“Does the Tiffany Network do cows getting cut in half?” When Brian K. Vaughan learned that Under the Dome, his ambitious 13-episode adaptation of the novel by Stephen King, was up for consideration at CBS, that was his big question. Turns out that when an invisible, impenetrable, domelike force field suddenly materializes around the small town of Chester’s Mill, at least one bovine resident doesn’t make it out of the way in time. It’s a powerful, and powerfully gross, image. Would CBS viewers have beef?
We’re about to find out. Executive produced by Vaughan, King and Steven Spielberg, Under the Dome is a gauntlet thrown in the face of summertime cable counterprogramming, an attempt to show that a broadcast network can do big-event series as well as HBO or AMC. In a way, CBS is a perfect fit – think of this as Big Brother gone homicidal, as a cast of characters led by dangerous outsider Dale “Barbie” Barbara (Mike Vogel) and even more dangerous insider Big Jim Rennie (Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris) battle to control the new society that emerges when an Everytown USA is completely cut off from the outside world. It’s a theme that veteran Lost writer and graphic novelist Vaughan knows well, but, he says, not quite as well as the King himself: “Stephen’s got a pretty good track record with these things.”
What first drew you under the dome?
The first time I heard about Under the Dome, someone in the room said, “You know, you’re in Stephen King’s next book.” I was like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” They said that I get name-checked in the book: One of the characters is thinking about taking up smoking, but says he already has enough addictions, including the graphic novels of Brian K. Vaughan. To be a pop-culture reference in a Stephen King book was insane. That was the first I heard about it.
Then actually I read it, because I love Stephen King and I read everything he does. I love it – it’s such a terrific book, classic Stephen King. I heard Dreamworks had the rights to it, and I guess . . . I’m not usually interested in just straight adaptation. That doesn’t sound fun. I’d just rather stick with the source material. But Dreamworks said, “We want to use the novel as a launching pad for a potential ongoing series, and stay true to the themes and the ideas the characters from the book, but let’s do something new with it.” That’s something I’d love to be involved with.
It’s not something we would have done if Stephen King hadn’t been really supportive of it. Under the Dome was a project that when he originally started writing it, he imagined, what would it be like if these people were trapped together for months, or maybe even years? He said that at page 1,000 or so, he’d only been under there for a few days and thought, “Oh, I’d better wrap this thing up.” So he really encouraged us to go to some new, unexplored places that he didn’t get to go to in the book.
Given your experience with putting ordinary people in extraordinary sci-fi circumstances – on Lost, in your comics like Y: The Last Man – the whole thing seems right in your wheelhouse.
Definitely. There’s this Venn diagram with Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. They’re very different guys – Spielberg tends to see the best in humanity and King has a gift for seeing the worst – but they are both aggressive humanists. They love their characters, and they love putting them in crazy situations, and that’s definitely the kind of stories that I love as well. I love genre, but it’s always genre in service of those characters.
Judging from the pilot, some of those characters are going to be doing some pretty unpleasant things right from the jump. Was that part of the appeal of the show for you?
You mean that you’re gonna be stuck in this place with some pretty terrible people?
Yeah, and that you kind of have to pull for them to keep it together, while if the dome had never appeared you’d be rooting for them to go to prison.
That is true. And it’s definitely something that we’ve changed from the book. If you read the novel, Barbie is much more a white hat from page one, and it’s pretty clear that Big Jim is the villain of the piece. We wanted to start them at a very different place. When you meet Barbie, it feels like he’s going to be the antagonist of the show, and Big Jim seems like a pretty great guy. There will be a lot of those reversals happening. I love that kind of TV – that you’re not always sure who you’re rooting for. As long as characters are interesting, they don’t necessarily have to be likable. That’s definitely part of the appeal.
That’s a cool thing about Big Jim as a character. Even though he’s gonna do a lot of horrific things over the course of this series, like all villains, he does not think of himself as one. He loves this town, he loves these people, and there might come a time that his iron fist is exactly what you need to keep these people alive under the dome. Interesting times.
Casting Dean Norris from Breaking Bad as Big Jim is pretty shrewd bait-and-switch. People will think of Hank Schrader and go, “OK, this guy‘s a little bit of a bulldog, but he‘s probably all right, right?“ It turns out a little bit differently.
Definitely. It’s been fun, because I think of Big Jim in a lot of ways as just the polar opposite of Hank. It’s cool that this will be starting just before Breaking Bad returns. You can see Dean be a good guy on Sunday night, and then a terrible guy on Mondays.
Let’s talk about the cow. At what point did you know, “We‘re doing the cow?“
That was one of the first things I brought when I was pitching to get this gig. My first tentative change from the novel was to the woodchuck who gets cut in half in the book. I thought, “I’m not sure that will read very well onscreen, but how about a cow?” There have been a lot of changes to the script over the months we’ve worked on it, but the cow has always been there. They’re still noodling with the effects now, but it looks pretty fucking great, I think. I wasn’t sure: are we going to be able to get this surreal, Damien Hirst image of half a cow onto network TV? But Standards and Practices has given us the thumbs up. I expect lots of angry letters from PETA, but no actual cows were harmed, needless to say.
I guess erecting an actual force field and bisecting an actual live cow would have gone over budget.
Some people will think that we did just that. We did not eat barbecue on set that day. That is not what happened. It was actually a really terrible kind of prop cow initially, a stuffed cow, and I remember seeing it get cut in half and thinking, “We are in trouble. This does not look too hot.” It was just a placeholder for what’s there now. But I was also on set for the day that that truck pancakes against the dome, and that’s an actual truck that they rammed into a post that they then took out later in the process. It was unbelievable. This is not your typical summer TV show. We’re crashing actual trucks and cutting cows in half. The scope is way bigger than I imagined we’d be able to get away with.
You know what was even more disturbing? The little detail of how people on one side of the dome can’t hear people talking, or trucks crashing, a foot away from them on the other side.
Thanks. That’s something we were proud of. That’s another change from the book. You could hear people in the novel; the dome didn’t stop sound. But I knew that it was going to be really expensive every time we have to go out to the dome. What are some cheap, clever ways that we would be able to suggest separation even when there is none? When we started dropping out the sound, it really came to life for us. It’s so isolating and strange to see someone’s lips moving, and they’re inches away from you, and you hear nothing. Yeah, a fun trick.
Another big genre-lit adaptation, Game of Thrones, has to deal with a vociferous backlash from book readers every time they make a change. Are you worried about that?
Nope. I’m concerned about one audience member: Stephen King. If Uncle Steve is happy, I am happy. From the very beginning, he said to me, to quote Elvis, “It’s your baby – you rock it now.” He’s given us a lot of rope, and a lot of support to do something different that is still true to the book. Sometimes when you try and cram in every aspect of the book, you miss the forest for the trees. Hopefully by changing it, this medium will get closer to the truth, as Stephen King intended.
I guess I hope we’ll fall in the Walking Dead camp. I’m a fan of the comic and a fan of the show, and I like that they’re not the same. I like that, similarly, you won’t just be able to go on Wikipedia and find out what our last episode is going to be, because we’re doing something different. I’m sure there will be purists, but they will complain . . . and they will watch every week. I hope they will. That’s fine by me.
So if quoting chapter and verse from the book would be the trees, what’s the forest, then? What do you want people to take away when they leave the dome?
I never just want to do message television, where “Here Is the Moral of Our Story.” It’s questions that fascinate me. This is obviously a metaphor for the human condition. We are all trapped under a dome, which is our fragile atmosphere. We’re trapped in here with limited resources. There’s only so much to go around, and not enough for all of us. How do you handle that? What kind of person do you become? What is the nature of society? I have no idea the answer to any of those questions, so that’s why we’re doing this TV show, to try and figure it out. It’s this little terrarium, a human experiment. It is kind of analogous to how it feels to be in the writer’s room sometimes – we are all trapped in here and we don’t get to leave until we figure out this next goddamn episode.