'11.22.63.' Showrunner Bridget Carpenter on Wrangling James Franco and Trimming Stephen King

The 'Friday Night Lights' veteran explains how she balances action and romance in her Hulu miniseries.
Courtesy of Russ Martin/Hulu
James Franco of '11.22.63'

Premiering on President's Day, the eight-part miniseries 11.22.63 is Hulu's most ambitious original programming swing to date. The adaptation of Stephen King's acclaimed time travel novel features James Franco as a teacher who journeys back to 1960 on a three-year mission to prevent JFK's assassination, making stops along the way to follow Lee Harvey Oswald and fall in love.

While the success of franchises with the word "star" in the title guaranteed that executive producer J.J. Abrams' name is being pushed front-and-center in promotion for 11.22.63, the actual showrunner is Bridget Carpenter, a veteran of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood.

In a far-reaching conversation, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Carpenter about distilling King's mammoth tome down to a relatively restrained series length, the logistical advantages of working with the project's big names and the challenges and pleasures of working with one of Hollywood's busiest stars in Franco.

The first part of this interview focuses on general issues of 11.22.63 development, including Carpenter's perspective on the past, Hulu selling thriller sizzle over the series' romantic streak and why she wouldn't do well on her own time-traveling mission.

Check back tomorrow for the second part of the interview, which talks specifically about changes from the book.

What are a couple of your favorite Stephen King screen adaptations?

For me, the one is Misery. I love Misery. Probably because it's a writer suffering. I like The Shining, although I like the book much more and I know Stephen hates The Shining. I actually understand why, because he's like, "They're not even people! You don't recognize them as people!" And I'm like, "Yeah, that's what makes it really scary!" Stand By Me is really fantastic. It holds its own and it's a great story. Of course Shawshank is excellent, excellent. I like The Green Mile too.

Except that it's eighteen hours long.

Yes! Yeah, although I can't speak to that because I was like, "No, no, we need more time." But Misery is the number one adaptation for me. 

When you have something like 11/22/63 and it's this gigantic doorstop of a tome, how do you look at how huge that book is and know which parts of the story need to be told for the purposes of screen?

I have such an elementary way of going about it. I had read the book just for fun. I had read the book before I was ever called to discuss adapting it so I knew it quite well. I started reading it again and now, of course, I've read it many, many dozens of times. I start by just doing as much from memory as I can because I think the book is so emblazoned on my mind that I start writing down the scenes that I can't wait to write. It's sort of love and passion. I'm like "Oh my God, oh my God, that scene!" I'm an index-carder. I put up index cards and I try to do everything, as much from memory, from top to bottom as I can. Then I start going back — sort of seeing then how my memory of what the story is has informed how it breaks down. 

So then is the assumption that if you don't remember something all that vividly as a reader that probably that means you don't need to see it on screen?

Possibly, although I wish it were that black and white because my memory is not so good that I was like, "Great, I wrote down everything I remembered and now I've got my miniseries!" No, because then you go back and you go, "Oh, I did forget about that moment," and it's really useful and important. But it's more about... writing about what's exciting. Because then I naturally lean into what the peak of maybe excitement or big pieces are that are sort of defining moments. 

In fact I will say, early on I made a pitch to cut out a pretty significant part of the front of the book because I went, "We've got to get to 11/22. I've just got to get into Kennedy, this is just taking so long," and I had what I thought were some really good reasons not to stray far from the main path. Kathy Lingg, my co-executive producer, and J.J. both said, "Really? You really want to lose that part? Really?" They were so insistent in their questioning that it made me say, "Okay I have to reconsider this." I sort of sighed and went back and now I'm so happy that I did. It turned out to be one of our best episodes, it's episode three, so I thought initially about maybe taking away the Harry Dunning story.

Now when looking back, what kind of glasses did you want to view that period through? It's not nostalgic — it's not gauzy and "Everything was simpler," but you do still have people saying "Food tastes better" and all of that. What was the balance of "The past might have been better in some ways" but also "Let's be honest, the past was kind of shit"?

The past was kind of shit. I mean, to my taste, we probably still leaned too far on "Look at how beautiful this all is," because that's everybody's desire in all of television production. Nobody wants to make something ugly. Stephen King sent me an email early on and he said, "What I love about how you shaped this is that there were two things that I thought about the whole while writing this book — one was that the '60s were great and one was the '60s sucked." I thought that was really interesting that he said that to me. So visually what I wanted to go into was — like any other film nerd in the world, I love great composition, I love that stuff, but I was like, "What would it feel like if you were stepping into a '60s documentary?" Maybe we can be looking for a feeling that's a little more unstudied. It's not grainy — again because that is nostalgic. It's more like you can see textures and maybe we repeat clothes because people wear clothes more frequently. That there was a commonplace aspect to what visually we are trying to represent. I will say that in the first week of shooting, I would go around to all of our extras and then go to our makeup key and say, "You've got to wash these people's faces. They're very done. I need a little more undone." I went to the hair person and I said, "I know it's much easier and I completely understand if you want to put a wig on somebody, but first of all, I think they look like wigs and secondly, then that's really done hair and I just need people to look like human beings." I would say I really aspired for an unstudied artlessness or kind of a cinematic naturalism, hopefully, because I do love things to be pretty. 

How did that play into the re-creation of the assassination day? Reenactments of that day are so familiar; there are so many of them — from fictional works like Oliver Stone's JFK to documentary works.

Well, my production designer Carol Spier and our costume designer Roland Sanchez are really obsessive researchers and perfectionists. You're absolutely right, it was so documented and Roland, I will say, pulled screen grabs of every frame of the [Abraham] Zapruder film and he meticulously recreated every costume from the film. He built those costumes for fifty extras, so there is a level of detail there that I loved, because it's easy to compare. There is no Jodie, Texas and there is no Holden, Ky. so we have a little license because we made those places up. But you're absolutely right: Dealey Plaza in Dallas exists and it's very easy to compare it because it was so massively photographed. 

Those were details which we were really willing to go to the mat for, I will say, too, that I really fought the good fight to shoot at Oswald's actual apartment house in Dallas. At a certain point we were really up against it for the budget and people said, "Well there's only a couple scenes" and I was like, "It doesn't matter. We have the opportunity to have our actors stand in the spot in the backyard where Oswald really stood and took that photograph of himself, and that felt really magical and eerie — a little haunted.

Whose name opens doors to get to film in places like this? Is it J.J.'s? is it Stephen King's? What gets you in?

It's both. I'm so lucky to have 1600 lbs of gorilla right on either side of me. Stephen King had spent an enormous amount of time at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dealey Plaza doing research, so everybody there knew him. That book is in the gift shop. Not only is he one of America's most famous authors, but he had just done his due diligence and everybody was thrilled that he had spent so much time there. That was a big deal. Then I will say too, the Dallas Film Commission, I think, was really thrilled to be helping out J.J. and Bad Robot. Everybody made it very easy, about as easy to film in another city as I've experienced. (Long pause.) Until we snarled the traffic and then they revoked our permits the next day. That became hard. That was tough.

Now Hulu has been advertising this, of course, so much around the time travel and the stopping the JFK assassination and all of that, but anyone who's read the book knows that as the story arcs, this is a love story, this is a romance. How do you keep that part important when you know that people are coming for the other stuff?

I'll tell you my first answer but I'm not sure it's the only answer. We cast Sarah Gadon and I think that she is just a massive talent, and I think that she and James Franco had really quite a lovely chemistry. It very naturally unfolded. What you are talking about — the fact that this is a love story and it wears the hat of an action movie, but really at it's core there's real romance — is exactly why I wanted to make it. But what a thing is, I think, is a little bit distinct from what you use to sell it. So it's kind of like, "Come for the JFK and stay for the romance," is how I look at it. I feel like the story speaks for itself. 

Having a star who's the busiest man in Hollywood has to bring with it some complications. Any fun stories about multi-tasking James Franco?

Yes! (Laughs.) None of them are fun, it's all too soon. (Laughs.) No, there are no fun stories. No, you know what? James and I are great. I will say, there was at one point I got wind that he was going to fly somewhere to shoot a commercial and then someone let slip that it might be in Dubai and I was like, "Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?" I flipped and blew a gasket and he looked at me quietly and he was like, "I can tell you that I'm going to be back on Monday." And I'm like, "You had better be!" And then somebody called me like, "Oh no, no, no, it's not Dubai It's New York!" And I'm like, "Just forget it. Just don't tell me. Don't tell me." 

He would do things like he would leave, he would finish shooting at midnight on a Friday night, and he would get into the back of the car and he would sleep in the back of the car while one of his assistants drove him to New York so he could wake up from Toronto in New York. Then he would work on something with Cyndi Lauper there over the weekend, and then he would drive back and be ready for work. He was always ready for work. 

There was one time where he had done a horror short film and his hands were stained really red. That took like an extra half-hour in makeup to clean off the red blood from his other movie off his hands. (Laughs.) See I'm laughing now but really I want to start to cry. 

I will say, he is remarkable. He is tireless. He is not a complainer. He does not go away and hide in his trailer. He sits on set and he reads and he is ready to go. It's all great in the end. I will say too, I felt really lucky because he does so much, that he really blocked out what he did for six months. I mean everybody kept telling me he's never done anything for this long. Never. His agent called and she goes, "I love that he's doing this job, I always know where he is!" I was like, "That makes one of us! Just don't tell me where he is on Sunday." He was insane, but actually I'm saying that sort of glibly. He was not insane, he's actually completely on-point and prepared. I don't understand it but maybe there's a clone. 

How would you do personally in a similar situation to this story? How would you do if you were plunked down in an era and forced to make your way with a particular mission?

I'm really haunted by a phrase that King uses in the book at a certain point: "casual racist." There'd be something that would really stick in my craw, I'd think, about the casualness and ease of racism and segregation at that time. It's something that we didn't confront enough of, and again, it comes down to trying to maintain the movement of the story.

But, how would I do with a mission? I wouldn't do well with a mission. I would get sidetracked and go and want to see jazz in New York or something. I would want to go and see what Coney Island looked like at that time or something. I would go on a nostalgia trip I'm sure. 

11.22.63 premieres on Monday, Feb. 15 on Hulu.

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