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
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…
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
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.