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Wilmington, North Carolina, has become a major production hub for movies and television series, including the 13-episode Under the Dome, which premieres Monday on CBS.
Although the sci-fi drama is still filming, the cast and crew took a night off for a red-carpet premiere at Wilmington’s Thalian Hall, where executive producers Stephen King, Brian K. Vaughan, Neal Baer and Jack Bender as well as cast members Dean Norris (James “Big Jim” Rennie), Rachelle Lefevre (Julia Shumway), Mike Vogel (Dale “Barbie” Barbara), Natalie Martinez (Deputy Linda Esquivel) and Britt Robertson (Angie McAlister) took the stage to answer a few questions and tease upcoming developments for the show.
Under the Dome, based on King’s 2009 novel of the same name, is set in the fictional small town of Chester’s Mill, which is suddenly cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious invisible dome. While King doesn’t remember how he came up with the idea, he said it was the concept that intrigued him.
“I was teaching school and I started to think about all these people on a highway who were trying to talk to reporters and their loved ones and there were Army people around and you couldn’t see anything, but when anybody touched it — you could even put your hand up to your loved one’s hand, and there would be no difference between them, but you couldn’t reach through,” King recalled. “I thought, ‘This is a hell of a situation, particularly if you want to talk about diminishing resources and how people get along when they’re involved in a crisis situation, when there’s no medicine. All those were concerns in the ’70s. No, I didn’t get the idea from The Simpsons Movie.”
The idea originates with concept that humans are all under a dome already. “We all live under a dome, we understand that,” King said. “We live on a little planet called Earth in a little corner of the galaxy. We’ve done a lot of things, we’ve sent a lot of spaceships out to see whether or not there’s anybody out there to say, ‘Oh, yo! We’re here.’ So far, nothing. It’s us. Like Brian’s script says, we’ve dropped a car on Mars, which looks like Death Valley without a motel. Here we are and this is what we’ve got. We’ve got so much air, we’ve got so much water, we’ve got so much food for so many people, we’ve got so much gasoline for our cars. The cars put stuff in the air, the atmosphere warms up — okay, this is the big world let’s make it a little tiny world. Like Angie says, ‘I had goldfish. One of ‘em got sick and the other one ate him.’ Let me put it this way — there was another try at this in the mid-’80s that was called The Cannibals. I’m not saying where you’re going, but I’ll say that by Season 3, none of the food companies are going to be sponsoring us.”
In addition to King, Under the Dome features three veteran executive producers, including Baer, who worked on ER and Law & Order: SVU. However, he said there’s a major difference between the CBS series and those dramas.
“This is different because it’s so character-based in an intense way that when you’re in a hot-house and all the secrets and lies can leak out, it’s really cool and interesting,” Baer said. “[The pilot] that Brian wrote so beautifully is just the start of many crazy things to come. I just find it really fun to do a combination of mystery, thriller, and who’s good, who’s bad — and then it switches a little bit. It’s really just a completely different experience to work with this big ensemble and see how they really get on each other’s nerves and pull out the best and worst of each other.”
While the pilot is only the start of how the dome’s appearance over Chester’s Mill will affect its citizens, it’s clear that the show follows in the tradition of similar isolationists series, such as The Walking Dead and Lost, which Bender and Vaughan worked on before coming to Under the Dome. However, they were quick to differentiate Dome from Lost, though the two might share a few similarities.
“On Lost, we had The Others and the smoke monsters and The Walking Dead has zombies and Falling Skies had aliens, but I think the thing that makes us different is the bad guys on our show is us,” Vaughan said. “That’s what we’re up against is each other. I think that’s much more terrifying than any monster we could have come up with.”
“There was a mantra that we thought about on Lost, which was it’s much more about the monster inside the characters than the monster in the jungle,” added Bender. “As filmmakers, we try to balance both, and this is similar in those ways. We’ve got this extraordinarily inexplicable, horrifying, invisible thing that’s keeping these people captive, and yet, that surrounds our show. What the show is really about is how the characters react to that and who they are.”
In many ways, the dome is as much a character on the show as any of the human characters — a feat the producers and cast attributed to post-production producer Agatha Warren, who oversees all special effects on the show.
“You have to give all the props to the special effects people, who clearly are doing something really remarkable,” said Lefevre, who plays Julia Shumway, an investigative reporter. “I love the shot where Barbie’s stopping the truck and there’s that slightly hazy sort of visual over the Chester’s Mill versus the outside, so you can differentiate them. That’s the kind of attention to detail that I’m really, really proud of.”
She added that the actors also are a huge part of bringing the dome to life by gauging and crafting their performance and reactions to the dome appropriately. “I also think that as actors, we do have to do part of the work while you’re doing it, because we’re reacting to — either we’re miming, or there’s a piece of plexiglass so we can have a good anchor for our hands,” she said. “Really, it’s in our reactions and I think it’s in our faces and it’s in our physicality. That’s something I can say for all of us. We don’t just do that, everyone is imagining something, everyone has what the dome means to them. Whatever you’re thinking about, whether you’re drawing on something from your character or whether — for me, I use something from my life that lets me have that sense of being trapped. I think if I could bring that to it, it probably helps add to the mythology of the dome.”
While all the assembled cast (with the exception of Robertson) have had the opportunity to touch the dome, Martinez, who plays Deputy Linda Esquivel, is the only one who’s kissed it.
“I’ve made out with the dome, people,” she said, describing scene where she attempts to kiss her character’s fiancé, who is on the other side of the dome. “Mouth to mouth, got real personal, real quick.”
Bender described the situation, saying that for realism, the actors “had to do the scene with actual, quarter-inch –”
“Prophylactics,” Norris interrupted, to the audience’s delight.
King described another way the dome was utilized to great visual effect. “I love the idea of the dome,” he said. “I love the idea that you can’t see it, but it’s there. TV is such a visual medium, so there’s a scene where Ben Drake, who is Joe McAlister’s friend, spray paints a door on the dome and says, ‘Oh, look, dude! I found a way out.’ The thing that knocked me out is you can see the shadow of that door on the outside because the sun is going the other way. I love it when the truck hits the dome and you can see the milk and produce splattering down the face of it. I’m a visual guy, I enjoy that. Those things knock me out. There’s a scene in episode two where Ben Drake skateboards up the side of the dome and literally goes off the concrete trench and up the side of the dome. It’s terrific.”
The dome as a concept is certainly an interesting choice. An invisible barrier had the chance of not playing very well on television, a very visual medium.
“Out of Stephen King’s head came something that was terrifying, but invisible,” Bender said. “[Pilot director] Niels [Arden Oplev], myself, Neal and Brian — all of us from the beginning and everyone on the creative team really went from A to Z on how much we would see because it’s invisible. We came back to Stephen’s original concept — it’s invisible. There are hints of it here and there, but that’s a bold choice because it’s scary not to see what the scary thing is.”
While the dome may be the primary catalyst of the show and its different mysteries, it’s the people who inhabit Chester’s Mill that bring the most amount of interest. Vogel’s character, Dale “Barbie” Barbara, is seen in the cold open burying a body in a shallow grave — but like all characters in Under the Dome, his morality isn’t going to be completely clear from just that one action.
“I think it’s something that Stephen and our writers did extremely well in creating this; it’s creating characters that don’t just cut a straight line,” Vogel said. “It’s much more fun for us as actors to walk both sides of that road to where even as the character you don’t know where you fall. The fun with Barbie is he has his own very distinct rulebook that some may question as right or wrong. Ultimately, he’s searching to make amends for things in his past and he just has a different way of going about it.”
In fact, the pilot introduces ten of the main cast members, all of whom are fully-realized characters with individual motivations that will likely come forward as the series progresses. Robertson, who plays Angie McAlister, has one of the most challenging roles as her character becomes trapped in a fallout shelter by the end of the pilot. Indeed, her character’s future looks slightly bleak, as in King’s novel, she dies in the second chapter.
“Yeah, Angie dies pretty quickly in the book. Thank you for saving me for a little longer,” she said, addressing King. “In the Pilot, you get to see a bit of a small arc for my character, sort of along the same lines of what everyone else was saying, it’s so interesting because you get to see the good and bad of people and how the dome brings that out in everyone. What’s interesting in Angie is she’s in this dome inside of a dome, being in the fallout shelter. I think that turns her — you’d think that would bring out the bad in her and you see the promiscuous side of her from the start, but it actually makes her be a better person, ultimately. She has to start making really quick survivor choices, and if she ever does get out of the fallout shelter, maybe she can apply that to the real world inside the dome.”
Norris’ character James “Big Jim” Rennie is the only town council member left inside the dome — and by the end of the pilot, he definitely doesn’t seem like he’s on the side of the angels. It’s a different character for Norris, who may be best known for his role on Breaking Bad as DEA agent Hank Schrader.
“It’s a lot easier to be bad,” he said. “It’s certainly a lot more fun to be bad. Big Jim doesn’t really think of himself as bad. He thinks of himself as doing the right thing for the community. He thinks he’s been ordained by the dome itself to be a leader. If a few people have to die in the pursuit of that, let it be.”
Much of the mystery of the characters remains so even to the actors, a concept that Vogel said was a lot of fun to discover as the show progresses.
“I think it’s fantastic in that a lot of these guys have a lot of lost history there, which had a tremendous mystery about it,” he said. “What I love is we’re — at times, it can be frustrating as an actor because you’re going, ‘Where am I going? What’s happening?’ But you’re spoon-fed, little by little, what’s happening, but only your stuff. We’ll all be sitting around between a take and someone says, ‘I just found out that I’m going to be doing this.’ What?! I didn’t — OK, great! Because I’m doing this, that means you’re doing that! We’re putting the puzzle together as we go, so it’s a fantastic little thing to keep us on our toes.”
The challenge of those mysteries and keeping them going is one of the big points for Vaughan, who teased that just because some of the mysteries get solved doesn’t mean there aren’t more to look into.
“Every time you introduce a new mystery, you have to solve another mystery,” Vaughan said of the show’s structure. “For example, we might not find out any time soon exactly who’s behind the dome, but we’ll find out pretty quickly how Barbie ended up burying that gentleman in a shallow grave. I think the mysteries come out a little bit at a time. I hope the audience doesn’t feel like we’re stringing them along. We know where we’re headed, so the answers are coming.”
However, the real fear at the core of the show isn’t really of the unknown, nor of the dome itself — it’s of each other.
“What’s different from other shows is as you saw tonight, the town looks just the same as it did before the dome came down,” said Baer. “They’re struggling now to deal with their internal fears and forces and what’s going to come out. I think that for me is even scarier than any monster we could try to create.”
Under the Dome debuts Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.