How do you go about casting Lecter?
First of all, you've got to put orange cones up where previous actors have tread. We've never going to do Anthony Hopkins, and we're never going to do Brian Cox, because they've been done and it's dishonoring those actors' contributions to the mythology if we try to ape them in some way, so we had to do something completely distinct.
And also we were exploring a chapter in the character's life that hadn't been explored before, when he was both a practicing psychiatrist and a practicing cannibal. And it's not just about going back to the book. In the book, he's got a sixth finger and his eyes are red, and that's hard to make sexy. You may not want to be caressed by that hand.
When I first sat down with Mads Mikkelsen, he was talking less about doing this as Anthony Hopkins or Brian Cox and more like Lucifer. He wanted this character to be a fallen angel who had an affinity for humanity and a love for the human condition, but also could be very punitive in a hellish way that opened up the mythology of the character in a really cool way, added a new layer.
It's an idea that became a component of the production design. We have frames where fire is going on in the background, that sort of thing. We're selling at that level, so I tip my hat to Mads Mikkelsen for wanting to come in and do the character not as a man but as a mythological character. It appealed to my love of genre, and sci-fi and horror, that it functions on that level.
When I was writing the script, there were three different actors I would cycle through, and Mads was one of them. We've seen him as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and One Eye in Valhalla Rising, but it was really After The Wedding that convinced me he was the man for the job. He plays this heartbroken man who's trying to win back a lost love, and he's so empathetic and sweet and has such genuine emotion and accessibility, and I thought these were all attributes that would be really fascinating to have as Lecter.
How did the project come to you?
I was on a fateful plane ride, sitting in front of the CEO of Gaumont TV, Katie O'Connell. I asked her how she was, and she told me she'd acquired the rights to the Hannibal Lecter character. "Do you think there's a show there?", she said. It's not like she asked me to work on it, she just was looking for my thoughts.
I said, "Absolutely there's a show. You just said the words 'Hannibal Lecter TV Show' and I know I would tune in, even if just out of curiosity, because I love the character and the books and the films." I read Red Dragon back in high school. I love Thomas Harris' approach to the crime thriller that crossed over into horror in a way that nobody really tapped into. I'd seen crime thrillers in their traditional male-penetrative-control-issues type of murderers, and he was offering something that was a real departure.
So my first question to Katie was, "Do you have the rights for the Will Graham character?" And she said yes, so I was like, "That's your show." Because Hannibal Lecter says to Will Graham in Red Dragon, "You caught me because you're more like me than you care to admit." And I just thought that relationship was a relationship worth exploring. Then as I pitched her what I would do if I were in charge, she was like, "I need to bring you in."
Did her eyes glow red at that point?
Yes! And she grew a sixth finger, weirdly. It was Kismet, supposed to be. I felt, selfishly, that if there was going to be a TV show about Hannibal Lecter whether I was going to be involved or not, I'd rather be involved. I wanted to make sure it was something I wanted to watch. So I had to do this because I could imagine all sorts of versions of the TV show that I would not want to watch. And I want to make sure that my place in the audience is secured, so it was really an entirely selfish motivation to do it, all because I felt protective of the character.
What do you make of the current spate of movie properties - Zombieland et al. - that are making their way to TV?
Well, there's Bates Motel, which I enjoy, though I must confess I've only seen the first episode. I think the reasoning behind it is sentimentality. There's sentimentality towards characters like Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter. These are characters that we have seen and have a history with, so they're appealing not just in terms of taking advantage of a franchise, but also of an emotional association that we have with that experience of going to see that movie, whether it's Psycho or Silence Of The Lambs or Manhunter.
It's an accelerant for curiosity and brand awareness (though that does sound whorey and horrible). But for me, I'm just curious: what is this other angle on Norman Bates that I haven't seen before? What is this other angle of Hannibal Lecter that I haven't seen before? So I think, as somebody who loves the genre dearly - and horror was really my first genre love - and I was just... "Oh wow this is such a great avenue to explore humanity!" So I think that there is that sentimental aspect for somebody who, like myself, collects action figures, collects movie posters and things like that. In other words, I get why studios are taking advantage of that appeal. I understand it directly as an audience member who has a Norman Bates action figure as well as someone who makes the shows.
Was there ever a temptation to start Hannibal's story earlier?
Him as a kid... I think Hannibal Lecter has to be a man. And Hannibal Rising I didn't respond creatively to. You know, I think it goes back to Mads Mikkelsen's interpretation of this character - that Lucifer is a man - he has to be a complete entity. He's not a young man who doesn't have full appreciation of the world and what it has to offer. With Hannibal you feel like there is horrible rationale behind his actions and when you see a young man doing these things, it's hard not to think of him as a punk.
And that came up in the first meeting with [Hannibal producer] Martha De Laurentiis. She asked, "Why not do him has a young man?" "Well," I said, "There are all sorts of reasons not to do him as a young man, but the main one is this: Hannibal Rising didn't engage me because I didn't feel his power as a character - and Anthony Hopkins gave me that power and Brian Cox gave me that power because they were men who had life under their collars."
I thought that this Hannibal has to have that experiential aspect to who he is for us to really understand why he's doing what he's doing. If he is a practicing psychiatrist, he understands the mentally disturbed and the human condition, and it works.
Are you looking for the TV series to become canon, alongside Silence Of The Lambs and Manhunter?
Yes! Yes and I think it should be canon. We wanted to tell the definitive Hannibal Lecter story. Part of that is the aesthetics. The aesthetics are very important to me as a storyteller because I think that if you're putting a picture in front of an audience you should, even if you're representing something that is horrible, make it a beautiful image, aesthetically.
Even if you're seeing some people whose backs are torn open and flayed like angel wings, it should be beautiful on one level, though you're looking at something that's quite disturbing and terrible. But if you have the ability to make it beautiful, you should make it beautiful.
Hannibal is made by NBC - does the idea behind this show not sound more HBO to you?
For me, nudity and strong language have never been huge loadbearing elements of how I like to tell a story. Graphic images certainly are. So I felt like with HBO, it's a very long process of development with them. They put their shows in incubators and they allow them to seed and grow. And the president of NBC Entertainment said to me that if you make this show with us, I will let you make the show you want to make. You can't do nudity and you can't say fuck - but, you can do everything else that you want to do.
So as I didn't need to show nudity and I didn't need to say fuck I thought... "Great!" The contract was that they're going to air all 15 episodes and that they would support the show, and that was important to me. The show is not actually hugely expensive - it's just well produced because we've got a great team and I'm immaculate with production value and have a very specific aesthetic - so we're able to pull off the show financially responsibly.
So that spells longevity. Also NBC know where their ranking is with the other networks so they were willing to make the bold maneuvers and were much more lenient with us. Like, we're a hard R with the images. And NBC is letting us tell a hard R story without the language or the nudity and that was a pretty big promise that they kept. ABC and CBS would certainly not let us have some of the images that were presented. And the conversations that we have with standards and practices are all relatively respectful.
Like with this making-angels-out-of-people-by-flaying-their-backs thing, we had these two people flanking a bed that were, you know, crafted into angels and, more importantly, nude. Essentially, you could see where the Good Lord split them. And they said, "Well, you can't show a crack." So we suggested, "What if we covered it with blood and you didn't see the crack?" And they were like, "Fine! As long as we don't see the crack."
So it was that interesting distinction that showed that they were definitely aware of who their audience was. They were allowing us to be true to the aesthetic of the show, and the brand, and Hannibal - not over censoring us, but allowing us to tell a story that we wanted to tell.
It's an amazing thing in America where sex is verboten but violence is A-Okay.
It's... it's weird.