Inside the Past and Possible Future of ‘Hannibal,’ Now on Netflix

Brian Hiatt
·19 min read

The oft-surreal, delightfully sickening, camp-drenched serial-killer drama Hannibal, one of the most adventurous network television shows ever made, went off the air in 2015 after three seasons. But it never really went away, thanks in part to its still-obsessed online fan base (Fannibals, of course), and the fact that its ending didn’t fully feel like one. The unlikely bond between Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and elegant monster Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) took on unabashedly romantic overtones as the seasons progressed, and Season Three ended with the men wrapped in a deadly embrace, in a cliffhanger that involved an actual cliff.

Over the past five years, the show’s creators and cast have repeatedly teased the possibility of one more season. Hannibal‘s arrival on Netflix earlier this year, which sparked tweets from viewers thrilled with what they thought was a brand-new show, has only increased the speculation. Showrunner Bryan Fuller (who also worked on American Gods and Star Trek: Discovery) has moved on to feature films (“I flirt every once in a while with returning to television, but there’s something so peaceful about being able to write at home with the dogs and not have to battle over budgets,” he says), but would make an exception for more Hannibal.

Fuller looks back at the glories and struggles of creating the show (adapted, of course, from the novels of Thomas Harris), why he saw Silence of the Lambs as a “queer film,” alternate casting roads, his vision for a fourth season, and more.

So what is the status of a possible additional season of Hannibal?
We’ve let everybody know, unequivocally, that we’re very interested in returning to the world, and the cast is very interested in returning to these stories. And that’s kind of where it’s left. We’ve knocked on a lot of doors. We’ve handed out a lot of pamphlets: “These are our goals for the show moving forward and this is what we would like to do.” And everybody nods politely and says we’ll think about it and then we usually never hear from them again [laughs].

One of the things that I always loved about your take on Hannibal is it seemed like it dove into and was inspired, at least in part, by the actual book Hannibal, the one where Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter become a couple. Your show just fully embraced everything about that book that made people uncomfortable, and then multiplied it. Is there anything to that?
For me, it really did start not just with Hannibal, but Red Dragon [the first appearance of both Lecter and Will Graham]. And Thomas Harris’ writing style is so purple and effusive, and the way he strings together words is very seductive for me. So really, my goal for the show was to give the audience the feeling that they’re reading Thomas Harris’ writing cinematically, and to provide those kind of sumptuous and really strange images to support how Thomas Harris wrote stories, which I found really lurid and delicious.

I’m not sure how deliberate the campiness is in his novels, if you know what I mean.
[Laughs.] That’s interesting, because I guess that’s the definition of campiness! There is a certain unintentionality with camp. And I did find, because Hannibal Lecter is such a dandy, Silence of the Lambs struck me as such a queer film. Because Jodie Foster communicates a queerness about her, and Anthony Hopkins, in his kind of dandified effeteness in playing Hannibal Lecter, there was a queer quality as well. So, the love affair that is depicted in the book Hannibal, between Clarice and Hannibal, felt like, in some way, it was really about the blindness to that camp quality to the characters, and the writing, and their most famous cinematic imagining. When I was watching Silence of the Lambs, I didn’t get romance between these two, I absolutely got that these were both queer characters, and even the touch between them that is so heavily dramatized in Jonathan Demme’s movie, the caress of the fingers there, when they’re exchanging a folder, feels less sexualized so much as it was about intimacy.

And obviously, you revamped the relationship between Clarice and Hannibal into the relationship on your show between Will and Hannibal.
Yeah, absolutely. The idea of shifting it into a queer perspective felt like a natural extension of the material. It’s not necessarily what the material intended, but it’s certainly gay-friendly… I think it’s also the casting of it. I think there is something interesting about sexualizing characters through the actors that they play. And certainly, in Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins was very sexy. And he was a gentleman scoundrel. There’s something very appealing about that.

But I think there is something in the work between Graham and Hannibal Lecter in the television series, where it was already kind of embracing a strange queerness, that perhaps made it more plausible for some viewers to buy the burgeoning romance between them, more so than they did with Clarice Starling and Hannibal in the novel. And obviously in the Ridley Scott adaptation [of the book Hannibal], which I love, and I find really operatic and so wonderfully over-the-top, they didn’t embrace the romance or feel that they could sell it to the audience in the way that the book did. And fortunately for us and the television series, because of that, it was relatively untried cinematically. So we had something that we could do that nobody had done yet.

Do you see an actual sexual attraction between Will and Hannibal?
I think there’s a sexual attraction for Hannibal to Will. I think of Hannibal in two ways, one as a man and one as the devil. And so, when we were breaking stories, both things had to be true. Like, this had to be true for the devil. And this had to be true if Hannibal was just a man, in order for things to proceed narratively. And we took licenses — like, “How did Hannibal get in there?” Well, if he’s the devil, he turned to smoke and seeped under the door! And if he’s a man, maybe he picked a lock [laughs].

What was fascinating as the storytelling evolved and the actors inhabited their roles more fully, there became a fluidity and authenticity to the attraction that on Will Graham’s side was sort of puzzling but a slippery slope that he could slide down. And for Hannibal’s side it was, here’s this man who can understand me in a way that no other human being can, and therefore I don’t feel as lonely, and it’s very easy to eroticize those feelings from a sexually fluid point of view.

So, I would say, from Hannibal’s perspective, there is a physical attraction as well as an intellectual attraction and emotional attraction, because Will Graham in many ways, for the devil, represents the beauty of corruptibility of the pure spirit. And I think that was part of the attraction for Hannibal, is to transform Will, to inform Will’s own becoming into a higher-level being than just a plain, old man. And for Will, I think there was this attraction to somebody who also saw him in a way that no one else saw. Whether that could ultimately become willingly sexual became much grayer territory than I originally thought it was going to be.

Let’s talk about casting Mads Mikkelsen. How much of the character had he nailed when you first met with him?
In our very first meeting with Mads, he said, “I really see this character as the devil.” And that was a light bulb going off for me, because I was like, “Oh, that’s such an interesting, epic mythological take on this character, not just to boil him down to a madman, but to give him a sense of mythology that really goes to the heart of why the devil is attracted to mankind.” And it was a layer I thought about in only the loosest terms. But having Mads step into the kind of eternal wisdom of the devil, as opposed to the experiential wisdom of an aristocrat, felt like it gave the character a new awareness, at least for me, and a kind of dawning queerness in the story. Because I feel like the devil is pansexual and therefore queer, and that’s something that is more welcoming than sort of straight, missionary-style sexuality.

Thomas Harris seems to have a certain admiration for Hannibal on some levels, and for as much as it paints him as the devil, the show does as well, right?
Absolutely. I find him seductive. And I think, because of the twisted righteousness of the character and the kind of the eat-the-rude aspect of the way he chooses his victims, there is an escape hatch for the citizens in the audience who view themselves as upstanding, who view themselves as moral and ethical. They’re not so much on the menu. There is a pleasure in seeing assholes get eaten and meet certain fates because of their arrogance or their rudeness. Looking at a Trump rally, there is a certain level of “meat is back on the menu” in terms of Hannibal’s perspective, and in terms of the rudeness, the dismissal of the most basic morality. For myself, whenever I see bad behavior in such epic fashion, it’s hard not to fantasize about those folks meeting their comeuppance some way, just to provide a certain interior equilibrium to the frustrations over the fact that people are horrible. And a lot of people are stupid. And we’re seeing the results of that as a very divided nation. And so yeah, I would love to see Hannibal tuck in on Mitch McConnell.

How did you deal with the specter of Anthony Hopkins as Lecter?
What we had to our benefit was that besides the movie Hannibal, really, most everyone’s familiarity with the character was Silence of the Lambs. And until the final few frames of that movie, they just saw him incarcerated in the jumpsuit, or in a face mask to kind of betray his monstrosity. And we would be doing the opposite, presenting him as a gentleman, as an upstanding member of society, first and foremost. So I think the first thing for us was to be able to put him in suits and be able to see him in his world. That was going to be a way to differentiate these characters immediately. And the other was to hire somebody who didn’t look anything like Anthony Hopkins and wasn’t going to be going near any of those archetypal pillars that he so firmly established in his performance.

And there were people who auditioned for the role that came in, you know, in a white T-shirt and sort of jumpsuit-esque pants or their hair slicked back and did impressions of Anthony Hopkins and we were like, that is the path for disruption, because we cannot compare ourselves to him.

David Tennant said that that he met with you a couple times about playing Hannibal. What would that have been like?
I love David Tennant. I’ve been dying to work with him forever, and we get close. And then, you know, either his schedule or some network interference prevents us from being able to make that match. But I’m confident that we will in the future. There was a levity to David’s performance in some ways that was an interesting contrast to Mads’ sobriety in the role. And I find David to be so much fun and so appealing to watch. It’s hard not to love David Tennant onscreen. And that may have had something to do with it. Honestly, it was a decision that was made above my pay grade. But that would have been an interesting extrapolation to see David Tennant as Hannibal. And I do still have the audition on my laptop, and I watch it from time to time, and wonder what what would it have been like, just because I love David and his acting style. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Mads Mikkelsen is is the right person for this job.

It’s kind of unbelievable this show lasted for multiple seasons on network television. What kind of feedback were you getting from NBC?
I think really the reason that it lasted as long as it did, all the credit for that has to go to Jennifer Salke, who was working for [former NBC chairman] Bob Greenblatt, and she was running NBC. Casting Mads was a challenge. Because I wanted him, the director wanted him, Hugh Dancy wanted him. We all universally knew that he was the right person for the job. But he was sort of this European art-house performer. NBC were trying to kind of counter-cast, in a way. They wanted Hugh Grant to play Hannibal, they wanted John Cusack. They wanted a lot of folks that were much lighter on their feet. They wanted someone effusive and comedic, and has that level of charm to them to counter all of the evil. I was like, “Mads Mikkelsen is this role.” And I remember one of them saying, “He’s kind of creepy!” And I’m like, “He’s Hannibal Lecter!”

So how did it end up as Mads in the end?
Finally, every time they said, “We’re gonna cast Hugh Grant,” I would say, “OK, let’s make an offer,” knowing full well that Hugh Grant had just passed on $750,000 an episode for Two and a Half Men, and that was three times their licensing fee. I was like, “It’s just not realistic. He’s not going do it.” I was like, “Make an offer, and then I’ll bring you back to Mads.” And so we did we did that dance at least a half a dozen times, where the network would say, “We want Paul Bettany.” And I was like, “Great, make an offer.” “We want John Cusack.” “Great, make an offer.” And everyone always passed, as I knew they would. And then I brought up Mads Mikkelsen again. And finally, after, you know, six or seven rounds of going with actors that were never going to do this role, I threw myself on the mercy of Jen Salke’s desk, and said, “I know you guys see this character in a different way. But this is how I see the character, and I have to write him, and I have to understand him, and I have to be in the trenches with him.” And Jen was like, “OK, we trust you. We’ll cast the person you want.”

Is it true you actually became a pescatarian because of the show?
Yes. It was a fascinating confluence of having kidney stones right before we started production, and then doing a lot of research into emotional intelligence and the meat industry. It became much easier for me to imagine eating human beings who are assholes than it was to eat an innocent animal. On occasion, I’ll go to a restaurant somebody will say, like, “Oh my god, this is the best steak I’ve ever had. You should have a bite.” And I’m like, “I’ll have a bite, if it is literally the best steak you’ve ever had.” And when I take a bite of that steak, I would rather imagine eating a human than eating a poor cow that just had its child ripped away from it and has been living in stress and fear its entire existence. Whereas somebody who was an asshole and pulled over to the side of the road on the wrong stretch of highway for Hannibal Lecter, that’s more appetizing to me than an innocent cow in the field. Not to say it is appetizing! Just comparatively!

How did you come up with Gillian Anderson’s character of Bedelia, who was obvious not from the novels?
Bedelia was part of my very first meeting with Martha De Laurentiis. I said, most psychiatrists have a psychiatrist themselves. I just knew I wanted to see Hannibal in a therapy situation. I thought it would be really rich and valuable for the audience, and also to gain a greater perspective of his character. And I wanted more female characters. It was originally something that was written with Angela Lansbury in mind. We we even approached her, and she said the material was too dark. And then our casting person suggested Gillian Anderson and I was like, “Oh my god, that this is perfect. Genius.” And the rest is, as I think, television history. Or a footnote in television history. She’s my favorite character on the show.

Her relationship with Hannibal deepens and parallels the Will relationship in interesting ways.
And when we got to the Will and Bedelia scenes, they were just delightful. Because there were, in a sense, two spurned lovers, sniping at each other over the man that they were obsessed with.

You’ve said the first season was the hardest for you.
There were people in the writers room who were very happy just to shift a procedural onto a conveyor belt and watch it flow into the audience’s eyeballs. That was something that was tantamount to death for me, creatively. So it was it was very lonely, very isolating. I felt very much like Will Graham in that first season. And then the second season, I got stronger allies, people who understood more clearly what I was trying to do with the show. As opposed to getting advice from people who would say things like, “You know, you only have to write one good line in a scene, and the rest can be junk. You don’t have to sweat over all of these lines.” That was maddening to me, because it was like, if you’re not sweating over all the lines, what are you doing? So that was probably as depressed as I’ve ever been in my life.

So how do you feel about the first season now?
Absolutely, it’s compromised. When we were dealing with the Abigail story and focusing on the soap-opera elements of those families, and the relationship between Will, Hannibal and Abigail, that was when it was the most successful in my mind. Some of the murders of the week were more procedural than I was comfortable with. And then in Season Two, we did a little bit less of that. And in Season Three, we did hardly any of it. So, for me, Season Three is the purest expression of what I wanted for the series.

Tell me about your vision for Season Four. You used the term “rebranding” to describe how the relationship between Will and Hannibal might evolve.
It was not so much about a rebranding as [being] able to go back to earlier dynamics through a brand new prism, which was Hannibal and Will getting to know each other from a different state of mind. I’d want to play point-of-view in a dramatic way. I think I’ve said that season four is Inception meets Angel Heart. And that means that there’s going to be considerable mind-palacing and obfuscating of reality, or at least the perception of reality. And the thing that I’m most excited about is, because there’s going to be such a mental landscape to explore, that means actors who play characters who have previously died can manifest in the mess of Will Graham’s brain.

You sound fairly hopeful about the existence of this season.
Well, I see it very clearly. One thing I do as a storyteller is that usually anywhere from a third of the way to halfway through a season, the next season snaps into focus in my brain, in a really vivid way. That happened halfway through Season Three, where I was like, “Oh, OK, that’s exactly what Season Four is. And that’s where it needs to go. And these are going to be the dynamics, and these are the new toys we get to to play with. And these will be the new characters from the books that nobody has seen before, that we will introduce and use in an exciting way.” And I was able to share those thoughts with Hugh and Mads and other members of the cast. So it does take on its own reality in my mind. It’s like it exists in my mind palace. It does feel real in that sense. Whether that mind palace gets to crack open and share with the world is another story.

How much direct contact did you ever have with Thomas Harris?
None at all. Martha had told me at one point that that he’d seen a little bit of the show and really liked it. And then I read an interview with him two months later, and he said “I haven’t seen the show at all.” And I was like, “OK, what’s what here?”

Whatever the future holds, it must be nice to know the show will likely live forever on streaming.
Yeah, and what’s great about that, as pertaining to this particular narrative, is that if it’s five years later, six years later, seven years later, 10 years later, that’s just however long Will and Hannibal have been on the lam. So to speak! See what I did there?

That also means you don’t ever have to give up on the hope of another season.
It’s elastic in that way. Yeah, wonderful. Whatever’s going on in Will Graham’s head and with his perception of reality and morality, it feels like however long it is before we get to dive back into the toy box, there is a narrative rationale for what could’ve happened in that that period. So I don’t panic like we’re running out of time. I don’t don’t feel like there is a calendar deadline for when we can return and at what point we can no longer return.

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