'Lovecraft Country': Inside the HBO Horror Drama's Chilling Premiere

Lovecraft Country - Publicity Still 2- H 2020
Elizabeth Morris/HBO

The Hollywood Reporter speaks with showrunner Misha Green about the HBO thriller's tone-setting debut, called "Sundown."

[This story contains spoilers for the series premiere of HBO's Lovecraft Country, "Sundown."]

On watching the series premiere of HBO's Lovecraft Country, a chilling line from James Cameron’s Aliens comes to mind: “They mostly come at night. Mostly.” At least, it's a line that comes to mind for Lovecraft Country showrunner Misha Green.

“We watched Aliens for the first episode," Green tells The Hollywood Reporter about the iconic action movie's influence on the Lovecraft Country premiere, "and we talked about that a lot when it came to the run at the end of the episode."

In “Sundown,” the series premiere of Lovecraft Country, directed by Yann Demange and written by Misha Green, there’s no shortage of monsters. Any fear that the series would keep its supernatural elements on the periphery during the premiere are quickly and brutally assuaged. At the climax of the episode, Tic (Jonathan Majors), Leti (Jurnee Smollett), and George (Courtney B. Vance) endure a bloody encounter with the show’s original take on vampires. But not all the monsters in Lovecraft Country are otherworldly creatures; some are human, and that makes them all the more frightening.

Lovecraft Country, based on Matt Ruff's novel of the same name, begins with Jonathan Majors’ Atticus "Tic" Freeman traveling home from Florida to Chicago via bus. Tic is an army veteran, but he’s also a pulp fiction fan, and an opening dream sequence gives us a tour of his mind. “This is the story of a boy and his dream,” the narrator says. “But more than that, it’s the story of an American boy in a dream that is truly American.” A black and white memory of the Korean War shifts to color as flying saucers fill the sky and H.G. Wells’ Tripods from War of the Worlds launch a ground assault. Soon, a new individual arrives: a red-skinned alien played by Jamie Chung, floating down from one of the saucers, evocative of Dejah Thoris from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars. This epic battle between sci-fi civilizations is interrupted by the horrifying presence of a tentacled beast, Cthulhu, from the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Cthulhu is ripped apart by the swing of a baseball bat delivered by none other than Jackie Robinson. Tic awakens from this incredibly surreal dream (not to mention an incredibly surreal start to the series) to find himself in a more familiar world: the back of the bus.

Just when Tic thinks he’s escaped Jim Crow, offering his middle-finger and a “good riddance” as he crosses the line into Kentucky, a roadside breakdown proves just how omnipresent Jim Crow is in America. Stranded after a pickup truck comes to relieve the white bus passengers of their wait, Atticus and the bus' only other black passenger, a middle-aged woman, begin their long trek to the next stop. After she asks Tic about the book he’s been reading, A Princess of Mars, she’s taken aback by the fact that the hero, John Carter, was a Confederate captain.

“Stories are like people,” Tic explains. “Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them, overlook their flaws.”

It’s this consideration of love that brings Tic back to the South Side of Chicago after receiving a note from his father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), who has been missing for two weeks after venturing out to search for the truth of Tic’s mother’s family history. In a letter to Tic, Montrose explains: “I know that like your mother, you think that you can forget the past. You can’t. The past is a living thing. You owe it. Tic’s relationship with his father is troubled to say the least, and they’ve had more than their share of rough encounters over the years. But family is family, and Lovecraft Country is, at its heart, a show about the search for family, and what’s unearthed the deeper these characters dig.

Tic sets off on a road trip to find his father, aided by two trusted individuals: his Uncle George (Vance), a horror fiction expert who owns and operates the Safe Negro Travel Guide; and childhood friend and fellow sci-fi fan, the fiery and outwardly confident Leticia ‘Leti’ Lewis. Their destination: Ardham, Massachusetts. The town's namesake shares a similarity to Arkham, the fictional town at the center of numerous Lovecraft stories, which isn't lost on Tic. And like Arkham, Ardham has its own strange horrors in store.

On their way to Ardham, Tic and company are  forced into a car chase with a lynch mob in the Midwest, and the terrifying Sheriff Eustace Hunt (Jamie Harris) in Devon County, right outside of their destination. It’s here in Devon County, a sundown county, where Lovecraft Country really hits the gas on the horror; a sundown town, or in this case county, is a town where cops are legally allowed to kill Blacks if they catch them on the roads after sundown. Sherriff Hunt is just looking for a reason to kill Black people, and he sets his sights on Tic, George and Leti, who have become lost looking for the road to Ardham. What ensues is a gripping race out of Devon County for the trio, with only seven minutes left before sundown, a speed limit to abide by, and Sheriff Hunt riding their bumper. The encounter is one of the most frightening insights into the horror of being Black in America put onscreen.

Just when Tic and company seem safe, they realize they were never even given a chance to win, as Hunt’s cops are waiting for them at the county line. At this point, Lovecraft Country enters the woods, and the intersection between the horror of racial injustice and the horror of the supernatural collide with spectacularly bloody results. There’s guts, severed limbs, racist cops getting their just desserts, and the self-declared “Leticia fucking Lewis” leading the creatures away from Tic and George with a road flare; it's Jurnee Smollet giving her best Ellen Ripley, as another nod to Aliens. Tic’s love of pulp stories — of heroes who get to save the day, fight monsters, and overcome insurmountable odds — was once an idea so far removed for little Black kids growing up on the South Side of Chicago. Now, it's up close and personal. And his journey is only just beginning, as the episode ends with Tic, George and Leti coming out of the woods and into a strange manor filled with potential horror.

Ahead, The Hollywood Reporter speaks with showrunner Misha Green for some insights into Lovecraft Country’s exploration of horror, her personal love of the genre, and more from the series premiere.

You’re exploring racial injustice and supernatural horror, but also presenting them with a sense of fun and adventure despite these being serious topics. How did you find that tonal balance?

It wasn’t hard for me to find that balance. I feel like on [Green's previous series, WGN America's Underground], if we could be in enslaved times and still find a tonal balance there, coming to Lovecraft Country was super easy. For me, being such a big horror fan and genre fan, that stuff is always the metaphor and the layer on top of the truth and the real thing we’re exploring. And as long as those things are connected, like the idea of sundown towns in the first episode, and then monsters, the idea that you can’t be out after dark being black, and vampires, then those connections are the place tone sets in for me.

What attracted you to adapting Lovecraft Country?

I think the beautiful thing that Matt [Ruff] was doing in his original novel was the idea of reclaiming this space that had typically left out the people and culture of the other. I was and am still feeling that same way about genre in general. You watch all of these movies and it’s set in the future and it’s like white people are all subjugated to aliens, and you’re like, "This doesn’t really seem like your story." So for me, that’s what drew me to the novel in a really great way, other than the fact that Lovecraft Country is a fucking amazing title.

Although the show is not based on any H.P. Lovecraft stories, he’s a part of its identity. What was your process of navigating through Lovecraft’s history as both a major horror figure and well-known racist?

I was familiar with Lovecraft, being such a big horror fan, and his contributions to the genre. But you can also read any Lovecraft text and pretty much see the racism, so I wasn’t a huge fan of him. But what I liked about this idea was reconciling what he contributed to the genre, and not ignore that he was this big racist. And so you could take the good stuff and build upon that with more good, and then talk about the bad. And that’s how you move past the bad stuff, by acknowledging and talking about it. So that was really exciting for me, to continue that thread within the show, open it to more people than just H.P., and to look at the genre as a whole.

Going back to Matt Ruff’s book, the structure of it is really interesting. It’s almost an anthology, with overarching connective tissue through the characters and themes. You structured the show the same way. What appealed to you about that format?

Doing every single genre thing that I love. Being able to play in all of those playgrounds. When I pitched the show, I said, "Guys, we’re going there. We’re going to every single pulp genre you can go to. And we’re going to do that by anchoring it with these characters, with these people who are real, who are grounded, who we care about. And then we’re going to go to the moon and back." For me, that was really exciting, again with this idea of reclaiming this space — not just horror, but the adventure stories and the sci-fi stories too.

I have to ask you about the needle drops. In the first episode, you not only use period music, but contemporary tracks, and spoken word as well. What was your selection process?

On Underground, we had used contemporary music to pull you into the present and not just look at it as a portrait on the wall and in the past. And I found that very successful and wanted to continue that, and build on it. So the next level of that came through this idea of what we called ‘scource,’ which is what we called found audio that we would use as score. That idea was really intriguing for me because it takes this show that’s set in the 1950s, and pulls it out of time. It allows us to pull from 1920s music to 2020 music, and everything in between, and at the same time use different forms of audio like The Jeffersons theme song, a Nike commercial. It all surrounds this idea of building out a world that is not of this world through a soundscape.

It’s very clear from the show that you’re a big fan of the horror genre. What are your influences?

From the start I was a kid who read Goosebumps, and that led me to Stephen King, and then I saw Aliens, and Night of the Living Dead, the original. And with Night of the Living Dead I was like, "Oh my god, there’s a black person who’s the main character. Does anybody see that?" For me, I feel like horror space has always been a space of the other, even when it’s not people of color or black people. That has always drawn me to it, and I’ve been a big fan. I came into the writer’s room with our syllabus for each episode and said, ‘These are the movies we’re going to watch, these are the books were going to read, and we’re going to do it all." And they looked at me like, "Really?" And I said, "Yeah, it’s going to be really exciting, guys. We’re going back through them and we’re going to see how do we pay homage, how do we put the Easter eggs in?" That’s a huge thing for genre fans: to be able to look at something and say, "Oh, that’s where you took that from!"

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.