Sweet Tooth, Netflix’s post-apocalyptic fairy tale about half-human / half-animal hybrid children who arrive in the wake of a global pandemic, is an adaptation of a comic book series by Jeff Lemire. The TV show is very different from its source material, however, thanks to a thorough re-imagining by filmmaker Jim Mickle, who wrote or co-wrote three of the series’ eight episodes, directed four of them, and served as co-showrunner along with Beth Schwartz. In the process of going from the page to the screen, Mickle changed Sweet Tooth’s tone, look, and even genre. Slate caught up with him last week to talk about what drew him to the material, the changes he had to make for television, and the one plot point he wishes he’d found a way to include in the show. (Spoilers for both versions of Sweet Tooth follow.) This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Matthew Dessem: I’m interested in the process of adapting this and turning it from a comic book into a TV show. So let’s start with your background with comic books. You’ve done a lot of comic book adaptations, and you just announced you’re about to do another one [a feature adaptation of God Country]. Did you grow up reading comics?
Jim Mickle: I did, but I never quite understood the big comic books. I always gravitated towards Image, in the ’90s. It was independent comics and those offbeat voices that really resonated, or felt a little bit more personal—that was always something that inspired me. I would go through cycles where I wouldn’t really read comics for a couple of years. Then I’d find myself at a comic book store, I’d fall back in love, and I’d pick up everything that had come out in the years prior.
I started off as a storyboard artist and, at one point wanted to be a comic book artist. So I always had this relationship from afar. And then, Sweet Tooth, I got the first couple of issues in one of those binge sprees and fell in love with that concept. I had just made Stake Land, which is a very similar kind of story. And there was just something about it that felt so fresh: visually, the idea of a kid with antlers, but, also, the idea of bringing nature into it. At the time, I remember sharing it with Nick Damici, my writing partner, and just saying, “I think there’s something in here.” And we kept reading them and as each issue came out, it felt like, “This is too big for a movie. You can’t really condense this.”
It wasn’t until about 2016 that I had been talking about some other stuff with [Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey’s production company] Team Downey and they said, “We’re trying to crack this comic book for television. Have you ever heard of Sweet Tooth?” I had them all on my shelf at that point. I was just like, “Yes.” As soon as they said that I pictured that cover and it rekindled it all.
It seems like a difficult thing to crack. The way that you did it was by changing the genre, changing the audience, sort of completely reimagining it. When did you make the decision, “We’re just going to go crazy with this premise?”
It was very organic and it took time, I have to say. I remember looking at it, falling in love with it, saying, “We’re going to do this.” The aesthetic at that point was let’s do it as practically as we can possibly do it. At that time, I think it was a little bit more Where the Wild Things Are, the film adaptation. It was a little bit more raw and more like the comic book. I guess it was probably around the end of 2016: the election had just happened, I had just finished season two of Hap and Leonard, I was about to start a movie that folded four days before we were to start shooting, and it was all at Thanksgiving. I remember I was just so beat down by it, and picking up the pieces and going back and reading it feeling like, “I don’t know that I have it in me to do that version. I don’t know that I have it in me to do what I know is going to be years of the story, leaning into the sadness or the melancholy of it. Or holding up a dark mirror to the world.” It was like, “I already feel like we’re in the dark mirror. We can’t get a darker mirror.”
So it started from there—I started looking at it through that lens and saying, “This comic book felt so fresh in 2010 and here we are, 2016. A lot of these things have actually happened. Apocalyptic storytelling has come and gone and had three iterations by now. If we just do this, it’s going to feel like we’re stuck in 2010.” I started asking questions like, “What if you could make an apocalyptic story where you actually want to go to that world?” What does that look like? And you start asking, “What happens if humans just disappear for 10 years and nature is suddenly allowed to thrive?” It would probably be one of the most beautiful places you could go to.
So it started from asking, “What if it was actually beautiful and vibrant and not the dusty, sepia-tone look we’re used to with apocalyptic stories?” Gus was the biggest part of that: not just a ten-year-old boy, but a ten-year-old boy who is also animal, and everything is natural instincts and anything that is human or synthetic is just going to feel alien. Suddenly decisions like the hot pink of those flags [used by one of the show’s militias to mark territory] become, “What’s a color that doesn’t occur in nature?” You start with that premise and it trickles down to every decision.
One of the things was, it took Jeff [Lemire] 40 issues to get the mythology out. We needed to get to a lot of that right away. So it felt like we needed a guide and once you bring a narrator into the situation, suddenly you’re going, “We’re actually telling a fairy tale here.” It was an ongoing process that happened very organically.
Once you started redesigning it, you did every aspect at once? The look, the changes in the story, all of that?
Well, it started with that. Originally it was with Hulu and Jordan Helman and Sasha Silver—I had worked with Jordan on Hap and Leonard. I remember originally, he said, “Just go write the script. We’d like to get a script as soon as possible. You don’t have to show us an outline.” Which, to a writer, is like, “Oh, my God. I don’t have to do an outline!” I still wanted to do one just so I knew what the heck I was doing. So I did an internal one. I wrote an outline, I thought that I knew what I was doing. It was the first time I was writing something solo, because I had always worked with Nick Damici, and it was like, “I’m going to prove to myself that I can do this.”
So I locked myself away and I wrote the outline, and then I started going to script and I reached the end of the outline, and I was only 15 pages into the script. And I was like, “All right, this is not going to work.” But then you start playing in the world of Gus and his dad in the woods, which is only a page or two in the comic, it’s not very much. And you start going, “This is the whole story. This is where he learns everything. This is where he learns morality and this is where his innocence comes from. He’s only going to know about trees and dirt.”
So I started looking at it like, “Well, we need a lot more here—what if we just spend this entire opening episode with Gus in the woods?” Because, originally, I think, you were going to meet two or three other groups of characters by the end of the pilot. I think Jepperd was to come in halfway through. It was much faster and it suddenly felt like that was the wrong way to do it. You have to live with this kid and go what he goes through, so that when he leaves the fence, that’s the thing that sends us out to the world. So it was a process.
I wish I was one of those people who can look at something and go, “It’s got to be this, this and this.” I’m much more of a, “Got to sit with it and digest it and use trial and error, and look at it from a couple of different angles.” Because of that, things take longer than I’d like them to, but they wind up going how they should, I guess.
That first version of the pilot, which of the characters had you reimagined?
Well, we met Singh, we met Gus, we met his father, and we met Jepperd at that point. The idea to include Singh came in really early, because I love that character from the book and felt like I didn’t want to wait. The trick with the comic book is, it’s very driven by Gus’ point-of-view for the first six or seven issues. Hap and Leonard season one, we told almost all from Hap and Leonard’s perspective, which is how the books were written because they’re first person narration by Hap. It was my first time doing television, and I learned the hard way that it’s very hard to maintain rhythm and pace when you’re doing that kind of story for a long period of time. When you’re just settling with your main characters and not branching out.
So we knew that, at some point, we were going to have to start meeting other characters before Gus met them. Dr. Singh felt like the perfect version of that, because he was an interesting character and it felt interesting to think, “What if we met him 10 years before we meet him in the comic books?” So that idea was there, right from the get-go. Originally, I remember starting to write the father more like he is in the comic book, but it felt almost like it was a repeat of Jepperd. It felt like he was another authoritarian type. I remember Linda, my partner, was like, “It feels like he’s just being handed from one thing to a very similar thing—can we find a way to do something differently?” I had a really great upbringing and I had a great, very nurturing father. So it felt like that was the story to tell: somebody who’s actually ripped away from that and forced to go on the road with Jepperd.
When did you decide Jepperd would change from a white hockey player to a Black football player?
I know nothing about hockey and that was always the thing that intimidated me. I’m a massive football fan, I was really into Last Chance U at the time, and I was just fascinated by these players. I played very competitive sports till I was 20 or so, having that sort of thing where you’re constantly driven to compete and be physical and, at times, be brutal. And when that tips into your normal life, then you’re a pariah. I thought that was really interesting, as was the idea that you could be at the top of your game and have one small injury that knocks a millisecond off of your 40-yard dash, and all of a sudden you’re out of the league, and coping with what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.
So all that was swirling, the idea of Jepperd as this character who could come from that, who probably is not prepared for the world, a normal world. But when the world turns upside down, all of his skillsets that have been hindrances in his personal life are suddenly the things that he can use to survive. I was nudging Jeff and just letting him know, “Hey, we might be making this change.” And then when we cast, Nonso [Anozie], I just sent him a picture of Nonso, six foot six, almost 300 pounds. Like, “Is he a hockey player? Because I don’t think he’s a hockey player.” And Jeff was like, “No, go ahead.”
Were there characters or arcs you were sorry to lose from the comic book? What hurt to cut?
One big thing was that how Gus gets to the preserve in the comic is very different, and Jepperd’s role in that is very different. [Spoiler: In the comics, Jepperd betrays Gus and sells him to a militia in exchange for his wife’s remains.] We kept working on that for so long trying to get that right, trying to get a version that was going to work. We tried it, we tried it, we tried it. It’s one thing in a comic book, but how do you do it when you’ve spent eight hours with these characters and the audience has fallen in love with their relationship? How do you do that in a way that does not result in people just throwing their televisions out the window? It just felt like it was the wrong thing. On the page, violence, and violence with children, is a very different thing than onscreen with actors. There are things that you can get away with in comics that we can’t and vice versa.
You shot the pilot and then COVID-19 hit. That pilot opens with a global pandemic—were there things that you changed after actually experiencing one?
It was so accurate that we actually simplified a lot of it. That opening was originally probably five or six minutes in the very first cut, from 2019. It actually opened with Singh in front of the candy machine, and he’s got his mask on and it just opens on just his eyes. And then he pulls his mask down and he takes a deep breath. That was the opening shot, which is now further into the pilot. We were able to lose a lot of stuff because part of the challenge was showing the audience how quickly the world could fall apart. I remember pitching it as, “We’re going to watch the world be perfect and then fall apart in the span of just a few minutes and to do that, we’re going to have to show this.” We had a scene where Singh went into a supermarket and saw aisles of flu medicine gone, stuff like that that felt important at the time to show. But now the world has a shorthand for all this. So that was actually the only thing we changed, just simplifying it.
You mentioned earlier the waves of post-apocalyptic fiction that came out between the Sweet Tooth comic books and the time that you started adapting it for television. Which ones did you draw from? What are your favorites?
I Am Legend is my favorite book of all time, and Night of the Living Dead and the remake were big as I grew up. That was always a huge part of it. My first movie, Mulberry St., is very much inspired by that, and so is Stake Land. We made Stake Land, but before it was released, The Walking Dead came out. By the time our movie ended up coming out, I remember people going, “They’re ripping off The Walking Dead,” and being so frustrated by that because it was just the timing of releases. I was actually looking back at that and realizing how much of it was inspired by the Depression era. I remember when we were making stuff then, looking at what things looked like in the Dust Bowl—it was industrial, post-industrial images. I think it was interesting to look at that and go, “No, what does it look like now?”