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Sweet Tooth creators dreamed of a post-apocalyptic fantasy with hints of Jim Henson

Jim Mickle and Beth Schwartz dig into the origins of their Netflix series

Sweet Tooth, the new series based on Jeff Lemire’s acclaimed 2009 Vertigo comic of the same name, is my favorite Netflix show in years.

The story centers Gus (Christian Convery), a part-deer, part-human hybrid 10-year-old boy born shortly after a virus wiped out a portion of the world population. Many now see the birth of a hybrid generation as the obvious cause of the outbreak, but as scientists on the case discover, the situation may be more complex that anyone’s ready to consider. But the disaster cripples society, and sends survivors into various 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 land, escaping his violent past. While there’s a semblance of modern life left in walled-off towns and pop-up enclaves, nowhere is safe for a boy like Gus. This is where Sweet Tooth all begins.

Though diverting from the darkness of the Lemire’s source material in significant ways, the eight-episode first season, spearheaded by writer-director Jim Mickle (Stake Land, Cold in July) and TV veteran Beth Schwartz (Arrow), constructs an authentically Amblin-esque adventure through a verdant 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 through a vivid backdrop and the right amount of whimsy, Mickle and Schwartz find their own groove. (And fans of Mickle’s horror work won’t be disappointed either.)

Without superheroes or intergalactic aggressors, Sweet Tooth becomes a more challenging “comic book show” to understand on the surface. To dig a little deeper, Polygon spoke to Mickle and Schwartz about how they approached turning Lemire’s books into an engrossing series.

[Ed. note: This interview is edited and condensed for clarity.]

A baby dog hybrid in Sweet Tooth Image: Netflix

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 big fan of the comic book when it first came out. Jeff brought so many other great elements to [a post-apocalyptic story] with the nature and animals and the character of Gus as this sort of symbol for innocence in a broken world. All that stuff really resonated with me.

Then, years later, looking at it as something to do as a series, I felt a big sense of responsibility of making a series that felt as fresh and sort of groundbreaking as the comic book did when it first came out. And so we spent a lot of time thinking about the tone and how we were going to convey [Jeff’s work]. We kept coming back to Gus as our window into this world. It’s such a unique world, but seeing it through the eyes of not just a 10-year-old kid, but a kid who’s part deer, and who’s never really seen anything in the world outside of trees and Mother Nature — what would that be like?

I’d love that kind of world. If I wasn’t making film or TV, I’d probably be living in the woods somewhere like Gus. And so there was like a romantic quality of that. All those things felt like fresh directions to go with a sort of end-of-the-world story.

Beth Schwartz: For me coming off a darker tone of a show, Arrow, it was just refreshing to see Jim’s pilot that had a tone to a comic book show and a dystopian show that I had never seen. I was a new mom at the time as well, so seeing the relationship with Gus and his father really just pulled on my heartstrings. We continued to hold on to that tone throughout the series.

Gus and Jepperd walk through a sunflower field Photo: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Netflix rarely commissions 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 such a sense of like, “What the hell is this gonna look like?” It is very execution dependent, as you can imagine. And so we were at Hulu, and then we migrated to Netflix, which has been great. I think they saw what the heck it was going to look like, and I could see what a season of the show would be.

Jim, you come from feature films — was there ever a chance of making it into a movie?

Mickle: Yeah. I remember at the time, I sent it to Nick Damici, my writing partner, and we were just like, “How do we do something with this?” But we just made [the 2010 vampiric post-apocalyptic film] Stake Land at that point, which is obviously very similar. I remember at the time being like, “Is this just Stake Land with a kid with antlers?” It also just felt like there was so much to the world, so much to dive into, 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. You don’t know exactly where it all goes next. Beth, was that helpful or a challenge?

Schwartz: Jim did something really original in the pilot in terms of keeping it very contained, and really building on characters which is obviously extremely important in television when you’re speaking about several episodes with the same characters for, hopefully, years. Keeping Gus secluded from the world and in the woods gave us the opportunity, when I came on board, to create the world. It was a blank slate in terms of who was outside that fence, and what kind of characters we meet along the way, as well as opening up different point of views. We see the character Dr. Singh in the pilot, but we continue to tell his storyline and his point of view, and then we introduce a new character, Amy Eaton, and we get to see her point of view as well. We really got to branch out, so it wasn’t just Gus, his point of view or story, going forward.

7-year-old Gus and his dad celebrate Gus’ birthday with a cake Image: Netflix

Jim, how did you go about translating Jeff’s art style, which can be fairly jagged, high-contrast, and purposefully unreal.

Mickle: I think Jeff’s artwork has a real handcrafted quality. It feels very much like one human did it, not like a machine made this thing. He’s drawing it, he’s inking it. And I love that quality. You don’t want to do a series that all of a sudden just goes like, “Great, let’s throw this into green screen and let some visual effects artists try to capture what Jeff did.”

At the same time, I was kind of falling back in love with Jim Henson, and practical work and puppetry of like the ’80s and ’90s that I grew up on. And just thinking like, “We don’t have anything like this anymore.” There was a show like Dinosaurs ... it blows my mind that a show like that existed.

The world had never seen anything like Baby Sinclair!

We were thinking if there was a way to bring that back into film and television, and if we could do that with Gus, everyone would catch on to that and get excited. This company Fractured Effects made Gus’ ears, and you start to film that and you see the way that the light kind of comes through the fuzz on his ears and all those little touches. It just feels like something you can feel in touch.

It’s something Spike Jonze did really well in Where the Wild Things Are, which The Henson Company worked on.

Mickle: That was a big reference! His approach to magic realism. Like 90% practical with the effects sweeteners and stuff is always so amazing.

In the comics, Gus’ dad is a religious zealot. In the show, he’s paranoid about the viral outbreak and protecting Gus from the anti-hybrid contingent, but not ideologically radical. What inspired that change?

Mickle: I started going one to one with the comic book early on and it felt really good. I was trying to write it quickly because we wanted to get into production quickly. And I remember, at some point, getting to where [Gus] meets Jepperd, and it was like the end of the first act. It felt way too fast. The show wouldn’t have been sustainable.

There’s so much that Jeff is able to convey through voiceover and setting up his character, so we started stretching that out. What is it like for this kid to live in the woods for 10 years by himself and the only other human that he interacts with is his father? I went down the same road as the comic book does [with Gus’ dad], writing him as a bit more authoritarian and a bit more of a punishing character, and it felt like he was going to meet that with Jepperd at the end of the pilot. I didn’t want to see him just get handed off from and to these harsh parental figures. It felt like, if anything, his father should be the opposite of who Jepperd was. And so that started to kind of milk the character in a different way. Then when we cast Will Forte, it had this trickle effect.

Schwartz: Will he just naturally brings a lightness and a no and a warmness to his, to his performance. And you really see how Gus is the way he is because of Will’s performance.

Beth, based on the story you want to tell, how long do you hope Sweet Tooth will go? Is there a set number of seasons you’ve plotted out?

Schwartz: That question is so hard to answer. Right now we’re just focused on season 1, and we’re so proud of the season as a whole. And obviously, we’d be more than excited to expand in future seasons. But how many? Not sure.