For a certain generation of comic book readers, Preacher means everything. Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s twisted tale about a hard-fighting holy man on a quest to literally find God captivated imaginations with its take-no-prisoners sense of humor, its brutal barrage of blood and bullets, its skeptical eye toward the powers that guide us and its depiction of the highs and lows that come part and parcel with the human experience.
Count Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg as two of the many young comic book readers who discovered Preacher during its run from 1995 through 2000, enthralled by the actual and veritable angels and demons found throughout Ennis and Dillon’s genre-bending yarn. The longtime collaborators and fans of the comic revealed that their attempts to adapt the Vertigo Comics classic extend back all the way to the start of their careers.
“The first time we had a meeting for it was as soon as we were able to have a meeting for something like this,” said Rogen, adding that it was right around the release of his 2008 stoner action-comedy Pineapple Express. “I remember we had a meeting with whoever controlled the property at the time. We showed them the fight from Pineapple Express, to show them that we can execute action and comedy in some capacity.”
The pitch went up in smoke, as so many things do in Pineapple Express — and just as the heavenly entity at the heart of Preacher passes through different human hosts before landing on the right one, the property itself passed through many hands, including directors Sam Mendes and Mark Steven Johnson. Throughout it all, Rogen and Goldberg never gave up the quest to chase down Jesse Custer.
“We were always very vocal that we were big fans of it, and we thought we could do a good job of adapting it in some way,” Rogen told reporters, including The Hollywood Reporter, during a press conference.
Rogen and Goldberg eventually found Preacher thanks to a different adaptation: The Green Hornet. They teamed on that pic with Neal H. Moritz of Original Films, who, according to Rogen, “started controlling the property eventually; he heard us talking about it nonstop.” Eventually, the lifelong Preacher fans became the guardians of the comic, even if they were not immediately sure on how to adapt what many others had tried and failed to bring to life.
“When it was in movie format, it was just too brief; it didn’t make sense as a movie, we couldn’t jam it all in,” said Goldberg. “Initially, we thought we would do a Band of Brothers 10-part miniseries, because shows like this didn’t exist yet.”
But once they acquired the property, “there was a thing called cable television that was very popular,” Rogen said with a laugh. Soon, they were in league with Breaking Bad veteran Sam Catlin, who they agreed to work with based solely on their love of the Walter White crystal-meth drama.
“The first time we ever met [Catlin] in real life was at the pitch, in the lobby of the television network,” said Rogen. “We just pitched the comic. We didn’t even talk about what we were going to do. We just pitched the comic, panel-for-panel of what happens in the comic, basically. Afterward, Sam was like, ‘We’re not doing that, are we?’ And we were like, ‘Oh, we have no idea what we’re doing! We’re just trying to sell the show, then we’ll figure all that stuff out.'”
The show and the comics ultimately took divergent paths, thanks in part to Catlin’s detached view of the source material, but also largely due to the creators of the comic.
“[Garth] was a big advocate of taking a new path to allow a new audience to discover the show, and not strictly adhere to the comics,” said Rogen. “I think we were all maybe thinking it, and too afraid to say it. He was the one who was like, ‘You can’t just do this. I don’t think it’ll time out. I don’t think you’ll get enough episodes. You have to change it.'”
While story details differ between the two versions of Preacher, Rogen and Goldberg insist that the show’s content remains as vile and vulgar as what’s depicted in Ennis and Dillon’s wickedly twisted work, thanks in large part to AMC’s other flagship comic book adaptation.
“The Walking Dead has given us a lot of precedent to do a lot of stuff we might not have otherwise been able to do,” said Rogen, adding that network notes typically lean more on story and less on limiting violence. “They call and talk and explain what they like and what they’re trying to do. Pretty much every time, we’ve gotten to do everything we’ve wanted.”
Rogen and Goldberg certainly got what they wanted when they stepped behind the camera to direct the pilot episode of Preacher, not only adapting one of their favorite stories from their childhood but also crossing off another item on the bucket list: mastering the fight scene.
“We’ve directed a lot of action and big visual effects sequences, but we’ve never done a fight scene that we’ve been incredibly proud of,” said Rogen, pointing at Pineapple Express and This Is the End as examples. “As fans of action movies, it was disappointing that we would watch our fight scenes and not be thrilled with them. We put a huge amount of thought and energy and time into thinking about how to stage them and choreograph them and shoot them and really try to get it to a standard that we ourselves were incredibly proud of.”
The pilot features no fewer than three bone-breaking brawls, each one focusing on a different principal character: Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), the show’s titular disenchanted preacher who eventually comes to speak with the word of God; Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga), Jesse’s trigger-happy ex-girlfriend who returns to town at the height of Custer’s crisis of faith; and Cassidy (Joe Gilgun), the hard-drinking Irish vampire poised to become the show’s breakout character.
Rogen said that he and Goldberg first met Gilgun during a Skype call, “and it was like talking to Cassidy. He was the guy. There was no one who was even close to a second choice for that role. If we hadn’t gotten him, I don’t know what the f— we would’ve done.”
If Preacher succeeds, then early adopters of the comic will feel the surreal sensation of watching the static images of precious source material come to life — and for Rogen and Goldberg, at least, those feelings are still stirring, even with shooting on the first 10-episode season complete.
“I still watch it and go, ‘Wow, this is bonkers,'” said Rogen, “and that’s what Preacher should be.”
Preacher premieres Sunday, May 22, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC. Watch the first four minutes of the series premiere, below. (Warning: graphic content.)