Over his more than 40-year career, Stephen King has frightened a countless number of readers with his tales of the supernatural, whether those stories focus on telekinetic teens, cars coming to life, or beings from other realms, but he isn't limited to just the horror genre, as evidenced in his trilogy of Bill Hodges books. Throughout the series, the detective uncovered a variety of mysteries, largely focusing on the notorious killer "Mr. Mercedes." When it came time for these dark and twisted detective stories to be brought to life for AT&T Audience Network's Mr. Mercedes, the series recruited frequent King collaborator Jack Bender to direct.
Having previously worked on Under the Dome, along with critically acclaimed series like Lost and Alias, Bender brought keen insight into what makes King stories work in live-action, as well as (and arguably just as important) what doesn't work about his stories in live-action. Despite initially failing to find a major audience, all three seasons of Mr. Mercedes are now available to stream on Peacock, earning it a renewed interest among King and non-King fans alike.
ComicBook.com caught up with Bender to talk about his work on the series, when he knew the key to the series' success, and if renewed interest could mean more projects set in this world. All three seasons of Mr. Mercedes are now streaming on Peacock, with the first two available to stream for free.
Header photo courtesy of Rich Polk/Getty Images/Peacock
ComicBook.com: You've worked on a number of Stephen King adaptations over the years and been a go-to creative for King projects, what was your first exposure to a King story and what about him makes his stories so compelling?
Jack Bender: I have to confess that I'm not one of those people who read a ton as a kid. I'm sure I had ADD but no one knew what that was, so watching TV and watching movies and drawing and painting and all that stuff was much more my world, and then reading books. But I remember in college reading The Stand and flipping out for that and even thought about doing a theatrical [adaptation], because I was a theater major at USC and I thought of doing a theatricalized version of it on stage. Which, of course, would have been insane and huge and all of the above. And it was before anyone was taking David Copperfield and making it a huge, three-day theatrical event. Or I guess they did Steinbeck. What did they do? Of Mice and Men was already playing. The point being, I fell in love. I consequently was not a fast reader, but I started to read more Stephen stuff.
And then when I loved it, I don't know how Stephen feels these days about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, but I loved it. And then when we first did Lost, Stephen King was [one of the] first great fans, and he and I encountered each other during those years. And then when I joined the first two seasons of Under the Dome, he and I actually started getting closer and talking more. Then when I left Under the Dome, we talked about what could we do together? What projects? And one day in the mail, the galleys for Mr. Mercedes showed up, just out of the blue. And I went, "Oh, my God, I've got this new Stephen King book. Does anyone see me in the neighborhood? Am I going to get attacked?"
I felt like I should be the spy with the handcuffs and briefcase or something, but I brought it in, I read it right away. I loved it. Stephen was writing in the detective genre, which I hadn't seen. I loved the characters. And we talked about doing it as a movie or as a series, but what I've learned, Stephen's short stories or novellas are one thing, but most of his novels are 500-600 pages. Filled with really brilliant characters. I'm somebody who loves telling stories more about the monster inside of the people than the monster outside of the people, you know? And even though, God knows, I adore all those other films that explore the other realm and I love that stuff and feel there's a very thin line between us and all those other worlds. So I'm just neurotic enough to believe all that and, crazy enough, I felt that Mr. Mercedes would make a great series if I got lucky enough to get brilliant actors, which I did.
That's how I started with Stephen, and we continue to be friends. I adapted his most recent novella, which we're going to be making into a film called Elevation, which I wrote myself and we're really enthusiastic about that. And then there's The Institute, which we're getting going. I continue to be very honored to have a creative relationship with Stephen and a friendship.prevnext
Most people might think of the more supernatural stories King writes, whether those be The Stand or IT or The Shining, but he's also done things like The Body or Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Coming from your previous adaptations to this detective story, what ended up being surprisingly easy to translate into a series and what proved to be a difficult component to bring to life?
Well, I had the brilliant idea to take it to David Kelley, with whom I'd worked with and done some shows. And I always said, "David, when you go dark, there's no one as great as you because you also get that quirky comedy." Even Ally McBeal had some weird sh-t in it and nobody does that better than Dave. And yet, he deals with character. So I thankfully convinced him to do Mr. Mercedes with me and he did a brilliant job writing the pilot and then putting the writers together to do the rest of the season. But we had the architecture of the book, even though we changed certain things and David added the neighbor played by Holland Taylor, Ida, who everybody adored. And Stephen did, too. In fact, Stephen was, he loved Mr. Mercedes so much that he would write to me, he said, "Boy, when I see the stuff you guys are at, have at it, I wish I had done that in the book." He loved it.
And I think the second season was the trickiest. We postponed Finders Keepers 'til Season 3, which in many ways is our best season, which is now on Peacock. It's great. But the thing that was tricky about Season 2, where we went back to End of Watch, is that we had our brilliant Harry Treadaway who played Brady brilliantly, one of our other brilliant, and I say that with a capital "B," [who deserved] to have gotten a lot more recognition than they ever did, because not enough people saw our show on DIRECTV, which was the frustration. And now they are on Peacock, which is just glorious.
We had the brilliant Harry Treadaway as Brady in a hospital bed, almost flatline braindead after Lou shot him. The wonderful, exciting finish and the blood rushed to her head, as it were, the Season 1 finale. So what do we do with him? He's got to be a big part of the show and in the book, it got a little bit more into what I call "Stephen King Land," in that he was talking telepathically, communicating through electronic equipment and this and that, and Brendan Gleeson, who's, of course, another genius, I was lucky enough to have on the show. Brendan always dealt with Hodges from the human sphere. That was from the human sphere, in terms of, is this believable to me as Hodges?prevnext
We had a couple of really fascinating discussions where I said, "Look, you are our everyman, you look at the fact that this is starting to happen, that Brady apparently is starting to be the puppet master of these evil things that are still happening around you. It's preposterous. And you've got to play that. You've got to say that." And it was written into the scripts that it's absolutely impossible. "Look at his brain scans and yet it's happening." So that was a little bit more of a tightrope that the writers had to walk. And I will give them credit to say that I think it was the writers who came up with the idea that, in order to see Brady, because I didn't want them just floating around other scenes, it would have been bad. We had to find a way to give him his own space and activate him and they said, "Let's make his brain, his basement, where he used to go to hide from his mother and do his evil doings."
I thought that was brilliant because it would be like his playground. And then I said, "Let's make it the Brady Hartsfield Museum and bring in the crashed car, bring in the ice cream suit, bring in the grave of his younger brother who he pushed downstairs in Season 1." I said, "Let's surround him with all this stuff that we can use." And then Harry Treadaway and I just, and the writers, came up with just some great stuff that he could do there. So that was a challenge.
When we got to Season 3, it's always a challenge to make something good and keeps the bar up. It's hard to do anything, but when you're really proud of what you've been doing, that's why in television, great shows sometimes fall into what's called, the "sophomore slump," right? Second season, maybe not as good, or the first episode after the pilot, if the pilot is killer. Second one, maybe not so good. But then that was true of Lost. The first episode after [J.J. Abrams'] brilliant pilot when I came onto the show to run it in Hawaii and be the main director and exec producer there, J.J.'s pilot was brilliant. And I thought, "How do we keep that up every week?" And then when the second episode, the third episode filmed, which was "Walkabout," that's where we found the show, that's where Damon [Lindelof] and the writers and I, all of us landed on that. And Terry O'Quinn was brilliant, but that second episode of the show, the third counting the pilot, "Walkabout," was really what defined that series. And so that's just to say that the second season of Mr. Mercedes was challenging, but we got through it brilliantly with our wonderful team.prevnext
You say it was "Walkabout," that episode of Lost, that you felt like you really captured the spirit of the series. With Mr. Mercedes, do you recall what episode it was that felt like you had cracked the code of the series?
Well, that's a really good question and that's kind of like asking me what's my favorite Beatles song. That's tough. Or my favorite movie, it's impossible. I'll tell you one thing, though, that when we were doing the pilot, the great thing about DIRECTV is, even though no one saw our show when it was on, they let me make the show we all wanted to make. And whenever they had notes, they were smart notes, and I could either say, "Yeah, I'll do it" or "No, I won't," and they were cool. So I really had the support to do the show I wanted to do, which is not always the case.
I would say when we were doing the pilot, because I always saw this as wanting to take time for character, I really want it not to be a network episodic pace. And I think that all the streamers now, the storytelling allows for that, which is why everyone says they're more like movies, because you can sit with character. In that first pilot, the only pilot, when we were at the beginning, when Hodges wakes up from the phone call from Pete, and he's got the empty beer cans around him and he's a train wreck, he looks like hell, gets out of his La-Z-Boy and walks his bad hip toward the toilet and bangs into a table with a puzzle that he'll never finish. And then goes into the open door, the toilet, and stands there and starts to take his morning leak.
When I was editing the show, I thought to myself, having done a lot of television and a lot of great television, maybe some that wasn't so great, but pace is ingrained in you and you go, "All right, as soon as he leans forward and gets his ass out of the La-Z-Boy, cut to him standing at the toilet." Which would have been a perfectly good cut and nobody would have said the show isn't as good as it is. But I said, "No, in introducing this character, I want the audience to walk with him to the bathroom, because I want to establish what a train wreck he is." And that became a lot of what defined the show. And, in fact, some critics said it's a slow burn, but it's worth it. Which I think it was their way of saying, it's not the fastest-paced thing. That for me was the defining moment, which happened in editing, saying, "No, I want to stick with this, I don't want to do what I would normally do."prevnext
The series might not have had a major following when it was airing on DIRECTV, largely because people didn't know how to watch it, but since the series has debuted on Peacock, have you seen a revived interest in the series? Has it sparked talks of a Season 4 or a spinoff?
Well, I will tell you that there's definitely renewed interest in the show as more people see it, because people really dig it, and Stephen King and I've talked about that. Stephen King says he goes to sleep at night thinking of stories for Holly, which is why he put Holly in The Outsider. And so that falls in the category of stuff I'm doing, all of the actors have stuff they're doing, you never say never. But I definitely will say that I think there is renewed interest in the show now that people are seeing it. And there is potential life creatively in that, but I don't know that that's going to happen.prevnext
"Wake Me Up When the Actors Come Back."
In addition to all your work with Stephen King adaptations, you've been part of some of the biggest franchises, Lost, Alias, Game of Thrones, The Sopranos; is there a franchise you've spent time in that you'd like to return to? A series where, if you were called up and had the opportunity to tell more stories in, you'd like to develop them?
Well, it's interesting because even when I was doing TV movies and there were so many different kinds of TV movies, you go from a thriller, a contemporary thriller to a Western, and that's not high on my credits. So the Gambler Five with the young Mariska Hargitay who hadn't done SVU yet, but I will say that Westerns are a blast, they're really fun to do.
I do think that the one thing I know for sure is I'm really good at working with actors. And I love working with actors and great DPs because I'm very visual and I love the collaboration when all that happens. I will say that if I was asked to do the next big Marvel movie, which I won't be, I don't know that I would be the best guy for that, because the technical aspect of all of that minutiae. If I get a new car, it takes me three years of leasing it to even look through the manual. I've never been a guy who has a great stereo system or all that, and I know people who do.
J.J. Abrams once told me he loves reading instruction booklets for computers and stuff. It would be like trying to read Chinese for me. So I will say, give me actors, give me all that stuff, I have a big imagination, which is why I've done a good job on all these different kinds of genres. And certainly, Elevation is a very unique story. But I will say that some of the minutiae of VFX and all that stuff, thank God I have good DPs working for me. Because when I was in film school, when they said "F-stop" back then, I said, "Okay, wake me up when the actors come back." It's just not what I feel I'm really good at.
I'm talking myself out of the new Spider-Man, which I'm not going to get offered that movie, I wouldn't be the guy to do that.
Well how about I reach out to Stephen King, get him to write a Western set in the Marvel universe, and you'll be good to go.
You know what? Yeah, you make it relatable in those ways and we'll talk about it. Or you write it.
I don't know what I'm doing on the phone with you. I should be writing this.
Yeah, why are you wasting your time with me? After you write your glowing reviews of Mr. Mercedes and help us get more people to see it, even though I think it's doing really well for Peacock, then you can start writing your Stephen King Marvel movie.
The Institute and Elevation, they can take a back seat to this. Just keep your schedule clear.
Yeah, I will. You write it, I'll read it.
All three seasons of Mr. Mercedes are now streaming on Peacock. Seasons 1 and 2 of Mr. Mercedes are streaming on Peacock for free.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.prev