Dennis Lehane is still amazed that he gets to write for a living.
Dennis Lehane loves to write.
Although his IMDb page lists him as “Producer|Writer|Actor,” Lehane considers himself a writer first.
On several of his more recent projects, including AT&T Audience’s Mr. Mercedes, adapted from a Stephen King novel, Lehane is listed as “Consulting Producer.”
His definition of that role is, “I’m a writer. What consulting producer means is that it’s the writers’ producer. I’m in there guiding, along with [Executive Producers] David (E. Kelley), along with Bryan (Goluboff), we’re guiding the voice of the show. That’s our job, among other things, but that’s the consulting producer’s job, to define the voice of the show. The overarching tone of the show. That’s what we do at a textual level.
“Then the showrunners and the directors decide, and the actors have their input, but we set the tone at a textual level as to what we think the show is. And you make sure that all 10 episodes go through that filter. And that’s the consulting producer part. The writing part is the actual nuts and bolts writing and construction of the plot. “
Stephen King’s books have been adapted frequently, with varying results. How does one go about taking a novel and turning it into a television miniseries?
Lehane explains, “Well, you figure out how many episodes they want first. We got that number. And then we said, OK, how do we break this down for 10 episodes?
“David had already written by that point, so we knew where the pilot stopped. So, OK, we know where the pilot stops, so now we’ve got nine episodes to run with, how do we break those down?
“And then you start talking in macros. And then you begin to fill those macro thoughts in. So, this will be the episode where we meet Janey. This is the episode where Brady shows he’s still dangerous. This is the episode where we get who was the mother before she became this really damaged human being. So, those are your big colors.
“Then you start breaking down those And then you have a sense of maybe 10 things that happen. In each episode. Then you have meetings about bringing those 10 things into what are known as beats.
“There might be 50 beats in an episode. And then you come up with an entire board, and on that board will be 50 cards. This is what happens in the episode. And you write an episode.
“And then you usually do that for about four or five episodes, and then you let everybody go off and write. And then you come back and you break the rest up.
“I think because I’m just such a geek for what I do, it doesn’t seem that serious to me, just really, really fun. I often get a feeling when I’m in the writers’ room, when I’m just sitting around writing, I often get - to this day - this feeling that I can’t believe I get paid to do this.“
King himself is listed as executive producer on the series, but once the project was up and running, he didn’t take a hands-on approach. “Stephen left us alone. He left us completely alone,” Lehane says.
“I have a loose relationship with Stephen, we email every now and then, and he and I had a series of emails before I came onto the project. Once I came onto the project, I stopped emailing, because at that point, the writer should be left alone, and the author should leave everybody alone, which Stephen knows, and which he did.
“It’s the same thing I do when somebody’s adapting my work, I just leave them alone. Because if you respect the people enough to let them adapt your work, then they need freedom to do it.
“And I think Stephen knew that we respected his material, and, even more importantly, we understood his material. We weren’t going to toss out the things that make Mr. Mercedes great, none of which we did.”
Once that was clear, Lehane said, the writers dug in and made some decisions. “So, it was more like, where can we now range? Will it be far and wide? Where can we range deep and dark? Where can we drill down, where can we expand? There wasn’t much cutting when you have 10 episodes. So, we weren’t throwing much out. It was more the opposite, which is a dream for a writer. “
Mr. Mercedes opens with a deranged man driving a car into a group of people waiting for a job fair. Given recent events, Lehane and the writers recognized that they were treading on serious ground in adapting this story. “We knew what we were writing about,” Lehane says. “That’s what brought me into the material. It’s not a mistake that the book happens right after the 2008 financial melt-down.
“I think the polarization, all the violent stratification that’s going on in this country right now and globally, as well, is sadly a lot more universal than we want to admit, and I think there’s a lot of, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’
“It’s not the first time in history that these issues have been front and center, and that a republic like ours might seem to be teetering on the edge of disaster. And we were writing about an America that felt discarded and angry. We knew all of that was in King’s book.
“And the thing about what’s going on right now in this country is not like anybody predicted it, so much as the ugliness that has been going on in our country, one could argue that this narrative began to take hold in the early ‘80s, that there was once this very different America. And the myth of that America has become a poison.
“There are a lot of people who will convince people to vote against the very things that will help them out of it. But there’s also a ton of hope. I don’t think Americans are big fans of embracing hate. I think we’re a little too hopeful for that. But right now, we do have a true cultural and social crisis. And I think the book was addressing that this was coming. Then we got to adapt the book when it had pretty much already happened.”
These are not new literary themes. While elements of the story seem almost prescient, Lehane points out that these themes have been addressed before.
“People have been writing about demagogues, using populist anger to turn people against them since All the King’s Men or A Face in the Crowd. But we’re just seeing a particularly vivid and ugly representation of it right now.
“Some of it just stems from ugliness, the white nationalist movement just stems from ugliness. But there’s also a legitimate rage out there, at globalization, about the fact that we shifted completely from a manufacturing-based economy to a consumer-based one, and millions upon millions of people got left in the dust and feel abandoned and feel lost and feel uncared for.
“And that’s what we’re addressing. Usually Stephen King writes about Maine, except this, for a reason, takes place In the rust belt.”
Lehane also finds that fiction is a good way to address real-life issues. He says, “My favorite thing about popular fiction or genre fiction or whatever you want to call it, is that it tackles so many things, but it doesn’t do so directly. It does so obliquely. It does so through story. It does so through metaphor.
“So, you have at the base of this, you have this really great, chilling, spine-tingling cat-and-mouse battle between a retired cop and a deeply disturbed mass murderer.
“And so, you have that, and once you have that engine running, through the entire 10 episodes, you can tack all sorts of stuff to that in terms of social commentary and questions about how we ended up where we are now.
“But at the baseline of that engine is who’s going to get to who by the end? The cop or the killer?”
Even as a consulting producer, Lehane is really all about writing. He doesn’t consider platforms or networks, just the basic work of writing.
He says, “I just wanted to work with David Kelley. And work on a Stephen King adaptation and write for Brendan Gleeson. So, I didn’t care about the platform. I’m the ‘My dad’s got a barn, let’s put on a show’ kind of guy. I just like to show up and think shit up and get paid for it.
“I don’t know what it’s like on the production end, but it doesn’t affect me at all in the writers’ room. A writers’ room is a writers’ room. They take a bunch of lunatics and they put them in a room with highlighters and dry-erase boards and they let us run wild. It’s a truly beautiful thing.”