In The Mix

Blessings and Sins

With the assent of Stephen King, two writers set their Hulu series in the sphere of the fearmeister.

Bob Makela
  • Sam Shaw, Dustin Thomason

    Andrew Rog, Dan Macmedian/Hulu

For a writer, the idea of creating a new narrative set in Stephen King's fictional small town of Castle Rock — involving the iconic Shawshank State Prison and many of King's characters — sounds formidable, if not foolhardy.

That's what Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason thought when they were tossing around ideas for a King-inspired project set in a small town.

At the time, the guys — who met studying fiction writing at Harvard — were both working on Shaw's series about the Manhattan Project, Manhattan, which ran for two seasons on WGN America, wrapping in 2015.

"We were so awed by the looming nature of Shawshank in our imagination, as viewers of [The Shawshank Redemption] and readers of the book it's based on," Thomason says. "It hadn't occurred to us that we might be able to set part of our story there."

Cut to a fortuitous post-Manhattan meeting with an agent, who said that, following 11.22.63, Stephen King and J. J. Abrams were looking for another collaboration. "So if you ever have any ideas…." the agent said on their way out. "We were halfway down the hall," Shaw recalls, "when we turned around, went back in and said, 'Actually, we do have this idea.…'"

That led to a 10-episode order from Hulu for Castle Rock, which comes with King's blessings and what Thomason calls "the magic special sauce" of J. J. Abrams.

While the one-hour drama is set in King's fictional Maine town, most of the principal characters are new.

"They're all written in the key of Stephen King," says Shaw, who wrote for, among others, Harper's and public radio's This American Life before he started writing for TV. A novelist, Thomason cowrote the best-selling The Rule of Fours. "As fiction writers," he says, "we felt there was an opportunity in a Stephen King TV show to go deep on character and some of the things we loved most about King."

Besides tackling issues like prison privatization and life in a one-industry small town, the show features dozens of characters from various King stories, both famous and obscure.

One of the iconic figures is Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), the retired sheriff of Castle Rock. He hasn't been seen in a King story since Needful Things, more than 25 years ago. "Our idea," Shaw says, "is that it would be really exciting for audiences — and fun for us — to imagine a new story that sets the synapses firing in all the familiar ways Stephen King novels do."

So far, they haven't met King, who was on the road when they were scouting locations in Maine. "It's been a little bit like Charlie's Angels," Shaw says. "We write in the shadow of Stephen King, with humility and the spirit of fandom."

"The word 'surreal' is overused a lot," Thomason says, "but I feel like this is one instance where it often has been [surreal]."

"Even when you get Stephen King's blessing," Shaw says, "it's still pretty daunting — and pretty cool — to open Final Draft and write: 'INT. SHAWSHANK PRISON — NIGHT' at the top of your page."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2018