If you were just to list all the elements that make up the new Netflix show Sweet Tooth, you’d think it was just a bunch of random ideas thrown together. In fact, let’s test that theory: deer boy. Robert Downey Jr. Post-apocalypse. Animal army. DC Comics. Football star. Lord of the Rings. VR gaming. Weird, right? But actually not. Bringing those ultimately-not-random ideas together in a satisfying, logical way, is an impressive task, and it’s a job that fell to showrunners Jim Mickle and Beth Schwartz, who spoke to Gizmodo last week.
“The thing for me originally was the question [of] if you could make an apocalyptic story that took you to a place that you wanted to go, or actually gave you a little bit of a sense of hope or optimism,” Mickle told Gizmodo over video. “Which felt like a rarity and felt like a real opportunity with a character like Gus.” Sweet Tooth — adapted from Jeff Lemire’s comic — is now on Netflix and tells the story of Gus (Christian Convery), a half deer-half boy who tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where beings like him are vilified and experimented on. He’s raised in isolation by his father (Will Forte) before heading out into a world he’s largely unprepared to face and unsure about.
Schwartz thinks having Gus at the centre of this story was a big help too. “The tone that I think that we kept throughout the whole season is just the heart and the hope from Gus,” she said. “He’s the anchor of the show. And I think everything kind of grew from that in terms of, you know, obviously the visual tone of everything just being stunning and gorgeous, but the heart of our characters and them feeling real and the scenes of trying to find a family. And I think that kind of became more important than the backdrop of the post-apocalypse.” Mickle added, “I think the world has gotten open to being able to mix genres and mix tones, and that’s been really fun and comfortable to play in. I’m a big fan of Korean cinema and just how they sort of take all those ingredients and mix them up into something new. And I feel like for a long time that was harder with American audiences, in a way, and now I feel like they’ve just gotten… maybe it’s because there’s just so much [content on] Netflix and you can sort of take really big shots and you can mix really dark stuff with fun stuff and humour, that gave us a much bigger canvas to play with.”
Mickle had been a fan of Lemire’s DC Comic for a while but didn’t even know it was on the table for adaptation until he took a meeting with Susan and Robert Downey Jr. “I had been talking to them about some other projects and … they brought it up like ‘We’re thinking about this for television. What does that look like?” he said. “So it started from there and they were incredibly supportive from the get-go.” Schwartz added, “Once I joined, they were incredibly collaborative and involved in pretty much every stage of the show. We would send them our story docs and they’d give notes and our scripts and all the way up into shooting. They had Amanda [Burrell] and Evan [Moore], two of their executives, on the ground in New Zealand helping produce. And in casting. Honestly, they’re our partners in everything.”
Among those decisions were to make some rather significant changes from the original comic. “We introduced a lot of the characters that appear much later in the comic books [earlier],” Mickle said. “The comic itself is told, especially in the beginning, very much through Gus’s point of view, which we did for the first episode, obviously. And then as the story goes on, I think we start bringing in characters that you don’t meet until sometimes like 12 issues into the comic. That gave us a real opportunity to set up who those people were and, not quite [do] origin stories, but just get a sense of who they are before Gus meets them. So that was really fun. But it also meant that we had a lot of creating to do, which was also fun.”
One of those additions was the brand new character of Bear, played in a truly memorable, star-making performance by Stefania LaVie Owen (The Carrie Diaries). Bear leads the Animal Army, who are in the original comics, a group of kids sworn to protect hybrids like Gus. But for the show, the team wanted to use the idea and take it to the next level. “We wanted a female teenage protagonist, first of all,” Schwartz said. “That was really important when I came on the show and everyone was really looking for that type of character to add to our little ragtag group of Jep (Nonso Anozie) and Gus … And then we started to explore what worlds would be so incredible for Gus to meet and talked about a town made up and being run by teenagers. Like, how much fun is that for a young child who hasn’t explored the world to see kids eating candy and playing video games and all [that] kind of wish fulfillment?”
These changes and others certainly run up against the original comic but both Mickle and Schwartz said Lemire was totally on board. “He’s been great through all this,” Mickle said. “He’s just been a cheerleader, but also like a good compass.” Mickle explained that Lemire has adapted his own work for the screen before so he gets that changes are necessary. “He had this great line at some point where he said, ‘A comic book sometimes is like five to eight scenes and suddenly you do a TV show and you need so much more.’ So he got why we had to make some changes that, I think, he really liked.”
As for when or if we’ll see more of those things, Schwartz and Mickle wouldn’t say whether they have plans for, or have begun working on, a second season of the show, but do believe this first season stands on its own and came together as well as could possibly be imagined. “We structured the whole season around the ending,” Schwartz said. “And in fact, when we were in post [production] on finale, watching the finale, one of the last lines is something that we had in our season one pitch to Warner Brothers and Netflix, and it stayed exactly the same. And I was pointing it out because that’s not extremely common where something you pick before you make the entire season stays exactly the same. So we always knew the ending.”
That type of fortuitous synergy seems helpful in making the show with seemingly so many random elements all come together. But it paid off. Sweet Tooth is now on Netflix.