'11.22.63' Finale: Showrunner Explains That Ending, Book Changes and Alt 2016

11.22.63 - James Franco and Sarah Gadon- still 2- H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

[Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the finale of Hulu's 11.22.63 and the season as a whole.]

Hulu's miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's 11.22.63 released its final episode on Monday, a climax that saw James Franco's Jake make his attempt to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy, get a glimpse at how his actions changed the future and make a difficult decision involving Sadie (Sarah Gadon).

While showrunner Bridget Carpenter and the series' production team had to make many changes from King's best-seller, the book's romantic, but profoundly bittersweet, ending was left intact, a rarity when it comes to King adaptations.

Carpenter took a break from working on the book for an upcoming musical take on Freaky Friday to talk to The Hollywood Reporter about keeping King's ending, her dream casting for Old Sadie, depicting dystopia, big changes to the characters of Bill and Yellow Card Man and the possibility of reuniting with Franco on a future Stephen King adaptation. 

I thought the ending of the book was one of Stephen King's best, but changing Stephen King endings for the screen is almost a cottage industry. Did anybody waver or blink at the idea of ending this on James Franco dancing with an old woman, for want of a better description?

No. Nobody did, to everybody's great credit. We all knew that the love story is, in a way, the story's hidden, beating heart. That's the great reveal. Also, the finale has so much packed into it that, as an ending and coda, it felt really good to end with that quietude. 

And even figuring you were heading toward that ending, all the way through I was wondering, "Are they going to cast another actress or are we going to get Sarah Gadon in old-age makeup?" Were there any conversations about the latter?

No, none. My dream was for Eva Marie Saint to play Sadie and I wrote to her and God bless her, she wrote me a handwritten note back, but she decided not to do it. I wanted to pay homage to the Hitchcock of it all. 

Constance Towers, the woman who ended up playing Sadie, was really quite astonishing and a lifer actress. She had a career in the '50 and '60s. She's a bona fide longtime actress. We always wanted an older actress, but I think the only conversation we had is I wondered whether Young Sadie should be there at all, if he should only dance with Old Sadie, but then I thought, "No, you need that magic." I will also say that I thought the chemistry between Sarah Gadon and James Franco was so unmistakable that I wanted to see them dance together one last time.

It's such a tough and delicate ending. What were the beats that were hardest or most essential to execute so that you felt people would buy it?

Thinking about it chronologically, people lived in Jake and James Franco. You needed to see Jake seeing Sadie and being happy that she was alive. The first thing that needed to happen is you needed to understand, "Oh, my God, she lived. That's the greatest." I do think that this is an act of real altruism on his part, that he gave her up so that she could live, whether or not they got to be together. The second piece was understanding, in that actress, who she had become, that she was a person of integrity and had had a satisfying and deep and rich life and that there was some poignancy. We knew the character of Sadie, but we'd never seen this actress before, so understanding that somehow she knew that she was near the end of her life, you sense that in her speech. And then the third part was the visual of their connection, of seeing James get to have this double-ness of holding the woman he loves in his arms. It's like you're holding your grandmother, but it's the woman that you love. So it was having that tenderness, but also a moment of bittersweetness of "I get to experience this. I get to go back in time for a minute."

You added a new scene in Maine with Jake's return to 1960 and actually meeting Sadie with her cousins. And that's an interesting addition because it lets Jake make a choice that he doesn't make in the book in the same way, he's actively letting her live her life. On the other hand, it means at the end, when she says she recognizes him, it's possible that she literally recognizes him, as opposed to just knowing him in a cosmic way. Talk about adding that scene and whether you want us to take her recognition as literal?

Going backwards, I'm totally fine with the idea and interpretation that, "Oh, she really recognizes him," that there's a literalness to it, but to me the point is that she remembers, somewhere in her, their love affair rather than his face. So the fact that that's two things is fine with me, because I think one doesn't cancel out the other. That's a little extra. But adding that scene in Maine, you're exactly right that I wanted to dramatize Jake's active choice, because in the book, I think there are 30 pages at the end where he's sitting at the Tamarack Motel in the '60s writing this down. He's writing letters to himself and to her. That choice is so prose-dramatized. You just get to live with him in the time it takes you to read that. But I thought that you have to have it be a dramatic, active choice. For me it was a really important early idea that I said, "I think Sadie should have been right near Jake all along and he only realizes it at the end." There is a kind of if/then thing that happens, like, "Oh, my gosh. If, at whatever time it is he's going through that rabbit hole, if he looks an extra moment in that direction and he realizes who it is." So I loved the idea that we were cosmically crossing always and he only finds out at the end. So it was planted when they meet and she goes, "Oh, I've been to Lisbon before. I had a great milkshake." And he's like, "What a funny coincidence." But the truth is "It was a funny coincidence and you really were there." I love the idea that there is a fatedness to their being drawn together. That seems very romantic to me and kind of epic. Adding that extra scene, he doesn't get that in the book. After Sadie dies, he just gets to think about her. He doesn't get to see her alive again until she's old. I thought that I'd gone through so much with them together and he's got to see her as she was, as she is, as he loves her and then let her go, because that seems the most difficult thing to do.

The finale also takes us to the alt-2016, the 2016 had Kennedy lived. In the book, that scene is almost all Harry giving a recitation of 50 years of changed history, which obviously you guys couldn't do ...

I tried! I wrote it! I wrote many versions of that and I was like, "I'm gonna kill myself. I can't stand it." But I did try.

What were the choices there? How much time would we have ideally spent in the alt-present and what were the important things you needed that scene to convey beyond just "It didn't work, you don't wanna live here, go back"?

I wrote a lot of versions. In the book, it's a huge aria for Harry Dunning. It's both horrifying and a little jokey, because it mentions President Hillary Clinton and it mentions that Maine has seceded and gone with Canada and there are hate meetings and people are dripping with pus and you can see their bones. It's very Stephen King. It's a joy to read. It's very hard to dramatize many of those elements without getting campy or unbelievable. I did try to write many versions. I wrote the finale a bunch of times and this part in particular changed a lot. One version was questioning Harry back-and-forth and trying to dramatically understand the history. Then I wrote a version in which that world was very heavily militarized and you saw it almost as a police state, which I thought was interesting and told a particular type of story. At the end of the day, I thought and thought and thought about it, thought about what visually we wanted to do and I thought, "Wouldn't it be more evocative and interesting if you just vacuumed everything away? If you took it all away and it was a desolate landscape and you told the story through what was not there?" There are no people. There are no signs of commerce. There's no color. We used different lenses and production design. … Then, when I really thought about the world, I thought, "This changes who Harry is as well and he can't talk as much, because nobody's talking." So I let silence and emptiness dictate the story of what had gone on with the world. 

I have to say that I loved how it turned out. It's an evolution from the book, but at its core, it tells the same story, which is, "Things have gone wrong."

Stepping back into the adaptation process. I want to go through the journey of Bill, who was the biggest nearly original character here. You knew you needed him to avoid voiceover from Jake, but you also presumably knew the ending couldn't really involve him, because it had to be about Jake and Sadie. So what's the struggle of making a character who has to seem like he's there for a purpose but ultimately can't leave a trace in terms of where the narrative is going?

I knew that Bill would go in the penultimate episode and I knew he was going to the asylum, because I built in Jake talking about asylums in the pilot. He's like, "What does it mean? What does it mean to look at this film of how terrible asylums were in this time that I am going to?" (Laughs.) It's funny. I don't think I was smart enough to articulate that he could not leave a trace, but the reason I knew that Bill needed to leave in episode eight was that I wanted Jake to feel the personal cost, that you don't get anything for free, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So this thing he thought he was doing, which was just momentarily taking care of Bill, actually has a cost and I wanted that cost to sting him.

Staying with changed characters, the Yellow Card Man is basically a literary conceit. Did you ever think you could get away without him there at all and what was the approach you wanted to take with him?

I never wanted to eliminate him entirely. I love him. I think he's this great harbinger and he's so spooky. … The way I wanted to shift who and what the Yellow Card Man was to go, "Oh, he's fighting precisely because Jake could become him." He is Jake. He has been Jake. He's somebody who went through he's own rabbit hole, whether it was Al's or not, and cannot stop going through because it was his daughter. I loved the idea of making something very personal so there is hopefully a real human being even though he's been sort of a specter the whole time, but he's been a real human being all along, but there's a real reason for him to talk to Jake, which is one of connection. I thought there was something that was painful, and that helped me understand what the rabbit hole could mean emotionally.

I binged the series on screeners, but Hulu doesn't do the Netflix thing and it's been premiering weekly. Did you get any sense from Twitter or responses on your blog or whatever of how people were watching?

I have! I would say that the high percentage of people express irritation and were upset that they couldn't watch more, but then that was followed up by, "I really love looking forward to it." People would be like, "Why can't I watch more? That's so annoying," but then someone will go, "But I watch it on Mondays with my husband and it's really great." So this is people who are into it and who already like the show. It's exactly how I want people to feel. I do think the art of anticipation is one that we're losing and it will probably be lost, but I think the Hulu model is win-win, because come Monday, everybody who hasn't gotten around to it can binge it. It's there to be binged, but we had a little fun with drawing it out.

Having successfully turned one formidable Stephen King doorstop into a tight miniseries, do you have aspirations to tackle another?

Yes, absolutely. One of the books has been optioned to somebody else, but I keep hoping that Firestarter will fall into my hands. And I can also say that James Franco really wants to do another one with me, too. So he and I are talking about a couple. I'm on a lookout. Firestarter would be my dream, but I'm going back through the archives, for sure. We had a great time.