The job of showrunner is an amorphous one. Despite television’s many years as a powerful culture medium, the role of showrunner has never fully been formalized. As of now, it generally refers to the one writer/producer who…well, runs the whole show.
As longtime AMC writer Jami O’Brien (Hell on Wheels, Fear the Walking Dead) found out when she took over showrunning duties for the network’s new horror series, NOS4A2, there are certain aspects of the job that are hard to anticipate. Like how a having a villain who exclusively drives a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith may require you to become a gearhead on the fly.
“I’m going to go out on a limb, and say we own more Wraiths than anyone else in America at this point,” OBrien told Den of Geek. “Initially, we had one Wraith that we found in Canada, and it was black and yellow. We had to restore the paint job and completely redo the interior of the car. We got a second Wraith as kind of a backup Wraith. And then, we bought a bunch of Wraith parts that we stuck on, I think it was a Ford, to free what we call our stunt Wraith.”
It’s worth having a first Wraith, second Wraith, stunt Wraith and so on because the ancient car is a big part in setting the moody for this very moody show. NOS4A2, based on a novel of the same name by Joe Hill, tells the story of child-hungry energy vampire Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto) and the New England high schooler named Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) who possesses a unique skillset to challenge him.
At the 2019 TCA winter press tour, we caught up with O’Brien to discuss Charlie Manx, why New England is so spooky, and of course: the finer points of classic car upkeep.
DEN OF GEEK: What first drew you to this project?
JAMI O’BRIEN:You know, I’ve worked for AMC for a long time. I was at a Hell on Wheels event with our AMC executive, Emma Miller, and she asked me if I had ever read NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. I hadn’t. I had read Locke and Key, and was a big fan of those graphic novels, but hadn’t read NOS4A2, and she said check it out, and tell us what you think. So I started to read it.
It’s a pretty thick book, and I read it in a weekend, because it was such a page turner. I’s about a kid from Havel, Massachusetts which is about 15 miles from where I grew up. So, I instantly could relate to the family story. I instantly could relate to Vic, and then I just think that Charlie Manx is such a compelling, weird, interesting villain that I was just completely hooked on the book, and was like whatever you want to do with it, I’m in.
What is it about New England which makes for such fertile horror territory.
What a great question. I don’t know, I grew up there, and there are a lot of ghost stories there. I think maybe because there are so many old buildings there. There’s still a lot of woods and Salem is there. The whole area is steeped in ghost stories. Maybe that’s why. There’s still a lot of old covered bridges like the one described in the book. They’re just kind of creepy and weird. I think that they inspire people.
Have you always been a fan of genres like sci-fi, horror, that sort of thing?
You know, I’m a fan of character drama, and wherever that resides. Wherever there are good, needy, complex characters, whether that’s in a western, or in a horror, I’m in. I don’t typically read a ton of horror, but like I said when I picked up that book, my into it was definitely the characters. I’m open to anything as long as they’ve got good characters.
Cool. Let’s talk about those characters then. What did you find appealing and relatable about Vic?
Aside from where she’s from, I think that there’s a moment in the book where Vic hasn’t yet met Charlie Manx, she’s just encountering him for the first time, and she realizes that she is in mortal danger. At the same time, she sees a kid in the back of the Wraith, and without hesitating she just tries to save the kid. Does her best to save the kid, even though what she should be doing is running for her life. So, I think what attracts me to her as a character is her courage, her heart. Even though she comes from difficult circumstances, and struggles with a lot of things in her life, fundamentally she’s’ a good person. There is something just so appealing about that to me. That’s how you hope to act in a circumstance like that.
You don’t see a lot of folks on TV who come from difficult financial situations, which she does, or working class families, except for in comedy. That kind of the family story really I think is relatable to a lot of people. Especially in post-recession America. She’s also a person who is creative. She comes from parents that aren’t artists, but she Is. When we meet Vic in the show, she’s about to go into her senior year of high school, and so she’s facing the question of what do I do with the rest of my life, and I remember that feeling. I think everybody can relate to that feeling.
I think a lot of shows do kind of ignore economics of the central family of characters. On that same vein then, what was compelling to you about Charlie Manx as a villain?
One of the things that’s wonderful about him for me, or really interesting about him for me is that he believes that he’s doing the right thing. He is a soul sucking immortal who kidnaps children and then deposits them in a twisted Christmas village of his imagination called Christmasland, and he believes he’s saving them. I think that’s interesting. He loves kids. He says at one point in the book, and he says it in the series too, he says, “What kid wouldn’t give their teeth to live an eternity in Christmasland? Every day is Christmas Day, and unhappiness is against the law.” That duality, I think, is fascinating.
Also, the way in which he justifies what he does, I think, is really interesting. He’s kind of fabulous. He’s from another time. He’s over 100 years old. There’s a kind of heightened-ness to him, and language to him, that I really enjoy writing and I really enjoy reading. I really enjoy watching Zach Quinto play. He’s just a lot of fun, you know?
Yeah, definitely. What’s it like trying to find the appropriate level of darkness for the show. Just because watching the pilot, it opens up with a child abduction, it’s a relatively dark subject matter. I’m just wondering what it’s like to try and figure out that tone, how you know you’ve succeeded.
It’s interesting, because the book is by turns terrifying, really funny, really compelling, really weird, and so what we’ve been striving to do is capture all that stuff, and make it into one thing. As we’ve gone on and as I see the cuts starting to come in of the show, what I’m realizing more and more about it is it is weird and fun in a lot of ways. It’s scary in moments, but it’s more suspenseful. I think that Vic really bridges both worlds for us in a way. The kind of real world and the world of thought in the supernatural world. Anyway, it’s a balancing act and it’s tricky. But I do think that what we’re striving to do, and what I think we’ve accomplished is to corral the feel of the book, which is weird, funny, scary, disturbing, but never really overtly violent.
Most of the violence on the show is implied, or is off-screen. Manx never hits a child. There’s neve … I mean, you could argue that draining a child’s soul is a violent act, but there’s not a lot of blood. He doesn’t hit them, he doesn’t abuse them, so there’s not violence in the kind of traditional sense, you know what I mean?
Mm-hmm. I’m just laughing, because I’m imagining just what screeching halt everything would come to if Zachary Quinto just hit a child. (EDITOR’S NOTE: During this interview, I genuinely forgot that Zachary Quinto has actually struck a child on television before in NBC’s ill-fated The Slap. 2015 was a strange time).
Oh my gosh, yeah.
It would be so unnerving.
Yeah, Manx would never, would never. He says to Bing early on in the series, he says, “We never harm children.” Now their parents, now that’s another story. But we’ve never harmed children.
The Wraith is obviously a fairly big part of the story. I’m wondering on a production level, what goes into finding such a specific car, making it look the way you want it to look within the show?
I’m going to go out on a limb, and say we own more Wraiths than anyone else in America at this point. Initially, we had one Wraith that we found in Canada, and it was black and yellow. We had to restore the paint job and completely redo the interior of the car. But the great news was that it ran, and it actually was in pretty good shape. Then we started shooting, and realized that even though it’s in pretty good shape, it is 80 years old. So, it would behoove us probably to get another one if we could, and another one went up for sale in Massachusetts. We got a second Wraith as kind of a backup Wraith. And then, we bought a bunch of Wraith parts that we stuck on, I think it was a Ford, to free what we call our stunt wraith. That does the dirty work that we don’t want the antique cars to have to go through.
Yeah, I’m not a car person, but I saw that and thought, “That looks pretty rare.”
I bet that was a real pain in the ass.
Yes. It’s a pretty cool car, I have to say. It’s huge. It’s … I was surprised by how big it is, and it’s funny. I was talking to my dad about it afterwards, and he was like “it’s essentially a truck.” He was like, “In the olden days, they were on basically truck bodies.” And also they’re interesting because they’re all handmade, no two are alike. I think there are only 490 something ever made. It is a rare, cool, old car that we try to take care of.
How does it feel to be a part of, sort of, the extended King family universe?
It’s a lot of fun. I have to say it’s a lot of fun. Joe (Hill) has been involved in the show. I met him a couple of times, talked on the phone with him, I email with him a lot. He is lovely.