Q&A: Bryan Fuller on the End (for Now) of ‘Hannibal,’ the Future of Broadcast TV, and His Plans for Clarice StarlingNBC Universal
This should go without saying, but if you’re concerned about spoilers, you should probably wait to read this discussion of the Hannibal finale until after you’ve watched the Hannibal finale.
The first rule of Fannibal Club is that on Hannibal, nobody’s truly dead until we’ve seen them cooked and plated — and even then, who knows? Bryan Fuller’s operatically gross and sneakily romantic reimagining of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon has run its course as an NBC show, but according to Fuller, we may not have seen the last of Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham and Mads Mikkelsen’s Dr. Lecter.
(Spoilers follow. Last chance. Perhaps enjoy this instead.)
After a bloody three-way battle staged like a love scene, this Saturday’s season/series finale closed with a nod to Holmes and Moriarty’s plunge from the Reichenbach Falls in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” one of the most famous impermanent endings in pop history. (Doyle published the story in 1893; Holmes stayed dead until 1901.) But if you were a fan of the show inside this show — the one about the genuine and passionate emotional entanglement between a heterosexual male FBI profiler and the people-eating serial killer he’s chasing — the finale paid off on another level. Dancy and Mikkelsen found an odd tenderness in a relationship that would have played as a freak show in the hands of lesser actors; there was tension in their scenes together leading up to Saturday’s bloodbath, but there was real sadness, too. Like Holmes says to Watson in “His Last Bow,” considered the real last Sherlock story: “Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk we shall ever have.”
The thing I kept saying to people about this season was that it felt like a dream you’d have after watching too much Hannibal. I mean that as a compliment.
Well, I think that’s certainly true of the first [half of the season], the Italian chapter. It felt like if we just went right back into a case, we wouldn’t be acknowledging any of what the characters went through in the previous two seasons. And given the finale of the second season, there needed to be a certain refractory period for the characters to fall back and assess what they’ve been through. To charge them forward in a heavily plotted arc seemed artificial and television-y, and I wanted to do something that was much more organic, to be in the headspace of Will Graham, which is heavily traumatized. [Laughs.] We had to establish the damage that had been done. If they were just right back up on the horse, you don’t really feel the impact of what they’ve been through. So it was a very conscious choice.
When it started, you described Season 3 as the version of Hannibal you’d always wanted to do. Were you pretty sure this was probably going to be the last season, and did that embolden you to go out in a blaze of glory?
Well, yeah. I think when we first started talking about the season, I knew the Italian chapter was going to be a lot of fun. I knew that it was going to be very thoughtful and cinematic, and a deviation from the FBI crime-scene cases that we’d experienced in the first two seasons. And then I knew, of course, that we were going to be heading into the Red Dragon [story] after that chapter, and it just felt like that was a necessary conclusion for Will Graham, who in that first chapter of the season was really struggling with, If I don’t kill Hannibal, I fear I will become him. And, that pays off in the finale in so many ways, because you have Bedelia [Du Maurier, Hannibal’s therapist, played by Gillian Anderson] asking Will, “So, you can’t live with Hannibal and you can’t live without Hannibal? Is that what this is about?” And Will saying, “I accept that I may not survive this, and that’s fine with me.” And so it seemed like it was an organic conclusion to the emotional state of Will Graham.
Was this the ending that you had always envisioned? It’s kind of the consummation of the relationship in a way. It’s the thing that it’s been building to. It’s like the Get a room moment …
[Laughs.] Right. It felt — it’s hard to answer that, because I had a plan for Season 4 and how to wrangle the story back from the cliff’s edge, so to speak. With the idea that we were not going immediately into a Season 4, and there may be a period of time before we pick up the baton again to tell more adventures of Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, it felt like this was the logical conclusion to the arc of the season, and to Will Graham saying, “I have to kill him or I’ll become him.” A Thelma and Louise/Sherlock and Moriarty nosedive felt like it completed that arc of what Will Graham had been experiencing in the first three seasons. And then Season 4 would’ve started a whole new arc between those two guys.
You characterizing the cliff thing as a Sherlock moment implies something pretty specific …
Oh, yeah. That’s why I keep saying Sherlock and Moriarty, because they go over, and you think they’re dead, and then there’s another book and they’re not.
Right before I got on the phone with you I was reading a great article about postcanonical Sherlock Holmes stories. I didn’t realize how many iconic things in the Sherlock mythos didn’t originate in Conan Doyle’s books. Like “Elementary, my dear Watson” is from the movies. Someone else came up with the deerstalker hat, too.
Yeah, it was the gift that kept giving. That’s the fun of an adaptation — you know the story works because you’ve read it before. And in this case, not only had I read it before but I’d seen a couple of movies that have covered the same territory. It’s up to me to make that story fresh for the audience that’s tuning into this program, but it also becomes a fan fiction of sorts. I don’t want to do anything unless I can put some portion of myself into it, so it feels reflective of my soul as an artist. So I felt like there was an opportunity, with the dynamic between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, that allowed me to explore male friendship, above and beyond boundaries of sex and camaraderie. It just felt like a way for me to do something that I hadn’t done before. And three years later I feel like I did something that I’m very proud of artistically.
These are obviously Harris’s characters first and foremost, but do you feel a sense of ownership, at least of these versions, at the end of three years?
I felt a sense of co-ownership with Mads and Hugh, because so much of this show and my favorite moments of crafting this show were working in conjunction with two brilliant actors who were as invested in the storytelling as I was. And, as creative as I was. So much of what we give these actors is riddles and poetry. For them to navigate that, and find something genuinely emotional and authentic, is a testament to their skills and their craft.
I still can’t imagine being Mads Mikkelsen at the beginning of this experience, looking at the Anthony Hopkins version of Lecter and trying to come up with another way to do it. And now it’s weird — the Hopkins version seems off now. It seems a little big.
Nothing would please me more than Mads Mikkelsen becoming the definitive Hannibal Lecter for audiences. And that’s a very big wish, because Anthony Hopkins, those are huge shoes to fill. But it’s a new generation, and it’s a different version of the story, and I think for some members of the audience, Mads is the definitive Hannibal Lecter. He certainly is for me. But I’ve been a fan of all of the Hannibal Lecters. I thought Brian Cox was brilliant in Manhunter. And Anthony Hopkins deserved every accolade that he got for Silence of the Lambs.
Were you ever close to working out a deal to use the Lambs characters?
Y’know, it was pretty, um, immobile. It was not going one way or another. It wasn’t getting closer to “no” and it wasn’t getting closer to “yes.” It was always a possibility, but a difficult possibility. And who knows what’ll happen now that Hannibal has come to fruition on NBC. Maybe in a few years from now MGM might decide that they would love to see a Silence of the Lambs miniseries on Starz, and we’ll go for it.
But that’s a hypothetical at this point?
Well, at this point we’re trying to get financing for a Hannibal film that would essentially be a version of the arc [I had in mind] for Season 4. And who knows what the likelihood of that is. I’m hoping that with the finale airing, and with people discussing it, we’ll be able to have a conversation again about continuing the story, because myself and Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy are all ready, willing, and able to return to the story when the time is right.
The Season 4 arc you’re talking about — that’s a separate thing from the Hannibal version of the Silence of the Lambs story?
There’s a portion of the novel Hannibal that has not been included in any of the adaptations of the story. That was the thrust of the potential Season 4 for us — taking this plot point from that book and reconceiving it for Will and Hannibal. I was talking with Hugh about this as we were landing the plane on Season 3. And Hugh was like, “Oh my god, that’s cool. I want to do that.” So I know Hugh wants to do it, I know Mads wants to do it, and I want to do it with them, we just have got to find the right time and the right platform to tell that story. And who knows? American Gods1 may be a big hit for Starz, and they may owe me a favor, and maybe they’ll green-light a Hannibal miniseries. Who knows what will happen?
So everything you do from now on is just going to be you trying to get another crack at the Hannibalverse, basically.
When I work on these shows, particularly Pushing Daisies and Hannibal, I see the story so vividly in my mind. That allows me a certain creative satisfaction, knowing where the story’s going, but it doesn’t help with the frustration of not being able to tell it to the audience. Every show I’ve done that’s ended, I knew what the next season was going to be. I have many ghosts of stories untold haunting my head, and I would love to exorcise some of them.
Did you know what your version of Silence of the Lambs was going to be?
Oh, yeah. There were so many great characters in that story — not just Hannibal and Clarice, but Buffalo Bill and Benjamin Raspail. It felt like there was a great opportunity for a parallel structure — Hannibal Lecter incarcerated and Hannibal Lecter flashing back to the period when he was Benjamin Raspail’s psychiatrist, and you learn that Raspail was involved with Buffalo Bill, who was also murdering people. There’s a way into that story that expands what we saw in Silence of the Lambs. There’s a version with bigger chunks of Hannibal Lecter folded into that omelet than in the film.
I really liked what you had to say in that Entertainment Weekly Q&A about how you’d decided to handle the sexually violent aspects of Francis Dolarhyde on the show. Had you thought much about how you’d deal with Lambs’s treatment of its transgender characters, which — and I think we can say this without throwing Thomas Harris under the bus, because it’s a 30-year-old book — is very much “of its time”?
It is and it isn’t. It’s interesting, because I remember when that came out, there was some backlash from the LGBT community, but in reading it, I just thought, “Oh, it’s cool that [Buffalo Bill] is a trans character.” I don’t need a character to be perfect and an upstanding citizen because they are also representing a minority. I think that that actually reflects a very narrow view of the world, and a kind of — not hysteria, but a political correctness that doesn’t allow room for human beings to actually be flawed. I know trans people, and they are some tough motherfuckers. Because they have gone through so much shit, and so much pressure, because of their identities, and how they view themselves, and the dysmorphia they experience from who they are on the inside and how they look on the outside, and the madness that lies in that chasm between those two realities.
So I could imagine somebody in a trans situation, who is insane, acting out on those circumstances. There’s arguably a lot of homophobia in Thomas Harris’s work — both nascent and active — that’s reflective of an era. And we’re beyond that [era] now. But I was more bothered by his portrayal of Margot Verger as a woman who was repeatedly molested at a very young age, and as a result destroyed her body and her femininity with steroids, and became this roid-rage monster. The depiction of her physically, and the way she’s assessed by other characters, their feelings about her where — I think there’s even a moment when Clarice Starling first meets her, where she’s wondering about the size and proportion of [Margot’s] clitoris.2
And I mean, it’s all so specific and weird in the way that Thomas Harris is very specific and weird and wonderful for those things. But I found that much more offensive than a person who was insane and also trans. Because there are people who are trans that are perfectly sane, and myself — as somebody who gender identifies with the gender that I was born with — I frequently feel insane. So [laughs] who am I to argue with someone’s interpretation of insanity for a character who has a specific quality?
Ridley Scott’s Hannibal doesn’t touch the Margot Verger stuff from the novel. That whole book is deranged.
Oh, it’s deranged. And actually, like — a lot of people hate that book, but I fucking love it. And it frequently jockeys for position as my favorite of the Hannibal stories. Red Dragon will sort of inch ahead by a neck, and then Hannibal will go forward, and then I’ll remember something about Silence of the Lambs that I adored, but it’s usually between Red Dragon, Hannibal and then Silence of the Lambs as far as my favorites.
I dig the movie for that same reason — for its craziness. It’s not the most finely wrought of those things necessarily, but it’s crazy, and Mason Verger is such an incredible villain. One thing I really appreciated about your Hannibal is that you used the whole canon, instead of just going, “OK, my movie is a sequel to Alien and Aliens but we’re pretending Alien³ and Alien: Resurrection didn’t happen.”
Oh, I think that was necessary to corral it into a television milieu, and be able to tell it as a complete story, as opposed to “We’re just doing Red Dragon.” There was so much mythology in those novels, and I wanted every inch of it. And still do.
I also really liked the meta-story you’re telling in the Red Dragon half of the season, about Lecter being this niche phenomenon who’s being superseded in the culture by Dolarhyde, who Dr. Chilton calls a “four-quadrant killer.”
That was a very conscious way to say, like, Yeah, we know our ratings are terrible, and we know we’ve got a very loyal fan base, and that’s our niche appeal. And maybe more people will like the Red Dragon story, because it’s a little less pretentious than the Italian chapter.
How did you find out the show was done, at least for the moment?
At the beginning of Season 3, [NBC Entertainment president] Jen Salke pulled me aside and said, “We need to start talking about new development for you.” And I was like, “OK — so we’re not having the fourth season on NBC.” She’s like, “This doesn’t mean anything about the fourth season. But we should talk about new development.” It was her way of saying, “I’m just preparing you now, because I don’t know how long I can hold the wolves at bay.” She has been incredibly supportive of this show. Without her support, we wouldn’t have been able to tell those pretentious stories in the Italian chapter. We would’ve had to shore it up with a lot of plot machinations, and that would’ve compromised the integrity of the characters and what they were experiencing. NBC just said, Do the show that you want to do, we will support you within reason. And they did. It’s incredible that we got to tell this tale on broadcast television. No other network would have allowed us to do the things that Jen Salke allowed us to do.
Given the source material, given what you can’t take out of the Hannibal Lecter story without having it not be Hannibal Lecter anymore, was there a way you could have done this show that would have made it more of a mainstream success?
Absolutely. I think there were many more commercial approaches we could’ve taken to the material. It would start with casting. We cast Mads Mikkelsen, who’s a brilliant actor, but he’s foreign, and perhaps to some mainstream audiences a little bit hard to understand with his accent. If we had cast James Spader in that role, [or] if we had cast Hugh Grant, [we would have] played much more to the pop-cultural understanding of Hannibal Lecter as a character that had become camp in some of the later films. To the flourishes in the later performances of the role. There was a broadness that contributed to his mass appeal, because people were like, “Oh, he’s funny. He says Oh, goody when he’s about to gut somebody. That’s cute.” It’s an approach that’s also glib and a little dismissive of the subject matter, and that probably would have been a much bigger hit. But I think that version would’ve been inauthentic. And fortunately for us, NBC didn’t force us to take that path.
From that perspective, I guess it’s pretty impressive that they stuck with you this long. Although by the end they did take away the “Next week on Hannibal” promos, which I thought was weird. It’s like they were saying “Look, don’t get attached.”
They were servicing their new shows. They knew exactly who was going to be watching [next week’s Hannibal], and that number was not going to move. It’s a very strange time in television, because people are still holding on to the old ways, even though everyone knows that they don’t work. You look at broadcast television — when we moved to Saturdays [in the U.S.] but were still airing on Thursdays in Canada, we kept our audience numbers the first week, and then the second week they dropped by half, because the audience realized that they could BitTorrent it after Thursday night and watch it then.
A big portion of our audience watches the show illegally, because once it airs in one place, people put it online and everyone has access to it. It’s a really challenging situation, because what networks seem to not be realizing is that they can’t control when their audience watches the show. The audience is passionate and they’re going to find the show and get it as soon as they possibly can. And that means seeing it illegally. If all the people who watched Hannibal illegally, watched legally, we would have much healthier numbers and we’d probably still be on the air. But until networks realize that everything has to be day-and-date — like, everybody has to see it simultaneously, that’s the only way to combat piracy.
Netflix figured that out. Here it is. You don’t have to pirate it because we’re giving it all to you right now. We have a very active, rabid fan base. I mean we trend every Saturday on Twitter. It’s wonderful how active and committed the fan base is to the show. But that doesn’t translate to the old way of doing things. Until we crumple that up and throw it out the window, and say, This is how we’re measuring things, and we’re going to put commercials on piracy sites — until they figure out a way to monetize those illegal experiences and bring them into the fold of legal viewing, we’re going to see shows die early deaths because the numbers on paper don’t reflect the passion of the audience. It’s a tricky situation. I’m curious to see when they’ll make the shift into the modern day. Because they’re still using standards that are 50 years old.
Was that an issue even before the move to Saturdays?
We were frequently in the top-five most-pirated shows. And most of the fans that approach me tell me they watch it illegally. But it’s not entirely fair to blame it on piracy. I think we were canceled before they moved us to Saturday. Ultimately, like I said, the show is very niche. It is not a broadcast television show, based on its subject matter. And NBC tried it, and it was a noble effort. Now we’ve gotta see if the industry is going to evolve.
This interview has been condensed and edited.