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Netflix's adaptation of Jeff Lemire's Vertigo comic, Sweet Tooth, is one of those rare adaptations that manages to capture the spirit of the source material, while also adding new material to the narrative that matches seamlessly. If you've read Lemire's graphic novel, you'll be aware of the subtle expansions and augmentations. And if you went in pure, then you might be curious about how much of the book's material made it onto the screen, and why it did.
SYFY WIRE is here to answer some of your questions because we Zoomed with executive producer Susan Downey, executive producer/showrunner/director Jim Mickle and executive producer Beth Schwartz to ask about why they decided to lean on practical puppetry for the majority of the hybrids, how they decided to handle the pandemic storyline at the heart of the comic, and how their unexpected casting choices enhanced the series.
***Spoilers for Sweet Tooth Season 1 - Don't read if you don't want to be spoiled on story specific elements.***
On how they approached the pandemic storyline in a COVID reality:
Jim Mickle, Showrunner: "The pilot was all done before COVID. It was done in 2019. What was interesting was when I re-read the comic in 2016, so much of what Jeff was writing about was happening in the real world politically. And then all of a sudden, the pandemic aspects came to be true too. And that's only the jumping off point for a completely different story and that was the story that we wanted to tell. Looking at it in 2016, I think the comic was so fresh when I read it. I remember [thinking] apocalyptic storytelling has evolved so quickly all of a sudden so, if we do this as a one-to-one adaptation, we're actually going to feel the tropes of what you know. And the series should feel the same way that the comic book did. The idea of storybook dystopia really came out of thinking about Gus as the main character, and everything in the story being through his eyes."
Beth Schwartz, Executive Producer: "I'll add that in terms of the balance with the virus and what was happening in the real world, basically, we broke the entire season before the pandemic happened. But when we got to post production, we had lived through the pandemic. It actually allowed us to cut some things because there's a shorthand now. Like we all know what it's like to wear masks and to go out in public with masks, so we don't have to tell a lot of that story because everyone knows what it's like. We were able to cut some things, even from the pilot, that we felt we didn't need to tell that story, because we had all lived through it."
On choosing to bring the hybrids to life with prosthetics and puppetry instead of full CGI characters or VFX:
Mickle: "Looking back at it, in terms of pulling out the realness, I think that was my concern. You don't want to do this and have it just be green screen and a shiny CGI world. At the same time, I was falling back in love with Jim Henson and puppetry and animatronics and that world, so it felt like what if we bring that handcrafted feel to this? And it feels right because all of Jeff's work is very handcrafted in a way, so we took that approach to the show and brought the practical work into Gus' ears and all that stuff is all done on set. It just felt like the right way to tell Jeff's story.
And I remember thinking, there's no way that we're going to be able to make [Gus' ears] move. And then talking to Justin Raleigh at Fractured FX, who did our effects, they were like, "I think there's a way that we can rig this so that we can use radio control." I just kept thinking it's not really gonna work, but we'lll go down this road and we can just fix it later. And we had to fix almost nothing later, which is exciting. And it was cool because on set, you'd have a puppeteer who oftentimes would sit next to you at the monitor and watch. He could anticipate where Christian (Convey) was gonna go emotionally or in performance or even with slight tics. [The puppeteer] has a slight delay in what he does, but he's able to work with Christian almost like music and that was really amazing. And it hats off to Christian for dealing with that all the time because [the rig] is there and it's always making a noise when it turns. He's doing these really tender scenes and he's got literal radio control motors glued to his ears. It was a process but Grant Lehmann, our puppeteer, was just amazing and he made it effortless."
On weaving the comic book characters into the series narrative in unexpected ways:
Mickle: "There's some stuff that's verbatim [from the comics], which is fun. But I think the advantage we have is there's a lot of great characters that Jeff has that don't pop up until Issue 20 and I didn't want to wait until Season 4 to meet Dr. Singh (Adeel Akhtar), for example. We pulled some of those people forward and all of a sudden, you get to tell their origin story. In the comic book, you meet people as Gus meets people. We had the advantage of getting to meet people when we wanted to, so that means you have to create a world around those characters. And that really became the fun of it, starting to stitch those together with the elements of the book and find connection points to get back to the comic. Hopefully it feels like the comic ,but through a slightly different lens."
On adding new characters like the Anderson family in "Sorry About All the Dead People":
Beth Schwartz, Executive Producer: "When we were breaking all the episodes, we knew we talked a lot of who was out in the world. How does this virus affect different types of people? And for the first people that Gus runs into, he hasn't seen anyone, so we especially wanted him to see his first family because that's what he ultimately wants. And that's how we went about creating the Andersons. It's funny. We wrote this before the pandemic happened, because we talked about what if there was this family where the pandemic actually made them closer? They never got to see their kids because they were at work all the time. And that is what happened in real life. Looking back at that, it's always crazy to me, that was why we chose them to be the first people that we meet outside of the fence."
On casting choices like Will Forte (as Pubba), Nonso Anozie (as Tommy Jepperd) and Christian Convey (as Gus):
Mickle: [Will] knew that the door was wide open and [the role] could be as much, or as little, going forward. And also it had to do with how much he liked us and vice versa. I think to me, the casting of Will—probably more than any other decision—led to the tone of the show. Originally, he was written to be a much more standard, regular, everyman. And again, when [casting director] Carmen (Cuba) brought his name up, it was like, 'I f---ing love Will! That's perfect!' And that ripples out to every decision. Suddenly if he's our version of what a normal guy is, that just makes every other creative decision, slightly skewed in a really great way."
And Nonso was Carmen. She just read the pilot, had no idea where the character went, and the first thing she said was, "I think it's Nonso." I was like, 'Okay,' and she was right. The character is very much an archetype. Jeff writes in archetypes. And you go, 'Well, we've seen the Clint Eastwood version. What does this look like?' And then you meet Nonso and he brings a physicality that you never dreamed that you're gonna be able to find anywhere. But then he also brings this incredible soul and weight to everything that he does. It's not what you originally pictured, and that's what makes the show special, leaving yourself open to those decisions."
Susan Downey, Executive Producer: "When you're casting kids, you always cast a very wide net. And sometimes those are professionals, sometimes you're going to local schools and trying to find the unknown. We did that with this. We were onto Christian very early, so we were almost like, 'It's too easy.' Literally, we all fell in love with him, so we were like, 'Are we doing our due diligence?' And so, we continued the search that was already underway. We saw it through. But we always went back to Christian.
He has the two things you really want, especially when you're doing a season of television and he's at the core of this. One, you need him to embody the character of Christian. He's got that sense of curiosity, that unwavering hope and optimism, and that he's on one hand kind of wise beyond his years and on the other hand, there's something very innocent about him at the same time. He was perfectly Gus in all of those ways. Second, talking practically, we're also shooting a lot with a kid, so you have limited hours. You need a kid who's a pro. That was one of the considerations that we had. We felt that was a real benefit was that he's gonna come in, he's going to be a professional, he's going to know his lines, he's going to hit his marks. There's an efficiency there. Obviously, the talent is the most important, but that is a very nice element to also bring, and he brings them both in spades.
Mickle: "He's also very funny. Linda Moran, my partner, points out that Christian understands what's funny about him, which is not always the case with actors. Sometimes you have to, especially with comedy, steer it to what they can do. And Christian actually has an innate sense of what makes him funny, which is amazing. That let us lean into some of the humor in a way knowing that he'd be able to make it work."
Schwartz: "I remember production got pushed because of COVID, and Christian's mom was sending us all his videos of him parkouring and playing guitar and just training in terms of what might be asked for from him for his role. He was really ready and very focused to start work."
Downey: "We are hoping that this finds a big audience and people love it as much as we all do, and that Netflix decides they want to keep telling the story. We definitely did some beautiful character growth over the course of the season, but there's so much more to go. We had some incredible mysteries thread throughout, some of which are answered, but a lot of which gets you leaning in so if we get the opportunity, we would love it and the sooner the better."