'American Gods' creator Bryan Fuller on life, death and deities

The showrunner talks about how the series veers from Neil Gaiman's book, and how the themes of myth, magic and migration speak to our divided world.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Jan Thijs/Starz

When the TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel "American Gods" hits Starz and Amazon on Sunday, expect a blasphemous blast of sex, violence and riotous ritual.

And a few notable departures from the 2001 book.

"If you think you know Laura Moon from the book, you don't know Laura Moon," teased Bryan Fuller, writer and executive producer of the show along with Michael Green.

"The show is very faithful to the book, but it also takes a lot of liberties -- liberties that have been sanctioned by Neil," added Fuller, lately the twisted mind behind "Hannibal".

Gaiman, in fact, is an executive producer on the show. "He reads scripts, he watches cuts, and he gives us feedback," Fuller said. "It's very, very, very important to Michael and I that Neil be happy with his adaptation, and feel like his work is represented and his philosophies are represented."

"American Gods" sees ex-con and ex-con-man Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) recruited by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). He's drawn into a weird underworld of down-at-heel deities locked in a struggle with the postmodern gods that have replaced them.

Each episode opens with flashbacks to the arrival in America of gods from different cultures. "For one of the gods, the conversation is about how men want to dethrone powerful women," Fuller said. "That resonated. The fear of the white heterosexual man fearing the loss of his stature is fascinating to me."

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"American Gods" is on Starz in the US and Amazon Video elsewhere.

Jan Thijs/Starz

Fuller and I talked about the show after Donald Trump's election victory but before the new president took office. While politics were very much on the producer's mind -- he rails against a rising tide of white supremacy and nationalism -- he said "American Gods" isn't an explicitly political show. It does, however, have a subtext for those looking.

"One of the many things that I love about Neil's book is that it celebrates a wide variety of culture, a wide variety of perspectives on faith and on individuality," Fuller said.

The life (and death) of Laura Moon

Among the liberties taken by the new show are more-fleshed-out appearances for the variety of interesting gods and mortals Shadow encounters throughout his journey. Then there's Shadow's wife, Laura Moon, played by Australian actor Emily Browning, who's previously been seen in films including "Sleeping Beauty" and "Legend".

Browning embraced the opportunity to play what Fuller describes as a "quote unquote 'unlikable' character". For example, Browning suggested Laura Moon wouldn't shave her underarms. "I love that Emily wants Laura to be a role model for young women to stop and say 'I don't care what men think of me, I need to do what's best for me and find my own path.'"

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Emily Browning (centre) gives as good as she gets alongside Ricky Whittle (left) and Ian McShane.


So important is Laura to the show that Fuller and Green dedicate the fourth episode to her story, in what Fuller calls a "completely new pilot".

"We rewind and meet Laura before she met Shadow," he explained. "We follow her life, from her point of view, through her death and beyond." Fans of Fuller's death-fixated earlier work "Dead Like Me" and "Pushing Daisies" won't be surprised to learn Laura's death allows her to truly live.

"I think a lot of people find themselves not knowing how to live, and then they die," Fuller said. "I know so many people who are in their 50s and 60s who still don't know what to do with their life, who still don't know what their purpose is. There are more people on this planet who need to die to know how to live, because they need something to shake them out of their reverie."

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The Trekkie connection

Fuller was forced to give up the captain's chair on the forthcoming Star Trek series "Discovery" to focus on "American Gods". He previously wrote and produced "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager", so it's no surprise this Trekkie believes living life to the fullest involves exploring.

"I come from a small town, where a lot of people I went to high school with just stayed and they don't explore the world," he said. "I'm the only person in my immediate family who loves traveling." Most importantly, Fuller identifies "a lack of curiosity about the world around us that I think people are challenged by or afraid of that prevents them from living a fuller life."

Fuller believes a fuller life requires connecting with others, rather than demonising and fearing those who appear at first glance to be different. He points to our increasing social and political divisions following the Brexit and US presidential votes.

"Both of those events were platformed off bigotry and hate and fear," Fuller said. "That makes me sad for humanity but also inspires me to encourage a conversation about celebrating those who are different than us."

It seems strange that humanity became so divided in the year following the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, a utopian vision of a universe in which beings strive to live in harmony and understanding. "Probably my only regret about not continuing to be involved in the new Star Trek is not participating in the conversation about what Star Trek means to progress for humanity. Fortunately with 'American Gods', there's such a platform to have a conversation about that, and so much more."

"American Gods" preaches to the perverted on Starz in the US from April 30 and Amazon Prime in the UK from May 1. Australian air dates have yet to be announced.

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