State Hospital For The Criminally Insane, to that last cell on the left and finding, not Hannibal Lecter, but Will Graham. And know that we are now taking a turn away from the canon that will somehow get us back into canon. But right now, we are departing from the literature into uncharted territory that will be unique to the television show. Then when we circle back into the timeline of the books and get to Red Dragon again, so much will have happened between these characters that will further inform their uniqueness to this show.

AVC: Will is incarcerated right now, and if you’re able to go on and do the later seasons, Hannibal will be incarcerated. How do you approach that question of writing a character who’s confined to a room, yet has to be one of the protagonists of the series?

BF: That’s the great thing about imagination is that Will’s imagination can transport him out of that room and into places, cinematically, that will allow him to continue being a pivotal part of the story, even though he’s locked up. One of the things that was really interesting in the books, is the concept of Hannibal’s memory palace, the place where he goes to survive incarceration with the virtual-reality system that exists between his ears. We’ll be seeing Will create his own version of the mind palace over the course of the second season. 

AVC: How intricately did you think out Hannibal’s framing of Will? 

BF: It was pretty meticulously plotted. We knew that there were certain changes along the way, like we were originally going to deal with both the copycat killer and the Chesapeake Ripper in the first season, and then it felt like, as we got further into this season, that the story should be about the copycat killer primarily, and that the Chesapeake Ripper should serve to complicate Jack Crawford’s character. Then we could spike that ball in the second season.

AVC: This is just a deliberate request for a spoiler, but I need to know at some point Will and his dogs are going to re-meet and romp together in a field.

BF: [Laughs.] I hope so. I hope that for his character as well. I am a huge dog person. I’m a huge animal person. I love animals, and I’m fascinated with them. They’re alien and do not think like we do, but do think like we do in so many ways. Will’s relationship with his dogs is a very meaningful one for me, and I would love to see them reunited in some capacity.

AVC: Was there an episode this season that you thought went above and beyond what you were expecting for it and ended up being really terrific, and then was there one that you thought didn’t quite work as well?

BF: The last two episodes, I was so happy with. The last two really were the ones where I’m like, “Oh my God.” They happened in such a blur because by “Rôti,” the antepenultimate episode, which was the one that I would say didn’t quite come together the way I had envisioned it, because it was so re-broken at the last minute and written while we were filming it, which kind of created an unfortunate bear-down for the last two episodes, because once you fall behind that ball, it’s so hard to get back in front of it again. So much of the last three episodes were writing those shows as we were filming them. It was a miracle that they turned out as well as they did. So “Rôti” would be the one that I kind of like, [Wincing.] “Ohhh, we should have done this, and we should have done that, and we could have made that clearer, and we could have made that more powerful...” but I have a lot of people who tell me that that’s one of their favorite episodes. I kind of go, “Okay, everybody has their point of view.” [Laughs.] I’m glad it worked for some folks, but that’s the one that I wish I could go back to and refine.

And then the last two, I was so impressed with both David Slade [“Savoureux”] and Michael Rymer [“Relevés”] for really being so collaborative and adaptive to the process of writing them while we were filming. The last scene, where Will Graham says, “Hello, Dr. Lecter,” was originally going to be this two-page conversation where they had to maneuver through all of these plot points, and then I was staring at it and going, “Okay, enough talk already.” [Laughs.] Like, we’ve talked a lot in this show, so let’s let the actors act. And they each had one line, and it’s small, and then you see them act their asses off. They pulled it off.

AVC: Where are you at in the process of season two and what does your writers’ room look like for season two?

BF: The writers’ room, we’ve got a pretty great group of writers. We just started on July 1, so we’ve only been back... we’ve had three days back in the room. [This interview was conducted July 5.] The first day, we talked about broad concepts for the season, and then we broke the first episode in two days. We had a lot of material to pay off and land and a lot of new things to set up and get started. It was very exciting to be in the writers’ room this week and talking about where we’re going in the season, what stories we need to keep telling, and where our big tentpoles. It’s a really interesting room. We’ve got a lot of people coming back from the first season, and we’ve got some new people in the room, too. I’m very excited.

AVC: You’ve been very open about your seven-season plan for this show, which is unique among showrunners, even though you’re adapting pre-existing material. But do you worry at all about that ruining some of the suspense for fans? Also, are you fairly confident that you’ll get that run?

BF: ÓOh, I’m not confident at all. 

[Both laugh.]

BF: But that doesn’t stop me from having a plan. I don’t feel like it’s ruining anything for fans to say that we are going to be doing Red Dragon in season four. It’s sort of exciting to think how we’re going to get there and to give those indications of the tentpoles of the story that we’re trying to tell and having three lost novels of the Hannibal Lecter story before you get into Red Dragon seemed like kind of an exciting place to share with the audience. 

It’s also acknowledging that so much of the story is known, already, by the audience. Yes, we are going to be getting into Red Dragon in season four, but we are also going to be telling a lot of different stories in our season four that complicate the Red Dragon story and will make it fresh and new. I feel like to give them an understanding and an indication of where we’re going actually helps them place themselves in the story a little bit more, so they know, “Okay, in three years we’re hitting Red Dragon territory, so all of this happens before, so now I understand where we are in the story that’s being told currently.”

What do you think? Do you think it’s too spoilery?

AVC: I was the kind of kid who read the end of the book first, so it never ruins anything for me, but people have said to me, “I wish I hadn’t known that now that I’ve read it.”

BF: Oh, that we were going to do Red Dragon?

AVC: No, that that was the specific sort of plan for when the seasons were going to hit. Because at some point you are obviously going to have to put Hannibal in prison.

BF: Yes, yes. 

AVC: You mentioned in this interview and others some little Easter eggs that come from the literature. Are there others that you’re particularly proud of in season one that maybe people haven’t caught on to?

BF: Let’s see... I think most people have caught... it’s a pretty savvy audience. There are lines where I think, “That’s a pretty obscure line that we’re quoting,” and then I’ll see somebody catches it. The core audience of the show is pretty dedicated to the literature, and they catch just about everything.