There will be no blood during your writer’s visit to the interior church set of AMC’s new comic book adaptation Preacher (out May 22) in February this year. But according to makeup wizard Howard Berger, cofounder of legendary prosthetics-and-gore company KNB (The Walking Dead), it was a different story the week before. “Special effects went through 14 gallons, for just one scene,” Berger enthuses. “That’s a lot of blood for television. It doesn’t rival [what we do on] Walking Dead, but we’re getting there.”
Fortunately, there is still plenty to see here at the show’s studio base just outside Albuquerque. Today, for example, actor Dominic Cooper is shooting a scene with costar Ian Colletti for the show’s second episode. The British Cooper has adopted a Southern accent appropriate for his titular character, a small-town Texas minister named Jesse Custer who is possessed by a supernatural force that gives him the power to make people do whatever he commands. Colletti, meanwhile, is garbling his lines in a fashion appropriate to the fact that his mouth looks like a sphincter. To be clear, this is no slight to the boyishly handsome Colletti, but rather an accurate description of the actor’s makeup, which has been specifically designed by KNB to look like a butt. The result is both horrific and — to Cooper at least — hilarious. “I have had problems filming this where I can’t quite get through a scene without bursting out laughing,” says the actor, whose credits include 2009’s An Education and playing Tony Stark’s father on ABC’s Agent Carter.
If that sounds weird, hold on to your Stetson. This mix of comedy, horror, action, love story, and modern-day Western is the brainchild of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, two of the show’s executive producers, and the writer-directors behind the 2014 film, The Interview. That movie, you may remember, about a murder plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, resulted in North Korea threatening military action against the U.S. and may have led to the hack of Sony’s computer systems. While it’s hard to imagine Preacher will create enough controversy to require the State Department’s attention, the series’ source material has no shortage of hot button topics, including an insane amount of violence and religious-heavy plotlines. It was also one of the first things Rogen and Goldberg bonded over when they first met at Bar Mitzvah class in their native Vancouver two decades ago. “My brother and I were big comic nerds,” says Goldberg. “He was just like, ‘Read this, it’s the best comic ever.’ [Seth and I] became friends very soon after I read it. It was one of the things we clicked on.”
So, does Rogen think the show will be controversial? “I don’t know,” he says, unleashing that distinctive laugh-bark. “We clearly are not the best gauge of that.”
Fans of the Preacher comic have been waiting to see a screen adaptation for years and instead have merely witnessed a string of false dawns. As Scotland-based pop culture writer Laura Sneddon wrote on her website ComicbookGRRRL back in 2011, “One of the greatest series of the 90s, various adaptations of Preacher have been undeservedly rotting in development hell for years. HBO bailed on a television series, Sam Mendes jumped ship for James Bond, and even Darren Aronofsky expressed an interest that turned into a dead end.”
Published by the DC Comics imprint Vertigo, Preacher appeared at the end of a decade that saw Alan Moore (Watchmen), Neil Gaiman (Sandman), and Grant Morrison (Doom Patrol) rewrite the rulebook for superheroes. When writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon’s saga first landed on comic store shelves in February 1995, the audacious, lunatic, and hugely imaginative saga set about torching that tome for good. 75 issues in length, Preacher details Jesse Custer’s mission to find and confront God about his recent abandoning of heaven. Custer is helped by an old flame (and fellow ex-car thief) named Tulip O’Hare and an alcoholic Irish vampire called Cassidy. Another fan-favorite character from the comic is the one Colletti plays: a depressed young man who tries to take his life with a shotgun in the manner of his hero, Kurt Cobain. Instead, after plastic surgery, he winds up looking like a walking rectum. That’s the bad news. The good? His disfigurement helps him become a pop star known to his army of fans by the name gifted him by Cassidy: Arseface.
“I remember drawing the first issue thinking, ‘This is either going to bomb completely or enough people will get it to make it a cult success,'” recalls Dillon. “Luckily, enough readers did get it and realized where we were coming from with it. We had a strange mix of letters coming in. Everything from ‘Wow! This is crazy stuff, man!’ to long, well-thought-out analysis of each issue. We also had a fair number of letters from guys locked up in jail. That was interesting. I was very conscious that nothing like it had been done by a big, mainstream comic publisher before and I wondered if we’d get away with the stuff we wanted to do. As it turned out, DC, and Vertigo’s Karen Berger (the imprint’s longtime executive editor), in particular, were great. There were a few battles but, for the most part, we managed to get it done the way we wanted it.”
Preacher earned Best Continuing Series at the 1999 Eisner Awards and attracted a diehard following of fanboys — and fangirls. “Preacher was the first non-Batman series I ever read,” says Sneddon, today. “Tulip O’Hare is a fantastic character, who could so easily have been portrayed as the buxom blonde for the men to fight over, but instead is her own character with her own story arc and growth. I found Preacher was actually bought more often by women than men. It’s one of the few comic adaptations I’m looking forward to seeing!”
Ennis’ fantastical but also from-the-heart writing had a similarly seismic affect on Rogen and Goldberg. “It as just the most the most unapologetically honest expression of some guy’s thoughts I’ve ever seen,” explains the latter. “No one says that much about themselves that bluntly in their art.”
“It’s like that expression: in your dreams, you’re everyone,” laughs Rogen. “In Preacher, Garth is everyone, kind of.”
“It’s just like, ‘Here I am! Like it or not!'” says Goldberg. “It’s just f—ing crazy.”
Rogen and Goldberg joke that they have been trying to get their hands on Preacher ever since they acquired agents — except it’s only half a joke. As their writing careers gained traction with Super Bad and Pineapple Express — and Rogen became a major movie star — they never left dreams of Preacher behind. When Mendes was attached to direct a movie version in 2008, Rogen contacted the filmmaker about appearing in the film. “I just found an email that I sent asking if I could audition for the role of Arseface,” says Rogen. “He said I could. But then the movie fell apart.”
Mendes wasn’t the first person to try and get a Preacher adaptation off the ground. Starting in the late ‘90s — before the comic had even ended its run — Tank Girl director Rachel Talalay spent years unsuccessfully attempting to bring the comic to the big screen, with James Marsden in the frame to play Custer. In 2006, HBO announced that Mark Steven Johnson, director of 2003’s Daredevil, was developing Preacher as a TV show. Two years later, Johnson told the website Comics Continuum that the channel had aborted the project because it was “too dark and too violent and too controversial.” That was when Mendes stepped in, hired by Columbia to develop the comic as a film, which would be produced by Neal Moritz (The Fast and the Furious franchise). But Mendes left the project when he found himself unable to wrangle the sprawling tale into a movie. In 2010, it was rumored that Aronofsky (Black Swan) was being targeted to take over the project, but the following year Disturbia director D.J. Caruso tweeted that he had just closed his deal on Preacher and was “pretty f—ing pumped.” That pumpedness subsequently diminished, with Caruso admitting to the website I Am Rogue in August 2013 that the project had gotten “put on the back burner.”
Ultimately, it would take the intervention of a superhero for Rogen and Goldberg to get their shot at making Preacher. The duo had co-written 2011’s The Green Hornet (which Rogen also starred in), and although the film performed modestly at the box office, it brought them into the orbit of Moritz, who produced the movie. “Neal ultimately controlled the rights to it and he knew we were huge fans,” says Rogen. By the summer of 2013, Moritz also knew that Rogen and Goldberg could craft a hit, as the pair had done so with their co-directorial debut, This Is the End. Meanwhile, the growing sophistication of TV shows and huge success of AMC’s The Walking Dead made the concept of a small screen Preacher adaptation increasingly appealing. “Through some weird series of circumstances, we became the most viable option,” says Rogen. “It was in movieland for a long time and then the idea of making it a TV show was something that people were enthusiastic about again. And, to us, that was always the best way to do it. It always seemed weird to try condense it into a movie.”
The pair’s first recruit was writer-producer Sam Catlin (Breaking Bad), who despite being unfamiliar with the comic when Rogen and Goldberg approached him, turned out to be an ideal collaborator and showrunner for the series. “It’s a good mixture,” says Catlin, who is another of the show’s executive producers. “Because they’re devoted idiot fans and I had no history with it.” In February 2014, it was announced that AMC and Sony Pictures Television had come on board. “There are a lot of people who say what they’re doing is original,” says Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and production for AMC. “This is one of the few things that really is.”
Rogen had been impressed by Cooper’s dual performances in 2011’s The Devil’s Double and invited him to meet with the producing team. Cooper, in turn, was intrigued by the script for the pilot. “When we had our first conversation with him, he said, ‘So, what happens later in the show?’” recalls Goldberg. “By the time we finished, he was just like, ‘This is crazy!’” Cooper remembers thinking Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin might “have all gone mad,” but the actor was also fascinated by their pitch. “It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard of,” he says.
To play Cassidy, the trio recruited another English actor, Joseph Gilgun (Misfits), while the role of Tulip went to Ruth Negga (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Although Negga and Cooper are a longtime offscreen couple, the choice was still a surprising one. In the comics, Tulip is white while the Ethiopia-born, Ireland-raised Negga is black.
“It felt like there was a lot of story there to tell,” says Catlin of the casting. “But it wasn’t a mandate. If we had found a white actor we liked better we would have cast her. It was just a bonus that the best person for the job happened to be Irish-Ethiopian.”
“Physically, there is a departure from the Tulip of the comic books,” says Negga. “But it’s purely physical. I don’t think the spirit of her has changed at all — I wouldn’t want it to.”
Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin initially pitched the show as a highly faithful comic book adaptation in the style of Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City films.
Goldberg: “We actually pitched, like, ‘It’s going to be frame for frame, almost.'”
Rogen: “And we totally just threw that out the window.”
Goldberg: “Totally f—ing hurled it.”
The original comic book drops the reader into the middle of action, plot-wise. At the start of Preacher #1 Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy have already fled Custer’s small town for reasons we won’t spoil here. “It started in the second act, basically,” says Rogen. The Preacher team determined that aping this approach would be confusing to viewers and set about crafting a pilot which instead found Custer actually ministering to his congregants. “We wanted to ground it in something familiar, so that it didn’t feel like a bad acid trip,” says Catlin.
How did AMC react to this change in plans? Funny story… “We never really told AMC,” says Rogen, who directed the show’s first two episodes with Goldberg. “When we were filming the pilot, one of the heads of AMC came up to me and was like, ‘Just so you know, don’t think it got past us that you pitched us one thing, and now we are here filming something which is 100 percent different.’ They’ve been outrageously supportive, honestly.”
Having aged out of the Arseface role, Rogen does not appear in the pilot and there are no current plans for him to play a character on the show. That’s probably just as well given the frenetic pace of TV production compared to the movie world he and Goldberg have mostly inhabited up to this point. “We’re used to way more time,” says Rogen. “[Our movies have] hundreds of visual effects shots. With TV, you just have no time [for] post-production. So, the more that happens in camera, the better. And KNB have been really helpful for that. We have a gag we’re shooting later today. The assumption was that the only way to do it was visual effects and they were like, ‘Oh no, we can do that totally in camera and it’ll take two minutes to shoot.'”
Rogen is also new to the world of TV spoilers. “How does this work?” the Knocked Up star innocently asks when he is introduced to your writer on set. “I’ve never done anything that’s secret before.” That’s not quite true — much about the plot of This Is the End was kept under wraps prior to the film’s release — and the Preacher‘s behind-the-scenes trio manage to be determinedly tight-lipped about the ground covered in season 1. Catlin even refuses to confirm that Cassidy is a vampire in their Preacher, although the pilot — which was screened to rapturous reviews at this year’s SXSW festival — makes clear his bloodsuckery nature. The showrunner does reveal that season 1 will show how Custer deals with his new superpower, the return of Tulip, and the arrival of Cassidy, as well as the demands of his flock, including Arseface.
“He’s never really a preacher in the comic,” says the showrunner. “He’s just a bad ass guy in a preacher collar. We thought there would be an opportunity to see someone try to do their job, to be the spiritual sheriff for the town. Jesse’s got a very dark, quasi-criminal past. He’s come back to town to take over his father’s church, to make up for all the bad that he’s done, and he gets possessed by this entity. In the town, there’s all sorts of colorful characters, but there’s also people who are coming from Jesse’s past, like Tulip, who is his long-ago girlfriend and Bonnie to his Clyde for many years. She’s a badass and she’s trying to drag Jesse back into the life. Then there’s the character of Cassidy. He’s the mysterious, lazy Irish drug addict who literally falls out of the sky.” Goldberg meanwhile, reveals that, more than two decades on from the death of Cobain, Arseface has been gifted a new backstory in their version, which is set today. “Nirvana is not part of it,” he says.
Rogen insists fans should not worry about such changes. “I think fans of the comic will be surprised at how much we’re actually incorporating,” he explains. Certainly, the pair would like to include even the comic’s most outré characters — including a psychotic hillbilly named T.C., whose sex partners include a chicken and a cake. “I hope we do, I’ll say,” say Goldberg, when your writer asks if they will include this particular plot point.
Most of this will sound familiar to fans of Ennis and Dillon’s work — but very strange to non-readers. Regardless, AMC’s Stillerman believes the show has the potential to appeal to viewers who have never picked up the comic. “It’s a real adventure story,” he says. “There are these insane characters that they meet and the situations they get into are incredible. I think there’s a lot for a broader audience to really grab onto.”
There’s also likely to be a lot for religious-minded folk to get offended about. While Custer may not do much actual preaching in the comics, the subject of religion looms large, with God being depicted as a cruel deity. Goldberg suggests that their adaptation will head off controversy by acting as a showcase for various viewpoints rather than a platform for pontification in the manner of, say, Kevin Smith’s Catholic Church-baiting Dogma. “I very much like that film, but it is a vicious attack,” he says. “We’re showing you conversations where two sides argue their points — and we don’t try to favor one. I think the show being a conversation, and not being some blunt statement, may make it not controversial.”
“But, again,” Goldberg continues, “what the f— do we know?”
You can see a trailer for Preacher below. The show premieres on May 22 at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.