By Jeff Jensen
July 22, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
Matthias Clamer/AMC
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When word got out that the Preacher panel in Hall H would be an unusually long two hours on Friday night, the speculation was fans AMC would be seeing an upcoming episode. And they did, although not in the form they were expecting. Instead, producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and the cast performed a live script reading of season 1’s penultimate installment, which will air this Sunday.

Rogen narrated “Finish The Song,” penned by Craig Rosenberg, gleefully talking out the scenes of outrageous violence. Headliners Dominic Cooper (Reverend Jesse Custer), Ruth Negga (vengeful outlaw Tulip), and Joseph Gilgun (Irish vampire Cassidy) stayed true to character, for the most part, though in one scene, Gilgun chose to work a different tone than he does in the episode itself. After Rogen made note of this, Gilgun jokingly snapped: “You said I could whatever I wanted!” Though they all seemed mostly game to play, Rogen later quipped that getting the cast to agree to it was “probably the hardest thing we tried to do all season.”

Cast members Graham McTavish (The Saint of Killers) and Ian Colletti (Eugene, a.k.a. Arseface) were present, but played other roles than their own (it would be a spoiler to explain why), and comedian/actor Jason Mantzoukas, The Flash’s Danielle Panabaker and filmmaker Kevin Smith (who moderated the Q&A that followed) filled out the supporting roles. The only part of the script that wasn’t performed was the final act. Instead, Rogen rolled film on the episode itself, a purely visual piece of storytelling that reveals and expresses a major idea about a key character. Attendees were asked not to give away what happens in the episode, but decapitations, animal sacrifice, and pancakes are involved.  

The following discussion began with Smith bringing out Garth Ennis, the writer who co-created the Preacher comics with artist Steve Dillon. A passionate fan of this darkly comic pulp fantasia about lapsed faith and the value of irreverent aesthetic, Smith recounted how he tried to get an adaptation going himself several years ago, during a time when the property was enticing to Hollywood but considered unfilmable. “You guys are doing the Lord’s word,” said Smith, praising Rogen and Goldberg for their creative success. “They did the impossible: they brought Preacher to life. That deserves a massive f—ing round of applause.” The audience cheerfully obeyed.

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Rogen and Goldberg were longtime fans of the comic. In 2009, when director Sam Mendes tried to mount a movie adaptation, Rogen sent Mendes an email and asked him if he could audition for his favorite character, Arseface. (Rogen found the email on his phone and read it to the audience.) The writers explained that their initial inclination was to do a faithful, issue-by-issue adaptation of the series. They credit Ennis himself for talking them out of this: The comic scribe didn’t think the fast-paced, tangent-packed saga could support a strong, ongoing narrative. “He said it just wouldn’t time out to produce the 15 seasons we want to do for Preacher,” said Rogen, a comment that drew a mock double-take from Cooper. Interpretation: I have to do this show for 15 seasons?! Ennis encouraged them to make changes while remaining true to the book. “I had realized fairly early on they were going to have to mess with it, and I’m okay with that,” he said. He praised Rogen, Goldberg, and showrunner Sam Catlin (who did not appear on the panel) for improving some perceived flaws, specifically the flurry of coincidences that brought Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy together in the first issue. He also delighted in alternate or new ideas they brought to the story, specifically Cassidy’s fall-from-the-sky introduction, the treatment of The Saint of Killers, and several action scenes. “It’s full of stuff I wish I thought of,” said Ennis.

Preacher’s most marked departures from the comic include giving Jesse and Tulip a different relational backstory, making a Jesse a more sincere man of faith, importing some late-series characters and premises, and setting the action in a single location, Annville, a hellish Texas backwater. ”You never see [Jesse] being a preacher in the comics, and we wanted to make him invested in that,” said Rogen. When asked why spiritual themes seem to be important to them, as evidenced by their collaborations on Preacher and This Is The End, Rogen said that he and Goldberg, friends since childhood, talk about religion a lot, and Goldberg said that they’re drawn to “big stories” and that tends to bring them back to the biggest stories of all. “We’re starting a religion,” cracked Goldberg. “It costs a lot to get in.” 

Some Preacher devotees have been vocal about wishing the show was more on-the-nose with its adaptation. But judging from the direction of the season, the performance of the penultimate episode, and a finale trailer that was also screened for Comic-Con attendees, it seems, to this Preacher fan’s eyes, that season 1 represents a different way to set up and get into the conflicts and structure of the comic, an epic road trip to find God, literally and figuratively.

Rogen and Goldberg said they wanted a show that could tell stories in a variety of visual styles, often in the same episode, to support and compliment the eclectic range of characters and volatile, surprising nature of the story. (The penultimate, for example, knowingly blends film noir and Western.) They rattled off their cinematic influences: Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill in particular), Wes Anderson, Sergio Leone, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, The Big Lebowski, and “old Kung Fu movies and Westerns.” Rogen added that the series represents an opportunity for him and Goldberg to push themselves as directors “and see what we could do. We watched tons of movies and blatantly ripped them off.”

Rogen and Goldberg were asked if AMC ever pushes back against the show’s outrageousness. “You don’t just blow up Tom Cruise without a phone call,” said Rogen, referring to a bit from pilot in which the supernatural entity inhabiting Jesse — seeking a person with a certain kind of spiritual character to be a vessel — briefly possessed the Mission: Impossible star, presumably because of his Scientology beliefs.

The panel was also memorable for Gilgun’s contributions. The English actor was by turns hysterically ribald and poignant and always frank, particularly when speeding through a chronicle of his life’s story: how some delinquent behavior as a kid led to acting classes as punishment; how this led work on the British soap Coronation Street and other shows, including Misfits and Emmerdale; and how a battle with drugs “left me with a drug-induced bipolar disorder. That’s where I am at now.” The audience laughed; he did tell the tale in rather entertaining fashion. “Don’t cheer that,” he said. “That’s a terrible role model. I’m lucky I’m not in jail. This –” (referring to his work on Preacher and being at Comic-Con) “– is a big deal, jokes aside.” He also spoke about his ADHD and offered advice to an audience member who said she suffered from it, as well. Cautioning against feeling a shame that might lead to more hardship, he said: “Embrace the s— out of it. … I urge anyone suffering from it to embrace it.”

In the kind of moment that makes audience interaction an adventure for the Hollywood folk who come to Comic-Con, an attendee came to the mic to criticize the show. He asked the panel to explain Tulip’s recent choice to sleep with Cassidy in a moment of weakness, a move that he believed betrayed her strong female character. The panel responded to his question with some impressive grace. “When you’re stressed or things are not going well or you’re in a bad place emotionally, sometimes, you return to what is familiar, and for Tulip, what is familiar is chaos and perhaps not making the best choices,” said Negga. “I quite like that beat. It shows starkly how vulnerable she is.” Added Rogen: “I think some people think that to have a strong female characters, you can’t have flawed female character. We don’t think that at all.”

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