Tag Archives: Mr Mercedes

The monster within

As Mr Mercedes returns for a second season, showrunner Jack Bender tells DQ about adapting Stephen King’s crime novel for the small screen and the importance of character in TV drama.

While Stephen King is well known for stories with elements of fantasy, science-fiction and the supernatural, Mr Mercedes arguably ranks among the most conventional novels he’s ever written.

Strictly a cat-and-mouse crime thriller between a retired cop still trying to solve the case that got away and a psychotic serial killer plotting one final rampage, it was adapted for television by AT&T’s Audience Network, which launched the show last year.

The first 10-part season saw former detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) go head-to-head with Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway), the man known as Mr Mercedes after driving a car into a crowd, killing several people in the opening minutes of the show.

So far, so traditional cop drama. Yet season two, which debuts in the US on August 22, goes “a little more into ‘Stephen Kingdom,’” director and showrunner Jack Bender tells DQ.

Merging story elements from King novels Finders Keepers and End of Watch, the second and third instalments of the Mercedes trilogy, season two is set a year after the events of season one. Hodges has set up a private investigation firm while Hartsfield is in a coma, on life support and in a vegetative state. But when unexplainable occurrences begin to affect hospital staff members attending to Hartsfield, Hodges is haunted by the feeling that the comatose killer is somehow responsible. Watching the opening two episodes, it certainly feels like the show is shifting towards traditional King territory.

Mr Mercedes showrunner Jack Bender (left) on set with star Brendan Gleeson

“The big issue was where we left Brady at the end of season one, with his head bashed in. What were we going to do with the storytelling? So we followed the breadcrumbs Stephen had laid out to work out how we give Harry room to act and move and not just have him in a hospital bed with a voiceover,” says Bender. The answer was to dramatise Hartsfield’s inner thoughts, with Treadaway occupying a dark basement filled with computer screens that serves as his eyes out to the world.

“So Hodges is our everyman and the show remains character-driven, but we definitely had to go out on the tightrope and push the envelope. That was my most challenging task this year, aside from keeping the show as wonderful as it was. The task was to walk that tightrope in terms of both the scripts and storytelling and the performances so the show remained believable.”

Bender first worked with King on the first two seasons of Under the Dome, the CBS series based on the author’s book about the residents of a town inexplicably trapped under a giant dome. They had become friends when Bender had earlier worked on ABC’s mystery drama Lost and, after Under the Dome, sought to partner on a new project.

“Then one day I got this crazy-big package in the mail – he didn’t tell me it was coming – and it was proofs for his new book, Mr Mercedes. Needless to say, I was very excited. I read it and immediately wanted to do it for a couple of reasons,” Bender recalls. “One, Stephen King had really never tackled the detective genre before. And the plot was very much the retired detective and the serial killer from the horrible crime he could never solve.”

King had initially suggested his book be turned into a movie, but Bender recognised the opportunity to take more time to delve into Hartsfield’s childhood and his abusive relationship with his mother, perhaps even to illicit some understanding from the audience as to what drove him to commit such an atrocity. But it was the fact that King had written about the monsters inside his characters, rather than those on the outside, that appealed to him most.

The second season finds villain Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway) in a vegetative state

“My focus is to tell good stories on whatever platform,” says Bender, a former actor who has also directed episodes of Game of Thrones, The Sopranos and Lost. “Marty Bowen, the exec producer, really planted a seed in my head that this could be a really classy series – meaning cable, which allows you able to make episodes without commercials and that aren’t restricted to 43 minutes and 10 seconds.

“I had some episodes of The Sopranos that were 60 minutes and some that were 47 minutes. [The Sopranos creator] David Chase would cut the show, with HBO’s support, to whatever length he wanted it to be. It allowed you the flexibility to make each episode a movie in of itself that builds the bigger story. I just think it’s an exceptional time for storytellers.”

Bender admits he’s not a big fan of the title ‘showrunner,’ but that’s the role he took up on season one and carries into season two. “I oversee everything. I edit, dub, I do everything,” he admits. “I guess at the end of the day, on Mr Mercedes that’s my job.”

He has also directed 16 of the show’s 20 episodes – eight in each 10-part season – and praises the “brilliant” team assembled around him, in particular the cast led by Gleeson and Treadaway. David E Kelley (Ally McBeal) is the lead writer on the series, which is available outside the US on Starzplay via Amazon Prime Video Channels.

“You might be directing a scene that is a massacre or the finale of season one, which has more production jazz going on, or a scene with Holland Taylor [who plays Hodges’ neighbour Ida] and Brendan Gleeson sitting at a table on her porch playing eight pages of a brilliantly written scene by David Kelley talking about his sex life. But every day you have to keep your eye on the prize and guide it and be open to the creativity around you,” Bender says. “I am surrounded by great technicians and great creative people. I guess the biggest task is to stay open; to trust my instincts but listen to everyone around me and make the 100 decisions you have to make every day.”

The series is based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King

Bender took particular care in creating the contrasting worlds of Hodges and Hartsfield, using different camera lenses and lighting styles, or putting the camera closer to or higher above one character than the other. “Yet I never wanted the show to go too far and be self-conscious,” he adds. “I didn’t want anything that takes away from the characters and what they’re up to, and the tension that surrounds them in a particular scene. So I attempted to establish that style and adhere to it with the other directors coming in and still allowing them to be creative.”

King based the massacre at the start of the story, in which Brady mows down dozens of people queuing for a jobs fair, on a real-life incident that took pace several years before cars became the weapon of choice for a spate of terrorist attacks – as London witnessed again this week. So during the planning phase of the series, which is produced by Sonar Entertainment and distributed by Sony Pictures Television, Bender was clear that he didn’t want to embellish or exploit this tragedy for the cameras.

“I didn’t want to do gorgeous, graphic slow-motion of bodies and limbs flying through the air and blood splattering and action music,” he explains. “I wanted this show to be unembellished and raw.”

That decision also led him to refuse a soundtrack for the series, instead introducing music through Hodges’ extensive vinyl collection that he keeps in his house. “It’s the only thing in his life, except for his tortoise Fred, that he takes care of. He plays the songs and we could have that be part of the show,” Bender says. Hartsfield also listens to music, including Ramones track Pet Sematary – just one of several nods to King’s other novels during the series (Brady also wears a clown mask during the massacre, which the book describes as looking eerily like a certain Pennywise the Clown).

“It’s a fine line but I tried to go raw and real and with the rest of the show, I was just thinking back on John Cassavetes’ movies and those extraordinary performances where the camera just sat on some people for a while. That also dictated some of what I wanted to do with the show.”

Plans are already underway for a third season that could combine further elements of King’s novels, perhaps with original storylines too. But will the writers find a way to keep Hartsfield alive for a third run? Bender – who is already working on another King adaptation, The Outsider – teases: “You know, one never knows.”

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Return of the King

As Spike launches its adaptation of The Mist, DQ explores how TV and film versions of Stephen King’s work have become more popular and prolific than ever.

The title of this piece is something of a misnomer as, especially over the last few years, Stephen King’s literary creations have rarely been absent from either or TV or cinema screens.

With a TV and film career spanning 41 years since the release of Carrie in 1976, the author shows no sign of stopping, with around two-dozen verified screen projects in various stages of development, production and completion since 2014 alone.

King is a phenomenon, especially when compared with other writers in what can loosely be described as the horror genre.

Stephen King

His contemporaries such as the late James Herbert (The Secret of Crickley Hall, BBC1, 2012), Dean R Koontz (Odd Thomas, 2013), Whitley Strieber (Hunters, Syfy, 2016) and Clive Barker (Hellraiser, 1987) have largely failed to achieve a similar level of exposure on screen.

Indeed, the only real challenger to King’s crown has been Neil Gaiman, who has thrived in both TV (American Gods for Starz, Likely Stories for Sky Arts) and film (Stardust, Beowulf, Coraline and How to Talk to Girls at Parties), with his co-created Sandman comic book character also used as the basis for Fox’s hit series Lucifer (2015).

As could be expected with such a fecund author with attendant TV/film adaptations, the success of King’s properties on screen is mixed.

Looking at book-to-movie adaptations, reportedly his own favourites are Stand by Me (1986), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and 2007’s The Mist.

In terms of the general critical evaluation, for every praise-worthy The Shining (1980), Carrie (1976), Misery (1990), 1408 (2007) and Dead Zone (1983), there seem to be at least two of the derided likes of Thinner (1996), The Mangler (1995), Dreamcatcher (2003) and umpteenth Children of the Corn sequel.

Unsurprisingly, the rule appears to be the better the director, writer and cast, the better the Stephen King movie, although this doesn’t explain the failure of the aforementioned Dreamcatcher, which flopped despite the presence of Lawrence Kasdan (Silverado/The Big Chill) as director, William Goldman (All the President’s Men) as writer and a talented cast that included Damian Lewis (Wolf Hall), Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption) and Timothy Olyphant (Justified).

This year sees a step change in film adaptations with the big-budget version of King’s The Dark Tower, a fantasy blockbuster starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, which unusually, is also planned to kickstart a TV series in 2018 linked to the film.

Presumably the series version of The Dark Tower (in which Elba is said to return) will depend on the box-office performance of the movie this August, which means production will have to proceed at a fair clip to meet a 2018 transmission date.

James Franco in 11.22.63

If so, it’s an atypical move, with the only analogous example in recent years being the apparent budget-prompted plan to have the final film in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, Ascendant, redesigned as a TV movie, which has apparently now been cancelled due to the rights expiring last month.

Another King would-be blockbuster will be the first part of a movie take on It (previously a 1990 ABC TV miniseries with Tim Curry), popularly – although evidently erroneously – linked with kicking off the notorious ‘clown scare’ trend of 2016.

Netflix has bought into the Stephen King brand, with two movies to be released on the service this year.

Gerald’s Game stars Carla Gugino (Nashville) dealing with the consequences of a sex game gone wrong with husband Bruce Greenwood (The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story), while 1922 features Thomas Jane (Hung/The Mist movie) and Molly Parker (House of Cards) in a Nebraskan pastoral horror.

Among the numerous upcoming movie adaptations of King’s works are reputed to be Doctor Sleep, The Breathing Method, The Stand (also a popular ABC 1994 TV miniseries), The Jaunt, In the Tall Grass, The Long Walk, Revival, My Pretty Pony, The Ten O’Clock People, The Things They Left Behind and Joyland, plus remakes of Pet Sematary and Firestarter.

1990’s Misery starred Kathy Bates in an adaptation of King’s novel

Turning to TV versions of King’s work, the pace has picked up over the last few years, as series have come thick and fast, including Haven (Syfy 2010-2015), Under the Dome (CBS, 2013-15) and 11.22.63 (Hulu).

As the years have progressed, King’s TV works have acquired a more sophisticated veneer, a million miles away from the (relatively) cheap and cheerful adaptations of the 1990s.

Consequently, reviews have tended to become increasingly positive since his TV shows began to take themselves more seriously, in the process attracting bigger-name talent such as James Franco and Chris Cooper in 11.22.63.

As with King’s movies, due to the sheer volume of work, there’s going to be variance in quality, with still watchable miniseries such as Salem’s Lot (CBS, 1979), It and The Stand holding up relatively well, aided by especially spot-on casting of their respective villains.

Thus, we had James Mason (Straker) and Reggie Nalder (Barlow) in Salem’s Lot, Tim Curry (Pennywise) in It and Jamey Sheridan (Randall Flagg) in The Stand.

On the other side, the pointless TV remakes of The Shining (ABC, 1997) and Salem’s Lot (TNT, 2004) showed that people didn’t know enough to leave well alone.

As is widely known, King was prompted to take a second crack at The Shining due to his disappointment at Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 take on the book.

This year will see three TV adaptations of King’s novels. To some acquainted with the movie, Spike’s eagerly anticipated 10-episode version of The Mist, which launches tomorrow, will have a tough time measuring up to Frank Darabont’s 2007 bleak big-screen classic. The series’ reported US$23m budget compares to US$18m for the movie.

Also coming up is JJ Abrams’ Castle Rock (Hulu’s second Abrams-produced King tale after 11.22.63), which is set in the fictional Maine community familiar from many of his novels and the onscreen credits of Rob Reiner (director of Stand by Me)’s production company of the same name.

In a similar fashion to Dickensian (BBC1, 2015-16), the show will feature characters from the various King ‘multiverse’ stories that have a nexus in the town.

Last but by no means least is David E Kelley (Ally McBeal/Boston Legal)’s Mr Mercedes (pictured top) for DirecTV’s Audience Network, a 10-episode excursion into hard-boiled detective drama, with a strong cast that includes Brendan Gleeson (The Guard) and Harry Treadaway (Penny Dreadful).

And coming down the pike, apparently, are TV series based on King’s Grand Central, Ayana, Sleeping Beauties (written with his son Owen) and sinister government agency-focused The Shop, which features in his novels Firestarter, Langoliers, Tommyknockers and The Stand.

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