HBO’s new series Lovecraft Country doesn’t debut until August 16 (read our review here) but showrunner, writer, executive producer and director Misha Green talked with HBO about how she came to property, her own familiarity with H.P. Lovecraft and finding the balance of fan service to source material while incorporating her love of films like The Goonies and expanding it to make it her own.
Green talks about reuniting with Jurnee Smollett, being amazed by Jonathan Majors and how Lovecraft Country is coming at one of the most volatile periods of race relations in US history and is still reckoning with its history.
When were you first acquainted with Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel on which LOVECRAFT COUNTRY is based? What inspired you to adapt it for television?
I was working on season two of ‘Underground’ and my agents at CAA said, ‘There’s this book you may want to adapt.’ I was blown away. I thought, ‘I want to explore these characters and their journeys.’ I was also really into the idea of reclaiming the genre space for those who’ve typically been left out of it. I said, ‘I’m ready to make this into an epic television show.’
Ruff’s novel draws heavily from the work of famed science-fiction author H.P. Lovecraft, who passed away in 1937 at age 46. He was and remains controversial for both the racist themes in his writing and his own well-documented bigotry. To what degree did you have to become an expert in his cannon as well?
I’d read a bit of Lovecraft; his influence in horror-fan culture is huge. And you can definitely tell he was a racist from his work. It’s hard to miss those troubling themes. So when I was reading Matt’s book, I understood the Lovecraft references, but didn’t feel it was crucial to dive fully into that canon in order to write the series.
What was your approach to adapting Ruff’s novel? How much freedom did you feel to reinvent and expand upon it?
We essentially used the book as a beautiful jumping-off point. My strategy was to take all of its dope, cool stuff and write new dope, cool stuff. (Laughs) There was a never a sense of ‘Let’s bank this for later.’ When you have 10 people in a room, you’re always able to come up with new ideas. The goal was to deepen the characters and the stories. I told our writers, ‘Be prepared for therapy because we’re gonna excavate all of it in here.’ At its core the show is a family drama. We had to dig into stuff that made us uncomfortable. We also had our lists of movies, novels and tropes that exemplified genre. How did we want to play off of those? The idea of creating a hybrid experience was exciting for everyone.
And those inspirations are clear, with nods in the series to 1980’s adventure movies like “Goonies,” contemporary blood-and-guts horror films, classic 1930’s monster movies – all of which are incredibly familiar to audiences, yet we’ve never seen Black characters inhabit these narratives as robustly as they do here.
Yes and what drew me to adapting the book for TV, as opposed to film, was the chance to do a “Goonies”-style episode, then sci-fi, then mystery, then a ghost story; go bananas and reclaim all of those storytelling styles for characters who’ve typically died at the beginning of those stories. One of the reasons I love horror so much is— when it’s done well – you can keep peeling away the layers and see something new every time.
Jordan Peele, who serves as an executive producer on LOVECRAFT COUNTRY, has similarly reinvented horror as a space for telling layered, socially conscious stories. How did you first meet?
My agents said, ‘We think you’d would get along really well.’ And I was like, ‘Why? I don’t like to laugh.’ (Laughs) ‘No, no, he’s a huge horror fan and he’s working on a movie right now.’ And we vibed right away. Then Jordan said, ‘I want you to watch Get Out.’ I saw it and went, ‘Phew!’ We’d gotten along so well that I didn’t want to watch it and be like, ‘Oh, man.’ But it was amazing. Then when we were working on Lovecraft – he was doing the film Us at the time – we talked a lot about our shared belief regarding horror, which is: You need the metaphor. I’d played with that on ‘Underground’;that it was a heist movie but set in slavery times. That the people pursuing the heist happened to be enslaved people trying to steal back their most precious possession: their lives. I used the heist genre to appeal to people who thought, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to watch a slavery show.’ But you did want to watch this one because we used genre as a doorway into something deeper.
Speaking of “Underground,” making LOVECRAFT has reunited you with actress Jurnee Smollett. What made her the perfect choice to play Letitia Lewis?
I generally don’t think of prospective actors when I write. But Jurnee kept asking, ‘So, how’s that script going?’ I was like, ‘Good!’ When I was done, I asked, ‘Do you want to read it?’ She said, ‘What can I say? It’s f***ing amazing. So when are you gonna say you want me to be in this?’(Laughs) We’re very close friends, but also have a beautiful artistic partnership based on energy, commitment and a shared desire to go deeper and challenge ourselves. She brings truth to every role and is so ferocious. But a lot of what we talked about on Underground we continued in Lovecraft Country. What’s the vulnerability underneath this woman’s strength? Let’s see both sides of her.
Arguably the heart and soul of the series is Atticus Freeman played by actor Jonathan Majors. What inspired you to cast him?
When we were casting, Yann Demange said ‘There’s this amazing cat Jonathan who was in my movie White Boy Rick.’ He walked into the room and I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re Atticus. I believe you’re the soldier, the geeky kid, the black nerd.’ Halfway through shooting Lovecraft, I saw Jonathan’s film [A24’s] ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco.’ I told him on set ‘Holy f*** dude!’ There wasn’t an inch of Atticus in the character of Monty. He was like, ‘That’s the biggest compliment you could give me.’ He was a revelation the entire time we were shooting. I was like, ‘How have you not been in everything?’
LOVECRAFT is the most visual-effects heavy project you’ve undertaken as a show creator. How did you approach those elements of storytelling during the writing process and what most excited you when it came to executing them during production?
We worked with KNB, an incredible special effects and makeup house. Knowing I’d have their tools to tell the story made it feel like an amazing playground. Initially I just wrote down my ideas like, ‘Ok, what craziness is in my head?’ Then we’d talk. For example, there’s an amazing exorcism scene. The effects team asked me, ‘What is each of these ghosts?’ I was like, ‘Well, there should be one that has a baby head.’ (Laughs) So the artists designed 10 different baby heads. ‘Ok, I like that baby head mixed with that baby head.’ Then we get to set. ‘Okay, here are seven different levels the wall-shakes effects are set to.’ I think, ‘I get seven levels of wall shakes to choose from?’ Then the actors come in. Jurnee exorcises her full self while getting a ghost out of her. I’m like, ‘I need nothing else in this scene but that!’ Then the ghosts come in with all of their special-effects makeup. ‘Wow, this looks really scary. I need nothing else but that!’ But that was just principal photography. Then we have the second unit, which shot all the stunts and pickups. Then the effects are added and we turn the actors into 20 different ghosts. To be working with people who are at the top of their crafts game…I was a kid in a candy store.
Much like “Underground,” LOVECRAFT COUNTRY is as much an auditory experience as a visual one as the soundtrack boasts a genre-busting mix of 1950’s-era music, contemporary hip-hop, spoken-word poetry and other works by Black artists. Did you write with specific audio cues in mind, discover them during production or make those choices in post?
A bit of all three. Joe Pokaski and I used to talk about: How do we pull the slavery portrait off the museum wall and evolve the story beyond, ‘Look at how bad slavery was’? One way was by using more vibrant camera movements; the other was through using modern music. I wanted to build on that in Lovecraft and also integrate ‘found audio’ into the score. For example, in the opening we use voiceover from the [1950 film] ‘The Jackie Robinson Story.’ Later we have [Ntozake Shange’s 1975 poem] For Colored Girls and [poet Gil Scott-Heron’s] Whitey on the Moon. I love the idea of taking our show ‘out of time.’ It’s the past, present and future. How do we wrap all of that into a unique soundscape? We want the show to be full-sensory, engaging and have people learn from it without having to learn from it. My favorite learning experiences are immersive; those that make me rethink what I know as opposed to ‘Here’s some bad history.’ How can we immerse the viewer even further? I love when I have revelations two weeks after the fact where I’m like, ‘Oh wow, ok.’
LOVECRAFT COUNTRY feels particular resonant as Hollywood – and our country at large – face ongoing, painful reckonings about race. How does it feel to be sharing a show like this at a time when boundary-pushing narratives centered on Black Americans have arguably never been more important?
If your art is speaking to the moment, that’s all you can hope for. It’s exciting to know that people will be engaging in the show during this time, especially on the platform that HBO has given it. And in many ways, LOVECRAFT is the continuation of the same themes and questions we explored in ‘Underground’: What are we willing to do for our freedom? And what does freedom actually mean? I’m honored that our show can be part of that very important conversation.