Interview: '11.22.63' Showrunner Bridget Carpenter On J.J. Abrams' Advice And Stephen King Easter Eggs

Just in time for President's Day, Hulu brings us a time travel series about trying to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Based on the Stephen King book, 11.22.63 stars James Franco as Jake, a modern man who discovers a portal to 1960 in the back of his local diner. With a three-year head start in the past, Jake goes back and tries to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing John F. Kennedy.

In January we got to sit down with 11.22.63 showrunner Bridget Carpenter to talk in-depth about the J.J. Abrams-produced time travel drama. New episodes of the eight-part series go live Mondays on Hulu. Carpenter is also adapting Freaky Friday as a stage musical for Disney. 

Stephen King material does really well as a miniseries, like It and The Stand, even Under the Dome. Was that instrumental in giving you guys the confidence or clout to take 11.22.63 out as a miniseries?

You know, I am going to confess that I have seen none of those. I saw It many years ago and I loved it. It was frightening but I have not seen The Stand. I didn't see Under the Dome so I have nothing to compare it to in that way. I would say that I just have confidence, and I think everybody just had confidence in the material period. I think that they would have been open to making it open-ended, but I think that the story has such a definitive ending, I thought it would be most satisfying dramatically to go, "and we are done."

Having done it, can you reflect on why Stephen King works so well as a miniseries?

I would say that it is the depth of his character work, his characters and the worlds that he creates are worlds you want to live in. There's something about the characters that are singular. You sit up and lean into them. You also feel a recognition to them and almost a kinship. So I think he has that kind of great trick that great writers have and he has in such a particular way. It's both a recognition and this is something new, so you want to keep knowing more about them. I just think it's character and world. When you want to live in a world, you want to live in it for longer than an hour and a half.

I have not read this book. Does King present any new JFK theories?

I envy you. No, his book and our story centers really on the question of Oswald. So kind of elide by some moments. We kind of glance at the acknowledgement that there could be many things going on, but Jake's mission is to dig into Oswald and whether he did in fact act alone. That's the focus, so no, it isn't a multi-conspiracy and that would've been really great, but I think we might've needed 10 more hours. I love the focus and drive of looking at this singular because then it allows one actor to do really incredible character work as well.

Is Oswald's mother a character on the show?

Yes, and she's played by the great Cherry Jones. She is a riveting character.

Does it explain why the closet exists?

No. The book doesn't and we decided not to either.

Isn't that a great thing to just say "there's a time traveling closet, because it's awesome?"

Yeah, it is. To go, "That's what begins the story/and thus our story begins." It's like saying, "Once upon a time, there was a cat in that kingdom." You don't go, "This is why the kingdom was there." You take it on faith. Stephen King has a very classic "once upon a time, there was a time portal." It's right there and that begins the story.

Were his time travel rules pretty solidly established?

Yes, very simple, which I loved. It's the two-minute rule, which is no matter how much time you spend in the past, only two minutes have passed here. And if you want the changes to be permanent, you must never go back again. But if you want to undo what you have done, you go through again. So if you want to make a lasting change, you have to only do it once.

Does Jake ever take a do over?

In the book he does. I'm going to refrain from answering that for the series.

11.22.63 Trailer

This is J.J. Abrams' milieu. What sort of really insightful advice did he have about this material?

He wants to make sure, he loves punctuating scenes and acts and episodes by a big happening. So his drive is about hooking you. In a way, it's kind of old-fashioned. He loves an old-fashioned cliffhanger, and that's what we started to drive and shape to. He loves precision and mystery so there's tons of Easter eggs for Stephen King fans.

Easter eggs maybe from other Stephen King stories?

Absolutely, 100%, a whole Stephen King universe. We had a whole list of things that we placed in great places.

You're pretty far away from Castle Rock.

Yes, and we end up in Texas, it's true, but we did a lot of sprinkling. The keen-eyed viewer will find things in the King universe that they'll be very happy to see. Names of characters, of streets, of places, dialogue. We have Christine, the car Christine is in the show. We had the real Christine come up from Detroit. That was very exciting.

The same car from the John Carpenter film?

Yes, the car is there. It's great, really fun.

So it's legitimately a shared universe with that film?

I would say more that we stole things from all of King's universes and put it in ours, so I don't know if it's a shared universe but we stole pieces of many King universes and put them where we thought they would be fun.

Unless you've totaled Christine, that could still be the Christine Keith Gordon buys in the movie.

Right, that's exactly right. No, there's no totaling of Christine. She has to stay right.

That advice Abrams said really applies to any kind of show. Was there anything specifically about sci-fi or time travel material, how to handle that?

You know what, honestly, he pushed me more about character than he did about sci-fi. He would say, "I love the character of Al. More Al. You need to write more Al. Al needs to stay a character." So he pushed on that and he and I had really similar ideas about pace, the pace of storytelling and how things unfold. My favorite specific thing was he went, "Jake needs somebody to talk to" and that was a huge game changer for the series and me.

James Franco played James Dean once. He's playing a modern day character in this but does he acclimate to the time period well?

Yes, he does. He wears the hell out of a 1960s suit, I'm just going to tell you. I think the fundamental thing about the story that appeals to me is that it's a love story about Jake falling in love with the time. I think he falls in love with the world. I don't know that he loses sight of his mission, but he's like, "I'm here to do a thing but my God, this place is where I belong." I think it's very meaningful.

What are your favorite time travel stories?

Primer is one of my favorites. I love Primer. I love Looper. I love Peggy Sue Got Married. I love the Christopher Reeve Somewhere in Time. The romanticism of that affected me a lot. I love all the Back to the Futures. There's not one I don't love.

Because they all have different rules, were you free to do your own time travel story and not worry about conflicting with others?

I did not worry about conflicting. Stephen King set it up so ingeniously in his book. It's "because it's awesome." There's the portal. When you go back, it's 1960, the end. That's the world. And the way that I shaped it dramatically is once he goes back to the 1960s, we the viewers are not ever in the present time again. We stay in the '60s. We get to experience the man out of time story because of that character, not because we're slipping back and forth between two times. King set me a good template and I took it.

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Are there any other Stephen King books you'd like a crack at?

Oh my God, Firestarter. I know that's out there with Drew Barrymore but I love Firestarter.

They've done three Carries so it's not like you can't do it again.

That's true, that's true, but how do you better the first one? I will say, I wrote him about this, I just read his book of short stories, Bazaar of Bad Dreams. It's incredible and two of the stories in it, one is like a Faulkner story. It's so good and one is like a John Cheever story. It's really incredible. The little one like a John Cheever story I thought maybe that's a short movie, maybe I should ask him if I can make it a short. But no, I don't know what the next big one is.

Was there any JFK material you found particularly helpful for 11.22.63?

Reading the diaries of Lee Harvey Oswald. There's a wonderful book called The Interloper that's about Lee Harvey Oswald and his time in Minsk. There's a wonderful book called Dallas 1963 that talks about the many, many social forces and political forces at play during that time in Dallas, which is a remarkable time. Just looking at the photographs of the period. You can tell everything from the way that that First Family was photographed. There was a real desire for and a belief in Camelot because that family was photographed beautifully. They had beautiful small children who were running around the White House. You have the picture of Kennedy signing something at his desk and John John is playing underneath. That's both reality and staged and documented, so there's a kind of doubleness that's wonderful. I thought, "There's a photographer there. That wasn't accidental. There's a photographer in the office while he's signing a thing. There's a picture that the Kennedys and the White House wanted to present of a beautiful, glowing America." At the same time, you have an America who has incredible race troubles. It's on the verge of going into Vietnam. I just think the doubleness of the pictorial images of that time, that really helped me. I would say I looked at the photographs of Garry Winogrand, the Frank book The Americans, the photographs of Lee Friedlander. I looked at Vivian Maier. I looked at street photography so those are the things that drove me.

Is any exterior we see the result of some digital work to remove some modern things?

Not very much. The street lights, crossing signals, street signs in actual Dallas, the buildings, they all look the same. The Hertz sign wasn't there, then it was, and it's not anymore but very, very little. In a Toronto exterior, it says "centre" instead of "center" so that's a change. There's always digital cleanup work but it wasn't so much, surprisingly.

Is the Freaky Friday musical based on the more recent movie?

It's based on the book and then the two movies. They were originally from the book written by Mary Rodgers.

Do you write up to a point and then say, "And now there's a song?"

Me and the composer and lyricist work together and we find the songs together. Then we all go, "Okay, this is what the song is and this is what it's about" and we know that it's there. We kind of create the song spots together, and even the content, what the song is, together. But then they write the songs.

What style of music will it be?

I would say very contemporary, like rock/pop. It's really sort of delicious and lively.

Does the younger daughter have a different style of music than the mother?

Yes, she does. You'll just hear in the vibe of their singing. You can really do great character work within the singing. I'm not really good enough to describe it because I'm not a perfect composer but if Tom Kitt were here, he could.

Is it set in modern day?

Yes.

The first movie ended in a big waterskiing sequence.

Yes, that will not be happening.

So what sort of stage appropriate climax could you do?

You know, the whole story is entirely different and the single conceit that is true is that a mother and daughter change places. I could not tell you the end without making you sit here for an hour and hear the whole thing.

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The first episode of 11.22.63 is available now on Hulu.