This does not look like how TV sensations are born.
On the sleepy Screen Gems lot in Wilmington, North Carolina, the crew straggles back from the little bungalow where lunch has been served, to one of the hangar-size sound stages where CBS’s latest attempt to create a hit summer drama, Under the Dome, is filming its debut season.
It’s only April, but the Cape Fear sun is blazing hot. Cicadas cackle in the heat. And the meal — Chinese food, with side offerings from the deluxe-size Southern deep fryer bubbling away in the parking lot — seems to demand a siesta. But there is work to be done; a television show about the breakdown of society when a giant dome falls over a small Maine town is waiting to be shot.
Before filming can begin again, reality forces its way into the soundstage.
On a disembodied staircase in the center of the stage, separated from whatever part of the set it served, crew members gathered around an iPad, watching a video stream in fits and starts through a spotty Internet connection. News of a bomb blast at the marathon in Boston is playing. Crew members strain their necks to catch a glimpse of the lone video CNN.com is inevitably playing over and over. They stare grimly; some call out news found on Twitter and make the usual speculations people make at such moments when almost nothing is known.
Parallels with the show in progress are noted. Earlier that day, executive producer Jack Bender talked about how Under the Dome was about showing that we are just “a wall of cellophane away from that other kind of living.” That scary kind. And with the events at hand unfolding, an eerie quiet settles over the set.
And then it’s time to get back to work. Whatever fabric of society is being torn in real life will have to wait for a day’s worth of the fictional version to take its turn before the cameras.
There was little reason when it was green-lit to believe that Under the Dome would become much more than yet another piece of roadkill in the death spiral era of network television.
Last season, the debuts of the new dramas plunged out of the trenches and fell like a WWI charge straight into an enemy machine gun nest. In recent years it had seemed AMC had found the key to creating a new breed of hits, but then it stumbled, like others before it. FX and Showtime have had their moments, built more of buzz than of huge ratings. Giant stars in the lead? The audience shrugs.
And in that kind of environment, not even a gold-plated “Two Stephens” pedigree (based on a best-selling novel by Stephen King, executive produced by Steven Spielberg) means Under the Dome is a sure bet. Nothing is anymore.
Since the 1970s, networks have tried 28 times to adapt King tales, and the list includes a long string of misfires. Spielberg’s résumé as a TV producer includes some notable highs (United States of Tara, Band of Brothers, ER), but of late has featured mostly expensive misfires like Terra Nova, The River, and, most epically, Smash. Worse, the producers have chosen to adapt a book that plays out over the course of a very quick week, and face the challenge of stretching that out over the course of many seasons while not upsetting King’s fan base. The story is an example, in the words of one of the series costars, Samantha Mathis, of King’s agile handling of characters in “extreme circumstances where they reveal themselves to be much more imperfect than you could imagine.”
Already in the three weeks of the show that have aired, the plot has taken some major detours from the source material. In the King version, the town, Chester’s Mill, was able to communicate with the outside world via cell phones, whereas on TV it has been cut off. In the book, the characters played by young heartthrobs Mike Vogel and Rachelle Lefevre were in their late forties or fifties. And, most notably, the character played by young breakout star Britt Robertson was by this point long since dead.
Fortunately for the team, the master gave his blessing to dismantle his epic. Executive producer and comic-book creator/nerd royalty Brian K. Vaughan related that while he thought King might “stab me” for some of the liberties taken, King told the Dome team to “really use the book as a jumping-off point. Use the characters, use the themes, but don’t be afraid to go to new places.”
Neal Baer, the doctor turned TV producer who runs the show, told of the great lengths to which his scientific background drove him in crafting the series, including hiring an L.A. Times reporter to research the genuine environmental effects that having a dome placed over a small town might cause. When told of the background work they had done, King advised the team, “You know, you can just make shit up.”
For CBS, the 13-episode summer run seemed an unlikely detour into the dark, moody territory of cable TV. (Dome was actually originally developed as a series for the network’s corporate sibling Showtime.) It was also a bet that CBS could do the impossible: air a novelistic, nihilistic epic alongside Middle American mainstays like NCIS and Two and a Half Men and manage to outstrip the ratings of shows like Mad Men (typical audience: under 3 million viewers) at the same time. On paper, it was all fairly insane.
But the gamble appears to be a runaway success. Under the Dome debuted to 13.1 million viewers — the biggest audience for a summer premiere in six years — and three weeks in, it has held on to the bulk of those viewers. Last week, it was the no. 1 show on the network airwaves.
Whether Dome can keep its suspense going, or whether its concept will hit an invisible creative barrier and deflate in the manner of Revolution or Heroes, remains to be seen in the seasons ahead. (The show’s renewal is now all but a sure thing.) But on the set in North Carolina back in April, as they hammered out the fourth episode, finding that point of tension and keeping it alive was very much on the minds of the crew as they looked away from the events in Boston and back to bringing this high-stakes summer gamble alive for the cameras.
The sign at the edge of town greets you: Welcome to Wilmington. Home of the Azalea Festival. In fact, this weekend, while the magenta blooms are at their spring peak, the festival is under way — dozens of makeshift funnel cake booths lining the city’s riverfront.
While production crews in Los Angeles struggle to stay employed, Wilmington — and a few towns like it — is the kind of place where the Hollywood jobs actually are. Iron Man 3 recently filmed here; everyone in town reports that Robert Downey Jr. is like a neighbor now. There is much talk about “the incentive,” a David Foster Wallacian term for the highly lucrative tax break the state offers the film industry to come and set up shop. A few years before, state legislators had fiddled with “the incentive” and all the shoots had disappeared. A year ago they undid their meddling, and here we are.
For the crew of Under the Dome, however, April in Wilmington has meant mostly misery. Across the set you can hear the sounds of wheezes and coughs from the dozen or so sufferers of an intense allergic reaction to the city’s prize fleur. For actress Samantha Mathis — who plays Alice, a psychiatrist who is passing through town driving her daughter to camp when the dome falls — the azalea blight was especially acute, and she spent much of her time between takes irrigating her sinuses with Xylitol nasal spray. Mathis had been here before. Many times, in fact. First to visit her mother, actress Bibi Besch (perhaps best known as the original Dr. Carol Marcus in Wrath of Khan, who worked on parts here in the 1980s). Then she returned to Wilimington as an actress in her own right; she starred in the infamous Super Mario Brothers film, which in 1992 shot on the very stage where Under the Dome now films. Her makeup artist for Dome was her makeup artist on Super Mario.1
“While every generation thinks they live in the most dangerous times,” Mathis says, “things are really tenuous right now. People have drawn such distinct lines in the sand politically, and that can bring out really unpleasant aspects in each other. That’s something Stephen King is interested in. What politics mean. Lack of compassion, inability to listen, the desire to just be right and stay true to one’s ideology.”
For Dean Norris, who hulked into the Chester’s Mill police station with the sweet-natured swagger of Breaking Bad‘s Hank, but with a thoughtful air unseen on that show, Dome is a welcome tonic. “It’s always hard to say good-bye, especially to that character. I finished Breaking Bad in the morning and hopped on a plane in the afternoon to come to Wilmington. It was a good thing. Otherwise I would’ve just dwelled on Breaking Bad and depression would’ve set in.”
And after years of playing Breaking Bad‘s token pure soul, taking on King’s sinister dictator came as a release. “When we started talking about what we’d do after, I said I didn’t want to do anything that would even remotely compare to Breaking Bad. I didn’t want to be on cable. I didn’t want it to be a small, intense drama. I wanted it to be a different genre. And this is about as far as you can get from Hank. This guy is completely amoral, or immoral.”
As he gets up to go, he mentions as an aside, “Stephen King told me I’m Dick Cheney. That’s who I’m based on. But I thought of Jim as Al Haig. I’m in charge. For him this dome is an opportunity.”
Jack Bender, the mop-haired, leather-jacketed television veteran who runs the show on the ground, slumps in one of the Chester’s Mill PD’s surprisingly low-to-the-floor chairs. I asked him how in creating a new show, when the template still must be defined and the magic captured, he keeps all the nuts and bolts straight while still tracking how all this actually plays. “I don’t,” he sighed. “There’s a lot of smart people around me who help me, but they tend to blur. I know I’m very involved in the prep of each episode, whoever is doing it, but they do tend to start blurring and we’re only on Episode 4. So if somebody brings, up, you know, the scene where Angie’s at Bubba’s, and I go, ‘Uhhh … Episode 3 or 4?’ And they go, ‘4,’ I say ‘Great!'”
With Lost, where Bender directed many of the critical early episodes, finding the trademark spooky look and tone — a departure from anything on at the time — was a key to its early success. “You have to find a visual language. This is a character show with sci-fi around it, as opposed to a sci-fi show with characters stuck inside. I think we want the world to be identifiable, but at the same time something’s a little off. It needs to smell and feel like something is happening here without being too overt.”
Bender contemplates, “I’ve had a very blessed life, where I haven’t had to confront that type of survival. And yet we see it every day on CNN. I think that people gravitate to that, to asking: How would I live? How would I survive? I think we’re all very aware of these possibilities now.”
After breaking for lunch and the subsequent news from Boston, the crew shoots a scene set in a bomb shelter, where a demented young psychopath, played by newcomer Alex Koch, has taken advantage of the chaos to imprison the girl he loves, played by Britt Robertson. For Koch, this is the break of a lifetime. The young actor was discovered by the producers a couple months after he arrived in Los Angeles from Indiana, while he was still sleeping on friends’ couches.
The 23-year-old Robertson has been working steadily in Los Angeles since she was a teenager, but this part marks her big break, and an intense scene like this one is the sort that can either elevate a series to a higher level or fall flat with viewers.
With handheld cameras knocking around the two stars, the little bomb shelter feels extremely crowded. Before taking her place — chained to the bed — Robertson paces nervously and attempts to discuss the scene with veteran director Kari Skogland. Koch stands to one side, off in his own world. He tells me he listens to Roy Orbison to get into the Junior character. “I didn’t want to play him as a villain. A lot of people will say you could easily go to that, but that’s so wrong because to me he’s a person. He comes from this broken childhood, this father who is tightening around his throat. He lost his mother and he’s got to replace that love.”
They do the scene twice. As the two actors connect, Robertson trying to con Koch into believing that she loves him to win her freedom, the tension is palpable. The soundstage is deathly silent as they go into a dance together and lock eyes. They run through again and Robertson forgets a line, yelling “FUCK IT!” in the middle of a take. The cameras stumble back from the actors, repositioning in the little space.
Of acting opposite Koch’s disturbed character, Robertson says, “He’s got this uncanny ability to look at you with these eyes that are so loving and amazing but to have these intentions that are so repulsive.”
Before they do a third take, the director tells Robertson to do it with “a little more from the heart and soul.” After having given her little, it seems an incredibly useless direction on what has already been a difficult scene to shoot. But it pays off: When the cameras start rolling, somehow there is more there. They call cut again and a PA comes around with skewers of prosciutto, cheese, and melon. I do a double take, wondering, did I just see something special there? Something that could maybe be the beginning of a great show?
It’s hard to imagine after spending a day here that this crew — struggling to find marks and not think about the unfolding tragedy 800 miles to their north, idling their nights at a corporate suites hotel in the early summer heat — could be stumbling onto the key to the impossible conundrum of network television. But as time will show, they stumbled onto something.
Perhaps as the events in Boston showed, and as Jack Bender suggested, it’s that in its dramatic, sometimes overwrought way, this sci-fi show is daring to grapple with the events that are haunting us today. Maybe little Angie’s awful dance with Junior is a piece of some larger dread about where we are headed. And perhaps on this visit I witnessed the beginning of that conversation, and out of this isolation in Cape Fear might come something that cuts through to some sort of truth.