CS Interview: Showrunner/co-creator Benjamin Cavell on The Stand
Ahead of the series’ debut on the streaming platform, ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to chat with showrunner, co-creator and executive producer Benjamin Cavell (SEAL Team) to discuss his work adapting Stephen King’s The Stand into the miniseries, which premiered on CBS All Access today!
ComingSoon.net: The Stand is one of the most iconic works of Stephen King, while also one of the most notorious in bringing to life on screen, how did your joining the project come about?
Benjamin Cavell: So about almost three years ago now, Julie McNamara, who runs CBS All Access, approached me. I had made a pilot that that she was the executive on several years ago and I had known her over the years as somebody who’s incredibly smart, and whose taste I really, really loved. So she approached me about doing this as a, as a limited series and I jumped at it, what can I say? I mean, I’ve loved the book since I was 12 or so and reading seriously and discovering Stephen King as I suppose virtually everybody in our generation did when they were that age. I’m not a sort of horror genre guy, I certainly read The Shining and Pet Sematary, and It, but they were never things that I sort of imagined writing myself, whereas, you know, the other King stuff that doesn’t fit as firmly in that horror genre is the stuff that I gravitated to just as I was realizing that I wanted to be a writer myself. Just thinking about the kinds stories that I would be interested in telling them, you know, The Stand, The Running Man, I know, those are very different, but neither one of them fits into a sort of classic horror genre. I mean, you know, The Stand is The Lord of the Rings in America as King described it. So anyway, it seemed to me when Julie approached me that this new medium, this kind of event, limited series that’s kind of a hybrid between TV and features with the feature-level cast, stars who would never sign on to do an ongoing series and feature-level budgets and effects that was really the only way to tell this story is as a nine-hour feature and that’s just not a medium that’s existed for very long. I know a lot of people date the beginning of it as the first season of True Detective, so it just seemed like the circumstances were right, in terms of what will be required to tell the story and then my first reaction was that the time was so right. I mean it sounds weird to say now that the story feels so eerily resonant or reminiscent of things that are happening right now in our world with a pandemic. But the fact is, three years ago, I thought the story was weirdly resonant and weirdly timely because, to me, The Stand is not really a book about a pandemic, you know, it’s a book about what comes after and the elemental struggle between the forces of Flagg and the forces of Mother Abigail and this question of, “What would you do if you were given the chance to kind of press the reset button on humanity, how would you rebuild human civilization? You know, what are the fundamentals of a human society and what does a society owe to the individual, what does an individual owe to a society, what do individuals owe each other?” Stuff that I think we had started to question and that we mostly had taken for granted, at least as long as I have been alive, about the structure of American democracy, about all these things. So it felt like the time was so right to remake The Stand for all of those reasons and to and to have our new take on it and then obviously, real world circumstances made it feel oddly more prescient, but I think King is so prescient and has always been so prescient in so many ways just because, it may be lame to say, but he has such a wonderful imagination, not in the in terms of being able to imagine fantastical stuff, but a literal kind of imagination of how people and the world will react to certain events and his kind of eerie ability to sort of predict things and write about things before they become necessary.
CS: What was it also like for you coming into the project with Josh Boone, who had been trying for a few years to get an adaptation going?
BC: Well, he had been trying for many years to make it as a feature, you know, a lot of people have tried to make it as a feature, George A. Romero tried to make a feature back in the day and I think Affleck tried to do it for a while, I frankly never tried to do it as a feature, I have no idea how you how you would. I can’t even really wrap my head around it. I mean, it took so much work to condense this 1200-page masterpiece into nine hours, the idea of condensing it into two hours, I can’t even really wrap my head around it. Josh really is only an EP on the first two episodes he directed and he really was focused on that stuff. He’d be the first to tell you that he’s not a showrunner, you know, he’s a filmmaker. So he knew, I guess, that it wasn’t going to work for him to sever this thing as the event series itself, he focused on on his two and obviously, you know, just as the showrunner, I had to be responsible for those two. But, you know, we kind of broke out the whole season and took it to the point where King had talked about writing this quota for a while, I mean, I guess he’d been planning it for 30 years. He saw the first couple drafts of what we were doing and really responded to it and felt we were onto something and liked the way we were telling the story. I guess that convinced him to feel like he could trust us to tell this coda that he’s been wanting to add for 30 years, so he sort of asked me to tell him where we were planning to end our certain version of the book so that he knew where he could pick it up and that was just obviously a dream come true for everybody.
CS: One of the things I loved about the show so far is that it feels like it’s leaning into far more of the novel in comparison to the original, what were some of the key elements of the novel you felt were most important to bring to this adaptation?
BC: Thank you for saying that, because we obviously tell the story in a nonlinear way, which is not how the book is written and how the original miniseries unfolded, but I do think that, except for that, we are really very faithful. I mean, we know what the book means to people, we know what it means to us and, well first of all, we were very excited to have more more space than they did in the original miniseries and to be able to restore some things that they just didn’t have room for, like Rita Blakemoor, which, you know, in the original miniseries Larry gets out of New York with Nadine and I think that’s that’s a real win, I feel, to be able to restore the character Rita who was played by Heather Graham in our series and to restore the kind of sojourn that she and Larry have in this empty New York. That’s a such a memorable part of the book for me and I’m so happy we got to tell it again. So much of the pleasure of reading Stephen King is the access that he gives you to these characters, you know, their deepest, darkest, most secret thoughts and feelings and desires and the challenge right away of translating that to the screen is that you have to develop the internal self and make it external, right? I mean, it either has to come through as something somebody says or something somebody does or some way they look and, you know, that just means that there’s going to be sections of the book that just don’t play the same way that they do on the page. One of those, and people will have to judge for themselves sort of how well we render it, from the book in the Lincoln Tunnel sequence, which I know is a very memorable part of the book. One of the things that I remembered as a reader, one of the things that distinguishes our series, I hope is that it is really, really grounded in reality and logic and people making decisions that you believe and one thing we realized pretty early on was that it’s almost impossible to justify leaving New York via a tunnel in these circumstances. I mean, I don’t want to you know, attack Stephen King, who’s an idol of mine and one of the great storytellers in the history of humanity, but why in God’s name would you not get out of New York via a bridge [laughs]? By the way, I would rather take a boat than go in a tunnel with all the power out and, you know, the tunnel is is packed and clogged with traffic. I wrote on Justified, this FX show about Eastern Kentucky with Taylor Elmore, who I brought in as my partner on this show to help me shepherd it through production. But we visited Harlan, Kentucky, which is, you know, Eastern Kentucky mining country and went down into a closed mind and at one point, the guy who was guiding us he warned us, “I’m going to turn out the lights, I want you guys to know it’s fine, I’ll turn it back on, but I just want you to get a sense of how dark it is here.” He turned it off and, you know, that’s what it would be inside the Lincoln Tunnel and the idea of going there frankly, it is incomprehensible to me, also, I think you’ll agree, is probably not going to be very compelling. That darkness is so complete, and these people yelling at each other in that darkness and shooting at each other, I’m not sure you’re going to want to sit through 15 minutes of that. So we tried to do our version, which clearly is trying to pay homage to our sources material of this masterpieces we’re adapting and also to ground it in the reality of our show and to make it feel beautiful and cinematic and like something that an audience wants to watch and visceral and all of those things. But I just think in order to do a righteous adaptation of this book that that feels so visceral and so immediate and where, you know, it’s so kind of beautiful to read, I just don’t know that that a 15-minute pitch black Lincoln Tunnel sequence with Larry yelling and screeching and thinking that skittering rats or people are behind him or something, I just don’t know that that’s gonna be beautiful.
CS: Since you’ve mentioned the cinematic nature of the look and cast, what was it like building this ensemble, did you have people in mind for certain characters when writing the script or was it through the normal casting process you found your stars?
BC: You know, it really varies. I mean, for for some of the characters we really knew who we were writing for, I mean Whoopi had wanted to play mother Abigail I guess apparently since she read the book and before the original miniseries came out. Like she would have been 40 years old or something, but she wanted to play the Ruby Dee part in the original miniseries, I have no idea how that would have worked [chuckles]. So anyway Whoopi had been really sort of making it clear that she was interested in that role for a long time, so we knew, essentially, that we were ready for Whoopi. The only person I ever thought of for Tom was Brad William Henke, who we’ve worked with on Justified and who I just know to be a completely resilient and committed actor, he was the only person I thought of, the only call I made. So there was stuff like that, but then, I mean Skarsgård as Flagg was a dream, but I don’t know that we were really writing for anybody in particular, no I can actually say we definitely weren’t. We were trying to find the character of Flagg because, he’s so elusive and has been imitated so many times, you know, since the book was first written and that’s a thing that I think that made Skarsgård’s performance so interesting and so unique. I was caught off guard by the way he was he was playing it and we were able to write to that going forward, but I just love his kind of quiet stillness. I mean, he doesn’t play Flagg with nearly the flamboyance that I think a lot of other people would have, and I think that’s such an interesting and smart and confident choice.
CS: Given the big cast you assembled, were there any thoughts about possibly bringing back original stars for cameo appearances in this one?
BC: We did, we did consider it. It’s hard., I mean, there actually is a is a cameo late on, I mean, not as a character, you just sort of see him in the background, from Mick Garris himself, which is sort of fun. But, I don’t know, the thing we really didn’t want to do, or the thing that I really didn’t want to do, was take people out of the reality of our series. I get very concerned about stuff like that when it really feels winky. Like the audience can sort of see the filmmaker or the creators sort of leaning out from behind the TV and giving them a little nod, like, “Look what I did.” That stuff makes me really uncomfortable and worried so we avoided that for the most part. The one time we talked about it, and I don’t want to spoil who it actually is, is when Stu gets to General Starkey, since there’s such a build, and there’s such a build in the book and it’s such a memorable sort of cameo from the original miniseries, that we we talked a lot about who that was going to be. Because that’s kind of its kind of where the story and where the book advertises, “Oh, there’s going to be some kind of stunt here, right?” I mean, that’s sort of baked into the story, this is the holiest of holies. This is the big guy, the guy pulling the strings, at least as far as this place that Stu is confined, goes. So it just felt like that’s where we had room to do it, but we have a different kind of cameo that is with a with an actor who is too big for the part but who is also fundamentally just a brilliant actor and and who inhabits that card and is really interesting in it and we decided to err on the side of creative pleasure and the kind of cameo flashiness of it is still there, but it’s a secondary consideration in some way.
The nine-episode series adaptation of Stephen King’s novel from writers Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars, The New Mutants) and Cavell, reveals that this is the way the world ends: with a nanosecond of computer error in a Defense Department laboratory and a million casual contacts that form the links in a chain letter of death. And here is the bleak new world of the day after, a world stripped of its institutions and emptied of 99 percent of its people. A world in which a handful of panicky survivors choose sides — or are chosen. A world in which good rides on the frail shoulders of the 108-year-old Mother Abigail — and the worst nightmares of evil are embodied in a man with a lethal smile and unspeakable powers: Randall Flagg, the dark man.
The Stand will feature a star-studded cast that includes James Marsden (Westworld) as Stu Redman, Amber Heard (Aquaman) as Nadine Cross, Alexander Skarsgård (Big Little Lies) as Randall Flagg, Greg Kinnear (As Good as It Gets) as Glen Bateman, Whoopi Goldberg (Nobody’s Fool) as Mother Abigail, Odessa Young (Assassination Nation) as Frannie Goldsmith, Nat Wolff (Paper Towns) as Lloyd Henreid, Henry Zaga (The New Mutants) as Nick Andros, Jovan Adepo (Overlord) as Larry Underwood, Owen Teague (IT) as Harold Lauder, Brad William Henke (Orange Is the New Black) as Tom Cullen, Daniel Sunjata (Rescue Me) as Cobb, a new character, Katherine McNamara (Arrow) as Julie Lawry, Eion Bailey (Band of Brothers) as Teddy Weizak, Hamish Linklater (Legion) as Dr. Ellis and Heather Graham (The Hangover) as Rita Blakemoor.
King wrote the ninth and final episode of the series, which will include a new “coda” to the story that wasn’t part of the author’s novel. Boone will also direct the series finale for CBS Television Studios. Boone, Roy Lee, Jimmy Miller, Richard P. Rubinstein, and Cavell will executive produce. Will Weiske and Miri Yoon will co-executive produce with Owen King serving as producer.