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Bridget Carpenter on Adapting Stephen King’s 11.22.63 and Why James Franco Was Cast

Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Bridget Carpenter was introduced to Stephen King’s transcendent horror and science fiction at a young age by her father. For most of her life, she dreamed of meeting her literary hero, and, after a series of “coincidences” (destiny?), she finally did. Best known for her work on Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, the TV writer-producer and playwright undertook the massive job of adapting King’s 2011 best seller 11.22.63 into a Hulu mini-series — premiering February 15 in weekly installments — and met her favorite author when he visited the set in Toronto.  “It will be hard to follow this experience up,” Carpenter told Vulture.

It all started in early 2013, when Carpenter read King’s 849-page 11.22.63, about a divorced high-school teacher, Jake Epping, who travels through a time portal to 1960 to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A year later, she received an unexpected call from Bad Robot, J.J. Abrams’s production company. Abrams, who said at a January press conference that he had wanted to work with Carpenter for some time, called to gauge her interest in adapting 11.22.63 to television. “They didn’t know I was obsessed with Stephen King as a child, that it was a lifelong dream to get to know him, or that I loved this book,” Carpenter said. “It was all just good luck.”

As Carpenter began outlining the eight-episode Hulu mini-series, actor James Franco emailed King because he wanted to buy the rights to the book. When Franco expressed disappointment that Abrams had beat him to the punch on Twitter, Carpenter knew she’d found her leading man. “Things don’t usually happen this way,” she said. Carpenter spoke with Vulture about the process of adapting the lengthy tome, what she changed, and becoming  pals with King.

What was it about this book that meant so much to you?
The book is so wonderful because it takes this kind of bedrock of a time, and it’s very true to that time, and then it spins a story on top of it. So the time and the details of the time are right. They feel correct. They don’t feel invented. And then you have this story that speaks to me of somebody wishing to do more, wishing that his life mattered a little bit. It’s not grandiose. If you’re somebody who’s living a life that maybe feels lost or unrewarded — like being a teacher, or having lost your spouse, or if you’re getting a divorce — you might feel adrift. So the idea in the book spoke to me: I want to matter. I want to do something important. I want to do something that would change people’s lives.

When Bad Robot called you, they really had no idea about your passion for this book?
That’s right! And I said, “Yes, I’m available!” I didn’t prepare a pitch. I didn’t prepare a thing. I just went, “I’m going to tell you the reasons why I need to do the show. I’m the person to do this show.” So I started rattling off a list of all the time-travel movies that I love. And I was like, “I love Looper! I love Peggy Sue Got Married! I love Primer! I love Back to the Future!” I was getting up and down a lot and saying, “This is a love story, but it has to move at the pace of the most fantastic thriller of all time.” And they were like, “Okay, you can do it.” I browbeat them.

Did it ever become daunting because it’s such a huge book?
That’s such a good question. I want to be humble and say, “Yes, I was daunted.” But the truth is I love this book so much. So, no, it was not daunting, because I just loved digging in. I got to read more about the assassination and Lee Harvey Oswald than I had ever read about or knew about before. It brought me to this world of research. It was daunting to get it right. And daunting to live up to a childhood hero like Stephen King, and a current hero like J.J. Abrams. But the actual work? It’s a joy.

Are you a Kennedy aficionado, too? Are you passionate about that era?
I wasn’t alive when he was killed, but we’re Catholics. And my mom was a Kennedy Catholic. She will tear up to this day speaking of Kennedy. So we always had Kennedy photos, like, coffee-table books about Kennedy and his life, and I have toured his house. So I knew about Kennedy from a Catholic background. But no, I didn’t know anything more than anybody else about the ’60s. I know more about conspiracies now. I’m much more of a believer in conspiracies now, although Stephen King is not. He’s a single-shooter guy.

What was it like when you started to see it come to life on set last year?
I cried more than once, especially when you have somebody like James Franco and Chris Cooper together. You know? There were numerous times when I sort of clutched my pearls, and you have to pinch yourself and go, This is real. This is really happening. Like the production designer who designed the JFK room in the pilot. I was like, This is what the dream is. I dreamed the room and it looked like this, and you made that happen. And that definitely happened when we went to Dallas. That was almost like an out-of-body experience.

Most of the show was filmed in Toronto. How much time did you spend in Dallas?
We filmed in Dallas for a week. It was unreal to do the kind of re-creation we did. I actually don’t expect to ever equal it. You haven’t really reproduced anything until you have produced 600 extras and a motorcade. A presidential motorcade! Nobody has not seen that, so it’s a lot to try to get right. We had the rights to use the Zapruder film, and we decided not to because we had essentially shot our own. But we did shoot it on the actual film of the Zapruder. We had a cameraman using that kind of camera and standing in that exact place.

That’s a little spooky.
It is spooky! I took that very seriously. We shut down Dealey Plaza and re-created that day. We shot in Lee Harvey Oswald’s actual apartment building. Everything was replicated to a degree that was thrilling. The Kennedy presidency was the most-photographed up until that time. I feel like you don’t have to know much about him or his time in the White House to know those images. So it was a no-brainer to shoot there.

What did you think of the casting of James Franco for the lead? You had been living with Jake as a character in your head for a year before you saw him come alive.
The minute he tweeted about it, we were like, “JJ, call him! Call him right now. Tweet him right now!”

What did he tweet?
Oh, I can tell you exactly what he tweeted. He went, “Man, I just finished reading 11.22.63. Wanted to option it, but JJ has all the fun.” And we were like, What? Wants to option? Call him, call him, call him! Get in touch with him! So, no, there was no one else ever. He stepped into it. It’s very easy to talk about because it was a no-brainer. We felt it. James doesn’t talk about this that much, but he’s like a very impassioned teacher. He goes all over the place. And there’s something that’s very grounded about him. Despite his movie-star charisma, I actually believe him as a person.

What was it like to meet Stephen King, after having been such a fan?
I am friends with Stephen King. We email; we call each other sometimes. We started out as pen pals. Then we met on set.

Was it difficult talking to your new friend about changing his book?
I changed a great deal when I did a big outline of it. He has approval on everything. And he wrote back the most generous letter. He wrote, “Ms. Carpenter had me at hello. The best adaptations of my work are not slavish, and this is really what she’s done.” So he gave me this license, and I wrote to him and thanked him. I told him I wanted to send things as I was thinking of them. The whole world of the show, although understandable, was white. It really depressed me. And I wrote to him and said, “I’d like to make this character an African-American character. How do you feel?” Everything I suggested he said yes to. He thought about it, and sometimes he’d go, “Oh yeah! And you should do this, too.” So he was just the world’s best collaborator in terms of being supportive.

What have you done as friends?
Well, get dinner together! And every once in a while, he’ll send me a music video. I guess he’s much better on pop culture than I am, quite honestly. I feel so lucky. He is a wonderful person and, you know, a master. It’s a totally crazy experience. My dad introduced me to Stephen King when I was far too young. So he takes some of the credit. 

Bridget Carpenter on Casting Franco in 11.22.63