in conversation

Bryan Fuller on Hannibal’s ‘Cancellation’ and Where He Wants to Take the Show in Season 4

Hannibal - Season 3
It’s not over till he says it’s over. Photo: NBC

Earlier this week, Hannibal’s executive producer Bryan Fuller got news that NBC had decided not to continue airing his series because the ratings weren’t high enough to make it worth their while.

This decision was widely described as a “cancellation,” but the horrible finality of that word is misleading. Hannibal wasn’t funded and produced in-house by NBC, which means they didn’t decide to stop the show from existing; they just decided not to air it on NBC anymore. The show is produced by the American division of France’s Gaumont Film Company and funded through international license fees and distribution deals, rather like a large-scale independent theatrical film that cobbles together its budget by pre-selling various kinds of distribution rights in many different countries. NBC paid $185,000 per episode to air finished seasons of a show called Hannibal that NBC itself did nothing to create. In theory, some other U.S. broadcaster, cable channel, or streaming service could step in, write a check, and give the good doctor a new home.

We spoke to Fuller about NBC’s decision, as well as the prospects of continuing Hannibal on some other U.S. television venue. He seemed quite upbeat and enthusiastic, especially when he spilled the beans (fava?) about his vision for season four.

Matt Zoller Seitz: Is this the end of Hannibal?
Bryan Fuller: [Laughs.] I mean, I guess the answer is that we don’t know.

Do you want to do more episodes of Hannibal?
I’d love to keep working with this cast, and when you have folks like Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy and Laurence Fishburne and Gillian Anderson and Caroline Dhavernas, I would be a fool not to want to continue working for them and writing for them.

But is it logistically feasible? I’m wondering because you’ve got another show on deck, American Gods.
Yeah. It would be a case of staggering two productions so that I could do both. We’re not on a network anymore, and that means we’re not on a network schedule.

So if a fourth season of Hannibal ended up landing in some other U.S. venue, you might have to negotiate with them a little bit about the premiere date, so that you wouldn’t have to do that and American Gods at the same time?
Presumably, yes, in order to make two shows work there would have to be flexibility in terms of when we would deliver the fourth season of Hannibal.

So might it be the kind of thing where, instead of delivering a new season of Hannibal episodes roughly 12 months from now, you deliver another season 18 months from now or two years from now, as some cable series have done in the past?
There would be a small gap if there is a fourth season because of my obligations to American Gods. I want to make sure, while launching a new series with my partner Michael Green, that we’re not taking away from either Hannibal or American Gods. They both have to be equally serviced.

Did NBC actually “cancel” Hannibal? My understanding was that they paid a license fee for the show, but that the show was for the most part funded through a variety of other sources. It’s not a show that was funded mainly by NBC.
Well, NBC canceled the show on NBC. So I guess they did cancel the show. But that does not preclude us from being able to take the show elsewhere.

So in theory, this show could land at Showtime or Netflix or somewhere else, right?
Or Amazon streaming, or … you know, there’s a few options. I know that it can’t go to Netflix because the Amazon streaming deal for Hannibal would preclude Netflix from being able to stream it in a way that would benefit them. I know Netflix has been incredibly complimentary to the show, but that’s the one place I’m almost certain that it can’t go.

How are you feeling right now about this whole thing? You sound pretty chipper to me, but you may just be a good actor.
I feel like it’s difficult to experience closure on the subject because we have ten episodes left to air, and so much ground to cover in those ten episodes. It doesn’t feel like we are done because we’re not done with this season. We’ve got a lot of story left, and the four remaining episodes of the Italian arc are so gravely demented that I think they’re amongst my favorites of the series.

And then, of course, right after that, we get into the Red Dragon story, with Richard Armitage as Francis Dolarhyde, which feels like a whole new chapter in and of itself.

Is the Red Dragon story arc going to be finished by the time we get to the end of season three?
Yes, yes it is. The Red Dragon arc …it’s actually a six-hour Red Dragon miniseries.

I see. You know, a friend of mine who hadn’t watched the show asked me to describe what it was, and I blurted out, “It’s the Hannibal expanded universe,” which I meant as a joke. But the more that I hear about it from you, the more I think that’s actually not a joke — that you’re sort of bringing all of Thomas Harris’s fiction together as one big adaptation.
Yeah! I think the “Hannibal expanded universe” is actually not inaccurate, because there are so many characters from different novels that we are playing with, in ways that they weren’t originally written to function as. So I always describe it as Thomas Harris mash-up.

When people get to the end of season three, are viewers going to feel like some of us felt at the end of season three of Deadwood, which is, It sucks that this is the end, but as far as unintended series finales go, that’s not too bad? Or is it going to feel as if something’s been just suddenly hacked off? I ask because that’s always a question in the minds of viewers who find out that a show they really like has been … well, let’s say canceled, even though we’ve talked about how that word might not perfectly fit here. I’m guessing you wanted to do a fourth season, but you didn’t know if season three would be the end, so you had to end season three in a way that would double as a satisfying series finale if it came to that.
Absolutely, and it was designed to be … okay, get this: The end of season two was designed to be the end, just as the end of season one was designed to be the end.

I always wonder, when you’re a producer who’s running a TV series, do you ever really know for sure that you’re going to have one more season when you’re starting to air the one that you’ve most recently produced?
You have no idea.

I would imagine there’s always uncertainty, even if the show’s wildly successful in the ratings. The executive producer could get hit by a bus, one of the leading actors could go to jail, some other crazy crap could happen. So don’t you sort of have to make it so that every finale could be a series finale, just in case? 
Well given my experience, I have to!

Ha! Right.
I think that, generally, when it comes to the types of storytelling that I do on television, it’s always under threat of cancellation. The Pushing Daisies finale kind of snuck up on us, so I wanted to approach every season of Hannibal as if it was the last season of Hannibal, with the option to do more.

But, you know, I was a Boy Scout. So I’m prepared. The ending of season three has more in common with, in terms of satisfaction, the end of season two, if we’re talking about season finales that could double as series finales. The end of season three also launches the show into a different territory that is hard to explain without you understanding exactly what the concept of the season-three finale is.

Since you probably can’t tell me exactly how season three ends — and even if you could, I wouldn’t want to know! — can you maybe give the readers a general sense of where you would take Hannibal in season four?
Season four would be a reexamination and reinterpretation of the Will Graham–Hannibal Lecter relationship in a fashion that is unlike anything else we’ve done in the show. So it is, in many ways, a whole reinvention of the show, in an exciting way. And if it weren’t for the appeal of that, I would be very fine with saying, “Season three, really strange season, something to be very proud of,” and just letting it go at that.

But that the idea that I have for season four is so terrifying creatively, and also inspiring, that I feel like, “Well, let’s explore the possibility of an off-NBC season four,” because I would get a chance to work with Hugh and Mads again, and all these other great actors in these roles, and also challenge myself and the writers to do something that is once again completely different from what we’ve done in the previous three seasons.

I love the idea of reinventing the show and reinventing the show and reinventing the show. It keeps it fresh for us, and it also is a shock to the system for television storytelling to reinvent Hannibal this dramatically.

The “reinvention” count on this conversation has gone into the red zone, so I have to ask you: Does this mean, if there were a fourth season of Hannibal, that you would be going off-book, as it were? Essentially coming up with new material, stuff that wasn’t directly connected Thomas Harris’s fiction?
It would mean taking what happened in one of the books, and turning it on its ear … as opposed to shoving it down Will’s throat and having him [laughs] …throw it up?

I couldn’t ask for a better explanatory metaphor.
Certainly not for this show!

Bryan Fuller on Hannibal’s ‘Cancellation’ and S4