It's been nearly two years since Starz's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's popular novel American Gods first introduced viewers to the war brewing between the old gods and the new, and it's probably safe to say the series has since gone on a wilder and somehow even more unpredictable journey than the one Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) embarked upon when he set off with Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) in Season 1.
The departure of original showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green following the first season was unfortunate, but a change in leadership is not an insurmountable obstacle in Hollywood. In fact, it happens more than most fans probably realize. However, American Gods' problems didn't begin and end with Fuller and Green's early exit. Actresses Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth, who played Media and Easter, respectively, both confirmed they wouldn't be returning for Season 2; new showrunner Jesse Alexander was sidelined during production on the new season, though the word fired was not used; and there were reports of blown budgets and scripts being rewritten by various actors.
It's hard to imagine a worse situation to be in. And yet, Neil Gaiman, who serves as an executive producer on the series, assures viewers there's no reason to worry about the show they love.
"We had two showrunners who took us fantastically through Season 1. I would have loved it if they carried on with Season 2, but for their reasons they didn't. And we found Jesse, who was in the unenviable task of having to take a show that already existed and having to get in and drive it. He did a fabulous job. He put together the show. He put together a writers' room. ... It looks and feels like American Gods," he told TV Guide while promoting the series at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in February.
"I'm reading all this stuff online about 'Oh, it will never be the same.' And it's like, guys, do you think that Bryan Fuller was there on set in Toronto every day making things happen? Because he f---ing wasn't. That's not how [it works]."
Gaiman was actually not on set for most of the filming of Season 2 either. He was busy acting as showrunner on Amazon's six-episode adaptation of his novel Good Omens. However, he met with and gave notes to Alexander before he was ultimately removed as showrunner, and Gaiman was on hand while the series filmed at the House on the Rock, a real-life tourist attraction that plays an important role in the novel.
To find out what else Gaiman said about the show's behind-the-scenes drama, as well as what fans should expect from Season 2, including which couple might find a touch of happiness this season, keep reading.
You were working on Good Omens at the same time, so how involved were you in Season 2 of American Gods?
Neil Gaiman: I was lucky in some ways that in January of last year there was a point where Good Omens had to move to South Africa so there was a three week break. And during that three week break I got to get together with Jesse and just talk him through the shape of the story, what was important, what was happening. And then I disappeared back into making Good Omens. And then after we left South Africa, I had a few weeks off ... and at that point Jesse had just finished his first script so I got to read it and started to offer notes and then said, "Look, would it be easier for you if I just did a draft?" And I did a draft of it, mostly because I knew the House on the Rock and he'd never been there. And I also knew the characters probably slightly better than he did. So then I gave it back to him and he rewrote that. And then after that I was deep in ... Good Omens.
I get scripts and I give notes on them just the same as any executive producer. And I got to help a lot on Episode 7, because Episode 7 is the history of Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), which began with me talking to Heather [Bellson], the writer, about saying, "You know, I have like 7,000 years of Mad Sweeney backstory, who he is and how he got to that point. Why don't we do an episode with that?" And she was like "great," so I got to talk her through all of the history about that. ... That was fun.
We all know there have been some unfortunate behind-the-scenes issues. Can you talk to me a little bit about what happened and why it took two years for us to get Season 2?
Gaiman: It took two years to get another season mostly because Starz wanted to wait and see what happened. The two years bit has nothing to do with changing showrunners. It has to do with Starz looking at American Gods [and] going, "This thing is weird. We don't know if people are going to like it or not. We think they will; we like it. But it's kind of not like anything else out there." And waiting until, I think, Episode 2 was broadcast until they commissioned another [season]. From that point, that was where it started. So then you have to get scripts written. Then you start making another [season].
What about the change in showrunner? I think some of that has scared some fans and they're concerned about Season 2 not living up to Season 1.
Gaiman: I mean, it's sort of weird, because I got to read a certain amount of stuff online, and I'm going, "OK, well this is imaginative bullshit." Which it was. ... [One report] was the kind of article that obviously nobody writing it has access to anybody who knows what's going on. But they have access to people further down the food chain who have ideas about what might be going on. And so you just read it and go, "Well that's bullshit. That's not true. And even he wouldn't have said that."
So you know, what fascinated me about that ... I was just reading Steven Bochco's biography ... and the behind the scenes ups and downs and shake-ups and shakedowns that went on with Hill Street Blues, with NYPD Blue, with LA Law, with all of these things that he cheerfully writes about, I'm going, "Holy f---! This makes what happened on American Gods look not just normal but incredibly tame."
You previously said we're not going to make it to Lakeside in Season 2, so how much of the book does the season cover?
Gaiman: We begin in the House on the Rock, we end with leaving Cairo. We basically get to expand Cairo a bit. We get to follow Mad Sweeney and Laura (Emily Browning) on their own story. ... They hate each other. They love each other. They are the most awful two people together and we get to watch them going off on their own madcap storyline, which is going to take them to New Orleans. We're going to get a few sort of interesting excursions. For example, we get to head back into the 1930s with a story from Wednesday, which may or may not be true, about how Thor died and what it was like to run a burlesque theater in the 1930s. And it's wonderful. We get musical numbers. We get burlesque. We get Ian McShane singing, "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?"
You were actually on set when they filmed at the House on the Rock. So what was it like to film all of those scenes at the actual House on the Rock?
Gaiman: F---ing amazing. Also, what I love about the House on the Rock stuff is, for the last 18 years there's been a relationship between the book and the House on the Rock, which is to say that the House on the Rock, probably around 2003, they started noticing that people were turning up, clutching their copies of the book and going, "Oh my god, this place is real." And the House on the Rock loves American Gods because they get all the people. And they also get all the younger and weirder audience going around the House on the Rock than they would ever get normally because normally a tourist attraction like the House on the Rock would age out. Some people don't know about it. But then there's this book out there.
So the people who run the House on the Rock love us, which means that the people that run the House on the Rock were willing to do something that they would never do for anybody else, which is close down the House on the Rock for four days so that we could shoot there. And they would let us ride on the carousel. And they would let us do all of this stuff. And you look at the House on the Rock and you go well, you couldn't CGI that stuff. Maybe if you were a $200 million production you could actually reproduce it, but even then you'd have to spend an awfully long time there just to justify your costs. Instead, what we got to do was shoot there. And you get something you've never seen ... the carousel, it's magic. And I love that we got [to do it], and I love that's where we begin. Originally, the original plan for Season 1, when Season 1 had 10 episodes, was that the last episode would have been on the House on the Rock. And it would have ended where Episode 1 ends. So what I love is that actually we end up with this amazing beginning to see Season 2.
Were there any challenges to filming there?
Gaiman: Yes. I mean, it's a real place. It's not a set, which means — the amazing thing about sets is walls will disappear if you need to put a camera further back. Nobody ever thinks about the fact that there should be a wall there but there's not. In the case of the House on the Rock, those walls exist. So, you know, a lot of that is where do you physically put the camera? How can you move it around? And the truth of the House on the Rock is, it's always madder than you can show. So even with the stuff that we do show, it's like, yeah, here's a little bit of House on the Rock. It's madder than this. But I love the visuals. I love, for me, the moment that you know that you are really are in an episode of American Gods, is like that moment where the coin goes into the fortune telling machine and all of a sudden you're following the insides [of the machine], and it's like, "Yep, this is American Gods. This is what it feels like."
A lot of characters get expanded in the show because it's not just from Shadow's point of view, especially the human characters. Can you talk to me a little bit about continuing to expand the human perspective in Season 2?
Gaiman: The great thing about having a show like American Gods as opposed to the novel is there are things and people that in the book walk on, do something, and walk away. The great thing about the [show] is ... we have a genie and a guy who is in love with a genie. In the book, they're a short story and then they're done. You never see them again. But what happens? Who is Salim (Omid Abtahi)? Who is the Jinn (Mousa Kraish)? What did they believe? Who are they?
So what's next for them this season? How will that relationship develop in Season 2?
Gaiman: [They're] the sweetest couple. I think it will be fair to say that in Season 2 — you don't want to give too much away, but nothing terrible happens to them. We reserve the right to put them through hell, because after all, one of the joys of fiction is you take a character and put them through hell. That's kind of how things work. But I kind of love the fact that, at least in Season 2, they get, if not a happy ending, a certain amount of happiness. But they're also getting to find out who they are. You know, it's not necessarily that easy being in love with a many thousand year old Jinn with flaming eyes.
I also wanted to ask, since Gillian Anderson didn't return, about bringing in a new actress to take over the role of Media.
Gaiman: There was always going to be New Media (Kahyun Kim) because things have changed since I wrote the book. When I wrote the book, the idea of omnipresent media, who could be Lucille Ball from late night TV, that was not weird. That felt right. These days, talk to anybody under the age of about 40 about the last time they sat down in the evening and watched television and just watched what was on, and they would give you strange blank looks. Appointment TV is something that happens [for] presidential debates, maybe sports events, and mostly people now watch those on their phones too. So in terms of where attention is going, where the eyes are going, where the worship is going, it's all going to new media. So the idea of an old media and new media ... Gillian was only ever signed for one season ... the plan was only ever one season because apart from anything else, Media can look like anything, which is part of the joy of it. But also, we were at the point of going, "But we're going to need a New Media." So I loved what Jesse did with New Media in Season 2; the idea of a young Korean girl as New Media felt right to me.
American Gods premieres Sunday, March 10 at 8/7c on Starz.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity