'Mr. Mercedes' Writer Dennis Lehane Discusses the Show's Pre-Trump Backdrop

'Mystic River' scribe and 'The Wire' veteran discusses working for TV, but why he doesn't think we'll ever see a Kenzie-Gennaro TV show.
Brownie Harris
Brendan Gleeson of 'Mr. Mercedes.'

[This article contains some spoilers for Audience Network's Mr. Mercedes through Wednesday's episode, "People in the Rain."]

Audience Network has pushed its adaptation of Mr. Mercedes primarily on the names of novelist Stephen King and showrunner David E. Kelley, both clear creative assets elevating this harrowing game of cat-and-mouse between a retired detective (Brendan Gleeson) and an increasingly deranged killer (Harry Treadaway), plotting his next crime.

Dennis Lehane's name comes a bit further down the show's producer list, but immediately popped for me because of how the TV version of Mr. Mercedes has expanded on King's backdrop of gestating lower income rage in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic meltdown. It's a mixture of genre thrills and sociological realism that also has been the spine of Lehane's acclaimed fiction including Mystic River, Shutter Island and the beloved Kenzie-Gennaro series.

While Lehane has remained a prolific novelist — Since We Fell, his latest, was published in May — he's been steadily building a writing and producing resume on TV that features The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and now Mr. Mercedes. His name is on the fourth and sixth episodes of the Audience Network drama, episodes which presumably not coincidentally have allowed the show to push into narrative corners not explored in King's book, fleshing out Treadaway's Brady Hartsfield and, especially in this week's hour, adding nuance and sympathy to Brady's mother Deborah (Kelly Lynch).

Lehane recently got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss how Mr. Mercedes works as an origin story for the 2016 election, the pleasures of writing for TV and getting to write the episode introducing Justine Lupe's Holly, one of the book's more memorable characters. He also gave a somewhat deflating and deflated answer on the potential for a Kenzie/Gennaro TV series.

The full Q&A …

You're a New England writer. Stephen King is a New England writer. David E. Kelley has often been a New England writer, as well. What does it say that the project that brings all of you together is this Ohio book, this outsider novel from King's perspective that also puts you and David outside of your geographic comfort zones as well?

I don't know that it does; I think it puts us out of our geography. When I read the book, that's how I locked on, without a doubt was the sense of this being a discarded working class town. Medium-size city if you will. That's completely how I locked on to the show. That's when I felt like, "Oh, I'm comfortable here." I don't if it had been set in Castle Rock and it had been about much more clearly gothic themes, would I have felt the same level of comfort? I don't know, but I certainly felt when you have a show that begins right after the 2008 global economic collapse and it concerns a bunch of people standing in line for a job fair and they get plowed into by a lunatic in a Mercedes Benz, I don't have to search hard for metaphors that I can connect to.

The series plays so totally as an origin story for the white, low income frustration that ultimately led to the Trump election in 2016, which obviously Stephen King wouldn't have known about in 2014. What was it like bringing more of that subtext out given what we've seen of the country in the three years since the book came out?

Look, I don't know that anybody could've predicted Trump, but we could have predicted somebody like him. I do think that. Somebody sent me a quote, it said, "Do you recognize this?" And it was an angry quote that I'd written. It was an angry piece that I'd written about the political situation in this country and it was from my first book. It was published in 1994, and it felt like it was written about Trump. I think writers have always been very nervous or very attuned to this sort of Face in the Crowd vibe that goes on in American politics when people use very authentic anger and very authentic senses of abandonment to stir up exceptionally dangerous myths and over-simplifications. I think that Stephen was definitely writing about all of that, he just wasn't writing particularly about Trump. Because America, there is a whole portion of America that has been completely discarded.

It's just the fascinating thing of what Thomas Frank identified in What's the Matter With Kansas?, the ability of some people to get the very people who have been discarded to vote against their interests, not only that but to polarize to the degree that they have and we see what we're seeing now. We were always aware of that when we were writing and I said at one point, I got in one argument with somebody about the show, and I said, "Look, just so we're really clear here, I'm writing this because what I'm interested in is all the stuff that's going on in the subtext. Yeah, the serial killer stuff is fine, but it's not what's bringing me to the table and it's not what's getting me jazzed up. I'm jazzed up by the town, I'm jazzed up by the sense of loss, I'm jazzed up by the inciting incident and what that says to me metaphorically. I'm jazzed up by what Brady represents to me, not necessarily Brady himself, if you will." 

Looking at it from a different perspective, does it put a different pressure on you when society has made the subtext of this work kind of move to the forefront and suddenly you guys are working in something where, if you depict it head-on, maybe it becomes too obvious?

Yeah, you don't want to do a polemic, so no, lean away from that. That's the beauty of this, you get to say, "Oh, OK, no reason to step up on a soap box, because Brady gets to do something crazy now." It's a have your cake and eat it too thing, but I think I've been working in genre long enough now, for my entire career, that this is exactly what I like to do the most. I don't like to write directly to something. I want to have my serial killers and my "Ah ha!" moments and my crazy thrills and all those things and then simultaneously I want to be able to weave in social commentary, social observation. That's what always gets me the most jazzed, I've been doing that for a very long time. This felt like, "Yeah, no problem, right in my wheelhouse!" I can write about the sort of America that got discarded and at the same time I can come up with cool shit about, "Ooh Brady's gonna really fuck this guy up."

Like say in episode four, there's a certain amount of thrill in that, that we all live vicariously through. We all wanna be the guy who if somebody pisses us off we can — vicariously, we all understand this — if somebody pisses us off we can hurt them terribly badly.

In that circumstance, and this doesn't even happen in the book so much, Brady is almost a crusading angel. In that brief moment he's kind of in the right. Except for the part where he isn't. Was that fun to play around with our allegiances, forcing us to acknowledge the part of us that maybe wishes we could do that? Kind of?

Absolutely, that's the appeal of a bad guy. The appeal of a bad guy is being unleashed. I do have a belief, I'm not saying most people are murderers. I don't think most people are capable of murder, that type of murder. I don't think most people are capable of child molestation or rape. But once you remove those big three, I think what we call "morality" is nine times out 10 just fear of being caught.

I think most people, in any given circumstance, are capable of whatever they're capable of, and Brady represents that. Don't we all have a moment, even for two seconds, I don't think there's a person on the planet who wasn't dissed in a customer service relationship, humiliated, who didn't fantasize for one second, "Wouldn't it be great if that guy got hit in the face with a sledgehammer?" Or whatever it was. So Brady gets dissed and then his friend gets dissed — although I'm not sure Brady's capable of empathy — certainly he gets dissed and then he says,"Hey, well if you get in my lane again it could be a bad day for you." And that's exactly what happens.

It feels notable that the fourth and sixth episodes, your first two episodes here, are episodes that often stray pretty far from the book. A lot of the stuff that's happening with Brady and a lot of the stuff that's happening with Deb is created from whole-cloth. What was the allure and approach for you in getting to fill in those gaps?

I felt like it was drilling down on what Stephen gave me, gave us. For example, in episode four, it came up — I can't even remember who said it in the room, I know it wasn't me — there was a moment in the room where one of the writers said, "Man, wouldn't it be great, remember that moment where he makes reference to changing traffic lights with Thing 2?" I was like "Yeah. That was the coolest thing. Wouldn't you love to have that?" Then we thought, "Let's use that. Let's truly use it." Because in the book, Brady does have a scene where he drives and he uses Thing 2 to change traffic lights, but that's as far as it went. I said, "What if we really show it."  It's Chekhov's Law about a gun on the wall? You gotta use it. If it's there, you gotta use it. We got Thing 2 so we decided to use it. How to use it, you have him take revenge on somebody with you, cause that was fun. 

Then episode six, Stephen has a Deb flashback in the book, it shows her marriage to Norm. It shows her when she was literally a hopeful human being, almost like a young Sansa Stark vibe. She was the beautiful cheerleader, she was going to have this certain life, and I said, "Wow, that's amazing, but we can't do that. I can't do a flashback episode." But then I thought, wouldn't it be great to just fully humanize her before we head into the final four episodes of mayhem? That allowed me to do it. What he gave me, I just took the ball and I ran with it, but Stephen's given me all that stuff, I just run with it and I get to take it further because I have 10 episodes of TV.

And the sixth episode also introduces Holly, who's this huge character in the book, but she's also one of those characters who's probably easier to write on the page, than to bring to life when you have to actually see her in motion. As you're crafting that character for TV what was the key to making that a believable person, not just a likable character on the page?

I came to it, again, from what's in the book. This is a woman whose neurosis and her place on the spectrum, most of it stems from a toxic relationship with her mother, a mother who's not just a helicopter parent, she's a landing helicopter. She's not hovering, she's landing and the child can never get out from underneath her. Stephen puts that in the book. That's completely in the book. Everything with Holly just came from that. Every time I wrote her, every time everybody else wrote her, I think we were always just coming from the perspective that if Holly grows up in a different parental circumstance she's probably a quote unquote normal person. But because she didn't, she's going to have to flower just like she does in the book. It's going to take her time and she's very idiosyncratic and she is on the spectrum, she's somewhere on the spectrum.

It's interesting because the book doesn't diagnosis it. It doesn't come out and say, "Oh, she's got Asperger's" or "Oh, she's got whatever." It leaves some of her eccentricities as eccentricities. Does that make it easier or harder, then, to target what's both appealing and also appealingly strange in her?

She's just appealingly strange, we knew that going in. When she shows up in the book you fall in love with her pretty quick. She's so easy to identify with that I think we didn't want to ... When we say "somewhere on the spectrum," in fact literally I think that was one of the lines that was written in her character description, in the script, I mean, "She's definitely somewhere on the spectrum," that's how we left it. Nobody wrote, "Oh, she has Asperger's or she has ..." like you said. I just think it allowed us to have a freedom to let her flower and then the actress who plays her is terrific. All things came together, I feel like.

You obviously don't have the same level of experience on TV as you do writing novels, but you've worked for some pretty spectacular TV shows. At this point in your career how comfortable do you feel with the writers room TV process of it all? 

Probably more comfortable than I feel about almost anything. I love writers rooms, and I've been in writers rooms where I didn't write any scripts. I've been consulting producer on several things and I've been quietly in the background on multiple other things. It's a world I'm very comfortable in. I have a very collaborative personality. Not for my books obviously. I don't want anybody coming anywhere near my books. But when it gets to doing this sort of stuff I'm the ultimate little kid in the room. I'm the guy who's like, "Hey, my dad's got a barn, let's put on a show." I'm all about whatever it takes to make the show work. I just get very much like a little kid and feel completely in my element when I'm around a bunch of other writers sitting around spit-balling ideas.

When you're on a show and you're not writing scripts [Netflix's Bloodline, for example], what is it that you're doing in the background, as you say?

What I try to do, and I think I've built a little bit of a reputation for it, is I can come in with really fresh eyes and then I can work the macro-structure of the show once again. Particularly if they've kind of lost sight, which is very easy to do — I do it all the time in books. You lose sight, you get lost, you can't the forest for the trees. It's good sometimes to bring in somebody who comes in and just says, "Oh I think this is why this isn't connecting, or maybe if we do this and this then it'd be a richer dramatic experience at the end." I can do stuff like that. I can also pitch all day and never take it personally. I expect to be rejected. I expect my ideas to be rejected. I can be inexhaustible in that regard. 

You know there was this great line about Manny Ramirez once, that the reason Manny Ramirez was a great hitter was because he never remembered the previous at-bat. Or not "never remembered," but he was never affected by the previous at bat. If Manny came up and he struck out with the bases loaded and he let everybody down and he took a bunch of bad pitches to do it, when he got up the next time he wasn't feeling bad about it and so there was nothing in his head. So he just took each at-bat the same. I love that theory, and that's me in a writers room.

Going the other way, has that changed the process when you find yourself back in a room by yourself working on a book? Do you find yourself missing those sounding boards around you?

Oh, yeah. God, it would be so much easier. It would be so much easier! I would probably produce twice as many books if had a writers room around me. I could have sat there and I could have come up with an idea and everybody could have said, "Wow, that really sucks." Then I would have been like, "OK." And then I'd come up with another one. Whereas with nobody to tell me an idea sucks, I can lose like four months and all of a sudden realize, "Holy shit that idea sucks," and I just spent four months of my life on it. Or worse, the book comes out and then I realize, "I really should have given that one more thought."

It feels like to me, at least, that the cable and streaming TV landscape is mighty ready at this moment for a Kenzie and Gennaro TV series. Is that something you think about at all?

You know, it almost happened about four years ago. Ridiculous, how close it was. We thought we were going into production and we were told to go hunt out offices and then it collapsed. Since then, I was so bruised by that I just let it go. I don't think about it, I don't pursue it. I've got a lot of other things that I'm in pursuit of right now, a lot of other projects I'm involved in, it's not on my radar. 

And you're at the point where you're ready to be at the center of a genesis of a TV show? Ready to showrun yourself?

I've been at that point for a while now. I had a few shows that I was behind that I developed completely by myself that almost ... I've been right to the altar four times. It's not unheard of at all, but you get to a final step and that final step is the moment when a network or production entity has to invest millions and millions of dollars and that step is often the one that ends it all.

How much have you been choosing projects that you sign on to based on the showrunners that you get to work with and being able to watch them at work? 

There's some of that. My thing, this has been true of my career since the very beginning in everything I've done in books and ultimately in movies and who I sell to, and that has been my modus operandi from the beginning, is get involved with people you admire and people whose work you respect and everything else will work itself out. That's been the case with everybody I've sold my books to for movies. That's been the case with my publisher. That's been the case with my editors over the years. I've had two editors they were both chosen ultimately for exactly that reason. I've always done that. And the showrunners I've worked with, I was lucky enough to come in with David Simon, then I worked with Terry Winter, then I worked on Bloodline with the Kesslers, then I worked now with David Kelley and I worked with some other people on these other projects again that necessarily aren't ones we can talk about yet. Cream of the crop type of people. I would say the worst that could happen is an honorable failure.