Stephen King Talks JFK, Oscars Diversity, and ‘Bulletproof’ Donald Trump
The executive producer of 11.22.63, premiering Feb. 15 on Hulu, discusses the 2016 presidential race, his favorite movies of the year, and the Bowie collaboration that wasn’t.
There are few words more reassuring to cinemagoers than “based on a novel by Stephen King.” The wildly prolific author’s books, which have sold 350 million-plus copies, also inspired some of the most celebrated films of the past five decades, from The Shining to The Shawshank Redemption. But King, who is 68, has had far worse luck on the small screen, where many of his projects have fizzled.
That should change with 11.22.63. Executive-produced by King and J.J. Abrams, the Hulu miniseries is an adaptation of his sprawling novel of the same name about an English teacher in King’s native state of Maine (played by James Franco) who is tasked with going back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, thereby preventing a string of catastrophes like the Vietnam War. Along the way, he investigates whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and finds himself torn between the past and the present after falling for a fetching Dallas librarian (Sarah Gadon).
King’s riveting book opens with a quote by the late literary titan Norman Mailer: “It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security. If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd.”
Part historical epic and part Back to the Future-esque fantasy, 11.22.63 harnesses the strengths of two of our greatest living storytellers to weave a binge-worthy tale that could signal a seismic shift for its streaming service host.
The Daily Beast spoke to King, who once wrote a fascinating piece for us on taxation, about his inspiration for the story and much, much more.
Did you watch the assassination of JFK on the news, and what effect did that have on you?
We watched, my mother, my brother, and I. I got out of school and lived in a little town south of Waterville, Maine, and this guy who drove a bunch of us kids back and forth, he never played the radio, and that afternoon the radio was on. He said, “Some son of a bitch just killed the president.” And we were just stunned to silence. We saw everything that happened after that. My mother was a rock-ribbed Republican but she cried her eyes out; she kept talking about the little kids that he had. We were watching Sunday with our dinner in our laps to see Oswald transferred from the lockup in Dallas to the bigger jail, and we saw him assassinated on live TV. Our jaws just dropped. We couldn’t believe it.
Why do you feel that this tragedy has birthed more conspiracy theories than any other moment in American history?
Because Jack Ruby shut Oswald’s mouth before he could talk about what he had done. Oswald was taken into custody and said the things anyone would say initially—“I didn’t do it,” “I was a patsy”—and that’s where the conversation ended. The reason there’s been all the conspiracy talk is because Oswald never broke down and said, “I did this,” but also what it says at the front of 11/22/63, the Norman Mailer quote: We find it difficult to believe that one lone wingnut with a gun could kill the most powerful man in the world. But we’ve seen it time and time and time again. We saw it with John Lennon—that was no conspiracy, it was just a crazy lone gunman who killed him. Bridget Carpenter, the showrunner, came to disagree with me, but I think Oswald was acting alone.
The crux of 11.22.63 is that preventing the assassination of JFK would’ve altered the course of history by further averting the Vietnam War and the murder of Bobby Kennedy. What one recent event, for you, do you think would have drastically altered the course of American history? The 2000 presidential election, perhaps?
The Bush election is a pretty good one—I would put that in second place. In fact, it’s even mentioned in 11/22/63 where Al says, “If you could go back in time to the year 2000 and spread around even $100,000 in Florida and promised it to people to vote for Gore instead of Bush or Nader, then in that case, Al Gore becomes president and there are big changes.” But that’s only second place. The big one is 9/11. If someone could go back and make one phone call and say, “There are bad people getting on airplanes right now and here’s where it’s happening,” there would have been huge changes: the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq, the lives that have been lost, the amount of blood and treasure that’s been spent on those things, all because those guys went through the checkpoints with their box cutters and got on those planes.
J.J. Abrams told me that you two met back in 2006 while collaborating on an Entertainment Weekly feature for his series Lost.
I loved Lost and my wife loved it, and she hardly watches any TV at all! There were four of us there—J.J., Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, and me. It turns out that J.J. Abrams’s wife grew up right across the river from us in the town of Brewer, Maine. We talked about that and all went to see the horror movie The Descent.
Ah, I love that film. First saw it at a midnight screening at Sundance and it blew me away.
You want a tip? Go see The Witch. It’s that quality. Anyway, J.J. and I stayed in touch, and for a while it looked like Jonathan Demme was going to make a film about 11/22/63. I had some doubts about that. I loved Jonathan’s work, but it’s such a long book, and even if the movie was Godfather-length at over three hours, it still felt too short to encompass the material. Eventually, [Demme] came to agree with that and my next thought was maybe J.J. Abrams would be interested in it, so I put out some feelers. He likes those off-the-wall stories. I think it’s a pretty good fit for J.J., I really do. He put together a hell of a team and I’m very satisfied with the result.
Speaking of J.J., what did you think of his recent flick Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
It’s the best one, I thought, since the first Star Wars. The first one was special because nobody expected what it was, so when you saw the credits come up and then this huge ship suddenly appeared on the screen, I still remember seeing that in Boston and how blown away we all were. But I was totally with it, the whole thing. I thought he caught the feeling of the first one. I went to see it with my three grandsons and we saw it in IMAX 3D, man, and it was great.
Wait, you liked it more than Empire?
Yes. After the first one of the original three I like the third one, because there was Carrie Fisher in her little outfit there and I thought that was pretty hot.
As far as recent movies go, we’re now in the final days of awards season. What were your favorite films of 2015? My No. 1 is Mad Max: Fury Road.
I loved [Fury Road]. I loved that. I loved The Big Short. I thought that was terrific. I’m trying to think what else I saw… The funny thing is, we’ve got the Academy Awards coming up very soon and hardly anybody can name what won Best Picture seven years ago, but we all remember the most junky movies. But The Big Short stands out because it took a complicated subject and made it kind of funny. One other movie that I really did like was a movie called Cop Car with Kevin Bacon. That was really good. It was a little bit like Stand By Me, only darker.
We’re having a productive—and long-overdue—conversation right now about diversity in Hollywood, with the Oscars serving as the catalyst. It seems like a byproduct of the larger cultural moment we’re having with Black Lives Matter, and how social media has given a voice to the voiceless, and helped push these issues to the fore.
Absolutely. Social media has been absolutely huge when it comes to that. It’s really strange about the Academy Awards two years in a row coming out with these vanilla ice cream nominations. Especially when you think that there were a couple of really great performances—the kid from Friday Night Lights in Creed, Michael B. Jordan, he was terrific. He deserved a nomination for that. But even more, Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation—what an incredible performance in a difficult role. I wonder if part of the reason that he was ignored—and the movie was ignored—was because of the synergy with Netflix. I think that a lot of movie people really don’t like the idea of people muscling in on their playing field. They see it as a threat.
I’m in complete agreement.
For me—I’m in the Academy but I don’t get a chance to vote for actors, I get a chance to vote for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay—yet another movie that really seemed to me to deserve a nomination for Best Picture was Straight Outta Compton. You have to wonder if some of the older voters felt like, “Hmm… I don’t really want to watch that picture because I don’t dig rap.” But I think you’re going to see a major course-correction, and I think the Academy Awards are going to be very interesting this year because this is on a lot of people’s minds, and a lot of people are going to speak out about it.
This is in some respects a political show, and we are in the throes of hands-down the most insane presidential race in history. What do you make of it, and more specifically, of the rise of Donald Trump? It seems to me that, given the relentless 24-hour news cycle, it was only a matter of time before we had a media-savvy reality star ascend to this perch.
Man, I don’t know! Trump leaves me speechless. When he came down that escalator to announce that he was going to run for president, I thought to myself that it was a smart joke, and it was a way of basically renewing his brand, refreshing himself in the press, and getting to the forefront. I figured he would run for a while, then drop out, and that would be the end of it. And instead, you talk about media-savvy, but he’s really the anti-media-savvy candidate. At this point, he’s said 40 different things that would have gotten him laughed out of the race if he wasn’t so outrageous.
In the debate the Republicans had [in New Hampshire], Marco Rubio repeated the same talking point three or four times—and got his clock cleaned by Christie—and it’s almost like his candidacy has become a very perilous thing. It was a classic gotcha moment. But if it would’ve been Trump, it wouldn’t have mattered, because this guy can say that “Megyn Kelly was after me” because she was on her period. He can say he didn’t mean that, but that’s obviously what he meant. He can talk about Ted Cruz being a pussy and it just bounces off! It’s like he’s bulletproof. Will he get nominated? I would’ve said the idea is ridiculous even four months ago, but now I’m not so sure. Then people are saying that if he does get nominated he’d never get elected, and I’m saying, well, hopefully that won’t happen. But who knows.
I personally find Ted Cruz to be a scarier prospect for America than Donald Trump. Trump was singing a very different tune a decade-plus ago—he was essentially a Democrat—so he’s just pandering to his base, but Cruz is a horse of a different color.
He’s very scary. I actually think Trump, in the end, would be more electable than Cruz because Cruz is a fundamentalist Christian and it would almost be like electing the analog of an Imam—someone whose first guiding principle would be the scripture rather than the Constitution. But I don’t think he could get elected. And, even if he was able to govern without blowing up the world, could we look at a guy who resembles a cable game show host for four years? He has that awful plastered-down hair and everything.
Now I’m from New York, and we recently lost an honorary New Yorker in David Bowie. I’m curious if Bowie perhaps inspired any of your stories or characters?
I did a series on CBS way back in the day called Golden Years, and we used that song “Golden Years,” which is really a mysterious and wonderful song, as the theme song for that show; a summer replacement on CBS that didn’t get picked up, unfortunately. A few years after that, he called me up on the phone and we talked about a concept album that he wanted to do—kind of a scary thing. Nothing else came of it, but I did have that conversation with him. I was shocked and sad to see that he had passed. I had an image of him as perpetually young and perpetually changing, so it came as a shock to know that he was actually my age. It’s such a loss. He was a terrifically talented man who accomplished so many things. There was such an emphasis in the press on how damn good-looking he was and how he was a trendsetter in terms of style, and I thought they ignored his music a bit. He made a lot of interesting music.
OK, you’ve piqued my interest big time with this concept album. Could you talk a bit more about what the concept was?
I honestly can’t remember. We talked a little bit about getting together, and the schedules didn’t fit. People have an idea and then they move on, you know how it is. I got a call one day from Arnold Schwarzenegger who said, “Stephen, I want to make the scariest movie ever made and you must write it,” and I said, “Let me think about that a little bit.” So he went and made this horror movie where he was the Terminator against the evil forces of hell, End of Days. I didn’t have anything to do with that! But sometimes people call and it either sparks, or it doesn’t. John Mellencamp called with an idea for a musical and we ended up working on it for 10 years! I made a good friend out of that, though, which is great.