It’s taken 21 years for Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s gleefully gory “Preacher” to be adapted for the screen, though not been for lack of trying. But now, after a number of false starts and unsuccessful adaptation attempts, the Vertigo comic is finally on the cusp of becoming a live-action hit.
Ennis, who wrote every issue of the series, along with its tie-in miniseries and one-shots, arrived at SXSW to witness the world premiere of AMC’s “Preacher,” a TV show shepherded into existence byÂ Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, long-time fans of Jesse Custer and his quirky crew.
Following the pilot’s screening at the festival, Ennis and showrunner Sam Catlin (“Breaking Bad”) sat down with CBR News to discuss “Preacher”s long road from page to screen, the adaptation’s evolution, the race-bending of a main character, as well as Ennis’ creative process.
CBR News: How do you even begin to take a series like “Preacher” and transform it into a show?
Garth Ennis: If you’re me, you step back and let the experts handle it.
Were you not involved in the show’s production?
Ennis: I was involved to the extent that I was consulted pretty much every step of the way. I got the script, the outlines, the dailies. I was in the original meeting where Seth pitched it. I think listening to him, that was when I realized what a great handle he and Evan had on it. The smartest thing for me to do was step back and let them get on with it. I’m really too close to it. If you asked me to do what’s being done, if you asked me to adapt “Preacher, ” I would flounder. I’m content to let these guys do it.
What was it about Seth and Evan’s pitch that sold you on the idea that they should tackle “Preacher”?
Ennis: It was listening to Seth talk about how he saw it coming to the screen, what should be emphasized, what should be held back, what he wanted to play up a bit more than he had seen in the comic. It was really the sense I was getting that he was talking about letting the story breathe. Not going in at 200 miles an hour, like the comic starts. In other words: not trying to put the comic on the screen. Taking the story, leaving the comic behind and doing a TV show.
Allowing it to be its own incarnation.
Ennis: Absolutely. I think that’s vital when you’re doing an adaptation. You have to consider the medium you’re working in rather than the one you’re leaving behind, because they are different. You can’t pace a TV show the way you do a comic book. It won’t work.
It sounds like you have a much healthier attitude about adaptation than some other comic writers seem to have about translations of their work.
Ennis: Well, for twenty years I’ve listened to various pitches, seen various incarnations. I’ve realized that you don’t want to be too close to it. I did get a bit cynical after a while. [Co-creator] Steve Dillon and I both felt this way, and said, “This will never happen. So let’s just take the option money every couple of years and let people figure out for themselves that it’s unfilmable.”
That sounds like a good business model: write a great, but unfilmable, comic.
Sam Catlin: People have to love it.
Ennis: And then these guys came along. I do go back to the meeting where Seth came out with this pitch that made me realize, this is real now, and he’s got it. They’ve got it. They know what they’re doing. This is all right. I can trust these guys. And that made a big difference. Up ’til then, a lot of the things I’d heard had been a lot of, “You know we can’t do this. And we can’t show that. And yeah, I’m afraid we’re going to have to chop this.” And there was also a lot of, “Yeah, I don’t want to go into details, but just trust me.” This was where that ended and something much better began.
At what point, Sam, did you come into this process?
Catlin: A couple of years ago, my agent approached me and said Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are going to adapt this comic, “Preacher,” which I’d never heard of. I was like, “Well, I like Seth and Evan. I’ve never heard of ‘Preacher,’ send me ‘Preacher.'” Then I started reading “Preacher,” and I was like, “There’s no way that’s a TV show. It’s crazy. It’s like Dom Deluis’ acid flashback.” [Ennis chuckles] Whatever that means.
Ennis: Sounds good, though.
That’ll be the show’s tagline.
Catlin: [Laughs] But they were so passionate about it. Then things started to click when we started to realize how we could begin it. To me, that was the hardest part. How do we begin this story? Because, like Garth is saying, it starts at such a high velocity that I couldn’t get my mind around how we start moving that fast. Once we figured that out, how we could localize it to giving it a starting spot, then it was just off to the races and fun. We had all these great characters to play with. Once that light went off for me, I was like, “Oh, this could be kick-ass.”
How would you describe your responsibilities as a showrunner?
Catlin: I think it’s probably different from show to show. I look at myself sort of as Caligula.
Ennis: [Laughs] Just the chap for the job.
Catlin: [Laughs] Yeah! Things are going to run really well for a week, and then we’re all going to go down in flames. No. My job is to basically maintain the stories. I run the writers’ room, and prep all the incoming directors and am sort of in charge of what comes next.
So is it fair to say the continuity and tone of the show is on your shoulders?
Catlin: Yes, I would say that’s a big part of my job.
That sounds hugely intimidating.
Catlin: It is. It’s stressful. I told my agent the other day, I was really proud because I haven’t broken down sobbing in front of my children yet.
Catlin: Which, to me, is my bar of success. [Laughter] Notice I didn’t say I haven’t done that in front of my wife. But no, it is a lot of stress and pressure. But I am having much more fun than I thought I would, partially because I have so many great people around me, but also because, you’re so busy. You have so many responsibilities, from pre-production, to production, to post-production, to writing, you almost don’t have time to worry.
What’s your edict on whether something will work or not on the show?
Catlin: We’re still figuring that out. We really are.
How many episodes have you shot so far?
Catlin: We’re on Episode Four, something like that. But any first year show needs to find itself. “Breaking Bad’s” probably an outlier in how close the tone was in the beginning to how it was in the end. This is an especially challenging show because of all the different genres and tones. It’s just unlike anything on television. Like with “Breaking Bad,” even though it’s so groundbreaking, you at least can identify it’s about regular human behavior in present-day Albuquerque, so that’s the world you can play in. With “Preacher,” we’re figuring it out as we go. This is a world with vampires, Heaven, Hell, angels and all that stuff. So the tone of it is always a work in progress. We’re trying to find out what works and what doesn’t. And so far, I’m pretty happy with it.
The pilot introduces Jesse, Tulip, Cassidy and Eugene, but not The Saint of Killers. I’m curious how he’ll come in.
Ennis: You’re going to find that out very quickly.
I’ll take that. Garth, were you involved in casting at all?
Ennis: No, I wasn’t involved in that. They kept me informed — I’ve seen people’s tapes, and liked what I’ve seen, but is a long process. I know that from previous experience. It takes bloody ages. It goes back to leaving it to the experts.
Ruth Negga’s Tulip, who we meet in the pilot episode, is a bit different that one we meet in the first issue of the comic. How did this take on the character develop?
Catlin: We really wanted her to start in her own place. We wanted to give her her own entrance. We didn’t want her to be arm candy for Jesse. They’re such a great couple in the comic that, in terms of trying to pace it out, we wanted to create a gulf between them to start, and give them some tension. Because in the comic, it starts and they have interpersonal tension between them but they are on the same journey together pretty much.
Catlin: She’s sort of down with the road trip. But we wanted to have them butting heads earlier to give us a more of a place to go in later seasons.
Were you at all intimidated by taking a character that was a White blonde woman and casting her as a person of color, considering the backlash over a John Boyega as a Stormtrooper in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm in “Fantastic Four?” Was that ever a concern?
Catlin: We always wanted it to be the best person for the role. We weren’t going to say, “Well, she has to be black” or anything. But early on, the idea was for Jesse and Cassidy and Tulip being a sort of Island of Misfit Toys, an unlikely triumvirate. We thought there was an opportunity — especially in the deep-South setting — to have them be Misfit Toys and mismatched and don’t really belong together. As much as that’s sort of a terrible thing to say about an interracial couple, it felt like there was more stress and strife in a relationship like that. There was an unlikeliness to Jesse and Tulip that we really liked.
Ennis: I should say that if I was doing “Preacher” today — because I started it in 1994 — I would probably make it a lot more diverse. Cassidy probably wouldn’t even be Irish. He’d probably be English.
Why is that?
Ennis: Just because I think over the past ten years I’ve grown to really love writing English characters into things. My wife is English, half a dozen of my best friends in the world are English. Steve Dillon, who co-created “Preacher” is English. I don’t know if you’ve read a book I did called “The Boys” — you may hear of it soon. However, the lead character in that, Billy Butcher, is English. He’s from the East End of London, and he’s probably my favorite character I’ve ever written. So although I’ll always write Irish characters into things, I’m going further and further away from immediately reaching for one to fill out my cast.
Speaking to expanding more into diversity, why does that interest you?
Ennis: It’s not so much something that interests me as much as the necessity one feels to reflect the times, to reflect what’s going on in the world. Which is something I feel more strongly now probably than I did when I was setting up “Preacher,” where my main concern was just getting the damn thing going. “Preacher” did not spring fully formed. It was the case of taking a building block and adding another and another. Yeah, let’s make him a vampire. And what this needs is a more direct link to the Wild West if it’s going to be a Western, so Saint of Killers. It was very much like that, groping in the dark. Whereas now, I tend not to do that as much when I’m starting a new story.
So how does a new story gestate for you?
Ennis: God, in many different ways. Today I write a lot of war stories. And war stories are not traditionally popular, so I feel very, very fortunate to be able to do it. I grew up on war comics, because in the UK we didn’t have superheroes. I feel like I kind of dodged a bullet there, because it gives me a kind of unique starting point.
Catlin: Yeah. Yeah.
Ennis: So I grew up on war comics. That led to an interest in war history. That means I have a ton of stories I want to tell from throughout the second World War. So in that instance, there’s a huge list in the back of my head. Let’s start withÂ the Chindits in Burma. Let’s move over to Night Fighter operations during the blitz on London. Let’s jump wars. Let’s go to the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
As for other stories, it can be something you’ll get, leave alone, and let the ideas build. And then the time will feel right, and you’ll go. Other times, you’ll come up with something just on the spur of the moment. I was like, “Yes. Yes! I’m going to do a horror book. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to do a horror book about a paramedic who looks after monsters. And go!” That one [“Code Pru”] just sprang fully formed, and off I went.
So watching the audience today, as they viewed the episode, does that inform how the show might be shaped in the future? Based on their response?
Catlin: I hadn’t seen it with a crowd before, so it was exciting. I mean, we’ve written almost the entire [10-episode] season, and shot about a third of it at this point. But we don’t really know–
Ennis: It’s hard to judge, because an audience like that — and it was a tremendous experience watching it with them — they’re very keyed up. They’ve probably heard of the book, or they’ve at least heard of the creative team behind it. So, you wonder how accurate a picture you’re getting long term.
Ennis: [To Catlin] I mean, you have more experience with this that I do.
Catlin: No, I’ve never been to a screening like that. There were some “Breaking Bad” screenings, but that was early on, before it was a phenomenon and everyone was just climbing the walls.
Ennis: It’s hard to say. Hard to say. But a pretty good experience, regardless.
“Preacher”Â premieres May 22 on AMC.