Roland Deschain, a rough-riding knight who has lost his way, peers off into the horizon in search of the man who decimated his world — and is about to ruin many more. That’s the opening of both The Dark Tower film and Stephen King’s first book in the series, and here we see Idris Elba as this spiritual warrior, a gunslinging knight, who has the devil in his sights. The landscapes of South Africa stood in for Mid-World, a dimension ravaged by loss but still bewitching in its tragic beauty.
In Roland’s realm of Mid-World, there once were machines and high-technology, but that was ages ago, before things fell into decay. His custom six-shooters have a link to a mythic tale from our own world: “Forged from Excalibur,” Elba says. “A very special weapon.” The gunslinger doesn’t think of them as toys. He draws them only when there’s no other choice. “He’s not just a shoot ‘em up type cowboy,” Elba says. Here, Roland poses before an altar to the Crimson King, a demented entity who will be unleashed if the ethereal Tower that binds time and space ever falls.
The Dark Tower is partly set in our own time and place — present day New York. In this shot, a boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) studies sketches he has made of visions and nightmares that are flooding his head. There’s a foreboding tower, a man of shadows, figures with shifting faces, a shimmering red rose, trapped children, and doorways that stand all by themselves, with nothing in front or behind but whole other worlds in between. The “shine” that allows him to see these things also allows those who’d like to use his ability as a weapon to sense him.
Jake stands in the blasted wasteland of Mid-World, a solitary speck on the horizon of an endless desert. “Everybody around him thinks he’s crazy and he probably even thinks he’s a little bit crazy,” says director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel. “He’s having visions of this big, grand tower that binds everything and holds all the universes together, and he’s having visions of this one man, Roland, the Gunslinger that’s calling out to him.” It feels real to him, but “reality” means lots of different things in the world of The Dark Tower.
This is one of the portals between worlds — a decrepit Brooklyn mansion known as Dutch Hill, which literally roars to life around any intruder who tries to pass through its gateway. Production designer Christopher Glass said he wanted to take the supernatural premise and add real physics to it. “We’re trying to have rules, basically, for the way the house becomes a monster,” he says. “Wood shouldn’t suddenly become rubber. It should have particles and fibers and break. And when certain elements are not touching one another, things don’t levitate. Everything has to be touching for it to be alive. Otherwise it just falls, gravity takes over.”
Matthew McConaughey’s Man in Black is an enforcer for the Crimson King who is capturing psychics to help topple the tower and free his master. He intends to be well-dressed for the apocalypse. His sleek, tailored suit is a contrast to the other demons and vampires who bow before him in this shot — creatures he considers animals, the definition of necessary evil. “The Devil’s a handsome man,” McConaughey says. “I’ve seen the pale Devil.” He shakes his head. “No, no, no. I’ve seen the Nosferatic Devil — no. I said, ‘Black suit, black coat — let’s look really sharp.’” Even his spiky hair seems design to impale. “A crow-vibe. We’ve also got some Brian Grazer in there,” he says, referring to The Dark Tower producer. “I said hair back, flames back, full face. I wanted to be completely exposed.”
It should be no surprise, but eventually Jake comes face to face with the hero from his visions and drawings. Roland is even more impressive in person. “He’s supernatural. He’s a knight of Mid-World. He has fast healing abilities. He’s not that easy to kill, and also, by the way, it’s very hard to get to him,” says Aracel. “He’s such a formidable fighter, gunslinger, and in battle it’s very hard to best the gunslinger.” The Man in Black already knows Roland’s one weakness, though — the people he cares about .
Portals between worlds work both ways, so Roland gets a taste of the Big Apple later in the film, following Jake through to our world as part of his newfound quest. Akiva Goldsman, who co-wrote the script, says he structured the story with the boy as a lens into the stranger elements of the saga. “The single biggest structural conceit is Jake as the point of entry,” he says. “Doesn’t every kid at one point think that the things in the shadows are real? Doesn’t every little boy imagine that there is a world that you can’t quite see?” Goldsman adds. “New York is literally like that. There’s the feeling of a labyrinth behind the face of the city, and I think that’s really consistent with a child’s imagination and the sense of a magical world hiding just beneath the surface.”
Director Nikolaj Arcel speaks with Tom Taylor and Idris Elba on the set. “In the beginning of the story Roland is kind of a lost soul. All he’s thinking about is killing the Man in Black, his arch nemesis,” Arcel says. “He’s all about revenge. He’s all about trying to track down this man who has hurt him throughout his entire life. Taken away his friends. Taken away like his father, his mother. Everybody. The love of his life… So this is where we find him. He’s a man blinded by the longing for revenge. That’s where Jake finds him.” Maybe there’s a way the boy can pull Roland back from this precipice.
Check out the other installments in our ongoing coverage of The Dark Tower.