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Sex and violence reign supreme in the NSFW TV adaptation of 'American Gods'

by Michelle Lanz and Cameron Kell | The Frame

Ian MacShane, left, and Ricky Wittle star in the Starz series "American Gods." Starz

A word of advice: don't watch "American Gods" at your desk at work, unless you like having uncomfortable conversations with the human resources department. 

The new Starz series, based on Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel of the same name, is about mythical gods living in modern-day America — and let’s just say they are not necessarily trying to create a kinder and gentler world.

As with Gaiman’s novel, the series features gothic violence, full-frontal nudity and athletic sex.

The show centers on an ex-convict named Shadow Moon, played by Ricky Whittle. He’s approached by a mysterious man named Mr. Wednesday, played by Ian McShane, who offers him a job as a chauffeur and bodyguard.

He accepts and the two set out on the road, where much of the show takes place. It’s a road story, an immigrant story and a morality story, all wrapped together.

The series is created by Bryan Fuller, whose credits include “Pushing Daisies” and “Hannibal,” and Michael Green, who has worked on the screenplays  for “Logan” and the upcoming “Blade Runner” sequel.

When Fuller and Green joined us at the Frame studio, they described their creative partnership with Neil Gaiman, the political relevance of the show, and their approach to blood, sex, and religion on "American Gods."

Interview Highlights:

On the central conflict between the old and new gods

Fuller: Well, really they're not necessarily fighting against each other as much as they are competing for the same power source — the time and attention of humanity. Old gods have one way that's very narcissistic in that you worship them and you project your existential crises onto them to be resolved, whereas the new gods are just distracting you from thinking about your existential crises.

Each of them are playing a different game with humanity, and it opens up a lot of really interesting aspects about the rules of this world, since it's based on the concept of thought form — if you believe in something, you can manifest it into reality. That's why these gods exist, and that basic rule gives us a big opportunity to go to some really heady, philosophical places in the future.

On their creative relationship with Neil Gaiman

Fuller: Michael and I wanted to do this project because we wanted to see this show, as fans of the book. So we had a very open dialogue about things that we felt like we didn't need to do, or shouldn't do, and things that we really wanted to do. And Neil was, for the most part, in deep agreement.

Green: We could go for him to guidance, he would read everything we wrote — outlines, scripts — and he'd look at cuts. He was traveling quite a bit, as he always does, and he said for four months his favorite show was watching the dailies for "American Gods." He'd just sit down and see what we'd done the day before.

So he was always there and aware of what we were doing, but also wanted us to be able to run, so there was a long leash. On the other hand, when we came to some sort of crossroads or just a wall, we'd put a call in. It was great to have the living, vibrant author there to tell you whether you were hot or cold.

On the role and portrayal of religion in the show

Green: We spent a lot of time just in our lives, and subsequently in the show, [asking], What is faith to people? I think one of the things people were most surprised about, for both the book and the series, is that, when you hear, Oh, some people from Hollywood are going to talk about religion, [one might think] that we'd s*** on it, that'd we'd have negative things to say. And we never came at it that way.

Both of us come from religious backgrounds, one of us more currently practicing than the other, but we have a fondness for it. And, if anything, the show and the book offer a leveled playing field for different religions and don't single any out as more valid. Rather, one might be currently more popular in terms of the currency of human thought.

On the show's ability to talk about race and immigration

Fuller: For us, it's the most healing aspect of the show — the opportunity to speak about certain subjects that are more or less oppressed on other forms of entertainment. We talked about this opening as two white guys who perhaps have no right to be representing this story in any capacity, but nevertheless we were compelled to tell it.

There's something interesting about race and entertainment that is so touchy, but what we've seen in America over the last year or two — the rampant racism and xenophobia that's swept the nation — feels like it's people who have previously been silent on race issues because they're racist and they knew to keep it to themselves. But now they're speaking out on subjects of race, they're emboldened to talk about their particular hate or misunderstandings. So there's no reason that Michael and I, as storytellers, can't talk about race — not in a similar way, but just as an active part of exploring the themes of this show.

On the more graphic elements of "American Gods"

Green: We didn't want a salacious show. We wanted a show that could include sexuality, but our rule was that if it wasn't furthering character or story, then we didn't need it. We'd cut it or we wouldn't write it in the first place. We didn't feel like it would honor the stories we wanted to tell or the actors we had portraying it. That's not to say we didn't find story delivery in sexual situations — we also wanted to make sure there was representation.

In one of the earliest conversations we had with Starz about this, they said, We're comfortable with sex, we've had it on our other shows, but if you do choose to, just make sure it's equal representation. And we said, "Oh, we're way ahead of you."

Whether audiences should read up on their classic mythology before watching

Fuller: It's interesting. When I was studying to be a psychiatrist, my experiment was, Do you get more out of a movie if you understand the psychological subtext of it or if you're seeing it as a popcorn thriller? The movie "Alien" was the case study — penis-headed monsters, mothers betraying their children, etc.

Essentially, they're both equally passionate, because you don't know what an image means, but you know that it is pleasing on the eye. That was interesting during the testing of the show, because they were curious what people's reactions were, and one of them was that nobody knew Wednesday was a god, because we didn't explicitly say it.

That was something we talked with Neil about early on, like, Is that a spoiler? Or is it just part of world-building? At what point do you give the spoiler away to get people in the door and understand the show they're watching?

Whether audiences thought the show had gone too far at any point

Green: No, because before you do the special effect, you get the edit down and you make sure you have that effect. In every effect, every sequence we've done, there were additional shots we thought we needed that we pulled out and said, No, we can sing that song in four notes instead of eight. But there weren't any sequences we weren't happy to do. Bryan, you're making a face like I'm forgetting something.

Fuller: I'm not going to say which one, but there was something we did as a visual effect to compensate for something we weren't able to pull off during production. When I see that, I just see the band-aids, and I'm just hoping the audience doesn't. But I don't know about that one!

Green: There were definitely some visual effects and production issues that we can see and hopefully no one else will. But in terms of ambition and things we wanted to pull off, that we set out to do, there was nothing where we felt we'd pushed the boundaries too far. There's such a high monetary investment in those things that you ask yourself all those hard questions before it gets to anything like audience testing.

On pulling material from the book while stretching it out to make multiple TV seasons

Fuller: We've used somewhere between a quarter and a third of the book so far. We sat down with Starz this morning, and as we were talking about ideas we wanted to explore in season two, I thought that we might have too many ideas for season two. So...

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