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A Guide to Creating a Stephen King Cinematic Universe

The man in black fled across the desert, and the producers followed...

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    This feature originally ran in December 2014, and is being republished as part of our week-long celebration of Stephen King.

    Welcome to Producer’s Chair, a new mini-column in which Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman offers his own career advice to artists and various figureheads in the film and music industry. Try reading this in the voice of American character actor and legend Frank Sivero while slowly sipping your coffee or tea, preferably in a clean suit. No? Okay, just read it at your leisure.

    Back in October, Scott Tobias wrote a condemning case against cinematic universes, arguing that the films conform to a specific template, include scenes that are otherwise useless, and eventually add up to a confusing viewing. He’s not wrong. For all its past glories, Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe has become an intricate web of cursed narratives and curious mythologies that will only get more complicated as the waves continue to pummel theaters. But really, the stories beg for that medium, and the universe allows them to get away with an Avengers film that doesn’t feel too over or under-wrought.

    The problem is that everyone’s doing it. DC Films tipped off theirs in 2013 with Man of Steel, Fox continues to stretch out their X-Men franchise, and Sony’s doing something with Spider-man — we think. The difference lies in execution; whereas Marvel has spent the better half of a decade, or maybe even more, planning theirs, the others seem to have juggled their own licenses around because, well, that’s what is expected of comic book movies these days, right? Hell, even Star Wars is getting in on the fun, what with all the spin-off films and TV shows.

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    stephen king A Guide to Creating a Stephen King Cinematic UniverseThat’s why we thought it’d be interesting to flirt with Stephen King. In the past few months, development for Josh Boone’s adaptation of The Stand has picked up speed over at Warner Bros., shifting from a three-hour film to a four-part event starring Matthew McConaughey as Randall Flagg. That’s big news for fans of the Maine demigod, but it’s also perilous. This is a chance to aptly capture King’s work and impress it upon a younger generation who might be looking for something to grasp and obsess over amidst a post-Hunger Games and post-Potter culture.

    But what a canon of work to enjoy. So far, King has published over 55 novels and nearly 200 short stories with a great majority of them linked together. His magnum opus, The Dark Tower, spans seven novels with correlating comic books, short stories, and one novella tossed in for added weight. It’s a very complicated and incredibly diverse culture King has devised, which is why a proper film or television adaptation of the saga has yet to get off the ground — despite repeated attempts by J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard.

    For this installment of the Producer’s Chair, we opted to do all the legwork for the studios and pieced together a proper cinematic universe of King’s bibliography, all based around Boone’s upcoming production of The Stand. We parsed out the release dates, cast its characters, and targeted 19 essential films and/or television properties that would do justice to the man’s reign in modern literature. Sadly, this probably won’t happen, but this was far more enjoyable than it was taxing.

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    So, come come commala and enjoy the trek.

    –Michael Roffman
    President/Editor-in-Chief


    01. The Stand, Part I

    Early Summer 2017 – Film

    The StandSynposis: A weaponized strain of influenza, nicknamed “Captain Trips”, is accidentally released from an American government facility, killing over 99% of the world’s population. Those who survive the plague begin to experience visions from either the benevolent Mother Abagail Freemantle or the terrifying Randall Flagg, two paths that will spawn a post-apocalyptic war between good and evil.

    Cast of Characters: Randall Flagg (Mathew McConaughey), Mother Abagail Freemantle (Cicely Tyson), Stu Redman (Scoot McNairy), Frannie Goldsmith (Anna Kendrick), Larry Underwood (Oscar Isaac), Nick Andros (Michael B. Jordan), Nadine Cross (Rooney Mara), Lloyd Henreid (Walt Goggins), Harold Lauder (Miles Teller), Rita Blakemoor (Christine Woods), Trashcan Man (Sharlto Copley), and General William Starkey (Michael Shannon)

    The Walk-Ins (Previously Seen Characters): Well, we’re starting from scratch here, right? Rest assured, you’ll want to keep your eyes on McConaughey’s Flagg. He’ll not only be a major figure in The Stand series but also The Dark Tower and beyond.

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    Soundtrack Options: ABC’s 1994 mini-series shined for their musical choices, from Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” to Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (both tracks are directly referenced in the books). These films, however, could benefit from taking a more Dogme 95 approach; in other words, use the environment to inject some song selections. Considering this series will take place in modern times, we’ll want to work with some fresh sounds. The National comes to mind, specifically songs like “Slipped”, “Afraid of Everyone”, or “Green Gloves”.

    The Circle Opens: Ideally, the first of the four films will be able to establish its primary characters — Stu Redman, Frannie Goldsmith, Larry Underwood, and Nick Andros — as it pertains to the widespread infection of “Captain Trips.” This should also introduce several through-lines specific to this film, such as Shannon’s General William Starkey, whose attempts to contain the virus fail horrifically.

    But How Does This All Break Down? The mini-series was brilliantly cut into four parts — “The Plague”, “The Dreams”, “The Betrayal”, and “The Stand”. That’s a pretty agreeable structure, and given that director Josh Boone has already been commissioned to draft four installments, it’s very likely the theatrical films will be slightly similar. However, not only are there aspects of the book that should be expanded upon (e.g., Trashcan Man), but those four sections, especially the first two, could benefit from bleeding details into one another. However, the cliffhangers that the mini-series employed would do wonders on the silver screen, especially the ending of “The Plague”, which sees Stu escape a desolate and corpse-laden CDC facility into the night. There’s no way that doesn’t guarantee sales for the sequel.

    lincoln tunnel A Guide to Creating a Stephen King Cinematic Universe

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    Pivotal Scene: When Larry and Rita Blakemoor enter the Lincoln Tunnel alone, it’s one of the creepiest sequences that King has ever put to paper. The mini-series attempted to capture that horror but only scratched the surface. Odds are Boone recognizes this and has something clever up his sleeve; however, one suggestion would be to film this with zero light. Start taking notes from The Descent, too, in terms of capturing feelings of claustrophobia on the silver screen. Sheesh.

    From Page to Screen (Changes From the Book): There’s another great, short scene in the book when Larry goes to see the new Nightmare on Elm Street film, and the narrator implies that, given the world’s impending end, Freddy would not be coming back. That scene would certainly be spooky for theatergoers IRL who will also be anticipating a follow-up by the film’s end. Perhaps they shift Larry’s screening from Nightmare to Star Wars? Or even The Avengers?

    The Bridge (Relation to the CU): The events of The Stand factor into a setting that surfaces earlier in the fourth Dark Tower book, Wizard and Glass. Flagg is also the main antagonist throughout most of that series. From here, however, the story for Stu and co. is just about to begin.

    –Michael Roffman


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    2. The Gunslinger

    Early Fall 2017 – Six-Episode Season

    The_GunslingerSynopsis: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” This cryptic opening line, as short as it is, could also double as a plot summary for the entire novella. Despite the Dark Tower series’ eventual status as King’s magnum opus, the first installment is a singular-minded prologue, a surreal Western where the title character pursues his nemesis, and thus, the Dark Tower as a whole. We’re not sure at this point why the tower serves as Roland’s Holy Grail (frankly, neither is he), but we get small clues that prove to be significant in later novels. The most prominent of these is Jake Chambers, a kid who was killed in a place called Manhattan before waking up in Roland’s Old-West environment of Mid-World.

    Cast of Characters: Roland Deschain (Viggo Mortensen), Jake Chambers (Nolan Lyons), Cort (Michael Rooker), Brown (Ray McKinnon), Allie (Esmé Bianco), Young Roland Deschain (Tye Sheridan), Cuthbert Allgood (Michael Zegen), Alain Johns (John Robinson), and The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey)

    The Walk-Ins: In a telling flashback of Roland’s days as a young Gunslinger — think a member of The Magnificent Seven meets one of the Knights of the Round Table — we meet three seemingly minor characters: his hardened mentor Cort and his two peers, Cuthbert Allgood and Alain Johns. All three play significant parts in the fourth Dark Tower entry/prequel, Wizard and Glass. And of course, we’ll see lots more of Jake, even though he plummets to his second death from a broken cart track in a mine shaft. “There are other worlds than these,” he assures Roland, sacrificing himself (and echoing Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings!) so the Gunslinger can catch up to The Man in Black.

    gunslingerfollowd A Guide to Creating a Stephen King Cinematic Universe

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    Soundtrack Options: Anachronisms run amok in Mid-World, foreshadowing its connection to our own realm. In fact, a honky-tonk version of “Hey Jude” becomes a sort of motif in the novel, even though Roland can’t remember who wrote it. If whatever network produces this puppy could secure the rights to one of The Beatles’ most famous songs, it could easily be a theme — if not the theme — for the mini-series. Slow it down, add a dash of atonality, weave in some fingerpicking, and you’ve got the Stephen King equivalent to Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

    Time Is a Flat Circle and Ka Is a Wheel: Matthew McConaughey returns to play The Man in Black, meaning that Black, Walter O’Dim, Marten Broadcloak, a sorcerer named “Flagg” that we’ll meet later in The Eyes of the Dragon, and, of course, Randall Flagg, are all the same person. King’s readers didn’t get this confirmed until the third Dark Tower novel, (even though many had their suspicions), but our viewers would discover The Man in Black’s true identity during the season finale of The Gunslinger. While Roland and Flagg’s final encounter is more philosophical than action-packed — with Flagg merely setting the stage for The Drawing of the Three with tarot cards — the twist ending would hopefully be a shock to anyone not familiar with the books. Think of it as our Nick Fury moment.

    That’s One Scary Second Banana: As frightening as Flagg is, keep in mind he’s only a servant to a larger enemy, something he points out to Roland during their last conversation on the Western Sea. Still, we never actually see the Crimson King until much, much later on, thus giving Flagg more agency and making him King’s ultimate baddie.

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    From Page to Screen: The Gunslinger, while great, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you read it. King didn’t know it would be the start of a series that literally connects all of his work when he wrote it, so there’s more of an emphasis on desolate tone than linear storytelling. The show’s network would be wise to front-load some of the action sequences (the shootout at Tull where Roland’s forced to kill his possessed lover, Allie, the escape from the Slow Mutants, etc.), so their viewers can feel like they’re watching a fantastical take on Unforgiven and not a more realistic version of El Topo.

    The Bridge: Besides sharing the main villain of The Stand, and many other King novels, The Gunslinger is the first cell of connective tissue to the entire Stephen King universe. Even the savviest audience member won’t recognize this right away (unless they’ve read the books), making repeat viewings all the more rewarding. We also get to see the more ancient world Roland hazily recalls here in our next film…

    –Dan Caffrey


    3. The Eyes of the Dragon

    Spring 2018 – Film

    eyes of the dragon A Guide to Creating a Stephen King Cinematic UniverseSynopsis: A young prince is framed for the murder of his father, the King of Delain. He gets locked in a high tower and must figure out a way to escape and stop the evil sorcerer Flagg (sound familiar?) from carrying out further destruction.

    Cast of Characters: Flagg (Matthew McConaughey) and King Roland (Brendan Gleeson). For our two younger protagonists, Peter and Thomas, we prefer to use lesser-known actors because a) it works better that way and b) anyone who would be the right age to play them in 2018 probably hasn’t been in anything yet. This “unknowns” casting approach will become a frequent tool of ours for later films as well, at least for younger roles.

    The Walk-Ins: The Walking Dude himself. McConaughey will make his first full appearance as The Man in Black after struttin’ about in blue jeans for The Stand, Part I and only popping up for a cameo at the end of The Gunslinger.

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    Soundtrack Options: Because this is the most straight-up fantasy tale without a hint of science fiction, alternate dimensions, etc., the score will be light and as minstrel as one can get without entering into Monty Python “Brave, Brave Sir Robin” territory. Euros Childs (Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci) would be up for the challenge.

    Swords and … Napkins?: The Eyes of the Dragon‘s toughest sell is explaining to people that an important part of the plot surrounds sturdy napkins. That’s right. Napkins. Not swords or spells. Not even dragons. No, Prince Peter must escape from his imprisonment by foraging together enough napkins to tie together and create a rope both long and strong enough to escape. It sounds boring, but it really isn’t. Not when there’s so much at stake.

    roland gleeson A Guide to Creating a Stephen King Cinematic Universe

    Brothers From the Same Mother: Peter and Thomas are your typical siblings in tales of this fare. The older is responsible and level-headed, while the former is impatient and jealous. This causes problems when the former is accused of murder, leaving the younger to suddenly ascend to the unexpected role of king. Things turn out … okay for them in the end, but as an older brother, I can tell you I believe my younger brothers would kill me if they had the chance. Anyways

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    From Page to Screen: Flagg’s role will be beefed up considerably. He’s very present in the book, but the film will be tailored to give him more screen time as the devil on young Thomas’ shoulder. Given that the roles of Peter and Thomas (who won’t appear again in this universe of ours) will be played by unknowns, it’s important to have a draw in McConaughey and a veteran in Gleeson to anchor the ship. Speaking of Gleeson, his name is King Roland in the book, but will be changed to King Robert for the film to avoid any confusion.

    The Bridge: Because we only see Flagg, a.k.a. The Man in Black, sparingly throughout the rest of The Dark Tower series, it’s important to show how evil he is not only in our world (The Stand) but Roland’s world. This story is but one example of how bad a man (Spirit? Demon?) Flagg is and what he’s capable of, setting the events of the remaining Dark Tower tales in motion.

    –Justin Gerber


    4. The Stand, Part II

    Early Summer 2018 – Film

    The StandSynopsis: Seeing as most of the planet is dead, and those left behind (see what I did there?) are scattered, the second Stand film would be a bit slower than the first, focusing on where the survivors end up. In King’s world, there are really only two options: with Mother Abagail in wholesome ol’ Boulder, Colorado, or Randall Flag in sinful Las Vegas. All kidding aside, the restrained pace would make room for some serious spiritual exploration among the characters. King’s God and Devil don’t embody these terms in the traditional religious sense, but more of a cosmic sense — what about each figure is tempting to someone like Stu? Or Larry? Or Harold? Or Nadine, who feels a draw to both? Discuss.

    Cast of Characters: As previously seen, Randall Flagg (Mathew McConaughey), Mother Abagail Freemantle, (Cicely Tyson), Stu Redman (Scoot McNairy), Frannie Goldsmith (Anna Kendrick), Larry Underwood (Oscar Isaac), Nick Andros (Michael B. Jordan), Nadine Cross (Rooney Mara), Lloyd Henreid (Walt Goggins), Harold Lauder (Miles Teller), and Trashcan Man (Sharlto Copley); new characters include Glen Bateman (Richard Jenkins), The Kid (Anton Yelchin), Tom Cullen (Leo Fitzpatrick), Susan Stern (Melissa McBride), Dayna Jurgens (Lauren Ambrose), Lucy Swann (Alexis Biedel), Judge Farris (Harvey Keitel), Ralph Brentner (Chris Cooper), Julie Lawry (Zosia Mamet), and Barry Dorgan (Clarke Peters)

    The Walk-Ins: Other than Flagg, whom we’ve covered exhaustively, there aren’t any characters pulled directly from other novels. However, King has confirmed that rockabilly psychopath The Kid is indeed a reincarnation of 1950s serial killer Charles Starkweather, the same maniac who inspired the title track of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. Seriously, The Kid is bad news. Even The Dark Man frowns upon gun sodomy!

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    Soundtrack Options: In keeping with our emphasis on naturalistic sound, there probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of music going on. In the aftermath of Captain Tripps, radio stations are nonexistent, and people (save for Larry Underwood) probably aren’t too concerned with having a soundtrack to their grueling hike across the country. Hell, even if they are, there’s nothing to power their phones, computers, etc. Maybe they could lug around battery-operated boomboxes? It would actually be really creepy if the only music we hear (other than Larry playing “Baby, Can You Dig Your Man?” on his guitar for the 40th time) is in The Kid’s car. He exists on a whole other supernatural plane, and some tinny rockabilly leaking from his vehicle’s speakers would go a long way in terms of atmosphere, especially when he’s abusing Trashy.

    Vegas, Baby! Vegas!: Something the mini-series never got right was the novel’s complex portrayal of Las Vegas. Yes, there are terrible, violent people there, but King also emphasizes how this isn’t immediately apparent, and after all, wouldn’t Flagg’s plan appeal to many rationally minded citizens? Take Barry Dorgan, for instance — a character who’s more or less depicted as a bullish police chief in the mini-series. In the book, he’s actually calm and somewhat kind, having sided with Flagg because he believes his organization and quick decision-making are the best chances for humanity to regain some of its law and order. The idealistic people in Boulder, on the other hand, actually take a long time to get their shit together. But by the time Dorgan and everyone else realize Flagg’s true nature, it’s too late to escape. A more nuanced Stand adaptation would recognize that the monsters we become are much scarier than the monsters we already are.

    flagg vegas A Guide to Creating a Stephen King Cinematic Universe

    The Stand: Borneo: Does anyone find it weird that we never see how Captain Trips affected the rest of the world? I mean, there have to be other survivors all around the globe, right? Does Malaysia have its own version of Randall Flagg and Mother Abagail, or do they not have to worry about picking sides? Maybe the film version could address this with some kind of montage.

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    From Page to Screen: Even with all the room four three-hour films would provide for exploring the characters’ faiths and adding more layers to the villains, the screenwriter would still have to trim the fat somewhere. The best solution? Composite characters. Barry Dorgan and Whitney Horgan essentially fill the same roles (their last names even rhyme!), and the ABC mini-series was right to combine Nadine Cross and Rita Blakemoor back in ’94. It’s a shame because the characters are so different (and show different sides of Larry), but there just isn’t time for him to meet up with that many people on his way to Boulder.

    The Bridge: The Stand‘s quietest entry would end on a relatively optimistic note, with droves of wanderers arriving at Mother Abagail’s doorstep in Boulder or Flagg’s casino palace in Vegas. Remember, no matter which side a character chooses, they’re still just looking for a home in a world that’s gone out with a whimper. Such a low-key ending gives us a nice break in the action, prepping us for another trip to Mid-World.

    –Dan Caffrey


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