J.J. Abrams has executive-produced more than a dozen TV dramas since his days spearheading Felicity, but Castle Rock — his 16th time in the ring with his production company, Bad Robot — managed to pose a unique challenge.
It was his job to get the approval of Stephen King, whose body of work would serve as the basis and backdrop for Hulu’s anthology series created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason (Manhattan). After all, he’d been an EP on Hulu’s limited series adaptation of King’s 11/22/63, and exchanges emails with the prolific author regularly. Yet, the Emmy-winning Lost and Alias helmer was worried King would shy away from the idea of an indirect adaptation. “I was not certain he would want it,” Abrams admits. “I was not sure what his reaction would be.”
Luckily, King gave the green light, and since then, Abrams has helped shepherd the series to life. “It’s a terrifying place to live, but I hope that people will want to visit and come back to it again and again,” he says of Castle Rock — and of visiting Orange, Massachusetts, the town that played it. “I think that it feels like it’s alive in a way that I hope translates to the audience.”
Below, Abrams chats greenlighting Shaw and Thomason’s pitch, bringing King on board, and whether he’d ever return to TV as a director again — once he’s finished with Star Wars: Episode IX, of course.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What ran through your mind the first time you heard the pitch?
J.J. ABRAMS: It immediately felt like something I wanted to see. The conceit of a different dimension that connected Steve’s work just immediately felt to me like the richest fertile ground for stories that are completely fresh for people who aren’t avid fans, and yet for those who are, there would just be this entirely different level of resonance. It felt, I guess, like a thrilling and robust idea, and because it was being pitched by Sam and Dusty, it felt like it would be handled in an A+ way.
Had you been familiar with their work?
Yeah. I was a fan of Manhattan. We [at Bad Robot] had wanted to work with them, so when they came to us with this idea, it was sort of a perfect storm… Sam and Dusty, the way they tell stories is my favorite kind of storytelling. [Stephen King’s works] at their core, are about people that you desperately care about who just happen to be in the most horrifying situations — the most shocking, the most warped, the most troubled. Even in things like Stand by Me, based on “The Body,” or Shawshank Redemption — though they’re not supernatural, those are stories about people at the most agonizing moments in their lives. He finds a way to just so brilliantly put people you feel for into situations that are the most insane and extreme and make it believable. And Sam and Dusty really do speak that language.
You’ve brought King to screen before with 11/22/63, also on Hulu. When I spoke with Sam and Dusty, they both said your enthusiasm helped garner Stephen’s approval. What was it like getting Stephen on board for something that wasn’t going to be a direct adaptation?
My participation in this was not just my enthusiasm for the story, but making sure that Steve knew we were going to approach this thing with as much care and concern of quality as we could.
I was not certain that he would want it. I was not sure what his reaction would be, and I thought that maybe Stephen would feel like this would be too unpredictable a thing, that it wasn’t going to be a literal adaptation. Instead, he, it seems, had the same enthusiastic reaction that I did, which is that it sounded delicious. When you look at his work, you see the connections in his novels, the way he references characters or locations or events — it’s already there, that tapestry. [Castle Rock] lives and breathes in a world that he created.
You were concerned he wouldn’t be into the idea, but what were your own concerns about it?
My biggest concern was, where do we do it? I wanted to make sure that we found the right home, and Hulu has been wonderful… [And], who was going to play Henry Deaver? Who’s going to play Ruth? How do we get the right people for this thing, both on the network side and creatively on screen? I don’t think we could have been luckier. My concerns were really about living up to the standard that this kind of idea deserves. The cautionary tale versions are all over the place, and this was too important to me.
Speaking of which, what has developing this been like compared to your other TV series? There’s a lot of pressure to deliver with this one — at least with getting Stephen’s approval — but how does this compare to taking on your other work?
Everything is different, and yet everything is exactly the same, in that it doesn’t matter whether it’s an original idea, whether it’s a smaller series about a young woman in college, or it’s something that takes place in another galaxy. When you’re working on something, ideally you’re putting your heart and soul into it. The pressure’s coming from outside, with expectations that fans have, or self-generated because you want it to be so good. I would say that the thing that makes this special is not just the idea of it, which I love, but the people who are doing it love it that much as well.
More broadly speaking, when you look at pitches today, what do you prioritize?
I think that you can talk about it and analyze it and quantify it, but the truth is that [a pitch works] when you hear something that pushes that button inside of you, where you just say, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s something that I want to see.” It doesn’t always end up as something that you want to see, or what you thought it would be. Sometimes it’s much better; other times, it’s not as good.
It’s always a bit of a leap of faith. As a producer, all I can do is be honest, and I’m certainly not always right. I can just tell you when I hear something that feels like it’s worth people’s time — even if it’s grotesque and gruesome and horrifying — when you hear an idea that makes you smile, or gives you the chills, or when you feel yourself suddenly seeing things in your head of what that idea might allow, then you do whatever you can to get people to help bring it to life. I remember when they were pitching the pilot of Castle Rock, there were things they were pitching that were truly terrifying and truly creepy. I just remember laughing because it felt like this was going to be so much fun.
You haven’t directed a TV episode since the pilot of Undercovers in 2010. Obviously at the moment you don’t have the time, but have you thought about coming back to the TV space as a director?
Very much so. There’s a series we’re doing for HBO called Demimonde that I’m incredibly excited about and was planning on directing, and then [Star Wars] Episode IX happened, so I’m not going to be doing that pilot. It was something I was dying to do, so I’ll produce it and work with whoever the director ends up being. I would love to do television. I miss it.
Since you mentioned it, where are you with Episode IX? How does it feel to wrap up a story after being the go-to guy for starting them?
When the time is right, I cannot wait to talk to you about Episode IX. [Laughs] At the moment, I can say that it’s an incredibly exciting prospect, and it’ll be fun to talk about.
Castle Rock premieres July 25 on Hulu.