NOS4A2 executive producer and showrunner Jami O’Brien discusses bringing the novel to life, working with Zachary Quinto and Ashleigh Cummings and more.
Q: What struck you about the material that made you think it was ripe for television adaptation?
A: The best way for me to answer that is telling how I came to NOS4A2 — the beginning story of me and the book. I have worked for AMC for a long time. I worked on Hell on Wheels, I worked on Fear the Walking Dead — Hell on Wheels especially for a long time, I worked on it throughout its whole run. And when it was ending, Emma Miller, one of our AMC executives on Hell on Wheels, asked me if I had ever read NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. I had not, but I had read Locke and Key and really liked it. So I knew I liked him as a writer and said I’d check it out. I picked it up and read it over the weekend — and here is the answer to the question. I was immediately struck by this girl, Vic McQueen, and she grew up in a town called Haverhill, Massachusetts, which is right down the street from where I grew up. I felt like I know this girl, I know this family, I know this world. And then there was this other guy, Charlie Manx, who I didn’t know so well but thought was interesting. He’s kind of a vampire, but he doesn’t suck blood, he sucks souls, he’s got a cool car [Laughs], he’s got this point of view on children that I thought was really fascinating, and I loved both of those characters very much. I was interested in exploring Vic’s world. I loved the fact that she’s a working class female protagonist — you don’t see that a lot, I don’t think — and I thought that it was really smart what Joe was doing. On the one hand you have this young girl who is really creative and gifted, and then on the other hand you have this vampire type character who is over a hundred years old, who has very specific ideas about women and children that maybe don’t quite line up with Vic’s. So I thought, “this is fascinating.” It was really the characters that drew me in.
Q: What kind of things did you have to consider when adapting the novel for television?
A: I think primarily the first challenge that we faced in adapting it is that, when we first meet Vic McQueen in the novel, she is 8 years old. I knew that we wanted an adult Vic, and I also knew that I wanted to tell the portion of the story that happens when she’s a kid. In the novel, that’s when she first meets Charlie Manx, and that’s when she first learns about her own powers and begins to learn about her powers. So I didn’t want to lose that part of the story, and in fact I thought it was so powerful and so important that I didn’t want to show it as a flashback either, with a child actor. I thought it was fundamental to who Vic is, so I aged up the character, so that we could have our Vic who will take us through the entire series, basically playing the whole story. So that was one thing. Another thing that’s different in the series than in the novel is people meet one another sooner. Some of the major characters kind of collide with each other earlier in the series than they do in the book. They’re all from very different parts of the world — Vic, Bing, Maggie and Manx. We kind of, for the sake of the television show, bring them together sooner. And another challenge is there’s a lot of mythology in the book that is kind of explained in beautiful prose by Joe Hill, and it was a challenge to figure out how are we going to get this information to the audience in a way that is dramatic, not expositional, and helps us actually move the story along.
Q: The novel begins in the ’80s and ’90s — what prompted the choice to set it in the present, and how did that impact the adaptation of the story?
A: Ah, cell phones. [Laughs] There’s a lot more cell phones on our series than I think there were in the book when Vic was a kid. But I actually thought it was important to make it a more modern-day story, because in making Vic a little older and beginning with her, it’s more present than the story of her past. It’s about connecting with Vic for us, and wanting to make things feel immediate, and having some present day stakes for her, as opposed to unearthing a story from her past. I think all of the themes and all of the character work translates, it’s just a matter of the technology. [Laughs]
Q: What was it like working with Zachary Quinto and Ashleigh Cummings? Did any of your ideas about the season shift once they inhabited their roles?
A: I wouldn’t say that there was a 180 turn, but certainly Zach and Ashleigh brought some things to the characters that I hadn’t considered. Certainly they opened up the conversation about them. I remember early on talking about Charlie Manx with Zach, and I remember he said something meaningful that I have held onto. He said, “I believe this character is a man out of time, and he is also living so much in the world of thought, that when he’s in the real world, it’s an invasion. I invade the real world.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s a really fascinating way to think of it.” Every time that we see him in our world, it’s a collision, of sorts. And then Ashleigh, she said something really smart. She said that part of Vic’s journey is learning that you can love somebody and also hold them accountable for their actions at the same time. And I thought that was a great insight into Vic.
Q: NOS4A2 exists in an interesting cross-section between horror, supernatural, a coming of age story, a family drama and more. How did you craft the season and its visual language to combine all of these elements?
A: In the writers’ room, our task was always to be honest to the characters. And another task that we set for ourselves was that though there are strong creatives in this world who have kind of supernatural powers, they’re all people. They’re not actually superheroes. Their abilities spring from a creative impulse within them, and also carry a cost with them, and so we really wanted to make sure that every time our characters used their gifts, there was a real-world reason that they had to do it, that it was driven by a character need or a character want. That helped ground it for us in the writers’ room.
Q: How did you arrive at the aesthetic for the more fantastical parts of the story?
A: In terms of the visual storytelling, once we got into actually making the TV show, we had a lot of help from Kari Skogland, our first block director, who really thought deeply about how we make this world feel grounded at all times. Our anchor was the real world, and then how does the supernatural fit into this world? And she came in right off the bat, her first notion was, we never see the bridge appear or disappear. When the bridge is there, it’s a real bridge – and it’s a small thing, but by not seeing it “wa-wa-wa-wa-wa” into existence [Laughs] it sets a tone which is grounded and real.
Q: What are you excited for fans of the book and new fans to experience in the show?
A: Joe Hill sets up this amazing thing in the book, which is the world is filled with strong creatives. He implies that there are more of them out there than we meet in the book, that it’s a larger world, and I’m excited for fans of the book and for new fans to meet some of these other strong creatives that we have in store.
NOS4A2 premieres Sunday, June 2 at 10/9c.
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