'American Gods' Sidelines New Showrunner Amid Delays and Frustrations (Exclusive)

American Gods Ian McShane Inset Neil Gaiman Jesse Alexander - Photofest - H 2018
Photofest; Courtesy of Fremantle

Jesse Alexander, who took over Starz's American Gods in February after original showrunners Michael Green and Bryan Fuller were pushed out, has been sidelined, multiple sources tell The Hollywood Reporter.

Insiders say Alexander was asked to stop working on American Gods, an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman novel, about a month ago. The word "fired" was not used internally, and a representative for Alexander said that characterization was not accurate. But Alexander, an executive producer, is no longer working on the hyper-stylized drama as a writer or showrunner, and has been asked not to sit in on editing, be involved on set or participate in any other areas of production or postproduction. One source described Alexander's role as effectively "fired but not fired,” as he has been relegated to the sidelines on season two but has yet to be replaced. Sources note that Fremantle, the show's studio, would rather exile Alexander than endure the negative attention that would come with dismissing a second showrunner in two seasons.

Alexander turned in multiple drafts of the show's season two finale, but executives at both Starz and Fremantle have rejected those scripts and are up to what sources described as a seventh draft.

Production on the drama, which is six weeks behind and recently was forced to go on a hiatus, is in disarray. Castmembers have not received copies of the script for the show's season two finale because, as one source put it, "there is no script." Another source says it’s possible the crew has received a far-from-finished version of the finale script, but whatever has been partially distributed is almost guaranteed to go through extensive changes. Instead of shooting the season finale, which should have been in production already, American Gods has been filming pickups and reshoots of earlier episodes.

"We are all working very hard to make American Gods the series that its fans want and deserve," Alexander said in a statement to THR.

Multiple sources cited ongoing friction between Starz and Fremantle, as well as efforts by author Gaiman to assert greater control over the drama, as the core sources of tension. Actors have been rewriting script pages, and Fremantle, which had hoped to trim the budget in the show's second season, is now spending frantically in order to simply finish the season. Due to all the issues that have bedeviled this saga of clashing deities, the second season of American Gods will not arrive until 2019 — two years after the first debuted to generally positive reviews.

"American Gods has a deep and complex mythology and a unique visual style that makes this series one of the most ambitious productions on television, and one that we remain committed to delivering for our audience," a spokesperson for Starz said in a statement. "We are confident that when the fans get their first look at season two in just a few weeks at New York Comic-Con, they will agree it was worth the wait."

Added Fremantle in its own statement: "We stand by our network partner's statement and share in their confidence that season two will exceed expectations. Our cast and crew are extremely passionate about the show and have delivered something that remains loyal to the source material and true to the creative vision of Neil Gaiman. We think fans will feel the same when we share a first look at New York Comic-Con in a few weeks.”

"There are a lot of people who had a lot of different visions for what the book would look like on air," says one source with extensive knowledge of the show's history. There was conflict in the first season — much of it documented when Green and Fuller were fired in November 2017 — and if anything, things got worse in season two, multiple sources note. Starz largely let Fremantle run the show, but Fremantle's stable of programs are mostly in the reality realm, which made the stakes surrounding Gods — one of the studio's rare scripted programs — all the higher. Insiders say Fremantle meddled, and not in ways that helped the show sustain a coherent creative vision or keep the production on track.

Stefanie Berk, a Gods executive producer and Fremantle executive who brought the show to the studio after a development attempt at HBO stalled, was characterized by one source as the "glue" holding the series together. However, Berk recently left Fremantle for a position at Film Nation. "I don't know which problems came from Starz and which came from Fremantle, but I know that there was serious disagreement about what they were making," one source says.

In the second season, a great deal of power belonged to Gaiman, according to sources who say that Fremantle is very keen to keep the author pleased, given that the studio had a first-look deal with him at the time. (That pact, signed in 2016, expired earlier this year.) Gaiman, an executive producer, co-wrote the second-season premiere and weighed in on other creative decisions and directions, but he was not a regular presence around the Gods production offices or the Toronto set despite, after the season two shake-up, being billed as "co-showrunner."

Gaiman noted on Twitter in January that he's "already showrunning [Fremantle's] Good Omens [for Amazon] and I won't be physically showrunning two shows. But I plan to work really closely with the new showrunner, and to help plot and guide and build American Gods, just as I did when Bryan and Michael came on as showrunners."

Sources concur that Alexander, who arrived in February, was the day-to-day showrunner, and he was seen as Gaiman's choice for that role. There was so much wariness in the creative community about trying to take over from Green and Fuller that, according to multiple sources, many potential showrunners turned down the job before Alexander agreed to step in. And once he arrived, his take on the material did not necessarily mesh with that of several members of the cast, as well as crewmembers and executives who preferred to sustain aspects of the previous showrunners' vision.

Insiders stress that Fremantle opted to go with Alexander because the studio believed they could have a level of control over him that they couldn't with Fuller and Green. Alexander is said to have also appealed to Gaiman because the scripts he oversaw would stick largely to the novel. The way that Fuller and Green built out and developed the world of American Gods in the first season was a source of irritation for Gaiman, insiders say. 

From the moment Green and Fuller were fired — largely at the behest of Fremantle, and "fired" is the word Green has used on social media — efforts were made to bring Gods more in line with what Gaiman wanted, sources say. Gaiman's level of involvement in that dismissal is unclear, but insiders note it’s unlikely Fremantle would have done something so extreme without his consent. In any event, season two represents an attempt to bring the show closer to his 2001 book, insiders say.

As THR previously reported, Green and Fuller had already written the first six episodes of season two before they departed. Fremantle tossed those scripts and started from scratch with Alexander, who then moved to get things running smoothly, which some sources note was a difficult task. Under Alexander, the season-two episode order was also trimmed back from 10 to eight — which also occurred in season one in an effort to trim the budget following the high cost of shooting Fuller and Green's early scripts. The fact that Alexander was Gaiman's choice makes it all the more surprising that he was pushed aside before the second season ended. 

That said, there were clashes over scripts from the day of the first table read. Sources note that season two scripts were often rewritten on the set, as many involved in the series wanted to honor the original vision and protect what they saw as important aspects of the characters and plot. After some actors, including star Ian McShane (Mr. Wednesday), began taking passes at improving dialogue, the production was forced to enlist co-star Orlando Jones (Mr. Nancy) as a writer on the series so a member of the WGA would be credited with writing instead of having actors violating guild rules. Others say some writers were coming to set with hand-written notebook pages — rewrites on scripts Alexander oversaw — amid "screaming matches" between the showrunner and McShane.

Starz is also said to be unhappy with Alexander, who, according to several accounts, took Gods in a more conventional direction. Though Fremantle and Gaiman supported Alexander — at least until recently — the premium cable network, sources say, balked at that evolution, and wanted more of the atmospheric, hypnotic tone that Green and Fuller had created.

After Alexander was sidelined, an attempt was made to promote another writer to the showrunner position, but sources say that the unnamed individual left the production almost immediately after being elevated. Now, in the absence of a showrunner, producing director Chris Byrne and line producer Lisa Kussner are trying to steer the ship.

Such is the level of disarray that the show recently took a hiatus to sort things out. Reshoots have been a major factor in season two, and they are ongoing. Multiple sources say that executives at Starz were unhappy with a number of season two episodes, and thought some looked "cheap." There was particular dismay, insiders say, around the third and fourth installments, which has led to extensive reworking of those episodes.

The departure of Green and Fuller was partly said to be driven by budget disagreements — the freshman run came in an estimated $30 million over budget, THR reported in February — but the spending on season two has notably outstripped its original budget as well. "Now they're spending to spice up what was flat on the page," one source says.

The show, which also stars Ricky Whittle, Emily Browning, Yetide Badaki, Pablo Schreiber, Crispin Glover, Bruce Langley, saw the departure of guest star Gillian Anderson after Green and Fuller exited. This year, American Gods added roles for Sakina Jaffrey, Dean Winters, Devery Jacobs and Kahyun Kim. Multiple insiders say there was a strong effort to get Kristin Chenoweth back for the second season of Gods, but scheduling issues prevented her return.

Updated, 11:30 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that Gaiman's first-look deal with Fremantle expired earlier this year.