Bryan Fuller is going darker than he's ever gone before in his new NBC thriller Hannibal. Trailers for the series show it as a boundary-pushing, deeply dark project, and that's not too far off from how Fuller describes it.
Based in part on Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon, which introduced the world to Dr. Hannibal Lecter and spawned the better-known sequel The Silence of the Lambs, the drama centers on the budding relationship between the brilliant young forensic psychiatrist and FBI profiler Will Graham (played by Hugh Dancy).
Series like AMC's The Walking Dead paved the way for NBC to develop Hannibal, explained Fuller, a writer and producer better known for quirky shows like Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me. He said he wanted to make this series work on network television, even if they're bending the rules by releasing a red-band trailer. Yes, the series will really go that dark. Fuller and Dancy participated in a recent conference call where they teased Thursday’s premiere.
"I think one of the reasons that horror is finding an audience on television now is that it really wasn't represented before," Fuller said. "In the last 15 years that I've been working in television, I pitched many a horror series and had been told horror does not work on television. And what that basically means is that it doesn't work until somebody proves that it does work. ... That success changes perception of a genre. And I think, you know, with the subject matter being dark, it may be as with anything a reflection of where we are in that place talking about gun laws and violence and reality."
He continued, "Entertainment has a very strange cloudy mirror that it holds up to society. So I think we're reflecting where people's heads are in a certain way. And that - I think that's part of art's responsibility in its role in society."
That said, there was a lot Fuller was unable to do. For instance, his proposition of having "arterial spray" was turned down; however, he said the series goes "as far as we can without being X-rated." Dancy said there were still some scenes that made him cringe, and Fuller shared a wish to one day have an unrated version of Hannibal be released on DVD.
"What's been really great about working with NBC on this project is that they recognize that they are doing a horror show and the show is called Hannibal Lecter,” Fuller said. “And they have, you know, put us on at 10 o'clock for a reason so we can maximize what we can show to honor the genre and also provide fans of the genre certain ingredients that they are expecting to see. So it's definitely a collaboration, and they're taking it very seriously that they are presenting a horror show and they have to have, you know, honor that audience. ... But NBC keeps on reminding me where the line is. And that's the responsibility as broadcast network but they have been very, very supportive in terms of what we can do and going."
Because Hannibal is based on a mythology that already exists both in Harris' novels and on film, Fuller found himself trying to discover the story avenues that hadn't already been explored. Because the last Lecter movie, Hannibal Rising was released in 2007, Fuller felt it was time to really dive into the Hannibal story again.
"We were able to get into much more specifics with the character, particularly Will Graham's character, who Hugh Dancy plays so magnificently and wonderfully neurotically," Fuller said. "He was traditionally played as, you know, a stoic leading man. And what we get because of the really complex psychology of the character that's in the literature, we get to explore that in a way that nobody has before. So that was very exciting."
Portions of Hannibal's plot, like the Minnesota Shrike, are taken straight from the novels, but Fuller also had to add individual serial killers because they’re "part and parcel of the crime procedural case of the week, for lack of a better word."
"Our approach was, how can we tell a slightly more heightened quality of serial-killer tale each week to honor the style and the genre that Thomas Harris has really kind of created in and of himself?" Fuller said. "There is an operatic quality, a sort of purple operatic quality, to those style of murders that we tried to respect and kind of give more than a crime procedural that is so completely grounded in reality ... something a little more grand than what you would see on other crime procedural shows."
According to Fuller, the casting of both Dancy as Will Graham and Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter was easy. There's also the inclusion Pushing Daisies alum, – and Saturday Night Live veteran, Molly Shannon, whom Fuller was hesitant to say too much about.
"I can't really [say who she plays] without giving away the part," he teased. "Molly is a trained dramatic actress, so it was fun to see her in a dramatic role. And she is infectious as a human being and as a spirit. So I was just excited to be able to work with her and also see her do something that she doesn't usually do."
Also, like on Dexter, expect Hannibal to not get away with his murders without raising some suspicions.
"I think that, you know, there clearly has to be some movement in that area because I'm playing the world's greatest detector of serial killers. And at a certain point you'd start to wonder how the hell I got the job, you know," Dancy said. "But at the same time Hannibal is the most -- not just the most intelligent but in a sense the most quick-witted man, you know, in the show I suppose. He's always that one step ahead. So yes, there may be moments when a little alarm seems to go off."
Hannibal premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.