One of the most fascinating characters in literature and cinema is Hannibal Lecter, the refined cannibal psychiatrist. Bryan Fuller, creator of such darkly visionary shows like Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and Mockingbird Lane returns with his darkest vision yet: Hannibal. The series follows Hannibal as envisioned in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon: before anyone knew Hannibal was a killer. We chatted with Bryan about the nature of darkness, the psychological toll the subject matter takes, cannibalism, and dogs. Don’t worry; no dogs were harmed in the making of the show or this interview.
Hannibal is a very intense show, and probably the darkest show you’ve ever done. What brought this darkness out?
It all started with a trip to New York I was on the plane with a friend of mine, Katie O’Connell, who had just come on with Gaumont Television in the US. We were chatting and she told me they were acquiring the rights to the Hannibal Lecter character, and she asked me if I thought there was a television show there. She wasn’t necessarily asking me to work on it; she just wanted to know, as someone who has created television shows, what I thought the potential was. I was absolutely certain there was a valid TV show there - there were so many ways to do a TV show about that character. There are as many wrong ways as there are right ways. I asked if she had the rights to the Will Graham character. She said yes, and I said, “That’s your show. The untold chapter of that relationship before Red Dragon, while Hannibal Lecter is a practicing cannibal and a practicing psychiatrist. One of the things I was fascinated with is that the Hannibal Lecter we have met in the films is a lone wolf, a predator, and very dangerous. He has this connection to Clarice Starling, but not really anyone else. I thought, “Who would this guy be, out in the world, if he was this gentleman dandy psychopath? He’s got to have a social life and a world he inhabits with relationships.” I was really excited about telling the story of a Hannibal Lecter who had relationships. I was very curious about the “bromance” between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham. There is that scene in Red Dragon where Hannibal says to Will, “Do you know why you caught me?” Will doesn’t want to hear the answer because he is afraid that the answer is how much like Hannibal Lecter he is. I thought there is a whole missing book that has a story about the development of a friendship between two crazy guys: one who is so distinct in his crazy (Hannibal) that he has to be a work of fiction because psychopaths don’t function the way he functions. He is someone who appreciates the beauty in the world and he has awe for life and art, and has absolute disdain for those who cannot see the art and the beauty around them. He thinks that if you are someone who is such a pig that you cannot see the beauty in the world, you deserve to be someone’s bacon.
This may very well be one of the darkest shows ever on network television. How has NBC handled that?
Of course there are certain things with broadcast standards and practices that are like, “Don’t stay on that shot too long,” or “That shot is too much.” What’s great about the Thomas Harris lexicon is that the killers and the killings - with the exception of the family murders in Red Dragon which are pretty horrific and hard to get around - is that if you look at Hannibal Lecter as a killer, he is a cannibal psychiatrist who can get inside your head and scoop it out with a melon baller. Or there is Buffalo Bill, a man who is so uncomfortable in his own body that he has to kill so he can create a body he is better suited to be in. Or the Red Dragon, who is a man who feels like he is going through an evolution of sorts, into a superbeing that is part of him and inhabiting part of his being, all part of a midlife crisis. So there is this operatic quality to all the villainy and murders in the Thomas Harris world that give it a heightened element that makes it a little more...
Yes, exactly. To my mind, at least. I think what we have done on the show, whether it is the Mushroom Man or the Angel Maker, those types of villains, I feel like we are doing something a little more “purple” and odd and it bridges into The X-Files territory in the extremity of the cases. We try to make them so heightened as to make them not only ugly and disturbing, but also evocative of certain philosophies. The mushroom murderer in episode two compares how mushrooms function as being similar to how humans function and the metaphor of the story becoming how people seek connections. It is a horror show masquerading as a crime procedural. Silence of the Lambs is a horror movie, but it won an Oscar because it was an elegant horror movie. That is our goal: to do elegant horror on television. There are certain elements of that genre we have to honor. Both myself and [director] David Slade are horror fans with tremendous respect for the genre. We want to be faithful to what section of the video store you would find this in. [Laughs.]
Cannibalism is, I think, the last true societal taboo.
It is. What is interesting to me, as an animal lover, is I look at my dog or a pig, and look at the level of emotional intelligence those creatures have. Specialists say the average dog has the emotional sophistication and intelligence and understanding of a five year old human child. Pigs are even smarter than dogs and more sophisticated emotionally. So if you are having a brouhaha about cannibalism, next time you order that pork slider, you are eating a five year old human being. I am somebody who, when left to my own devices, avoids eating walking meat. I eat fish, I eat rice, I eat gluten-free pasta - those are the mainstays of my diet, unless I go to someone’s home or a fancy restaurant. Then I will eat what is in front of me or try the special. I will rationalize it by saying, “Someone has gone to the effort to honor this beast in some way.” That is my sad rationalization of it. I won’t just eat a hamburger - I think, “That’s what you did to this living thing? You ground it up and squished it into a patty?” I find that more offensive than eating a human being! [Laughs.]
Will Graham is ostensibly the anti-hero of Hannibal. He has his own personality disorders. We have seen characters like this on television, but they all have their own lovable quirks. Will doesn’t have many lovable quirks. Do you worry that will alienate viewers?
Going back to the books, what was fascinating to me was that it became clear that Will has several personality disorders. There are certain things about him that other characters talk about in the books. For example, someone asks Jack Crawford if Will ever mimics his speech. Jack thought it was just a way to get the back-and-forth going, but no, it is involuntary - he can’t help it. The more I read about those things, I figured he has a form of echopraxia. Echopraxia is [the uncontrollable imitation or repetition of another person’s actions.] It is a condition where their grip on their own identity is a little slippery. I thought that was a fascinating place to start with a character who has to put himself in the mind of really bad people. The challenge of trying to hold onto himself throughout that process kind of upped the stakes on the crime procedural. We’ve seen detectives who are very hard and occasionally cry in the shower when no one is looking. They are essentially professionals. Will Graham, being someone who took himself out of that world because he realized that it had the potential to be psychologically damaging to him, now finds himself back in the thick of it, trying to decide how much to get involved and realizing that what he does is actually saving lives. Not being able to deny that, he continues to put himself in a negative headspace that is very dangerous because of how his brain works. So I thought there was a sense of heroism with a man making those choices.
One of the other things that I found interesting in the books is that Will Graham is a dog hoarder. In Red Dragon he sort of puts it off on his girlfriend, but his girlfriend later on says that when Will goes to dark places, he obsesses over the dogs and has to spend time with them. I am a dog lover myself. It feels like this is the kind of guy who has a lot of trouble with people, but dogs are easier because dogs can reflect the best part of you and people can often reflect a very complex image that can be confusing to someone who has personality disorders.
There are a lot of tones of social isolation in Hannibal, and it truly does feel like the dogs are the only way that Will can be comfortable with another life form.
Yes. There is some heartbreaking stuff that happens to Will towards the end of the season. The people in his life all want something from him, or want to protect him, or have some sort of agenda for him. But when he is with his dogs, he is free. I think that is something very relatable and I hope that gives him the likability that I see in the character.
It definitely does. How can you not like someone who loves dogs that much?
I still tear up every time he rescues a dog. We understand that this is a human being who wants connection, but has a very challenging time accomplishing that. Dogs are his saviors. He felt very real to me in that instance. It felt like it was an honest way to be able to look at a character who could be divisive because he is odd and “off.” But when you see him at home with his dogs, you realize he is as normal as anyone. That is the Will Graham I want the audience to relate to.
Also, I feel there is an honesty in dealing with this psychological frame of mind, being put in these situations. He’s going to be a little grumpy! He’s looking at the horrors of humanity on a daily basis. It felt like it was honest to portray him as moody.
It is nice to see that, because so often in television, you have depictions of detectives that feels sanitized. I can’t imagine being put in some of those situations and not being dragged down by the weight of it.
With this show, it felt like by showing the horror, not only are we honoring the genre, we aren’t just pulling the trigger and having the bad guy fall on the ground without seeing the ramifications of violence. I feel like on this show, we are really taking a very close look - through the prism of a horror lens - at the effect of exposure to violence and violent thinking. That is what this first season is about: a guy being exposed to really dark things and the toll it takes on his psyche. I feel like that is often glossed over in crime procedurals to the point where I find it almost more offensive to make it easy to rape and kill someone by talking about it or showing glimpses of it, rather than see a murder, and then see a man shaken by that murder.
Will we see Will evolve or devolve throughout the season?
From Red Dragon, we know that Will Graham, while investigating a murderer known as the Minnesota Shrike, is so traumatized by that event that he slowly starts to have a breakdown. I wanted to be faithful to that element of the Thomas Harris books. We know that Will was so traumatized by that case that he went into therapy. He had to seek help, and remove himself from the FBI. We are telling that story.
All of the stuff I have written to this point, whether it has been Wonderfalls or Six Feet Under or Pushing Daisies, it has all had a certain amount of levity to it. I crammed those shows with things that I liked, that put a smile on my face. Pushing Daisies is full of things I love, from dogs to pies to zombies to Kristin Chenoweth, so there was always someplace to turn for a little bit of happiness. With Hannibal, since it is such dark material, the simple, sweet moments of humanity and human connection that we find - which are few and far between in this show - it was a different psychological headspace than anything I’ve ever written before.
Was it making you darker?
I definitely feel like I was impacted psychologically by being exposed to working on 13 episodes of such a dark story. I’m a moody guy to begin with, so I need tethers to pull me in. I definitely felt Will’s isolation and struggle, and I actually developed a very close relationship with Hugh Dancy over the course of the show because we were both struggling with the dark places this character goes to. It was really rewarding and fascinating to bond with an actor over the shared experience of being inside such a troubled mind. So it was isolating on the one hand, but on the other, I feel like I made a fantastic friend through the experience.
I want to touch on the culinary aspects of the show as well. Is it because of the cannibalism that you wanted to bring food to the forefront?
I fully acknowledge a certain amount of hypocrisy with this, but it is very hard for me to eat pork and beef. Fish is easier for me because they are so different from me. so for me, part of it is asking the audience a philosophical question about eating meat. Even though when I go to Jose Andres’s restaurant [he is the culinary advisor on the show] and he serves a fantastic dish with Kobe beef, I will eat it. I will think it is ridiculous in its deliciousness - but I will feel conflicted about it. Talking to other gourmet chefs, and asking them about creating new dishes and other flavor profiles, I figure that the thought of cooking human flesh must have gone through their minds. Four out of the five said, “Absolutely!” Meat is meat. Everything on the human body is edible - that was one of the first things I asked Jose Andres. Every part of you can be used as a food product. Your bones can be ground up to be used as Jell-O - in fact, that is one of the episodes. We try not to make too big a deal of it on the show, in part because we don’t want to educate potential cannibals. It’s all fun and games until people out there are cooking actual human beings with Hannibal Lecter’s recipes. But until then it is so horrifying to me that it kind of reaches into fantasy territory. I think it is a fascinating philosophical question about who we are in society. We cannibalize each other metaphorically in so many ways, whether it is in business or in sport or on the schoolyard. People cannibalize each other psychologically. I think the reason it is upsetting is because it is taking something that exists in the abstract and making it literal; shining too bright a light on how far humanity will go.