Paul Risker chats with Mr. Mercedes showrunner Jack Bender about season 2 of the Stephen King adaptation…
Mr Mercedes, an adaptation of Stephen King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy, comprising Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers and End of Watch, enters its second season.
Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway) remains hospitalised in a vegetative state after a second attempt to perpetrate a mass murder was thwarted by retired detective Bill Hodges (Brendon Gleeson). Opening private investigative agency Finders Keepers with Holly Gibney (Justine Lupe), Hodges is unable to put aside his suspicions that Brady is somehow behind the strange occurrences affecting hospital staff.
Executive producer Jack Bender, who was also behind the adaptation of King’s Under the Dome, began acting in theatre and television before transitioning to directing. This path would lead him to direct episodes of noteworthy shows that include: Alias, Ally McBeal, The Sopranos, Carnivale, Lost and Game of Thrones.
In conversation with Flickering Myth, Bender reflected on how choices define a career, his feelings on contemporary episodic drama, and the necessity of flexibility in realising King’s world for the screen.
From acting to directing, how do you perceive the evolution of your creative journey?
Well, I was fortunately under the wing of John Houseman when I started directing, the brilliant film producer and actor, who played Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, the film made by my mentor James Bridges. John said to me once: “Your career is made up of what you say yes to as well as what you say no to.” And I have learned that is very true. I have had the good fortune to work on some of the best television in years, and I was very fortunate to I suppose be at the right time and in the right place to be involved with one of the main creators of Lost, and many other great television shows. My career has been more that than features, and that’s also choices you make at times. But now for instance, when I was sent Mr Mercedes and I read it, at first I thought, could it be a movie? Then I got with Marty Bowen who was going to be the executive producer with me and talked about should this really be a movie, would that give us time to explore these characters properly? And of course now, in the new golden age as they call it, with these various networks that have platforms that allow you to tell your story over ten to eight episodes, it is the brave new world, and it’s the greatest.
When I did The Sopranos, I would do some episodes that ended up being cut down to 49 or 65 minutes, and I had one that was 60. David Chase would eventually cut those shows to be the best movie it could be given where it was in the line up of the episodes. So with this new form of being able to tell stories, I knew that I wanted Mr. Mercedes to be character based and to spend real time exploring these people, which unfortunately, depending on how much storytelling there is, it’s very difficult to do in one movie. And I think that is why so many people are running to this kind of storytelling now. It is a wonderful time to be working and going back to John Houseman, he said: “All the screens are going to shrink.” He predicted that people are going to have big screens that they are going to watch at home, and people are going to have small screens in theatres. He said it is all going to be the same thing, and except for certain movies, those big action movies where you want to sit in the dark and explore that universe you are pulled into, it is a wonderful medium to be developing and working in right now, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
My memories of television are of episodes having a strict run time, whereas now there is an increasingly flexibility in the length of episodic drama. To my mind this is an act of the liberation of storytelling, wherein we are listening to its needs, as opposed to exercising such oppressive control. Would you agree?
Oh, 100 percent, and in fact Direct TV who is our network, At&T is the audience network, we try to keep our episodes mid 50 minutes. Some of been 58 and some have been right at 50, and we had an episode recently where we were talking about whether to keep one scene in or out. “Well, if we take that scene out, we are going to be 49.30” I said, and they told us: “We don’t care.” I was: “Oh God, bless you.” We ended up keeping the scene in because we thought at the end of the day it was the right decision for the episode. Network television is this hardcore stance and whatever’s left of that cookie cutter formula is a challenge. God bless anybody who can do it because you have 43 minutes 10 seconds to tell your story, and you have to have the five commercial breaks or whatever it is, and build to a climax so people come back. It’s all that stuff and is it necessarily the best moviemaking or storytelling? It’s just not. It’s like putting handcuffs on you and telling the storyteller to go out in front of the pride and say: “Okay, you have got to get to the middle of the story by the time the North Star is there.” It’s definitely a much freer canvas these days, and that’s why the product is more unique and better.
Before starting work on Mr Mercedes, were you an avid King reader and how has bringing the book to the screen impacted your perception of him?
I was an avid reader, but I don’t write the scripts. I was smart enough to go to my friend David Kelley, who I had worked with on some of his brilliant shows in the past. When you think about Ally McBeal and some of that stuff, as funny as it was, it was pretty twisted. David as a tweaky imagination and I knew that if he tackled Mr. Mercedes, it would really be something. It would be human and it would have humour, empathy and still be dark as hell. And that’s the alchemy that he brings to it. He created the character of Ida played by Holland Taylor in season one because he felt like Hodges needed a neighbour to be shining some kind of a light into his life, and he created a character the audience adores. He also felt that it was very important that we understand and have empathy for him, even though at the end of the day none of us would wear his button, and tragically he’s a sociopathic sick puppy. And we needed to feel some empathy or understanding for Harry Treadaway’s character Brady Hartsfield, and David certainly delivered that.
I get the scripts and I know where the stories are going, but we have other writers, Dennis Lehane and Sophie Owens-Bender on the show, and season three will be led by David. It’s my task as show runner to realise the shows and to create the environment, to conduct and guide the actors through realising it and making it live. And as far as Stephen King, on any show he gives the rights to he has it in his contract to be an executive producer or not. When I showed him the first few episodes of Mr. Mercedes he flipped out and said: “Oh my God, I have to be an executive producer on this.” We were all thrilled and he has remained our biggest fan. He wrote to me I think it was midway through season one, if not further saying: “When I see the stuff you guys are doing, I sometimes wish I would have gone that way in the book.” I immediately sent that to the writers to say that this is the biggest compliment we could get from Stephen; not that you’re screwing up my, but you’re making it better. So you jump into the world and you follow the source material, and Harry Treadaway’s Bible after season one was Mr. Mercedes. He’d walk onto the set with these little passages highlighted, and occasionally we’d add that stuff. I pride myself as an executive producer and show runner on creating an environment where brilliant actors can take a chance, and all the creative people around me can tell me when I’m right, and tell me when I’m wrong. And it’s part of the magic or part of the fun of what I get to do in the world, which I am very grateful for.
Adaptation is not about creating a replica of the source material but creating an extension of it. Interviewing Alex Helfrecht, co-writer and co-director of The White King, she told me, “You have to have a strong take on the material, but you have to honour the spirit. So when I did the Hemingway adaptation, for me it was all about my relationship with the author. I felt so strongly that I had this relationship to him, and it’s that, having a take.”
As I’ve gotten to know Stephen, he doesn’t obsess over people who take his books and make them films or television xeroxing them. He expects and hopes that the spirit of the book is retained and comes to life, and season one we basically stuck with his source, but season two we had to veer off a little bit. In the second book our main characters don’t come in for 250 pages, and so we had to figure out a way around that. But Stephen is still loving what we are doing in season two and I think he feels if we are true to the material and the characters, if we make them live in a way that maybe his book didn’t, then he’s never critical if they go a little left when he went a little right. He just applauds it when it is alive and well.
I am now working with an author named Richard Price, a brilliant novelist and an exceptional writer on television, who is doing Stephen’s new book The Outsider for me. He’s done the best shows recently, The Night Of with Steve Zaillian and before that The Wire, as well as tons of others. For Richard, as long as they retain the true spirit of the book then he’s more satisfied than not, and I think that’s part of the task. If you decide to give life to someone’s novel, you better be committed to and love what’s there, otherwise tell another story.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling, she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
I was an actor in my late teens and then I became a theatre director in my early to mid twenties, and so for me the audience is an essential part of the experience. I am also a painter, having painted since I was a kid, and the point is that I can paint it in my studio or on my easel, but the minute I either take a snapshot of it on my iPhone to look at it, or I move it to another room, I immediately know what’s good or bad about it. I may think it’s finished, but when I move it outside the studio I’ll think: No, it’s not finished. And it’s very similar when you are editing a show. You may think you are getting there, then you bring five people in to watch it, whether its the studio or the network, or both, and you just go: “No!” You immediately know it’s not done, and so whatever size the audience, they definitely become a part of what you are making. And in the theatre every night is certainly different. I just saw Bruce Springsteen’s miraculous show on Broadway with my wife, and my God, talk about the audience experience. I have seen many Bruce Springsteen concerts with 20,000 fans and this was so extraordinarily intimate – the way he played, told his story, sang his songs and what he got from us. The wonderful experience of making art is that you want people to respond – you are not making this stuff to sit in the dark. Henry Moore made his sculptures because he had to and I’m sure he loved it every time his hands touched the plaster or the clay. But he also made them for people to respond to and touch, feel and look at, and so we certainly do that with our thing. I think that filmmaker was right, the audience is part of the equation. There are certain artists who change the art form, who go: “Screw the audience. I’m going to do something that has never been done.” But that’s a whole different kind of art [laughs]…that’s not the same.
Mr Mercedes is now playing on Starzplay, available via Prime Video Channels.
Many thanks to Jack Bender for taking the time for this interview.