Hannibal’s Bryan Fuller on Mason Verger and an incredibly ambitious sex scene

Hannibal’s Bryan Fuller on Mason Verger and an incredibly ambitious sex scene

Also: Is Will a killer?

Every week of its second season, series showrunner and developer Bryan Fuller will be talking with The A.V. Club about that week’s episode of Hannibal, in a more spread-out version of our Walkthrough feature. This week, we’re talking with him about the second season’s 10th episode, “Naka-Choko.”

The A.V. Club: In this episode, we have the five-way scene. Who do you consider the other participant in that: the wendigo/elk man thing or the theremin?

Bryan Fuller: [Laughs.] I think the idea of the wendigo being this other entity involved in the five-way was actually [episode director] Vincenzo Natali’s pitch, because I’d talked to him extensively about the sex scene and how I wanted to have Caroline kissing Mads, and then the camera would turn with her as she kisses Will, and it would appear that time and space have merged, and they’re all in the bed together. Then Vincenzo asked, very sheepishly, “I don’t know if this is too far, or if it’s not the show, but what if we threw the stag-man in there?” and I was like, “Great!” If we’re going to be doing that, then it has to be getting in on the hump. 

AVC: Where did the idea to throw Margot and Will together come from?

BF: Well, actually, the idea of throwing Margot and Will together came very early on. When we started talking about Margot’s character in the writers’ room, there was a faction of the writers’ room that was like, “She should be heterosexual, and we should write this stormy love affair with Will and Margot,” and I was like, “That is so diametrically opposed to who she is in the book.” You know, there’s a bit of an affair with Barney and a dalliance, so I got it in some way. But the pitch that kept on getting thrown around the writers’ room is that she was heterosexual, and this was an opportunity to get a lot of sex in the show between Will and Margot and I just thought, “I hear you on the sex part.” [Laughs.] “But let’s make it more in line with who the character is and what the character’s agenda is.”

One of her agendas in the novel Hannibal was to have a child. She couldn’t have a child, because her uterus was destroyed by steroids, and she was barren as a result, and that was all kind of a byproduct of her brother’s abuse of her, that she destroyed her femininity as a result of that. There was this miasma of elements between Margot wanting to have a child and the inability to have a child at that stage of the story that we were kind of combining in various ways. It also seemed like it was a good place to remind the audience of this rebirth and how Will Graham has been descending into this very dark place that has to do so much with death. 

AVC: The sex scene takes up the bulk of an act of the show and seems to showcase how the boundaries are blurring between all of these people. What was the impetus behind that being a centerpiece of the episode?

BF: The first sex scene that we had in episode eight, the simple one between just two people, Hannibal and Alana, was something that I’d been wanting to do since episode six. We actually had a couple of directors who were terrified of it, because what I was describing was taking a sex scene that was as innovative as, say, the sex scene in Fight Club and finding a way to produce it on a television budget. Because the Fight Club sex scene, between Helena Bonham Carter and Brad Pitt, was wackadoodle and a combination of CG naked bodies and all sorts of fantastic, elaborate controlled camera movements that I think took two or three weeks to shoot because of how detailed it was.

So every time I talked about the sex scene and how I wanted it to have that out-of-body, ethereal feel to it, one director flat-out [said], “I don’t know how to shoot that,” and another director was like, “That’s going to take forever to shoot the way you want it,” and then Vincenzo came along and was like, “I know how to shoot that.” And he did a beautiful job. Then, of course, coming around to episode 10, Vincenzo Natali was back up to bat and was so excited about doing an expansion of his Hannibal sex-scene vocabulary by just throwing more people into it.

I knew that I wanted the barriers between all of these characters to come down in a way that they are very intimately involved in the conspiracies that are afoot and that the sex scene is very much a psychological one. That was important to me: to have a deeply psychological sex scene that blurred the barriers between whose bedroom we were currently in. Also, it felt like Will Graham, in order to really engage Margot in sex, had to have some sort of ulterior motive, and him fantasizing that he was having sex with Alana felt like it was honest. I think it’s not uncommon to be in a sexual circumstance and be fantasizing about somebody who’s not in the room with you at that point, so it felt like it was an interesting use of Will’s imagination in a completely different way. And we get to have a five-way. [Laughs.]

AVC: With Randall Tier appearing as the fossil, how much time did you guys spend thinking about what a Will Graham murder tableau would look like?

BF: When we were discussing what Will Graham’s tableau would be, just in terms of the aesthetic, we really had to think about, “What is the trap that Will Graham is setting for Hannibal Lecter, and what is the lure?” He would have to go to certain lengths. If he just laid the body out, there wouldn’t be too much fun to it. So he had to rise to the challenge of Hannibal to convince him that he was going to such a dark place that he was willing to mutilate a body to be convincing. That idea was carrying through on the theme of Randall Tier as a metaphor for Will’s inner beast and Will allowing it to emerge. So Will’s tableau of Randall Tier, who wanted to be a beast, to mutilate his body and essentially vivisection it onto this new creature—we called it the Randall Tooth Tiger—felt like it was saying something very psychological about Will’s transformation and the dangers of his transformation, as he was getting a little too comfortable with the acts of murder and mutilation.

AVC: How much do you genuinely want the audience, particularly people who are aware of the books and other variations of this story, to think that Will is a killer? 

BF: Very much. I think we should be worrying about the slippery slope that Will Graham is standing on, because he is actually delivering on the version of himself that Hannibal Lecter has always seen. So in order to go there, we have to believe that Will Graham is capable of these acts, and we’ve seen him pull the trigger on Garrett Jacob Hobbs and feel good about it. We saw him pull the trigger on Clark Ingram, the social worker, and feel satisfied about that action. These were necessary, incremental steps to Will’s transformation, and, yes, we should be very worried about what Will Graham is capable of. Because I think what is very important about the Will Graham/Hannibal Lecter relationship is, Will Graham has to be, at some level, genuine to what he is sharing with Hannibal Lecter. He is being honest in his feelings about what his instincts are, how much time he has spent in the minds of killers, and the deleterious effects that has had on his psyche. So we should be very worried about Will Graham.

AVC: Mason Verger pops up in this episode for the first time. How did you want to conceptualize him and fit him into this universe, and what made this the right time to do that?

BF: We knew that we were going to be laying pipe with Margot and setting up the story of the offscreen villain that torments her, and those who know the novels know exactly who this character is. What we did in a way that may be frustrating to purists of the novel is that we took a lot of the pig-breeding stuff, which was actually in the books motivated by the experience with Hannibal Lecter, and reverse-engineered that so it was always a hobby of Mason Verger’s, this idea of breeding and changing the nature of a beast to kind of accommodate his cruelty. We know that is essentially what he does with everybody in his world. He wants them to change and adapt and be manipulated by him. In many ways, it’s very similar to how Hannibal Lecter deals with his patients, to be effective in changing who they are and allowing them to be, not the best version of themselves, but a version of themselves that Mason Verger can then claim ownership of in some sick way.

Having him from the get-go be breeding pigs as man-eaters to threaten his sister and her attempts on his life, to basically put her back in line and to give her a check on where she is in their relationship, felt like an interesting way to reinvent the pig eating that could also set up that story in the future, like if once you don’t succeed, try, try again. Because we weren’t going to be showing any of the pedophilia, incest, rape, or any of those elements of the Mason Verger story—we were obscuring them in a way and suggesting them in another way, but not necessarily fully embracing it, [instead] keeping him more of a general sadist. It felt like that might be a great way to introduce the character, through his pigs, and how the piggishness of his behavior is really one that has been learned from his father. If something doesn’t do what you want it to do, you manipulate and breed and coerce it into the thing you want it to be, as opposed to just accepting it for who it is. We see that’s what happened with Margot and being a lesbian: Instead of just accepting who she is, she’s had to endure a series of coercions throughout her life that has constantly kept her under threat. So it’s a little bit of a comeuppance that we’re seeing that she’s not just some shrinking violet who’s going to take it. She’s plotting to kill her brother.

AVC: Michael Pitt and Katharine Isabelle are giving really great performances, but have very different energies from the rest of the cast

BF: [Laughs.] Yes! They do!

AVC: Can you talk about the development those performances?

BF: Whenever we bring in any new character to the show, we want them to vibrate at a different frequency. Katharine Isabelle is an innately comedic performer. She always has some sort of comic timing or wit that is less about comedy and is more about the honesty and the absurdity of the situations that the character is in, so I really loved that she was going to be bringing that out. With Michael Pitt, who I love in the show, and I can’t wait for you to see episode 12 because he’s just magnificent in it, I love the energy and the douchebaggery that he brings with such glee and zeal to the character. We talked very early on about this character being a version of The Joker to Hannibal’s Batman, and we wanted him to be as likable and fascinating and endearing in an ugly way, as he was in the books, but we also wanted to make sure, because he was so despicable, that he’s fun to be in the room with.


Come back next week for discussion of episode 11.

More The Walkthrough