Five Minutes With: Mark Johnson
The Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul producer discusses bringing the Anne Rice universe to AMC with Interview with the Vampire and Mayfair Witches.
An Oscar-winning producer for Dustin Hoffman’s 1988 feature Rain Man, Mark Johnson has built a stellar television career on the back of acclaimed shows such as Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Rectify and Halt & Catch Fire.
With an overall deal at AMC Studios, Johnson is now responsible for bringing the novels of Anne Rice to the small screen after AMC Networks picked up the rights to 18 titles in the author’s storied catalogue. They include books in The Vampire Chronicles series, The Lives of the Mayfair Witches series and numerous crossover novels.
Interview with the Vampire, which launched in October last year, was the first series to air under the deal. Created by Rolin Jones, it is based on Rice’s 1976 novel and follows in the footsteps of the 1994 feature film of the same name starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. The story concerns vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac (Jacob Anderson), who recounts his life and how he was made a vampire by the charismatic Lestat de Lioncourt (Sam Reid).
The show was followed last month by Mayfair Witches, the second Rice novel to be adapted for AMC. Led by writers Esta Spalding and Michelle Ashford, it stars Alexandra Daddario as a young neurosurgeon who discovers she is the unlikely heir to a family of witches.
Both series, which are formally titled Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches, have been renewed for second seasons, while Johnson is continuing to develop new titles from Rice’s catalogue.
Here, the producer speaks to DQ about overseeing the Anne Rice Universe, how the novels are being adapted for TV and more.
When did you join discussions about the Anne Rice novels?
I was involved from the very beginning when it was announced, but I was not involved in buying the books. That was AMC’s genius on their own. Then because I knew them so well and we had this deal, they asked me if I’d be interested in overseeing them. To be totally honest, I had not read Anne Rice at that point. For some reason, it never occurred to me that she was somebody I should read. So I did my homework and started reading her. Then I also saw the movie Interview with the Vampire, and I thought, ‘Oh, OK, I have an idea what to do with it.’
Her work stands out. Obviously, she reflects [the setting of] New Orleans very well, but it’s really in her characters and her marginal characters who she has such sympathy for, including vampires. Vampires are never seen as the ‘other.’ They’re never seen as non-human; they’re seen as human beings. They just happen to be vampires.
How did you decide where you would start?
Well, the obvious one was Interview with the Vampire, and Rolin Jones was put on it immediately to write it. Then I brought in my friend Michelle Ashford to do Witches. We have three other books being written [as TV series] right now. AMC bought 18 books. Not all 18 of them beg to be filmed, but many of them do. There are also characters and institutions in some of the books that you could pull out and do a whole show about.
What was your take on adapting Interview with the Vampire with Rolin?
He was not afraid of the text. He really wanted to go to it and embrace it, and embrace many things that the movies steered clear of, and he wasn’t afraid of that. He wanted to be more overt about the love affair between Louis and Lestat, and make it as pronounced and operatic as it could be. I think our television series Interview with the Vampire is closer and more faithful to the book than the movie, which is ironic because Anne Rice wrote the screenplay for the movie.
Why did you want to remain faithful to the source material?
I want to be faithful because she’s so good and so many of her books are too. You also want to adapt and make sure they reflect the zeitgeist of the time. She was a revolutionary writer in that she was a woman writing about issues from sexual things to really forbidden things like rape and incest. So I want to be able to be faithful to her boldness but, at the same time, make it work for a modern sensibility.
Before Mayfair Witches was commissioned, a writers room was opened to explore the novel’s potential as a series. Is that the plan for every adaptation?
Exactly right. I’m convinced there are a number of series here, and we just have to figure out which ones are the most viable.
What makes them viable?
For me, it’s always compelling characters. I used to produce for the director Barry Levinson, and we did very small movies at first. We did Diner and Tin Men and even Good Morning, Vietnam, and they were all about characters. Not a lot happened, so there’s got to be compelling characters ,and then you put them in situations in which they are allowed to reveal themselves.
What was it you enjoyed about Mayfair Witches that made it a potential television series?
I like the idea of somebody thinking that she’s got the world, she understands it, she knows how to work within it, and then finding out that she does not and really is potentially a pawn in somebody else’s chess game.
In your executive producer role, how do you work with Jones, Spalding and Ashford?
I come from a feature background, in which the producer’s job is very much to support the director and to make sure they are able to make the film they want to make. I feel that’s very much the same for showrunners. We want to help the showrunner and support them in making the show they’re setting out to make. Obviously, that doesn’t mean I just rubber-stamp everything. If I disagree with something, if I think we’re making a mistake, I’m hopefully quite tactful about it, but I certainly make it known.
What challenges did you face on the two shows?
In both cases, the showrunners knew what they wanted. Witches was a little bit more difficult in that the book is so sprawling and we tried to do a number of things. Witches has a more popular base to it, but you want to make something for yourself. If you start to make it for somebody else or you imagine the audience, that’s a mistake. So you should please yourself. I don’t think my taste is so rarefied that no one else is going to like it, so that’s important.
In the Anne Rice Universe, will the series be linked thematically or through shared locations and characters?
I hope so. I hope we have connections to them and other things, rather than just the Easter eggs hidden around. I’m hoping we start to see characters introduced in one show but we then see that character in another one.
How are you choosing the showrunners you’re working with? Have you worked with them before?
Yes, exactly. That’s very important to me. I’ve been doing this long enough that there isn’t a showrunner or a director, writer or actor I can’t get to. That doesn’t mean they’re going to say yes, but at least I’ll try at the top.
Are the series filmed in New Orleans or is that just the setting?
The second season of Interview with the Vampire takes place in Paris, and we’re actually going to shoot it in Prague. Witches was all in New Orleans. If there’s a second season, we’ll go back to New Orleans.
How would you describe the scale of the productions?
Interview is quite ambitious – it looks like a big HBO-type show and I’m very proud of what we were able to do for the money we had. We overreached and I think we achieved what we wanted to do.
What are your ambitions with the Anne Rice Universe?
I hope at one point we have five shows going at once, which is not inconceivable. Once we love a world or characters, we want to stay with them.
Have you learned any lessons from getting the first two shows on air?
I just have to be more careful about how we connect them. I don’t mean in any tricky way, but just to make sure that no matter what show you tune into, you go, ‘Oh, that’s an Anne Rice show.’