Stephen King is universal. He may not be for everyone, but in modern horror literature, King is as close as you get. He certainly made an impression on Christian Torpe, the creator and showrunner for Spike’s upcoming series adaptation of The Mist.
Born in Denmark, Torpe is best known for the Danish TV series Rita (2012), which conjured International and European producer of the year nominations at the Monte Carlo Television Festival. His screenplay for Bille August won the Danish Oscar.
Torpe first got fogged up by Stephen King works when he a school library nerd, precociously scaring the shit out of himself with books that should have been out of his reading level. The creator and showrunner of Syfy’s upcoming series adaptation of The Mist spoke exclusively with Den of Geek about getting the chance to scare the shit out of us.
Den of Geek: Hello Christian, I saw the pilot and reread the book. It’s a quick read, not like Duma Key, which goes something like 6,000 pages before it gets to the horror.
Christian Torpe: It’s a quick read, but it’s a good one. It’s so condensed that it’s a perfect story.
What first got you interested in The Mist?
I was approached by the Weinstein Company and they asked me if I had any interest in doing a Stephen King story, and I said of course. I love him. I’ve been a fan of him since I was ten, which is way too young to be a Stephen King fan, but I was. I asked which book it was, and they said The Mist. Like you, I hadn’t read it in a long time, but I went back and reread it, and I just found that it was, unfortunately, incredibly challenging to tell a story about what people do when they are blinded by fear. So I thought about it for a day or two. But I didn’t have to do much thinking because I love Stephen King so much [laughs]. So I ended up saying yes, let’s do this let’s give it a shot.
What was that first Stephen King book you read?
I think it was Carrie. I worked at the local school library. I was sort of the nerdy guy who was putting books up after school hours that people had borrowed. I remember thinking “I’m way too young to read this book,” but I brought it home anyway, and it just scared the shit out of me.
That was the first one I read too, and I was probably about the same age.
Yeah, we were way too young to read it. We’re damaged people, let’s face it.
But you got to work with him. What was that like?
He hasn’t been involved on a day-to-day basis. I’m pretty sure he’s only credited as “story by.”
You had to expand the universe in The Mist outwardly from the minor characters in the book. But you also had to create characters, like the police chief, what went into the picking and choosing of which one you wanted to follow?
For the purpose of the show I wanted to say that it’s not just religion but radicalization in every way: In ideology, in race, in misogyny. So I chose my characters based on the story lines that represent these themes. How the characters are able to address the themes that we wanted to address in the show. We came up with characters that work into the story in an interesting way. Sort of like doing a jigsaw puzzle in 3D. We needed to come up with different psychologies and mind-sets that could contradict each other in interesting ways. The cop was one of them. We had Frances Conroy’s character, which was clearly inspired by the character from the novella, yet wasn’t exactly the same. She did a lot of it in a different way. You feel your way around the material and find the characters that you need to tell the story you want to tell.
Tell me about your team. There’s a different director for each episode. Do you choose them, or are they assigned?
We choose them. Especially the big one, getting the pilot director on board to nail the show’s individual style. We worked with Adam Bernstein, who’s just a brilliant director, very versatile. He did the Fargo pilot, and the 30 Rock pilot. He started Breaking Bad, and a lot of other stuff. He was the perfect choice for this. Following that, we picked directors for each individual episode. You go in and you look at script and say “okay, this is an action script” or “this is a very character driven story.” Then you go out and you find a director that feels perfect for that episode.
The book offers no answers as to what the mist was all about, only rumors. I’ve only seen the pilot, but how do reach a conclusion? I won’t ask what the conclusion is, but how do you connect those dots?
Well, in the writers’ room we definitely sat down and created our version of the mythology, what it is and why it works the way it does. We have, in the room, an answer for everything we put up on the screen. The question is always how much of that answer do you want to reveal to the audience. To me, and especially here in season one, the questions the characters will be asking are more important, and more interesting, than the answers. Season 1 is about the search for answers and less about the answer itself. Maybe in later seasons we will dive further into what the mist is and where it came from.
So, if there’s a season 2, you’ll be on your own? The book ends with what gets written down in a diner.
We’ll be out of the original King storyline, but the DNA of the show and the heart of the show is still there. We will dive further into, the book mentions a few things, like the Arrowhead project and the Black Spring. There are different sorts of theories thrown out in the book that the book never dives into but maybe there’s a way for us to go further into those areas.
I’m glad you brought up the Arrowhead project because, in the book, it kind of begins and ends with the two soldiers who hang themselves. What kind research did you do to flesh out what the possibilities of what Arrowhead might have been?
We’ve done a lot of research, and this is one of the benefits of a big writers’ room. We had seven or eight writers working non-stop for six months. Not only in bringing the story, but in reading books and talking to people and seeing what interesting theories we could come up with and how to justify them scientifically, which is a fun part of the job also.
The trailers make it look like there is a psychological aspect to what’s in the mist. The pilot hints at how that will play out when the cop bugs out in his specific fear. Are you moving along those lines?
Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t want to reveal too much of that. I will say that, when I went out and pitched this thing as “Ingmar Bergman’s Jaws,” a joke of course, but there’s some truth to it. The underlying notion is this is a show that’s more interested in how people react to the shark than the shark itself.
When you fill in the backstories to these characters, and how you populate it, is there a Stephen King sensibility that you’re adhering to?
We are definitely being very mindful of the whole Stephen King world and try to come up with characters and storylines that felt like they belonged in a Stephen King universe. We worked in a writers room where everyone was a fan of his work, and know his work. So there are definitely moments in there where characters or storylines that reference or communicate with other Stephen King works.
Details like the gay kid whose father doesn’t see him when he’s wearing makeup or the mother whose daughter is getting called a whore feel like they have a certain Peyton Place small-town soap opera element to them. Does that come from seeing America from the outside? Is that how all Danish people see us?
I don’t know if it’s a specific outsider point of view or if it’s an American view. I think it’s a pretty universal thing that fear and anger are always connected to sexuality in a way. We talked about Carrie before and it’s one big fat metaphor for puberty. There’s always a psycho-sexual connection between sexuality, whether it’s aggressive or denied, that works well in the horror genre. I definitely wanted to tap into that.
Did you watch or avoid the 2007 movie?
I definitely watched it. I didn’t want to avoid it. I wanted to see what Frank Darabont did. And I had watched it before taking up this project. I think it’s a great movie. I think its controversial and pretty diligent. The great thing, for me, about that movie is that I know that there is one very faithful adaptation of the ending out there. In a way, that freed me to go in a slightly different direction when I needed to. Because I knew there was one really strong adaptation of The Mist out there for people who are looking for a completely faithful adaptation of the novella.
So, what’s it like when it happens to you? Your show Rita was remade in the Netherlands as Tessa and in France as Sam. How does it feel to see it reinterpreted by other artists?
It’s a Twin Peaks experience. It’s super-weird. It really is. It’s just strange. To see another actor play a character I know so well is both fascinating and upsetting at the same time. I very much, when people ask about adapting my work, take the approach that they can do what they want. I, of course, appreciate it if I see that they are faithful to the original work but I have faith that they will do with the material what is best for the show. But it’s definitely like cutting the umbilical cord. It’s a tricky thing. It’s difficult.
What are the main differences between working for Danish TV and American TV?
Ha, you do like more meetings over here. More very, very long meetings, up to three hours. Whereas in Denmark it would probably be like five minutes. I have yet to figure out what’s being talked about in all those meetings. I just know there’s a lot of them.
What sorts of direction do you give, because this is a psychological thriller, to actors?
When we cast an actor, or when we choose an actor, we have very thorough talks about the characters. I didn’t direct any of the episodes myself, but I was on set, more or less, the entire time as the executive producer. So I would constantly have to have talks with the actors about the characters and how I see them and what the overall arc of the show is. We review the scripts and talk about the story and why I chose what I had. It’s a constant ongoing conversation.
I was very impressed by the opening scene. With just a few words, we know the soldier has no memory, that there’s something spooky going on and it might be military related, all these things. Tell me about the power of the visual, and the shortcuts that the horror genre gives you to fill in a story with eight words: Are you my dog? Please be my dog.
I struggled with that scene a long time, because when you have a character who is on his own and has no memory, how do you tell the audience who he is? He can’t walk around and talk to himself saying “gee I wish I knew who I was.” So I came up with the dog, and sort of told through his relationship with that dog, what his backstory was. Which was a fun way of writing that scene.
When King writes a book, you might not know it’s a horror story right away, but for TV, you have to put it all together immediately. Why doesn’t TV allow for a longer spread before you actually get to what’s deep?
I think some TV does. We certainly open on this, with the soldier up in the mountains, but I think TV, ten years ago, it would have had the mist arrive at the first act break, about 14 minutes into the show. In the pilot the mist doesn’t really arrive until about 40 minutes in. So I do think the boundaries are being pushed for doing the character groundwork. Of course, it helps that we are on cable.
I do think there are shows that push the envelope on how you can tell stories. I guess there is still a certain genre expectation when you work in horror that the audience expects some sort of big splashy horror moment. It’s always a constant evaluation of how much you want to give the audience what they expect and how much you want to play with their expectations.
Which is more fun, playing with the expectations or giving them that thrill to wake them up?
I love playing against expectations. It’s just a personal taste, playing against it.
Is there more freedom on Danish TV than here to do that?
I think so, but I think I’ve been given a lot of freedom on this project. But, in general, there is more freedom on Danish TV, if for no other reason than there is less money involved, so there’s less at stake. The TV and movie industry in Denmark is, to a large extent, a government subsidiary, so the amount of private investments in a TV show or movie is a lot smaller and the risk is a lot smaller. And with smaller risk you are allowed to do more controversial stuff.
Why did you swap the book’s main location of the supermarket for a mall?
The mall had more space for a mini-society. I knew I needed a big room to play up against the notion of something so common and so contemporary as a mall, all the useless bullshit that we walk in and buy. That looks sort of like society coming down on all sides and there you still have a clothing store, and there’s a dumpster, and there’s no use for it any more. I think it’s an interesting backdrop.
In the book the main character is an artist, and here Kevin Copeland is a children’s book author who was a journalist. Did you choose journalism because King is a writer or because a journalist can get to the bottom of things?
I think King has a long tradition of having protagonists that are writers, from Misery and Dark Half and the other books. And I wanted to dive into that territory. I think it’s interesting territory. There’s always the underlying notion that writers exercise a certain darkness in their writing that they may not live out in their real life. Perhaps that is something Kevin gets to do as the show progresses.
Is there any particular character that you identify with?
I like to think there’s a bit of me in all of them. I don’t know. I love writing characters like Mia, that get to say all the things I am afraid to say in real life. I always have fun writing characters like that.
Tell me a little about how you interpreted the religious fervor, as opposed to the psychological terror of the mist.
We definitely wanted to keep that element from the book in the movie. I didn’t want it to be just about religious fundamentalists. I wanted it to also have political fundamentalism and other sorts of radicalization that I find equally dangerous. I thought the movie and the book played out so brilliantly the Christian-conservative woman that I decided to go in a slightly different direction, that I won’t reveal completely. But let’s just say there is going to be a religious medal that I can’t tell you much more about.
The Mist premieres on Spike on Thursday, June 22 at 10 p.m.