SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the series premiere of “The Stand,” streaming now on CBS All Access.
In adapting Stephen King’s 1300-plus page novel “The Stand” for a nine-episode limited series on CBS All Access, showrunner Benjamin Cavell wanted to take a non-linear approach, in part because he didn’t want to spend multiple episodes dealing with the pandemic in the story before getting to the meat of specific characters’ journeys to learn how the Dark Man, a.k.a. Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård), was stirring up chaos out in the west, and to try to put an end to his reign.
But this approach also meant that the majority of central characters in “The Stand” did not get introduced in the first episode — even Randall Flagg himself only gets a quick scene at the end of the episode to show his true face, and similarly his counterpart Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg) appears only in one quick dream to tell Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young) to seek her out. Instead, the focus was on an important trio: Stu Redman (James Marsden), Harold Lauder (Owen Teague) and Frannie herself.
“In some ways those are the three people whose relationship to each other, while it obviously changes and grows and has an arc throughout, stays central to the story, really from beginning to end — not that all of them do or do not make it to the end,” Cavell tells Variety.
While condensing their stories for the hour-long episode, Cavell also shifted Harold and Frannie’s positions from the book so that the audience spent a lot of time in Harold’s point of view instead of spending a bunch of alone time with Frannie through her backstory or journals.
“Frankly, I have always felt that, in some funny way, even though Stu or Larry or Fran herself may feel like the protagonist of the book, I think you could make a case for Harold, at least for part of the book,” Cavell explains. “And certainly in the Boulder sections of the book, it seemed to us that he had the most complete arc, the most complete transformation, and a real epiphany about what he is versus what he could be or what he should have tried to be. And it also felt like the most difficult task for the series to be as compelling as we believed it to be was to make Harold somebody we felt invested in and sympathetic towards, even as he was making this turn into some actions and behavior that we’d never be able to support as an audience. Having him have some of our interest the way a true protagonist would, we thought felt necessary, especially for the middle part of the series when our heroes are in Boulder before they set out for the ultimate confrontation with the Dark Man. He is the one with an enormous secret that he keeps great pains to hide and is in constant danger of being found out.”
Here, Cavell talks with Variety about what the premiere episode sets up about who Harold and Stu are, why the government coverup of Captain Trips looks so different in the show than in the book, and how Randall Flagg materializing in Campion’s (Curtiss Cook Jr.) car sets up the chaos to come.
Harold seems more sociopathic from the jump than the Harold in the book did. Is that how you described him in the writers’ room or with Owen?
I think sociopathic is almost certainly fair given what Harold does and what he’s thinking about doing, but what I think is so wonderful and moving about Owen’s performance is, he may be sociopathic, but you do see little moments of him that are, in some ways, another person he could have been. He is explicit about it in his diary in [writing] there is another person with another name who he could have been, another space he could have occupied, and I think you see that in that moment he saves Weizak from falling into the graves they’re building out of these shipping containers. You see in his eyes both the pleasure and also in some ways the fear of being treated like a hero and who the community is accepting and celebrating. I thought that was a fascinating performance by Owen.
What went into showing Frannie mostly through Harold’s eyes in this episode?
He’s trying to be as kind and understanding and friendly as he can possibly be, but it’s almost like he’s play-acting being a human being. He understands, in some way, that she is obviously distraught about her father’s death and that she’s digging his grave in her backyard, but how he manifests his understanding that she must be in pain is, as you say, sociopathic, because these are emotions that he seems incapable of feeling. The only people he seems to care about at all are himself and [Frannie] — in the entire world. It’s this girl who he’s built up as being the epitome of womanhood and when he thinks that, effectively, they’re the only two people left on Earth, there’s a way in which that is simply his dream come true. He didn’t really have much use for anybody else, and now he thinks, “This is proof that I was right. This entire world is my video game, essential.” And she is not even real in some ways; she is just an extension of him.
And because of that, the audience doesn’t know some important things about her in the “before,” like that she’s pregnant. Then there’s the time jump to Boulder and there she is, visibly pregnant and with Stu. Those who read the book will likely assume the baby is her old boyfriend Jess’ baby, those who didn’t may assume it’s Stu’s. Is this indicative of how off-kilter or questioning you want to keep the audience as the series goes on?
We wanted the audience to be going through the first episode, in some ways, going, “I don’t understand how these two stories even are related or intersect.” But by the end of the episode we know that Harold is completely besotted with Fran and has been in love with her since as long as he can remember, but we are left with this question throughout the first episode of what’s going on with this kid and why he is so angry? And then yes, he walks up and sees them clearly romantically involved and sees her clearly on her way to having a kid, which it doesn’t feel dishonest from my point of view when he sees her pregnant to assume it’s Stu’s kid because while it turns out it’s not Stu’s biological kid, he’s certainly planning to be a father to that baby; they are planning to have a family together.
In order to get to Boulder, Stu had to escape the government facility that was holding him to see if he’d come down with Captain Trips after being exposed when Campion crashed into the gas station. But he doesn’t really have to fight his way out of there as much as he does in the book; General Starkey (J.K. Simmons) lets him out. What kind of a statement did you want to make with who these men were by telling the story this way?
The evil of Captain Trips and the evil of a government system that engineered something like this virus and then took such great pains to cover it up, part of what makes it so scary is it is not an evil that is epitomized or located in one person. It is the evil of this impersonal system trying to protect itself, and so the idea is that Starkey is just focused on his part of it: he didn’t create this virus, he didn’t release this virus and he is in this position, but he is very particular about his orders, which are to maintain this place that he’s in charge of as long as possible and try to maintain continuity of government. But he was not the person assigned to killing Stu if it all goes wrong. So once that person is dispatched, Starkey feels like [their] business is done: “I don’t have any orders about what to do with you so I’m going to let you out of here.” I feel like it’s a beautiful human moment between these guys. Even though Starkey is complicit in the system, he’s also at the mercy of the same system as Stu is.
The larger system doesn’t seem to be as terrible in its cover-up in this version of the story, though: the radio host kills himself instead of being gunned down by authorities for telling the truth, for example, and there is no mention that Stu was injected with Captain Trips to either test his immunity or try to kill him for knowing too much. How did you approach the “government did some horrible things” aspect of the story?
We talked about versions in which we really saw some of the government response and the attempts to cover up. I guess part of the reason we went away from that is it felt to us that in 2019, I don’t know that you would be able to cover up the truth in that way. The idea of killing a particular radio host that’s going to tell the story on their air, I don’t know that that keeps anything in bottle when everybody has Twitter and social media. And Harold says to Frannie just in passing, “Those rumors were all over the internet before they shut it down.” It felt like that would be the way they would go: they would shut down the ways people communicated with each other.
Did you shoot a scene where Stu was injected and just decided against using it?
We didn’t. That would have been them doing their due diligence. They understand that Stu has been exposed. I don’t think there’s any question in their mind that anybody in the gas station had gotten it and they’ve all died of it and Stu’s dog is sick when they take him out of the house. I think they’re very satisfied that this guy got a dose that should definitely have infected him and he’s not infected. I certainly don’t think the government in our story would be above injecting Stu with the virus. I’m not scared about having it be political, but you don’t want to go too far into the “Three Days of the Condor” of Stu because most of the story takes place after there is no government. It becomes kind of besides the point: maybe the government was willing to do all kinds of things to cover it up, but they’re gone now.
The end of the premiere episode flashes back to the beginning of the end of the world, when Campion takes his family and flees after he was exposed to Captain Trips. But this time around, Randall Flagg ends up in his backseat. What was the inspiration behind that and what did you want it to imply, regarding how much he is responsible for making things worse?
For one thing, Taylor Elmore, my friend and partner — the guy I brought in to help me shepherd this through production — and I have always talked about Flagg as the shark in “Jaws.” So there is both a philosophical and a creative reason for just using him in the mirror. There’s the shark-in-“Jaws” thing where we don’t want to give you too much Flagg too quickly, because you know he’s coming. We talked for a long time about that moment of introduction and what we liked about him hitchhiking and then ending up in the backseat of this car is that he didn’t necessarily cause this — he didn’t let it out — but when it started to get out, he’s an opportunist. Flagg is the ultimate opportunist, in some ways, and he understood that this chaos was going to be exactly what he needed, and so he was going to do everything possible to shepherd it along. We wanted to have Flagg, short of actually breaking the vial and having the virus escape the lab that that woman comes out of, we wanted him to be doing everything he could to facilitate its quick journey through the population.
What determined who Randall Flagg would show his face to in their nightmares, versus who, as Harold in the premiere, would see him in shadow or with a wolf as a representative?
We wanted him to be less present in the nightmares for people who are on the fence. There are a number of people who see both him and Mother Abagail, and then there are a couple of people who it’s implied only see Mother Abagail — Tom Cullen seems to only see her. And then of course Harold, as we see in the first episode, seems to only see the Dark Man and not Mother Abagail. So our idea was that you would see more of Flagg the closer you were to being taken in by him. Without spoiling, there is a moment later on when a character who only dreams of Flagg, dreams of Flagg and sees a different version of him, something that, at least in this character’s mind, is closer to his real form. There are questions, I would say, raised in the course of the show about what Flagg’s true nature is — whether this beautiful Skarsgård-ian façade is just that: a façade. I think we leave that semi-open as we go through the show but it certainly does become a question.
Going forward, how closely are you sticking to the book in terms of the leadership on both sides of this story?
We’re sticking very closely to the book. I would say the biggest change we made in the leadership is the book has a number of auxiliary members of the committee in Boulder outside of our main cast who are part of the committee and that felt like something we could jettison. It muddied our committee discussions and disagreements they were having. But other than that, we stay quite close. In most ways it’s a very faithful adaptation, [but we did] combine certain scenes to try to make them as dynamic and visceral as possible.
And you did keep the dog in the story!
There was no version where we wouldn’t keep the dog.
New episodes of “The Stand” stream Thursdays on CBS All Access.