Sixteen years after it's publication, the renowned author finally brings his end-of-the-world story to TV
In a control room at the Utah Power & Light Company in Salt Lake City, labels like main generator 1 and primary fuel pump 10 mark panels of dials and flashing lights. But shock god Stephen King is the most powerful force in the gleaming chamber, which this Monday morning in March 1993 serves as the set for the ABC miniseries based on his doomsday novel, The Stand.
”Wanna hear a joke I made up?” the megamillion-selling author asks.
”What do you call canned fruit in Jell-O?”
He pauses and grins puckishly. ”Mormon soul food.” He shambles off, chuckling and sipping his coffee.
Welcome to Salt Lake City, one of the blandest places on earth. ”The first day I was in Salt Lake City, I was wandering in a mall and found myself moving in time to ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,’ and I knew that I was in trouble,” says Matt Frewer (Max Headroom), who plays a schizoid pyromaniac known as Trashcan Man. ”Everybody had this benign smile on their faces, but if you looked a little beyond that, you could see that my-brother’s-my-cousin thing going on.”
Salt Lake City may seem too genial a setting for horrormonger King, but The Stand, airing May 8-12, is no mundane tale of terror. It’s the eight-hour saga of a ”superflu” virus that wipes out most of the world’s population. The survivors split into two camps: the good folks, who congregate with 106-year-old Mother Abagail (Ruby Dee) in Boulder, Colo. (which Salt Lake City subs for), and the evil ones, who are drawn to devilish despot Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan) in Las Vegas.
The $28 million production includes 125 speaking roles-Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, Gary Sinise, and Laura San Giacomo are featured-and hundreds more extras, and was shot in 225 locations over 100 days. ”There hasn’t been a miniseries of this size and scope since War and Remembrance,” says co- executive producer Richard Rubinstein. ”Lonesome Dove was eight hours, but it’s a lot easier to have horses and cattle as extras.”
Committing so much money, talent, and network time to an undeniably grim story smacks of risky business, but King thinks The Stand has universal appeal. ”It’s about the end of the world, and that’s always a relief,” he says. ”Everybody who watches it imagines they would survive. And then the world opens up for you-the watches, the jewels, the cars. Your boss, who’s such a f — -head, is dead.” There must be an abundance of those bosses-the book, which many fans consider King’s masterpiece, has sold about 10 million copies.</p?
As for the miniseries, King followers needn’t worry: The soothing environment of Salt Lake City hasn’t dulled his macabre imagination. ”We shot a scene in a church yesterday where we trucked in 50 extremely gruesome decomposed (dummy) corpses and set them in pews,” he says. ”I’m here to testify that it works like a bandit. It’s scary stuff.”
Not to mention stuff that scares network censors. ”There’s a fairly gruesome scene in the Lincoln Tunnel where there are a lot of dead people in cars. When it was submitted to the standards and practices trolls at ABC, one said, ‘We can’t do this. We’d scare people,”’ King says. ”And our attitude is, come on, you guys-that’s what we’re here to do!”
Though both the church scene and the tunnel scene made ABC’s final cut, this disturbing material kept The Stand from coming to network TV for 16 years after its publication. Developed by Rubinstein as a feature for director George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead), King’s mammoth novel-published at 600-plus pages in 1978 and reissued in 1990 with 500 more-proved impossible to condense into a two-hour movie. ”I don’t know how they’d do it if they didn’t have this kind of time,” says Sinise (Of Mice and Men), who plays lead nice guy Stu Redman. ”It would be”-he searches for the proper words-”really cheesy.”
A TV miniseries seemed to be the answer-except for two problems. ”First the miniseries shrank to four hours, and four hours wasn’t enough,” says King, referring to the post-Sh-ogun, early-’80s era of downsizing. ”Number two, you couldn’t have the end of the world brought to you by (sponsors like) Charmin toilet tissue.”
In time, the obstacles collapsed. CBS’ smash 1989 Western Lonesome Dove brought back the long mini. And, as Rubinstein puts it, ”TV grew up. The kind of material you can handle changed. There’s a lot more latitude now.”
Tragically, the plot also became more relevant. ”Even though it was written pre-AIDS, you can’t deny the similarities,” says Ringwald, who plays Fran Goldsmith, a pregnant woman immune to the flu plague. ”There are resonances in the way people react, how they’re affected by it, and how they try to reconnect.”
Finally, King found a director he could trust with his magnum opus in Mick Garris, who filmed his screenplay Sleepwalkers in 1992. ”Our minds are in the same gutter, I guess,” says Garris.
Though multiparters are usually split up among several directors, Garris tackled the entire project by himself. But he received plenty of guidance from King. Between writing the teleplay, executive- producing with Rubinstein, and taking a small acting role, King was more involved with The Stand than he had been with any adaptation of his work except for the 1986 movie Maximum Overdrive, which he directed. It’s not just a matter of protecting his words. King is also exorcising his demons.
”The Stand is like a vampire that has never wanted to lie down and be dead. And if I can live through the (production), it will be done,” he says. ”People may like it, people may not like it, but it’s going to be done. I think a lot of the real fans of the book are going to like it a lot. And I don’t make that statement lightly.”
The sign outside the Stardust Casino in Las Vegas reads direct from australia/ thunder from down under/ all male strip show. It’s a sweltering mid-June evening, and the Stand crew is staying up all night to film Flagg and his cronies inside the gambling parlor as real-life cocktail waitresses and high rollers go about their business.
“It’s like going from Stepford to Gomorrah,” Garris says of the journey from Salt Lake City to Vegas. But not everyone agrees the places are so different.
“They’re both full of sin, but at least Las Vegas doesn’t try to hide it,” says Shawnee Smith (The Blob), adjusting a strap of the black bra she wears under a see-through top to play a hellcat Flagg worshiper. “Anywhere you have a group of strongly righteous religious people, there’s always the opposite going on underneath. Nobody’s that perfect or that moral.”
Frewer, in full Trashcan Man mode, with pustules covering his face and rags on his body, finds Vegas’ denizens nearly as spooky as Salt Lake City’s mall dwellers. “I’m walking through the casino looking like a stewed prune and about three people noticed,” he says. “They’re so tuned in to their slot machines, so gambling-drunk.”
As the night drags on, the city’s spirit proves contagious. Around 4 a.m., the film’s second assistant cameraman, Mike Lookinland, better known for playing Bobby of The Brady Bunch, sits down at the “Win a Cadillac” slot machine and starts feeding it coins. After a few clinkers, the one-armed bandit lights up and spits out $60 in quarters. Crew mates give Lookinland high fives and tease him about who’s buying breakfast. “I really wanted the Cadillac,” he says, gesturing toward the slate-green 1992 Deville sedan parked on an adjacent incline.
Undaunted, Lookinland takes his winnings to the roulette wheel and promptly wins $20 more. “I’m rolling now,” he tells special-effects art director Bill Corso. “I’m on the move.”
“Hey, wasn’t this a Brady Bunch episode?” Corso teases him.
“Yeah,” Lookinland says. “The one where Greg and I get drunk, steal Dad’s car, and go to Vegas.”
The Golden Gate Casino Hotel promises shrimp cocktail/99 cents/ voted best in las vegas. It’s the next night, and The Stand has moved to the seedier downtown strip on Fremont Street. A stage has been erected where Flagg plans to crucify two members of Mother Abagail’s camp. ABC’s censors nixed crosses, so the actors will be strapped to neon horseshoes. Extras dressed as thugs carry automatic weapons and mingle with the civilians who line the curbs to watch the filming.
A black Porsche with Nevada plates pulls up at the end of the block, and the crowd buzzes: The King is coming.
Stephen King pops out of the car to applause, nods sheepishly, and heads for the set, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans.
“When is Dolores Claiborne coming out in paperback?” a man calls to King.
“I love you, Stephen!” a woman shrieks.
“Can I have your autograph?” a man asks, shoving a book at King before production assistant Joseph King, 21, the author’s son, can shoo him away.
King climbs aboard the camera truck Garris is riding on to film the armored car carrying the prisoners to their fates. After a few trips up and down the block, King dismounts.
An inebriated woman with a Zsa-Zsa accent stumbles over and taps King on the shoulder. “I vant to talk to you. It’s my burseday!” she sputters.
“Happy birthday,” King turns and says brusquely. “I’m working.”
The woman staggers away, snarling, “Do you believe that s—? Vat a jerk!”
Filming continues until dawn, but before midnight, King speeds off. “Stephen left early because so many people were hassling him,” Garris explains later. “When we shot in a Utah prison, one prisoner was a child molester who had porno shots all over his wall with a picture of a little girl in the middle. These are the type of people in that prison, and all of them sent notes asking for Stephen’s autograph. Way too weird.”
The awning on the Playland video arcade in Times Square bears the words t- shirts/ny souvenirs/sweatshirts/ photo i.d.’s/theatrical gifts. The production has come to Manhattan for its final day of principal photography. It’s July 1 and hotter than hell at high noon.
Cloaked in a hooded shroud, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is shooting a cameo as the Monster Shouter, a prophet of doom who walks the chaotic streets of midtown ringing a bell and yelling, “Bring out your dead! Monsters are coming!”
“It’s just another day in New York,” says the former L.A. Laker, born and raised in Manhattan. “It’s tough on me here because everybody recognizes me pretty quickly. It gets crazy.”
Though he should be accustomed to sweating, Abdul-Jabbar complains about his woolly costume to ABC president Robert Iger, who has stopped by the set. Iger wears a suit and tie, yet he’s not perspiring. King arrives, showing off the black T-shirt he just bought. Above a drawing of the New York City skyline are the words welcome to the jungle.
After chatting for a few minutes with Iger, King asks, “So, are you going to have a violence warning on this?”
“That’s a good question,” Iger replies diplomatically.
“It’s a violent epic,” King says. “Plus (a warning) will sell tickets.” (Ultimately, ABC chose the simple tag “Parental discretion is advised.”)
Abdul-Jabbar does a few takes in front of the arcade, then crosses Broadway to a traffic island where he’ll be filmed from a different angle. King watches, leaning on a fence in front of a row of people buying discount theater tickets. A few of them call out Abdul-Jabbar’s name.
“He’s not a basketball player,” King tells one guy. “He’s a Monster Shouter!”
The number 666 flashes in red neon atop a high-rise looming over Central Park, where the Stand company has made its last move. Woody Allen gets out of a cab to have dinner at the Sherry-Netherland. Joey Buttafuoco has allegedly been spotted on a bench.
King has been in the city all day, and he seems tired of being recognized; Las Vegas has nothing on New York when it comes to pushy fans. “It’s the price of doing business, but I f—ing hate it big- time,” he says, noshing at the catering table. “It’s like white noise in your head. Society has taught these people that if they see somebody they know from the arts, they’re supposed to be able to go up and get an autograph. I don’t (sign them) very much.”
A few moments later, a homeboy introduces himself as Ricky and asks King for his autograph. King declines. Ricky stalks off, then returns with a shaven-headed friend and asks again.
This time King consents. “The badass thing is just an act,” he tells them as he signs a piece of paper.
Ricky departs in triumph. “I got Stephen King’s autograph!” he hollers, slinging an arm around his pal.
At midnight, Garris sets up his final shot, an overhead view of Abdul- Jabbar lying on the ground. During the last take, there is silence. In the dark, Central Park is one of the scariest places in the world, yet tonight there’s an eerily peaceful feeling. After more than 15 years of waiting and nearly six months of shooting, Stephen King has made his Stand.