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Bryan Fuller walks us through Hannibal’s debut season (part 3 of 4)

The A.V. Club recently sat down with Bryan Fuller to talk about Hannibal’s first season. The first part is here, and the second part is here.


Fromage” (May 16, 2013)

One of Hannibal’s patients, the overly friendly Franklin (Dan Fogler), becomes convinced that his friend, Tobias (Demore Barnes), is a serial killer. Meanwhile, Will investigates a murder where the victim has been turned into a human cello.

The A.V. Club: There’s a lot of discussion of Alana Bloom by fans and a lot of differing opinions on that. How do you see Alana and what her role is in this series?

Bryan Fuller: I believe that she is very much the heart of the Will Graham story. That she is somebody who is looking out for Will’s interests, almost purely. That she feels very protective of him. She can see how this system would eat up and spit out someone like Will Graham, so having an innate attraction to him as a man and then also an attraction to him as a human being and a soul, she’s very protective of him. And then, what’s interesting to me was having a character who could take her own advice in some way and still be honest.

We talked a lot about Alana falling into bed with Will Graham, and where I always fell back to was, if she’s as good a psychiatrist as she’s purported to be, she would see that this guy is damaged, and getting involved with a damaged person only compromises yourself. So I was really happy that we could craft a character that was an adult and not just throwing her ankles up in the air because the guy was hot. But could say, “This is not good for me. I have to protect me. I have to be responsible to me.” All those things that, having been in therapy, I’ve certainly been in sessions where I would say, “Oh, I’m going on a date with this person.” And one time my therapist, when I said, “I have a date with a cop,” she was like, “Don’t… take this seriously. People who are attracted to the law-enforcement field have certain personality types that are not compatible with your personality type, and do not date this man.”


And I thought it was really interesting to see my therapist step out of her role as a therapist and kind of throw that all away to give kind of friendly advice, as you would to a friend, but it was so startling to me, the awareness of, “How you are is not compatible to how they are,” by the very basic map of what you do for a living and what kind of personality types are attracted to that. So that was always in the back of my mind: Alana would know the math and the compatibility of certain personality algorithms, and she would know that that was not a healthy, happy thing to engage in, and so she would not do it, regardless of whatever her loins were telling her to do.

AVC: Caroline Dhavernas’ character on Wonderfalls,Jaye Tyler, is a very different character from her Hannibal character. What made you think of her for this part, if indeed that’s how it happened?


BF: I had been wanting to work with Caroline again since Wonderfalls. I just find her incredibly charming, as an actress, and [she] also has a unique accessibility, as well. So I had called her when we were doing Hannibal, and I was like, “What are you doing?” and she said she’s doing this and that, but she’s available. And I said, “Well, I’m doing Hannibal, and there’s two roles that I could see you doing. One is a little more Jaye-like, I could see…” and it was Freddie Lounds or Alana Bloom. And I said, “I could see how you would perform Freddie Lounds. You brought that kind of irrepressible, not necessarily sarcastic, but a savvy to Jaye that was genuine and likable, and I could see you doing Freddie Lounds.” And I was like, “But I’m also aware that you could bring a humanity to Alana Bloom and a sex appeal, and which of these characters do you respond more to?” And she said, “Alana Bloom,” and I said, “Great. Let’s work it out.”[Beat.] So what do people say on the… what are the discussions on her character? [Laughs.]

AVC: In our comments and in our reviews, there’s been a lot of discussion about if the character is sort of underused. That was less in probably the last three, when you start to really see what her role within the show is.


BF: Yeah. It was really a matter of laying all the pipe for Will Graham and Hannibal, and then getting people in there as we could get them in there. We didn’t have any of the female characters in all episodes produced. We had Kacey Rohl [Abigail Hobbs] in six episodes, and we had Hettienne Park [Beverly Katz] in 10, and we had Caroline in 10, and we had Lara Jean [Chorostecki; Freddie Lounds] in six. So we didn’t have all episodes produced on any of the female cast. It was always like, we can either use Caroline here, or we can use her there, and she has more to do there, so let’s take her out of this episode. That was always one of the frustrations of working in television and having limited deals on actors. I think you’ll see a lot more of Alana Bloom in season two.

AVC: This episode has the human cello in it…

BF: [Laughs.] Yes!

AVC: Again, where the hell did that come from?

BF: That was me being obsessed with the instrument of the cello and also wanting to turn a human being into a cello and what that would be like. So the idea of sticking the neck of a cello down somebody’s throat and playing their vocal cords like a string instrument was just one of those weird images that popped into my head. Then, after talking about that murder, we knew what the murder was going to be when we first saw… The image was pretty clear in my head. [Laughs.] Then it was like, what is the rationale for somebody to do that to a living being?


I got on the phone with Brian Reitzell, who is our composer, who has created this fantastic psychological soundscape for the show, and I said, “This is an episode for you that will be interesting, because we want to turn a human being into an instrument, and any kind of insight you have in that area would be really helpful,” and he started talking about gut strings versus synthetic strings and the quality of sound that comes from an organic material and how it has a deeper, darker, sensual, more authentic sound. Then we got onto the conversation of a killer who was looking for a very authentic sound, and thus, Tobias Budge was born.

And Tobias Budge, he was originally going to be Buffalo Bill. It was going to be Jame Gumb and Benjamin Raspail, and that was going to be the episode where we found out exactly how that head ended up in the jar in the storage facility. Then when we couldn’t get rights to that character to tell the story, we came up with something completely different that resulted in one of my favorite episodes and one of my favorite guest stars, with Demore Barnes playing Tobias Budge as a different kind of serial killer who has a cross with Hannibal Lecter through a patient.


AVC: This is the episode with the Hannibal Lecter fight with Tobias. How did that come to be?

BF: Mads Mikkelsen coming up to me and saying, “I want to do something very physical. I want to get into a big fight because I can do those fight sequences really well, and I would love to be able to do something like that in the show.” And I said, “Absolutely.” [Laughs.] So we had known that it was going to build to a big, physical confrontation, and it was really about Mads coming to me and saying, “I would really like to do this if you can figure out a way to work it into the story,” and so I did. Because I wanted to see it, too. And also, Laurence Fishburne came with the same request later on in the season, because he was like, “You know, I trained like crazy for all the fight sequences in The Matrix movies. I’m pretty good at those, too.” So we’re going to be honoring that request in the first episode of the next season, to see Laurence [Laughs.] doing his dance.


AVC: You use the Franklin and Tobias relationship as a weird mirror of some of the other relationships on the show. How did you develop that weird friendship?

BF: It seemed organic. At that point of the season, it was time to tell the audience what Hannibal was up to, and one of the things that occurred very early on in the development of this show was I wanted to see what would happen if Hannibal Lecter tried to make a friend and how he would go about making a friend, as someone who considered himself an individualist. What that would look like? Obviously, he set his sights on Will Graham.


But in order to have the conversation about the nature of friendship and what it means, we needed to have avatars, in a sense, for those conversations. So Franklin and Tobias having an odd friendship was nice to mirror, not only Hannibal’s relationship with Will Graham, but also Hannibal’s relationship with his doctor, Bedelia. And how she says in a manner that reflects very closely what Hannibal tells his own patient is that, “I’m your doctor. I’m not your friend. Don’t look for friendship here.” We get that Hannibal has been seeking friendship for a while. Therefore, it’s not just a new concept to him with Will Graham, but he sees a genuine opportunity for fulfilling that desire with Will Graham.


Trou Normand” (May 23, 2013)

A totem pole of bodies is found in West Virginia, and Will and the team have to track down the man responsible for the murders, which stretch across decades. Abigail makes a shattering confession to Hannibal.

AVC: This episode ends with the revelation that Abigail actually did lure the girls to their deaths. What prompted you both to make that choice and to push it this late in the season?


BF: Well, when we were working on the episode, the return-to-Minnesota episode, “Potage,” David Fury worked on that episode before he had to return to Fringe. He came to do an episode with us, and after he had done a first draft, then Fringe started up again, and he had to return there. One of the things that he said was, “Nobody’s ever going to believe in a million years that Abigail Hobbs had anything to do with these murders, so we’re kind of chasing a story that the audience isn’t going to embrace, because they’re going to know that Abigail Hobbs didn’t help her father,” and before even thinking about it, I was like, “Unless she did.” In working on the episode “Potage,” I knew that’s where we were going to go with Abigail, so it felt like it would be something that would be heartbreaking for the character and that she is a victim of a terribly abusive father, and that there’s a version of where she’s twirling her mustache and saying, “Yes, I helped dad,” and there’s the other part where it’s like confessing to incest. It had to be powerful and deliberate.

“Trou Normand” is an episode that had very few beats of a procedural case, but that procedural case was about a man who had inadvertently killed his own son because of how he lived his life. So telling a story that puts Will Graham in a position of “you can destroy this girl’s life, or you could keep your mouth shut and let her try to salvage something out of this experience” was a really powerful place to put Will in. And you have an actress like Kacey Rohl who, in that confession scene, we didn’t cut away. We were on her for like two- and a half minutes of one shot. Because it was such a powerful place, and she was so powerful in the moment, and it was such a huge confession and further complicated Will Graham in such a unique way that it just felt like we were driving toward that since “Potage.”


AVC: What do you see as Lecter’s plan for her, if he hadn’t ultimately killed her? It seemed like he had one.

BF: I think his plan was to create a family with Will Graham and Abigail Hobbs, in a way that they are all severely compromised as human beings, and he would be able to help both Will Graham and Abigail Hobbs accept themselves for what the world has made them to be. It would be a very confusing relationship for Abigail Hobbs, but one that would really reflect Hannibal’s sensitivity on one hand, and in the same breath be equally as monstrous, because he’s cultivating a girl who’s so traumatized from what her father did, yet he’s doing exactly what her deceased father did, but in the way that she would be able to better understand his purpose and the purpose of those murders.


In a way, I think Hannibal, when he’s breaking down to Bedelia and saying that the opportunity to guide a life and have influence was very powerful for him. So his relationships with Abigail and with Will are very genuine. He is getting something out of them emotionally, and so it is very complicated. It’s interesting to see different theories about, “Oh, because Hannibal did that means that he was just a son of a bitch the entire time, and was playing everybody,” but actually, even though, yes, that’s true, he is a corrupted character, he does also have the ability to care about other characters of a piece.


AVC: How did you find Kacey Rohl? What was that casting process like?

BF: It was interesting because on the first episode, we had a producer named Sara Colleton, who produced Dexter and was a producer on Mockingbird Lane, and during the casting process, we were coming up against our budget of what we had for this role, and we had auditioned a few people locally and didn’t find anyone that we felt was the character in a way that we wanted to bring her back and see an arc of her life play out. Then there was Kacey, that David Slade had worked with in the past, and he was like, “It’s Kacey Rohl. This character is Kacey Rohl. We have to get Kacey Rohl.” But we simply didn’t have any money in the budget to pay for Kacey.


So Sara Colleton actually said, “You know what? I’m going to withdraw from this process. I love this show and I love you guys, but you need Kacey Rohl on the project more than you need me. So take my money that you’re paying me as an executive producer and use it to help pay for this role,” which we didn’t have any money in the cast budget to pay for. It was one of those, it’s sort of a weird behind-the-scenes story but… [Laughs.] It was kind of a process. But it was like, we can’t afford her, because we had zero money in the budget for the role. It wasn’t budgeted. So it was like, “How are we going to pay for an additional role?” and then Sara took the high road and was, like, “You need her for the show more than me.” So that goes to show not only the power of a great producer’s convictions, but also her belief in Kacey Rohl as an actress.

AVC: You have such dreamlike imagery on the show, like the totem pole on the beach, in West Virginia of all places…


BF: There is a lake! [Both laugh.] There is a lake just south of that place that we were like, “Okay, it can be there.” So even though it’s landlocked, there is a body of water. [Laughs.] In West Virginia.

AVC: How do you create these grand murderous tableaux?

BF: It goes back to honoring Thomas Harris and imagery we have in the books, in the Hannibal Lecter books. So we knew that we had to have fantastic imagery that you wouldn’t see on another crime-procedural show. Being competitive and wanting to be completely different from what you see on other shows, which is usually, on a crime procedural you see a body in a room splayed out and blood, but you rarely get to see people covered with mushrooms or impaled on severed stag heads or blood eagled and the totem pole. We would sit in the room and say, “What is the image? What is the death tableau? What are we going to see that’s going to be so striking and cinematic and beautiful at the same time, but will actually be a horrible crime scene?” So every crime scene that we have has to have this element of beauty and art to it.


Initially, we were only going to have the Chesapeake Ripper murders be of that quality, and then I was like, “Ugh, that means that every other murder that we do on the show isn’t going to be as interesting visually.” It’s just one of the buys of the series in the way that kind of tips us toward X-Files, in that these cases have a grandiosity to them that is above and beyond what you would think you would see in a crime procedural but employs art and beauty. So that when you’re looking at them, you’re not horrified by the gore overwhelmingly so, but you can take in the gore and the beauty simultaneously, which kind of puts people in Will Graham’s perspective, where he’s looking at things and seeing them for their beauty and mechanics as well as the viciousness of a killer’s work and how that can be confusing and corrupting at the same time. There are many reasons why we did that: A) for the cinema of it, and B) for the psychological horror. It’s like when you look at something, it’s almost as if it were just blood and guts, it would be easier to turn away and go, “That’s horrible,” but if you show somebody an image that’s beautiful, and you look at it more closely and see that the only way to create that image is from terrible suffering… [Laughs.] It’s a very confusing suggestion to put in the human mind.

AVC: What are your conversations like with the production design department on some of this stuff?


BF: I love the production meetings on the show, because we will say, “Okay, it’s a totem pole of bodies,” and we went through a few different… I would sit there and draw out what I saw as the totem pole and kind of like a chevron pattern with arms and legs wrapping around the base of a totem pole, and then the art department would do a couple of different versions of that, and then I would say, “More bodies. Less girth.” [Laughs.] “Make it longer.” Everybody treated the death tableaux in such an infectiously fun way, where there would be all these guys turning to each other like, “Oh my God, a totem pole of bodies? What’s next week?” And then they would also turn it out and do their best to craft it.

There were a couple of stumbles early on in the production, and I set the team down and essentially gave them a speech about, you know, we’re not just doing a television show, we’re honoring one of the most cherished villains in popular culture, and that deserves a certain attention to detail. Nothing can get by. We have to be meticulous in our presentation of this character, because he means not only a lot to me as a fan, but to people all over the world. So that demands a higher level of attention to detail. I only had to give that speech once, but I take it very seriously.


AVC: In this episode, you have Lance Henriksen who played a very Will Graham-ish role on Millennium. Was that a deliberate homage, and will we ever be seeing him again, since he’s in only the one scene?

BF: Yes and yes. [Laughs.] As we were talking about that role, and we realized we had one scene to sell a character, and therefore, we required an actor of a certain level of impact, the first person as we were talking about it, I was like, “I wonder if we can get Lance Henriksen.” He’s so beloved as an actor by the writing staff as well as by David Slade. He’s been in so many iconic films from Damien: Omen II and Aliens and Millennium and Near Dark, and it goes on. So he was somebody that we knew was going to take one scene and make it feel like you just saw a movie with the guy. I love that he had this complicated relationship with his family and his actions. One of his last murders was inadvertently murdering his own son and hearing that from Will Graham. It feels like there is an interesting father/son dynamic to be explored between that character and Will Graham.


Buffet Froid” (May 30, 2013)

Georgia (Ellen Muth), a woman suffering from Cotard’s syndrome, begins hiding under people’s beds and killing them, trying to cut their faces off. Meanwhile, Will is diagnosed with encephalitis, but Hannibal convinces the diagnosing doctor to keep that knowledge from his patient.


AVC: This is probably the scariest episode of the season…

BF: Oh good!

AVC: To a degree, television is built on establishing a sense of stability and safety, and you need to have those things that are always present, or else the show flies off the rails. How do you introduce horror into something where you need to ultimately return to that status quo?


BF: For me, it was really about not adding horror, but going further with it, because the show is a horror film. For me, in many ways, it is psychological horror. As we were looking at where we are in the season, I knew this was the episode where Will Graham was going to get a CAT scan, and they would identify that he has encephalitis, and then Hannibal would manipulate his doctor to hold that information from Will. We needed a villain and a storyline that was part and parcel with false perceptions of reality and self.

One of our staff writers, Kai Wu, pitched Cotard’s Syndrome as a case and we thought… This episode had been a couple of other things that had been thrown out and one was very Saw-like and just felt like… It was a man who was punishing people who were involved in various charities, and one of the charities was a dog shelter, and so the person was fed to the dogs. Those types of things that felt like it was all plot. There was no character. There was no Will Graham story. I had to throw it out because it just didn’t feel like the rest of the show. So we were like, “Where’s Will Graham now, and what is he going through?” He’s going to be approaching the height of his hallucinations and his self-doubt, so we need a character or villain that is going through something similar. And Kai Wu pitched Cotard’s Syndrome, which is a disorder where you believe that you’re dead and that you’re rotting and that people can’t see you and you have difficulty identifying faces. So we took everything that Will Graham was going through and sort of turned it on its head and gave it to another character. Then, as we were talking about the character thinking that she was dead, then I thought, “Oh my God, we should cast Ellen Muth to play the role,” [Laughs.] “And name the character Georgia, and it’ll be a reimagining or an inversion of Dead Like Me in a fun way.”


In sitting down with [episode director] John Dahl, who had directed The Last Seduction and Joy Ride, so I knew he knew what to do with tension, but it was basically sitting down with John at the very beginning and saying, “This is a horror movie. We are embracing full-frontal horror in this episode, as mood and tone, and we want everything to drip with scary.” And John was like, “I got it.” [Laughs.] Really, it turned out such an amazing episode. He did such wonderful work where he kept the camera moving in a creeping way that always gave you a level of tension. That’s the beauty of working with the directors that we have the first season is that everybody kind of knew what the show was and knew what they could bring to the table and knew how to elevate it. I knew John was going to give us something scary and creepy, taking our spooky-girl iconography from Asian horror, and doing something that is unique to Hannibal with that was a really fun mission statement at the beginning of that episode.

AVC: You’ve talked a lot about stretching out the beats, about stretching out the storytelling to allow more time for psychological horror and psychological discussion, yet your previous work you’re really known for intricate plotting and very fast-paced dialogue. Was this a difficult shift for you to make?


BF: It wasn’t a difficult shift to make, as much as it was one that I was excited about making, because I was, like, okay, Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies and Mockingbird Lane all feel of a voice, so I was excited about doing something that had a little sobriety to it. And I was excited about taking away some of my crutches, alliterative dialogue and whimsy in character and story and doing something that had a tremendous amount of gravity. For me, it was like, “I need to zig now, as opposed to zag.” So it felt like it was a great opportunity to express myself artistically in a different way. When I was writing Heroes in the first season, that felt like it was a more restrained version of what I would write if left to my own devices. Also, I felt a responsibility to Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal Lecter is not a Bryan Fuller character. It’s a Thomas Harris character, so I had to respect that I was raising somebody else’s child and not force my own ideals on them and let them be who they were intended to be by the person who created them. Does that make sense?

AVC: Yes! You have Ellen Muth in this episode, who you had worked with many years before, and you have many people from your previous projects sprinkled throughout this. First of all, what brings you to an actor? What do you see in them that you really like, and how do you keep in touch with them and decide to bring them back?


BF: I do keep in touch with the casts that I’ve worked with, in general. I really adore actors, and I value tremendously what they bring to the table and have a lot of respect for what they do, so it’s a matter of, like, “Oh, I liked working with that person! I want to work with them again! They would be interesting to see them in this role,” and with Ellen on this show, it was interesting to bring her back in a role that she’s primarily playing a monster and then, when you see her again, she’s this very normal, in appearance and attitude and tone, character in contrast with how we first saw her as the monster.

But there’s a great sadness to somebody who is suffering from mental illness. For me, it was just about knowing what that color looks like on the canvas when you pick up that brush, so I knew what Ellen was going to bring to the table and was excited to work with her again. I suppose it’s also, on some level, [Laughs.] I haven’t had a show that’s gone past two seasons, so there’s a certain mourning, I guess, that would be part of working with these actors that I worked with before on other shows. It’s like, “Oh, I loved working with them, and that show was such a good experience, and it’s too bad that it’s gone, but I can still continue to work with these people.”


AVC: What was it about encephalitis that attracted you as Will’s ultimate ailment?

BF: Well, it was something that John Douglas, the criminal profiler that Thomas Harris based the character of Will Graham on, I was reading about him, and he suffered from encephalitis. I believe they were investigating a case—it may have been the Green River Killer, I’m not exactly sure—but he was in Seattle, I think, with a few other investigators, and they had all met for breakfast, and he didn’t show up. They went to his room looking for him and they found him catatonic, on all fours, staring in the middle distance, surrounded by all of the crime scene photos, and the other investigators were like, “Oh my God. It finally happened. He snapped. He was just saturated with the evils that men do and went away in his brain.” They got him to the hospital, and one by one, all of his organs were shutting down. They were hooking him up on machines, and they couldn’t figure out what he was suffering from or what was wrong with him, until they finally diagnosed encephalitis and figured out what was wrong and were able to treat it.


So I had always thought that Will Graham was going to be suffering from encephalitis over the course of the season somehow, and it would give Hannibal access to the most vulnerable parts of his psyche. Really, the encephalitis was about connecting the inspiration for the character to the actual character.

Come back tomorrow when Fuller discusses the season’s final three episodes and the early work on writing season two.


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