The Father Of Charlie Manx
AMC’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 just started its second season and here’s its executive producer and book’s writer Joe Hill talking to amc…
Q: You’ve written novels, comic books, and your work has been adapted to television, including and beyond NOS4A2. How does your creative process differ media to media?
A: Well, I sort of take an agricultural point of view. Farmers believe that you shouldn’t plant the same thing in a field over and over again. If you do you’ll wear out the soil, so instead they practice crop rotation. It’s soybeans one summer, wheat the next, and something else the third summer. Then you let things go fallow, and that’s kind of my approach to writing. I’ll write comic books for a season and have fun with that, and it’ll flip some switches in my brain and remind me of the joys of pacing. Pacing something well, pacing something aggressively, and so on. Then I’ll turn around and write a novel, and carry some of that comic book energy over. Novels remind me about the pleasures of deep characterisation. So then I might jump from that to doing some screenwriting, which employs that depth of characterisation you find in a novel and the pacing that you get in a comic book. So working in one form for a while, in turn informs another.
It took me too long to get to it, but I recently watched El Camino, which was the movie building off of Breaking Bad, and it’s my favourite movie of the year. I mean, it came out last year, but right now it’s my favourite movie of the year [Laughs]. It’s so beautifully engineered, and it puts the character in one fabulously-designed suspenseful scenario after another, and that’s like my religion, you know? And so you can take that kind of cinematic storytelling, and apply it to a different form — the novel, the short story, the comic book — and get really interesting results.
Q: Has seeing your NOS4A2 characters come to life on the show changed how you feel about them at all?
A: Well, the cliché thing to say is also the true thing, which is it’s kind of mind-bending to visit a TV or film set and see the stuff that only existed in your imagination brought into the real world. There’s this idea in the story that certain people, powerful creatives have inscapes, landscapes of the imagination that they can generate in the real world, like Vic McQueen [Ashleigh Cummings]’s covered bridge. It’s the thing she pulls out of her head and flings into the real world. Visiting the set of NOS4A2, walking across that covered bridge, visiting Christmasland, it’s like stepping into my own inscape. It’s kind of trippy. It’s great. It’s a hell of an experience.
As far as seeing the actors bring the characters to life — you don’t have as much space in a novel as you might think. Space is at a premium, and you have to keep things moving, and there’s an opportunity in a TV show to explore. There’s more narrative real estate, so you can explore a character in a much broader and deeper way. And a great actor, who’s singularly focused on one character, can find nuances and psychological depths that you didn’t know were there as a writer. For example, if you look at Zachary [Quinto]‘s exploration of Charlie Manx, of his history, of his psyche, he’s discovered and revealed things about that character that are both terrifying and emotionally satisfying that go beyond anything that was in the book. I think that’s what a writer hopes will happen, and that’s the magic that you hope will appear in a good adaptation.
Q: What other things have you been excited to see fleshed out in a TV medium?
A: I love Season 1. Season 2 is more confident and explores a more aggressive kind of storytelling. It’s the difference between the first Terminator film and the second. In the second Terminator film, everything is bigger, and instead of moving at 75 miles an hour, you’re moving at 120 miles an hour. That’s how I feel about Season 2! The whole thing starts at 75 miles an hour and it’s up to 120 miles an hour by the time you get to Episode 5. The fifth episode is this beautifully engineered story about a confrontation that we see from several different angles, and in that way, it’s a little bit like the [Akira] Kurosawa film, Rashomon, and I love that the show has the confidence in itself and in the story it’s telling to do that kind of high-wire act.
Q: Maggie seems to be playing a bigger role in the show than she did in the book. What do you think led to that decision?
A: We have lightning in a bottle with Jahkara Smith. This is her first onscreen role, and she has so much wicked energy. There is a glee and a subversive quality to her performance every time she’s on screen, and she’s made that character so much bigger and so much more interesting than she was in the novel. Maggie is an adventurer who’s fascinated by the possibilities of the occult and the supernatural. She’s interested in discovering more people like her who can bend reality, and I love how much that activates the character. I love that in Season 2, we get even more of Jahkara’s wit and emotional agility.
Q: In the book, there are big leaps in time, but Season 2 will be the first reflection of that. How do you think these significant time jumps add to the story?
A: I think, again, that’s sort of about narrative courage. It’s about saying, “Now we’re going to jump to the next great part of this story. This is all killer, no filler. You know, we can skip over eight years because everything that happens there we can fill in on the fly.” I think that’s true to life as well, that sometimes there are years between your most formative and dramatic moments, thank God, because most of us couldn’t live our lives like that. We couldn’t live if every year of our life was Season 1 and Season 2 of NOS4A2.
Presumably, Vic, Lou, and Wayne got to be happy for a little while, which is great but in a TV show we can’t bother with that. It’s a TV show. No one gets to be happy for long. If they were happy, why would we watch?
Q: What are you excited for fans to experience in Season 2?
A: It would be great if Vic and Charlie could find a way to hug it out, but I just don’t think that’s in the cards for these two, and Vic understands now how the game is played. She knows, or thinks she knows, what Charlie is capable of, and she knows, or thinks she knows, what she’s capable of. Seeing both of them unleashed upon one another in the full flush of their powers makes for pretty intense viewing, and creates a different, very relentless kind of experience. I’m excited to explore a little more of the world. We know about Charlie. We know about Maggie. We know about Vic. But there are other strong creatives out there, other people who can twist reality into a pretzel, and this season we get to meet a couple of them, and that’s fun. It makes the world bigger. And, of course, I love Christmasland, and I’m pretty sure in Season 2 that we’re going to get to spend a little more time there.