How the Sweet Tooth team brought their 'post-apocalyptic fable' to life
The cast and producers preview their hopeful adaptation of Jeff Lemire's critically acclaimed comic book series Sweet Tooth.
Netflix's Sweet Tooth aims to offer a different kind of post-apocalyptic story.
Based on Jeff Lemire's critically-acclaimed DC/Vertigo comic book series of the same name, this warm drama explores a world ravaged by a devastating disease (too soon?) through the eyes of Gus (Christian Convery), an inquisitive boy who is part deer. After years of living in isolation because the world fears hybrids like him, Gus abandons his sheltered home in search of answers about his origins and teams up with a gruff, loner named Jepperd (Game of Thrones' Nonso Anozie). Journeying across America will open Gus' eyes to the complicated and dangerous nature of the world.
"It's a dystopian fable that embraces the hope of the characters, the emotion of the comic, with a bit of humor," says executive producer and co-showrunner Jim Mickle (Hap and Leonard).
Below, the show's cast and producers reveal how they brought this lush story to life.
Zeroing in on hope and wonder
First published in 2009, Lemire's Sweet Tooth initially presented itself as a dark, violent, and foreboding story that never let you forget how dangerous its post-apocalyptic world is, especially for a hybrid like Gus. That weight, though, is counter-balanced by Gus' inherent optimism and innocence. When executive producer Susan Downey first read the comic almost six years ago, she was immediately drawn to Gus, because of his point-of-view and his uniqueness as a character, which is why the resulting series is more overtly lighter than the source material.
"When we talked to Jeff Lemire, we talked about all the things we loved about the comic book, which was Gus and what he represented and his coming-of-age and sense of hope," says Downey, who produces the series alongside husband Robert Downey Jr. via their Team Downey production company. "When the three entities — Team Downey, Jim, and Jeff all started talking — it's when we decided we wanted to make sure this world [lighter], especially with a child at the center — even though I think this is a much broader kind of family viewing experience — [because] I didn't want to see him in dark places."
Lemire was more than thrilled with the show's spin of his work. "I love that they leaned into the hopeful aspects of the world of Sweet Tooth," says Lemire. "[Even though] the comic was a bit darker and more violent than the show, I think there really was that heart to it and the hope and optimism innocence of Gus was always the North Star of the comic. They've really kept that and, if anything, built and expanded it on screen and had the world around him reflect that a bit more."
Watching Gus experience so many firsts — things that we take for granted — as he explores the world is one of the joys of the show. "For those of us who aren't children anymore, we get to relive our childhood through him," says EP and co-showrunner Beth Schwartz (Arrow). "As a parent, I'm doing that now with my son. I get to see the world through his eyes and I feel like that's a lot of what the show does, and obviously [Gus is] extremely unique because he's half deer. I think that's what makes him such a special and unique hero."
Creating a different kind of dystopia
Sweet Tooth's post-apocalyptic landscape doesn't resemble the dusty, grimy, and/or industrial aesthetic we've come to expect from pop culture's usual depiction of dystopia. Instead, the show's America is green and lush because nature blossomed and reclaimed the world after everything ended. This is why Mickle tends to refer to the show as a "post-apocalyptic fable."
While contemplating the end of the world, "I kept [thinking], 'If the world tipped over right now, it would actually be nature of all things that would thrive and come back,'" says Mickle. "Pretty soon you start looking at what does it look like in Chernobyl, for example, where all of a sudden it's like this horrible thing happened and now it's covered with flowers and amazing foliage and that started to feel like there was a fairy tale or storybook aspect of these dark times that yield these amazing yet bold visual results. The hybrids, in general, are that [on Sweet Tooth]. This pandemic comes and this next species comes that lives even in more harmony with the planet. All that spun around and found a new way to look at what the end of the world might look like on-screen."
Nurturing the show's central relationship
Gus and Jepperd's unlikely relationship serves as the spine of the show. While Gus is curious and trusting, Jepperd is rather closed off because of everything he's experienced since the world went to hell. Yet, Gus manages to chip away at that armor bit by bit once he falls under Jepperd's protection. Building this dynamic on-screen was rather effortless for Anozie and Convery.
"Me and Nonso had never met before or even talked to each other before we went to set," says Convery. "As soon as we got to set, I felt like we had an instant connection. I feel like that chemistry of the instant connection between us really helped make the scenes more authentic."
"I felt like your big brother on set and it made it much easier to portray this eventual father figure-type character as the story goes on," says Anozie.
As the season progresses, we'll also learn more about Jepperd's backstory. "He has an emotional arc and he has a past that he's trying to get away from," says Anozie. "Even though I'm big and brawny and it looks like my sole role is to protect Gus, there may be opportunities for Gus to save Jepperd. It's an unlikely pairing and unlikely scenarios unfold."
Expanding the story's scope
While Gus and Jepperd are at the heart of Sweet Tooth, the series doesn't just follow them. In the first season, we'll spend time with Adeel Akhtar's Dr. Aditya Singh, who is busy researching the virus that destroyed led to the Great Crumble, and Aimee (Dania Ramirez), a former therapist who creates a sanctuary for hybrids called the Preserve.
"I got the honor to write Aimee's first scenes in episode 2. That's our first character that we went away from the comic books," says Schwartz. "We added her storyline because she's so important to the story we're trying to tell in terms of family and belonging. [She's] someone who's always felt that she didn't quite fit into the world, and she really found herself when the world ended."
The show's many threads are all connected to the central mystery around the origins of the virus and hybrids. "Together with what [Mickle and Schwartz] did that I really appreciated is how they fed the mystery but still left us wanting more by the end," says Downey. "What is great is all of our mystery is also driven from character, and what people's backstories were and why things happened and how things are connected. I think that the sort of escapist adventure's great, the heartwarming characters at the core are great, but the mystery is a nice thrust that keeps people coming back or clicking next [episode]."
Bringing the hybrids to life
Figuring out how to bring the hybrids to life was one of the early obstacles. As a lifelong Jim Henson fan, Micke wanted to use practical effects whenever possible. So on the show, Convery is actually wearing animatronic deer antlers and ears, which were controlled by puppeteer Grant Lehmann through a handheld transmitter.
"So it started with Gus and it makes a big difference because the other characters are acting off of something real in front of them," says Mickle. "The way that the light hits them, you get those little happy accidents on set, and that informed the way I think we tried to pull a lot of the world off and other characters, and it was very cool."
"It took me a while to get used to it," says Convery of wearing the ears. "After researching about deers and how they move and react, and after a while of filming, I really got used to being Gus with antlers and being a deer. There are some funny moments. There was this one scene where I was running, then my antlers fell off because I hit a tree."
Moving through the world as a hybrid is rather dangerous because many people both fear and blame them for the virus, which opens the show up to explore issues of alterity. "The best science fiction to me, people can read different metaphors into things and see themselves reflected in this genre," says Lemire. "The Hybrids to me always represented any sort of otherness or difference, and I think it's great that anyone watching it today can project their own experiences onto them and relate to them, whether it's gender or race or sexuality or whatever. Wherever you're coming from, I think that they work as a beautiful metaphor for togetherness and embracing differences and hope for humanity, hopefully.
Sweet Tooth's eight-episode first season launches Friday, June 4 on Netflix.