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David E. Kelley has already earned praise (and an Emmy nomination) this year for his work adapting Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies into the acclaimed HBO limited series of the same name. However, for his next act, the veteran TV writer is trying his hand, and his pen, at a genre he’s never explored before: horror, with the adaptation of Stephen King’s award-winning 2014 novel Mr. Mercedes.
The 10-episode drama follows a demented killer (Penny Dreadful‘s Harry Treadaway) who taunts a retired police detective (Brendan Gleeson) with a series of lurid letters and emails, forcing the ex-cop to undertake a private, and potentially felonious, crusade to bring the killer to justice before he is able to strike again.
It’s just the latest surprise turn for the 10-time Emmy winner who broke through in the 1990s writing acclaimed broadcast legal dramas like The Practice, Ally McBeal and L.A. Law, among others. In addition to Big Little Lies, Kelley also co-created the 2016 Amazon drama Goliath, the first show at the company to skip over the entire pilot process and which won Billy Bob Thornton a Golden Globe in January. Suffice it to say, it’s already been a year to remember for Kelley, who executive produces Mr. Mercedes with King and director Jack Bender.
Kelley recently jumped on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss why he wanted to dive into the horror genre, “growing pains” at Amazon and the latest on a potential second season of Big Little Lies.
Why Mr. Mercedes? Were you approached about specifically adapting this property?
Yes, I was approached by Jack Bender, who had just worked with Stephen King on Under the Dome and they were endeavoring to adapt Mr. Mercedes for television. Jack and I have worked together in the past and I’m a huge Stephen King fan, so it was all pretty organic. I read the book, loved the book and jumped on board.
What specifically appealed to you about this book as someone who’s a Stephen King fan?
I think characters at the end of the day. Horror isn’t necessarily my genre, but having a blueprint created for you by Stephen King certainly gives you a leg up in that arena. At the end of the day, I gravitate towards story and characters. The characters in the piece were very rich, especially with Hodges, there’s such a nucleus, such a humanity to that guy and there was also such a pathos to Brady. Even though he’s clearly the monster in the piece, he’s a very human one at that. To me at the end of the day, it all comes down to good story and having a plot that allows the real exploration of character. It was all there in the books.
Did you have any desire to do horror since, as you mentioned, you haven’t done that before?
I really didn’t have any desire to jump into horror, it’s just that I read this particular book and liked the story and, again, loved the characters. Being a Stephen King fan, the opportunity to work on something that he’s created certainly was a nice carrot, too. Listen, if it’s a piece that can entertain me and also provide the opportunity to entertain the audience, and also beyond that, have an opportunity to move the reader or the viewer, then I’m all for it. Again, I go back to the book. There was really a striking humanity to Hodges that spoke to me and that I think will speak to viewers.
What early discussions, if any, did you have with Stephen King about the adaptation process?
Well, I have not yet met Mr. King in person. We exchanged emails but there was no dialogue between us about the adaptation of the material. I suppose there would have been if I was going to deviate from it in leaps and bounds, but the reality is, I did not. I don’t think it’s even in my wheelhouse to tinker with the plotting when it comes to the horror genre. I thought what I would bring to the equation is maybe exploration of character and having 10 hours to delve into these people, there is some opportunity there in the adaptation process. I wouldn’t say we were on the same page because it was Stephen’s page, so I jumped onto Stephen’s page and went from there. And also it really wasn’t just me doing the adaptation. Dennis Lehane, who’s a prolific author in his own right, jumped on board early in the writing process. We had a pretty phenomenal writing staff, and Dennis I think especially has a certain acuity for the crime thriller, so I think we had a pretty good group to develop the material.
When you were first working on the project with Jack, how did the two of you decide on the visual tone and style for the series?
I’ve worked with Jack before so I didn’t really feel the need to sit down and have a meeting of minds in terms of directorial style. First of all, I don’t really have much of one — it’s the reason why I don’t direct. The thing that was important to both of us is that we weren’t going to use picture to distract from character or plot. You use the camera to go deeper into the people and the story. There can be, when you’re doing a piece that involves gore, there can be a certain stylistic element to be sensational with it, and that’s a danger and we did not want to do that. We were very specific in not wanting to glorify violence in any way. And I think both of us looked at this primarily as a character piece right from the beginning. These were not people running around a horror franchise; really, we were mining horror and suspense through these characters.
What stands out to you as the biggest changes you had to make in adapting the book for TV? Why did you make those changes?
We made some changes that were logical, from a production standpoint, and some of them were character-based and story-based. I don’t think they’re huge changes. If one has read the book, I don’t think they’re going to feel that we betrayed that book in any shape or fashion. We do have a few zigs where the book zags, and we obviously want to have some surprises as we tell our story — we’re not going to give them away, but we do have a few.
Audience Network is a fairly young outlet, particularly in terms of scripted programming, so why was this the right home for Mr. Mercedes?
That’s a tough question with every show you set up. For any show to succeed these days, especially with such a glut of product, the network, the distributor, the creators, the studio — everyone has to be in sync and really sailing in the right direction. Otherwise you don’t have much of a chance. If you don’t have a solid investment from your distributor or your network, you’re probably not going to make it. So you want to be sure from the get-go that your network understands the beast that you’re trying to create, that they’re in a good position to sell it and it’s a very unscientific process. But in speaking with the powers at DirecTV, we really felt they got the material. They were excited to deliver it to an audience and we just all walked out with a comfort level that this would be a good place to unfold this series.
So you weren’t hesitant at all about going to a younger network?
I think it’s a mixed blessing. The good side is they need product, so you know you’re going to get their full attention. They’re just coming out of the gates, they want to come out with their best foot forward. The fact that they consider your product to be representative of something they want to sell is very, very flattering. The downside is they’re new to the game, so there may be some mistakes and potholes that nobody anticipates, and I’ve certainly run into that before with other fledging networks, but that didn’t happen here. It was a pretty seamless production. We just wrapped a month or so ago and we did 10 episodes and we were on location for all of them, so there were a lot of opportunities to hit that speed bump or two, but it was pretty seamless and so far, so good. Now it comes to unrolling it with the audience and making sure that the marketing side of it lives up to the production.
You were in a similar situation when Goliath went to Amazon because that was ordered right when the company was building up its originals slate. What lessons from that experience did you apply to working with Mr. Mercedes?
Yeah, there was a lot of learning and growing pains that we experienced with Amazon, so I think I was a little smarter and wiser going into with DirecTV because I could anticipate maybe some places where inexperience could [hurt us]. Fortunately, it just didn’t happen at AT&T and DirecTV. I think they were savvy, and so is Sonar [Entertainment], to know that if you bring in a director like Jack Bender, who’s done this for a long, long time, and you’ve got a storyteller like Stephen King, one of the smartest things you can do is get out of their way and out of my way, too, I suppose. Once we brought an actor like Brendan Gleeson, you’ve got a pretty good pedigree of experience there, so the questions you’re asking are valid ones. When you go to the new kids on the block, you could pay the price of inexperience and naiveté, but that did not happen at AT&T.
Speaking of the cast, what were those early conversations like? How did you convince Brendan Gleeson to sign onto this?
Fortunately, there was not a lot of arm-twisting. When I had read the book, I immediately thought of Brendan Gleeson as the perfect actor to personify the part of Hodges. And coincidentally, Stephen King also envisioned Brendan being the prototype for Hodges. We had never shared that with each other, but I think that’s the guy we pictured. Once the pilot was scripted and we went out to cast it, he was the first choice and we sent it to him and said, “Hey, read this,” and he responded to it. Most of Brendan’s questions coming into it were logistical: Where are we going to shoot it? How long is it going to take? Because he’s an actor in high demand, he’s never lacking for opportunities or work. He certainly had creative questions at the beginning, but it was more along the line of where the story and the character is going. To our delight, he responded to the material and wanted to do it, so we were pretty thrilled.
Anton Yelchin was originally cast to play Brady when Mr. Mercedes was picked up to series. How much did you have to change when he died? How difficult was it to recast that role? What other changes, if any, did you have to make?
We didn’t have to make any fundamental changes to the script. Obviously, it was an extremely tragic and devastating development for all involved. No more than for his family, but in terms of the logistics of casting it, it was just having to look for somebody else. We got very lucky with Harry Treadaway, I think he’s done a phenomenal job from start to finish, and I think he’s going to be a real breakout star with this series.
The Mr. Mercedes story is the first of a trilogy of novels. Do you see each season of the show being an adaptation of a different book from the series? What are the long-term plans?
The master plan, which of course is always subject to change, is each book would represent a whole season, and Mr. Mercedes is the first season. Then we’ll turn to season two and the second book, but we haven’t congregated as a writing group yet and begun to kick around stories for year two, so it’s premature to say anything beyond that. But the concept, in success, is we would do each book as an entire season of 10 episodes.
So the show would run three seasons to cover the three books?
Yes, initially, though in success it could go on beyond that. That’s everybody’s plan, isn’t it? You keep going and going and you keep finding more new stories. But going into this, the idea is that we have three books and in success it would make for three seasons and then, who knows? Maybe longer if we’re having fun.
Looking at your other projects, Big Little Lies was originally conceived as a limited series, and Goliath is almost an anthology with the case changing in year two and much of the cast changing. What draws you to these more shorter-run series after years of broadcast TV where you’re doing 22 episodes a year for six or seven seasons?
I just find it very freeing to work on these limited projects where you really can go full speed with character and plot and not have to worry about the maintenance of a franchise so it lives in perpetuity. Also, now that I’m older, I get more tired (laughs) and shorter-run series appeal to me. It’s a different form of storytelling, and I really enjoyed it on Big Little Lies and Mr. Mercedes. That’s one of the great things of this new universe of television stations and streaming devices, is the plethora of formatting and the opportunity to tell stories both in long-running series and more limited series. I’m enjoying the limited series format a lot right now.
There have been a lot of questions about season two of Big Littles Lies. What’s the latest you’ve heard about that?
No decisions have been made yet. We’re kicking around the idea. Liane Moriarty, the author of the book, is kicking around story ideas and there will be an evaluation at some point and a decision. From the get-go, it was always devised as a one-off. If the story demands it and we feel we can live up to the first season, then we might endeavor to continue on, but that will be a story-driven decision down the road.
Mr. Mercedes premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Audience Network.
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