Misha Green: ‘Lovecraft Country’

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Misha Green. Photo courtesy of Misha Green.

This week Elvis sits down with Misha Green, showrunner for HBO’s “Lovecraft Country.” Green is also the creator of the series “Underground,” which was broadcast on WGN America. Green talks about how she and Jordan Peele, who’s an executive producer of “Lovecraft Country,” bonded over their love of horror films. She says that in adapting the novel “Lovecraft Country” for the screen, she didn’t want to feel restricted by the book, saying, “it's a beautiful platform, but I want to jump off of it.” And Green talks about why she pitched “Underground” as a heist caper.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. My guest, in two series, "Underground" and her most recent, "Lovecraft Country," has come up with a new kind of genre. It's sort of horror where the daylight is just as scary as the nighttime. My guest is the creator of both those shows, Misha Green. That's the thing that I think links both these shows: daylight is just as terrifying as nighttime.

Misha Green: Daylight and the history of America. I find that that's scarier than anything I could have made up in the sundown towns and what it was like for people to be enslaved. It's always the stuff that I see in the daylight that scares me; the stuff that goes bump in the night is the fun part.

KCRW: In the stuff you do, nighttime seems very dreamlike. For the daylight scenes, it's really kind of stark and, no, this is where the world is.

Green: It's always a delicate line. You want to take the stuff that is real and make it feel really real. And I think the stuff that happens in the dark, the monsters, any level for me, they're not going to be as scary as reality. 

KCRW: For those of us people of color, the idea of adding horror to the lives we've already lived seems almost like icing on a rotten cake. 

Green: I see it as the icing on the cake and the cake too. I'm a huge fan of the genre; I've been a fan of it since I was a kid, and I think that one of the reasons I gravitate to it so much is because it allows for me to digest the real horrors a bit. It allows for me to go for an hour, two hours into this world that I know isn't real, but I can feel the fear and maybe grapple with the fear that I feel in my real life.

KCRW: There's often been a strain in fantasy, that even though it's often about an outsider culture, it reminds us as people of color that we're outsiders, too.

Green: I always find that a little bit interesting when watching sci-fi stuff that we have to create these alternate worlds in which the white characters are oppressed. And I'm like, okay, we don't have to really create a whole fictional world, a future robotic world that only has white people in it. But the robots are the ones that are oppressed, who are also white robots. We don't need to do that to tell these stories. But I guess if you're a white author, you feel you need to do that.  I'm always in my head when reading books and stuff, I'm imagining Black characters, even though they're supposed to be white characters. So it's always been a space for the other, and for me, especially because it's my own brain, I can make up all the characters are Black in the first place.

KCRW: I gotta think a big thing that attracts you to this kind of material is that a lot of Black life is so kind of surreal anyway, that to make it absurd and surreal really brings a level of fun to it.

Green: Yeah, I think that's what I mean by my having my cake and my icing is that I find all the monsters in horror fun. So it's a birthday party to me, and I've realized that a lot of people are not huge fans of the horror genre, which is always surprising to me, because I'm like, it's like going on a roller coaster. Who doesn't like a thrill?

KCRW: I think what's really fascinating to me about the show is it's a really kind of incredible piece of collage, because you've got Atticus, who's suffering from PTSD coming back to this country. Then you've got Leticia, who really is just trying to figure out who she is, and in a way, I think, she kind of lives her life as an artist. By the third episode, which I think is one of the best episodes of TV I've ever seen, by the way, it really becomes her story.

Green: You know, I feel like people interpret different things from the material. It's hard for me to say it's only one thing, but I definitely think that, the character of Leti, being a photographer, being an activist and moving through these spaces and kind of being opened up to this alternative America where monsters are real, that story intrigues me and finding that kind of person in this space and how they react to it and what it means to them. So I wouldn't deny that she's definitely leading us through it.

KCRW: You've definitely taken to shaping her character so that she becomes a kind of foundational point. And the reason I mentioned the third episode is because the real world and the world of horror, really dovetail. Also a kind of horror in the fact that she's been denying a part of herself and has to admit it to her sister. That's a real horror: this stuff she's been keeping inside her head, she blurts out when she talks about the inheritance. 

Green: The first two episodes are kind of setting up this world. And then three, we go back to Chicago. And I think it's the first kind of real treatise of what the show is, trying to blend the reality and the supernatural reality together. And I think that Leti's character was thrust into this. So it was natural for this story to kind of revolve around her and bring her into what the rest of the series was going to be.

KCRW: I wondered if that was what you liked about the character that you could fill in some of the things that weren't there in the book?

Green: I think when adapting a book, and I told Matt Ruff this, I was like, it's a beautiful platform, but I want to jump off of it. I don't want to be afraid to go to all the places that he could take us because it's such a world he opened up. Leti's character in the book; it's a TV show, and an actor has to play it. So you have to deepen everything. 

In the book, it was an ensemble piece, but even in an ensemble piece of a show, you have to give more to everybody because they're up on the screen. And definitely Leti's character, I enjoyed exploring her and seeing where we could take her on her journey of going back to faith and what that means was exciting for me.

KCRW: So often in the show, books are a tactile thing, and depending on the person holding the book, we get a sense of something really kind of pure, or something really kind of awful.

Green: Yeah, but I guess I see books as ideas. And isn't that what ideas are? Like in who holds them and who takes them? One idea could be the same idea in two different people. It could be bad, it could be good. 

KCRW: Tell me about your first conversation with Jordan Peele about the material.

Green: Our first conversation about the material was just: did you read it? I said, I read five chapters, and I'm in, and he said, great, let's do it. It was a while ago; "Get Out" had not come out yet, and CAA, our agency, was like, hey, you guys should get together. And I was like, Jordan Peele? Comedy? I don't like to laugh. He's really into horror, like you're into horror. And I was just like, oh, okay. 

And so then we met and we vibed right away because we are both huge horror fans, so we're just going down our list of things. And he's like, you know, I'm working on this movie right now. I'd love if you come watch an early cut of it. And I was like, oh, we just vibed so well. I don't know. I don't want to ruin this. And so then I went and watched it, and I was like, oh, okay, you get it. It was obviously "Get Out." I was like, you get it. I just finished watching the early cut of "Get Out" and he was like, have you heard of this book? They'd been trying to get us to read, but I was in the second season of "Underground" at that time, so I was buried in that world. But they sent the book and then we took a look. You could kind of glance at the cover of "Lovecraft Country" and see something interesting. And once I got to chapter five, which was Ruby's chapter, I was like, we're doing this; it's happening.

KCRW: You guys are connecting at a time where a new take on horror was just about to really emerge. And he was gonna be at the vanguard of that.

Green: That new take on horror is the old take on horror. If using metaphor, as you say, icing on top of the cake, and the cake is the real substance of reality, and what is the truth, all good horror was doing that, and it's been doing that since it first became a popular genre. Having him bring that back in a real way that became popular was great because it's what the genre is when it's at its best.

KCRW: I really feel like in a lot of ways you were doing that with "Underground," where you were basically playing it as a genre piece. That horror is so evident that unless you bring another perspective to it, it's just watching atrocity. 

Green: Yeah we pitched "Underground" as a heist thriller. We said, we're going to play all of the tropes of the heist thriller: the picking of the teams, the finding out individually, what their skill brings to the heist. The heist just happens to be enslaved people who are stealing the most important thing in the world, which is their bodies. 

When we pitched it, people would be like, hmm, we don't want to live in slavery every week, no one's going to watch the show. And it was like, we keep thinking of it as that sepia tone picture on the wall, like we're getting a history lesson shoved down our throats and particularly that it's coming from the looking back and being like: let's make sure this is sacred. For me, I was like, enslaved people were people, like they still laughed and loved and had exciting times amidst all the atrocity that was happening. And it can be both of those things. When I was pitching that at the time, people were like, hmm, how can it be both of those things? And I think that right now we're in a space where people realize a bit more that it can be both and that you can tell something with weight and still have it be entertaining.

KCRW: Not only was "Underground" about a heist movie, it was like making a heist, with no money.

Green: Exactly. That's why I watch it now, and I'm like, wow, we just stuffed it anyway, and you're gonna have to see the holes, because we're not going to compromise the story. But I just think about all of that stuff, having done it at a budget level of "Lovecraft Country," and I'm like, that show would have been bananas.

KCRW: Well, but the thing that makes that show so interesting is that it's really about speed. I mean, "Lovecraft Country" is interesting to me, just because it feels a little languorous, you want to take your time with it. 

Green: "Underground" is a chase movie, and “Lovecraft Country" is a road trip. If we had that money behind the chase movie, you would feel that velocity, trust me. And that's what excited me about going into "Lovecraft Country," which is one of the things I said was, guys, it's going to be big and epic, and I'm going to spend all your money. And that is what I'm here to do. And we're going to do that.

KCRW: Spending that kind of money on music that you get to do for "Lovecraft Country" has got to be kind of mind blowing to you.

Green: On "Underground," it's literally going from independent film to a Marvel movie. It's like, we literally had to scrape every penny, which led to beautiful things because it led to new artists. And then it's like, you come to "Lovecraft Country," and I'm like, what if we put Cardi B here, and then it's like, oh, how about we have two Cardi B songs, why not? We can do that. And we're still in our music budget. Wonderful. So it's a freedom to explore in a way that brings popular things in. And it's definitely that kind of thing where I'm like, oh, how do these people f--k up these movies so much when you have all of these resources?

KCRW: So much of, as you know, the way Black characters are dramatized is two dimensional, and leaving out that thing that makes them people. By putting people in genre, you are able to give viewers a new take on what slavery is. Frankly, speaking, if you're running for your life, there is a thriller aspect to that and a heist aspect to that by the way you use music to really encapsulate all cultural history in Lovecraft Country to go from over the run of the show, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Cardi B. That really is about saying that Black life is much more complex and is usually given credit for on the screen.

Green: Yeah. And I think it's also about temporal collapse. I think it's to say, yes, this might be set in the past, but it's very much here in the present, and I think that that was something that worked really well on "Underground." The music was drawing us here and now. I think that it's important to keep that in mind and not to settle in: oh, this was the past. The same with "Lovecraft Country:" it was about using audio in a way that helps collapse time and bring us very much to the present and understand that the stories are not in our past.

KCRW: I was thinking, too, it was also about the continuum of Black culture, how one thing affects something else. So really, Black culture is a series of dominoes that are constantly in motion, and the music tells us that as much as anything else in these shows.

Green: Yeah, I agree with that. And I agree even extending it that Black culture is American culture, and that it's all connected. Part of all of it is, especially in "Lovecraft Country," this idea that we can go to multiverses to the past, to the future, and it's all connected in this moment, and how we're living our lives now.

KCRW: Yeah, the opening really is the future, both the future and the past, and taking us from fantasy into a landlocked reality of a segregated bus. Talk to me about creating that, because that really in a lot of ways, I think tells you what the show is going to be but also doesn't give everything away.

Green: Yeah, I wanted to tell what the show was going to be, that you think you might be coming into the show about a guy just waking up on a segregated bus. But don't be fooled by that. And it really started from once I had locked on this idea of doing this found audio throughout the piece. Hearing the opening of the Jackie Robinson story, and I was like, oh my gosh, this is a story about an American boy; this is perfect for what Atticus' journey is throughout this first season. And so it was kind of that idea of melding all of the treatises of what we were going to do in the show in one scene and had that scene kind of knock you off your feet and then go into the story, knowing that we will be doing things like that.

KCRW: I find myself watching it and I felt a little bit this way about "Underground," too, that the men are kind of in the present day trying to answer a question and the women were trying to unlock what the future is going to be.

Green: Oh, that's something that I'd have to think about more. If that is the case, it was not intentional in the writing. I don't know; I think that Noah was trying to unlock the future, he was the dreamer, and that Rosalee was the one that was practical, then became a dreamer because of him, I would say at the end of the season,

KCRW: I thought that she lit this fuse, and then helped him understand that that's what he wanted. This kind of practical problem solving, when you're basically putting your nose to the grindstone, which is to say that it's kind of hard to see what the future can be. 

Green: If you go back to that very first episode, where they're saying about the grave, he's like, we're all meant to be free. And I want to live up north with my family, and I want to have kids and I want to do things, that's a dream. That's what was spurring him on. But he was also very good about the practicalities of how to get to that dream.

KCRW: Wow. I guess I thought when he said that he's like, this is the kind of thing that should be happening right now. It's a practical thing; it felt like a statement of what America is supposed to be for everybody. 

Green: But that's still a dreamer, though, like saying it should be this way and we're going to make it this way now. That's the biggest dreamer to me, at least because you're going to take what's in your head and make it a reality as soon as you can make it a reality. So I think there's that practicality in Noah definitely and using his hands and thinking through the moment, but it's in service of a dream.

KCRW: I think about that great use of "Whitey's on the Moon" in the show. Talk about the idea of bringing Gil Scott Heron into "Lovecraft Country." 

Green: We were looking for found audio to bring in to make it feel out of time and a collage of things and "Whitey's on the Moon" just sums up I think what that second episode is about. It's like they're over here doing all of this stuff, and not a care in the world about who they're using and whose blood has to be made to do that, and they're dreaming about opening doors to the Garden of Eden. And it's like, huh, well, there's so much stuff we could fix with magic in this world. But you're opening doors to the Garden of Eden, and I feel like Gil Scott's poem was just perfect, which is why we named the episode after "Whitey's on the Moon" because every time I hear that poem, I'm like, it's so true. The space race costs how much money, like billions of dollars, and what's going on here on earth?

KCRW: What we're talking about here is what you do: that schism between reality, and fantasy, and the present and the future, and how the best way to live is to try to combine all these things when they're so often at war with each other. 

Green: It's how my brain works. I feel like when I read something, I'm like, oh, connection, oh, these two things go together. This is the same thing that was happening 50 years ago; it's happening right now and the exact same way. It's my love of history and my hope for the future that keep smashing against each other, where I'm going, okay, we have to learn from this, right?

KCRW: To me, it feels like you found your ideal collaborator in Jurnee Smollett at the point when you realize you can just put these characters on a page and trust her to add something to it as well.

Green: Yeah, I think that's one of the things we really found on "Underground" was that we both like to dig and dig and dig, and we dig until the very last second, and then we have to put something on the screen and you have to edit it and put it out there. But it's always trying to uncover another layer, what's the truth? What scares us so much that we're running from it initially. And that's the direction we both go in. I think that's why we have so much fun and joy in making this difficult stuff.

KCRW: What was your first conversation with her like, because it feels like you pretty quickly found somebody who you knew could run with anything you gave her?

Green: Oh, no, that's not how that worked out. We absolutely really butted heads at the beginning of "Underground," like, almost now in a comical way, since we're so close. But we are very much the same person, and so when we first got on the set of "Underground," there would be a running joke that: oh, is Jurnee in the scene? Oh, it will start 20 minutes later because her and Misha will be arguing about it for at least 20 minutes. So it didn't start off symbiotic, but it was because we were so similar that we were both not trusting each other. And doing that digging and being like you're not digging enough. You're not digging enough. No, it's this. It's this. It's this. 

And then we kind of hit a stride where we realized oh, like you're just continuing to dig and I'm continuing to dig. And we started to trust each other to be able to go on that journey together as opposed to trying to tell each other what that journey was.

Credits

Host:
Elvis Mitchell

Producer:
Rebecca Mooney