Graveyard Shift

'NOS4A2' Showrunner Jami O'Brien On Retaining Charlie Manx's Humanity And Why The Novel Works On TV  

Jacob Bryant
May 31, 2019 3.9k views

It can be a daunting task to bring a beloved book like Joe Hill's NOS4A2 to life, but Jami O'Brien – the showrunner for the AMC adaptation of the horror novel – has a pretty simple way of handling it: honesty.

"The one thing I try to hold on to is, 'Am I being honest to these characters, am I being honest to the world, am I being faithful to the spirit of this book,’" O'Brien told Ranker in an interview before the series premiere. "As long as I’m holding on to those things I think we’re in pretty good hands because I think the source material is pretty great."

That source material tells the story of Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), a woman who – over the course of her life – learns that she has the ability to find lost things with the help of her dad's old Triumph motorcycle and a bridge that spits her out wherever that lost thing she's looking for happens to be. Unfortunately, her travels and abilities attract the attention of Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto), a man who uses his own special vehicle, a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, to keep himself young. Manx kidnaps children and takes them to Christmasland, a place where it's Christmas every day and monsters hide just beneath the snow. O'Brien wasn't ready to sacrifice the way the book slowly builds on Vic and Charlie's relationship over many years and multiple encounters, or the story's use of tension rather than jump scares or gross-outs to fuel the scares. That's why she ultimately made the adaptation a TV show.

"The novel is a really in-depth piece of work. The characters are really rich, the situations are really fascinating, and I think that to tell Vic McQueen’s story in 90 or 120 minutes – you could make a satisfying movie out of it, but there would be a lot left on the side of the road that I think is worthwhile," she said. "I think that the characters are rich enough that they deserve an ongoing examination and an ongoing journey. I want to hang out with them [for] longer than two hours."

Although Vic McQueen's journey of discovering her powers and using them to find lost kids is the linchpin of the story, it's Charlie Manx who captivates readers – and likely viewers, too, thanks to Quinto's performance. O'Brien attributes the character's allure to his mindset and the fact that he isn't another mustache-twirling villain.

"What’s interesting about him is that he thinks he’s doing the right thing. Charlie Manx believes that he’s saving children," O'Brien said. "When you’re first introduced to him it’s as the world sees him – which is a child killer. As you unwrap that, he becomes a lot more interesting than that. He believes in what he’s doing, and that’s fascinating. And there are even moments where that is up for debate, where you think, ‘Does he really believe in this, or is it the justification for what he’s doing?’ A character that keeps you guessing in that way is more fascinating than a killing machine."

Despite Manx's monstrous nature and supernatural ability to sap the life from any passenger of his Wraith in order to de-age himself – when viewers first meet him, he's a 135-year-old man coaxing a boy into the backseat – O'Brien always kept his humanity in mind. As she worked with Quinto and special effects make-up artist Joel Harrow on Charlie's looks at different ages, she never wanted to lose sight of the fact that he is actually just a man with a magic car and a rotten mind.

"The most important thing for me, and I think for Joe [Hill] as well, was he is a human being. He’s not an otherworldly monster, and so in the most extreme looks – the reason that he looks like a monster is because people aren’t supposed to be 135 years old. We always started with the fact that this is a man," she said. "We created five different looks for him for his progression both forward and backward, and they’re all grounded in, ‘What would he look like at 65, what would he look like at 80?’ And then we had more fun with, ‘What would he look like at 100, what would he look like at 135?’ But it was always grounded in, ‘How does the body age and what would this guy actually look like?’"

It wasn't just bringing characters like Vic and Charlie to the screen that thrilled O'Brien while working on the show. The story is full of items and locales that thrilled her to see come to life – from Christmasland and Charlie's car to the Shorter Way bridge – but O'Brien remembers a specific moment when everything started to click.

"One moment I remember on set, they were testing the graves – the kids under the ice for the Graveyard of What Might Be – and I went over and saw it," she said. "I read the book however long ago, and have been working on the series, and to see that all of a sudden I was like, ‘That’s a kid under the ice.’ It was so cool. That was one of the moments where I almost got emotional thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening.’"

Adapting someone else's story can be stressful work. There's a desire to keep things faithful to fans of the source material while also putting a fresh new spin on it. While bringing the people and places of NOS4A2 to life, O'Brien said Hill, who serves as an executive producer on the show, was a "generous collaborator." She said he wasn't in the writers' room daily, but was available to offer insights into the characters he created – and in one of their first meetings, provided O'Brien with a quote that became a through-line for the show.

"He chimed in with very thoughtful, helpful things that could actually move the story forward or make it a little better," she recounted. "One of the first conversations I had with him, he said to me, ‘There’s nothing scarier than a candy cane in July.’ That was such a great quote, and it gave me something to hold onto in terms of tone and in terms of how to approach the horror of the story."