Metro Weekly

Welcome to The Fullerverse: An Interview with Bryan Fuller

'Hannibal' creator Bryan Fuller dives into the connection between horror and the LGBTQ experience with Shudder's 'Queer for Fear.'

Queer For Fear: Werewolf -- Photo:  Shudder
Queer For Fear: Werewolf — Photo: Shudder

Ask Bryan Fuller to name his favorite horror movie and the answer comes without hesitation.

Alien,” he replies.

And then comes the deep-end dive.

“Break it down and look at it as a family unit,” he continues. “This is a family unit where a mother — literally called Mother — is sacrificing her children to the presence of an alien penis-headed monster. My mother was great, and tried very hard to navigate my own father’s abuse — it was really mainly my dad who was the problem — but what I saw in Alien was a family unit that was betrayed by bad parenting, and it was only the strong woman among them that was able to survive, because she stuck to her own moral and ethical frequencies, and that’s how she navigated the circumstances, by staying true to herself.”

Welcome to the beautiful, hyper-analytical mind of Bryan Fuller, a television showrunner who has been demonstrably ahead of his time with each and every series he’s crafted — from the gothic and gory Hannibal to the mythic and shattering American Gods to the winsome and wondrous Pushing Daisies. He’s been acknowledged as a rarity in the world of television, as a forward-thinking genius. After spending a few hours in his company, it’s hard to disagree.

With a resume that includes a long, early stint on both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager (and ended on a sour note with him departing his creation, Star Trek: Discovery, before it launched, a segment of his career he’d prefer not to delve into other than to say “I have not watched it since I left”), the 53-year-old has achieved a super-status among his devotees, who have dubbed the whole of his creations “The Fullervese,” of which he notes, “I am charmed and endeared by it.”

While Hannibal is his most obvious entry into the realm of horror, Fuller, who identifies as queer, has always been an aficionado of the genre. It’s why the cable horror network Shudder brought him aboard to re-tool the 90-minute documentary Queer for Fear. Fuller saw potential in the film, tore it up by the floorboards, and refashioned it as a four-part series that magnificently explores the connection between the horror genre and the LGBTQ community.

Entertaining, informative, and enlightening, often in surprising ways, Queer for Fear is indispensable viewing for anyone who loves horror — and everyone who is LGBTQ, horror fans or not. It features elucidation from a cavalcade of LGBTQ stars, pundits, celebrities, and horror experts, including Lea Delaria, Kimberly Peirce, Liv Hewson, Justin Simien, Don Mancini, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Heather Matarazzo, BenDeLaCreme, and even Sid “Pufnstuf” Krofft, all offering their viewpoints on the genre.

A conversation with Fuller reveals a charismatic and animated man willing to go the distance. A simple question often elicits a deep, revealing answer, one that skirts the edges of academia but is delivered with innate, abundant charm. Talking with Fuller is less like an education than an illumination of something you already knew was there but just needed someone to point the way.

His personal horror hallmark is Hannibal, which starred Mads Mikkelsen as the cannibalistic, murderous doctor and Hugh Dancy as his nemesis, Will Graham. The queer undertones of the three-season series — lavishly strewn with blood and entrails and featuring a magnificent, hypnotic narrative — were hard to miss. It is a work that Fuller remains extremely proud of.

“I think one of the best things to come out of Hannibal was this ‘Fannibal’ community that was distinctively queer and saw all of the queer thematics of the work and appreciated the visual style of the storytelling, and also found themselves in a way that they related to these complex, strange relationships that felt romantic, but perhaps were not sexualized, but felt incredibly intimate,” he says without so much as taking a breath.

“Despite that, there was something about the queerness of the Fannibal community that resonated and leached all of these themes out of Hannibal in terms of how to be yourself or how not to be yourself that I find really inspiring.

“Every time I look at Twitter and see the Fannibal conversations that have grown past the show into the individual’s lives that represent the Fannibal community, I think that’s one of my greatest accomplishments,” he continues. “Because if I can do a show that makes anybody feel less lonely or less isolated, or give them a pathway to find community, then that’s magical.”

METRO WEEKLY: Most of the time, these round-up shows are simply rapid lists with short clips and pithy remarks from talking heads. But Queer for Fear is different. Yes, it has the clips and the heads, but it is truly a deep dive into the relationship between horror films and the LGBTQ experience. I found it enthralling, captivating, and incredibly informative.

BRYAN FULLER: It came out of Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, our progenitor, and a wonderful documentary series [on Shudder]. It was so informational, and had amazing talking heads that were discussing the films from a theoretical point of view, a metaphorical point of view, and a literal point of view, as well as the social impact that these films and the filmmakers had. So that was really our bar — what Horror Noire did for Black audiences, have Queer for Fear do for queer audiences.

They had already shot a film a la Horror Noire that existed [before I came aboard]. But there was so much material to cover that a film simply didn’t have the real estate to get to all of the details. We are a four-hour series, and that was a 90-minute movie. So the discussion became how do we expand this into a template that allows you to go more in-depth? Because in the original movie there was no Oz Perkins, there was no emotional discussion beyond the audience feeling empowered by these stories.

First, it became a six-hour series, and then [Shudder] asked us to squeeze it into four. And we couldn’t. We couldn’t get it all in there. The conversation then turned to, how about if we just slow everything down and tell the story? Because it was [at first] very much one of those list documentaries, which are super fun if you know the movies, but if you don’t know the movies and you don’t know the thematics, you really do need to stop and tell the audience a story about why these things are important and what the historical context is of each of these films.

When we started doing that, the little mini-section that was perhaps three minutes of Hitchcock became 30 minutes of Hitchcock. It really was just about letting things breathe and letting them become emotional and personal, in a way that a much more condensed version of the show simply couldn’t do. It was really about wanting to dig in.

MW: You look at well-known films, but obscure ones as well. The viewer comes away with a feeling of either “I have to revisit that movie” or “I’ve never seen that and now I must.” For example, I’ve never seen I Married a Monster from Outer Space.

FULLER: It’s a hoot. It’s so campy.

MW: Well, I now need to see that movie. I like the way the show is structured into both biographical and thematic segments. The second episode, for example, is all about the gay director James Whale, who made Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, as well as Hitchcock. It takes the time to analyze their careers in terms of LGBTQ content in a way that was both illuminating and entertaining.

FULLER: The best delivery mechanism for information is entertainment. We wanted to be entertaining first and foremost, but we also wanted to move the audience and let the audience know about these heroes.

I think there are heroes in this genre, and those heroes are the pioneers who dare to tell these stories when perhaps it wasn’t as safe, or that might have drawn speculation about their identities and their proclivities in a time when it wasn’t safe to be queer. So the notion of the first two episodes was really biopics in a way. We wanted to give a biographical foundation for the queer people in these stories that really stuck their necks out to be creative. Whether that’s Mary Shelly and her orgies or Anthony Perkins’ performance in Psycho. There are acts of bravery with the storytelling that I think need to be identified and celebrated in a way that are relatable, because I think queer people are conducting themselves bravely every day by speaking up about their identities, in whatever form that takes.

MW: The show doesn’t explicitly pass judgment on any of the films. I remember really hating Psycho II and Psycho III when they came out. But now I want to revisit them, because of what Perkins’ son Oz said about his father’s need to make them. Your series puts both sequels in a new queer light. At the time of their release, we were just thinking, “Oh, they’re cashing in.” But no, there’s another layer to Perkins returning to the role of Norman Bates.

FULLER: Well, I have authentic affection for Psycho II. I saw it when I was 12, and it opened my eyes, in a way. I instantly identified with Anthony Perkins. I was aware of his queerness and his awkwardness, but I couldn’t put words to them. But I did feel like this is somebody that is very easy to identify with.

Queer For Fear: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa — Photo: Shudder

MW: Whale is a good example of a director who found ways to incorporate and celebrate his being gay in the films he made, sometimes not so subversively. Hitchcock, on the other hand, contains a lot of the “homosexual as villain” motif, and often a misogynistic one. You could argue there’s an undercurrent of homophobia running through Hitchcock’s work.

FULLER: Well, there is — and there also isn’t. Because you get characters like Caldicott and Charters in The Lady Vanishes. They just happen to be people in this story who read really queer and become heroes. You also have Isobel in Suspicion, the murder mystery writer who is clearly a queer woman with her young, sort of dumb, masculine-presenting lover. And Isobel’s an older femme, which is a delightful dynamic in and of itself. There’s something about those depictions that I walk away with thinking that he isn’t universally homophobic or trading in homophobia.

There’s a quote we feature at the beginning of that episode where Hitchcock says, “If I hadn’t met Alma at the right time, I would’ve turned out to be a poof.” There’s something to it when you start looking at the misogyny through that lens. Hitchcock famously had his own mother issues and mother dynamics — and all of his killers are mother-obsessed. And the manifestation of misogyny within queer communities is rampant and horrifying and ugly. Whether it’s something like bottom-shaming or drag-shaming, any depiction of femininity within queer male cultures is often revealing a lot of internalized misogyny.

Homophobia is a form of misogyny. You are villainizing or depicting as socially unacceptable any kind of masculine depiction of feminine qualities, however they manifest. That’s changed a little bit with the popularization of drag culture. But we still see a lot of internalized homophobia and misogyny in gay men particularly, and I find that really disturbing. It’s like, “Have you guys forgotten?” Why are we cannibalizing ourselves and using a cycle of abuse in our vocabulary to put down others the way that we have been put down? If we’re not savvy enough and self-aware enough to break that cycle, then we do deserve scrutiny and a closer look at our own misogyny.

So I look at Hitchcock’s misogyny and homophobia in a slightly internalized way. Maybe that’s letting him off the hook a little bit — he did some really fucked-up shit and behaved abhorrently. Why is the more interesting question.

MW: You could argue he was a victim of having to navigate Hollywood’s stringent moral codes in his later films.

FULLER: Yeah, he had to navigate the code. And with his earlier films, he didn’t. As I said, I love Caldicott and Charters. I think they’re a really sexy couple. I would subscribe to their Only Fans page if they had one. I find them incredibly charming and really, really sexy. I find them to be the sexiest pairing in any Hitchcock movie. You may say it’s Grace Kelly and Gary Grant, but I think it’s Caldicott and Charters.

MW: Let’s talk about the body transformation episode. I’d never thought of werewolf transformation as a queer-coded thing. To me, it was always about people turning into beasts and killing other people. Yet, what your series delves into is how, in more modern werewolf films, it becomes less about hiding who you are and feeling cursed, and more about celebrating yourself and finding your community. It was a stunning eye-opener for me.

FULLER: This is where we get into queer theory. And the first thing that we should say is that if a queer person sees themselves in a work of art somehow, it’s valid. That’s kind of the first bar to cross. There’s something about werewolves — the basic element of, “There is something uncontrollable inside me, something libidinal and primal that comes out when circumstances are aligned to manifest.”

I think that’s something that we should be able to accept: if you see yourself as a queer person in the werewolf mythology, then that’s where it becomes valid. A lot of queer people were identifying with these monsters because there’s something about us that we keep hidden. We can move through society most of the time without being detected, but at points in our lives it comes out and is actualized in a way that it can’t be hidden. And that’s something that is very easy to draw a sexual parallel to.

When it comes to episode three and the thematics that we’re uncovering there, it’s all about teaching the audience, who may not be queer or may not initially see themselves in these narratives, how queer people see themselves in those narratives. It’s not saying, “The werewolf is absolutely a queer metaphor that is intended by the authorship of lycanthropy to be a queer thematic.” What we’re saying is that because you’re talking about the duality of presenting social selves and hidden libidinal selves, it is an access point for queer people to feel a connection to these stories.

MW: I hate to use the stuffy term educational — illuminating is probably a better word. I have to say, the amount of clips you have is astounding. How difficult was it to get rights to all of them? I can’t even begin to imagine.

FULLER: Well, this is where the importance of the word that you were hesitant to use comes into play, which is educational. If it is educational and we are discussing it for educational purposes, it falls into fair use. So we didn’t have to pay for most of these clips because we were using them in an educational context.

Queer For Fear — Photo: Shudder

MW: So we can use the term educational.

FULLER: Please use the term educational. It’s not a dirty word for me.

MW: The clips from films warning about the dangers of homosexuality from the fifties and sixties were troubling.

FULLER: There’s Boys Beware — that’s the one that we used where it’s like, “Ralphie didn’t know that he was a homosexual.” And a lot of those clips were pulled from The Homosexuals, a CBS special from, I think, 1960, that said “America, surprise. There are homosexuals and they’re very dangerous. And this is how we’re handling them.” Complete with conversion therapies.

MW: Hosted by Mike Wallace no less.

FULLER: It’s fascinating. When you look at that sort of cultural context of queer oppression or queer marginalization, the proof is kind of in the pudding. Because anybody who says, “Stop complaining about your status, socially, queer people,” when you look back at something like The Homosexuals, it’s hard to deny that these things don’t exist. They may not be as socially acceptable or prevalent as they were in the past. But it is a DNA marker of that bigotry.

MW: And yet, those clips made me think, “Well, here we are again.” Obviously, we’ve made enormous strides in the past two decades, but we’re at risk of losing everything again due to a very loud, very vocal, conservative minority.

FULLER: Well, I mean, the Republican Party has lost itself to extremism. And if they are fine with Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert being the face of their party, I think the rest of society needs to do everything they can to destroy them.

MW: They’re the monster.

FULLER: They are the monster.

MW: Another interesting theme that runs through the series is the idea of indoctrination. The vampire segment in episode four goes into this. It’s a term that’s sprung up in the past year: Gay people are indoctrinating children into being homosexuals. We are converting them. We are evil. What’s interesting here is how horror films create a reflection of our own societal turmoils.

FULLER: When you said indoctrination, my brain went through a few different experiences. That fear of indoctrination is why people burn books. The indoctrination fears are very cannily obfuscating the nascent reality of any individual’s queerness and suggesting it is completely an external influence. And therefore they can “hate the sin but not the sinner” in some weird sort of fascist way.

I think in order to be indoctrinated to something, you have to have a nascent interest in it somehow. And that’s always what gets obfuscated — that people are innocent and they are corrupted. But as a young queer person, I was constantly looking for older queer men to teach me something about myself, not necessarily sexually, but to teach me how to be comfortable in my skin with who I am.

I remember when I was working at a movie theater. I was 16 years old, and there was the known homosexual in this small Idaho town. He was affectionately called “The Fag.” And he would sort of walk around Main Street, up and down. And he would walk by the movie theater and stop by and talk to me. He clearly recognized that I was a young queer person and he would say things like, “When you get older and you leave this place, you’re going to be so much more comfortable in who you are and you’re going to find parts of yourself and it’s going to be a celebration.”

Some would argue that that was an attempted indoctrination. But really, what he was trying to do is tell a young queer kid who was in a small Idaho town that it’s going to be okay.

Yes, there is real indoctrination and yes, there are bad people who take advantage, but the person who was deemed “The Fag” where I grew up wasn’t trying to indoctrinate me, because I was already there. He could see whether it was by my flamboyance or my enthusiasm that I was a nascent queer kid, and he was just trying to build a bridge to self-acceptance in a way, as opposed to seducing me and sodomizing me.

Queer For Fear: Justin Simien — Photo: Shudder

MW: It was an affirmation.

FULLER: Yes, yes!

MW: I want to come back to the clips. I would be angsting over the decision of what to choose and where to place it. I probably would have a meltdown. Can you explain how you construct a show like this?

FULLER: It really is very methodical. As we were trying to wrestle this to the ground and I saw some initial cuts, I was like, “Okay, we’re organizing information in a way that is not as streamlined as it should be. We’ve got this big soup of information.” And so I just started doing what I know how to do, which is writing scripts.

We have the interviews organized by subject matter and I would just go through and read all of the interviews and start pulling clips and putting them in script form, and then finding the images to support what the interviewee was saying.

MW: Did you rely on memory or did you all have to rewatch every film referenced?

FULLER: I have a very good memory and absorption of a lot of this stuff because I’m a fan. I’m absorbing it because I’m open to it — I’m fully dilated and prepared to receive. The interviews, when I was conducting them, were just a free-flowing conversation. Somebody would say something about ET being their first horror experience. And I would be like, “Okay, unpack ET as a queer horror experience.” And then having somebody like Briana Venskus break down ET in terms of cross-dressing and gender fuckery and a romance between a young boy and an alien thing that had horrific circumstances around it if this alien was caught — the secretiveness of it all becoming this queer horror story — was something that I never thought about. You just don’t forget those conversations.

MW: It goes back to the beauty of film being an interpretive art form. Yes, you have a surface reading, but there is often so much layering beneath.

FULLER: I think that’s why film is so satisfying — it becomes personal. That’s where we get people who love bad movies. They’re not looking at the movie objectively — they’re looking at the movie through their heart, and they’re putting their heart on it, and therefore the movie becomes an amalgam of the film itself and the audience member. That’s a beautiful reciprocal experience.

MW: I imagine you have enough for a second season.

FULLER: We have enough for three seasons. We have so much material. We have so many that we want to do. We have a whole trans horror history with Harmony Colangelo, who is a fantastic journalist and podcaster and film critic who walked us through the history of trans representation in horror from origins through all of the modern iterations of transness in horror. That could be an episode in and of itself.

We have how AIDS affected horror in the ’80s. We have the queerness of Stephen King, the queerness of Clive Barker, the dangerous queer males of the eighties, and religious horror and queerness, whether it’s The Exorcist or Carrie and these “pray the gay away” motifs you see.

Queer For Fear — Photo: Shudder

MW: Do you know if it’s renewed yet?

FULLER: Not yet. Not yet. Shudder’s very close to the vest with that stuff. It was an interesting conversation with the Shudder executives when we finally went to them and said, “Look, if we’re going to do these four episodes, let’s not worry about covering everything. Let’s cover stuff systematically and cover it well.” And they’re like, “Well, is that the complete history?” And I was like, “The history’s never going to be complete. It’s never going to be complete.”

It’s a fallacy to suggest that this is a complete history of queer horror. This is the first chapter and you have material to do multiple more chapters. And it’s just up to Shudder and, honestly, to their algorithm of did enough people tune in and did enough engagement happen to motivate them wanting to do another season?

MW: So everyone reading this needs to sign up for Shudder right now and watch this show. You’ve had such amazing shows on television. Some of them have met early ends. Hannibal after three seasons, Pushing Daisies after two, Wonderfalls after one. As a creator, have you learned to take it in stride when something gets canceled, or does that stay with you?

FULLER: Oh, it always stays with you. It’s always the stories left untold. It’s complicated because in my mind I can imagine it and I can visualize it — there is a version of it that exists. And the frustration is that I can’t share that with as big an audience as I would if I were able to produce it.

There is a version of season four and season five and season six of Hannibal in my head. There’s a version of season three of Pushing Daisies in my head. There’s versions of season two of Wonderfalls in my head. There’s versions of all these things that exist. There’s something small but satisfying that I make a living with my imagination. We have one of the most sophisticated virtual reality mechanisms between our ears, so it both exists and doesn’t — so that’s kind of a ghost story.

MW: Have you found being out in the industry to be a hindrance at all?

FULLER: It’s interesting, because I am a white cisgender male, so I have a certain passability in certain situations. But also, I’m this big queen. I’m six foot four, I’m demonstratively gay in my expressions and my enthusiasm — it’s hard to deny that. And it’s been fascinating to see straight men have different reactions to a really big gay man — and I’m a big, big guy, I’m a big person. I’ve worked with straight directors who’ve been very intimidated by it, I’ve had meetings with straight directors who wouldn’t look me in the eye. If I’m wearing a pink Gucci sweater with a teddy bear on it and pink and green Houndstooth slacks rolled to my ankles with go-go boots, it’s going to be very clear who I am. And a lot of people are fine with it and they love the expression, and a lot of people aren’t — a lot of people are visibly uncomfortable.

MW: What does the word “queer” mean to you?

FULLER: When I hear the word queer — or I see it — I hear a theremin in my mind. So there’s something about being queer that I find delicious. I also visualize Vincent Price. There’s something about being othered and accepting. I think Heather Matarazzo puts this so beautifully at the end of this season on Queer for Fear when she says queerness is kindness, and queerness is acceptance, and queerness is believing that everybody has a place that they belong, much more than, as she says, than it is about eating pussy.

We keep on talking about queerness in terms of sexuality, but it really is a point of view that is inclusive of sexuality. It involves so much more social placement than it does about whether you’re putting something in a hole or getting something wet in some other aspect.

So queerness is less about the sexuality of being queer and about the sociability and identity and acceptance and community of being othered. The reason I don’t really respond to gay male stories is that it’s still a sense of entitlement and elitism that I find stomach-churning, particularly when we’re only going to be able to successfully move forward if we’re moving forward as a community — so that means trans people, old people of color, people who have different relationships to their gender that haven’t even been categorized yet. So I love the blanket term queerness.

MW: I have to end by asking what’s the very first horror movie you remember watching?

FULLER: The first horror movie I remember watching was probably Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and whether that is categorized as a horror movie or not is probably up for debate. But there’s snippets of movies, whether it’s like The Other, which had this evil twin story — I remember the pitchfork being hidden in the haystack and somebody jumping into the haystack and getting impaled.

I saw Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the movie theater when I was nine, when it came out in 1978. And I remember thinking, “I’m not supposed to be here, this is above my age range in seeing this.” But I was so swept away, and I understood implicitly the threat of somebody telling you that you could no longer be the thing that you are, and how scary that is.

But the first profound experience that I had where I felt so tied to this story was The Shining. I grew up in a home with a violent father who was a horrible bigot and used epithets about any marginalized group, whether it’s Blacks, Asians, Latinos, queers, and he would say in a rant that these people were the deplorables — and I knew I was among them.

So it was fascinating to watch The Shining and relate to the experience of an abusive father who’s trying to destroy a sensitive child because they are so sensitive. And that resonated with me on a very deep level that didn’t really become conscious until much, much later when I was like, “Oh my God, that’s why I love The Shining.” You can put a picture of my father next to Jack Nicholson and they looked very similar.

My dad was also actively stupid — he was a very stupid man — so it was easy for me not to respect the things that were coming out of his mouth because I was like, “Oh, you’re stupid, you’re saying these things because you’re stupid,” and that’s probably something that saved me psychologically from feeling like I was the problem when it was very clear that he was the problem. So when Danny Torrance defeats his abusive father and leaves him to freeze to death in The Overlook hedge maze, that to me was so aspirational and transformational because I was like, “I just need to immobilize him and get away from him and go on to live my life.” And so the thematics of The Shining as a queer narrative were really profound for me as a child and gave me an example of survival — if Danny Torrance can survive his circumstance, I can survive mine.

Queer for Fear episodes 1-4 are available for streaming on Shudder. Visit www.shudder.com.

All three seasons of Hannibal are currently available on Hulu. Visit www.hulu.com.

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