THE DARK TOWER

STEPHEN KING’S SEEM­INGLY UN­FILMABLE MAG­NUM OPUS, THE DARK TOWER, IS HEAD­ING TO THE BIG SCREEN AT LONG LAST. THE MASTER OF HOR­ROR HIM­SELF TELLS US HOW

Empire (Australasia) - - Contents - WORDS CHRIS HE­WITT IL­LUS­TRA­TION ALEX WIL­LIAMSON

Stephen King and co talk about film­ing the un­filmable in an ar­ti­cle that links di­rectly to the It fea­ture in a fu­ture is­sue.

HHol­ly­wood has been in the Stephen King busi­ness for just about as long as Stephen King has been in the Stephen King busi­ness. From the mo­ment the great Amer­i­can hor­ror nov­el­ist burst onto the scene in the mid-1970s, stu­dios and big-name di­rec­tors such as Kubrick, Car­pen­ter, De Palma, Cro­nen­berg and Romero have been queu­ing up to adapt his work. Even his vastly am­bi­tious doorstop nov­els, such as

The Stand and It, have been made into mini-se­ries for the small screen, as Hol­ly­wood vo­ra­ciously op­tioned vir­tu­ally ev­ery word King wrote. If he’d writ­ten this para­graph, stu­dios would be cir­cling it even now.

But one ma­jor King work has re­mained con­spic­u­ously un­adapted.

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gun­slinger fol­lowed.” Those words kick off 1982’s The Gun­slinger, the first novel in a se­ries that to­gether form The Dark Tower. It’s a work of stag­ger­ing breadth, depth and am­bi­tion, span­ning hun­dreds of years and mul­ti­ple worlds. It’s about ob­ses­sion, and guilt, and the act of cre­ation, and the un­blink­ing, un­sen­ti­men­tal eye of fate, or ka, of­ten de­picted as a wheel, con­stantly turn­ing on a cease­less jour­ney.

The tl;dr ver­sion? It prin­ci­pally con­cerns the ef­forts of the afore­men­tioned gun­slinger, Roland Deschain, and his heroic band of fol­low­ers, the ka-tet, to find and pro­tect the Dark Tower, the nexus of all ex­is­tence, from the forces of evil de­ter­mined to de­stroy it. Whichever way you look at it, though, The Dark Tower is King’s crown­ing glory. “It’s the one that took the most time and the most ef­fort and the most cre­ative en­ergy,” says the au­thor, speaking to Em­pire in a world-ex­clu­sive in­ter­view from his home in Bangor, Maine. “You don’t sit down one day and say, ‘Well, I think I’ll write a mag­num opus.’ But I said to my­self, ‘This could be re­ally long and re­ally ex­cit­ing and I wanna take a crack at it.’ Look what hap­pened.”

What hap­pened is that King had writ­ten some­thing so au­da­ciously am­bi­tious, so

be­wil­der­ingly bat­shit, so cre­atively com­plex that it seemed un­filmable. And King him­self seemed to be happy with that. “It never seemed likely to me that some­one would come along and want to make a film out of it,” he says. “There were things from time to time, when peo­ple would talk about the pos­si­bil­ity, but I never took it se­ri­ously.”

How­ever, in a post-lord Of The Rings world, it seemed that un­filmable was a thing of the past, like leav­ing your doors un­locked at night or us­ing Mys­pace. And with the nov­els com­plete as of 2004 (bar a pre­quel, The Wind Through The Key­hole, pub­lished in 2012), The Dark Tower was fair game. “Ev­ery stu­dio is look­ing for a tent­pole project where it’s pos­si­ble to not only do a movie, but to do a se­ries of movies,” adds King. “And the cre­ative peo­ple were able to say, ‘This is some­thing en­tirely new that melds the Western with fan­tasy — let’s go out there and see if we can make this hap­pen.’ And fi­nally some­one did.”

The re­sult is this month’s The Dark Tower, which sees Matthew Mcconaughey flee across the desert, and Idris Elba fol­low. But be­fore we got to this point, the wheel had a few turns left in it…

J.J. ABRAMS

was the first to at­tempt to scale the tower, when his Lost alums Da­mon Lin­de­lof and Carl­ton Cuse op­tioned the rights to the se­ries from King in 2007. Af­ter grap­pling with a pro­posed tril­ogy (“It does need room to breathe,” agrees King) for three years, the op­tion ex­pired and Abrams moved on. Awak­en­ing the Force? A cinch. Adapt­ing over 4,000 pages of King? Not so much.

En­ter Ron Howard and Akiva Golds­man, who came on board to di­rect, pro­duce and write in 2010, along with big-bud­get back­ing from Uni­ver­sal and a plan so cun­ning it could win a bat­tle of rid­dles with a homi­ci­dal train (a sce­nario that takes place in the third Dark Tower book, The Waste Lands). Their ver­sion would com­prise three films with two tele­vi­sion se­ries sand­wiched in-be­tween, and Javier Bar­dem was on board as Roland. “I liked that idea,” says King. “Ev­ery­body did. Turned out he had a bad back, at that time any­way. That made it a lit­tle iffy with him.”

With Bar­dem back­ing out, Uni­ver­sal soon joined him in 2011 and The Dark Tower fell back into limbo. It was never en­tirely dead, though. “I started to think maybe two years ago that it re­ally would hap­pen,” King says. “Modi [Wiczyk, CO-CEO of MRC] came along and got re­ally in­ter­ested in it. They started to spend se­ri­ous money.”

With Sony Pic­tures also on board, this new ver­sion of the story gained mo­men­tum quickly. How­ever, with Howard de­cid­ing only to re­main on board as a pro­ducer, it needed a di­rec­tor, and fast. “I’ve been one of Stephen King’s Con­stant Read­ers since I was a teenager in Den­mark,” says Niko­laj Ar­cel, whose big­gest gig prior to this was writ­ing the screen­play for the Swedish ver­sion of The Girl With The Dragon Tat­too. “I know how vast the story is. It’s in my blood.”

AT FIRST

glance, The Dark Tower is a straight-up adap­ta­tion of The Gun­slinger, in which Roland’s thirst for vengeance against man in black Wal­ter Padick (for stan­dard man-in­black stuff: mur­der, theft, that sort of thing) is com­pli­cated by the ap­pear­ance of Jake Cham­bers (Tom Tay­lor), a young telepath who has come to Mid-world from our own mod­ern­day New York. At one point, The Gun­slinger was the movie’s of­fi­cial sub­ti­tle. And it even starts with the line, “The man in black fled across the desert and the gun­slinger fol­lowed.”

But when Ar­cel, along with writ­ing part­ner An­ders Thomas Jensen, set to work on the ex­ist­ing Akiva Golds­man draft, he had to face an un­ex­pected ob­sta­cle. Namely, that The Gun­slinger is ac­tu­ally a bit of a slog. It’s a dense, and some­what trippy, novel, heav­ily in­spired by Robert Brown­ing’s epic poem Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came. It’s still got mo­ments of dark King magic, but oth­er­wise it’s the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of the first sea­son of Parks And Re­cre­ation, the one you have to wade through to

get to the re­ally good stuff. “It’s al­most like a long poem,” says Ar­cel. “A lot of it is very in­ac­ces­si­ble. Know­ing what this saga is in full means that you just can’t take that tone from Book One and put it on the screen.”

The so­lu­tion, as it turned out, was al­ready there in Gold­man’s script. “I like Akiva Golds­man as a writer very much,” says King. “He said, ‘Why don’t we start in me­dia res, in the mid­dle of the story?’ Akiva’s idea, and Nik’s idea, was to say, ‘Maybe this is the sec­ond time around for Roland Deschain…’”

Re­gret­table but un­avoid­able spoil­ers fol­low: at the end of the fi­nal book, Roland finds the Dark Tower, but at great cost: his ka-tet is rent asun­der and he finds him­self back at the be­gin­ning of his quest. This time, though, he bears the Horn Of Eld, an arte­fact he once gave away and which sig­nals that things might turn out dif­fer­ently. The Dark Tower also be­gins with Roland in pos­ses­sion of the Horn, sug­gest­ing that what is printed past is pro­logue, and the story here can un­fold in sur­pris­ing ways. “We were able to do a pseudo-se­quel to the books,” says Ar­cel. “The last telling of the story, the last turn of the wheel.”

IN THE

books, Roland is many things — tac­i­turn, of­ten un­like­able, ob­ses­sive and, when it comes to the ac­tual gun­sling­ing, a su­per-cool mix­ture of Knight Of The Round Ta­ble and

Clint East­wood’s Man With No Name. It’s per­haps this lat­ter com­par­i­son that has led to Roland be­ing de­picted so of­ten over the years by artists (in­clud­ing Thomas Jane’s char­ac­ter in the open­ing se­quence of King pal Frank Darabont’s The Mist) as an East­wood­ian fig­ure. “In the books, it’s never said that Roland Deschain is a Cau­casian per­son,” says King. “It was just taken for granted that Roland is a white guy.”

Cer­tainly, Ar­cel had no such pre­con­cep­tions, and when he was pre­sented with a list of pos­si­ble Rolands, Elba’s name stood out. “He looks right and cool and badass,” says Ar­cel. “I wasn’t thinking about the colour of his skin. I was told, ‘Get ready for the de­bate.’ I said, ‘What de­bate?’ There were some id­iots who said, ‘Isn’t Roland white?’ But most peo­ple got it.”

Elba ad­mits that, “There was some back­lash,” but is more fo­cused on the pos­i­tive as­pects of his colour-blind cast­ing.

“It is pro­gres­sive,” he says. “I don’t think this role would have come my way five years ago for var­i­ous rea­sons. But I think the land­scape has changed.”

Elba didn’t take The Dark Tower to make a po­lit­i­cal state­ment, though. In­stead, it was the char­ac­ter that grabbed him by the six-shoot­ers. “Roland is not an emo­tional guy,” says Elba. “He’s a man of few words. He’s con­flicted. He lands on the side of good against evil, but isn’t afraid to be a lit­tle bit evil him­self.” And he cer­tainly didn’t take it be­cause he was a fan of the books. In fact, he hadn’t read them. Still hasn’t. “I def­i­nitely at­tempted them,” he laughs. “I got through the first one while we were mak­ing it. I’m con­tin­u­ing to do the rest.” He shouldn’t feel bad. The man in black hadn’t read it ei­ther.

“WHERE ARE

you, Wal­ter?

Where are you?”

Matthew Mcconaughey is look­ing for Wal­ter. Not lit­er­ally — he’s look­ing on his iphone for the name of a song he used to get into Wal­ter Padick’s twisted mind. “Here, songy, songy,” says Mcconaughey in that al­right al­right al­right drawl .“Oh, here it is!

Them Shoes, by Pa­trick Sweany. That’s got a strong Wal­ter vibe.”

The lyrics — “My mind is filled with ghosts/ They’re more than most of all my loves gone wrong” — may not im­me­di­ately bring to mind the Devil, but that’s ex­actly who Wal­ter is: the man in black, the sil­ver-tongued sorcerer schem­ing to bring down the Dark Tower, is King’s ver­sion of Satan. “It just seemed to chime with what I was feel­ing at the time,”

Mcconaughey says. “There are so many de­li­cious ways to be evil, you know?”

Although the star hadn’t “even re­ally heard of” The Dark Tower, he was tempted enough to email King, look­ing for a rea­son to com­mit to a rare full-on wrong ’un (he’s only fully bro­ken bad in 1994’s Texas Chain­saw Mas­sacre: The Next Gen­er­a­tion and 2011’s Killer Joe). “I said, ‘Give me a one-liner to give me a jump­ing-off point with Wal­ter,’” Mcconaughey re­calls. “He wrote back, ‘He’s got a smile on his face and the world by a string.’ I was like, ‘Beau­ti­ful. I’m in.’”

King, who makes clear that he had cast­ing ap­proval as part of his deal to pro­duce the movie (his first ever, in­cred­i­bly), had no hes­i­ta­tion in say­ing yes. “To me, he was al­ways Wal­ter, pretty much the way I’d imag­ined him,” he says. “He’s thin, he’s in­tense, he’s got that black hair, as black as a crow’s wing, he’s got those burn­ing eyes. When peo­ple fall back from him in fear, you un­der­stand why.”

And, in an era where most big-screen big bads can be read in some way as a com­ment on a cer­tain some­one in the White House, Wal­ter is his own mad­man. “It’s a re­lief to have a bad guy who’s not Trumpian,” laughs King, who was blocked on Twit­ter by the Pres­i­dent of the United States of Amer­ica just days af­ter our chat. “You can’t imag­ine Wal­ter tweet­ing some­thing at three o’clock in the morn­ing.”

HOL­LY­WOOD MAY

have long been in the Stephen King busi­ness, but that doesn’t al­ways mean the Stephen King busi­ness has been boom­ing. For ev­ery Shaw­shank Re­demp­tion or The Shin­ing, there are a dozen failed ef­forts such as The Man­gler and Cell. Con­stant Read­ers don’t al­ways be­come Con­stant View­ers, and Ar­cel’s film is by no means a sure thing. “This is a risky project,” ad­mits King. “It’s not backed up by a bunch of comic books. How does it feel? You want to know the truth? Scary. But I’m happy with what we’ve got.”

The am­bi­tion of the plans for The Dark Tower means that Ar­cel is al­ready at work on the TV se­ries that will mostly be based on the (stand­alone) fourth book, Wiz­ard And Glass, and which will tell the tale of young Roland

(with Elba also set to show up now and again). But he ad­mits he’s de­signed The Dark Tower to func­tion as a one-off just in case. “Peo­ple will be able to watch it and not nec­es­sar­ily feel that it con­tin­ues,” he says. “But there is a sense that at the end of the movie the saga can con­tinue.”

If there is more to come, then King and co have such sights to show you. There’s the ar­rival of the rest of Roland’s ka-tet — for­mer drug ad­dict Ed­die Dean (a role Aaron Paul has pub­licly lob­bied for), his fu­ture wife Su­san­nah, and a dog-like crea­ture called Oy — as they ac­com­pany him on his quest. There are glo­ri­ously in­sane land­scapes, killer lob­ster crea­tures, left­field ref­er­ences to Harry Pot­ter, and even the in­tro­duc­tion of young Stephen King him­self. “It’s just a ques­tion of who would play me, be­cause I’m so god­damn good-look­ing,” laughs King. “Tom Cruise is too old to play the young Steve King.” It all de­pends on how fast that darn wheel can keep on turn­ing…

THE DARK TOWER IS IN CIN­E­MAS FROM 17 AU­GUST

Roland Deschain — the gun­slinger (Idris Elba) — slings one of his mighty guns. Be­low left: Roland and Wal­ter Padick — the man in black (Matthew Mcconaughey) — face off. Bot­tom left: Roland’s ap­pren­tice Jake Cham­bers (Tom Tay­lor).

Tay­lor and Elba take di­rec­tion from di­rec­tor Niko­laj Ar­cel. Top right: Wal­ter in hot pur­suit of the fa­bled Dark Tower. Bot­tom right: Roland finds him­self in ru­ins.

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