Sweet tooth, the new series based on Jeff Lemire’s acclaimed 2009 Vertigo comic of the same name, has been my favorite series on Netflix for years.
The story revolves around Gus (Christian Convery), a half-deer, half-human hybrid 10-year-old boy who was born shortly after a virus wiped out part of the world’s population. Many now see the birth of a hybrid generation as the obvious cause of the outbreak, but as scientists discover in the case, the situation can be more complex than anyone would like to consider. But the disaster paralyzes society and sends survivors to different corners of the world. Gus and his father (Will Forte) live off the grid in an old national park. Gus’ future protector Jepperd (Nonso Anozie) wanders the country and escapes his violent past. There is still a semblance of modern life in screened cities and pop-up enclaves, but nowhere is safe for a boy like Gus. That’s where Sweet tooth everything starts.
Although the eight-part first season, led by writer and director Jim Mickle (Stake land, Cold in July) and TV veteran Beth Schwartz (arrow), constructs an authentic Amblin-esque adventure through a green post-apocalyptic world. The first episode is like a mini movie. What follows could easily be an echo of the Walking Dead or The last of us, but Mickle and Schwartz find their own groove through a lively setting and the right amount of mood. (And fans of Mickle’s horror work won’t be disappointed either.)
Without superheroes or intergalactic aggressors Sweet tooth becomes a more difficult “comic book show” to understand on the surface. To dig a little deeper, Polygon spoke to Mickle and Schwartz about how they wanted to turn Lemire’s books into a compelling series.
[Ed. note: This interview is edited and condensed for clarity.]
Sweet tooth Strikes a tone that feels separate from both the comic and many post-apocalyptic stories. How did you find your way into the material?
Jim Mickle: I was a huge fan of the comic when it came out. Jeff brought so many other great elements with him [a post-apocalyptic story] with nature and animals and the character of Gus as such a symbol of innocence in a broken world. All that stuff really touched me.
Then years later, when I saw it as a series, I felt very responsible for making a series that felt as fresh and groundbreaking as the comic did when it first came out. And so we spent a lot of time thinking about the tone and the way we are going to convey [Jeff’s work]. We kept coming back to Gus as our window into this world. It is such a unique world, but not only to be seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old child, but of a child who is partly deer and who has never really seen anything in the world except trees and mother nature – what would that be ? to like?
I would love a world like that. If I wasn’t doing film or television, I would probably be living in the woods somewhere like Gus. And there was something of a romantic quality to it. All of these things felt like new directions for some kind of doomsday story.
Beth Schwartz: For me a darker tone of a show comes out arrow, it was just refreshing to see Jim’s pilot which had a comic and dystopian tone to it that I had never seen before. I was a new mom at the time too, so the relationship with Gus and his dad really touched me. We kept that tone throughout the series.
Netflix rarely hires TV pilots, so how did that happen?
Mickle: We actually made it a pilot for Hulu. It started with the script and I think there was a feeling of like, “What the hell is this going to be like?” It is very execution dependent as you can imagine. So we went to Hulu and then we migrated to Netflix, which was great. I think they saw what the hell it was going to look like, and I could see what a season of the show would be like.
Jim, you come from the feature film – was there ever a chance you could make a movie out of it?
Mickle: Yes. I remember sending it to Nick Damici, my writing partner, and we just thought, “How do we do something with it?” But we just did [the 2010 vampiric post-apocalyptic film] Stake land at this point which is obviously very similar. I remember thinking back then, “Is that just? Stake land with a kid with antlers? ”It just felt like there was so much in the world, so much to immerse yourself in, it felt like a movie was too small to do that. And at that point, obviously, television wasn’t really doing that.
The pilot feels like a movie. They don’t know exactly where this is going next. Beth, was that helpful or a challenge?
Black: Jim did something really original in the pilot by keeping it very low-key and really building on characters, which is obviously extremely important on TV when talking about multiple episodes with the same characters for hopefully years. Keeping Gus secluded from the world and in the forest gave us the opportunity when I came on board to create the world. It was a blank board regarding who was outside that fence and what kind of characters we encounter along the way, as well as opening up different points of view. We see the character Dr. Singh in the pilot, but we keep telling his story and point of view, and then we introduce a new character, Amy Eaton, and we can see her point of view too. We really had to branch out, so it wasn’t just Gus, his point of view, or his story that went ahead.
Jim, how did you translate Jeff’s style of art, which can be quite jagged, rich in contrast and deliberately unreal.
Mickle: I think Jeff’s artwork is of real handcraft quality. It feels a lot like a human did it, not like a machine that did this thing. He draws it, he colors it. And I love that quality. You don’t want to do a series that just goes like this, “Great, let’s put this on the green screen and have some visual effects artists try to capture what Jeff did.”
At the same time, I fell in love again with Jim Henson and the hands-on work and puppetry of the 80s and 90s that I grew up with. And just thinking, “We don’t have anything like that anymore.” There was a show like dinosaur
The world had never seen anything like Baby Sinclair!
We thought if there was a way to get this back on film and TV, and if we could do that to Gus everyone would understand and be amazed. This company, Fractured Effects, made Gus’ ears and you start filming that and you see the light coming through the fluff on his ears and all those little touches. It just feels like something you can feel when you touch it.
Spike Jonze did that really well Where the wild things arethat The Henson Company worked on.
Mickle: That was a great reference! His approach to magical realism. How 90% practical with the effects of sweeteners and such is always so amazing.
In the comics, Gus’ father is a religious zealot. On the show, he’s paranoid about the virus outbreak and protecting Gus from the anti-hybrid contingent, but not ideologically radical. What inspired this change?
Mickle: I started getting into the comic one-on-one at an early age and it felt really good. I tried to write it quickly because we wanted to get into production quickly. And I remember that at some point I got there [Gus] meets Jepperd, and it was like the end of the first act. It felt way too fast. The show would not have been sustainable.
There’s so much that Jeff can convey through voiceovers and setting up his character, so we started stretching that out. What is it like for this child to live alone in the forest for 10 years and the only other person he interacts with is his father? I went the same way as the comic book [with Gus’ dad], wrote him as a bit more authoritarian and a bit more punitive character, and it felt like he was going to hit that with Jepperd at the end of the pilot. I didn’t want it to be just passed by and to these tough parent figures. It felt like his father was supposed to be the opposite, if anything, of what Jepperd was. And so that started milking the character in a different way. When we then used Will Forte, it had this trickle effect.
Black: Does he just want to be, of course, a lightness and a no and a warmth in his performance. And you can really see how Gus is because of Will’s performance.
Beth based on the story you want to tell, how long do you hope for? Sweet tooth will go? Are there a set number of seasons that you have planned?
Black: That question is so difficult to answer. Right now we’re only focusing on Season 1, and we’re so proud of the season as a whole. And of course we would be very happy to expand in future seasons. But how many? Not sure.