A haunted-house story would seem like a natural for Stephen King.
The Bangor author is finally building on that sacred horror-genre ground in his new ABC miniseries “Rose Red,” which airs 9-11 p.m. Jan. 27, 28 and 31.
In a phone interview, King fondly recalled the Marston House, the spooky old house in his hometown of Durham, which he and a friend would surreptitiously visit. (He later borrowed the name for the vampire roost in “Salem’s Lot.”)
“Every little town in rural America’s got one,” King added.
Rose Red is the name of the supposedly dormant haunted Seattle mansion built in 1907 by oil magnate John P. Rimbauer. His wife, Ellen, spent her entire life adding on to the house, including the odd mirror-floored library and the perspective hallway, until she mysteriously disappeared into it. Yet, over the subsequent decades, the house has gotten even bigger, seemingly all by itself.
“Rose Red” tells a Melville-like tale of obsession, as psychology professor Dr. Joyce Reardon (played by Nancy Travis), a researcher in paranormal phenomena, seeks to prove to her cynical department chairman that “the unexplained” really exists and really happens. She recruits a team of six individuals who possess a particular psychic skill to study the infamous Rose Red, in which 23 people have disappeared through the years. They end up messing with something that they really shouldn’t have.
Cast members include veteran character actors Judith Ivey, Julian Sands and Kevin Tighe, and relative newcomers Matt Keeslar, Kimberly J. Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Matt Ross and Emily Deschanel.
“Rose Red” got its start in a 1995 collaboration between King and Steven Spielberg, who wanted to make a haunted-house movie. They eventually parted amicably, with Spielberg deciding instead to remake “The Haunting,” itself an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic “The Haunting of Hill House.”
“It’s hard to work with Steven,” King said Wednesday night. “He had so many good ideas, and I incorporated quite a few of them. But in the end, we had to ask, ‘Is this going to be a Steven Spielberg picture or a Stephen King picture?'”
King’s concept was based on the famed Winchester House in San Jose, Calif. That mansion was built by an heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, who, it has been said, was haunted by the spirits of the Indians killed by the rifles responsible for her wealth. These spirits supposedly told her that she would die if she ever completed construction.
“Much of the back story was cribbed from that,” King admitted.
After five years, King was able to buy back the rights to “Rose Red” from Spielberg. He expanded its three acts to three nights. ABC executives were enthusiastic about the project, and he rounded up executive producer Mark Carliner, producer Thomas Brodek and director Craig Baxley, all of whom had worked with him on 1999’s “Storm of the Century” miniseries. Oscar winner Stuart Robertson (“What Dreams May Come”) handled the special effects.
Having people he was comfortable with around him made the production less taxing for King, then recovering from his near-fatal 1999 accident.
“This was different, of course,” said King. “It’s a spin of the roulette wheel each time we do it.”
The first order of business was finding the true star of the production – the mansion. The rooms of the Winchester mansion itself were too small, King said. Finally, after a five-month search, the production team found Thornewood Castle, a 36,000-square-foot house built in 1909 by Chester Thorne of Tacoma, Wash. Production and visual effects made it seem like the 300,000-square-foot monster called for in the script.
The exteriors and some of the interiors were shot at Thornewood, but the bulk of the interior shots were filmed at three sound stages, totaling 200,000 square feet, built at Sand Point, the former Naval Air Base in Seattle.
“This was the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved with,” King said. “The perspective hallway, the mirror library, the upside-down room – it was terrific fun to walk around in those sets.”
One of the biggest setbacks was the sudden death of actor David Dukes, who played psychology department chairman Miller, when the four-month, $40 million production was only one-third done. Ironically, Dukes died while warming up for tennis on the day he was to film his character’s death scene. (The miniseries is dedicated to him.)
“On a personal level, it was terrible,” King recalled. “He was a great guy to work with, a consummate professional. First was the shock. Second, we thought, we’ve got to do something about it. Craig thought he could use a photo double for some of the shots of him running through the foliage. I rewrote some scenes, so that others could fill in for David.”
King also shot his trademark cameo role, this time playing a bewildered pizza-delivery guy.
“I felt like I got that guy’s motivation, his inner sorrow,” he joked. “There was more of me in the first cut, but I said ‘You really have to take some of this out. I can’t act, just react.'”
King is speaking about “Rose Red” on his 31st wedding anniversary with wife Tabitha. While the ratings for the miniseries won’t be in for another month, the author soon will be on the move again. He’ll spend a week writing at his summer place in Lovell, then he’s heading south to his new home in Sarasota, Fla., for three months.
“I’ve got to get some sun on these old bones,” said the 54-year-old King.
While King still hopes to make more strides in his recovery from his accident, he’s not complaining.
“I’m just sore and achy a lot of the time,” he said. “Also, my eyes are not that great. There’s pre-signs for retinal damage and macular degeneration. You know you’re not in a good place when you keep a number on your fridge to call when your eyes fail.”
What else is in the works for King fans? The short-story collection “Everything’s Eventual” will be published by Scribner’s in March, and the novel “From a Buick Eight” will be out from Scribner this fall. He’s now working on another book in the “Dark Towers” series.
King has also promised ABC the series “Kingdom Hospital” for next season, his first foray into series TV since “Stephen King’s Golden Years” in 1991. He’ll produce 12 episodes, starting and ending with two-hour episodes.
“I hate the way series TV is done,” he said. “I told them, ‘Let me tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Then, if you want to bring in another creative team to work with these characters, good luck.'”
This workload represents King’s idea of slowing down.
“It sounds like a lot, but that’s all I have planned in the foreseeable future,” he said.