David E. Kelley on bringing Stephen King's serial killer saga Mr. Mercedes to brutal life
Mr. Mercedes (Book)
You’re never going to love the monster, but while you’re loving hating him, David E. Kelley hopes you have a little pity, too.
In his new series Mr. Mercedes, premiering on the AT&T Audience Network on Aug. 9, the producer of The Practice and Big Little Lies takes on a Stephen King novel about a retired, curmudgeonly Detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) and the killer who got away. That madman is Brady Hartsfield (Penny Dreadful’s Harry Treadaway), who plowed a stolen Benz into a crowd of people years before and escaped without a trace.
Kelley says audiences should harbor a little anger toward the aging detective, who is wallowing in self-pity and wasting away in early retirement after botching the case. He fell short, and sometimes he keeps messing up. You root for him to do better – even as you yearn to slap him. Ultimately, Kelley says, it’s a comeback story – but a dark one. Hodges’ quest for vigilante justice will certainly end up costing more lives. It’s just a question of whether the people he saves will outweigh that price.
But Kelley also hopes viewers feel something besides hate for the killer. “You’re going to be afraid of him, and afraid for him in other moments,” he says. “I don’t think the contempt for him will ever be removed from the equation, and he also has some mean bones in him, and mean muscles he flexes. But he’s a bit of a victim of his circumstances.”
The forces that warped this young man into the monster who now taunts the old-timer who couldn’t catch him are disturbing in the extreme. But Mr. Mercedes focuses uncompromising scrutiny on its characters, good and bad. There’s no mystery, no whodunit. We know who the killer is, even if Hodges doesn’t. The why is the unknowable, perhaps unspeakable part.
Mr. Mercedes will showcase its first season at San Diego Comic-Con this week, with a panel on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in Room 8, but as a warm-up, here’s EW’s conversation with Kelley about bringing King’s story to the screen – and the challenge of keeping it going through two more books.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You do not soften the blow in the opening scene. I thought for sure you would dial back that initial crash from the novel, that mass-murder by car. But no…
DAVID E. KELLEY: No, it’s pretty tough. It’s disturbing. You know, I’ve obviously seen it too many times now with various cuts and iterations, but I did see it recently in a screening with a bunch of real viewers and it hits you all over again when you’re looking at it through the eyes of others. It’s pretty disturbing and upsetting fare.
Mr. Mercedes is obviously part of a long tradition of cat-and-mouse stories. But what sets it apart from that template?
Well, for me, I think when I went back to reading the book, which hooked me with the character of Hodges because there was just a nucleus of humanity within him. Covered by a bunch of scar tissue and years of doing a tough job. And then add to that the sudden bout of irrelevance that one feels when they’ve been kicked to the curb by your superiors.
It’s a comeback story, in addition to a hunt for a killer.
Hodges had to sort of locate who he was at this juncture of his life, at the same time within this mission to catch the bad guy, I thought it lent itself for real fertile storytelling.
The killer is finding himself, too. He’s trying to make his mark on the world … only in a very sick way.
They both have their mutual crusades and they’re both struggling to find relevance within their respective crusades. And it was a good character piece. The other thing about Brady was taking this villain who, as you say, is just beyond and beneath any redemption at the end of those [opening] five minutes, and yet finding avenues for the viewer to feel for him — and to not. I wouldn’t say we go so far as to relate to him, but we do empathize.
Sympathy for the devil is not an easy trick to pull off.
That was a tribute to, you know, Jack Bender, the director [known for Lost and Under the Dome]. And also the actor, Harry Treadaway, who has been doing a fantastic job. And I guess the central tenets of the cat and mouse relationship that you allude to between this very bad guy and this ex-cop.
Why is it not enough to hate the villain? Why is it important to feel something for him, too?
I think you’re going to feel all those things. I think you’re going to be afraid of him, and afraid for him on other moments. I don’t think that the contempt for him will ever be removed from the equation, just because of the nature of his act. He’s got some mean bones in him and mean muscles that he flexes as the series unfolds. It is a difficult trick to feel compassion for the one you are hating at the same time.
Is the reverse true with Hodges? Is it necessary to be disappointed and frustrated with him?
Yes, very much so. Yeah. He’s very flawed. He’s irresponsible in the middle, which, without giving away plot points, might be criminal negligence. But at the same time, that humanity that he has is pretty much beyond reproach. He’s not a guy who asks to be liked, and yet we adore him. That is a quality that Brendan Gleeson is able to bring to the table. He was everybody’s first choice.
Making the viewer like someone who is pushing everyone away is also a hard trick.
We all saw in Hodges this guy who was not overly nice to people. He didn’t care whether anybody liked him. And yet we’re hoping to cultivate an adoration within our viewers for him at the same time. And man, that’s a lot to ask for a character. Casting is crucial to it. Brendan just brings those qualities that allowed us to really reach the full measure of who Hodges is.
It’s a cat and mouse game, but the cat is worn out and the mouse is especially nasty.
Yes. Although remember, I think that the role, there is a little role reversal of who’s cat and who’s mouse as we go along.
I know Stephen King was on the set, but did you two have much interaction during the development?
None. I’ve not met him yet. We’ve exchanged emails. I’m looking forward to meeting him. I thought that it would have happened before now, but by virtue of the set being in South Carolina and me being on the West Coast and scripts being due and you’ve got to kind of stay close to the desk job. That said, there was certainly collaboration because he gave birth to this, these characters, and this world, and every time I picked up my pen, you know, I was working on his baby.
Was it the same way with Big Little Lies, and adapting Liane Moriarty’s novel?
The adaptation thing is new to me. And I never interacted with that author either, other than to say at the beginning “I love the book” and at the end, you know, “I hope we honored your pages,” because I love that book and I loved Mr. Mercedes. So the architecture of both pieces were so strong, there was never a time I felt, “Oh man, I need to get in a room with Stephen King and say, ‘Well, why did he zig there instead of zag?’ and ‘What was his thinking?'”
He makes it pretty clear.
Obviously, he’s Stephen King. He’s probably the most gifted and prolific writer of our generation, certainly on a short list. He knows what he’s doing and he knows this genre. So my role on this is like, I kind of felt like a world class architect had handed me the blueprints and I was the contractor and it was my job to construct something that lived up to that blueprint.
Mr. Mercedes debuts on the AT&T Audience Network on Aug. 9
Mr. Mercedes (Book)