Executive Producers Neal Baer and Brian K. Vaughan Talk UNDER THE DOME, Working with Stephen King, Differences from the Novel, and More
Based on Stephen King’s best-selling novel, the CBS drama series Under the Dome is about the small town of Chester’s Mill, which is suddenly and inexplicably sealed off from the rest of the world by a massive transparent dome. Produced in association with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television, the show stars Mike Vogel, Rachelle Lefevre, Dean Norris, Natalie Martinez, Britt Robertson, Alexander Koch, Colin Ford, Nicholas Strong, Jolene Purdy and Aisha Hinds.
Collider was invited, along with a number of other outlets, to preview the pilot episode and chat with executive producers Neal Baer and Brian K. Vaughan. With some cool effects, interesting twists and intriguing ideas, it’s definitely a show worth tuning into when it premieres on June 24th. During the Q&A, the two talked about what it’s like to have Stephen King and Steven Spielberg’s involvement with the show, how different the end will be from the novel, that so far each episode is the equivalent of one day, how viewers will get some answers by the end of the 13-episode first season, that there will be character deaths, and how there will continue to be some cool effects throughout the season. Check out what they had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
What’s it like to have Stephen King and Steven Spielberg’s involvement on this?
BRIAN K. VAUGHAN: Stephen King sees everything. He sees all of the shows. We’re on Episode 10 now. And he’s been really quite wonderful to us, supporting us, giving us notes and letting us take it to different places, but really embracing many of his original characters. Some are new and some are composites. It’s really been quite a fantastic collaboration with him because he adds such a wonderful sense of humor to it. When I met him for the first time, in North Carolina, he almost giggled when the cow gets cut in half. There are those Stephen King moments, and then, there are those Steven Spielberg moments, particularly in the character Joe (Colin Ford), who is the eyes and the everyday kid that we can relate to. He has that Steven Spielberg wonderment element that adds to the show. We have light and dark together, in this show, which is really fun. Steven Spielberg sees the best in humanity and Stephen King has always seen the worst. But, they’re both really aggressive humanists. They just love people so much, and throwing them in extraordinary situations and seeing what happens.
Neal, this is different from anything you’ve done in the past. What attracted you to it?
NEAL BAER: That it was different. I did a medical series for seven years, and then I did the procedural series. I just realized that SVU was picked up for its 15th year, and I did that for 11 years. And E.R. was on for 15 years. I hope that’s a trend. This show is much more like E.R. than I thought, at the beginning. Every episode has mysteries that will be resolved, just like when a patient comes in and you have to figure out whether they’re going to live or die, and it’s very character based. We’re going to get into the character stories and personal lives. It’s really refreshing. Plus, it’s a parable for our times because we all live under this dome. We’re in a drought in the Southwest right now, and we’re going to possibly run out of water under the dome. How do we deal with those things, without banging the audience on the head? We’ll just see our characters live through it and deal with it, and fight and have conflicts about it. Whether you take something away from that and think about your own lives is something we hope you do, but it’s a rich arena for exploring all these issues today, whether it’s governmental or sustainability or running out of medicines. I’m just so glad that (CBS President) Nina [Tassler] bought this.
Should viewers trust that these characters are who they seem?
BAER: The characters are complicated. The people you think are bad, may not be so bad, and the ones you think are good, may not be so good. That’s really what Stephen King has always done so well, and we’ve really embraced that, too. So, don’t believe everything you see.
How different will the end be from what it was in the novel?
BAER: In 10 years, we’ll have the answer to that. This is not a mini-series. Some people have said it’s a mini-series, but it’s not a mini-series. It’s a 13-episode series. Stephen’s book is like a week.
VAUGHAN: Yeah, it takes place over a relatively short amount of time. When we first started talking with Stephen, he said, “When I came up with this idea, I envisioned a town potentially being trapped for years, and that’s something that you guys could get to do, that I didn’t, and that might necessitate a different ending.” So, we pitched Stephen a far-out, big swing idea, for if we’re lucky enough to go several years, and he was really excited by it and so generous in saying, “I wish I thought of that. That’s killer!” He’s been so supportive. He knows that that book is his own thing. It would be boring to translate the book exactly, for the screen. He wants to see something new that hopefully still has the themes and the heart of the book in it.
BAER: The themes definitely resonate throughout our show. We’re on day 10 now, so we’ve already passed where the book goes. We think that this show can go much beyond just a week’s worth of time because we’re just beginning to explore all of the ramifications of how all the citizens of Chester’s Mill deal with it on a personal basis and on a sustainability basis.
Is each episode equivalent to one day?
BAER: So far, yeah. It seems to work for us to do that. I don’t know about in the future, but the first 10 are that way. So much happens in the first week. Can you imagine, if you were trapped under a dome? Who would you want to be with? Who would you miss most? What music would you miss, if you weren’t able to have your electronic gadgets and things like that? All of those basic elements that we take for granted in our everyday lives, are things that we can bring up for the audience.
VAUGHAN: It’s not post-apocalyptic. This is the first day after this life-altering tragedy, and we really didn’t want to leave these people, for a moment. We want to see each step, gradually, of how this society can change, as Chester’s Mill is cut off from the rest of the United States.
BAER: They still live in their homes. Their cars still run. As long as they have gasoline, they have generators. They have propane to spare.
VAUGHAN: Some elements of everyday life will continue for awhile.
How much, if at all, will you follow characters outside of the dome?
VAUGHAN: Very rarely. It’s that feeling of being trapped in there with these characters. For the most part, we’ll remain inside of Chester’s Mill.
BAER: There will be connections to the outside world, on occasion, through the season.
VAUGHAN: We didn’t necessarily want to do a lot of flashbacks to the characters’ pasts. We won’t be cutting to someone who has a boyfriend in New York, just to shake things up a bit. We really wanted to challenge ourselves and set it in this one location, and find all the different things we could do with it there.
At the end of these 13 episodes, will viewers find out why the doctor was murdered?
VAUGHAN: With this first season, you’ll get lots of answers, and some new questions will be coming up. But, that will be one thing that’s revealed this season.
If we’re not supposed to trust the characters, do some of these characters actually know what’s going on?
VAUGHAN: That’s a strange thought. That’s my answer.
In the pilot, there were two teenagers who had seizures. Is that something that only effects teenagers?
VAUGHAN: That’s another excellent question.
BAER: There are lots of mysteries, and we will answer that question.
VAUGHAN: I think we’ve done a pretty good job, not stringing everyone along. We made a conscious decision that, if we present a mystery, we will solve it for you before we start introducing new ones. That’s been going pretty well, so far.
BAER: We won’t leave mysteries hanging.
VAUGHAN: There will be some ultimate mysteries that hang for years, but we know the answers.
BAER: And we know the end.
VAUGHAN: You will learn a great deal about the dome, by the end of the season, but maybe not all of the answers. Having worked on Lost a little bit, I realized that people cared about the characters, so deeply. The mythology was an added bonus. It was about revealing characters. So, I’m not too concerned that people will tune out, if they’re not getting the biggest answers, as long as they love the people that we’re putting up on screen.
This town has some authority and law in it, but will those systems start to fail?
VAUGHAN: Sure! How many of us would continue to show up for our job, if we’re no longer getting paid for it? These questions will come up for these people. What does it matter, if you have $100,000 in your bank account? Chester’s Mill has a farming community and agricultural. There may be people who were considered a lesser part of Chester’s Mill, who are now vitally important. You’ll see a lot of those reversals happen.
BAER: Can you have a democracy in place when you’re running out of resources? Who’s going to be in charge? Who’s going to make the decisions about who gets what and how it’s going to be divided? We’ll address those questions.
Will Stephen King be more involved with the show, as it goes on, or do you have creative freedom?
VAUGHAN: He’s given us plenty of creative freedom, but we also love having him involved. He’s said, “Hey, if this comes back from a second season, can I write one?” We should be so lucky! He can write 13 of them, if he wants to. He’s been super involved, but Stephen’s first love is always writing novels. He was very grateful to write this book and feel like his baby is being taken care of.
Do you address how deep the dome goes?
VAUGHAN: In [Episode 2], we’ll answer that very same question. We promise you that that will be answered. The dome is so huge, and it is so beyond anything that these people have seen before, that it won’t just be one episode of figuring out the rules, but several. You’ll understand a lot about it, by the end of the second episode.
Will you mainly be focusing on the characters that are introduced in the pilot, or will you be adding others?
BAER: The ones [in the pilot] are major characters with the exception of, every so often, someone new will come in, for a time. They won’t actually come in. They’ll have already been there, but they will come forward.
VAUGHAN: The great thing about having a town with a couple thousand people in it is that we have our central cast, but none of them are safe. We can very easily bring in a new Chester’s Mill resident to fill in their place.
So, there will be death?
VAUGHAN: I think, on a Stephen King show, it is not a spoiler to say there will be deaths.
BAER: In our writers’ room, we have our Heaven board.
VAUGHAN: It’s nothing personal, though.
BAER: There is at least one person in Heaven, that left the dome, maybe.
The book goes to some very dark places. How dark do you envision the show being?
VAUGHAN: It’s pretty dark.
BAER: They’re in trouble. Big trouble. Human nature rears it beautiful and ugly head, in the course of the season. People do things they probably wouldn’t have done, if they weren’t under such pressure, and they do things that they may have thought they weren’t capable of, in a positive way.
VAUGHAN: This was originally developed for cable first. When it came to CBS, that was one of my concerns. I was like, “It’s a Stephen King story. It’s dark, it’s edgy, it’s adult. Can we still do that?” And Nina Tassler was so excited about that and said, “Yeah, we really do want to do something different. We’re not going to cede the summer to cable. We want to challenge that.” I think the script changed so little, in between being at cable and coming to CBS. They’re letting us do something that’s different and dark.
Is the lesbian couple with the child an open door to exploring some issues that are really relevant, right now?
BAER: Sure, yeah. We talk about it. It comes up. In Episode 3, we get into it a lot more.
VAUGHAN: Those are characters that weren’t in the book. They’re composites. But, King was really encouraging when he heard the idea of a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer and a shrink being stuck in small-town Chester’s Mill. They’ve been really fun characters. The book is set in Maine, which is pretty homogenous. We made a conscious decision to not be so specific. It’s Anytown U.S.A., so that we could get a little more diversity in the cast and the climate and what kind of town this is.
You have some great special effects in the pilot. Do you have concerns about keeping that up, now that the dome is in place, or will there be more special effects?
BAER: I don’t want to give too much away, but you could skateboard on the dome. It’s a great surface. We can do a lot of things with the dome.
VAUGHAN: Jack Bender, one of our executive producers, directed the second episode, and he had the same concern. We can’t go from 60 to 0, with a big, explosive pilot, and then it just becomes a nighttime soap with the second episode. I think you’ll see that the second episode is almost bigger than the first. It’s huge.
BAER: Let’s burn down the town! It’s in the previews. There’s a big fire.
VAUGHAN: In the pilot, you see all those firetrucks head out of town, so what happens now, when you have a fire? It’s explosive, quite literally.
Would you like to keep going with the show at 13 episodes a season?
VAUGHAN: I love it! I’m sure if the show is successful, CBS might say, “How about 22?” But right now, 13 allows us to do all killer, no filler. We really get to work on each episode. With 22, some might just get away from you. That’s the nature of the beast. So far, we’re really proud of every episode we’ve shot.
BAER: TV has changed. Once, you could do a show in 18 days, like we did on E.R. You can’t do that anymore. And that was not for the pilot. So, how do you present a really terrific, well-produced show? I think 13 episodes is really doable. I did 25 episodes of SVU, and we were shooting three shows at a time. It’s insanity! I love being able to just focus on this one episode, and not have to worry about three at once. I think it’s a great time to be experimenting and doing new things. The sky is the limit.
VAUGHAN: Especially during the summer, where you don’t have to take any breaks. We get to do 13, in a row. As an audience member, that’s what I love.
BAER: We hope you’ll watching it on Mondays at 10 pm. But if you don’t, you can binge on it through Amazon.
What made you want Niels Arden Oplev to direct the pilot?
BAER: I think because Niels had done The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that really appealed to us. He knows character, and he has a real visual sense and a way to make a world under this dome. He has this booming, deep voice, and he’s very brooding and dark, but he’s very funny. People seem to be craving the mythology with the darkness and the hope.
Under the Dome premieres on CBS on June 24th.