'Castle Rock': How Hulu's Stephen King Anthology Series Was Born

Showrunners Dustin Thomason and Sam Shaw speak with THR about their King credentials, bringing Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgard back into the legendary horror author's world, and more.
Patrick Harbron/Hulu

Hulu has premiered the first three episodes of its new horror drama Castle Rock, and many viewers are likely to walk away from the experience with a feeling of unsettling familiarity.

At least, that's the hope, according to Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, the Castle Rock showrunners and co-creators whose new series, from Warner Bros. Television and executive producer J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot, springs from the mind of legendary author Stephen King.

While it's not based on any one of King's works, Castle Rock shares themes, characters and most notably its name with one of the central locations found throughout the prolific writer's decades-spanning career. The town of Castle Rock is featured in The Dead Zone, Cujo, Needful Things and more. The series also heavily features another landmark King setting in Shawshank State Penitentiary, and at least one iconic King character in Alan Pangborn, the police officer played here by Scott Glenn. (Glenn joins Ed Harris and Michael Rooker as actors who have found themselves stepping into Pangborn's shoes.) Really, there are countless recognizable fixtures from King's works sprinkled throughout Castle Rock, including series regulars Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgard, iconic for playing the title role in Carrie and the vicious Pennywise the Clown in 2017's It, respectively.

Coming at Castle Rock as longtime Stephen King fans, Thomason and Shaw have designed their new anthology series to emulate the feelings evoked by the revered author's works — namely, putting forth a story that unfurls in a surprising nature, weaving through multiple genres and ultimately even telling different tales. Castle Rock joins television's increasingly large list of anthology series, with subsequent seasons (assuming they come to pass) intended to focus on different characters and stories, all based on King's catalogue, and likely featuring more specific characters and locations familiar to fans.

In the first season, Castle Rock tells the story of Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), a death row attorney who returns home to Maine for the first time in years when a mysterious inmate (Skarsgard) at the local prison, Shawshank, specifically requests Henry as his lawyer. Several narrative threads unfurl from there, including the shocking death of one of Castle Rock's more prominent denizens, a troubled individual with apparent telepathic abilities, and some disturbing developments as Henry digs deeper into his own past — specifically, the time he mysteriously vanished as a child.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Thomason and Shaw opened up about the origin of Castle Rock, their relationship with King, how the writer's vast library will inform the coming season and any subsequent seasons, how having King veterans like Spacek and Skarsgard aboard informs the audience's relationship with the show, and much more.

Where did the idea for Castle Rock come from?

DUSTIN THOMASON Sam and I have been friends for a long time and worked together formally and informally for a long time. This is actually an idea that we started talking about about a decade ago. Stephen King has certainly been a huge part of our very long conversation about books and about movies, and I think we were obsessed with the idea of not only all of the interconnected stories that King's been writing for 40 years as part of his giant project, but also in particular with the town of Castle Rock, and obviously along with Derry and Jerusalem's Lot, these towns that King has beat up on again and again — and Castle Rock most of all. Look at the terrible things that have happened in Castle Rock. Sam and I started talking about a decade ago about who stays in a place like that. After a town has been terrorized by a rabid dog and people have been torn apart and a serial killer and an evil twin doppelganger and the devil himself having come in Needful Things, who stays in a town like that? That was honestly the beginning of the idea for Castle Rock.

What were your first conversations with King like, and what's his level of involvement in the series?

SAM SHAW We definitely overprepared before we made an overture to Stephen King. We came to the material as fans and with a great sense of reverence for the Stephen King library and a point of view about what makes the greatest Stephen King adaptations great. By the time we reached out to Steve, we had a pretty comprehensive picture of what the show might look like and what a first season might look and how we wanted to engage with some of the beloved characters and landmarks and stories from the Stephen King library.

Then, in terms of his involvement, in some ways he's sort of like the mysterious figure in The Dark Tower, off in his own nucleus of the Stephen King universe. It was really, really important to us that he blessed all the creative choices. For example, when we were making a big choice or taking a big swing that had implications involving characters he loved or places like Shawshank that obviously loom really, really large in the Stephen King map, we always reached out to make sure that he sanctioned those choices. But in our experience, which was really fulfilling creatively, he was really, really enthusiastic about the idea that we take this original story and run with it. In general, the license he gave us was really wonderful.

You mentioned Shawshank, which is an iconic location from Stephen King's work that makes its way into Castle Rock. There are characters from King's work, specifically like Alan Pangborn, who makes his way into Castle Rock. Can you talk me through the process of deciding and determining which specific characters and elements from Stephen's work you're able to incorporate into Castle Rock?

THOMASON I think part of what we were excited about, and I think what interested J.J. and Steve, too, was this idea of doing an anthology where we would be telling a self-contained story in the same way that he's been writing each of these novels, and that there would be interconnectivity and that we would be able to circle back to characters in the same way that Steve sometimes does in the novels, but that we would have the chance over multiple seasons to actually tell new stories and to be able to touch on characters and locations in that way. I think part of what was a relief for us in a way was not to have to do everything all at once, to feel that we could think about the larger canvas, the larger project and figure out where do we want to start.

I think part of that, for us, because we were really interested in telling a story that existed in season one under the mini-tent in the very big tent of Stephen King's [stories dealing with] crime and punishment — Shawshank and The Green Mile and others. I think for us, that was where Alan Pangborn, who was this iconic sheriff after Sheriff Bannerman in the early Castle Rock books, Pangborn took over and I think he's a character that we loved from the novels. We were really interested in the idea of seeing when Pangborn might be a kind of lion in winter. Just as we were bringing Castle Rock into the modern era, we also wanted to see what it felt like to check back in with someone like Alan Pangborn, and we felt like he was a character that you could put in a really interesting position in the middle of this very strange story that we're telling in season one, this connected story of a town and a prison and the relationship that the town has to the prison. That was something that we were fascinated by, in the age of small towns where mills closed down and where industry has fled, where the business of prisons becomes the business of a town. So the idea of incorporating and bringing Shawshank into the world of Castle Rock as it is touched upon in some of the books, and putting Alan Pangborn in the middle of that complicated relationship, seemed really interesting to us.

SHAW We're doing the show with J.J., and we're lucky to be doing it with Warner Bros. as our studio. Warners has a long, storied relationship with Stephen King, and so through Warners, we had access to a lot of the most iconic and beloved books and characters and locations. As Dusty says, in a way the challenge was to do a stomach stapling and sort of restrain our appetites and pick and choose characters and ideas to engage with that really felt organic to the self-contained story of this season. I think the only reason we were able to restrain ourselves was the hope that we'll be able to keep doing this in future seasons and tell other kinds of Stephen King stories. … Part of what animated the whole project of making the show was this realization that Stephen King really is like a giant genre unto himself, and there are all of these really fascinating, really specific subgenres with their own internal laws of physics. So we just chose one particular kind of Stephen King novel to engage with in this season.

Is there a pie-in-the-sky King story or character that you want to bring in to the world of show, one that really suits your vision of Castle Rock that you haven't had a chance to tackle in this first season?

THOMASON I think the hard thing, honestly, would be to name one. You look at the universe of Stephen King — the ways in which the connections among the stories and novels is one of the most exciting things about being a "constant reader," and really engaging with the big canvas of all of the novels and stories. As an example, you look at a character like Father Callahan, who you see in the pages of Salem's Lot, and then in a different way in the pages of The Dark Tower, or you hear the relationship between the Nazi Dussander and Andy Dufresne having been his accountant at some point in the pre-history of Shawshank. I think that truly, for us, the challenge was that there are all of these amazing connections and these little tributaries of stories that don't get fully explained or explored in the novels themselves. So we feel like there's an enormous opportunity even with just what Steve has given his readers in terms of connections like those that are really exciting for us.

SHAW The only other Holy Grail that I guess I would say is, as you probably know, Stephen King himself gets roped into the actions of the Dark Tower series. If we could rope Stephen King in … maybe if he gets the final approval over who plays him in the series, or maybe he'd like to play himself. (Laughs.) That's probably the Holy Grail. 

Can you clarify your vision for Castle Rock as an anthology series? Should we be expecting a hard reset every season with a different world with different actors, or with different characters being played by the same cast you have this season?

THOMASON The primary plan is just to keep putting Bill Skarsgård into a different town in Maine and cycling through all towns in Maine. (Laughs.) Look, we take the challenge and opportunity of telling a story in the Kingian way really seriously. In terms of the anthology, each season is going to be its own self-contained story: beginning, middle and end. But I think that just as the books do, we want to surprise viewers with the ways in which the stories intersect. Just as the places the characters pop up in very unexpected ways throughout the books, that's the kind of anthology that we would like to tell. One of the things about the King universe or multiverse is that some very strange things can happen when it comes to the ways that the stories unfold, and hopefully there'll be surprises along the way in terms of how the anthology works in that way. It's pretty delicious that Kathy Bates played both Dolores Claiborne and Annie Wilkes when you really think about that question in the movie adaptations. But I think that there's something for us about being faithful to the way that Steve does it in the books, that almost feels like the anthology format has already been laid out for us.

How closely should people be keeping an eye out for Easter eggs from King's novels? Are those winks and nods nothing more than winks and nods to the people in the know, or do you think people who are really well versed in King's lore are going to find themselves in positions to piece together twists and turns based on what you're littering from his works into the story?

SHAW Like an all-you-can-eat buffet, we've tried to cater to all tastes in this show. Part of it is we were Stephen King nerds. We arrived at the material from a place of slightly OCD obsession with some of the works that had meant a lot to us as kids. We've tried to construct a story that will be engaging and surprising and a fun ride for viewers who may not even identify themselves as Stephen King fans. I think, by the way, I think there are probably a lot of Stephen King fans who don't even realize they're Stephen King fans. They may not identify as fans of horror or genre storytelling but who love Stand By Me, or who love The Shawshank Redemption, and may not even realize that those are based on novellas from Stephen. So it was a little bit like a video game that has different difficulty levels, although we hope none of it's difficult. We tried to construct a series that will be welcoming and accessible to a lay audience.

Then there are characters and landmarks that are as iconic as Pangborn, who's the Mount Rushmore of Stephen King protagonists, and Shawshank, which obviously looms really large. Then there are a lot of secondary and tertiary characters and winks and Easter eggs and nods and connections and thematic echoes and pieces of set dressing and framing of shots. It really runs the gamut, and something that was gratifying to us is that the spirit of reverence toward the material we felt in the writers' room, it was replicated at basically every level of production by our directors and our DPs and in wardrobe. So there are a ton of Easter eggs and footnotes and sidelong winks that are large and small. Some of them are just for fun, and they entertained us as we were making the show, and we hope that they will entertain PhD level Stephen King fans. Some of them exist just out of a spirit of fun. Some of them may pave the way in the early episodes toward big story twists in later episodes, so they sort of exist at every level. That was part of the fun of the project, was thinking about all of the very different ways that we could engage with this unparalleled or unique body of work that Stephen King's produced.

You have two Stephen King icons in the Castle Rock family in the form of Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgård. Aside from their work as their characters, how do you feel their presence as familiar faces in the King canon adds to the series?

SHAW I would say the honest answer is that we did not set out to cast the Mount Rushmore of great Stephen King players, to put together the Stephen King repertory players with actors who are so beloved in part because of the iconic roles they've played in some of Stephen King's best adaptations. It began as a case-by-case discussion when we were casting. We had written this role for Henry Deaver's mother, Ruth, and knowing what was coming down the pike for her and what a tour de force performance was going to be required, the conversation for us was like, "Well, we need somebody who's like a Sissy Spacek," but there really isn't anybody who's like Sissy Spacek except Sissy Spacek.

So we made the overture to her humbly and were so incredibly gratified when she decided to embark on this trip with us. The same thing was true of Bill. When we sat down with Bill, It had been shot, but it was in post. It hadn't been released. So we didn't really have a sense of how iconic that movie was going to become and his performance was going to be. In some ways I would say, if anything, it was probably a hurdle to be overcome talking to those actors because, of course, they wanted to be reassured that they were going to get to do something new and not to just retread ground that they'd already traveled. 

THOMASON For both Bill and Sissy, I think that it was really important that their characters were very different from the characters that they had played previously, and so it was not in any way … a kind of attempt to squeeze them back into the roles that they had both inhabited so well. But rather that they felt, I think, each that the role that we dreamed of them for was really well-suited to an aspect of something that they wanted to bring. So I think that was just honestly thrilling for us, and, as Sam says, it was almost like a happy accident by the time we realized what we had done.

SHAW At some point after we cast both of them and then had the incredible fortune to have Thomas Newman sign on to compose music for the show — having composed the scores for Shawshank and Green Mile, the two great iconic Stephen King prison stories for film — then Chosen Jacobs who [plays Mike Hanlon] in It joined our ensemble, and Melanie Lynskey, who is just an actor who we have revered for forever, has also been in a Stephen King adaptation [the 2002 miniseries Rose Red] in the past. To a certain extent, it started to feel like we were trying to shoot the moon and put together this Avengers of Stephen King. But the sincere answer is we were really just looking for the most exciting actors for the roles, and to a certain extent I think that there's some pleasure in one more sense of a Stephen King Easter egg in the fact that audiences may have a relationship with those actors because of their other previous, iconic Stephen King performances. But we really were just gratified to be able to work with these guys because we're such enormous fans of them as actors.

You mentioned before that someone might be a big Stephen King fan and not even know it, because there is such a breadth to the types of the stories he's told, whether it's The Green Mile or Pet Sematary. What defines "Kinginess," for you? How do you describe the spirit of Stephen King that you're trying to channel as your creative, guiding stars for your work on Castle Rock?

THOMASON I think that for us, and I think that this is represented in a way when you think about a book like The Stand, and you think about how The Stand begins with a very almost realistic take on the survivors of an epidemic, a story that we've seen in a way before in other forms … although he was one of the first to do it, we've seen it a lot. It changes over the course of the book into this epic battle of good and evil and this very strange and wonderful, almost spiritual journey in which heaven and hell are pitted against each other and the individuals find themselves under the sway of each of those camps. It becomes, as I think Steve has put it, an almost religious novel.

I think for us, part of the thrill of getting to do this was to really be able to engage with that same level of surprise when it came to the storytelling and when it came in particular to the kind of story we were telling. I think that there's something really fascinating about the way that King often starts a novel and it seems like it's one thing, and then it changes, it metamorphizes into something else entirely. Part of what we hope the thrill of this season will be is that people may come to this and see a story that they think is one kind of story and fits into a box, and that by the end of it, we hope that they will feel that they have been taken on a ride that they weren't expecting and that it's not exactly at all what they thought.

SHAW One thing that I think is uniquely Kingian about Stephen King, he's so prolific that there is not a horror idea that he hasn't engaged with, including the classics, be it vampirism or serial killing, but he also searches for the unsettling and the terrifying and the disturbing in the everyday and in the quotidian, and he often finds it in places where you don't expect. He was the guy who told us that a car could be terrifying and could be a kind of agent of death and chaos and disorder. He's the guy who wrote a novella about an evil Kindle. I think he's constantly searching for a kind of new language of the uncanny and the unsettling. That was something that we talked about a lot. So there's a lot of choices in the storytelling over the course of this season that reflects something that we love about Stephen King, which is that often as you embark on the journey of one of these stories or novels, part of the experience is that you start to lose your bearings, and it's not entirely clear what is the portent of doom or malevolence and what is just a telephone or a coincidence. That very much animated the spirit of the writing as we made our way through these first 10 episodes.

Follow THR.com/CastleRock for ongoing coverage of the Hulu series.

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