Ahead of the series coming to Netflix on Friday, the creative team behind Sweet Tooth talk about developing a new, more hopeful version of dystopia, and how this story serendipitously mirrored so much of what’s happened in the world over the past year...
Jim Mickle read the DC Vertigo Sweet Tooth comic books by Jeff Lemire shortly after they were first published in 2009. The cover immediately grabbed Mickle’s attention. “Just seeing an image of a kid with deer antlers was enough to make me go, ‘What’s this about?’ I read it and loved how Jeff brought so much of himself and his personality to his artwork and writing. It’s a very singular vision you don’t often see in comics. There was something about that personal touch that stuck with me through the years.”
At the time, Mickle had a movie adaptation pitch in mind for Sweet Tooth; there didn’t seem to be room in the television landscape for such a vast story. Years later, in 2016, members of Team Downey — executive producers Susan Downey, Robert Downey, Jr., and Amanda Burrell — began developing Sweet Tooth as a series. Burrell recalls, “It was an incredible comic book and a full world, and so emotional. The Downeys read it and we all said, ‘We have to be the company to bring this story to life.’ We just had to find the right partner, and we found that in Jim Mickle.”
Burrell had known Mickle for years, and had a sense that he would connect with the work. When Team Downey reached out, she was thrilled to learn he was familiar with the comics already. Mickle knew the right time, the right team, and the right creative approach for Sweet Tooth had finally come along. “I knew that Team Downey would really commit to a vision and fight for it. We’ve had a great relationship now for almost five years of working on this project together.” Burrell adds, “As soon as Jim came on board, Sweet Tooth just clicked and felt right, and everything came to life. It became a collective, spirited effort from Warner Brothers and then eventually Netflix to bring everything together. It took us a long time to get this show made, but the great thing is that our collective passion for the project always led the way.”
Mickle penned and directed the pilot, which was shot in 2019 in New Zealand, and author Jeff Lemire was able to visit the set during production. Lemire says, “Jim laid out his vision for the series, and as soon as I heard how in line his vision was with what I had originally created, I felt the story was in really good hands.” The author also signed off on all creative changes between the comics and show. “For me, Gus and Jepperd are the core and the heart of the story, and that's remained true. Everything that’s been added has been very additive to that central heart of the story. I'm really excited about the new stuff, actually. I think some of the best parts of the show are some of the new characters, which is really exciting for me, because I get to experience something new, too.”
After the pilot was complete, Warner Brothers reached out to Beth Schwartz to join the Sweet Tooth team as co-showrunner, executive producer, and writer. As a new mother herself, the story resonated with Schwartz on a very personal level. She recalls, “I had a six-month-old baby at the time, and when I heard the show was all about parenthood and trying to protect your child from the big, bad world, I really related.”
Early on, the creative team knew they wanted to bring a new, more hopeful and personal touch to the apocalypse — an approach they dubbed “storybook dystopia.” Mickle explains, “I think the apocalypse has always had a very specific look for a very long time, and we wanted to turn that upside down. We wanted to make a show that offers escape and adventure, where nature is reclaiming the world and in many ways it feels like a fairytale. That approach informed everything about the show — the look, the feel, even our choice to have a narrator guide us through the story. Sweet Tooth is a new kind of dystopian story, it’s very lush and hopeful.”
New Zealand offered the perfect setting for this new approach. “We came here and shot the pilot and immediately fell in love,” says Burrell. “We knew what Sweet Tooth was, but being in New Zealand made us fully understand it. The magical beauty of New Zealand is otherworldly.”
Sweet Tooth follows Gus (Christian Convery), a young hybrid deer-boy who’s lived in seclusion with his father (Will Forte) in the forest since “The Great Crumble” ten years ago, when a cataclysmic virus changed the world forever. The pilot was written and shot well before the coronavirus pandemic, but the team suddenly found themselves making a show that felt unexpectedly timely. Mickle, Schwartz, and the writers were about two months into writing the season’s scripts in March 2020 when COVID-19 began shutting down parts of the US. The team returned to New Zealand in 2020 to shoot the remainder of the season and adhered to strict COVID-19 safety protocols.
Mickle says of the story’s real-life similarities, “Making television is such a labor and time intensive process, and sometimes when you jump into a story that has big themes and big messages, the world ends up mirroring and echoing the story. Crazily enough, the real world chased so much of what we address in this show — and what the comics addressed more than 10 years ago. Life keeps mirroring art, and vice versa.”
Burrell echoes, “Sweet Tooth the series has been in the making for us since 2016, but the comics existed even well before that. We all thought it was a sci-fi story, not something that could potentially happen. When it did, it was as shocking to all of us as it was to the rest of the world. But I think it emboldened us, and infused all of us with a sense of purpose to really entertain and connect and show that humanity and hope have a path forward.”
Schwartz adds, “I think everyone is going to relate to the show and this story even more than we even thought when we first started working on it. When you watch Sweet Tooth, you don’t feel sad about the past; you feel hopeful about the future.”
Despite its prescient parallels to the real world, Mickle believes Sweet Tooth will offer the whole family a fun escape. “We want people to come into this world where there’s beauty and hope and adventure. This is a sweeping story — we ride on trains, climb mountaintops, run through forests. This is a show about what makes a family, what home really means, and why it’s important to keep faith in humanity.”
Ten years ago “The Great Crumble” wreaked havoc on the world and led to the mysterious emergence of hybrids — babies born part human, part animal. Unsure if hybrids are the cause or result of the virus, many humans fear and hunt them. After a decade of living safely in his secluded forest home, a sheltered hybrid deer-boy named Gus (Christian Convery) unexpectedly befriends a wandering loner named Jepperd (Nonso Anozie). Together they set out on an extraordinary adventure across what’s left of America in search of answers— about Gus' origins, Jepperd's past, and the true meaning of home. But their story is full of unexpected allies and enemies, and Gus quickly learns the lush, dangerous world outside the forest is more complex than he ever could have imagined. Based on the DC comic book series by Jeff Lemire, Sweet Tooth is executive produced by Jim Mickle, Beth Schwartz, Susan Downey, Robert Downey, Jr., Amanda Burrell, and Linda Moran.
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