Idris Elba The Dark Tower
Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Jackie Earle Haley
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Running Time: 95 minutes
Synopsis: There are other worlds than these. Stephen King's The Dark Tower, the ambitious and expansive story from one of the world's most celebrated authors, makes its launch to the big screen. The last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), has been locked in an eternal battle with Walter O'Dim, also known as the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prevent him from toppling the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together. With the fate of the worlds at stake, good and evil will collide in the ultimate battle as only Roland can defend the Tower from the Man in Black.
The Dark Tower
Release Date: August 17th, 2017
About The Production
'The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." With these words, Stephen King sparked an entire universe that makes its longawaited screen debut with The Dark Tower, the motion picture from Columbia Pictures, MRC, and Imagine Entertainment, starring Idris Elba as the gunslinger Roland Deschain, sworn to protect the universe, and his perpetual nemesis, Walter O'Dim, the man in black, played by Matthew McConaughey.
In a career spanning 50 years and over 80 books, Stephen King has amassed a towering reputation as one of our greatest storytellers. The author of innumerable bestsellers, he has been honored by the President of the United States with the National Medal for the Arts, by the National Book Foundation with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and countless awards and prizes. His name is recognised everywhere as a master of blending our everyday world with the supernatural.
And there is one work that is at the center of his entire canon: The Dark Tower, the eight-novel epic telling of an eternal battle between good and evil, with the fate of multiple worlds at stake. 'I started The Dark Tower when I was 22 years old, when I had just graduated from college, so it's spanned my entire career," says Stephen King. Over time, he says, as the books and stories piled up, 'I started to realise that I had all these characters that were referring back to this other world, Mid-World, the world of The Dark Tower. It had become the centerpiece of my fictional universe –characters who showed up in other books would show up in The Dark Tower and vice versa." Even Stephen King himself would become a character in later novels. The Dark Tower series of books would become the nexus for most of the Stephen King universe and crosses over into many of Stephen King's other books.
Stephen King was influenced to create his magnum opus by blending together several unlikely sources. 'I was very much under the influence of Lord of the Rings – even though I'm not crazy about elves and orcs and walking trees, I loved what Tolkien did. And around that same time, I saw the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name was also an influence.
And there's a poem by Robert Browning called -Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,' and I used that to start an epic fantasy. I wrote the line -The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,' and I didn't know anything about where he lived, what Mid-World was or how it connected to our world or anything else."
It's an epic that has inspired millions of readers – not least of which was a young boy in Denmark whose imagination was sparked by the events in Mid-World. Now grown, director Nikolaj Arcel was determined to be the one to bring The Dark Tower to the screen. Growing up with the Dark Tower books, Nikolaj Arcel became so immersed in the stories that the Danish native taught himself English. He recounts, 'When I was about 13, there were almost no Stephen King stories translated into Danish. I became infatuated with the few books that I'd read in Danish, even at that age. And so I had to start picking up his English-version novels and I had to teach myself to read adult novel-style English at a very early age. Stephen King taught me English."
Nikolaj Arcel recalls that when he read The Gunslinger at 17, he was so into the novel that he creating a song, 'The Gunslinger," with his band. (And he still has it on cassette tape.)
For Nikolaj Arcel, the way Stephen King weaves together the personal and the larger-than-life elements of the story is why it's connected to so many readers. 'It's as small as a 14 year-old boy, who has visions, who thinks he's crazy, and it's as big as a hero fighting a great villain and trying to save the entire universe. It expands from the very intimate to the very epic."
And at the center of the story is the Dark Tower. 'The Tower is a thing of beauty, it's a thing of awe, with a powerful presence – it holds the whole world together. I think it's beyond our comprehension," says Nikolaj Arcel, 'I think every single fan of the books will have their own idea of what the Dark Tower is."
So who better to ask what it is than the man who created it? 'You have to imagine an axle or a spindle, with all of these worlds connected to it," says Stephen King. 'You know what happens to a car if you cut the axle – it doesn't run anymore. The Tower is the stabilising force, and the Gunslingers are this ancient group of knights dedicated to the idea of protecting the Tower. But they have been wiped out – there's only one left, Roland. And standing opposite him is an agent of chaos who wants to bring the Tower down."
'Roland is not a cowboy; he's a Gunslinger, and a very skilled shooter," says Elba. 'When we meet him, he's the last in a long line of the protectors of the Tower."
'The Tower is a magnetic vortex holding the universes together, and if that Tower falls, the universe goes into anarchic chaos, blackness and demons come out and they take it all over," says Matthew McConaughey. 'If that Tower maintains itself, it's still holding a semblance of balance in the universe. So, what Walter's going to do is bring down that Tower."
Because this particular series of novels helped to shape Nikolaj Arcel's entire artistic sensibilities, he became a perfect choice to direct. 'I love films that take us to new worlds, have new ideas and mythologies, and world building," he says. 'Getting this chance to direct a movie of stories that I had dreamt about was incredible – especially coming directly off the boat from Denmark!"
Producer Erica Huggins recalls, 'Nikolaj Arcel just wanted this project, he knew it well, and the moment we met him we knew he was the right guy. He brought innocence to the project, and he also found his own way into how he would tell the story."
That way in – Nikolaj Arcel's vision – was to try to stay true to Stephen King's 'mix of modern day and the fantastic. This is what Stephen King does best." In The Dark Tower, the fantastical elements would take care of themselves; to make those feel like a Stephen King story, Nikolaj Arcel sought to keep it grounded. 'We had to keep it real; this world is so immense and so complex, and in the novels, at times, even abstract. I really wanted Mid-World, the characters and everything to feel as real as every day. I didn't want to have some kind of lofty genre and have everyone speaking in odd ways. I wanted it to feel like anybody could take this journey to Mid-World, and understand it, and be there, and feel that these are real people."
Nikolaj Arcel also wanted the emotional quality of Stephen King's story to permeate the film. 'It didn't feel cynical, or cold; it felt like it was very much about family, friendship, and heart, and the bond of people coming together to fight for the greater good." When it came to the screenplay adaptation, because Stephen King's approach is, in his words, so 'instinctive" ('I'm not somebody who plans things out in advance," he says), the filmmakers faced an unusual challenge in bringing The Dark Tower to the screen. With so much material, where to begin? 'How do you present this to the movie going audience so they'll understand it and feel like they're immediately in the story, whether or not they've read the books?" Stephen King asks. The answer for the screenwriters came in looking at The Dark Tower as a whole, drawing elements from several of the books in the series. 'It's a classical thing – they call it in medias res, which means -begin in the middle of the story.' You begin in the middle and then fill everybody in, and it just moves ahead like a freight train from that point," Stephen King continues.
Not only did Stephen King himself bless the screenplay adaptation, which is by Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen & Nikolaj Arcel; the author was intimately involved in every step of the creative process of the film and an invaluable creative partner throughout the entire process.
Key to the film, obviously, would be in the casting of Stephen King's iconic characters: Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger, and Walter, the man in black, the personification of an evil force.
Roland Deschain, AKA the Gunslinger, is the last of the long Line of Eld – a legacy of Gunslingers who are peacekeepers and protectors of the Tower, which protects the universe. After the slaughter of the rest of the gunslingers, Roland Deschain is now on a quest to save what is left of his world by reaching the mysterious Tower.
'When Stephen King created Roland Deschain, he created a character that was based on the biggest badass of the day," says producer Ron Howard. 'Over time, the character of Roland Deschain evolved beyond any one specific look or inspiration; the character just became Roland Deschain. We took that initial approach in casting Roland Deschain for the film – asking ourselves, -Who is the biggest badass of today? Who personifies Roland Deschain?' That conversation started with Idris Elba. He is the embodiment of Roland Deschain, and he is also a phenomenal actor and has the chops to be able to bring the complex character of Roland Deschain to life."
Nikolaj Arcel says for him it was a natural to cast Idris Elba as The Gunslinger. 'I've been a fan of his since -The Wire,' he's a magnetic performer. The only question was whether we would have similar visions for the character, his journey and psychology, so it turned out that he did. It just clicked, and he was formidable."
'As the last in the line of protectors, Roland is very respected, but by the time we meet him his heart has been broken and blackened," says Idris Elba. 'He's basically a ghost looking for something he can't find: The Man in Black, who has goaded and taunted him for years, and who destroyed Roland Deschain's world and in it everyone he loved. On this journey, Roland Deschain is propelled by fury to take revenge against his old nemesis."
Idris Elba says he was excited to take on the role of the Gunslinger as he knew Stephen King to be a creator of deep, complex, and big-universe characters. 'He is a very clever, master character builder," says Idris Elba. 'Roland Deschain has had a massive journey throughout the books."
Walter is Roland Deschain's mystical foe and a modern day psychotic who destroyed the Mid-World. He is now on a mission to bring all worlds into chaos, which bringing down the Tower will do.
'The essence of the character is a casual and playful but ruthless and terrifying villain, all while seemingly in total control," Ron Howard continues. 'Matthew McConaughey is the perfect embodiment for the role of the Man in Black – he's incredibly charming, laid back, and mischievous with deep intensity."
'Walter has traveled many worlds, throughout many ages – he knows contemporary New York and where he can buy a burger, and at the same time, with his sphere of magic, he can also go to the court of some king," says Arcel. 'His plan for the universe is to bring about the age of the Crimson King – the devil."
'Walter's not just a guy with one dimensional evil; he has an interesting way of seeing the world, with a certain delight – even if on the wrong side of the light and dark spectrum," Arcel continues. 'We had a lot of fun with the character and Matthew McConaughey and I added a lot of layers that were very true to the book – how Walter speaks and moves."
Matthew McConaughey was excited by the opportunity to bring such a dynamic character to life. 'It's an original – it was great that I could come in at the ground level and create a character, and hopefully be part of an original story where I am the author of the Man in Black."
At the heart of the interplay between Walter and Roland is a dynamic that is both simple and complex. Ultimately, Matthew McConaughey says, 'Walter is the quintessential bad guy in the mythic battle of good versus evil. If the Tower comes down, Walter takes the seat next to the Crimson King."
But Stephen King has created a multilayered villain in Walter. 'Walter walks a fine line with Roland; it's an interesting little affection that Walter has for Roland," says Matthew McConaughey. 'He certainly doesn't fully believe in Roland's code of honor and valor and values. But Walter enjoys the game, and he doesn't want it to end too soon, even if he wins. Roland is the most talented one out there, and when he's down and losing it, through paranoia or pain, Walter resurrects him, lifts him up, so he stays in the game."
Still, though Roland and Walter have been locked in this battle for an eternity, from Matthew McConaughey's point of view, it's been a one-sided battle. 'Walter can't be touched," he says. 'If someone comes at him, he may be a mirage – he might not even be what you think. He doesn't even break a sweat."
Between these battling forces comes a young boy from our world who could tip the balance either way. 14-year-old Jake lives an ordinary life in New York City with his mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and stepfather Lon (Nicholas Pauling). Plagued by outlandish dreams that he doesn't understand, he draws detailed sketches of otherworldly images which he sees: the Gunslinger, the Man in Black, and the unearthly world in which they live – Mid-World, in which he gets sight of the Tower.
'In many ways, the story is seen through Jake's eyes, and we're seeing it in a compelling way because we believe, as he believes, that he might be crazy," says Huggins. 'It's a terrifying journey that we take with him in the first part of the movie until he realises that he's not crazy, he really is seeing this other world, and he's part of something bigger than himself. To portray that, Nik was looking for a real kid who you knew would be inspired by these fantastical events. Tom Taylor is an amazing actor, but the element that set him apart was that he came to it with a certain amount of purity."
Jake follows the clues in his dreams and finds a way to travel to Mid-World, where he searches for Roland Deschain. After meeting the Gunslinger, the boy becomes embroiled in the fight to protect the universe, spanning across the dimensions from Mid-World to New York City.
At first Roland is suspicious of Jake. 'Roland doesn't really want to have anything to do with this kid; he's never had to deal with a kid before. But when Jake reveals his visions and that he saw a man in black, Roland is suddenly very interested. Jake has seen information that Roland needs to find Walter." Connecting with Jake reawakens Roland's connection to the world around him and his role in the coming battle. 'Roland doesn't realise he still has feelings and this young boy helps him discover that he's not a dead soul," Idris Elba says. 'It's a great, gradual process as they get to know each other. It's an interesting and sweet journey in the film."
Arcel says that Taylor was able to hold his own, even opposite a force like Idris Elba. 'He was an acting machine," Arcel says. 'In between scenes he'd be playing soccer, but when he got in front of the camera he would be totally focused. He has a great energy and amazing instincts for a 14-year-old kid."
The Look Of Alternate Dimensions
Arcel and his cinematographer, Rasmus Videbaek, reteam for the fifth time with The Dark Tower. The winner of a Bodil Award (the Danish equivalent of the Academy Award®) for his work on A Royal Affair, Rasmus Videbaek says, 'There are vastly different visuals in the movie: we move from the intimacy of Jake's small apartment where our cameras are psychologically close to him, as if trying to get into his head, and then when this little guy arrives in an enormous new world, we move to wide epic shots in a blindingly bright desert."
'This film has everything in it and it meant mixing it altogether, from small scenes in Jake's world using handheld cameras to focus on his pen and drawings, to the massive vistas of the Mid-World, to shooting night scenes with two hundred crew in a forest, to very choreographed action sequences," Rasmus Videbæk continues. 'If, indeed, there is a new take on how we've shot this film, it's bringing together all these very different elements from documentary to crazy action."
As many of King's works are, the film is grounded in reality with supernatural elements hidden in the everyday world. The visual interpretation of the author's worlds was in the hands of production designer Christopher Glass. 'Our main goal was to transport people right into Stephen King's world," says Christopher Glass.
With the story set in both modern day New York and in Mid-World, Arcel sought to contrast the two worlds, with the Tower providing the connection. 'I wanted to visually present the modern day world in a grounded and intimate way – we're just being with Jake and the other characters in his life there." After the first 15 minutes of the film, it would open up and expand, he says, 'like a CinemaScope experience, with John Ford full-scale vistas."
Christopher Glass says that contrasting Mid-World and our world is a designer's dream. 'There are so many diverse landscapes and scenes, and a journey and a progression that travels from New York City to Mid-World, and to the Tower itself," he says. 'It's fun to create a world that combines strange with ordinary at the same time, mixing normalcy with stuff that's a little bit off."
Christopher Glass says that his greatest challenge was trying to match King's layered and complex vision to create an entire world. 'It's always a challenge when you are interpreting somebody else's writing and a very popular series of novels with graphic images," he notes. 'The difficulty is because you need to live up to the source material – which we don't want to betray – but at the same time making it something that contemporary audiences would find new and exciting. Fans have their own ideas of what these worlds look like, so there's been a lot of speculation and anticipation, and it was our job in making the movie to fill that void."
Arcel describes Mid-World as a more fantastical version of Earth. 'It's a world parallel to ours. It looks different from Earth – it's otherworldly, with alien landscapes and a barren wasteland, and the characters who live there are very different from us: they're gunslingers, sorcerers, creatures, monsters."
Part of the film was shot on location in South Africa, which offered unique landscapes and awe-inspiring forests for the alternate dimension. The production took the company to such remote places as the barren Karoo desert, where they built the Mid-World sets. To add a further layer of a parallel universe, the company moved to the Cedarburg mountain range, where the protected nature reserve features dramatic caves and characteristic red rocks.
'Mid-World is a sort of a wasteland, yet not quite," says Glass. 'There are a lot of remnants of an ancient civilization that are scattered around this place; weirdly, the civilization is a future civilization that has now become ancient."
'In South Africa, we found otherworldly deserts – it was almost like being on Mars," Glass continues. 'The horizon just kept going; I've never seen anything like that before. I think that there's a romance and a certain sense of adventure that goes into filming in Africa."
The location of the Manni Village was found in a wine farm area just outside Cape Town. Here, in a valley almost hidden against a dramatic mountain drop, the filmmakers built the village - a refuge for a group of survivors of war looking for safety from the world. The Manni are simple people, struggling to survive through sustenance living.
'Nik described the Manni as a cross between Amish and something more tribal," says Glass. 'Nik wanted realism, something very similar to the Dust Bowl in America in the 1930s, an existence like The Grapes of Wrath. We referenced Andrew Wyeth paintings for the color palette and the spartan nature of how they live."
To create such a unique society, Glass researched cultures all over the world, from areas ranging from Mongolia to Eastern Europe to Siberia to the extreme and remote places like the Artic circle where people eke out a living.
It took the art department two months to build Glass's dystopian architecture, including a village square, surrounded by the wooden houses of the town folk. 'We consciously chose to make it earth tones, which definitely fit in with the hills and the mountains around us, almost like a camouflage so that they villagers are unseen and feel secure from the threats out there in the big world."
The Crimson King – the force of evil that is the undercurrent for everything that Walter does – also influenced the design. 'He's almost like the Devil – he lives in another dimension," says Arcel. 'A lot of the ideas are already in the novels, such as the sign of the Crimson King, which is a crooked eye. I had an idea of the universe in which the Crimson King lives, that it would be a place a bit like a volcano, so there's a motif going on through the film: darkness and fire, which is also part of Jake's nightmares. So, everything that relates to the world of the villains had to be either about darkness or fire. It's red, and black, and throughout the journey we have variations of those dark, fiery elements."
Before Jake goes to Mid-World, he is living in New York, troubled by strange dreams and visions that he doesn't understand. To portray young Jake's isolation, the filmmakers grounded him in a relatable world. 'Jake is a regular kid, so we didn't want to locate him in wealthy Upper West Side New York City. His compact, regular digs make him a little more street, like he could actually go out and have these adventures, and you believe it. He's created his own little world in his room."
Jake has captured his bizarre dreams in a series of sketches. While Glass is an accomplished designer, he says one of his greatest challenges was creating the sketches. 'It's hard for an adult to draw like a kid. I even tried with my left hand, but we just couldn't crack it."
Glass found a solution when he launched a casting call for young artists, and two 15-year-old artists landed the design job of a lifetime. 'We showed them our concept illustrations, then took them away and asked them to draw from memory so they could mimic how Jake would have drawn them from memory, after waking up from a dream."
And then there are the places where our world and Mid-World collide – for example, the Dixie Pig, where the vampires and the Taheen creatures can be found hanging out in New York City.
The Dixie Pig is a small city within a city. In Cape Town, the filmmakers located an abandoned shopping mall with multiple levels and spiraling ramps like a parking structure. The monstrous set consists of layers of floor levels, basement to rooftop, mazes of corridors and small rooms for the vendors involved in strange work: a butcher to slaughter their peculiar food; a face mask shop; an operating room for fitment of body skins; an endangered animal market; an aquarium; an herb shop; a school were the Taheen learn to act like a human beings; a club area where Sayre (Jackie Earle Haley) and the bad guys hang out; an altar; and finally, a top level, which has areas for torture and hair collection. Generally, the filmmakers sought to keep the design grounded, but for the Dixie Pig, all bets were off. 'It's one of the few sets where we could go a little crazier," says Glass.
By constructing a 360-degree set, Glass says that he was able to provide atmosphere, but also give Arcel the freedom to shoot from any angle. 'We dressed every corner. We could shoot in every direction, and even continue down to the next level and get all the shooting and gunfire action and explosions right. Every action beat was different, so we had to solve this creatively."
The set was also vital because it would be the setting for the film's climactic battle. 'It's the culmination of the movie, where Walter and Roland come face to face. Walter knows that Roland is on his way, so they're readying for battle."
Creatures & Monsters
The film's Extras Casting Director added another layer of King's multidimensional cast of characters for background and bit parts, populating the Dixie Pig with workers in a psychiatric hospital, Taheens learning human language in the school, and blood-drinking vampires.
'I searched for weird, wonderful and interesting faces with special features, an eclectic bunch, people you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley," says Merrimen. 'We had to make sure that they would scare and intimidate. We went as far as rehearsing them in different areas of the set to match them for hair color and eyebrow tints, especially for the vampires."
Design and creation of the Taheen creatures and Trackers fell to Graham Press and Clinton Aiden Smith, respectively. Taheens are slacked-faced, human-like creatures that nobody else sees the way Jake sees them; Press explains the challenge was to work out how to marry the real and the magic that happens on screen. 'They're animal-looking underneath, and trying to blend into the real world by wearing masks." Press created prosthetic masks for some sixty characters, whose slack skin make up took up to three hours to apply.
In Press's make-up effects studio were several options for Glass to choose from. 'He came into our studio and started going -I want that, I want this, I want that pig, I want that baboon, I want these molds, I want arms and legs. So in the Dixie Pig, you'll see a headless German Shepherd dog, the baboon's face is all burned; the pig's eyes and tongue are missing. They are all way past their sell by date."
Clinton Aiden Smith discusses his path to design King's extraordinary creatures. 'To try to get into his head, you need to think completely out of the box, and consider any possibilities that could add a certain flavor to the storytelling. Our brief from Nik was to take King's description in the books a step further in bringing it to life. For the cat-like Taheen Trackers, we had to ask ourselves, what type of cats they are, what type of fur, what type of body movement, and we took inspiration from the big cat family – a panther, a lion, a tiger – and worked out ways to incorporate their movement into human form. We added intense detail for elements that would be exposed; creating the hair was a combination of a flocking gun, which generates an electrostatic current to make the hair stand up, and fine little hairs were punched in by hand. Special contact lenses and dentures all added to bringing the characters to life."
Jackie Earle Haley's character, Sayre – a half-human, half-Taheen – is in charge of The Dixie Pig and its strange residents. 'My character is very un-human, he has some animal quality to him and his mask makes him look quasi normal."
Arming And Clothing The Gunslinger
To illustrate King's vision of the guns, Key Armorer for the Gunslinger, Lance Peters, says, 'It was quite difficult because Stephen King was very young when he wrote the books and by his own admission, he didn't know a lot about guns at the time. The design of Roland's guns are based on a Remington, but slightly modified with much larger barrels, cartridges, and engravings, because we got a lot of artistic license in as much as there are parallel universes in this film."
'He is a gunslinger, so the guns could not look cartoony," says Huggins. 'Idris is very tall so they had to look weighty and sizeable. The way that Stephen King talks about the guns in his books is that the shooter has to have a certain power to be able to even hold them. We tried to physically match what he evoked in his writing."
Peters created the guns by hand for the film.
For Roland's costume, the filmmakers similarly went to the source while also creating a look that was entirely unique for the film. 'We wanted to be respectful to the images that are out there, and the fan base which has a very particular image of The Gunslinger – the coat, the rose, the handkerchief, and the hat – and at the same time, we wanted to make it our own," says Idris Elba. 'Trish wanted him to be less like a cowboy and more like a knight in shining armor, so his body suit looks a bit like a bullet proof vest, and his Excalibur-type guns are his swords."
About The Action
'The gunslinger is ridiculously fast," says Idris Elba. 'There's no looking when he's putting his guns in and out of his belt; that was our focus. As a kid you play pretend, and now here I am – it's like a living playground of the imagination." To master the Gunslinger's moves required both firearm training and an extreme physical fitness. For the latter, Elba trained extensively in boxing and mixed marital arts training, both before and during filming.
Stunt Supervisor Grant Hulley says that the largest-scale stunts in the film are seen in the Dixie Pig sequence, as Roland tries to save Jake from Walter. 'It's an enormous area where the real gunslinger in Roland is revealed. He is firing multiple shots and goes through hundreds of rounds, diving across a chasm. The action progresses to the Dixie Pig creatures inside aquariums getting shot, with the water-filled tanks exploding."
For The Fans
Over the years, Stephen King has established an astounding fan base of diehard disciples, and the writer has millions of followers on social media. Because the Dark Tower series is the nexus for most of the King universe and crosses over into so many of King's other books, it was important to the filmmakers to make a few sly nods to King's other written works which the fans may recognise.
'We had a lot of fun planting hidden Stephen King references in the film," says Arcel. 'I wanted fans to sitting in the audience, thinking, -Oh is that from another Stephen King story?'"
The Dark Tower
Release Date: August 17th, 2017
The Dark Tower and all associated characters ™ & © 2017 MRC. The Dark Tower, the movie ©2017 CPII and MRC. All Rights Reserved.