Spoilers for the season finale of American Gods below.
It was easy to see the pedigree behind Starz’s just-concluded first season of American Gods. First, you noticed the lucrative title: It’s an adaptation of the world-renowned Neil Gaiman’s megabestseller of the same name. Then, the talent: a star-studded cast including Gillian Anderson, Crispin Glover, Ian McShane, Kristin Chenoweth, Orlando Jones, Peter Stormare, and many more.
But if you’re a TV and film geek, you were perhaps most excited by the showrunners: Hannibal and Pushing Daisies creator Bryan Fuller, and Michael Green, a writer behind no fewer than five major screen projects in 2017 (this, Blade Runner 2049, Logan, Alien Covenant, and Murder on the Orient Express). Vulture caught up with Fuller and Green to talk about the American Gods season finale, how they got Debbie Harry to do an original song for them, and what to expect in season two.
So! What an octet of episodes! How do you figure out where to end a season that’s not even at the halfway point of the novel it’s adapting?
Bryan Fuller: It felt like the end of the first act of the book, in some ways. When we originally broke it, we were going to land at the House on the Rock [where the climax of Gaiman’s novel takes place], and then we figured out that the Easter demonstration was a big enough spot for the end of the season.
Michael Green: And also, a surprise one for people who do know the book. It’s something that felt like it fit very much inside the world of the book, but is new to them — and is on the way to something they’re anticipating.
If anyone is disappointed by the ending, at least they have to appreciate the amazing sequence with love god Bilquis’s origin story and her interlude in 1970s Tehran. Tell me about putting that together.
Fuller: It was something that we had been talking about from the very first days of the writers’ room: seeing Bilquis in an ancient Babylonian sex temple. Is was always on the board and ended up in the Easter episode because it felt like it gave us a fantastic topic sentence for the issues that we were exploring in this particular episode. And so much of the beauty of that sequence, we have to tip our hat to Floria Sigismondi, who directed the episode. She storyboarded and designed all of those shots. Floria really wrestled that one to the ground.
Green: The decision to put it in the finale came from a lot of different places. We wanted to make sure that Bilquis’s footprint was remembered and was wide, but also we realized that the story we wanted to tell of how she came to her own dire straits and made some decisions that she even finds questionable was very much the same story we wanted to tell about Easter’s fall from greatness. It moved us to be able to visually show Bilquis’s story while having Mr. Nancy narrate the story that could be Bilquis’s story as well as Easter’s. The language of it fits them both.
It was so interesting to have Mr. Nancy be the one narrating it, as he hadn’t done those “Coming to America” stories about other people yet. I could listen to Orlando Jones read the phonebook.
Fuller: Have him come over to your house and do that!
Hey, you make the call and we’ll do it. Was there a particular thematic reason to have Mr. Nancy tell the story?
Green: In the first season especially, he has become the mouthpiece of anger, rage at unfair circumstance.
Fuller: If we had Mr. Ibis telling that story, it wouldn’t be as impassioned or defiant or personal. I think we saw, when Mr. Nancy spoke to the slaves and the slave hold, there was a righteousness and a condemnation of what was happening. When you have that same point of view looking at Bilquis’ story, there was such tenderness and hurt and indignity at the same time. So it felt like we should take advantage of Mr. Nancy as a storytelling god.
That makes sense. Tell me about getting the new Debbie Harry song together, the one that plays during the Bilquis part. How did that happen? What an amazing thing to have!
Fuller: Oh, that happened shockingly easily.
Green: Shockingly and quickly. We got very lucky for once on something.
Fuller: It was so strange. We had the Shirley Manson song in episode four. [The show’s score composer] Brian Reitzell had been collaborating with Shirley and suggested bringing her in, and we got very excited as fans of hers. Then Brian said, “Hey! You know, Shirley will be touring with Debbie this summer, and wouldn’t it be interesting to have them collaborate on a disco song?” But having just gone to the well of asking Shirley to record a song, he didn’t want to put her in the position of asking Debbie. Michael and I called Debbie’s manager and said, “What do you think about this?” He was already invested in the show because he represents Gillian Anderson and said, “I love it and I think Debbie will too.” I think that same day we got on the phone with the people who were going to be coordinating Debbie’s schedule. They said, “She can do it. She’s on tour right now in Australia.”
Green: “We’ll get a room.”
Fuller: Brian did the track, sent it to Debbie. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein worked on the track in a day and then sent it back and Shirley Manson, who recorded some additional lyrics that she wrote and some that will be on the album version. It’s a pretty cool song.
Wait, album version? There’s gonna be an American Gods LP?
Green: The American Gods album, yeah.
Fuller: Yeah, there’ll be a soundtrack and there’ll be the expanded version of the disco track that includes much more Shirley Manson on it.
Amazing. On a different note, one line that comes up over and over again throughout the season is, “Anger gets shit done.” Why did you use it as much as you did?
Fuller: Because it’s true.
Green: For Mr. Nancy, who represents the righteous indignation of the occasionally powerless, anger gives you agency, in addition to being a motivating force. If you’re in a relationship and you get dumped and you feel powerless, the angry rage part of that experience makes you feel like you are in control again and can put you in control again.
Fuller: That’s really the powerful connection we’re exploring in both of those Mr. Nancy stories, with the slaves coming to America and with Bilquis coming to America, and how Shadow needs to start engaging in something that feels personal. When Mr. Nancy says, “Anger gets shit done,” he’s trying to instigate a personal reaction and a personal connection in Shadow, because once he starts taking it personally, he will get angry and he will become activated. That’s part of Shadow’s arc in season two. It’s really activating him on that front, because season one has been so much of him being a passenger and being reactionary to the world. Now, we’ve finally got him to the point of saying, “I believe.” He’s got an attitude on his belief and he’s got perspective and we need to see that explored in a much more dynamic way than we could in the first season, because he wasn’t there yet.
Green: That was very well said. I’ll add one thing: It’s only after hearing that that Shadow finally demands an answer of Wednesday and gets it.
Turning to the previous episode: When did you guys decide to blow out the Essie and leprechaun story?
Green: From the earliest days when Bryan and I sat down and we talked about how we should adapt the book, we talked about, “What were the things you remember from your first reading, ten-plus years ago?” We had a lot of the same items, and one of them was the Essie Tregowan story. Much like the Salim and djinn story, they would be really damaged if they were overedited, if they were given haiku treatment.
Green: We imagined what would happen if we told that story as best as we could and as fully as we could, almost heedless of its relevance to the main story line. The fun discovery for us was seeing just how essential it could become to the main narrative, not just when we had the instinct to put Emily Browning [who also plays Laura Moon] in the role, but also thematically helping the audience come to understand the two-way street of faith. Faith provides for the believer and the believed-in.
Fuller: It was an interesting juxtaposition — and Emily pointed this out to us — to really contrast Essie with Laura as someone who has belief and someone who doesn’t, and whose life is richer because of it. It felt like seeing Essie at the end of her life, totally fulfilled by her spirituality and her belief in things greater than herself, and then juxtaposing with Laura, who is at the end of her life, having gotten back into the game and trying to find the same meaning that eluded her but that Essie always had instinctively.
Green: There’s a nice moment where Laura is watching Salim pray in the episode, where Laura is seeing how someone’s life is enriched by faith and then it gives back to them. It’s something that never occurred to her watching, for example, her family, who believed in a religion that she couldn’t subscribe to. She starts asking questions and she’s certainly not there. She’s beginning to see it and be curious about it, whereas Essie is a character who just instinctively was taken with stories that became real to her, and as a result ends up with a life that was much longer and much [more] full of good than someone in her position in her era might have ever dreamed of.
On another note, Kristin Chenoweth is a brilliant bit of casting. What’s she like on set? Is she as cheery as one might hope?
Fuller: I have never met somebody who is so true to her faith and her view of the world and sincerely and authentically believes in the teachings of Christ and applies them to her life on a daily basis like Kristin Chenoweth. She is an authentic Christian. She’s funny and naughty and subversive, and she’s got a wicked sense of humor. She loves horror movies. She loves gore.
Green: She loves Bryan.
Fuller: [Laughs.] And she loves Michael, and now she loves Michael’s daughter. I really can’t say enough about her beyond the shocking authenticity of her character.
But then this devout actor is surrounded by Jesuses. Did she comment on that at all, the oddity of that?
Fuller: That’s how we got her in the door. We pitched it to her. We gave her a call and we said, “We want you to play Easter, and Easter has got a chip on her shoulder towards Jesus Christ for stealing her holiday.” She was like, “I’m in.”
Green: Despite all that, I think the most surprising thing that we do in the episode that’ll violate the most expectations is that we adore Jesus, and we really just wanted to depict him as the kindest, most delightful man. Early on, when people heard we were going to be dipping our toes in those waters, everyone assumed we would be taking a very contrarian stance. That was never once a possibility for us. It wouldn’t be true to the anthropomorphic manifestation of that deity to suggest that he was anything other than an open heart.
Speaking of deities: How did you pick what guises Gillian Anderson’s Media entity would be disguised in?
Fuller: Lucy [Ricardo] was in the books, so that was a slam dunk. We’re big David Bowie fans so we knew that was going to happen, absolutely, and we asked Gillian who she would like to play and she said Marilyn [Monroe]. We were like, “Great.” Then we were talking about the Easter episode and a variety of different approaches to the character that she would play, but it seemed like, if we were telling the tale in some way of the relationship between religion and media and how to market a religion, that Easter and Media should have a relationship of some kind. It felt organic that Media would choose to come in Easter cosplay for her friend Easter on her day as an “I’m here for you girl” gesture, even though she’s coming to yank her back in line.
Obviously, you can’t give away plot details, but sort of in broad, thematic strokes, what are some things you’d like to explore in season two?
Fuller: Oh boy, there’s so much. More of Betty Gilpin [who plays Audrey].
Green: Yeah. Season one is about the beginning of faiths and the slow bending of Shadow’s knee. Season two, we get to find out what it means to be a believer and to give yourself over to a higher power — how far you’re willing to go and how far it can take you.
This interview has been edited and condensed.