By Kevin M. Brettauer
In the Declaration of Independence, on the eve of the birth of a new nation, a hopeful, optimistic Thomas Jefferson wrote that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Last weekend at WonderCon, when asked about current parables in popular culture presaging the imminent collapse of human civilization, actor Dean Norris remarked that “There’s always something that’s going to blow everything up.”
Promoting the CBS adaptation of the Stephen King novel "Under the Dome," Norris (who will be playing the villainous Big Jim Rennie in the series), actress Rachelle Lefevre (essaying the role of Julia) and executive producers Neil Baer, Jack Bender and Brian K. Vaughan dipped into some heavy topics in order to discuss the Amblin Entertainment-produced series, the first-ever collaboration between beloved novelist King and filmmaking icon Steven Spielberg.
When asked exactly what it is that drives America’s fascination with apocalyptic storytelling, be it in television or any other medium, Norris made the quasi-serious, quasi-joking comment, citing Cold War paranoia and Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast as examples relevant to their time periods.
"Under the Dome," based on King’s novel in which a mysterious barrier erects itself over a small New England town, leaving the residents cut off from the world and vice versa, will premiere this summer from Lost alums Bender and Vaughan, in what they hope and plan will become an ongoing series that airs in the summer every year. “You have shows airing from September or October through May, why can’t you do it from June through August?” Vaughan asks.
But back to the topic at hand: the oncoming storm of destruction that is facing the world every single day. “Lost was post-9/11,” Bender notes, adding that it toys with the concept of “What happens if the nightmare happens,” acknowledging that “Every day the shitstorm happens.” We’re all in tune, he says, with the big “what ifs” of the world. For example, what if we had no electricity and no running water and we had to rely on total strangers just because of their physical proximity? “I don’t think that’s a bad thing or a negative thing,” Bender says, “because in a perfect world we would know our neighbors.” Vaughan notes that there will be no wireless Internet under the dome, but does say that cell phones will still be able to take pictures, allowing for a certain limited amount of modern technology. “It’s not Deadwood under the dome,” he says, referencing the beloved HBO historical drama about a legendary American frontier town in the 1870s.
Lefevre notes that while tackling these issues, the show will also deal with the haves and have nots in the world, specifically in regards to food and water. Noting that the show is a “microcosm” for certain sociopolitical environments, the actress says that "Under the Dome" addresses “larger questions of humanity about who possesses what and” how essentials are distributed.
Bender says that “I imagine if there’s a long life for the show, issues of claustrophobia [and other similar concerns] will become” larger factors in everyday life for the characters.
Baer’s goal with the show, essentially, is to kickstart a 21st century version of the oral tradition. He wants the show to be the kind of tale that will have people “telling stories to [others] who will tell stories to change the world,” and the crew firmly believe they “can do it without being preachy” while still making it “a parable of our times.”
“I think, deep down, we want the apocalypse to happen,” Vaughan suggests. And he’d know; as the writer of the epic sixty-issue comic book series 'Y: The Last Man,' he is the creator of one of the most fascinating takes on the end of days in the last hundred years. While the writer does admit that, yes, it’d be nice not to answer e-mails and avoid taxes and work, he notes that there “something really primal [in] our lizard brains” that only knows how to live that way.
“It’s a constant fear and secret fantasy.” After a beat, he adds, “Well, at least for me.”
The premise of the show allows the writers to explore the elements of modern society that are essential, as well as finding those that aren’t. Wondering out loud “Do you really need a banker?”, Baer essentially dismisses the profession in the given scenario, whilst also implying that certain people will need to learn new skills in order for the characters to survive, farming among them.
Having worked on ER, Baer admits that “I think the show’s a lot like ER” in terms of character creation. “What we’re trying to do is reveal characters, not only just who they are but how they interact with” those around them. “What are the secrets these characters have? How do they use those secrets? What alliances are formed?”
When asked how they’d deal with the situation if a dome came down over their own communities, Vaughan remarked that he’d do “extremely poorly because I’m a writer so I have very little to offer society so I would just hide.”
Bender would be “hiding with Brian. In the 'Lost' days, I’d be the guy on the beach going ‘Do I really have to? My back hurts. There’s nothing to eat.’” Baer, a licensed physician, admits he would have to do some medical work, but when resources started to dwindle he’d also probably “run and hide”. Levefre joked that she would “hope [her] favorite restaurant [was] on my side of the dome,” but remarked that it would be “an interesting thing to see happen” because it could serve as “a great equalizer, a come as you are party.” Norris, meanwhile, has teenage children, so he would merely be hoping for a “decent ventilation system.”
It’s interesting to hear Norris joke so much, especially as he’s positioned as "Under the Dome’s" “big bad” and is coming off of a long stint on "Breaking Bad," one of TV’s heaviest dramas. In fact, his role of Hank on the AMC drama is one of the reasons why Norris was drawn to the King adaptation in the first place. Noting how opposite the characters are, especially in their moral polarity, he claims that Big Jim doesn’t think what he’s doing is “bad”, per se, but that he and villains like him are “doing it for what they construe as good reasons.” He also says that “I think Big Jim likes being trapped in there a little bit,” saying that “it allows him to do things he’s wanted to do for awhile,” and that his arc is “more of him finding his power”, from the actor’s point of view.
“You don’t play him as a bad guy,” he comments, even though the circumstances driving the show “allow the opportunity [for Jim] to be kind of a dictator…to exercise his power because they’re cut off from anyone” would be in any kind of position to stop him.
In fact, the origin of the “Big Jim” nickname actually makes Norris feel sorry for the character. “What he does to make up for it is kind of evil,” he admits. “The challenge of it is to” find Rennie’s humanity and to “match the acting style with the style of the writing and the style of the show”, which he reports has a very “theatrical”, feel, a concept sort of echoed by Bender, who wants it to be as “big” and “cinematic” as possible, but also “intimate and personal.” The Emmy winner says the show will deal with “big subjects”,” but also be “big entertainment”.
Expressing once again the hope that the show will be an ongoing tale like "Lost" (Vaughan and company have, in fact, mapped out the series to its ending, which is “very different” from the novel’s), Baer remarks that the first season has been split into three acts, all starting with F: “Faith, fear and fascism.”
Vaughan claims that when King “reached page 1000” during his writing process, he claimed that he was “only just getting started”, lamenting that “they don’t make books this long”. King, who over the last few years has cultivated a friendship with Vaughan (and even mentions his work in the original novel), has told Vaughan to not “be afraid to go to new places” with his story, and to use the themes and characters as he sees fit for the adaptation. Essentially, the two writers decided to “use the book as a jumping-off point”. Claiming that the tome is 19 pounds, Vaughan says, to start the show, “we took the three best pounds from the beginning.”
“What really excited me were the characters,” Bender says, noting that the program will be a character show with sci-fi elements, much like Lost. He also notes that he got “the same feeling” from reading the pilot script that he got from his initial viewing of the Lost pilot, which, in both cases, made him want to work on those projects.
“With Lost,” Vaughan says, “it was always character first.” When it came time to build the Dome, Vaughan saw a lot of “failed attempted 'Lost' clones on TV” and doesn’t want to make the same mistakes they did. Admitting that he will “steal liberally” from what he learned in the writers’ room of the hit ABC drama, he says that the process of working on the show is simply “finding the characters you love [and] keeping the hammer down” on unnecessary elements.
When asked how the environmental factors of the show were researched, Lefevre joked that “We put a dome over a small town in an undisclosed location.” In actuality, Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times writer Scott Gold helped out with the scientific aspect. Vaughan notes that “When we were talking [to King about Gold’s research], King paused and said ‘…you know you can just make shit up, too?’,” which was met with riotous laughter from the panel hall. “We’re balancing between facts and making shit up,” he confirms.
Bender notes that the award-winning novelist “is incredibly unpretentious.” King was excited to be on the set and he’s thrilled to see the show come to fruition. “It was wonderful to be in his company”, the producer/director says, “and to see [how] great of a guy he is.” Even though Vaughan feared being “stabbed” by King, he found the writer to be “supportive of [the] changes” that had been made, noting that “to get notes on your dialogue from Stephen King is an honor.”
Lefevere notes that “He’s also incredibly funny” and has “great one-liners.” When asked if she could take a photo with him for her Twitter account, King reportedly said, without missing a second, “Homie don’t twit.”
“It was really amazing to meet him,” Norris said “He gave me some great acting tips about Big Jim,” but notes that “you wonder about the mind of a guy who can create so much stuff.” He related an anecdote about King watching one of the sound engineers on the set and saying to Norris that “I’m just thinking about watching the actress and she’s talking and nothing’s coming out and I look at the sound guy and his ears are bleeding.” The panel quickly agreed that they’re glad King has “an outlet”.
As a huge fan of the writer, Vaughan was not worried about any trepidations fans may have, noting that “I’m a Stephen King fan, I’m the biggest, and it seems the best adaptations are the ones that didn’t get lost in the forest”. He then rattled off a list of favorite adaptations, noting that his personal picks “all saw the best parts” of each story “and ran with it.”
Neither Lefevre or Norris have read the novel upon which the series is based. Norris started reading it, but didn’t want to get the page and screen versions of Big Jim tangled up, noting that Jim is evil from essentially the start of the novel. According to Vaughan, he’ll have more of a descent on the TV incarnation. Lefevre was told by King that she doesn’t “necessarily need to,” saying that the novelist told her “These guys are taking care of it. They got it,” telling her to “get around to it” on her own time.
Lefevre talked about how viewers might see the evolution of relationships on the show, as well as the characters’ psychologies. “Human begins adapt so quickly, no matter how bizarre or wonderful or traumatic a change is.” She also reveals that “one of my favorite things with this cast and environment [is that] all the actors have [more] questions about the other characters” than their own out of any cast she’s worked with. It’s “a really nice symbiotic thing we have.”
At first, King and Spielberg appear to have two completely different worldviews, with Vaughan noting that while both are “real humanists”, that King is “the ultimate pessimist and Spielberg is the ultimate optimist.”
“And they’re both right,” Lefevre retorts.
It’s also immediately mentioned that King has done “sweet” with stories like "Rita Hayworth" and "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Body" (which Vaughan calls “a great story about why we write”), and Spielberg has done “scary” with productions like "Jaws."
Fear, be it of the shark in the water of whatever it is that’s coming to blow up everything we hold dear, is clearly not something that is being treated likely by the cast and crew of "Under the Dome." With veteran creators like Jack Bender and Brian K. Vaughan, obvious humanists who have a deep understanding of the human condition and a strong caring for the human race, driving the bus, maybe the upcoming series will help alleviate the stress and tension of the collective unconscious.
We can only hope.
"Under the Dome" premieres Monday, June 24 at 10pm on CBS.