Every week, American Gods showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are here to answer your prayers — or at the very least, the ones related to the holiest moments in each episode of their new Starz series.
In the first episode, “The Bone Orchard,” audiences finally met the fully realized Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), 16 years after his introduction in Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel. Joining Shadow in television glory are smooth-talking shark Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), carnal goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), pixel-powered gamin Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), and other key players in the brewing clash between old gods and new.
Here, Fuller and Green attempt to extinguish some of our burning questions from our first outing with the American Gods.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to start the series with the Vikings’ coming to America sequence?
MICHAEL GREEN: The Vikings sequence was one of the first big hills that we had to die on, production-wise, for a number of reasons. It’s gigantic. It took us several days of filming that didn’t include a single main character. It was going to require a lot of stunts and stuntmen, and we needed to build a boat. With the exception of the first shot when they’re on the water, that’s a real boat we bought, and we knew exactly how many dollars that would cost. The sequence was originally the top of episode 2, but it was very important to us to start these episodes, especially early on, with not just a tonal land grab but, well, a tonal land grab of something unexpected and strange and funny to us and, though it seems off point, is thematically necessary.
BRYAN FULLER: Originally, the opening was going to be Mrs. Fadil meeting Anubis in her Brooklyn apartment, which now opens episode 3. Michael and I were very conscious of how male the first episode was leaning, so we wanted to start with that scene, because really the only strong female presence in the first episode is Bilquis, and we wanted to have more female energy in it. But what we discovered is that the very male Viking opening spoke to the overall themes and arc of the series better than the story with Mrs. Fadil, so there was some shuffling of the Somewhere in Americas in the first two episodes as we were figuring out what the show was and what the story it needed to tell was.
RELATED: Watch American Gods: Inside the Episode “The Bone Orchard”
Viewers might not realize that the man narrating the sequence is Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes). What’s the significance of bringing him into this role as the writer of these tales?
GREEN: In addition to him being a strong presence in the book, it was sort of just a cheeky nod to [remembering] that this was a thing written. It all starts with a quiet writer at a table, or a train, or wherever they happen to be, so it’s a little bit of remembering the source material and that history, and how stories are someone’s telling more than they are fact. And stories of how people came to this country are personal or family legends that become as important as fact.
The scene where Bilquis feeds is one of the book’s most iconic moments. What would people be surprised to learn about how you pulled it off?
FULLER: Looking at the scene in the book, the orgasm and the realization of what’s happening is primarily told from the suitor’s point of view, and what was so interesting about bringing [director] David Slade into the project, for both Michael and I, was how we were approaching this almost entirely as a point-of-view scene, and David came in very naturalistically, relatively, and saw it for the physics equation that it was, in terms of how does one person fit inside of another? He really led us down this really interesting path of Bilquis growing in a very subtle way, distorting perspectives as a means of conveying sex, and in cinema, using those tools and extrapolating a weird, hypno-shag adventure in sexual worship.
GREEN: I also want to say a word about Joel Murray. We wrote the role of the suitor…as someone who was coming to this awkwardly and with vulnerability. It wasn’t necessarily an excited, gonna-get-laid guy, but a guy who was nervously approaching the date, wasn’t sure where it was going to go, and was surprised to be found attractive. That let us turn it into this moment of pure worship—an ecstatic form of worship that we could experience from his point of view. [Joel] came in very late to the process. We were inside of two weeks, maybe, before filming, and we hadn’t had that done, and not surprisingly, not too many people who were serious enough actors to want to do it would be willing to be that vulnerable. The scene is bananas, and there’s the degree of nudity…
FULLER: We had cast the role, but the actor we had cast had to drop out unexpectedly at the last minute, so it was a surprising turn for all of us.
GREEN: But Joel Murray was someone who our casting directors came with, and we’ve all seen him in a million things, and we could instantly see how the scene was going to end up being so much sweeter with him playing it. We were really grateful.
Another new twist for the series is the way we enter Technical Boy’s world. In the book, a limo pulls up, but in the show, you’ve got this nifty virtual reality headset.
FULLER: Essentially, in the novel and in our earlier drafts, Shadow is kind of chloroformed from behind as he’s leaving the cemetery, and in talking with David Slade, who wanted something a little creepier and a little more insidious as a gateway into the Technical Boy’s world, [he] pitched this concept of a face-grabber, essentially, that would latch onto his head and anesthetize him. After we had shot the sequence with the Technical Boy in the limo, the network’s response was, “The limo doesn’t look like a limo that we’ve ever seen, and we would like to reshoot the sequence with a regular limo that is identifiable as a limo because the show is getting too weird and it feels like you’ve already entered a virtual reality space, so either do virtual reality or bring us back to our reality.” And we think they were probably just saying ‘virtual reality’ as an attempt to dissuade us from going bigger, but it actually sparked a great idea that we all rallied around, and that was this face-hugger should take Shadow into a virtual reality environment. That was the entire entryway into this scene, where we had the limo unfolding in space and we had Shadow being thrust into a virtual world and the Technical Boy being assembled out of Chiclets of some variety. So because the network was initially concerned about the look of the limo, they were fine with either doubling down or coming back to reality, and we doubled down.
How much did you shoot of Shadow’s time in prison? And is this the last we’ll see of Low Key Lyesmith (Jonathan Tucker)?
FULLER: Yes, at least until season 2. Part of the prison originally was shot on location in Oklahoma in an active prison there, and the other part was on stage where we had built Shadow’s cell and some corridors. The scenes with Low Key were our very first things that we shot, so we began this show with Jonathan Tucker’s mischievous energy and it became such an interesting aspect of Shadow’s time in prison that we wanted to continue having him haunt him even afterwards…to give him warnings of what not to do in airports.
GREEN: The place we were at in Oklahoma for the exteriors in the prison, and the part where they’re building birdhouses and Jonathan Tucker gives the story of Johnnie Larch, was a terrifying place. I mean, it’s a real place where people are serving hard time, with serious security, where everything in your pockets has to be checked in and checked out. You could only come in and leave; there was no back and forth. It was incredibly, oppressively hot. But it was worth it to go that distance to get something that had the real grit of the all-too-grounded reality that Shadow begins his story in. We were very conscious that there’s an untethering arc for Shadow in this episode, where his story starts in the realest place in the world and slowly his feet start to lift off ground until his final scenes are in the Technical Boy’s domain, which is when the kite string cuts.
FULLER: It’s interesting to look at as a story of a man who grew secure in confinement and, once released, finds that the real world has gone insane.
I’ve heard stories about the wonderful chemistry during the shooting of Shadow and Wednesday’s first scene on the airplane. When did you breathe a sigh of relief that the pair would work out?
GREEN: It was the first scene we shot with Ian McShane. It was also Neil Gaiman’s first day visiting set. And I believe it was also when we were wardrobe fitting Mousa [Kraish], who plays our Jinn, and he came to the stage with his dog-eared, ratty copy of American Gods that he’d had for many years and asked very sheepishly, “Do you think Neil will sign it?” and we were fairly confident he would. [Laughs] So, when did we first breathe a sigh of relief? It had been a day or two before, when we did the table read…
FULLER: I’m actually thinking it might be Monday. After people see it. Yeah, I’m going to stick with Monday.
What was your reference point for conceptualizing the Bone Orchard sequence, and in your words, what does it mean?
GREEN: The Bone Orchard was one of the first things that, even before we had the show picked up to series on Starz, we had worked with a concept artist to draw out for us so that we could understand it ourselves and help [the network] understand what type of phantasmagorical worlds we were going to be entering. The book has a certain description of it, but we wanted it to feel real and palpable. We wanted it to be a recurring nightmare. It’s a space Shadow returns to because there’s something to be worked out there. It’s also one of the things that, when you know what goes into making the sausage, is kind of hilarious because with incredible effort and great expense, our production design team built a real-life starting point for Ricky to walk through. I was actually looking through some photos this morning of what it was, compared to what it became, and there are these giant 1,200-pound, 3D-printed tree trunks that look like mannequins, really. They don’t look like much. They are reference points with some shape and a tiny bit of texture and a little bit of musculature. And then that’s taken by an intensely working visual effects team over the next six to 12 months and turns into that remarkably rich set of images that includes bones on the ground, highly-textured trees, and branches that look like fingers, where you can’t always tell where tree begins and bone ends. We’re very proud of all the hard work that went into this idea of an orchard of bones that comes to life. We can all share in that nightmare now.
The scene at Jack’s Crocodile Bar is one of the most cinematically described settings in the first few chapters of the book. Did that make an easy leap to screen?
FULLER: We shot Jack’s Crocodile Bar twice. Before anybody had gotten involved in the show, Michael and I were working with illustrators to craft some of the big set pieces and sequences to give the network and the studio an indication of how we were seeing the show. At one of our first meetings, we had sketched out this crocodile head bar with the big, taxidermied crocodile head barstools. It was a set that we were very invested in as something we wanted to bring to life in a way that had a sense of mythology to it as well as an accessibility, and something that felt like it was also existing in the real world. So we had very, very clear ideas on what we wanted, and then as we started to develop the show, it kind of strayed away from the original intention for the Crocodile Bar. That set was, in the broad scope of this show, one of many that was rushing to get done in time to actually film. So when Michael and I saw the set, it was not yet done, but it was shooting the next day, and we asked for a series of changes that were not possible to accomplish. So when we were shooting that day and having conversations with the director and the actors and the studio executives, all to service the best possible way to shoot that scene at that time, we were thinking, “None of this is going to see the light of day.” Because it looked like a children’s show and it was below our standards.
GREEN: The punchline there is, I think it’s your publication that actually published our first look pictures of the show. In the picture, your eye is drawn to meet Shadow Moon and Mad Sweeney, but they are in that original Crocodile Bar that we ended up tearing down and rebuilding and reshooting.
FULLER: The only thing that stood from it was the frame of the crocodile itself.
GREEN: So, the before and after of the shot that you published will be an interesting thing to look at.
FULLER: Sorry about that, Entertainment Weekly!
GREEN: But it was also one of the first indications to us of the specific challenges for this show, because we were building so much, and even though we had a very talented design team with a lot of television experience, the aggressiveness of this show and the scope were so massive that we were realizing just how hard this show was going to be. Even with the best intentions and the best people, it was still too much to get done right in the amount of time, so we realized that we needed to either make the show smaller or have more time. And you’ll let us know which way we went by watching episode to episode.