Y: The Last Man and Saga writer Brian K. Vaughan is one of the main writers of the new CBS show Under the Dome, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. And last night, we got the first glimpse of some footage, and Vaughan talked about how he aims to take a 1,000-page novel and turn it into a TV show that could run for years.
There haven't been any real teasers released yet for Under the Dome, which comes to CBS in June — but we saw a four-minute sizzle reel, in which the theme seemed to be that once a small Maine town gets cut off from the rest of the world by a forcefield (like in the Simpsons Movie), some people will rise to the occasion and become better people — but other people will be at their absolute worst.
We caught a lot of glimpses of Jeff Fahey (Lawnmower Man) as the town sheriff, who's being screwed with royally by Big Jim (Dean Norris from Breaking Bad) who becomes a sort of small-town dictator and major asshole. We also saw bits of Julia (Rachelle Lefevre) realizing her husband was cheating on her — to which another man responds that no man in his right mind would step out on such a beautiful woman. There was also some "young serial killer" action, as the isolation and chaos under the dome drives Junior Rennie to go off the rails.
We also caught some glimpses of total chaos — an airplane ripped in half by the barrier, with flaming chunks falling to earth, severed limbs and a truck crashing into the barrier. There was footage of King himself saying that you're only as sick as your secrets — and some people inside Chester's Mill are very sick indeed.
So how do you adapt a massive book like that into a TV show? Vaughan told the audience at the Dome panel that they really opened up the world and made the story open-ended. "In true Stephen King fashion," King reached page 1,000 of his novel and felt like he was just getting started — but they can't publish books longer than about 1,000 pages. So King would have loved to have told the story of the town under the dome as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into years — and on the TV show, they might get the chance to do that. King's manuscript for the novel weighed 19 pounds, and Vaughan joked that he just took "the three best pounds."
Vaughan loved the book, because like a lot of King's best work, it takes serious topics like dwindling resources and the nature of democracy, but handles them without being preachy — instead it uses a very "pulpy" story to explore these ideas. "It's a parable of our lives," added writer Neal Baer (ER).
A huge issue on this show is going to be how people deal with running out of supplies — what do you do when you run out of Tide soap? How do you deal with food shortages? "Do you really need a banker under the dome?" asks Baer. "Farmers, maybe you do."
Baer said they divided the first season of the show into thirds, represented by three Fs: 1) Faith, "this can't be real, this can't last too long," 2) Fear, "Oh my god, what are we going to do," and 3) Fascism, "Who's going to maintain order?" And he said they spent a lot of time obsessing about the science of the dome — one of the show's writers is a Pulitzer-winning former reporter, Scott Gold, and he came up with ideas about how high frequencies could get through the dome but low frequencies couldn't. To which Stephen King himself responded, "You know, you can just make shit up, too."
Said director Jack Bender (Lost), "This show is really a character show with a scifi element... It's really examining how people who are trapped in an inexplicable situation, and an impossible situation." He said when he read the scripts, he had the same feeling as when he saw the Lost pilot — this was something special, with "impossibly rich" characters who drive the story. Baer added that there will be a lot of great storytelling about people learning each other's secrets and finding ways to use those secrets against each other.
Meanwhile, Dean Norris welcomed getting to play kind of a bad guy after playing a nicer character in Breaking Bad, and becoming a petty dictator was "a real fun thing to sink my teeth into" — but at the same time, he didn't want to play the character as a bad guy. There's also a "poignant and sad" moment where we learn just how he got the nickname "Big Jim," and it helps you find the humanity in this character. "This show feels big, Shakespearean or Greek or something," said Norris.
In the book, Big Jim is "pretty f—in evil" from page one, said Vaughan. But the TV show is going to take some time getting there, because they want to build up his character before he goes completely bad.
"People have an incredible ability to adapt," said Lefevre, who plays Julia. And the way we survive "incredible transformations" is by being aware of who are the people next to you, and part of this show is people becoming more aware of their neighbors. "People are still attracted to each other, they hate each other, they still run off into the woods."
After leaving Lost, Vaughan kept seeing a lot of other TV shows saying they were going to improve on Lost or be better than Lost, and those shows are all gone now. So instead, Vaughan jokes, they're just going to steal from Lost as much as they can. Or actually, they'll just remember the lessons of Lost — characters come first. One difference from Lost? There won't be a lot of flashbacks — we'll just get to know the characters in the here and now, and keep the pressure on them all the time.
This show is produced by Amblin Entertainment — so it represents the first collaboration between Steven Spielberg, "the world's ultimate optimist," and Stephen King, "the world's ultimate pessimist," noted Vaughan, "but they are both huge humanists, and they love their characters. So it was fun to unite those perspectives."
King was part of the approval process for casting on the show, noted Bender, and he came out to the set and hung out. According to Vaughan, King said, "These days, they mostly just wheel me out like a hood ornament to promote things," but they actually had him in the writers' room and got his feedback on their dialogue, line by line. King was very supportive of some of the changes Vaughan made from the book.
There will be some shout-outs to other King classics in the TV show — but don't expect Pennywise the Clown to be lurking in the sewers under Chesters Mill, said Vaughan.
And there's a weird bit of metaficitonal crossover — in the book, Scarecrow Joe is described as being a fan of the graphic novels of Brian K. Vaughan. And now Vaughan is adapting the novel for television. "I can't quite wrap my mind around it," said Vaughan. But for the TV version of Scarecrow Joe, Vaughan told the actor that his character actually should hate Vaughan's graphic novels.
Everyone is hoping the show runs for years and years — and eventually, Bender says issues of claustrophobia could become a lot more prominent. Vaughan said they've mapped out the whole arc of the show, and they have a final episode figured out — but there are always surprises, and actors can leave or get pregnant. And you can fall in love with a minor actor who's only supposed to be in one episode.
"I think deep down, we all want the apocalypse to happen," said Vaughan. That way, "I won't have to answer all those emails, drive to work, and so on. All I would have to do is survive. In our lizard brains, that's the only way we know how to live."
During the Q&A, someone asked about Vaughan's legendary Round Table movie script — and Vaughan said nothing's happening with it. "It's just in the mysterious development hell in Hollywood." At the same time, King was thinking about Under the Dome back in 1976, so sometimes things just take time.