Castle Rock, Hulu's new anthology series set in the Stephen King universe, was the brainchild of showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason nearly a decade ago. But the frequent collaborators would never have gone forward without the blessing of the horror master himself.
"Stephen was sort of [our] Charlie in Charlie's Angels," Shaw said during a Friday-afternoon panel for the series at the 2018 ATX Television Festival in Austin, Texas. Though the prolific novelist wasn't involved in the day-to-day matters of the show, he "was more like the crucial figure who loomed large from afar."
The pair was interested in creating a show based around a town that has "been visited by more than its share of nightmares," Shaw said. Added Thomason, "What is a town like Castle Rock like now? ... I think we were excited about coming back to this town that haunted our childhood dreams and what it would be like in the modern era."
The audience at the ATX panel was the first to see a four-minute clip from the series, which was narrated by Terry O'Quinn, before Shaw and Thomason vaguely discussed the series in a Q&A panel.
Much of the plot of the first season has been kept under wraps, and Thomason and Shaw said the series followed the top-secret protocol that most Bad Robot productions adhere to (J.J. Abrams is also an exec producer). But they did tell their stars whatever they wanted to know.
"There are certainly some actors who want to know everything from the beginning and there are some who don't want to know more than what their characters know," Thomason said. Lost veteran O'Quinn was happy not knowing anything. While shooting on the first day of filming, O'Quinn told producers he didn't need to know much about what would happen to his character. "You work long enough on a J.J. Abrams show and you learn to work on a need-to-know basis," he told them.
They also discussed the casting of the series — which hinged deeply on Andre Holland and his character.
"One of the challenges of a genre show is you end up with characters who understand at some level that they're in a genre story," Thomason said. He and Shaw wanted "to find actors who really brought you into a world and made it feel really true and human and natural even as strange occurrences started happening around them."
Some of those actors include King vets Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgard — who had finished filming It and was tentative to sign on for another Stephen King production — and Melanie Lynskey, whose character's sister was cast in part thanks to Twitter. After Lynskey's casting was announced, fellow actor Allison Tolman reached out to her on Twitter to congratulate her, joking that she'd love to play her sister.
"But the weird thing is we knew her character had a sister," Thomason said, and he and Shaw knew immediately that Tolman would be the perfect person for the role.
Another challenge for Shaw and Thomason was figuring out just how many King Easter eggs to include in the series. "The impulse was to try to write a show that can be fun and pleasurable for somebody who has no experience reading Stephen King but also to satiate people who want to nerd out," said Shaw. "There's definitely some Ph.D.-level deep-cut [references]."
Said Thomason, "We've seen things that are so packed full with Easter eggs that it becomes kind of dizzying. ...It was important to us [that the references] all had meaning."
As for a second season, Shaw and Thomason said they don't necessarily intend to follow the same characters — the new story could be set in the past or the future and follow an entirely different group of characters.
"You feel when Stephen King writes about these small towns is that there's a story behind every shuttered window... that the town is a little advent calendar of stories and disasters," said Shaw.
Added Thomason, "We like the idea of actually being able to come across characters and catch back up with what they're doing at unexpected times."
Castle Rock premieres July 25 on Hulu.