When Stephen King first approached J.J. Abrams to adapt his novel 11/22/63 for the screen, King had a film in mind. Abrams had other ideas. “When he asked, my first reaction was, ‘Yes.’” Abrams says. “My second reaction was, ‘Would you be open to doing this not as a film, but for television, in whatever form?’” The limited series that emerged from this collaboration was thanks in no small part to exec producer and writer Bridget Carpenter who adapted the book. Carpenter (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood), reworked some elements to avoid using voiceover and to streamline story for the screen, but had King’s backing throughout the process. “He is amenable; he was excited about it,” Carpenter says. James Franco stars as high school teacher Jake Epping, who finds a time travel portal and attempts to go back and save JFK from assassination–a casting decision Abrams made after reading Franco’s article in Vice about his love for King’s novel. “I reached out partly because I felt like he could be a fantastic Jake,” Abrams says, “and partly because I just liked that he was so passionate about the story.” Among various upcoming projects, Abrams is also exec producing the Cameron Crowe-created Roadies launching on Showtime in June.
Stephen King sent you a signed copy of the book for this and asked you to adapt it. How did you decide on a limited series?
Abrams: Well, I was very excited, obviously, by the prospect of helping bring this story to the screen, being a huge fan of Stephen’s, a huge fan of the novel, and I didn’t know how many hours it would be. But I know they had spent quite a while working on a feature version of this that never quite got there, and part of it, I think, was because the book is substantial, and condensing that into a two-hour story has its challenges. So, Stephen was very much open to that, and the first person we called to try and realize this was Bridget.
Carpenter: And by the time they called, I think you guys were only talking about it as television, which I was really happy and really relieved about.
What immediately grabbed you about writing this?
Carpenter: Well, I had read the story for pleasure years before. So, when they called, I said, “I know this book really well. You want me to come in, like, in an hour?” Because I’m a lifelong Stephen King fan, and for me, when you love something, it’s actually not hard. It was sort of like, “I feel like I know what this wants to be.” It’s a book with great pace, but it has incredible depth of character, and it lingers. The story itself is like the ultimate, I always thought of it as the ultimate what-if. It’s what if you could go back in time and prevent something terrible from happening? And in this case, one of the most enormous American tragedies. There’s something that’s so human and aspirational about that. You don’t have to be a Kennedy historian to have the kind of aspiration or wish fulfillment to go, “Well, I would do things differently.” So, that was what grabbed me, both as just a reader, and then the adapter of that story. It was always how to serve that. It’s very human.
What was your process working together?
Abrams: And be generous.
Carpenter: [laughs] I was so thrilled at the first kind of big, substantial conversation that we had about what the tenor of the show of this should be, we ended up talking about an episode of Twilight Zone, this episode called “Walking Distance” that he brought up. And it was so thrilling to have these kind of stylistic points; references that matched what I hoped to do. I would say that J.J. is not only an innovator and a really master storyteller, but he is maybe, for me, the world’s best enabler. You know, he’s the ultimate improv partner. He’s like, ‘Yes, and?’ He’s so d quick, and so the conversation is very deep, very quickly.
What about Stephen King’s involvement? Were there changes you wanted to make that gave you pause? How did he respond?
Carpenter: Stephen had veto power, every step of the way. He had approval on everything from who the writers were to really anything, and I took that very seriously. The great joy with working with him is that not once did he ever use it. He’s obviously a very sophisticated storyteller, and he knows what it means to adapt something. I will say that I just decided to lean into it, and to say, ‘I want to make these changes, and I’m going to tell you why,’ and I was always ready to hear, ‘No, don’t do that,’ and I would have found another way. So, for me it was always how to make this story sing when it is on screen, and to trust that that would be an open, collaborative conversation.
How did you come to shoot a scene in Lee Harvey Oswald’s actual home?
Carpenter: It was a really fantastic and frankly weird day of shooting. It came about because we had a really great relationship with the Dallas Film Commission, and had done some really extensive scouting. I saw that building on Neely Street that he actually lived in, and it hasn’t changed. Nobody’s touched it. It was empty, the back yard is the same. I said, ‘we have to be here. We don’t want to recreate this. We don’t need to. We have to be here.’ It seemed really self-evident, and it was really worth it.
Why was Hulu a great choice for this? It was rolled out weekly, so there wasn’t a binge-watching element.
Abrams: Well, we met with a number of different potential partners, and the exciting thing for us was, first of all, they completely got what excited us about the book. They loved Bridget and her work as much as we did, and we all agreed that Hulu, being a home that would be hungry to prove itself, a new place, there was an exciting idea that 11.22.63 could be part of the story of building and creating an essentially new network. The idea to put episodes out weekly in theory makes as much sense as putting them all out at once. I can see both sides of the argument. I sort of love the idea of, you know, watching something and then having to wait for the next episode.
J.J., you’ve got Roadies out next month. What aspect of that are you most excited about?
Abrams: Cameron Crowe is someone who I’ve admired for so long, and I’ve been friends with him for many years, and I’ve wanted to work with him so badly that I just never stopped bothering him about writing a script that would be for a pilot. And I never imagined that he would not just work on a pilot and help set up the tone and the cast, but also work on the series as closely as he’s ended up working on Roadies. Part of it, I think, is that this is so in his blood, this world of a rock tour is something he knows better than anyone. That’s one of the reasons why Almost Famous was so resonant, because it just felt so authentic, and he has created and is producing a show along with Winnie Holzman that is, I think, incredibly sweet, incredibly funny, fraught, complicated and twisted and celebratory of that music that is so important to him.
And God Particle–what can we expect?
Abrams: Well, I can say it’s an incredibly cool story, and the script is something that we’ve had and have been working on for a long time, but is finally getting made. The cast, I think, is tremendous, and it’s still growing as we’re putting the final pieces together, but some of these last people that we have in the movie, I think, are incredibly exciting. I love the tone of it, the feeling of it. The director Julius Onah is someone who I’ve been wanting to work with for quite a while. It’s an opportunity to tell an original story that is a cool genre piece that I’ve never seen anything quite like before, and to get to shoot a film that is an original concept, to get to shoot in Los Angeles is something that used to happen all the time, and happens very infrequently now. So, I’m very excited to get to do that.