There may be no Dark Tower fan more invested in seeing its story on the big screen than director Nikolaj Arcel. Over the years, he's followed all the twists and turns of its decade-long journey that saw filmmakers and studios come and go.
"I always felt like it's not going to happen. No one's ever going to adapt it, because it's completely unadaptable. It's a crazy, sprawling, genre-hopping saga," says Arcel.
In the end, he credits a streamlined take from screenwriter Akiva Goldsman that made him see how the movie could be done. Rather than attempting to digest the massive multiverse Stephen King created through eight novels, the film tells a (relatively) simple story, largely drawn from the first novel, The Gunslinger, that pits Roland (Idris Elba) and Jake (Tom Taylor) against the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey).
"It's borrowing some stuff from some of the other novels, but it's definitely just the beginning of a longer journey, of a longer saga," says Arcel of the film, which studio Sony hopes will spawn sequels and already has plans for a TV series.
The $60 million film is actually a sequel to King's novels (if you've read the books, you know why), and in a conversation with Heat Vision, Arcel weighs in on the future of the franchise and why King is the only one who can dictate how the movie saga will end.
The Dark Tower had a relatively modest budget, at least by summer blockbuster standards. What do you think of that decision?
It's smart. It's not a big, $150 million, huge, massive [film]. There was also a risk that the studio was able to take. If we make it for a little bit smaller, tighter, more intimate, that's a way to take some chances and do something that's a little more complex and a little more mysterious and at times a little odd, which we need. It's The Dark Tower, right? They said, "Let's start it up like this and see if we can introduce the world and the characters to a broader audience." And then, if they like it, and if enough people go see it, we'll probably be able to grow and grow and get more and more into the even more epic quality of the sequels that come — the novels.
This is a sequel to the books, and it almost reminds me of how George R.R. Martin has given the Game of Thrones showrunners outlines of how his still unpublished novels will go. In this case, how involved will Stephen King be in deciding how this unexpected continuation of The Dark Tower ends?
He was very involved before I came on board. He was very involved after I got the job. Ultimately what he did was inform some of the more important choices and give his either thumbs-up or thumbs-down on different ideas in the script. And what I definitely believe is he is the only person — let's say when Roland finally reaches the Dark Tower some time in 2028 or 2035 (laughs), he has to be the guy who tells us what is going to happen. He's the man. That's not going to be guesswork on our part. That's going to be a discussion from Stephen. What's the last time around the wheel? How does Roland finally become enlightened enough to be able to journey this for the final time? We've already done some of this in the movie. Already Roland makes some slightly different choices than he did. That's very much part of it.
The movie has some interesting visual moments, such as Roland throwing up bullets and catching them in his gun. How did you decide on that visual style?
When I was reading the novels, even back when I was late teens, I always felt King was conveying a sort of supernatural ability with guns. Not necessarily saying that he had supernatural abilities, but he was so fast no one ever knew what was happening. He was so on point. Every bullet hit its target. He's faster than the eye can see. So there was a lot of discussion about how do we do that? It was about cool stuff, and speed — how do you become the fastest gunslinger in the multiverse? You not only have to be able to shoot extremely fast, you have to be able to reload very fast. We had several ideas of how to be able to show his speed, dexterity, position. He's like a machine when it comes to guns. He can do anything with guns.
How did you decide on what Roland's world would look like?
The stylized nature of that wasn't my first goal on this film. I always felt it was a real world — the Mid-World, End-World, the Kingverse. The Dark Tower always felt to me very real and grounded in a way. My first goal as a director was trying to ground it in a reality and try to not make it overly stylized. It shouldn't look like a music video. I wanted it to feel as real as possible. Like going through Jake's experience of it, people will be surprised it's kind of a grounded fantasy film. It's not trying to be colorful and weird and fantasy-like. It actually feels kind of real, even though a lot of fantastical things obviously happen in it.
The lower budget probably takes some of the pressure off. This doesn't need to make $1 billion to turn a profit.
That's nice — and you are also able to take the risk of doing something that's kind of complex and creating something new. It's a very well-known entity, but more people know The Stand and It than The Dark Tower, if you talk to Stephen King fans. It's not like Spider-Man. It's a different kind of beast. It was nice we could take a little more risk with it in a way.
What were some of those risks?
Some of that groundedness was great for me to be able to achieve. For instance, there were parts of it that deal with when we meet Jake in New York and he thinks he's crazy. He has these dreams about another world and everyone thinks he's mentally unstable, and it doesn't start like your classical, typical blockbuster movie — big action sequence and a battle in the stars. It actually begins with a kid in trouble who has very few friends. It kind of starts low-key and softly in a way I think that's cool. That was in the script when I boarded the project already. That was an Akiva idea.
What kind of weight do you think Idris felt to embody this mythic character?
The weight he feels has more to getting the character right, getting the emotions right, getting the reality of the situation right. That's all he really needed to do. … Some of the things were really important to him: the red scarf, the outfit, the way he was dealing with guns. There were parts of the characters that were Roland-isms: the way Roland talks. A lot of that was important for Idris. But I think he was even more concerned with the emotional truth of the character, which is all you want in an actor. You want them to safeguard the truth and reality of it. That was the base of that.
Stay tuned to Heat Vision for much more from The Dark Tower through the weekend.