“Showrunners” is a new podcast from INSIDER – a series where we interview the people responsible for bringing TV shows to life.
The following is a transcript from our interview with Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, the showrunners of Starz’s “American Gods.”
Subscribe to “Showrunners” on iTunes here, and listen to the episode to hear the highlights from our interview, and keep reading below for the full conversation.
Fuller and Green on becoming co-showrunners
INSIDER: So first I want to talk about “American Gods” and how you wound up being co-showrunners.
Fuller: I was working on what I thought was going to be the final season of “Hannibal,” season two, and Neil Gaiman came up to Toronto to have a conversation about his book. We talked about all the wonderful things of immigration and strangers and strange lands trying to make their way in America. He said would you like to be the showrunner of “American Gods”? I said yes, if I can do it with [Michael] Green.
Green: Bryan and I have been friends for a long time, a really long time now we’ve discovered because we did the math, but since first season of “Heroes” where we had a great time and got along really well.
Fuller: Ten years ago.
Green: Ten years ago. We remain fans of each other, rooting for each other’s work and always trying to find a way to work together again. I had just spent two years that were fun, but disappointing, trying to write network pilots for 20th Century Fox. I really enjoyed working with all the executives there, but I came to the sad realization that what’s coming out of my pen doesn’t work on network television, which was liberating, but also a little disappointing because I had spent two years trying to get things on network television.
Bryan called me and said, “Do you like American Gods?” The answer was an emphatic yes. I couldn’t say yes fast enough, so we met the next day and just started talking about what we loved about the book, and they were all the same things. The chance to work together again, I would have done on anything, but to do it on one of my favorite books, even better.
INSIDER: When did you each first read “American Gods?”
Green: We both found it in paperback is what we discovered, so like a year after it came out, so probably 2002. When we sat down to have that conversation, I hadn’t reread it, but we had the benefit of being able to say what do you remember about it from the first reading? Here it is, “x” number of “teen” years later, and it’s a book I remember very vividly. We wrote down here are the things that stood out before even sitting down to reread it carefully for an adaptation.
Fuller: We talked about Laura Moon–
Green: The Jinn.
Fuller: There were so many wonderful vignettes and departures from the Shadow and Wednesday’s story that gave us a taste of the gods that was being obfuscated for Shadow Moon. It was a very important aspect of the adaptation.
Green: I remember talking about something in that first conversation that we’ve never stopped talking about, which is as great a character as Shadow Moon is in the book, he is a very internal, non-reactive character to the insanity all around him. One of the things that we would have to do is find ways to externalize it and visualize it. It’s something that we continue to do anytime we approach any page that says “Shadow.”
INSIDER: What were some of the challenges of adapting as you went? When you went back and did that close reading, were there some roadblocks that you ran into?
Fuller: The [literal] road was one of the biggest challenges for the adaptation because in order to run an efficient television production, we need standing sets that we go back to, and the crew understands and knows how to shoot effectively. “American Gods” is a road show, and a sprawling one at that. That was the biggest challenge of this production was not having a home to lay down our equipment and our dolly tracks. It was always about running out, finding the best locations, or building them. That level of detail on an episodic budget and episodic schedule was really challenging.
Green: Once the hammers started swinging in construction, they just never stopped for months. This show, adaptation-wise, we never really struggled script-wise. Production was so difficult. Post-production was so difficult. Writing was sort of non-exotic [because] we have some things to write. It was fun. It was fun writing with Bryan. I think at one point you were like, “of course it’s fun.” You only have to write twenty-five pages, not fifty-two. We’d be splitting stuff, and it was always fun to get each other’s pages and read them and enjoy them, and be able to say you love them and here’s some thoughts and we cut this and that.
Fuller: Our scripts ended up being about forty-five to fifty pages.
Green: Yeah. We knew we were writing things that were going to take their time and have a lot of visual breathing room. Looking at those first episodes and deciding how to turn them into scripts, no one bled on that part. There was a little bit of course correction of things we thought we should do earlier on in the season that once we started shooting and looking at the episodes, realized that we may have gone too far with Shadow’s arc too soon. Because we are working with Starz and with Fremantle, they were very forgiving in letting us make some course corrections mid-stream. Yeah, the adaptation process was kind of fun.
INSIDER: How did you guys decide how to divvy up different parts of the script?
Fuller: Whoever had a particular affinity toward a scene would say, “I kind of have a grasp on this.” But really, we passed our work back and forth and would either do passes or write notes in the margins. For Michael, I was usually suggesting cuts, [while] he was usually suggesting adds. We have different styles of writing that are very compatible.
INSIDER: You guys mentioned the things that you vividly remembered about the first read of the book. Was there one of those scenes in particular that was really exciting for you to bring to life?
Green: It was all kind of exciting to bring to life. Ian [McShane’s] first day playing Mr. Wednesday was his first scene with Shadow. This six and a half page scene where they’re seated and just parked. We’re relying on dialogue and performances. I remembered reading it in the book the first time. I remembered when we wrote those scenes, hearing a thousand actors auditioning for Shadow, reading versions of that scene. Then watching those two characters meet for the first time was really fun and thrilling, and Neil was there. That was one of Neil’s high-level visitation fly-in days.
Mousa, who plays the Jinn, was coming in for a wardrobe fitting that day because we were going to go to his stuff in a day or two. He came with his copy of the author’s preferred text and was like, “Do you think Neil will sign it?” I think Neil will sign the Jinn’s book. He happily did, happily will.
INSIDER: How involved was Neil in the overall production?
Fuller: Neil saw the dailies — every outline, every script — [he] gave us feedback. He was involved in the casting process. We sent him auditions. We would consult with him whenever we cast somebody or there was an offer situation. We had called him and said what do you think about Ian McShane for Wednesday? He said, “I like it. He’s bastardy.”
That was an interesting story in and of itself because we had originally offered Czernobog to Ian. Ian, who’d worked with Michael in the past, had a conversation with him and said this role is great, but he leaves. What about this Wednesday guy? That was all it took.
Green: With Neil, it wasn’t so much that he had approval over casting, it was more that we would talk to him while we were still thinking about it. We wanted his input. If he had an instinct for or against a certain direction, that meant a lot to us.
On being showrunners and why it’s a “stupid” job
INSIDER: I feel like people that don’t obsessively watch a lot of television or read a lot of industry news might not know what the term “showrunner” means. How would you define your job for “American Gods” specifically as showrunner for someone who’s not familiar with the term?
Fuller: The showrunner is essentially responsible for the vision of the production and is directing the directors and the actors and the department heads and kind of just the last stop for the overall aesthetic and value of the production, so it’s the stupidest job in the world.
INSIDER: Why do you say that?
Fuller: It’s impossible to do in the time permitted, under the circumstances permitted, because you’re expected to be so many different places, juggling so many different things, and as co-showrunners, we found, particularly on this production, that it wasn’t the two of us splitting a job as it was the two of us doing a four person job that actually requires that many people to wrangle to the ground. It is the dumbest job in the world because you have to fight for things–
Fuller: Everything. And you’re not saving lives.
Green: There’s a quote, I think it’s Mike Schur, who’s an amazing showrunner that’s created some of my favorite shows that I look forward to watching, most recently “The Good Place,” who defined the job of showrunning as “three full-time jobs plus problems.”
You’re constantly […] writing breaking stories, keeping the scripts coming, often times writing or rewriting every single script, prepping, production and all the exigencies that go with that, and post [production]. They’re often, if not always, going on simultaneously.
On a show like this, we had the advantage of certain parts of the three-ring circus were broken up. There was a period where we were mostly in post [production]. Anytime anyone’s running a show, it’s always best when you have more hands. People run shows alone end up, of necessity and a lot of gratitude, delegating to strong right-hands, either other EPs or co-EPs that they treat as partners. You have to because there’s just too much to get done.
A show that has any degree of ambition, and I’ll define that as anything other than what the industry of network television developed around, you need more than one person. In drama [shows with] cops, lawyers, doctors, general procedural, or standard soap, you can run a show like that “normally” because that’s what [the industry] was built around: Standing sets, set number of actors, set number of days, and just a formula for how things are mechanically accomplished.
Fuller: In this particular show there was no shortage of tasks to be done. Usually in shows that we’ve worked on in the past, the post-production process is relatively easy. You’ve got production down. You’ve written the scripts and editing process is more or less complete, but because of how many visual effects are in [“American Gods”] and the specificity of sound design for head spaces, god spaces, the real world change every episode and have to be bespoke, we found ourselves working as hard, not harder, in post-production as we did in actual physical production.
Between Michael and I, we have color timing, which is generally on a network show you set a “look” and […] you can hand it off and let people take the reins. But with this show, every episode had many different “looks.” We have to be in the color timing working with the colorist getting very specific looks for the variety of different worlds that we’re representing.
The sound design of the show is something that we cared very much about. Once again, you’re dealing with different physical spaces, psychological spaces, and all of those have to have a very distinct vocabulary for how we represent them. At any given day in the post-production process of this show, and that means everyday of the week, seven days of the week, we are in color timing, sound mixing, and visual effects review.
It’s an interesting time [to be in television] for a number of reasons. The amount of filmmaking you can put into a show that is appreciated by the audience has gone up. The job that Bryan has been describing and the way our seven days a week have been the last few months, it’s closer to [being] a feature director finishing a movie.
Fuller: Because there’s two of us, those four things are happening everyday. Ideally, we like to be in the room together because there will be something where it’s like because we’re so aggressive in our styling of the show, we have to gut check with each other. Is this too far? That’s the ideal, but often times we have to, those four things are happening simultaneously, so we have to split up. We’re constantly circling each other as we’re going to the different aspects of the post-production process.
Green: Our text exchanges are a long list of shorthand of descriptions of the latest iteration of the visual effects shot and what’s gone further and what needs work.
Fuller: If I’m in the sound mix, and Michael is with the visual effects team, and he sees something, and he’s like you need to take a look at this because we need to choose a direction. They’ll send me a file. We’ll get on the phone and talk about it, and vice versa. I’ll be in the sound mix and say you need to come by and hear this because we’re doing some aggressive stuff. I want you to get your ears on it, so it’s not too big or too broad because I’ll just go for it if I’m left unchained. Michael will come and say I can’t hear dialogue anymore.
Green: One of the things I try to be conscious of, I’ve had the experience of working for partners and one of the frustrations that people can have when there’s a showrunner team, is getting caught between the two-headed hydra — where one person told you one thing, and the other person comes and tells you the exact opposite, and the team they’ve hired to help them is suddenly is like, “We don’t know what to do. Which is it?” [You get] uncomfortable and shut down and short out.
I’ve learned to see the distressed looks. Like you can see the cortisol level spikes if I give a note, and then I can just kind of say, “Did Bryan say something to the contrary?” Then he and I can then discuss it on the side because you just want to make sure that the artists you’ve hired to do things are clear and ready to action things.
Fuller: Giving one message.
Green: Yeah. Giving one message. Sometimes that means Bryan and I need to have the quick conversation of basically who’s more passionate about their view is usually how we decide things.
Fuller: Whoever cares most, wins.
Green: That’s just a matter of wanting to support each other’s visions for things and who has a clear vision. It’s nice to have that gut check. Sometimes you have an idea that only gets you through the day, and your partner can have the idea that closes out the episode.
How choosing the right blood for each scene is critical
Warning: NSFW violent imagery ahead.
INSIDER: Speaking of that “have we taken it too far?” gut-check, I wanted to talk about the violence on the show.
Fuller: The answer is yes. We took it too far. Happily took it too far.
INSIDER: In the very first opening scene, there’s even an arm flying through the air with a sword still in its hand. What’s the story behind that moment?
Fuller: That was actually one of the earlier, not necessarily bones of contention, but something that we had been repeatedly asked to take out. We felt very strongly that that was totally allowing the audience to be amused by what we’re presenting as opposed to saying “oh no, this is a very serious world and a very serious war.” We wanted that absurdity and heightened sense of almost Pipen-esque humor with the violence.
Green: We weren’t trying to depict history in any way. We wanted that clear that this was someone’s depiction.
Fuller: History in the same way that Monty Python depicts history was our approach. It’s amusing to me when people complain to me about the violence in the story of gods because that’s all there ever has been in these stories. Take a peek at the Old Testament. There’s violence, bloodshed, sacrifice — all are poetic expressions of our faith bargain with the gods that we choose to worship. We needed a bit of that represented in the show to really set the stage of what people fight for, and who hasn’t heard of a religious war? I poo-poo the complaints of violence.
INSIDER: Has there ever been something that you did wind up toning down?
Green: There was one thing that we toned down, but not for any reason of feeling like we’d gone too far. David Slater, our director for the first three [episodes], there was one point when we were adding visual effects blood where he said, “Oh, I’m only halfway there. I want to do a whole other layer. They’re building a whole other CG element of blood to do here.”
We actually said (partly because at the time we were fighting budget, but also the image we had was so beautiful and interesting and weird) “you have enough blood, sir.”
It was, for me, more sometimes we have to say to people we like the work you’ve done so much, we have to protect it from the work you’d like to do.
INSIDER: You just mentioned CGI blood, but how does the physical blood on set work?
Fuller: We have lots of physical blood.
Green: In that [Viking] sequence specifically, I think there’s three different types of blood. There’s physical blood. There’s guys with buckets on the side.
Fuller: There’s projectile pump cannons that pump geysers of blood.
Green: We would actually have conversations in later episodes about which types of blood, like we have a sequence in the top of our sixth episode where we have immigrants crossing the Rio Grande and coming to America and bringing Jesus with them and some violence ensues.
Our first pass in the visual effects department where they were adding the CGI blood to it used the “Vi