Nerds and Beyond recently had the pleasure of chatting with Aaron Haye (Bohemian Rhapsody) to talk about his work as Production Designer on CBS All Access’s mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic epic The Stand. We spoke about the collaborative process, what it’s like to adapt such an iconic piece of fiction – especially when big changes have to be made, and the fun of planting King Universe easter eggs. Warning: interview contains mild spoilers.
(Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Nerds and Beyond: What sort of research did you do to gear up for this series? Did you read the book? Or did you go in fresh? What was your process like?
Aaron Haye: I definitely read the book. And the graphic novel was also super inspirational as well; it’s really gruesome and kind of awkward, but there’s some great imagery in there that the showrunners were really interested in finding a way to achieve. So we dug in deep in terms of research to find a flavor for the show. Trying to find a way because so much of the story, as you know, is walking or driving – this travelogue, basically. So we were trying to find a way to tell the story of these lonely people in this abandoned space. So I found some photography that was really inspirational, art, paintings, and that sort of thing that find their way into the show. And then, as far as the bigger, more ridiculous things like Vegas, you know, it’s just finding the most over the top imagery we could, as inspiration.
Nerds and Beyond: Were there any specific moments from the book or the graphic novel that you either were like, “I have to make this scene” or that you were like, “let’s do something totally different?”
Aaron Haye: Well, a good example, actually, is Larry’s escape from New York, right? In the book he gets out through the Lincoln Tunnel. And it’s a really iconic scene, and it’s really brutal. And there’s all these dead bodies, and rats, and cars. And you can see the results of machine gunfire and all this horrible stuff that happened as people tried to flee. But creating something like that, from the beginning, we knew it was going to be difficult. And in our first first passes, planning and budgeting and scheduling the project, we planned on building a giant set. But that was just going to be too much. It was too cumbersome to deal with for the amount of time we had. And we looked for locations, we looked for stages that were big enough, but there was nothing big enough to build what we wanted.
So we opted to create a different way to tell the same story, but in different contexts. So we transpose that whole sequence into the sewer tunnels, which was what we did in Episode 2, when Larry and Rita have to escape the sort of marauding humanity that’s coming after them. And I think that it played on the same emotions, the idea of claustrophobia, the idea of when he sees his mother in this sort of drug addled, Flagg-induced stupor in the bottom of the sewer. We really wanted him to be right at the water level, with the water rising and for him to have this sort of panicky moment, and I think it works pretty well.
Nerds and Beyond: What’s your normal process like when you’re approaching a show or a film?
Aaron Haye: I mean, you hit the nail on the head with the first question. Which is, the first thing you do is research, right? Like tons of research, and I have a fantastic researcher that I work with named Alison Klein, and she really helps build imagery that helps inspire the story. And we show those to the showrunner, and show them to the directors, and then use those to build our story ideas. And we then create boards, big boards – we basically take black foam core and paste up images that are inspirational, and then start creating art. To add to that, so eventually, we have a room full of art, or in this case, it was hallways filled with art, and inspirational images. And those stay up.
For each block of filming for each director, we’d have a new hallway, basically full of inspiration and an art for them to respond to. We really worked hand in hand with the costume designer, and with visual effects, to really sort of try and tell this big story and with all these different mediums.
Nerds and Beyond: That’s a great segue for my next question. What was the collaborative process like with the different directors and the showrunners?
Aaron Haye: It was really great, like a hand in glove sort of scenario. They give us ideas, they write these scenes, and then we pitch ideas back to them. And sometimes those ideas inform the writing further. And sometimes their writing is refined, and we have to change our designs. But we worked really well together. It was a lot of fun. And to the very end, it was just a very collaborative process, one that I very much enjoyed.
And then we had these five different blocks. And so at one point, we had – I think I was servicing six, seven directors at one time, because we were in block two, shooting the New York sequence, which was massive, closing down big streets and buildings, you know, all that wonderful stuff. And then we were doing a couple of additional days of photography on episode 1. We had the directors for episode 3 and 4 there. And the director for episode 5 and 6 arrived that same week. And we were doing a visual effects unit at the same time.
So it was one of those things where I’m trying to manage stage sets, scout for locations, and prep for night shoots at the same time. It was crazy. But a lot of fun. And it was really interesting to get to work with so many different directors. In a way, it’s kind of a wonderful advantage that there are, you know, the showrunners, the visual effects supervisor, myself, the costume designer, everybody that’s there through the whole process, because we sort of help those directors, you know, make sure that their narrative matches what the original intention was. And so it’s nice to be that through line through the process.
Nerds and Beyond: That’s great. I was very curious, actually, about how you guys worked together to develop the look for New Vegas, because it’s a very different interpretation from the book.
Aaron Haye: Yeah. The original plan was to do very much like what was in the book, which was all outdoors, essentially, right in front of the MGM Grand, with a big stage that’s set up for a lot of Flagg’s interaction with his crowd. And for a lot of reasons, we felt like that could work really well, but then we came to realize that it would be a great advantage to be able to bring all of these different scenes into one place that’s undercover essentially, so that we can shoot rain or shine, day or night. And so we opted to create one massive space rather than a bunch of different disparate things. And then we just decided to go crazy with it. We went and scouted Vegas a number of times and realized that basically, you pick a theme and you can do anything you want. That’s what these casinos do. They sort of take an idea and try to sell the whole space visually – they tell a narrative inside their space, whether it’s the Bellagio or Caesars Palace, or whatever it is, each one of those has a story to tell. So we wanted to tell a story.
Essentially ours was Dante’s Inferno. We loved the idea of these different levels to the casino and the hotel, starting with Flagg at the very top and ending up with slaves at the very bottom. And, you know, as it turned out, the showrunners opted to call the casino “Inferno” in the end, which wasn’t what it was originally called. So that was sort of fun, that it reflected what we did thematically in its name. But yeah, we really tried to make sure that the architecture and the interior design reflected this sort of strata of society. And with Flagg on top, and this crazy amount of freedom that comes from that. If you devote yourself utterly to Flagg you have the freedom to do whatever you want – but that freedom comes at a price.
Nerds and Beyond: I was very into the interpretation of the dream sequences that people have with Flagg. I was wondering if you would talk about how you developed those sort of desert spaces that have just the little hints of the neon signs or the roulette and poker tables?
Aaron Haye: That was fun. And that was again – the mother of invention, you know, is necessity. We had gone and scouted this area outside of Las Vegas, and the hills that looked down and we saw the flickering lights and thought that would be ideal. You know, that was the landscape we wanted to shoot the dreams in, as if people are being transported there rather than Mother Abagail’s cornfield. They’re being transported to this space in between the desert – in between Flagg’s world and Mother Abagail’s world. And eventually, we realized we have to build this on stage because there’s no way we can do this outdoors in Canada, where we were shooting. And we won’t have enough time to shoot this the way we want to in our location in Nevada.
So we ended up filling a stage basically with rocks. We built giant rock sets and a desert floor with pieces that can be moved around. So that was the canvas on which we had to work and what we decided early on that we wanted to be very surreal. And it didn’t have to be photorealistic because it was a dream. It wanted to be a little bit odd. And so we talked about putting in a theatrical spotlight, boom.
So when Harold first appears in there, boom, he gets hit with a spotlight and it’s peculiar. It’s different. It’s meant to be dreamlike. And so each character had a little hint of what was going to draw them in. Harold, he had the wolf to guide him in. In the case of Larry, he was tempted by the Vegas Billboard and if you look carefully, it says “Larry Underwood’s Sold Out” on it, and we built that as a practical side sort of riffing on the “Welcome to Vegas” sign. And in the case of Nick’s dream with the poker table, I loved the way that came out, because that was a little bit amorphous. And the directors had some ideas about how that story was going to be told, and we pitched the idea of the cards as a way to tell that story. And if you look as he flips down those cards, each card tells a story: you get the jack with his eye bleeding, then the king is covering his ears. So you get to tell the story of Nick this quick visual hint.
And those are the kind of things that I really enjoy trying to work with. Working with props and working with the graphic designers to sneak in these wonderful Easter eggs and hidden images.
Nerds and Beyond: Speaking of Easter eggs, I noticed there’s The Shining carpet at one point in the casino. I think there were a couple of other things as well, like a reference to Derry, but what were some of your favorite easter eggs or references that you planted in there?
Aaron Haye: King has a cameo that you won’t see unless you know it’s there. In episode 4, maybe. But once you know it’s there, you’ll see it. And basically we put in probably every street sign, every place name, every piece of graphic, every beer bottle, or wine bottle has a reference to some Stephen King mythology or character.
Essentially, by putting something as obvious as The Shining carpet out there, that was meant to be sort of an invitation to everybody to look for more. Like “Okay, if that’s there, then Stephen King’s universe is holistic, and we can put anything we want from the rest of his world.” So, you know, it’s the name of the jail that you see Lloyd in. It’s filled with little, little Easter eggs, and I hope, I hope people find them. And if not, they’re just there for our own pleasure. So much of a project like this – it’s a goal for the whole team – we like to make sure that there are more details than you can see. And because you want to make that world so believable by filling it with detail. And so those are the sort of fun things we try to do.
The series finale of The Stand airs Thursday on CBS All Access.