Stephen King has built a career on teens with telekinetic powers, possessed Pontiacs and killer kids back from the dead. But now he's up to a new trick on an old theme.
The king of the horror novel is co-producing a TV miniseries on a book from early in his career, one he hopes will make viewers think."The Stand," an eight-hour production being filmed in Utah, offers an apocalyptic story line: human error causes a deadly government-made virus to escape its desert bunker and kill most everyone in the world. The plague survivors fall into two camps, the good and the evil.
King wrote "The Stand" in 1975 and published it again, with 250 more pages, in 1990. Now, as the end of a millennium looms, he sees the story dovetailing with doomsday prophecies afoot in the land.
But King said the ideas he hopes to convey cut through the clamor.
"One of the central ideas is that we've really sort of made our bed. End of the millennium or not, we're going to have to lie down in it," King said from a director's chair at Tooele's hospital.
One of three possible endings for "The Stand" is being filmed here, as are several scenes with actress Molly Ringwald, who plays Frannie, one of the good.
The miniseries has a $28 million budget and is to be shown on ABC in November. Filming began Feb. 19 in Utah and will continue until early June. The film crew then will move on to Las Vegas and Pittsburgh. King wrote the screenplay, is one of two executive producers and plays a minor character.
"Basically, we're going to have to come to terms with our technology. And that our technology erased our morality," King said.
Computer chips can process millions of bits of information in a heartbeat, jets lace the skies, trains can travel at 200 mph and scientists are on the verge of cold-start fusion.
"We're close to being gods, but then, two guys blow up the World Trade Center and one guy goes back and tries to pick up his $400 for the rental car. That's not the behavior of a god. That's the behavior of a feebleminded idiot," King said.
The other main points of the book and miniseries are straight from the Bible.
"There never has been, ever, on network TV, a movie that talked about God and Christianity. That's a lot of what this is about," he said.
The good survivors rally behind an old black woman, Mother Abigail, who embodies purity of spirit and is played by Ruby Dee. They follow her into the desert to confront evil.
King, 45, sees those "good" characters, including Stu Redman, played by Gary Sinise, and Nick Andros, played by Rob Lowe, as American saints.
"Without pressing any of these things, or trying to wave tracts or suggest that Christianity is the answer, I sort of in an opportunistic, carpetbagging way, took all this mythology and put it into the work," King said.
"It's powerful stuff. It's wonderful stuff, the idea that there should be such a thing as brotherly love. That it might be possible to turn the other cheek."
In the film, none of the characters is purely good, but one, Randall Flagg, is unalloyed evil. Jamey Sheridan plays Flagg.
Many of King's fans consider "The Stand" their favorite among his 30-odd books, but it isn't the author's.
"When I remember `The Stand,' I just remember a lot of hard work, and that goes for all the screenplays."
He wrote four drafts of the screenplay, which has 120 speaking parts and 40 major characters. It is based on the 1990 version of the book, all 1,141 pages, but the ending will differ.
King and the other executive producer, Richard P. Rubinstein, president of Laurel Entertainment Inc., began talking about making a movie of "The Stand" in 1979 but weren't able to condense the story into a 21/2-hour script.
Now, both gush over how the miniseries is shaping up.
"It's the only time I've been able to listen to my words without having to throw up. Everything seems to hold up," said King, who lives in Bangor, Maine.
King said he first got the idea for the "The Stand" after reading of U.S. Army aerial nerve gas experiments that killed 6,000 sheep in Utah in 1968.
The nerve gas was unleashed by a plane from Dugway Proving Ground, headquartered not 25 miles from the film set. The irony does not escape King.
"We're right where we ought to be," he said.