Credit: Brooke Palmer/NBC
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NBC’s acclaimed dark romance Hannibal returns tonight for its third and most ambitious season yet, as Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) flees to Italy with his increasingly mysterious psychiatrist (Gillian Anderson) on his arm. Below, showrunner Bryan Fuller talks about his battle to make the season, teases the anticipated Red Dragon storyline, and talks about the show’s future.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In general, what has you most excited about this season?

BRYAN FULLER: It continues to be the cast and how they find new layers to their performances. The end of season 2 allowed us to change everybody. Everybody who survived that night is a different person because of it. That was pretty exciting creatively, because we were able to sit down at the beginning of the season and say, “Okay, regarding this character, now we have no excuse but to make them as interesting as everybody else.”

The freedom that you have with this show is stunning. You can do things that no other crime show can do, narratively as well as visually; I’m not just talking about the gore.

I’ve never really seen this show as a crime show as much as I’ve seen it as a romantic horror story. Because we use the true, central premise of a bromance gone wrong, the deviations that we take from a traditional crime procedural seem much more organic to the story we’re telling than the crime procedural element themselves.

There has been a certain degree of “proceduralness” to the storytelling, though, in terms of having various crimes happening on a regular basis that the FBI tries to solve—like on other broadcast shows. It seems this season, Hannibal is now a fully serialized drama.

That was one of the goals. I wanted to embrace that gateway drug of the crime procedural to facilitate not only the network’s comfort level, but also a sense of familiarity for the audience in terms of how we were telling stories. And then we kinda jettisoned that structure altogether—particularly for the first seven episodes of the third season. And certainly in the second half, in the Red Dragon mini-series arc at the end of the season, it’s just one case over six episodes. It gives us much more room to really dig deep into the characters and what they were experiencing, their own respective post-traumatic stress disorders of the Red Dinner finale of season 2. We kind of didn’t need the crutch of a crime procedural, even though it did become apparent what the crime procedural’s role was on the show—which was to provide a spine for the story, and also the thematic umbrella under which we tell the different phases of the Hannibal/Will Graham relationship. I was thrilled to be able to dump the debris.

What’s also unique is that even with perhaps the lowest ratings of any returning major Big 4 network drama series, you’re able to make a show that looks more expensive and lavish than any drama on broadcast. How to do you pull off that level of production value? Especially this year, when you’re doing a some globe-trotting?

It comes down to me being insistent and driving people crazy. And demanding it. I demand that we have a certain level of production value, even though our budget may not necessarily be conducive to that. There are still ways to find art in color timing, and what you don’t see, and narrowing the lens through which we look at the story. But this season, we did go over budget—and it all went on screen.

I know you were scrunched down to a more standard seven-day shooting schedule, then you fought for more days and eventually won that fight after you were already in production on the season.

That was definitely a huge battle this season that was unnecessarily exhausting. There were a lot of things that I said I needed if I was going to return for a third season. Those things were agreed upon. And then when we sat down to actually produce the show, it was with less money and more restrictions. It ended up blowing up in everybody’s faces, because it was an unrealistic approach to producing the season.

Was there any creative changes that they wanted?

No. There’s never been a creative issue with the show. It’s always been about how to produce it and how to get what I see for the show on the screen. I’m always the one who is fighting for more.

Each year, Hannibal gets a lot of praise from critics and fans—yet the ratings have remained what they are. Do you think your show will ever see some dramatic viewership surge?

It’s hard to say. Every season, you hope, going in, that more people will discover the show, or be curious about the show. And there’s been such wonderful word of mouth from the critical community and also the amazing fan base. But it is a niche show, and it’s amazing that NBC has been as loyal to the show as they have been—because they certainly don’t have any financial incentive to be.

I agree about NBC. It’s pretty amazing they have stuck with the show and promoted it so well.

Yeah, NBC has been wonderful with this production. It’s a great partnership on that level. It’s just a matter of how—with 300 dramas in various stages of production [across all networks and streaming outlets]—how do you stand out? And do you grab the attention of people who may have experienced fatigue with the [Hannibal Lecter] franchise and don’t see the merit in returning? It’s not an easy sell.

Let’s talk about reasons for people to check out the show, and what we can expect this season. Can you tease Hannibal’s mysterious relationship with Dr. Bedelia?

There’s a lot of stuff that we cover in the first episode with Bedelia and Hannibal’s relationship. We see three different time frames and get glimpses of how their relationship has evolved, and how Bedelia came to be on that airplane with Hannibal at the end of season 2. There were assumptions that we were going the route of the novel Hannibal, where Clarice was brainwashed and became Hannibal’s lover. But for me, the most important thing about the Bedelia/Hannibal relationship is one of two adults knowing exactly what they are getting into and navigating their own exit strategies for their respective best interests. Bedelia is always going to be Hannibal Lecter’s psychiatrist, first and foremost. A lot of her fascination with this man and her willingness to join him on this journey is for her own edification as someone who’s fascinated with the mind of killers.

I was wondering that as well—whether the Bedelia and Hannibal storyline will give us a sense of what that romantic road trip with Hannibal and Clarice, which is only briefly described in the novel, might have been like.

You do get a sense of how he is domesticated in a new light. But Bedelia is not Clarice, and Bedelia hasn’t been compromised psychologically. She is absolutely in control of her actions and that was a more exciting turn for me. I love her character and I love how Gillian Anderson portrays her. We get to see a lot more humor, to the point that in episode 6 Gillian is laugh-out-loud funny with some of her reactions—and how conniving and manipulative she is in her own right. There’s a lot of fun to be had in this third season that we didn’t necessarily take full advantage of in the first two seasons, simply because now that everything is on the table, there’s an opportunity to explore the absurdity of the situations from a very honest place.

What does a change of scenery get you?

It’s wonderful to get out of the FBI and to be European. There’s this quality of [the 1983 movie] The Hunger, which is a favorite of mine.

What does Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) want from Hannibal at this point?

Closure. And there’s something fascinating about a man who can forgive someone who’s done such horrible things to him because he accepts that’s who this person is, and you can forgive somebody once you understand them. That’s not to say you won’t necessarily be weary or on guard, but you can’t be mad at a shark for being a shark.

It’s like the story of the frog and the scorpion.

Yes, exactly! Stupid frog…

Plenty has been written speculating about sexual tension between Will and Hannibal. Given everything we’ve seen, is there more than friendship there, for one or both?

Absolutely. They are having a romance. It is not necessarily a sexualized romance. One of the reasons I wanted to do this series as a gay man is I’m fascinated with the nature of straight male friendships, and the lengths that brotherhood will take those involved. So I wanted to explore how far we go when we are loyal, and oftentimes sexuality can complicate, arbitrarily, the nature of relationships. Hannibal Lecter, in our version of the story, really is the devil, and what we’re telling is a parable of the devil falling for a beautiful example of humanity. That doesn’t necessarily mean he wants to f–k him, but it does mean that he holds Will in very high regard, just in terms of his fascination with what it is to be human. And Will is a strange example of the humanity in all of its warts.

The final arc of the season is Red Dragon, which has been adapted in two films previously. How do you make that story feel fresh for viewers?

It’s really about triangulating the relationship through the prism of everything that we’ve established in the previous two-and-a-half seasons of the show. What gives the Red Dragon story a freshness is the [combination] of Hannibal and Will and Francis Dolarhyde, and how Francis Dolarhyde represents something completely different to both Hannibal and Will. It’s the triangulation of that relationship between those three men that brings a different sense of the story to this season, and allows us to tell a deeper relationship between Francis Dolarhyde and Hannibal Lecter.

You landed The Descent and Game of Thrones director Neil Marshall to helm episode 8, which is titled “The Great Red Dragon.” What can you tell us about that episode?

I’ve been a fan of Neil’s for a while. I loved Dog Soldiers, and when I saw The Descent, it knocked my socks off and still remains as [the] last great great horror film that I’ve seen. I haven’t seen anything since The Descent that has knocked The Descent off its pedestal. I met Neil at an HBO event and approached him—because I’m a huge fan—and asked him if he wanted to direct the Red Dragon episode. I just ambushed him and his wife and I asked nicely, and it turned out they were fans of the show. That particular episode has probably the least amount of dialogue of any of the series up to this point, because so much about Dolarhyde’s becoming is told visually. I wanted the character to be known by the audience as a tragic figure before we allowed them to see what he is capable of. It was important to see that tragedy and that struggle and this man being eaten alive by his own mind so that we have great empathy for him. You’re looking at a guy who is a horrible murderer of families, yet I wanted the audience to feel compassion for his madness.

Anything you can tease about Zachary Quinto’s character?

He is a patient of Bedelia Du Maurier’s, and there’s two episodes: he’s in the first episode and he’s in the tenth episode. He serves to explain a lot about how Bedelia is the person she is today.

You’ve been trying to obtain the rights to The Silence of the Lambs for years. Any headway?

Not as of yet. I’ve been out of the country for the better part of the year, so I’m hoping we can sit down and offer up some genuine merit for why the partnership could be mutually beneficial to the respective studios. The way we end season 3, it wouldn’t shift smoothly into the The Silence of the Lambs story for the beginning of season 4. The plan for season 4 is actually much much more radical. There is a pocket in one of the novels of some really rich interesting character material that I’m inverting and twisting around.

[Fuller explains his season 4 plan off the record. It is indeed radical.]

So if you get the rights, there is an existing season 4 plan, and then you would ideally shift into that story.

Yes. Right now, we wouldn’t need Silence of the Lambs for season 4 and the direction that we’re heading. It was really a matter of making sure that we weren’t going to be hamstrung by not having them, and being like, “Oh shit! We don’t have Clarice. What do we do next?”

You design each season with a finale that could serve as a series ender, but that also has cliffhanger elements in case Hannibal is renewed. If given the opportunity to craft a true series finale in advance, do you have a real ending in mind?

There is a circumstance that will facilitate an ending. But I think that what is the most fun about this show is the reinvention for every season. I’m always open to digging back into the characters. But as far as a cold, hard ending, there’s something lovely about this particular boogeyman being out in the world, and lurking…

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