Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King and executive produced by David E. Kelley and Jack Bender, the Audience Network drama series Mr. Mercedes follows a retired police detective (Brendan Gleeson) who is being taunted by a demented serial killer (Harry Treadaway). After a series of taunting letters and emails, Detective Hodges decides to undertake a crusade to bring the killer to justice before he can strike again.
While at the Audience Network portion of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with director Jack Bender to talk about how Mr. Mercedes came about, his friendship with Stephen King, how David E. Kelley got involved, keeping the focus on the characters, shaping the look and feel of the series, deciding how to handle that horrific car sequence, and wanting to do two more seasons, to cover the second and third book. He also talked about whether he might return to direct Game of Thrones again, before the series is finished.
Collider: How did Mr. Mercedes come about?
JACK BENDER: This came about because Stephen King and I became acquainted. I certainly was acquainted with his work, and have read practically everything and adored it. And when I heard, when we were doing Lost, that Stephen was a huge fan, I was like, “Oh, my god, really?!” So, I got to communicate with him a bit, during the Lost years. And then, I did the first two seasons of Under the Dome and Stephen was involved with that, up to a certain point. He and I got to know each other better, and then started talking about whether there was something we could do. We talked about various books that hadn’t been done. And then, one day in the mail, to my surprise, came this very thick envelope, which was the galleys to an unpublished Stephen King book, called Mr. Mercedes. He didn’t even tell me, so I went, “Holy god! Really?” It was pretty cool!
So, I read it very quickly, and I don’t read that quickly because I spent my youth watching TV and movies, mainly. What I loved about the book was that Stephen King was writing in the detective genre, for the first time, very successfully. What I also loved about the book and thought it would make a great series on cable was that he was writing about the monster inside of us, as opposed to the monster outside of us, which to me, is always scarier. I thought, “Boy, if I could get the right actors for this, this could be a great show.” I called Stephen and said, “I wanna do it!” He went, “Great!” And I said, “But you know, there’s this actor who was born to play Hodges, and his name is Brendan Gleeson. Did you ever see . . .” And he went, “In Bruges?!” And he started to list all of Brendan’s movies. He said, “Are you kidding?! He’s the greatest!” So, that started the long journey to try to get Brendan.
How did David E. Kelley come into it?
BENDER: The other great decision I made was to bring David Kelley on. I’d had the pleasure of working with David in the past, and I knew how tweaky he was. I knew all that weird shit he did on Ally McBeal that was hilarious. I thought, “Boy, with this dark novel, if David goes down those alleyways, nobody will do it better because he’ll bring the humanity and the humor to it.” Stephen has humor in his books, too. So, David read the trilogy and loved it, and he came aboard and brought his sensibility to it, which was exceptionally wonderful. We had great writers.
This show has such a great cast of actors.
BENDER: Oh, it’s a great cast! I always saw this as a character show. I always saw this as about the people first, so I said to David, early on, “I want to do a show where I can have one character staring at a spoon, for much too long, but having nothing to do with drugs.” And he said, “Really? Why?” I said, “I don’t know why. And maybe it’s not a spoon, but I want it to have that eccentricity, if it’s real.” So, David wrote that in, in the first episode, where poor Hodges is left alone at that lunch and picks up the soon and is staring at it. And then, in pure David Kelley genius, he wrote that thing about being upside in a spoon, and maybe that’s the way life is. So, I knew I wanted it to be very character driven and I knew we needed exceptional actors for these parts.
As the director of the first episode, how did you want to shape the look and feel of this show?
BENDER: I wanted this to have a point of view. Hodges’ world looks a little different than Brady’s world. Our DP, Armando Salas, created those looks subliminally, as opposed to over the top obvious. I wanted the show to always be with the characters, and not with fancy visuals. All of those brilliant title sequences they do now for shows, including the wonderful Game of Thrones, which I did last year and loved every minute of it, are gorgeous. The new title sequences are what album covers used to be in the ‘70s. I wanted this to have a raw simplicity, kind of like The Sopranos. It’s about the people.
Do you think you’ll return to do any Game of Thrones episodes for the final season?
BENDER: I don’t know that the schedule is going to work. I talked to David Benioff recently, and I don’t want to say anything because I don’t know what’s been announced, but I think they only have six left and the dance card, for appropriate reasons, is filled. I don’t think I’d be able to go ‘cause they’re starting up soon.
Are you looking at doing the second and third book for this series?
BENDER: Yes. In success, which we hope we will have, DirecTV, Sonar and we all hope to do this for three seasons. And there are rumors that Stephen [King] is concocting something else. The second book is going to be a bit trickier. It’s brilliant, but Hodges doesn’t come in until half-way.
There’s no way around the fact that the mass murder by car scene was disturbing and upsetting, but it also sets everything up for the series. How tricky was that to handle?
BENDER: Very. I wanted it real and I didn’t want to sensationalize it. One of the reasons I didn’t want to have a score is that I didn’t want sexy action music. Stephen wrote this based on an event that I think happened in 2008, when he was down south. It didn’t get national attention, but somebody mowed down people at a job fair, and that started his wheels turning, during the economic downturn. That event, in our show, took place in 2009, and now we’re in 2011, two years later, before it became the drug of choice for terrorists and maniacs, all over the world. The European buyers have had some reactions of, “Woah, really?!” I could have done it any number of ways. I knew I didn’t want it to be too gruesome, and yet I wanted it to be realistic. We see these horrific events from afar. I didn’t ever want to make an opera out of blood. I just wanted to put the audience there and make them look at something horrific like this. It also sets up our whole character and his demise. I felt to minimize it or sanitize it would be cheapening it.
Mr. Mercedes airs on Wednesday nights on the Audience Network on DirecTV.