<I>The Stand</I>: Showrunner/producer Benjamin Cavell
Issue: January/February 2021

The Stand: Showrunner/producer Benjamin Cavell

Talk about timely. When Stephen King’s 1978 novel “The Stand”, a story of a world brought to its knees by a lethal pandemic nicknamed “Captain Trips”, first hit the bestseller lists, no one could have predicted that it would remain as eerily relevant today as when it first came out. Now his scary and prescient tale has again been adapted — this time as a nine-part miniseries on CBS All Access, with an all-star cast including Whoopi Goldberg, Alexander Skarsgård, James Marsden, Odessa Young, Jovan Adepo and Amber Heard. 

King’s apocalyptic vision of a world decimated by a pandemic and embroiled in an elemental struggle between good and evil plays out with the fate of mankind resting on the frail shoulders of the 108-year-old Mother Abagail (Goldberg) and a handful of survivors. Their worst nightmares are embodied in a man with a lethal smile and unspeakable powers: Randall Flagg (Skarsgård).

The show was created and produced by showrunners Benjamin Cavell and Josh Boone. Cavell’s extensive credits include writing and producing such critically-acclaimed shows as Justified, Homeland, Sneaky Pete and Seal Team, on which he also served as creator. 

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, he talks about making the show and the challenges of posting it during the current pandemic. Jake Braver, producer, second unit director and visual effects supervisor, also joined the conversation.

Forty-two years after King’s novel came out, it now seems more prophetic than ever. What sort of show did you and Josh set out to make, and how challenging was it? 

Benjamin Cavell: “It was hugely challenging and Josh had been trying to make it into a film for many years — and a lot of directors had tried to do that, including George Romero and Ben Affleck, and I just don’t know how you could do this as a feature. Then CBS All Access came to me three years ago and asked if I’d be interested in doing it as a mini series, and I felt that was the way to go. It’s really the only way you can do justice to the book, with this hybrid medium that’s not really TV but that’s not a two-hour film. It’s nine hours long, but with a feature-level cast and budget and VFX. So then Josh and I began planning it all out, and we settled on him really focusing on the first and last episodes. I brought in Taylor Elmore, who I’d worked with on five of my six seasons of Justified, to help shepherd it all through production. And then Jake Braver came on as producer, second unit director and visual effects supervisor. And from the very start, the plan was to stay as true as possible to King’s epic tale.”

How involved was Stephen King, as I heard he was inspired to write a new coda to his story for Episode 9? 

Cavell: “He was very involved. I chatted with him throughout and he read every draft and signed off on every director choice and actor, and then his son, Owen, was also a producer on it and was in the writers room with us all the time. That was very freeing and reassuring to know that we could approach this adaptation knowing that obviously we’d have to change things to make it big on-screen and play for the current era, but that we had Owen or Stephen, or both, there to pull us back if we went too far afield. But I’m happy to say that never happened.”

Did you watch the 1994 ABC version?

Cavell: “I watched it when it first came out but I made a conscious decision not to revisit it, so we didn’t feel too influenced by its choices. It felt safer to let that be that and ours be ours, and we knew at the very start, when I went back to the book, that we needed to tell the story in a nonlinear way. I didn’t want to have three hours of the world dying before we even got to the meat of the story, which is what comes after — the elemental struggle between the forces of Flagg and the forces of Mother Abagail. As King himself has said, it’s his version of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, set in America, and not so much a book about a pandemic.” 

What are the big challenges of showrunning, and do you like being a showrunner?

Cavell: “I love being a showrunner and I love having control and being able to trust my creative instincts. Obviously we had to split it up between me and Josh, as he was also busy directing. The big challenge is that it’s such a huge job with so many moving pieces and just so demanding, but then it gives me the chance to facilitate all of the assembled talent — both the cast and the key department heads, from our DP to our production designer and VFX team. We had to organize so many people to do justice to this iconic book, and sometimes I feel the main job of a showrunner is to carve out space so all these great creatives can do their best work. Of course, there’s also all the writing and supervising, and then on this show we didn’t really have a producing director, so it was up to me, Taylor and Jake to prep the directors for each block of episodes, and to make sure everyone was telling the same story with the same visual language.”

The show looks so great. Talk about the look you and DP Thomas Yatsko went for.

Cavell: “He’s a true artist and we shot it all in Vancouver, and that whole area offers you so many varied locations as well as those huge vistas and skies. We spent two weeks in this desert area, four hours north of Vancouver, and it’s gorgeous and very barren. It looks like desert and also tundra in places. And then we also did some shooting in Las Vegas, as nowhere can double for that, and also a few days in New York.”

How much did the COVID crisis affect the shoot and post?

Cavell: “We just squeaked in under the wire for the shoot, as we finished principal photography on March 11th. We were scheduled to then go to Vegas for a week, but that got shut down and we didn’t get that footage done till August. As for post, it was all done remote because of COVID, and I never even set foot in the post offices we’d rented. We had to rearrange everything and get all the Avids set up in the editors’ homes and so on, but we were able to adapt and I’m awed by what we did in post and how fast we were able to set it all up remote — every cutting, every spotting session and so on.”

Jake Braver: “Post was really interesting because as we all prepared ourselves to suddenly start doing all this stuff from home, we all told ourselves, ‘This is going to take a lot more time and we really need to prep to move far slower.’ And it was the same with all the VFX vendors. No one quite knew what to expect. But the most remarkable thing is, it just didn’t happen. It actually wasn’t slower. Yes, there was the frustration at times of not all being in the same room, but it was the most effortless, magical process. And due to all the hard work we did setting up the remote post infrastructure, we were then able to flip a switch and everyone’s working from home fairly effortlessly. 

"Westwind Media handled all the sound remotely and we mixed playback at home using Sohonet’s ClearView, which is this fantastic realtime remote tool. We all had the same very expensive headphones for playback. Picture-wise, Company 3 did all our finishing, and Jill Bogdanowicz was our colorist, and we used a combination of different things, especially Streambox. We used that in two different ways. We colored for a long time on iPads that Company 3 calibrated, and then Ben and I switched over to Sony X300 monitors installed at our homes. So basically we were seeing exactly what Company 3 was seeing, and we’d be on the phone working and coloring, and it was just like usual except we were at home. And that was a first for both of us.”

Cavell: “It was also definitely the most challenging part of doing the remote post, as color sessions are so detailed and layered, and it took a while for us to get dialed in and feel comfortable. But once we got the X300s and Streamboxed on them in realtime with the colorist, it was truly amazing. We worked hard to give Boulder and Vegas their own looks, and also a much warmer look to the world before Captain Trips hits.”

You had several editors – Matthew Rundell, Robb Sullivan and Rob Bonz. How did you all work together?

Cavell: “Having three editors is pretty standard on all the shows I’ve done, and the three of them have worked together before over the years and have a shorthand, so they’d kind of jump in on each other’s work. In my experience, every post department and the way the editors work is slightly different, and the big challenge on this was the sheer distance between us all. Usually I’m in editorial quite a bit and giving notes and suggestions and advice, and getting their reactions.”

Braver: “But when you’re remote, you don’t see the person’s face — whether they’re smiling or disagreeing. So you end up having to verbalize very complex emotional, creative ideas the best way you can, and that took a while to figure out.”

There are a lot of VFX and they play a key role. Who did them and what was entailed?

Braver: “We had about 2,800 shots total — a huge amount, and when you add in previz and so on, my team was tracking over 4,800 assets. It took 14 vendors, including ILM, Spin VFX, Lola, Zoic, Phosphene, Exceptional Minds, Important Looking Pirates, Folks, Cinesite, Pixomondo, Wylie Visual Effects and Industrial Pixel, who did our 3D scanning and environment capture. The challenge of it all was that you’re starting with this very intimate, human-scale story, and then ending with this huge climactic finish, and you’re trying to find the right tone for all the VFX that matched the tone of the show. ILM did all the shots related to Las Vegas, Captain Trips, all of Flagg’s powers and all the CG animals and creatures. Important Looking Pirates handled all the Boulder shots, including everything that happens at Abagail’s house, the missile silo and Trashcan Man. Spin did all the dream sequences and all the fun environments, and Phosphene, who came in last, created some very interesting puzzle-heady sequences. It took over a year to final some of the shots, and COVID actually gave us more time to finish some of the more complex and difficult shots.”