Christmas comes early for Stephen King fans this year, as last week marked the premiere of CBS All Access’ The Stand, a new, nine-part adaptation of King’s post-apocalyptic riff on Lord Of The Rings. There’s an unexpected timeliness to the story’s post-pandemic landscape, in which plague survivors are supernaturally drawn to opposing camps, but don’t go in expecting another Contagion. As with King’s novel, the CBS limited series is primarily about what happens after 99.4% of the world’s population is gone. That much is made clear in the premiere, which, in a departure from King’s novel, begins in the wake of what society names Captain Trips.
For showrunner Benjamin Cavell, it was obvious from the get-go that a timey-wimey approach was the best means of seeing the story through fresh eyes. And, as we noted in our pre-air review, it’s just one of many bold choices he made alongside co-creator and director Josh Boone (The New Mutants). “The book means what it means to people and they’re going to make what they make of our adaptation,” he tells The A.V. Club, “but the one thing that they really can’t say is that we haven’t thought through every decision we made. Everything we did was done deliberately and thoughtfully.”
Cavell took some time ahead of the premiere to discuss some of those choices, including the time jumps and his decision to center the premiere around Owen Teague’s Harold Lauder. In our chat, he also discussed his early love for King’s work and what, exactly, he thinks sets apart the show’s opposing prophets, Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) and Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg).
The A.V. Club: Were you a Stephen King fan growing up?
Benjamin Cavell: I guess I started reading Stephen King at the time everyone—at least everyone I knew—did, when you were just becoming teenagers. I was already at that point starting to understand that my real passion was for writing in some capacity. I didn’t know whether being a writer meant writing books or writing movies or writing for magazines or something, but I just knew that I loved writing. I’ve never been a big horror guy, so books like It and The Shining and Pet Sematary, those real touchstone King books, they never made me think, “Oh, I would love to write something like that.” I just never felt immersed in it, whereas The Stand I really don’t think of as a horror book. King himself has said it’s his attempt to do Lord Of The Rings. It’s a big adventure fantasy, you know, and I gravitated to that. That and books like The Running Man, post-apocalyptic, predictive science fiction stuff, that’s what I gravitated to.
AVC: How did the story find you again as an adult?
BC: [CBS All Access’ Programming Head] Julie McNamara approached me, I guess, three years ago. You know, “Would you would you want to do this thing?” Josh [Boone] had been trying to do it for a long time as as a feature. I don’t really understand how how that could work. I don’t know how you do this 1,200-page book as a feature. Getting it to nine hours is already a trick. But I think Julie felt rightly that the only way to do it righteously was to take advantage of what I think is really a new medium: this kind of long-form, super high-end limited series, where you get essentially get feature-level actors, feature budget, feature effects. You’re essentially making a nine-hour feature, and I feel like that’s the only way to do this justice. When she approached me with that pitch, how do you how say no?
AVC: What’s so striking about the series is that it starts not with the plague’s release or one of the book’s heroes, but with Harold Lauder. Leading with Harold and Frannie is probably one of the boldest decisions in a series filled with them. How did that come about, and why is Harold such a focus for you?
BC: I think I think there’s two parts to that answer, because we don’t just start with Harold, but we also start with Harold after the plague, which was a very conscious decision. It seemed to me when I when I revisited the book that the [non-linear approach] was the clear way to do it. For one thing, we didn’t want to make people sit through three episodes of the world dying before we got to the peak of our story. Captain Trips is the mechanism by which the world gets emptied out so that the heroes can walk to Mordor. What comes after, the rebuilding and the battle for the soul of what’s left, that’s really the narrative spine of the book. How would you rebuild civilization if given the chance? Besides, Contagion and Steven Soderbergh already brilliantly told the story of that kind of slow-rolling worldwide pandemic. It just didn’t seem like it would ever be our focus. We wanted to stay in the limited point of view of our characters and experience the apocalypse through their eyes.
And why do we start with Harold? I think, in a lot of ways, Harold is the protagonist of the novel. I suppose King tips you off to that a little bit because he’s a writer and [King] certainly loves to [lead stories with] writers. But, in some ways, Harold is the person with the most complete arc in the book. He’s also in the Boulder sections, and what’s difficult about Boulder is that a lot of our characters are relatively safe there. Harold, though, is essentially behind enemy lines. He’s the one with a secret. But we also felt that in order for this series to be successful, somebody like Harold and also, frankly, somebody like Lloyd, who we don’t see until episode two, had to be people whose sympathies we felt. People who we can really identify with and root for sometimes in spite of ourselves.
AVC: By focusing on Harold, you’re also shining a light on the themes of free will and choice. He’s the character who has one of the biggest choices to make: Does he embrace this new community or fall victim to old resentments? For him, the end of the world is an opportunity.
BC: We were very conscious about the idea that Harold has the opportunity to become a different person. This person even has a name, you know; they call him Hawk and it becomes this sort of alternate future for Harold. And Owen’s performance, frankly, I think is a revelation, but there’s a particular moment in the pilot where he saves [Eion Bailey’s] Weizak from falling into one of the graves. You see [Owen’s] eyes as Weizak gives him this hug and all this praise for being on the ball, and they somehow managed to be both enormously proud and also terrified of this acceptance. And I just thought that was so deep and so interesting, his pride and his fear of being accepted and praised by these rough-and-tumble older guys.
AVC: Speaking of choice, were there conversations being had about what, exactly, distinguishes Boulder and Vegas? It’s not as simple as good and evil. What would you say draws people to one or the other?
BC: My mantra in the [writers’] room was that it’s just not interesting for Vegas to be a place of evil, you know? Capital E “Evil.” It was very important to us that both of the societies be functioning in a way that felt grounded. We did a lot of research about kind of how you would keep certain things going and what would make sense. It was also important that Vegas, at least initially, be ahead of Boulder in terms of getting services like electricity and stuff to work, which is which is also true to the book.
We also wanted to show how Flagg could seem like a viable alternative, that as viewers you could say, “You know, I can’t be certain that that pitch wouldn’t have some pull for me.” There’s a guy who, for one thing, looks like Alexander Skarsgård. He’s charming. He has supernatural powers. And he claims to have a real understanding, a real handle on what’s going on. He knows what all this horror that we’ve lived through is for, you know, and where it’s all headed and how we’re going to rebuild.
I’ve always thought a big difference between Flagg and Mother Abigail is that they essentially they have about the same level of information about what’s going on. They are getting, you know, some incomplete sense from some entity. Frankly, I have a theory that they are both talking to the same entity, but that’s for a different conversation. They’re getting essentially the same level of information at the same level of clarity, but the definitive difference is that Mother Abigail tries to be pretty upfront about what she doesn’t know and isn’t being told and Flagg takes great pains to deny that there’s anything he doesn’t know.
AVC: This is obviously such a huge story. So many characters, so many stories. I imagine there were some pretty difficult discussions about what to pick and choose in terms of what’s necessary and what isn’t. Are there any scenes or characters that you wanted to include but just didn’t have any space for?
BC: You know, not really. We felt like we had the space to do anything and we managed to restore, say, Rita Blakemoor [Heather Graham], who is absent from the original miniseries. [In that series,] Larry escapes New York with Nadine and we felt like, honestly, that’s a real loss. That sojourn he has with Rita in New York is pretty memorable, certainly for me from the first time I read the book. We were so excited to be able to restore that. We also went in thinking we were going to restore the character of The Kid because he wasn’t part of the original series either. We have a draft of the script with scenes for The Kid and Trash Can Man, but it just became clear to us at a certain point—I mean, The Kid kind of exists in the book to brutalize Trash and transport him to Las Vegas, and when we saw Ezra Miller’s characterization of Trash for the first time, it was like, I don’t think this guy needs to be more more brutalized any more. [Laughs.] Ezra went for it.