PASADENA, Calif. — What if you could go back in time and not just prevent a tragedy but change history?
The concept is a popular one in film, television, and literature, and it gets a workout in Hulu’s upcoming eight-part series “11.22.63,” which premieres Feb. 15.
Adapted from Stephen King’s 2011 bestseller, the series — executive-produced by “The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams and Bridget Carpenter (“Friday Night Lights”) — stars James Franco as Jake Epping, a Maine high school teacher who travels back in time in an attempt to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Franco, Abrams, and Carpenter — who also wrote the script — and other cast members, including Oscar-winner and Kingston resident Chris Cooper, met with reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour recently to discuss the series.
Of those who had read King’s novel prior to filming, all were fans.
“I read it pretty fast. I just loved it so much,” Franco said. “And I actually had a friend that knew Stephen King, and I e-mailed him immediately and said, ‘Could I do something with this?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, sorry, J.J. Abrams is doing it.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I won’t be doing that.’ I wrote a little piece about it in Vice, and then, not long after that, I got an e-mail from J.J. asking if I wanted to be in it.”
Cooper especially appreciated the source material as background for his character Al, a diner owner who is key to Epping’s mission. He sees the series as a way to remind or educate viewers about that indelible moment when the president was shot down in Dallas. “There’s a lot of history that needs to be imparted since there are a whole bunch of people now that are unfamiliar with the Kennedy assassination and some of the questions that are still being raised,” he said.
To Franco, who was born 15 years after the assassination, “it’s sort of become, in a weird way, like, legend, maybe for my generation where it feels sort of like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean or something like that, but in fact, it was this horrific event. And so I thought this story and this approach was so great because it’s a fresh way in. We’re not exactly telling a history lesson.”
The series was produced primarily in Toronto, but key scenes were filmed at Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
“It was incredible,” said Franco of the historic setting. “It was eerie being there. They’ve [produced films] there before, but ours has its own little twists and turns, so it felt like revisiting but also that we were doing something new that hadn’t been done before. But like any movie or project that you go to the actual place, it resonates with something.”
Carpenter had the unenviable task of condensing and reconfiguring King’s very long book into a script, but she and Abrams got the thumbs-up from the author on their changes.
“What’s so cool,” Abrams said, “was that Stephen King responded so positively to some of these ideas,” which included eliminating some characters and adding others. “I was unsure if he was going to embrace some of these, I think, significant adjustments.”
The cast and producers hope that viewers familiar with the novel will feel the same way.
“I think the people who have read and love the book will be very satisfied,” said Carpenter. “And I think if you didn’t read the book, you’re going to be able to experience this dramatically, fantastically.”
Abrams had previously worked with the author, who was a big fan of the series “Lost,” which Abrams had co-produced with Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. He recalled the thrill they all had when they accompanied King to a horror movie in Maine.
“We went to see ‘The Descent,’ which was very scary and very gruesome. And every time someone died horribly on screen, he would cheer,” said Abrams with a smile. “And I just fell in love with him.”
On Hulu, Feb. 15