THE SHORTER WAY
|Hey, there! I’m Joe Hill, author of the novel NOS4A2. I’ll be your chatty chauffeur for this weekly tour of the highlights from season one of AMC’s adaptation of the book. Thanks for taking the ride with me. We’ll try and have some fun, huh?
I began writing the book on the morning of July 4th, almost exactly ten years ago. Holy crud … it’s been almost a decade! Where did the time go? I remember sitting at my desk, writing with the peppery-sweet odor of firecrackers drifting in through the open window. Some kids (very possibly my kids) were lighting off strings of them down the road—ratta-tat-whap—and laughing their heads off. The sky was the color of mustard, hazed with heat, and the whole afternoon felt pressurized and heavy. I could feel the weight of the day as a queer tickle against my eardrums.
I ground out maybe a half dozen pages: a little thing about an eight-year-old girl with a cool bicycle and combative parents. They’re fighting about a lost bracelet, and the girl, Vic McQueen, aka “The Brat,” daydreams about finding it to shut them both up. She slips out for a ride on her bike and in the woods she discovers a dilapidated covered bridge, filled with shadows and bats. The Brat dares herself to ride across it and when she comes out on the other side, she finds herself thirty miles away at Terry’s Primo Subs, where it turns out her mother accidentally left her bracelet only the day before. The bridge in the woods doesn’t simply span a river. Instead, it crosses the distance between lost and found. In the pages to come, Vic would cross it again and again—doing a little more damage to her psyche each time—to find the things she most desperately needs. One day she crosses it looking for trouble and is not disappointed. (That’s the one thing any of us can go looking for and always find, don’t you think?)
Vic can cross a hundred miles in an instant. Her trip from the page to your TV set took a while longer. The novel was published in 2013 and at some point, AMC began to fool around with it as a possible TV series. Late in 2017, I began to hear a crackle of excitement—not unlike the echo of kids shouting over firecrackers—from AMC’s corner. Soon enough they sent me Jami O’Brien’s script for the first episode. In one of the earliest scenes, we encounter a teenage Vic in a sunny, palatial bedroom, leafing through brochures for Brown and Yale. Then another girl, an old friend, wanders in, and Vic hastily sets the pile of brochures aside … which is when we realize this isn’t Vic’s bedroom after all. She’s cleaning the place, working part-time as a maid. This room is everything she doesn’t have.
It was just a single paragraph in Jami’s script, but it’s such a deft bit of characterization that it kind of rocked me back on my heels. From that moment, I felt strongly the show was in good hands— the right hands.
And now here it is! I have a lot of favorite moments (including the one I just mentioned), but there are two others that stood out for me.
The first: that opening, dude. Little Daniel Moore wakes from a light, uneasy sleep and goes looking for a cuddle with mom. But someone is already cuddling the lady: Mom has her fella over and understandably asks Danny to go back to his own bed. Danny says, in a dismayed whisper, that he feels like the loneliest boy in the whole world. It seems to me some of the most haunting themes of the story are right there—the ache of not being able to connect with a parent, the uncanny power of childhood longing. And then there’s that shout-out to Poltergeist, the disturbing image of a kid sitting in front of a blizzard of electronic snow, the TV tuned to nothing at all. And then—and then—eerily lilting Christmas music lures Danny outside where he sees a beautiful old car filled with brightly wrapped gifts, the door open and beckoning. We know it’s a trap. And not just any trap—this is the kind of evil offer children only encounter in fairy tales. It’s the false promise of the gingerbread house. This barely five-minute scene scared the hell out of me … and I wrote the book!
The other triple gold-star moment, at least for me? A teenage Vic (we never see her as a child in the show) crosses the bridge to recover her father’s watch from the faraway sub shop. She’s in a daze, half-believes she’s hallucinating. When she leaves the shop to return to the bridge, her dad’s watch in hand, an old fry cook is standing there staring at thing … this terrifying, derelict structure that was most definitely not there just a few minutes ago.
“You see that?” he asks Vic.
“It’s real?” she replies.
“As a frickin haaht attack,” he tells her.
It’s nine years and eleven months after I began writing about The Brat, and NOS4A2 is here on AMC. Sometimes I catch myself wondering: “Is this real?”
As a haaht attack.
Jami O’Brien, NOS4A2writer/showrunner
|Jami O’Brien has killed more zombies than she can count, in her capacity as producer and lead writer on “Fear the Walking Dead.” Before that she did a brisk business dealing lead, as a producer and key writer for “Hell on Wheels.” A child of Billerica, she grew up a stone’s throw from Vic McQueen’s stomping grounds in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Her many bold accomplishments include serving as showrunner on NOS4A2, crafting a brilliant opener, scripting a shattering conclusion, and teaching me that Billerica is pronounced “Bill Reeka.” We talked about all the important stuff: casting the show, solving narrative problems, and “Knight Rider.”
Joe Hill: I read your script for the first episode of NOS4A2 almost two and a half years ago, which says something about the slow path any adaptation takes to television. What was the hardest part of the script to crack?
Jami O’Brien: The Maggie story! I love her character in the book. I knew I wanted to introduce her in the first episode, but didn’t want her to just be hanging out, waiting on Vic. Hitting on the very simple idea that she knew the kid Manx took in the opening activated her and gave her stakes in the season I thought she needed.
JH: And what was the first scene you wrote that really came alive for you?
JO: It’s an awful lot of fun to write Charlie Manx. He has such wonderful language in the book, it was a pleasure just to type it up. I wound up writing two versions of the opening teaser. We tossed the first one out because we felt it just wasn’t scary enough, but both versions were energizing to write.
JH: I remember. Hey, kids, here’s a little inside dope: that chilling first scene? Originally it took place in the middle of the day! It was good —it was scary!—but the fright really comes out at night, don’t it?
Tell me a little bit about how you decided on Ashleigh Cummings for our Vic McQueen? I gotta say, I think she does breath-taking, emotionally-walloping work, every episode out. And weirdly, she seems to have chemistry with everyone. What was that audition process like?
JO: Vic is a tricky role because she needs the badassery to take on Charlie Manx as played by Zachary Quinto—a very powerful actor— AND who starts her journey as a vulnerable kid with a complicated home life and an internalized sense of class inferiority. A lot of talented young women auditioned for Vic and brought either vulnerability OR badassery. Ashleigh brought both. She walked into the audition room, held out her beating heart to us, and at the same time kinda dared us to mess with her. She knocked everyone’s socks off.
JH: What about wooing Zachery Quinto to play Charlie Manx? I adore his mix of wry humor, salesman’s charm, moral certainty, and unsettling hunger. How’d you get Zack to do his thing for a couple schmucks like us??
JO: I lit a lot of candles and made late night offerings to the TV gods. I’m SO GLAD it worked—can’t imagine anyone else playing the role.
JH: I love our modern day Cassandra with her bag of prophetic Scrabble tiles, and I think Jahkara Smith completely nails Maggie’s irreverence and compassion. If you had Maggie all to yourself, what would you ask her to find out with her Scrabble bag?
JO: How to ensure a season two.
JH: What about Vic? Is there anything you’d ask her to go find?
JO: Record-breaking viewership numbers for the show.
JH: What was the first fright flick to give you bad dreams and/or make it hard to sleep? What was the gateway drug?
JO: Some old vampire movie on the Creature Double Feature show on channel 56 when I was a kid. I still sleep with blankets covering my throat for protection.
JH: Okay, so Vic has her bike. Charlie has his Wraith. Maggie has her Scrabble tiles. If you had a magic totem, what would it be?
JO: Probably something really boring like a dry erase marker.
JH: In the book I draw a comparison between my vampire Manx and ’80s action hero Michael Knight of “Knight Rider” fame. Who would win in a fight? Manx and his Wraith, or Knight in K.I.T.T.?
JO: A man out of time and his handmade car that runs on human souls has a bit more poetry to him than a cop with an AI invented by a billionaire so I gotta go with Manx and his Wraith.
JH: What WON’T happen in the next episode so we can know what not to look forward to?
JO: Manx will NOT get a puppy in Episode 2.