It was clear from the roar that greeted Seth Rogen as he stepped onstage today at SXSW to introduce AMC’s Preacher, the adaptation of the ’90s cult comic series he exec-produced with Superbad and Pineapple Express collaborator Evan Goldberg and Breaking Bad writer Sam Catlin, that this was a home crowd. “You’re the first people to see it who aren’t us,” said Rogen. “Well, we showed it to some critics, but they’re not people, technically. And … we’re cancelled. Never mind. See you guys!” (You’ll get to see it on May 22.)
Rogen and Goldberg have been trying to bring Preacher to the screen for more than a decade; Rogen said they had their first unofficial meeting in a trailer while shooting 2007’s Superbad. Both read the original comic, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, when it first came out in 1994 and had become obsessed with its world, centered on a small-town Texas preacher, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), with a mysterious past who gets possessed by a supernatural creature that gives him the power to command the literal obedience of his followers — such as (SPOILERS ABOUND!) the congregant whom he tells to open his heart who then does exactly that.
“Literally as soon as we had any power in Hollywood we tried to make it,” Rogen said, but they never had the property rights till recently. “It’s always been in the hands of people more successful and talented people than us. Somehow they all fucked it up and it rolled downhill into our laps, which I’m very grateful for,” Rogen went on. “It was just persistence. We always just made it clear that we were interested in it and were very vocal about what fans of it we were, and we really were in just the right place at the right time.”
That group of more successful and talented people included, at one point, Sam Mendes, who was trying to turn Preacher into a movie, “which I totally think is a better idea than us,” said Rogen. And HBO, which killed a Preacher pilot from Ghost Rider director Mark Steven Johnson back in 2008, apparently because it was too dark and violent and controversial. It wasn’t until those options ran out that Rogen and Goldberg got to make their case. Before that, said Goldberg, “we didn’t even get to pitch it. We said, ‘Do you have any interest in this?’ And people said, ‘No.’”
Seeing the first episode, which begins in Africa, and jumps from Texas to Kansas to Africa to Russia and then back to Texas, it’s pretty clear why this is a concept that could only work on cable TV. And apparently that’s a considerable slowing of the pace from the comic, which Catlin said, “starts going 200 miles an hour and stays at 300 miles per hour.” Necessary changes were made for television logistics, which means the first season will be localized in West Texas. But, Catlin said, “the world of it, the comedy of it, the action of it, should all feel like Preacher. For Preacher fans who are like, ‘Well, they’re not doing that, and they’re not doing that character’ — just give us time. We’re going to get to all the great set pieces and characters.”
What do they get to, then?
- A supernatural entity that possesses preachers in their churches, usually during a sermon, and explodes them from the inside when they prove unworthy vessels. We see one false prophet explode in Africa and see the aftermath of another in Russia. “His brains! His BRAINS!!!!”
- An unexpected celebrity death, for the show’s biggest laugh line. “Tom Cruise Explodes,” announces a TV news flash, picturing a hall of Scientology covered in gore. As Goldberg said in the post-screening Q&A, “I think we were all waiting for someone else to say, ‘No,’ and now it’s too late.” Added Rogen: “I will run into him one day, though. It will happen, and I’m going to have to explain that. I’m coming up with a way that might make it seem complimentary.”
- Jesse’s hilariously annoying congregant, such as the guy whose mother is trying to dictate what kind of cheese he has on his sandwich, from a nursing home in Florida, and the horrible redneck who hunts tiny rodents with a long-nosed rifle, shouting “I just Abe Lincoln-ed that squirrel!”
- The most badass mid-air fight to the death in recent memory, featuring axes and spears and Misfits’ Joe Gilgun as Irish vampire Cassidy.
- An equally badass backseat fight with Ruth Negga (also from British outcast-superheroes series Misfits) as Jesse’s ex-girlfriend Tulip.
- One neck ripped out by teeth.
- One ear bitten off.
- One death by corncob.
- One helicopter brought down by moonshine and a homemade bazooka.
- One sweet kid, known in the comic as Arseface, whose face is so scarred, from accidentally shooting himself with a shotgun, that his mouth can only fit a straw. The effect is achieved by a prosthetic that actor Ian Colletti has to put on for every scene he’s in. “That poor little fucker has to wear that on his face,” said Rogen. “He has a positive attitude about it, but I know it fucking sucks.”
- A badass bar fight in which Jesse reveals his bad-boy side — which has been alluded to since the beginning of the episode — and makes one of his asshole congregants whimper like “a bunny caught in a bear trap.”
And so much more! As Rogen explained in the Q&A, they’re not trying to stick with the timeline of the comics, but “these are iconic characters, at least in our minds, and we really wanted to do them justice.” So in casting, he said, “it was important to find people that really honored these people that we had been visualizing for a decade, basically.”
They picked Gilgun because, per Rogen, “he is a psychotic vampire.” And Cooper because as an Englishman (best known for playing Tony Stark’s father, Howard Stark, in the Marvel universe) he was the obvious choice to play a preacher from West Texas. How did he perfect his Texas accent? Cooper’s pretty sure he hasn’t. “It hasn’t been easy,” he said, hiding his face with his hands. “I feel awful watching this in Texas. It’s a work in progress.” Rogen assured the crowd that he’d made sure Cooper worked with the best of tutors: “Watch a lot of Friday Night Lights. ‘More like Coach Taylor’ was our big direction.”
The main takeaway, Rogen reminded the crowd, is that “we’re huge fans of the comic,” but that making a TV show requires more deliberate pacing to allow for character development. “As the show goes on, it’ll become more familiar to people who know the comic,” he said.
Case in point was a female comic fan who said she’d remembered the original series being gory, but not particularly funny. “It just means you’re not demented,” Goldberg assured her. “Everyone here laughing is a little demented.”
“I remember turning around in the screening and thinking, Whoa, we’re in a room with the most fucked up people,” Rogen said. It was clearly a compliment.