J.J. Abrams might be the big name producer who's bringing the Stephen King adaptation "11.22.63" to Hulu, but at the TCA Winter Press Tour, Indiewire leapt at the chance to talk with showrunner Bridget Carpenter, the woman with all the answers about what went into bringing this story to life on screen. After all, probably the only thing tougher than making a period drama is making a story about time travel make sense. And "11.22.63," which explores what happens when a modern day high school teacher gets a chance to travel back to the '60s and save President John F. Kennedy from one of the most famous assassinations of all time, is both those things.
Carpenter, whose previous television experience includes shows like "Parenthood" and "Friday Night Lights," explained a few of the major changes made from the book, including the fact that Jake (James Franco) immediately dives into his quest without any margin for error. She also dug into why, if a major element of your show is "two-hander" (two person) scenes filled with exposition, you want the person doing that exposition to be Chris Cooper, and admitted that after working on the show, she might have her doubts about who actually killed JFK.
That last statement might be controversial, but one thing we can all agree on: James Franco looks good in a 1960s suit. An edited transcript follows below.
Congratulations on Sundance [where the series premiered in the Special Events section]. What does that mean for you, especially since you come so much from television?
I feel great approbation from Sundance because, first of all, Kevin MacDonald directed the pilot and was my partner in making the pilot along with J.J., Hulu and Warner Bros., and Kevin is an Oscar-winning director and a Sundance veteran. It makes me so happy to have our actors in Kevin's work and the show gets so recognized for the kind of filmmaking that we were trying to do. It always felt like — even though we were making a series — I knew that we were trying to make one long film. It was like a film with a lot of chapters. So that was my goal, and so getting to be at Sundance with these phenomenal actors is thrilling.
I was talking to Sarah Gadon earlier, and she was saying that she really liked having all the scripts, so she knew the entire arc.
Yeah, yeah. She dug in.
It's not something every actor I've spoken to loves, especially in television. For you, how did you balance that?
I would do whatever the actor wanted to do because, you know, no actor has quite the same process. And so, I knew that I was going to be done and I was like, you have the option of reading all the scripts or if you would like to stay behind that's fine, but know that any questions that you may have for me, are answered. They're right there. The same kind of happened with the book, too... Yeah, I try to support what's going to help the actors do their best work.
In the book, if I recall correctly, Jake goes back and forth between the past a number of times, but one of the things I really responded to here is the fact that you do not do that. He's in it to win it from day one. What went into that change?
Well, it seemed like a no-brainer to me because the book is an intimate experience. You're alone, presumably. You can read it at your own pace, you can put it down, etc. So you're adjusting and telling that story in your head and you're reading it on your own time. Well, TV is the opposite of that. You're on my time. I want to pace what you're doing and when you're seeing it and it takes the stakes away if you get a bunch of test runs. I was like, "No practice." I want to experience it with Jake. I don't want to give him any help. I don't want him to go, "Oh I tested this, so I did this."
In the book, it deepens your affection for this character and what he's capable of, and it deepens the mystery of how the past works. But I went, "No." Dramatically, I just want him to have this shot and that's it. If you really want to change [the past] and you really make it work, then that's the consequence and you can't go back and un-change it.
Also, coming from the perspective of trying to write a time-travel narrative, I imagine that kept things a little simple — or, at least, simpler.
Yeah, for sure! I just felt like the world of the 1960s — again, dramatically — is the world that I wanted to live in. I wanted to go there and be there. I'm not interested in flipping back and forth. I just didn't think that for a series, that was the story that this series wanted to tell. We wanted to talk about the guy who got immersed and vacuumed into the past. Not the guy who got to kind of go, "Oh, I'm going to try this, I'm going to try that." That's not quite the story of this series.
Do you feel that those questions might come up at all, especially for people who didn't read the book? Like, "Why doesn't he try it a couple of times first?"
The reason why I don't think so, although they might, is that I think when you get to the '60s it's so delicious. You don't want him to leave. So I think people won't go, "Why didn't he?" because we actually made some real visual decisions in terms of lens, color palette and style of filming to look different in the 1960s, to be more appealing, in a certain way, than the slightly more mundane. There's magic in going back! This other world is real. So I kind of thought, "No, I'm going to trust that everyone is going to want to live there with me."
I definitely felt that watching it.
Actually, I was watching the pilot with my mom and both of us, after James' character gets the haircut, we were like, "Oh!"
Yeah, for sure! That shave, that haircut...
He makes it work.
He really does. He puts on that hat and you're like, "You can wear the hell out of a 1960s suit."
All those elements—
But at the same time, you want to balance that with also portraying the very real issues of that time period. What went into that for you?
Well, you know, the book laid great groundwork and one of the things that Stephen King wrote to me earlier on — which I've loved and try to use as a guidepost — he wrote to me, "One of things that I wanted to do with this book is to say the '60s were great and the '60s sucked." And I thought, "That's right. I want to live in that contradiction." So it's sort of painful to me that it's an all-white world, almost entirely. But that's the reality of the time and you know, in Episode 4, we introduce Miss Mimi and try to kind of glance at it and say, "Oh right. There's another reality in this world that we don't confront head on, but it's right there in front of us."
Also, I remember reading the book, and I did not expect a 400-page long deep dive into the life and times of Lee Harvey Oswald. You've got Stephen King's work to work with, of course, but you have to write that character, I imagine, somewhat from the inside out.
Mainly, I thought about three-dimensionality, which is, no matter what you think about... Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, or James Earl Ray — these are people who did presumably an evil thing. Hideous acts of violence. But they are still people. They exist as people. They were babies, they were children. And so, I always want to think about every character as a full human being and then allow the audience, like anybody, to come to their own conclusions and make their own decisions about how they feel about him or her.
Do you feel different about Oswald now than when you did when you first started the project?
Yes, I do. I feel-- I really only had a paper cut-out picture of him in my mind. I had the picture of him with the rifle. I had the image of him being shot by Jack Ruby. But I didn't have a whole person in mind. And now, having read a little bit about his life... I feel more compassion, I feel more disgust and I feel more exasperation and sadness for him. He certainly had a harder life than I had. A life that I can't imagine. I don't think that excuses anything, and I'm not sure I believe that he did it alone.
Yeah, I got changed around.
Yes. I was a single-shooter theorist before this show, and now I'm a conspiracy theorist. Stephen King is like, "Really?" because he's a straight single-shooter believer and I was like, "It’s your fault! I invented too much and now I think different."
I know this is an event series. That's been spelled out in big letters, and it's based on a book that has a very concrete ending. While I'm sure that Episode 8 has its own take on that ending, is there a Season 2?
There is not a Season 2. You know what, if there's a Season 2, it's not my Season 2 because I really felt like this ended. But I will say, J.J. said more than once, "I see how this could keep going." And I went, "I don't. I don't see that." And we kind of decided to fondly agree to disagree. So, I think there's no Season 2. It is called "11.22.63." What do we call next time?
What happens in "'64?" What happens a year after?
I don't know. I'm not writing it.
Yeah. Exactly. We can call it "7.20.69." That's the moon landing, right?
I think so. The only reason I ask is because the concept of the event series is really different right now.
That's true. And there is some way to keep reinventing it and turning it. For me, the pleasure in this story was the finality -- the bittersweet finality of its ending to me. But that's not to say someone isn't going to prod me with a cattle iron until I think of something else.
I'm not trying to harp on it, but because you come from ongoing narrative television, what was it like getting to have an ending?
It feels so wonderful because it's so satisfying to truly tie things up. This finale is one of my favorite things I have ever written, I will say, and gotten to make. And it's also bittersweet because I miss everybody and we had a great time making it. So, now I'm like, "Wait a minute. Maybe there is another way." Making it is kind of like getting to put on the final polish and knowing this is a story you want to leave people with. It feels special. Very unique.
What are you hoping people take away from it? I'm sure you don't want to tell people how to feel about something--
Oh, I do. I want them to feel like I'm a genius. [laughs] To me, this story's theme is that actions have consequences. And so that what you do matters, in every sense of that phrase. So, I hope that they come away watching sort of breathless. I hope they're totally entertained, and I hope that they also go, "Perhaps there's a reason things happen the way they do. And we don't always know why."
That uncertainty sounds like a tough thing to communicate in a satisfying way.
I think that's right. It is hard to communicate. Although, I felt like you want the events of this story, or any story, to feel inevitable. To feel like it could not have happened any other way. This was the way the story must unfold because that's like life. You don't get do-overs. So, I think there's some sort of satisfaction in feeling it's right. I always am driving towards inevitability, but also burying it along the way.
That's a tough one, too, because you want the story to feel like--
--anything could happen at any moment. And then you need to feel at the end, "That should've happened that way." It's a balancing act, for sure. That's what I hope. I hope there's a sense of inevitability and you're satisfied you went on the ride.
That's such a good note to leave off on, but I want to ask you about one more thing. What's always interesting, when you're breaking down a show like this, especially when you're looking to talk to the actors, is, "Who do they have scenes with?" And what struck me about the show is you have a reasonably large ensemble, but most of them are pretty separate. Was that a deliberate thing, or it's how it evolved?
It's how it evolved because I chose to tell the story dramatically through a very strong Jake point of view. For the most part — and I started breaking this in later [episodes], after [Episode 5] — I did not want us to know things that Jake did not know. I didn't want to go over here and to see things Jake wouldn't see. Jake's our avatar. He goes through the rabbit hole and we're with him. And so, we don't get to know things and wait for him to catch up to us. That was the thing that drove what you're talking about. It was sort of like we wanted to stay strongly with him and so therefore if you stay strongly with him, therefore not everybody will be in the room with him at the same time. They're going to be in the room with him at different times. So, we follow him in the different areas and neighborhoods that he goes.
What it also does, though, is there's a lot of scenes that are two-handers. What does that give you as a storyteller?
It gets two great actors to get to look into each other's eyes. That's really special. The days that Chris Cooper and James Franco were on set together are days that I don't think anybody on the crew or the set would ever forget because you would get grizzled old lifer grips and people who had been in the business forever, and then Chris Cooper would start to talk and you could hear a pin drop. It's really amazing to get to be with actors who are at the very height of their game. And it's not nothing to them. They're not shrugging and going on. It's electric. That's what two-handers can give you. There's a quality of attention and I think intrigue and suspense that it gives you, too. Or, in this case, love. You get it all.
A lot of what Chris Cooper has, especially in the first episode, is pretty much flat-out exposition.
Yes, that's totally true. He was like, "Really Bridget?" Believe me. He was well aware of that, too. He was like, "I'm the mouthpiece for everything." And I'm like, "I know. You're the one who knows everything." I knew it.
But while that word has negative connotations, if you can sell it beautifully--
That's true. And who do you want to have to expose it more than Chris Cooper?
It's a short list.
It's a really short list. So, I was like, "That'll be okay. He can talk for a while." He was amazing. He was like, "Aw, Bridget, this is a lot of information." And I was like, "I know. I know it is." He was really, really gracious about it. Because those scenes are harder to play than other scenes, because you have to be present and emotional while telling you these things we want the audience to know.
There's that line from the pilot. I'm going to paraphrase it, "I need you to go back in time and kill JFK." And that line is so simple and perfect, but it's also probably one of the hardest lines of dialogue to sell in the entire thing.
Exactly. We're giving you the thesis of the series right here. Here's the thesis. Focus up. But you care. Because it's Chris Cooper.
New episodes of "11.22.63" will premiere weekly on Hulu.