Few who follow TV had much hope at all for NBC’s Hannibal, an international co-production that aimed to take a seemingly played-out Hannibal Lecter character and build a crime procedural around him. Instead, the resulting series was unlike anything else on TV from frame one, a languid, often beautiful series that stared at the horrors men can do to each other but never pulled away or tried to undercut its mood with glib, superficial elements. Much of that was due to the sterling ensemble cast, the talented crew, and an A-list of TV directors. But even more was due to developer and showrunner Bryan Fuller, who took the idea of a Hannibal Lecter TV show and returned to what had made the character so compelling in the first place, drawing liberally from Thomas Harris’ novels and using the project as a way to flip his reputation as a writer—based heavily on whimsy and quirky dialogue—on its ear. In this, the first of four parts, Fuller walks The A.V. Club through the first three episodes of the series, discussing how he reinvented these familiar characters, the casting process for the Will Graham and Hannibal characters, and why much of the show was re-written on the fly.
“Apéritif” (April 4, 2013)
Will Graham, a former special investigator for the FBI and someone capable of “perfect empathy” that allows him to see what killers experience, is pulled back into solving crime by the murders of a cannibalistic serial killer in Minnesota. To help him, the FBI calls in a psychiatrist named Hannibal Lecter to consult.
The A.V. Club: How did you start thinking about re-conceiving the Hannibal Lecter mythos?
Bryan Fuller: Well, it really started with seeing him in different dynamics than we had seen him in before. If we’re going to see this character again, we have to be true to a certain amount of canon that was established in the literature, first and foremost. That’s what was really important to me: trying to stay true to Thomas Harris, or the Thomas Harris-ian quality of the Hannibal Lecter tale, which involves a certain amount of purple opera.
I was very curious about [Lector’s] relationships. We had seen him incarcerated, so we understood how he functioned as a lone wolf caged against the machine and what those dynamics were. But we didn’t really see him out in society and functioning as a practicing psychiatrist and a practicing cannibal, so that was what was really appealing to me—to see him in what could arguably be the most interesting part of his life, right before he was caught. That was the most exciting point for me. We get to see this chapter of his life that hasn’t been written about in any sort of detail beyond flashbacks to—not even flashbacks, but references—to who he was and who a few of his patients were. But nothing in great detail. That was very alluring.
AVC: At the same time you’re making Will Graham very much the center of the show. Why did you choose to do that when Hannibal is there in the title and serial killers are hot right now?
BF: [Laughs.] For me, it was when I had seen both adaptations of Red Dragon [Thomas Harris’ novel], Manhunter and Red Dragon. I was struck by how elements of his betrayal in the literature were kind of glossed by his neuroses and his personality disorders. The detail of thought that went into describing his internal life was really hard to translate to the screen. So it was about seeing the Will Graham I had always understood from the literature and turning up some of those dials, because there are references in the literature about how he takes on the cadence of someone else’s speech when he’s talking to them, which is reflective of certain personality disorders and also a condition called echopraxia—which is when we have an impairment of the mirror neurons around our brain—and those things that help us socialize initially can prevent socialization as we mature, so I thought that was an interesting thing to explore. Also, to give him a vulnerability that I think the character hadn’t had before onscreen. We had always seen him as a stoic leading man and highly competent at his job, and I thought if we take some of these elements that we’re seeing in his internal life and make them a little more external, then we have a new version of the character that is still very honest to how he’s portrayed in the literature, but gives you a greater vulnerability for a man who has to put himself in the shoes of serial killers on a weekly basis and the detrimental effects that can take on his psyche.
AVC: You also start the Minnesota Shrike and Abigail Hobbs storyline here. You expanded this from a brief mention in the book. How did you go about building that world and that storyline?
BF: It was really about telling the tale of Will Graham’s unraveling. We understand in Red Dragon he was investigating a serial killer called the Minnesota Shrike, and over the process of investigating that killer and catching him and killing him, he was so traumatized that he was institutionalized. So that felt like it gave us a beginning that provides a procedural case for Will to be investigating. But it also gives us a wonderful end to the season. So really, that simple paragraph of Will Graham’s backstory gave us the arc of the season.
AVC: Hannibal doesn’t enter until 20 minutes into it, but the initial pilot script has more Hannibal in it. How did you decide to pare him back from where he had been?
BF: Uh, budget. [Laughs.] It was really about, “Oh God, when are we going to put that extra scene where he meets the young woman that he identifies as being a rude smoker, so that when he’s eating her lungs and says ‘pre-smoked,’ it has an impact?” So really, it was about we simply couldn’t afford to shoot that scene. It was the straw that was breaking the camel’s back in terms of our schedule, so it had to go. I made quick and easy peace with it, because I thought it will keep him more mysterious. We do have to find that balance between how much we see of him and how much we don’t. I thought, “If we see him kill all the time and it’s a frequent thing, it’s going to lose its power,” so I wanted to use that in special instances. And essentially lull the audience into a false sense of security, so the first time we see him commit an act of violence—which is in the third episode when he slams Alana Bloom’s head up against the wall—it’s a shocking reminder to the audience: “Oh yeah, this is Hannibal Lecter [Laughs.] and not Frasier Crane.”
AVC: This is a prequel to stories we’ve already seen, and you’ve been very open about your plan for the series going forward. How do you keep the suspense? How do you keep overriding tension when we know where this is going?
BF: Well, we know that Hannibal is going to get caught and that he’s going to end up in the Baltimore State Hospital For The Criminally Insane, but a lot can happen to get there. I think the big move in there was to frame Will Graham and have him take the fall for a lot of these murders, which, right off the bat, introduced a completely new concept to the backstory, but also gave us a way to hold off incarcerating Hannibal Lecter for a while, because we have such a new twist to the story, where Jack Crawford is going to be bonding more with Hannibal Lecter, which really informs his distrust and disdain for this character when we get to the Silence Of The Lambs or Red Dragon era of the story. So it felt like we have now all of this opportunity to tell the specific details of a story that only existed between the lines of the book.
AVC: How did you cast Hugh Dancy [Will Graham] and Mads Mikkelsen [Hannibal Lecter]?
BF: Hugh Dancy was our first person cast and was the easiest person to cast, in one sense, because everyone universally agreed on him—that he was a very sophisticated actor and an intelligent actor, who could portray Will Graham in a likable fashion, even though he’s going to be so swamped with neuroses that he could, arguably, be unlikable or trying for an audience. So we needed somebody who brought an innate likability and an openness. Will needs to invite the audience in, so Hugh Dancy, as an actor, has a face that invites the audience into his story, and you can take them on a wild journey, and they will remain with Hugh Dancy because he is that charming of an actor and also appealing as a human being, that despite whatever pain he’s going through, you’re rooting for him to get through it.
AVC: How about Mads Mikkelsen?
BF: Casting Hannibal Lecter was an interesting process and a daunting one, I think, for the network in particular. We talked about a lot of actors, and once Mads Mikkelsen came into the conversation, it was very difficult for me to see anybody else in the role. Just because I thought, “Oh, that’s who he needs to be.”
And not just because I’d seen him in Casino Royale weeping tears of blood and cock-and-ball torturing Daniel Craig. It seemed like he was the guy, based on After The Wedding, which is a romantic picture where he plays this man who’s so heartbroken over losing his love and his efforts to get her back were so endearing, and I saw such a range that I hadn’t seen in any of the sort of big summer blockbuster movies that he’s in as a villain or a mysterious character. I saw a great actor at work, so I knew that he was going to be able to take Hannibal Lecter to the places of surprising emotion and vulnerability that I wanted him to go to.
In the final episode when he’s weeping at the loss of Abigail Hobbs, it’s such a tightwire act for an actor to walk, given that the audience knows he’s a vicious murderer and had killed this girl in the previous episode, yet you’re confused at your own empathy for him, because he is communicating such depth of emotion. Mads had these wonderful micro-expressions as an actor that pull you in and force you to pay attention, so I knew that we were in the hands of someone who could navigate whatever turn that we laid down for Hannibal to take.
AVC: First episodes are so important in laying out the visual style of a show. What were your notes when you were sitting down with the director about what the show should look like?
BF: The great thing about working with David Slade is that he’s so meticulous and also collaborative. We were both fanboys, so we came to the table as very enthusiastic collaborators to deliver a Hannibal Lecter story that was worthy of the legacy. We were very much on board the idea of this having to be elegant horror, and it has to have a visual vocabulary that is cinematic and is elevating what you would normally see in a television procedural in a way that was fitting for the name and the brand. So you couldn’t have asked for two more dedicated fanboys to protect the franchise. [Laughs.]
“Amuse-Bouche” (April 11, 2013)
Will and the team investigate a man who kills by burying people alive and letting mushrooms feast on them as they slowly pass away. He also begins his therapeutic process with Dr. Lecter.
AVC: This is the one with the guy who kills via mushroom.
AVC: How the hell did that idea even come up?
BF: [Laughs.] Well, we had gone down a few different ideas about who our first killer after the Minnesota Shrike was going to be, and we initially had a spree-killer, and so we were exploring the idea of spree-killing, and it just felt like it could be on any procedural show. We stopped and were like, “What is unique to our Hannibal story? What is unique to the type of killers you’re going to see on this show that differentiate it from the killers you see on any other show?” And we just started leaning toward the purple and the operatic. Scott Nimerfro, who is one of our writers, said, “Well, wouldn’t it be interesting if he was burying people to grow mushrooms on them?” and then we started doing mushroom research and found this TED Talk by a mycelium expert named [Paul] Stamets, who we named the character after and thought, “Oh hey, what if this guy had lost his rocker?” Not only fell off, but completely lost it and thought that because mycelium and human beings share a lot of central kind of functions, physiologically, that what if you wanted to blend those two or connect those two. And if he was looking for a connection, isn’t that kind of paralleling what Hannibal and Will are going through on their story?
It was very educational for us to say, “Okay, here is a big, purple killer,” and then to draw the metaphor of what that killer’s philosophy is and connect it to Will Graham’s story in a clear way. It felt like it was solving the puzzle set out before us, in terms of how to tell stories on Hannibal Lecter, so it was really educational. As often, I’ve worked with Scott Nimerfro before, and he’s the guy who comes up with ideas that you just… you don’t know where they come from. On Pushing Daisies, he was like, “Let’s have a guy who’s the killer who has a beard of bees, and he sics his bees on people.” [Laughs.] So… he’s that guy. He’s a fantastic asset to have in the room.
AVC: As a writer and head of a writers’ room, how do you approach balancing those procedural elements with the more serialized elements? What did you learn from your previous shows about writing in that style?
BF: I learned a lot from Pushing Daisies, actually, because Pushing Daisies was very much a crime procedural on one hand, but it was done so whimsically and with such an eye toward character and what they were going through that it felt like we had discovered that with every case that we did on Pushing Daisies, it had to have some sort of central metaphor that connected to the character’s journey. It was really staying true to that metaphor and finding that metaphor, and as outlandish as the cases may be, we always had to find some way to connect it to Will Graham’s story.
AVC: This episode has Freddie Lounds in it quite a bit, and she’s one of the alterations you’ve made to the original stories. How did you approach altering characters and details from Thomas Harris’ work, even slightly?
BF: Well, with Freddie Lounds and the Starbucking of Freddie Lounds and Alana Bloom, it was really just a function of needing more female voices and perspectives and characters on the show, because it’s just a lot of men. It ran dangerously close to being a lot of white men, and we just didn’t want to be so narrow in our worldview, so when you saw these characters on the show, it didn’t feel like it was a very limited world. We wanted to see a wide variety of people presented—genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Without making any kind of meal of those issues, just incorporating them into who the characters were and letting the actors fill out their characters.
With Freddie, it was interesting, because I thought, “Okay, who was this character in Manhunter, and who is the character in Red Dragon, and who is the character in the book?” It seemed like it was a good opportunity to swap genders. I was in the U.K. during the News Of The World scandal and Rebekah Brooks and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if Freddie Lounds was more like Rebekah Brooks in her pursuit of journalism?” It felt like that was a good role model for us to take Freddie from.
AVC: This episode really starts the relationship with Will and Hannibal together in therapy. You’re really interested in both presenting Hannibal as a credible therapist and in the process of seeing two people in a room talking together, which is different for a crime procedural. How did those two elements come to enter the show’s world?
BF: Well, there’s a certain amount of budgetary restraints with the show, because we are not a big-budget show. In the path we had gone down initially, we laid out a version of the show for the network, and the network said that it wanted it to be much more case oriented and procedural. So we laid out that version of the show, and it was very, very expensive. And nobody wanted to increase the budget, so it was really a matter of going back to… fortunately the budget was our friend in that way, because I did want to tell a psychological horror story, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of time at crime scenes when I could be finding out what characters are going through. And the best, simplest way for that was for people to sit down and talk about it. We fortunately are dealing with psychiatrists, so [Laughs.] it’s a great platform to have people say what they mean and what they feel and have it feel relatively natural, given the context of where they’re having those conversations. So it was initially a budgetary thing, but I think for the benefit of the show—and the stories I was interested in telling—were much more psychological and could sustain sitting down and talking about them.
Before I was going to be a writer, I was going to be a psychiatrist, so I’m fascinated with psychiatry and how it can go wrong and how it can be incredibly helpful for the patient. So I thought it was a great opportunity to tell a story about psychiatrists. And we have a lot of psychiatrist characters on the show. [Laughs.] It felt like that’s our world and these are our characters, so they are going to be talking about psychiatry. And we tried to get the psychiatry to be as honest as possible, given what we needed to tell, story-wise.
AVC: Hannibal is certainly an unethical therapist, but to what degree would you say that he’s a good or helpful therapist to people who need his help?
BF: I think he’s a great therapist. I think that’s the fun of who he is. I think if you are his patient, he is going to try to help you. If you have made the commitment to come in and help yourself, he is going to be there for you. I think even when you see Franklyn Froideveaux [Dan Fogler], who is a particularly annoying patient, I think Hannibal believes in helping that person. That person has come to him for help; he wants to help them, short of them proving themselves to be unsuitable for society, in his eyes. What he does to Will, the manipulations and the lies and deceit, you could arguably say that this is all an effort to help Will Graham better understand who he is and embrace a purer version of himself that he may have become deluded by. That was always an interesting place to take the character, because you look at the manipulations that he does with Jack Crawford and his wife and the trainee that he lost, he is arguably utilizing a radically unorthodox form of therapy on Jack Crawford to help him deal with his losses and his potential losses. So I think Hannibal’s a really good therapist who has a very perverse vision of what psychotherapy is and how it can help.
“Potage” (April 18, 2013)
Amid suspicions that she assisted her father in his crimes, Abigail Hobbs returns to Minnesota, where she is forced to confront someone who believes her to be responsible for his sister’s death.
AVC: This episode was flipped with what was produced as the second episode to become the third. Why was that decision made?
BF: It was a matter of where the script was. We’d had a couple of versions of the script, and the script wasn’t in good shape. The next episode was in a little better shape, and so it was a matter of which one was ready to shoot first, but they were always going to air in that order.
AVC: That process of figuring out how to write a show always happens in that first half of that first season. What did you struggle with as you were figuring out how to write this show?
BF: I think the struggles were really about what the balance is between the psychology of our characters and the crimes that they’re investigating. That was probably the biggest process. Also, keep in mind, we were a direct-to-series show, so that means the day you finish shooting the pilot, the very next day is when you start shooting episode two.
For me, when we had gone through the process with episode two and kind of running through a couple of different procedural cases until we found the mushroom-man aspect of the story, which was then very enlightening to how we can tell a crime story on Hannibal and keep it a psychological horror story. The process for that episode was really helpful because we had gotten that in place and were starting to film that when I saw the first cut of the pilot. It was one of the most terrifying days of the production for me, because there is an arrogance to a direct-to-series order that negates the contributions of your cast and your director, because you’re thinking, like, “Oh, they’re going to do what they’re going to do, and we’re just going to lay the plan out ahead of them, and they’ll fall into place.” But with this cast and with a director like David Slade, they elevated the material so significantly that I was looking at the scripts that were coming down the pike, and I just thought, we are writing the wroooong show. [Laughs.] So it was a matter of grabbing the wheel, jerking it, and trying to turn the ship. It was acknowledging what the cast and the director had brought to the table and evolving it from that point.
There were pressures along the way, where it’s like, “Just stay the course. Do the scripts that you’ve written,” and I just couldn’t do that. It was going to be a tremendous amount of work and a tremendous amount of effort to re-break and rewrite the 10 scripts that we had ready to go, but the fact was, in my gut, I knew that they were the wrong version of this show. And a change had to be made quickly and efficiently. I begged for us to do a shutdown, so I could apply what I’d learned from seeing the pilot, and it was just not in our budget. All of that had to be done on the fly. So we essentially threw out 10 scripts and were writing them on the fly as production was going and trying to keep ahead and trying to feed the machine. It was a really informative process. Now that I’ve been through it, I understand that a direct-to-series order has to be approached with a completely different frame of mind than you would just thinking it’s like the second season of a show.
AVC: Was there material in those scripts you threw out that you were able to re-use? Or material that you missed and weren’t able to reuse?
BF: There’s stuff that we threw out that just was not the show, so I did not miss it. [That] show was more procedural, and it just wasn’t Hannibal. It didn’t feel like Hannibal, and I had to go with my gut on that against a lot of resistance of, “Oh my God, if you change everything now it’s going to be so difficult to keep the trains going on time.” I couldn’t bear the idea of doing the wrong version of the show, so I just buckled up with the writers, and we started rewriting and re-breaking and redoing it all.
AVC: Did you have problems with NBC on that front, or were you insulated to some degree by the international co-production angle this show has?
BF: We were insulated in a certain way, but also NBC was very supportive of—it sounds pretentious—my vision of the show. [Laughs.] They were very supportive on that front, saying, “We’ll back you creatively if this is what you need to do, then we’ll be with you,” and trying to catch up as quickly as possible, and also it limited the amount of input they could have, but that’s not to say that they didn’t have input, because they did. They were very helpful, and between Sony and NBC and Gaumont, there was a lot of support for the show creatively.
AVC: This episode returns Abigail to Minnesota—
BF: And David Slade as director!
AVC: —and David Slade! What did you see Abigail’s role as in the story of the season?
BF: In the literature, there was reference to Will Graham visiting Garret Jacob Hobbs’ daughter after the incident a couple of times, and then he didn’t see her anymore and she went off to live her life and was relatively normal and adjusted after her father… [Speaking rapidly.] killed a bunch of people and tried to kill her and killed her mother. [Laughs.] As adjusted as you can be.
So I thought there was an interesting dynamic to be brought in with the daughter of a cannibalistic serial killer looking for new parents and one of those people in that role as a potential new parent is a cannibalistic serial killer. It felt like there was a great opportunity for Hannibal to show an interest and a vulnerability and some care for another human being. And also to feel a responsibility for his action of setting this all in motion, in terms of calling Garret Jacob Hobbs and warning him that Will Graham was coming to collect him. I don’t think he understood completely at the moment how far reaching those actions were. He was just, as he said in the penultimate episode, he was just curious what would happen, but he saw that it actually was so devastating and traumatic for this young woman that he felt a bit of responsibility.
It also hearkened back a bit to his relationship, from the literature, with his sister that we’re going to be evolving a bit from what it was, because the timeline is so different from a Hannibal Lecter who was a young man during World War II and could have his sister eaten by Nazis. But I thought Hannibal having a soft spot in his heart for a young woman would inevitably draw comparisons to his sister, Mischa.
AVC: You have this visual element that goes throughout the season of the elk stalking Will in his dreams, and then in “reality.” Where did that visual come from?
BF: That’s just my psychiatric background, [Laughs.] in terms of some Freudian, Jungian imagery.
Will sees Cassie Boyle impaled on the severed stag head in the field on that first day, it is actually incredibly traumatic for him. So his psyche has amalgamated that experience in a strange way, by producing this black stag that has raven feathers on it that are reflective of the ravens that are picking at the corpse. So he sees the ravens picking at the corpse on the severed stag head and amalgamates them into this black stag of his nightmares that is really his first touch with the evil that Hannibal Lecter is capable of. In his mind, in the recesses of his subconscious, there is a connection being made.
Come back tomorrow when Fuller discusses episodes four through seven as well as both the show’s and his own fascination with death and the supernatural.