‘Preacher’ Showrunner Sam Catlin on Adapting a Wild Comic Book, Religious Beliefs, and ‘Breaking Bad’
In the wrong hands, AMC’s Preacher could have been a disaster.
The new series, which premiered last Sunday, has Christianity and vampires, angels and demons, extreme gore and goofy humor, and a kid named Arseface with a mouth that looks like a, well, you can imagine. Blending the supernatural with gruesome violence and a playful sense of humor is risky for a TV show, especially one based on a comic book with a cult following. But Breaking Bad producer Sam Catlin, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg have pulled it off in what’s no doubt the wackiest and most fun new show of 2016.
Adapted from Garth Ennis’ Vertigo comic book, Preacher stars Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer, a minister with a dark criminal past. Shortly after he returns to his small Texas town to run his late father’s church, Jesse becomes possessed by a powerful force. It also stars Joseph Giligun (Misfits), who lends the series some of its funniest moments as the nutty Irish vampire Cassidy, and Ruth Negga (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), whose charismatic Tulip O’Hare is a constant delight.
I sat down with Catlin in New York to discuss bringing the comic book to life on the small screen. The showrunner told me about the series’ Monty Python and Lynchian inspirations, how it explores religious beliefs while making fun of them, and what he borrowed from Vince Gilligan and his Breaking Bad days.
It’s crazy to see something as unique and wild as this on TV, and it took years for the comic to be successfully adapted. Why do you think now was the right time for it to happen?
I just think people needed to take a lot of big swings at shows beforehand. Networks like HBO and AMC have had a history of success now doing things that you shouldn’t really do on TV, from The Sopranos to The Wire to Breaking Bad to Mad Men to Walking Dead to those types of things where networks took really big risks, and they’ve paid off. It sort of paved the way for taking a risk like Preacher. I don’t think anyone would have said yes to Preacher pre-Walking Dead, pre-Breaking Bad, pre-Game of Thrones.
I also feel like audiences have seen so many great groundbreaking, I-can’t-believe-that’s-a-TV-show kind of TV shows, and there’s so much competition now for people’s time. What are you going to DVR? What are you going to watch on Sunday night? So I think you kind of have to constantly push the envelope to create innovative TV shows. I think that’s just why now and why it wasn’t able to happen five years ago or 10 years ago.
Is there anything from your time on Breaking Bad that informed how you approached Preacher?
Sure. I try to emulate Vince [Gilligan] as much as possible as far as management and having good people and how he likes to organize the writers’ room; his whole philosophy of television. But in the end I’m different from him in some respects. I’ll never be Vince Gilligan and Preacher will never be Breaking Bad, it will only be something else. It’s very different tonally from Breaking Bad. And the rules are different, the world is different. So I try to steal as much as I can from Vince, but I also realize Preacher is its own thing.
Did you rely a lot on the comic to find the right voice and tone for the series?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean that’s why we’re all here because Garth [Ennis] created this crazy, over-the-top, fun, smart, irreverent world. If details are changed or this is moved to there when it was in the comic over here, we always want to have the show that feels like Preacher, that feels like anything can happen.
This show has everything from angels to demons to vampires. Despite having so many different kinds of creatures though, the first few episodes never feel bloated or unfocused. What that a challenge to accomplish?
Oh good. Yeah I think that’s why we start off kind of slow, much more slowly than the comic does. We start in a more grounded environment, like a typical west Texas town. We sort of want to acclimate the audience to the rules and the weirdnesses and, “Whoa, wait a second. Anything can happen in this world,” so that by the time Season One finishes, people will understand the scale and scope and stakes of this universe. That’s kind of the idea.
I think if we started at the same place tonally that the comic starts, it would’ve been – ears and eyes would’ve been bleeding. [The comic] sort of shows you everything and rips the curtain back on everything very early on. Whereas we felt for a TV show we wanted to tease that out and parcel that information out over the course of the first season.
In doing that was there a concern about how to please the fans of the comic while also drawing in an unfamiliar audience?
Yeah, that’s a big tension of the show in the sense of, for the show to really succeed we have to have all these new people who’ve never really heard of Preacher that will be coming to it with very fresh eyes. But also we know there’s a huge devoted crazy fanbase for Preacher and we want to have them feel like, in their own way, they’re getting their own special VIP treatment with clues and things and, “Don’t worry, this is here,” and “Oh, that’s right, you noticed this.” That’s actually been a lot of fun. But that’s tricky because we want it to work for both Preacher fans and for new fans.
It also has a mixture of grotesque violence and humor. Do you think that evolved as a result of teaming up with Seth and Evan, who are known for their comedy?
Hm, no. It evolved pretty seamlessly. I wouldn’t say it broke down to, they were comedy and I was drama, or I was drama and they were comedy, anything like that. It was really more about what’s in Garth’s comic as opposed to playing to our own individual strengths. And he has a lot. There’s a lot of comedy, like really broad silly characters and sort of Monty Python-type absurdity. But there’s also this Tarantino stuff and there’s David Lynch stuff. So I felt like we were all pretty much on the same page early on about what the tone of the show needed to be.
Did you all sit down and discuss certain Lynch and Tarantino films you wanted to embody as far as tone and atmosphere?
We talked a lot about Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. We talked a lot about Kill Bill and Quentin Tarantino. We talked a lot about Unforgiven. We talked about, to me, Monty Python, and Lynch and those worlds. And we were just like those are all cool things, we all love those. How do we have all those things under one roof? That’s sort of the tricky part, is it’s not any one thing and it sort of has to go from serious violence or real drama or love story or tragedy of their past, and then it had to go to silly clown-like characters, and yet still feel of the same and still have it feel like the same show. Finding that tone and that balance is probably the main challenge of what we’re trying to do.
The show’s subject could also be a controversial topic for religious conservatives. Were you ever worried about backlash?
Yeah, I’m disappointed. I’m waiting for the backlash. I thought the Republicans would be coming after us. I’m sure there will be. I’m sure there will be people that somebody will tell them what the comic’s about and they’ll get angry about it and they’ll say that’s horrible. But I honestly, I think Christians are a part of American life. There’s millions and millions of Christians in this country and this is a show that’s about America and about an immigrant's view and a movie’s view of America. Religion is a very important part of our identity, it just is, and our lead character is a religious man.
So to me it wouldn’t be a challenge, it wouldn’t be interesting, as a secular humanist from Massachusetts and my two Canadian Jewish millionaire Hollywood celebrities, it would be easy for us to just write a TV show that was like, “Oh, religion is the cause of all evil in the world.” And certainly we have characters that say that and believe that vehemently, but to me I want – everyone should have a good argument. The people who are religious, the people who are against religion, and everyone in between, I think they need a voice on the show. That to me is what’s the fun challenge about it, because everyone has feelings on religion. It’s a very passion topic and it’s so relevant to this country and to the world. We sort of, in a way, we respect all of it and we also make fun of all of it and all those points of view.
That’s rarely shown in a series, especially to this extent.
Yeah. You have preachers that are corrupt televangelist hypocrites, villiains. Or you have this sort of sanctimonious, perfect kind of Michael Landon characters. We have Christians on the writing staff, and they agree with me that I think there’s going to be a lot of Christians, especially young Christians, that are going to see this and think, “Wow, that Dominic Cooper. He’s just a badass and he’s struggling with the same questions that I am about faith. And it’s important to him, but it’s hard. He just kicks ass. He’s flawed.” I honestly believe, I think young Christians are going to really – and of all ages hopefully, but I think it’s not a monolithic group. I think people will appreciate that we are in our own fun, crazy, irreverent way sort of tackling some of these meaning of life, what’s the meaning of God, type of questions. I think so. I hope so.
That aspect of religion also makes Jessie Custer one of the most complex antiheroes we’ve seen on TV, much more so than Walter White or Don Draper.
Right. He’s really invested in the idea of God and the idea of a divine order. That’s one of the things we changed a little from the comic. We really wanted to show how much he’s invested in his religion and his belief system and his god before we sort of remove the blindfold from his eyes, which will sort of launch him on his journey.
Did being at AMC give you freedom to explore those topics and the violence in the show?
Absolutely. AMC’s had a lot of success at taking really big risks. [...] I feel like that’s what they’re after here with Preacher for sure. They’ve been great partners and have not been calling us and saying, “You can’t do that.” Seth, Evan and I are really surprised how little, how infrequently people have said “no” to us. I mean there’s been so many things where a cut has gone in, or a script has gone in and we’re like, [whispering] “They didn’t give us a no on that. I guess we’re gonna do that!”
Were there things you reconsidered putting in the show?
Yeah, but sometimes those decisions don’t come from a standards and practice type of thing. A lot of times it was just like, “Is this too much here? Is this too much violence in this moment? Is it undercutting what came before or where we want to go after?” So it’s usually those decisions on calibrating the tone. 99 percent of the time they’re just creative, they’re not network commercial censorship things, which has been pretty much none of that. They’ve been totally up for it.
Do you think this show will be the next big TV craze?
That’s up to the audience, I really don’t know. I know a lot of people are hoping for that. AMC certainly put a lot of resources into this show. But in the end all we can do is just try to make a show that we like and we can watch and hope the audience can agree with us.
Do you have a favorite episode of the season?
It’s hard to say. We just wrapped production last week, and it’s a strange thing. There’s so many elements that go in after production in terms of, you write the scripts, you have production and then you edit and add the sound effects and it all looks terrible for a while and you’re like, “Oh my god, this whole episode stinks.” But then you edit some more and you start to add in music and you mix it and play with the color. So you don’t really know what you have until you’re done with post production, so it’s too early for me to say if I have a favorite episode. But there’s a lot of great moments. It all sort of blurs together, which it sorta should. It shouldn’t feel episodic, it should feel like one ten-hour movie.