These days, one of the safest bets for attracting TV or movie audiences is to rely on existing brand or franchise and try to revitalize it. When it's successful—like the recent Star Wars films or Fox's X-Files revival—it brings in both diehard fans and a fresh audience.
Two of the best writers involved in resuscitating beloved pop culture properties are Bryan Fuller (who breathed new life into the stale Hannibal Lecter franchise by turning Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon into an audacious NBC series) and Michael Green (who worked on Smallville, putting a new spin on the Superman story). Now those two are teaming up for a new, high-profile adaptation, turning Neil Gaiman's acclaimed novel American Gods into a series for Starz, debuting this spring.
But American Gods is just one of several major brand refreshes that Fuller or Green are overseeing in 2017. Fuller also co-created the first Star Trek series in 12 years, Star Trek: Discovery, for CBS All Access (though he has since departed the show) and is developing an updated version of the '80s anthology series Amazing Stories for NBC. Meanwhile, Green co-wrote three major franchise films: Logan (a darker, grittier spin on the Wolverine franchise), Alien: Covenant (the follow-up to Prometheus, which more directly ties into Alien) and Blade Runner 2049, which brings back Harrison Ford and whose first trailer generated enthusiastic buzz last week:
As they prepare to launch American Gods in the spring, Fuller and Green sat down with Adweek to talk about their approach to breathing new life in beloved pop culture brands, and what they've learned about trying to make fans happy—or not:
Adweek: What has to stand out for you when you're looking at an existing brand or a franchise, and trying to make it your own?
Bryan Fuller: It has to be about something more than just its own plot, to start with. And you have to be able to isolate your own memory of what it is you loved about it. Because if you take something as broad as a superhero character, everyone came at it at a different time and a different incarnation and a different run of a different artist, and so there are different aspects of the character that are in the soul of it for you. That's the core of adaptation, is you have to be able to dive into those things and celebrate that particular aspect of it. It's about taking those core values of what the piece is and making sure that you can now re-present those things to other people, and hopefully they'll appreciate it in the same way that you did.
As you were adapting American Gods, how do you decide what to transfer from the book and what you can leave aside?
Fuller: I think a lot of it boils down to personal taste. There are things about the book that resonated with each of us, specifically and differently, that we both wanted to make sure that we got into the story. And for any of these things it really becomes fan fiction…
Michael Green: …In the best possible, celebratory way.
Fuller: And that's really taking responsibility for not only how we see the project and what gets us excited about it, but also recognizing that there are like-minded fans in the audience, and there are people who don't agree with how you see any given property. So if you're trying to make everybody happy, that way madness lies. But if you're taking seriously your place as the first seat in the audience and that this is fan fiction that you want to see of this property because it's so beloved for a variety of reasons, that's the best barometer, because you know how to make yourself happy as a fan.
While there is a segment of the fan base that might be enraged by anything you do, does the fact that there are already known entities make things easier at all?
Green: It's the old question: what's easier, original versus adaptation? And the answer is always whichever one you're not working on is the easier one, because each will take a fantastic amount of work because you're still trying to take something that was either a movie before or a book before and turning it into what you're doing at the moment, whether it's a whole different genre, whether it's television or even just a rebooting of a franchise. That is a specific set of challenges. It's very different from the challenges of inventing a new world and an original piece, which is equally impossible, because you have to decide, what did the doorknobs look like in this world? Do they have doorknobs? As opposed to, people expect the doorknobs are going to look a certain way.
Fuller: And you're trading in iconography, so you want to make sure that that iconography that you are delivering to an audience has enough punch, not only for you but for them. Because of the iconographic nature of Gods, there is a lot for Michael and I to be curious about and wonder how that would translate to a visual image. Because there's crazy things in the book, like a woman eating a man with her vagina, that you wonder, how does that translate to a moving image? And we wanted to deliver that as written. So as long as you're delivering those pressure points to the audience, then you're able to have more leeway in other areas.
You both have experience with working with a show, or book, or brand that people are familiar with. What did you learn from those previous experiences that informs your approach now?
Green: I did a biblical adaptation on television [NBC's 2009 drama Kings, based on King David] and people obviously are very, very passionate about their biblical. What I learned from that is that the more passionate people are about things—whether it's superheroes, the Bible or their favorite books—the more they tend to remember their memory of their own feelings about it rather than the actual text. And people tend to be very surprised by what the text you're adapting actually says, versus what they recall of it. Especially when you're dealing with things that are sacred to people like the Bible, they were taught it through a certain lens whether they know it or not. Sometimes, pointing out the lens or dramatizing the lens is a creative act that people will resist.
Similarly, I've seen it with Superman. I worked on Smallville Season 1, and there was a lot of talk about what is our version of it. And then you see what was done in the Batman/Superman movies now, where a lot of people decried it because it because Man of Steel didn't feel like the Superman they knew, and yet there is a generation who are growing up and is like okay, as far as I know, that's Superman. To me, it's Dick Donner's Superman [movie from 1978], but that's because of the year I was born, and I can't take it as the only version.
Fuller: In adapting Hannibal, what was fascinating is initially there was so much resistance to revisiting the project because the last couple of movies weren't well received and the last book was not well received, and so there was a question of whether or not this character still had validity in the marketplace. For me, as a fan of the literature and the beautifully bloated purple prose of Thomas Harris, I hadn't seen an adaptation that struck that nerve and really embraced the poetry of how it was written. How to translate poetic prose into a poetic image was inspiring and an exciting challenge because I wanted it to be beautiful; I wanted it to be erotic; I wanted it to be philosophical. All those things were present in the novels but it had never made it through any of the adaptations so I felt like I found a treasure trove of unexplored aspects of the stories that gave me an opportunity to tell a different version of the story that was at the same time incredibly accurate and true to what was written in the book.
Bryan, you came from broadcast, you're doing cable now with American Gods, you worked on streaming with Star Trek. Do you like going between all these different outlets or is there one now that you like best?
Fuller: I think there's something exciting about being on a broadcast network if they are in a place to embrace something different. Everybody balked at NBC being the network for Hannibal, but I had no doubts that we were going to be able to do this show that I wanted the show to be, because the network executives kept their promise to allow us to do the show that we wanted to do, which is probably a rarity. That was a huge leap of faith on their part, and the fact that they let us be for three years is a miracle in the broadcast network environment. So I feel a certain amount of loyalty to NBC. I would love to work with [NBC Entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt and [NBC Entertainment president] Jen Salke again on something, because they demonstrated such trust and allowed us to do crazy shit on that show. I don't think I'm done with network television. We're developing Amazing Stories for NBC, and I still think that there's value in all of the networks: streaming, cable or broadcast.
Green: It just takes the right marriage, that whatever your host is, is the right place for it. Because if they resist it being the actual thing that it needs to be, no one can spread their wings.
American Gods has a big fan base, but that's nothing compared to those of Star Trek and Blade Runner. The thought of trying to satisfy those audiences is almost crippling; how much did you each think about that before deciding to tackle those projects?
Green: You think about them and then eventually you have to let go and just metabolize it through your own soul and trust that your version is the version that other people would like to see. Because if you try to please everybody, you end up with nothing. The Comic-Con crowd is a great place to take things, because they'll let you know if you missed. But beyond that, they don't actually want what they think they want. They have something in their head and if you gave them that, they wouldn't be happy. They want to be surprised and they want you to show them something they didn't expect, that still fits within acceptable parameters for them—and their parameters are very wide.
Fuller: With Star Trek, it's so massive and on a different scale, because it is worldwide but it is more specific in many ways than other big tentpole, intellectual properties. So there's no way to make all the Star Trek fans happy. It's a very divisive group, and because the group is so divisive, it took a lot of pressure off of me because I was like, I'll never make everybody happy, so I'm not going to worry about it. I'm going to worry about making myself happy as a Star Trek fan and appealing to like-minded Star Trek fans to get a show that I want to see as a Star Trek fan, and I hope that they do too.