It was announced today that ProSieben, a big German network, has bought the rights to air Hannibal, the new TV series from NBC, showrunner Brian Fuller, and French studio Gaumont. The series depicts the early relationship between FBI agent Will Graham and Dr. Hannibal Lector, who we all know is a horrific serial killer.
I wasn't surprised by the news. ProSieben has long been interested in a series built around the concept. In fact, five years ago, they developed a series called Beauty and the Murderer, which was about a Clarice Starling-type homicide detective who discovers that the department's long-time psychiatric consultant is actually a prolific serial killer himself. She puts him away…but is stunned when the department continues to use the killer shrink as a consultant, even secretly bringing him out in chains to crime scenes to offer his insights.
The network ordered six scripts, including the pilot, and a twenty minute presentation film from the production company, a prolific supplier of TV movies for them. But early on in the development process, the project ran into trouble and the network brought me to Munich from the U.S. to redevelop the pilot script, set up the writers room, and oversee the writing of the five episodes.
The biggest problem that I saw was that the project was, basically, a beat-for-beat rip-off of Silence of the Lambs. I knew I couldn't dismantle the concept they bought, so the key for me was to strip it of everything that smacked of that movie, and Hannibal Lector, and focus much more on the characters. So I tried to tone down the serial killer's Lector-like qualities and make the heroine as far removed from Clarice Starling as I could, especially in her relationship to him.
The project was also unremittingly dark, so the other thing I brought in was some humor, which the network embraced but the German writers had a hard time with it. They didn't see how a show could be dark, but also still have some humor. So the network asked me to write one of the scripts as an example…which I did. You can read my first draft here.
All in all, it was a great group of writers, we had a terrific time, and we had a very supportive production company behind us that was eager to sell the project. I remember leaving Munich after a couple of months being very pleased with the six scripts that we developed and feeling good about the show's prospects, since I knew from the network that they liked what they'd read and were very pleased with my work (so much so, that they asked me to rush back and fix another troubled show, an X-Files rip-off, but I declined).
The fate of Beauty and the Murderer all came down to the pilot presentation. And that's where it all went wrong.
In Germany at the time, they had yet to embrace the showrunner system. Directors were in still charge, and the guy that the studio brought in, someone who had never done a pilot before, didn't like the scenes or the series concept. So he re-wrote everything, taking out the humor and making every scene a horrible, laughable rip-off from Silence of the Lambs…and trashing months of hard work by seven writers.
It infuriated me. I couldn't understand how the production company, after investing all the time and money in crafting the six scripts and developing a strong franchise, could stand by and let that happen. Why didn't they fire the guy and hire someone who would shoot the show that we developed…and that the network was expecting?
He's the director, they said. You can't tell him what to do.
Needless to say, the network took one look at that presentation and backed away from the project. They hated the demo film but, more importantly, they lost faith in the production company's ability to ever deliver the show that was promised in those six scripts.
Now, it appears, ProSieben is finally getting the series that they wanted five years ago.
UPDATE: The pilot presentation is actually available on YouTube with English subtitles. Here it is: