Set in Stephen Kingsville
Posted July 19, 2018 4:39 p.m. EDT
DEVENS, Mass. — Deep inside Shawshank prison, a man sits in a cage in the dark. Another man enters and turns on a lamp. They talk wearily of vague obligations and cryptic connections, the air thick with tension. Then the light goes out ...
... And that’s about all I can say, because more would be a spoiler, and to be honest, I’m not sure what exactly was happening. But if the details sound like something out of a Stephen King story — an intriguing encounter drenched in mystery and menace, unfolding in one of the author’s best-known settings — that’s because they are. Except they are not.
Confused? Welcome to “Castle Rock,” where even the people making the show don’t always know what’s going on. “The crew gets the scripts at the same time we do, and they’re like ‘What does this all mean?’” said Bill Skarsgard, one of the show’s stars.
Here’s what we do know: “Castle Rock,” which debuts Wednesday on Hulu, is a 10-episode series executive produced by J.J. Abrams and based on “characters and locations” from Stephen King. It tells an original story about a death row attorney, played by André Holland (“Moonlight”), who is drawn back to his hometown when a young man, played by Skarsgard, is discovered in that cage inside Shawshank. (Not so fast: The scene I saw comes later in the season.)
Each has a mysterious past, as does nearly everyone else they encounter in the town of Castle Rock, which the author’s fans will recognize as the setting of classic King tales including “Cujo” (a rabid St. Bernard terrorizes a family), “Needful Things” (the devil opens a shop) and “The Body,” which was turned into one of the most beloved King translations, the Rob Reiner film “Stand By Me.”
“Castle Rock” essentially does for King what Noah Hawley’s “Fargo,” on FX, has done for the Coen Brothers: turn a thematically wide-ranging but aesthetically distinct creative force into its own genre. The idea is to use one of the author’s favorite creepy Maine burgs as a hub that connects all of his stories — the characters, the monsters, the legends — within a multiverse that serves as a backdrop for new prestige TV tales.
“I always loved the idea that this one town was the unluckiest tract of earth on the planet,” said Sam Shaw, who created the show with Dustin Thomason.
Aside from perhaps only Shakespeare, King has been Hollywood’s favorite author for decades, and with “It” becoming one of the most profitable horror movies in history in 2017, screenwriters are as drawn to his stories as ever. There are more than a dozen King adaptations in some stage of development, and his stylistic fingerprints are all over TV’s increasingly genre-happy landscape — to say nothing of shows that explicitly pay tribute to him like the ’80s adventure thriller “Stranger Things,” which even uses his classic title font. (ITC Benguiat, for the record.)
Much as Castle Rock, the cursed town, serves as a topographical nexus within the author’s fictional universe, “Castle Rock,” the series, represents a convergence of contemporary TV trends. It is an anthology series that aims to tell one story over the course of each season (like “American Crime Story” and “Fargo”) — any future seasons will bring a different narrative and cast. It is a mystery-box show (like “Westworld” and “Mr. Robot”), a puzzle to be solved as much as a television series. And it aims to build out yet another pop culture ‘verse, inspired by the author’s long-standing penchant for revisiting characters and settings and cross-referencing among his many stories. Long before the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, “Stephen King was doing this in the pages of his books,” Thomason said.
“Fargo” was the example the show’s creators — novelists and longtime King obsessives who previously collaborated on the underrated atomic drama “Manhattan” — used when they pitched “Castle Rock” to Abrams. Another King superfan, he previously adapted the author’s time-traveling novel "11/22/63” for Hulu.
But unlike that book, a historical science fiction story centered on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, “Castle Rock” felt like “classic Stephen King, the Stephen King I fell in love with,” Abrams said.
“I loved the perpetual possibilities of what you might find for fans of King behind any door, who someone might be, who they might be related to, what they might have been involved in,” he said.
The show’s many winks and references are both textual and meta, direct and oblique. Skarsgard, best known for playing Pennywise the Dancing Clown in 2017’s “It,” is joined in the cast by the original King star, Sissy Spacek (“Carrie”). A grizzled Scott Glenn plays Alan Pangborn, the now-retired sheriff hero of “Needful Things” and “Dark Half.” A paranormally gifted real estate agent played by Melanie Lynskey mentions a serial strangler who killed himself in her house (a reference to “The Dead Zone”), and old issues of the local newspaper chronicle dog attacks and a body discovered by the railroad tracks. Elsewhere aesthetic touches — floating balloons, an imperiled woman with a knife — nod to King classics like “It” and “The Shining.” “Virtually anything in the Stephen King multiverse is gospel,” Shaw said.
The author, credited as an executive producer, gave his blessing to the concept, reviewed scripts and occasionally sent ideas, but otherwise “left us essentially to our own devices,” Shaw said. (King declined to comment.)
Abrams added, “We’re happy to just have him as kind of the consigliere of what should or shouldn’t happen in Castle Rock.”
Orange, Massachusetts, just over 40 miles west of the studio in Devens, stood in for the titular town, a down-at-the-heels place in the shadow of its main employer, Shawshank State Penitentiary. The story begins in earnest when Skarsgard’s nameless, nearly mute character, known as the Kid, is discovered in a neglected wing of the prison. When he chooses Holland’s Henry Deaver as his attorney, Henry is drawn back to a hometown that long ago “decided this young black boy is a pariah,” Holland said, blaming him for a past event that led to the death of his (white) father. Like nearly everything else in the show, the event is shrouded in mystery, another thing for Henry to sort out along with who — or what — his new client even is.
Folded into a couch in his dressing room, Skarsgard laughed when I told him I could not make heads or tales of the scene I’d watched earlier. “It’s kind of a key to the whole thing,” he said.
His lanky but muscular frame was leaner than usual. He lost 30 pounds to play the Kid, his high, sharp cheekbones and expansive eyes giving the character the air of a ghostly preying mantis. The actor’s unique physicality is part of what made him so chilling as Pennywise, perhaps the greatest King villain.
After “It,” the actor was initially reluctant to get involved with “Castle Rock,” fearing it might be " ‘The Avengers’ of Stephen King characters.” The scripts convinced him otherwise, but he wasn’t entirely wrong: One of the biggest rewards for longtime King fans is seeing Spacek back in his world.
“I adore Stephen King,” she said. “I think we’re both probably indebted to each other for the experience that we had with ‘Carrie.’ ”
The actress, last seen on TV in Netflix’s “Bloodline,” plays Henry’s dementia-suffering mother, Ruth. She was “pulled in” by the challenge of portraying “a horror within the horror,” she said.
“Which is more horrible?” she said “What’s coming from the outside, the Stephen King kind of horror? Or what’s happening in your head?” Such real-world fears were designed to ground the supernatural elements within a more relatable tale. Part of the reason Shawshank is such a terrible place is thanks to profit motives resulting from the privatization of prisons. And whatever his reputation in town lore, the scorn showed Henry by the mostly white Castle Rock carries unmistakable racial overtones. “A black man or a black boy being told who he is and what his place is in the world is, or in society — I really connected with that, that desire to push back against it,” Holland said.
“Part of the idea is to imagine what life was like in the most terrorized town in America right now, in a moment of terror with a national identity crisis we’re grappling with,” Shaw said. “At the same time, it’s an opportunity to tell a genre story at moment when there’s a great renaissance of storytelling on TV.”
Abrams, who is synonymous with “mystery-box” narratives, rejects that tag for “Castle Rock.” That makes a certain sense from a marketing standpoint. Since the style came into vogue arguably with the success of “Lost,” co-created by Abrams, it’s generated as much annoyance as satisfaction in viewers, with shows like “Westworld” and “This Is Us” generating plenty of complaints for belaboring their mysteries.
Hulu is not concerned about such precedents, said Craig Erwich, the head of original programming. But to be safe, it’s making the first three episodes available Wednesday before doling out one a week for the rest of the season.
“We want to give people enough so that they’re not just checking it out, they’re getting hooked on it,” Erwich said.
Despite the delights it offers King devotees, “Castle Rock” will only succeed if it resonates with neophytes as well as superfans. The references and Easter eggs are designed to add layers of enjoyment and meaning for the author’s disciples, Thomason said, but the story was conceived to stand on its own.
Of course, there’s one viewer whose opinion carries extra weight. While King gave the showrunners plenty of leeway to “expand and create new connections among” his stories, Thomason said, they could not help being nervous about his impressions of what they made from his life’s work. So it was gratifying when he not only praised the first episode, but admitted to a moment of genuine fright.
“He said he had his first ‘Don’t go down there!’ reaction in about 15 years,” Thomason said. “That’s the most you could possibly hope for from a guy who’s had all of us saying ‘Don’t go down there!’ forever.”