Lisey’s Story is roundly celebrated as one of Stephen King’s best novels—even the author himself counts it as his favourite of his own stories. It’s been an obvious choice for the screen treatment since the recent and unexpected revival of interest in adapting his works, following the critical and commercial success of 2017’s It: Part 1.
When you want to adapt the best, you have to bring in the best. That’s why the new eight-part Apple TV+ series, which premieres Friday, is produced by J.J. Abrams and stars Academy Award winner Julianne Moore. It adheres closely to the prizewinning 2006 source material—naturally, as King himself wrote all eight episodes.
A dreamlike thriller both frightening and romantic, Lisey’s Story follows Moore as the widow Lisey Landon. Grieving and shellshocked over the recent loss of her husband, the bestselling author Scott Landon (Clive Owen), she is vexed by a pushy university professor (Ron Cephas Jones) hounding her for access to Scott’s archives. To cope, Lisey retreats back into memories of happier times, building a parallel narrative of her and her husband’s lives in full bloom.
But Lisey is plagued by a series of disturbing events that threaten to shatter the boundary between this world and the not-quite-fictional one of Scott’s novels. Stalked by an obsessed fan and trying to snap her catatonic sister out of her stasis, Lisey must travel to that alternate reality, called Boo’ya Moon, and make it back alive.
The show is at once a delightfully outlandish fantasy, an unnerving horror, and a dreamy meditation on the nature of loss. It’s a juggling act that, when balanced with the need to keep the show grounded, became the challenge for Abrams, Moore (who also produced), King, and the series’ director, Pablo Larraín (Jackie). But that was something they were excited to tackle head-on, as Abrams and Moore tell Vogue Singapore. Over Zoom recently, the two also discussed collaboration, their evolution as artists, and the impact of the pandemic on shooting.
What drew you to this project initially?
Julianne Moore: What was fascinating to me was that it was a story about an adult relationship—a long-standing, intimate, successful one. So often, these stories are about courtship and romance, where marriage is the happy ending. But as any of us who’ve ever been in a long relationship know, meeting that person and deciding to stay together is only the beginning of a sometimes very complicated journey. And, of course, I love Stephen King. Being an executive producer on this meant that I could be directly involved with pulling in all of the other creatives. I was so fortunate to be able to do that.
J.J. Abrams: The thing that attracted me to it, frankly, was that amazing combination of elements that Stephen was able to make cohesive in this book. The fact that it’s about a marriage, the creative impulse, questioning the person closest to you, family, obsession—there were so many themes in it. Given the Boo’ya Moon aspect of it, it really did feel like a bit of a fairy tale, but a very twisted, adult, sophisticated, dark version of one. And the fact that it was Stephen’s favourite book; it’s hard to turn that down.
How did you decide to take on the extra role of being the executive producer for the series?
JM: I think one of the things about being a producer for a project is that it gives you a creative voice. As an actor, you’re just one part, and a lot of the rest of it comes to you already assembled. And sometimes that can be a lot easier. Because as a producer, there’s all these other moving parts, feeling that you could succeed or fail at any moment. But it does give you access to building a creative community, which is exciting… It’s nice to learn what kind of people I respond to creatively, you know. I like people who are driven and have a vision, but are also able to be collaborative with the other artists around them.
You worked with Pablo Larraín, who directed all eight episodes. How did you decide he was right for the project?
JJA: The easy answer is he’s brilliant. And we’ve wanted to work with him for a long time. So we just went to him hoping he would be interested in it, and luckily, he was. In terms of why we thought he’d be a good fit for this—he is such a thoughtful, poetic, and beautiful filmmaker, who balances these intimate stories with these sometimes insane and horrific situations that Lisey finds herself in.
JM: I did everything I could to try to convince Pablo to do it. I knew from the beginning that I wanted him as my creative partner on this. He was just spectacular, and was unbelievably detailed precise about these very complicated timelines and where my character was emotionally. He would always encourage us to go deeper, deeper, deeper and more real with everything we did. That’s what’s so grounding about this, is that you have this crazy supernatural world, but you have these characters with real feelings and real desires and real connections. Pablo also has this great sense of beauty, of how to frame the story. I leaned on him really heavily through this whole process. He’s a true, true partner and a great artist.
As he was the screenwriter, was it ever tough to say ‘no’ to Stephen King?
JJA: I think that part of the answer is that it is a collaboration, and he is not the director. Which is to say that no matter what it is that I might want, whether I’m writing or producing, if someone else is directing, he or she on the set is going to ultimately be shooting it the way they feel is best conveying the intention. Having said that, no one knows the intention better than Stephen King, especially when he’s writing it… And working with Stephen has been different on every project. His involvement in 11/22/63 and Castle Rock, each was very different, each always takes a slightly different form. On this one, I think we were doing our best to honour what it is that Stephen saw.
How have you grown as a filmmaker? Does it feel like Lisey’s Story came together at the right time in your career?
JJA: You’d like to think there’s some kind of strategy and real plan. But we’re all just sort of making the best choices we can from moment to moment. And then you look back and realise that there’s a story that was being told. With this, it was partly luck of the draw, and partly that Stephen and I like each other and we like working together… So when he came to me, I just would have been an idiot to say anyone other than, “Oh my god, yes, let’s do this!” And I’ve got a repertoire of tricks up my sleeve as a producer, but the truth is, I feel like you’re always dropping one lesson when you pick up another. You can only carry so many at one time. So I feel like I keep relearning the same things over and over. [Laughs]
How has acting changed for you over the years? What do you get out of it that you didn’t when you first started out?
JM: I don’t know that I anticipated that I would still enjoy it as much as I do. I think that I actually enjoy it more. I don’t quite know what the difference has been, except that—it’s like any other vocation—the more you learn, the further down you go, the more you realise you don’t know… The more you have experience with anything, the more your facility for it grows. And the more you’re able to push yourself and stretch yourself and be more focused, or more relaxed.
How did COVID-19 affect production?
JJA: We were shooting in New York for months. And then COVID-19 hit, and we shut down for months. It was a big conversation about whether we could finish this, and if we could, how. I cannot say enough about the production people at Bad Robot and at Warner Media, the crew and the cast for getting this back up on its feet and finishing it. We ended up finishing in New York on the sets, but also in Germany, which was not planned at all. But it’s seamless when you look at it. And I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who figured out how to do it safely.
Do you think that this show has a message for the world as it continues to struggle through the pandemic?
JJA: The pandemic has been obviously very difficult and heartbreaking for so many. And I think that if there is anything to take away from it, I think that it has made us question what life was before, whether we operated on autopilot, whether we took things for granted. Lisey’s Story is about someone whose regular normal life has been shaken and has been thrown into question. Suddenly she’s taking stock of her life, her marriage, her relationship to her husband, what it really meant, what was really going on. She’s struggling and hopefully getting to the other side of it. Weirdly, Lisey’s Story is all about something we’re kind of going through as a planet. We’re looking at the way things were, and asking questions we might not have asked before, and hopefully finding some enlightening answers.
The first two episodes of Lisey’s Story will be available to stream on Apple TV+ from 4 June. New episodes will premiere every Friday until 16 July.