J.J. Abrams Talks the Nerves and Challenges of Ushering Stephen King's Favorite Novel, Lisey's Story, To Screen

The super-producer explains why he continues collaborating with the literary superstar, finding the "ooh" factor, and reveals his latest project features a "villain for the ages."

by | June 3, 2021 | Comments

J.J. Abrams at arrivals for WESTWORLD Premiere on HBO, TCL Chinese 6 Theatres (formerly Grauman''s), Los Angeles, CA September 28, 2016. Photo By: Priscilla Grant/Everett Collection

(Photo by Priscilla Grant/Everett Collection)

J.J. Abrams and Stephen King didn’t actually work together until 2016, when Abrams signed on to executive produce the Hulu adaptation of the author’s alternate history time travel novel 11.22.63. But it was a partnership that was clearly meant to be: the literary captain of the supernatural and horror joining forces with TV and film’s leading purveyor of grounded sci-fi was a match made if not in heaven, then in some parallel universe or dream world.

After collaborating again on the King anthology series Castle Rock, the duo have set up shop at a different streaming service — Apple TV+ — for the eight-episode adaptation of Lisey’s Story, which King himself has penned. King has said the novel — which follows the widow of a famous novelist coping with his death, and which King wrote following his own serious car accident — is his favorite, so it makes sense that the author himself would shepherd it to the small screen.

Julianne Moore stars as the titular character and Clive Owen as her late husband, Scott Landon, and the story goes back and forth in time from the past to Lisey’s present, with a visit to dream world Boo’ya Moon in between as an obsessive fan (Dane DeHaan) tries to gain access to Scott’s unfinished manuscripts.

Rotten Tomatoes spoke to Abrams about Lisey’s Story, his past (and hopefully future) collaborations with King, and what else he and his team at production company Bad Robot have in the works.

Julianne Moore and Clive Owen in Lisey's Story, Apple TV+

(Photo by Apple TV+)

Jean Bentley for Rotten Tomatoes: You’ve worked with Stephen King before, but he has said many times that Lisey’s Story is very personal to him. Did you have a different experience this time around because of that?

Abrams: Well, it was different in that he wrote all the episodes. I think that obviously speaks to how much it means to him. I had read over the years that this was his favorite book he’d written, and it was when he said he wanted to write every episode that I realized he meant it. What was wonderful about it was that he really did adapt it, which is to say it’s a very internal book. Instead of doing a kind of transcription to another form, he really did something that I think is far harder to do than it might seem: look at the work and figure out how to take what’s so internal and translate it to a different medium. Pablo Larraín, our director, was super helpful with that as well. [Stephen was] all in on this one. What was wonderful was that he loved what not just Pablo but the cast was doing, and became our loudest cheerleader as the production was underway.

Rotten Tomatoes: What about from your perspective? Was anything particularly different with this collaboration? How hands-on were you in this show?

Abrams: Sometimes being a producer is putting out fires everywhere you look. In some cases, it’s figuring out how to identify what the story really is or might be, or how to fix things that are evidently broken. In the case of this, it was really to help put together the team and be there to talk to any of the players at any time when necessary, but really to get out of the way and let them do their job. Stephen King is such a master of the form. Being the recipient of these drafts of the episodes that he was writing was really just a gift to all of us and Pablo. Again, there were always creative conversations about how to best do it. Lisey’s Story is a very interpretable book, which is to say the idea of Boo’ya Moon, this other world, this other existence, everyone who reads the book is going to have a slightly different vision. Pablo is responsible for making that a very specific and very photo-real thing. How do you do that best? What does that look like? How does it work?

I was always nervous, of course, that somehow Stephen would feel like that character, that relationship, that world, that look didn’t quite [translate]. He’s been doing this a while, [so] he understands that a director’s job is to interpret for all of us what it is he or she sees. What was great was that Stephen was as supportive as he was along the way.

Julianne Moore in Lisey's Story, Apple TV+

(Photo by Apple TV+)

Rotten Tomatoes: From a wider perspective, where do you think Lisey’s Story fits in with what you are doing at Bad Robot and the kinds of projects you’re producing there?

Abrams: We are producing all sorts of things and just recently getting into animation. We’re doing some stories that are based on books — in some cases comic books, in some cases original ideas, which are some of my favorite things that we’re working on. A lot of the strategy or planning of what one might think your job is or your company is going to be, frankly, I’m doubtful that those strategic plans always make sense and work. The only litmus test I have for a project that we work on is does it have an “ooh” factor. Am I leaning in to that project? It could be a comedy, it could be a horror film, it could be science-fiction, it could be a straight drama, it could be a love story, it could be live-action or animated, TV or film. It could be a book, it could be a stage production. If there’s something that makes me feel like I want to see that, I want to read that, I want to listen to that, that, to me, is the only litmus test. I’m just a bit dubious about long-term plans that go beyond truly making the best decision that you can moment to moment, and signing on to work with people that inspire you. Certainly, in the case of Lisey’s Story, that was true.

Rotten Tomatoes: You’ve named a lot of different genres, not just the ones you’re best known for. But people don’t only watch one genre, so it feels like you’re running the whole gamut of what anyone would be interested in.

Abrams: I know that it might seem like Bad Robot is, “Oh, it’s that place where they do the sci-fi movies.” We’re about to start shooting a movie with Allison Janney and Jurnee Smollett that is a great survival drama with these two women at the center. There’s nothing science-fiction or otherworldly about it. It’s a compelling story. I just feel like whenever we find something that we really can sink our teeth into, those are the kinds of stories that we would like to tell. All of us, I think, are open to any genre if the story is told well.

Rotten Tomatoes: Like your other Apple TV+ show, Little Voice. It’ s just a nice drama.

Abrams: It was a very sweet series. It reminded me a lot of back in the day when we were doing the show Felicity — it was just the idea of young people who were opening their hearts to each other and struggling with what it is to be alive in the world. There isn’t a genre that I feel doesn’t potentially fall into the category of something we would love to do.

Rotten Tomatoes: Exactly, and then you move on to a show with Julianne Moore and Clive Owen traversing different worlds.

Abrams: Yeah, totally. Again, I can’t explain it other than to say I don’t think any of us want to eat one meal every day for the rest of our lives.

Dane De Haan in Lisey's Story, Apple TV+

(Photo by Apple TV+)

Rotten Tomatoes: Lisey’s Story tackles the themes of toxic masculinity and entitlement and fandom in a really interesting way that I have not necessarily seen you tackle in your other work, and it’s probably something that both you and Stephen King have experience with.

Abrams: I think one of the reasons that this was so important to Stephen King is that it spoke to his real life. Not just his work, but his marriage. Not just his work that he does, but the result of the work that he does. I think anyone who is in the public eye, anyone who is putting out work that touches people in any way runs the risk of having the kinds of fans that you find, certainly, in this story. I think that that was one of the things that he was really wrestling with. If he were to be gone and Tabitha, his wife, were to be there, what would that be like if some of the fans [showed up] that he knows have acted in a certain way? It’s a scary and wildly relatable thing to anyone who’s in that and many other professions.

The story is Lisey’s, and this is ultimately a story of hope and perseverance, but also deep suffering. What that character goes through is so horrific, not only in the backstory and understanding what she’s been through, but what she goes through in real time and having to basically bear the burden of what it is that her husband has left for her. I think that it is a frighteningly realistic aspect to this really unique combination of genres, but it’s something that Stephen obviously had a lot of feelings about. I completely understand where he was coming from with it because it’s clearly something that is probably on the mind of anyone who’s in the public eye.

Rotten Tomatoes: It feels like a lot of people in the past year have taken a step back and started to reflect on their lives and their life’s work. It feels timely in that sense, too.

Abrams: I know exactly what you mean. The truth is that for all of us this year has been a year of loss, a year of struggle, a year of introspection and reconsideration, and in many cases, a year of gratitude and re-prioritizing things. I feel like part of what the story is about, which I think is very much in line with what you’re saying, is that when your life is going on, there is a sense of an autopilot mode. When things get interrupted, you cannot help but stop and reconsider. I think that’s what, certainly, Lisey goes through about her life, her marriage, and then having to question, how do you handle this? How do you overcome this? Who are you going to be moving forward? I think, to some degree, we’re all going through that.

Lisey's Story, Apple TV+

(Photo by Apple TV+)

Rotten Tomatoes: Were there any really difficult aspects of this show from conception to finished product? You had to stop production in the middle of everything, but what else was just a real struggle?

Abrams: There were things like how do you bring to the screen something that is so fanciful and as fantastical as Boo’ya Moon? Clearly, that was Pablo Larraín, our amazing director’s vision and work, very much alongside Stephen King. Weirdly, when I started to see what he was doing with Boo’ya Moon, I felt like, “Oh. Wow. That was what I saw in my head, even though everyone will have their own version.” I think the hardest thing was what you mentioned, the fact that well into production we had to shut down as the world did. We were one of the first productions to get back up and running again, doing so both here and, unexpectedly but we had to, overseas in Germany. I’m incredibly grateful to the production people at Bad Robot and Warners and the entire cast and crew who managed to complete this thing. At the end of the day, it’s seamless, but I know what had to happen for this thing to be finished. It was certainly challenging and a lot. I’m grateful to all of them for that.

Rotten Tomatoes: In that same vein, is there something about this project in particular that you’re really proud of?

Abrams: Well, obviously, any time we get to work with Stephen King is a point of pride. I’m incredibly honored to have gotten to be associated with him on this. The cast is remarkable. Julianne Moore, I can’t say enough about her. What she has to do in this project is enormous. She’s so good and she’s so lovely as a human. She makes it seem weirdly inevitable and effortless, none of which it is. I think to the entire cast and crew, I’m just deeply moved by what they were able to do.

For me, one of the unsung heroes — but maybe he will be sung — is Dane DeHaan, who brings this bad guy to life in a way that is so weirdly dimensional, and real, and funny, and horrifying, and awful. He ends up being one of the villains for the ages. I’m enormously indebted to him. But like I said, Pablo and Stephen, to me, are the two people who came together to be remarkably more than the sum of their parts. I’m so grateful for that.

The first two episodes of Lisey’s Story premiere Friday, June 4 on Apple TV+, with new episodes released weekly.

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

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