Thy Kingdom Come: Richard Dooling’s TV Teaming with Stephen King
I have only read two things by Stephen King and I thoroughly enjoyed them both: his celebrated novel The Shining and his equally well-regarded book for aspiring and emerging writers called On Writing. I’ve read much more from author Richard Dooling and have thoroughly enjoyed his work, too, including the novels White Man’s Grave and Brainstorm and the cautionary of the singularity, Rapture for the Geeks. So when I learned that these two had combined talents to collaborate on writing the miniseries, Kingdom Hospital, I jumped on it. I interviewed Dooling about the project but never landed my hoped-for interview with King. The result is the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) just as the series was about to air. I don’t believe I watched more than a few bits and pieces of the series because I find most horror dramatizations done for television don’t much work for me. This wasn’t the last time Dooling and King collaborated. Dooling, an Omaha native and resident, also adapted King’s short story Dolan’s Cadillac into a feature film. In my story I try to give some insights into how these two writers work together and apart.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha author Richard Dooling has collaborated with the Master of Fright, Stephen King, in creating the new prime time television miniseries Kingdom Hospital, a darkly comic supernatural fable The Horrormeister himself calls a cross between ER and The Shining. Dooling, whose novel White Man’s Grave was a National Book Award finalist, said comparing the show to the venerable NBC series and King’s own classic horror novel “would be a good way to describe it because…in the same way the Overlook Hotel (in The Shining) was haunted by things that happened there in the past, the setting for our show, Kingdom Hospital, is haunted by spirits from the past, and…there’s a lot of medical stuff going on, hence the reference to ER.”
The fictional one-hour drama is inspired by the acclaimed Danish miniseries Riget (The Kingdom) from director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves). Consistent with the new prime time TV trend of limited run series, Kingdom is slated for a straight 13-week run. The opening and closing episodes are two hours apiece.
It may be a surprise that Dooling, the social satirist, has teamed with King in writing this original 15-hour miniseries debuting March 3 on ABC. Then again, Dooling, who came to literary prominence from legal-medical careers, has made a name for himself exploring the moral-ethical quandaries facing protagonists caught up in the foreboding, labyrinthian maelstroms of: the law (Brain Storm, White Man’s Grave); medicine (Critical Care); and insurance (Bet Your Life); three strange, intimidating fields and fraternities built on people’s fear of the unknown and of losing control.
In Brain Storm, a lawyer struggles with the Genie-out-of-the-bottle implications of constructing a biomedical defense for a virulent racist murderer, whose violent outbursts may or may not be triggered by faulty brain chemistry. In White Man’s Grave, a young American goes missing in the charm-filled Sierra Leone bush and his father’s well-ordered life back home comes undone when totems sent from Africa unleash malevolent forces that pull him to their source. Critical Care essays the inexorable, by turns absurd dance of death in an intensive care unit. Bet Your Life examines the elaborate insurance fraud schemes computer savvy scam artists use to bilk people of their money and, in so doing, to turn victims’ lives upside down.
Dooling was unsure himself how his work meshed with the horror genre until, he said, King reassured him with, “You don’t think you write horror, but you do.’ In White Man’s Grave…there would certainly be some elements of horror and there’s a little medical horror in Bet Your Life, especially towards the end. So, I’ll trust him, I guess.” Dooling said a horror pedigree doesn’t matter much as Kingdom Hospital is “all over the place and is so many different things,” not the least of which is its taking wicked, scatological aim at such solemn subjects as faith, life and death, thereby displaying the satiric sensibility shared by both authors.
“I never really thought he was scary, but that he always had his tongue in his cheek,” Dooling said of King. “His Misery is one of the best books ever written. I mean, it’s gruesome and everything, but it’s a very funny book. He’s a great writer, especially of slang, which I really like.” A book of essays by Dooling, Blue Streak, makes the case for colorful, colloquial language of the offensive kind. If there’s anything that connects the two men, Dooling said, it is their penchant for “black comedy. I think most of what I did with this series was black comedy, which is what I always do. So, it’s satire with some horror. And he’s funny, too.”
Ultimately, Dooling was sold on the show by a promise from King, who is its executive producer. “He said from the very beginning, ‘We can do whatever we want to.’ Since I’d never worked with him before, I didn’t know whether to believe him…I mean, I was afraid that might mean he could do whatever HE wanted. But he was telling the truth. Besides, it’s not like he’s doing it for the money, right? Steve’s in a position where he can get done what he wants…within reasonable limits. He has total control. It was important to me we could do what we wanted because I didn’t want people saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ I wanted to be able to show open brain surgery, for instance, and I didn’t want somebody telling me, ‘No’.” All that creative freedom, he added, will either have been “a blessing or a curse. I won’t know which until the Nielsen ratings.”
Such dramatic license, he said, resulted in a non-linear narrative, some of it occurring inside the heads of characters, that combines disparate elements, themes and styles. “I don’t know whether it will succeed or not, but you’ve never seen anything else like it on television, I can guarantee you. I mean, I’ve never seen drama, black comedy, spiritualism, psychics, ghosts…everything. In 30 seconds, you can go from one scene where you feel like you’re going to cry because you’re so involved with this character who’s been injured in a car accident over to slapstick or black humor and then to some appearance by a ghost during surgery.”
ABC, which has struggled finding a prime time drama hit, is eager to try something different. “Television executives are not stupid. They know they’re losing viewers,” Dooling said, “and so they’re looking for new stuff.”
Kingdom Hospital is set in arch, eccentric, God-fearing King Country — Lewiston, Maine. The well-spring for the apparitions and disturbances at the hospital is the unsettled grounds upon which the facility is built — the long destroyed Gates Falls Mill, a terrible 19th century imagined sweatshop where, the story goes, many child laborers died in an 1869 fire. The children’s restless spirits seem to inhabit the place, variously bringing peril and relief to those they encounter.
Dooling said the show’s premise — strange goings-on in “a wild place” — and its structure — episodes opening outside the hospital — encouraged he and King to “write about almost anything. You can bring almost anybody in there you want. All you have to do is make them a patient. For example, I have an earthquake scientist who gets admitted. And that’s the beauty of a series. You can bring in a character and you can either kill them right away or keep them around if they work out.”
The prospect of maintaining dramatic cohesion within such a sprawling story and among many recurring characters worried Dooling at first, but to his surprise it proved manageable. “I was afraid it would be hard, but by the time you spend so much time with the characters, you feel like it writes itself in a way because you already know them so well and you know what they would do. You have a large story that spans the whole season and then you try and make short stories that fit within that large story…and I think we held it together.” Accenting the story, he said, is the series “beautiful” cinematography and “spectacular” production design.
The staff and patients at Kingdom Hospital are as odd as the incidents befalling them. A paraplegic artist, Peter Rickman (Jack Coleman), is miraculously cured. The brilliant surgeon Dr. Hook (Andrew McCarthy) lives in the hospital’s basement, tending to his collection of medical equipment. The cynical Dr. Stegman (Bruce Davison) is the arrogant face of medicine. The addled Dr. Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) is oblivious to the crazy events around him. The heart of the series is the psychic hypochondriac Eleanor Druse (Diane Ladd), the older mother of a hospital orderlie, and the unstable link to a tormented girl trying to reach her from the other side.
“The driving force is Mrs. Druse,” he said, “and her attempts to contact the little ghost girl she hears crying in the elevators. Mrs. Druse tries to find out why the little girl’s spirit is stuck between the here and hereafter and how she can find rest. I really like Mrs. Druse. Everybody will. She’s a great character.”
The Druse character is lifted from Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, a series both King and Dooling admire. “It’s a little slow for American audiences, but it’s funny and it’s creepy. I recommend it,” Dooling said. “We added a lot of characters and stories and stuff of our own, but we got the main characters basically from there and we just kind of Americanized their concerns and endeavors and Steve, of course, added the whole” back story and subtext.
A lifelong New Englander, King’s fiction often takes stock of locals’ stoic, enigmatic determination even in the face of bizarre goings-on. In episode one, he dramatizes his own well-publicized brush with death in the scene of an artist, Peter Rickman, walking on a rural road and being struck by a van, which happened to King near his home in Maine. The incident places Rickman in Kingdom Hospital, where he’s left open to its many wonders and dangers. King’s own weeks-long stays in hospitals were enough to convince him, Dooling said, “that hospitals are scary places.”
When King conceived the series, he wanted a collaborator with a medical background and Dooling, who worked as a respiratory therapist in the ICU at Omaha’s Clarkson Hospital, fit the bill. Long before enlisting him as a medical consultant and writer-producer, the literary superstar had his eye on Dooling, whose work he is a fan of. King quoted from Dooling’s Brain Storm in his own book, On Writing. King also contributed a glowing back cover tribute for Dooling’s Bet Your Life, calling him “one of the finest novelists now working in America” and describing the book as “by turns horrifying, suspenseful and howlingly funny.”
In his ongoing role as consultant, Dooling ensures the accuracy of all things medical in scripts, even tweaking King’s work as needed. To do this, Dooling draws on his and others’ expertise. “If I don’t know, I have to find out. I have a lot of friends that are doctors and nurses and I call them and ask them questions.” A med tech on the set acts as another check and balance, even training actors to draw blood gases, to intubate, to hold surgical instruments, et cetera.
After consulting in the series’ early preproduction stage, Dooling began writing episodes, first in concert with King, then by himself, in the winter of 2002. The two worked intensively through March 2003. Although the scripts are long finished, “it’s never done,” Dooling said. “Things happen. They can’t get a set, they lose an actor, an actor insists their character wouldn’t say a line. Or, trying to save money, the producers change locations. That stuff goes on all the time…up until the day it’s actually shot. There’s always something to do. I’m still doing a lot of work on Kingdom Hospital, and they’re 120 days into a 140-day shooting schedule.”
King-Dooling are hardly ever in the same physical space and rarely communicate by phone. Instead, they share work and comments via cyberspace.
“A lot of it is just passing files back and forth,” Dooling said. “We do it episode by episode. We attach notes. You say, ‘Tell me what you think of this. If you like it, add some more. If you don’t, cut it.’ Or, you say something like, ‘It might be funny if we did this.’ Or, ‘What if Mrs. Druse said that?…Blah, blah, blah.’ It’s just like talking. I didn’t really mess around with his stories, except to add or fix medical dialog and medical procedures, and he really didn’t mess with my stories either. We did get together once (at King’s winter home in Florida), shortly after episode nine or ten, to figure out what to do about the end because, you know, there was still four hours left and the last episode was a two-hour segment.”
Working with the prolific King proved exhilarating and taxing. “When you work with him, it’s night and day. It was night and day for three-four months. He just works all the time. He’s working right now, I’m sure,” said Dooling, who soon found there was no point in trying to keep pace. “Well, there’s no way you can keep up. A couple times, he just passed me. He would start episode nine while I was starting eight. He just got tired of waiting, I’m sure. I mean, he never said that, but that’s probably what happened. When he gets an idea, he’s not going to sit around and wait while I catch up. He’s really a fast, fast, highly-productive, laser-beam concentration type of guy. It’s been a good experience. A definite collaboration-synergy and all the good things you want to have working with somebody.”
Dooling, who periodically goes to Vancouver, British Columbia, where the series is shooting, loves the “cosmopolitan” city but loathes visiting the set.
“I don’t really like being on the set all that much. You don’t really have much to offer there. The script is done and, you know, the director is the person who decides how the scene plays. As a writer, I feel about this teleplay the way a famous screenwriter once described screenplays: It’s not a work of art, but it’s an invitation to a bunch of other people to make a work of art. Once you have the words on the paper you have every right to complain if they’re not saying the words, but once you let go of the script an actor who’s being well-paid and who’s well-qualified is going to render those lines in collaboration with the director. And, really, to have a writer there injecting their opinion into something where it really doesn’t belong, doesn’t make sense.
“However, that said, there are times they ask the writer to come down because they have a question about the way a word is pronounced or emphasized or they ask, ‘Why did you write that she had a tissue in her hand — was that because she was crying?’ or something like that. That’s a legitimate question.”
Otherwise, the set gets to be a drag as set-ups and takes mount. “They have to do things over and over. I don’t know, I suppose it’s like rewriting a sentence.”
The buzz is that if Kingdom Hospital hits big, ABC may pick it up for the fall season. In that event, Dooling, who expects to stay with the gig, has been brainstorming story ideas with King for a new slate of episodes. “Yeah, very vague type what-might-we-do-if-there-were-another-season conversations. And then we have things we didn’t really use, because there wasn’t time, that we could use.”
Even if the show isn’t renewed, Dooling may do more TV, a medium he entered with reservations. “I was skeptical of television. But this experience has made me more accepting of it and I could see myself working in it again if I find a show I like that’s funny and dark.” Unlike film, where not one of his several screenplays has yet to be produced, he said, “the nice thing about television is, you write it, and it gets shot. So, this has been fun. There’s not the big hold up there is with feature films, where you write it and you wait three years and maybe it’ll get shot, maybe they’ll ask you to rewrite it, maybe another director will pick it up. Maybe.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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