Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Mick Garris is one of my first friends from when I moved to LA. He’s one of those guys who you can go three years without seeing, and as soon as you start talking again, it’s like picking up right where you left off. Always friendly, always encouraging, Mick was the first person to let me on a set after I moved to LA in 1990. My writing partner and I spent all summer running around the Warner and Sony lots while Mick was shooting SLEEPWALKERS, and he was incredibly open with allowing us to intrude on every facet of the production, all the way through the wrap party where we made drunken morons of ourselves. I’m sure Madchen Amick still has a restraining order against me as a result.
His new film, RIDING THE BULLET, is very probably the best thing he’s ever directed. Personal, quirky, and not at all what I expected after reading the Stephen King novella, it’s a sweet-natured ghost story about a young man facing the notion of death. It’s packed with good performances, and there’s an energy to it that’s unlike anything else Mick’s ever made. I can’t really write a proper review of it for many reasons. Even if there wasn’t a fourteen year friendship there to complicate things, there’s an impending professional relationship that means I am going to hand things over to the insanely capable Mr. Beaks this morning for a darn good interview:
It’s telling that many of today’s top horror directors are, first and foremost, unabashed fans. While the genre connects in a massively commercial fashion once or twice a year if it’s lucky, it is sustained through its many droughts by a faithful fandom that will endure countless Charles Band and Roger Corman quickies just to make sure they’re not missing the next PIRANHA or RE-ANIMATOR or EVIL DEAD (or, on a less revolutionary scale, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS). But even the most devoted dumpster diver can’t catch it all, and that’s where a connoisseur like Mick Garris looms large in the genre’s recent history.
Though there were fans that made the transition from the theater seat to the director’s chair, few, if any, are owed a greater debt that Garris, whose tireless documenting of that period allowed all of us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into such classics as THE HOWLING, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE FOG. Unsurprisingly, his enthusiasm led him to the director’s chair, where he has established himself as Stephen King’s most preferred cinematic collaborator on such highly regarded works as THE STAND and the update of THE SHINING. This Friday, he’ll tackle King’s more contemplative side with RIDING THE BULLET, a film that I’ll be seeing in the theaters with the rest of you this weekend, and only because I couldn’t carve out time before its opening to see it. Relax. I’m not avoiding it. Moriarty’s been enthusing over it for the last few weeks, and its reception in FanTasia was overly positive.
So, here’s Mick to discuss his latest work, the challenges of adapting King, the perils of making a “Mom Film” in the horror genre, and plenty of other goodies about his erstwhile Z Channel show which is the stuff of geek legend. Mick’s one of the nicest guys in the business, and he’s a great interview as you’re about to find out.
RIDING THE BULLET is your… fourth collaboration with Stephen King?
Does that count DESPERATION?
DESPERATION’s number six. There was a television movie that was a story by King and a story by (Clive) Barker called QUICKSILVER HIGHWAY that I adapted and directed and produced.
But this is the first time you’ve received sole screenwriting credit on a King project.
Other than QUICKSILVER HIGHWAY, yes, that’s right.
Does this mean that you’ve become *that* trusted? Do you have a better sense of how King’s mind works, and is that terrifying?
You know, we’re really good friends, and we work together a lot because we have a lot of common bonds and common touchstones in our cultural and, uh, other living history. It’s not that it’s been taking this long for me to write myself – I mean, I started screenwriting before I ever directed. It’s just that this was the first time I came across a project that, when I read it, I responded in a way that, “Gee, I’d really like to make this into a movie.” It may come across to most readers as a really simple little story, but it just struck something with me at the time – I was going through a bunch of shit – and (King) was really fine with it, and very enthusiastic about the script.
It’s kind of a big mom film.
Yeah, kind of a mom-a-thon. (Laughs.) It’s really funny. Have you seen it?
You know, I haven’t yet. (And still haven’t thanks to my ever-shifting schedule, damn it.)
I know Drew has seen it, and is really enthusiastic about it.
I talked to him last night, and, yeah, he *really* liked it.
Well, it’s amazing. I’ve seen at least two or three reviews from people who were at FanTasia that said, “I’m going to take my mom to see this.” (Laughs.) Which is not really what the intent was, but I don’t mind it. It may turn off some horror fans to hear someone say that. But the reason it resonated for me when I read the story… it’s basically a “Sophie’s Choice”: a college student is hitchhiking home to see his mother who has just a stroke when he’s picked up by what may be the Messenger of Death, who says, “By the time we get to the next town, one of you has to die – you or your mother – and you’ve got to choose.” So, it’s about mortality with a twenty-one year old, who would never otherwise think about mortality. When I read the story, it was right after King’s accident. My wife’s mother had just been declared… well, that she had a fatal illness. My father had passed away a couple of years before, my brother had passed away several years before that, so it just happened to hit me at a time when it didn’t read just like a ghost story to me.
Did the story just kind of pour out of you? Was it one of those situations?
Yeah. You know, I sat down and wrote it. The story is only a thirty-page short story that King wrote, and the script I did was one-hundred-and-some pages. I just sat down at page one and wrote, and less than two weeks later had my first draft. I write quickly anyway, but this one just touched on a lot of things. I decided to set it in 1969 rather than ’99 when King wrote it, and then add a lot of things that felt more personal.
Any certain pop cultural things?
A whole bunch of pop cultural things. There’s a lot of 1969 music in there, including The Zombies’ “Time of the Season.” You’re kind of a music guy, aren’t you?
I love music.
Well, I read your (RAMONES: END OF THE CENTURY) review, and I can’t wait to see it.
Yeah, even though I made two critical errors in there. Ugh. But, yes, I was raised by a music lover, and that era especially, which was when my parents were living in the Bay Area.
Well, King is several years older than me, but we still have similar musical backgrounds. I was a rock-and-roll singer for, like, eight years, and that’s part of my background. Although I set the film in 1969, when I was in early high school, I remember it very clearly. It just felt like such a genuine time when people meant more than possessions, particularly to this new generation that was deciding that there were more important things than doing what daddy did. So, the lead character... I made him into an art student who’s very obsessed with death imagery, and thinks it’s romantic and beautiful and all that. Bernie Wrightson did all the artwork, by the way.
And, so, when the choice is given to him, it’s got a little more impact than just, “Your mom is forty-eight, she’s had a stroke… why not choose her?” Now, it’s, “Well, you think death is so beautiful and fantastic and romantic; why not take the dive?” And he even attempts a suicide early in the film, so the stakes are ramped up a little bit.
I know Bernie is a trusted collaborator of Stephen’s, but could you talk about getting him to contribute the artwork? That must’ve been pretty exciting.
It was fantastic. I met Bernie through Frank Darabont on the set of THE GREEN MILE, actually, the day King came out to visit, which I think was King’s fiftieth birthday, if I’m not mistaken. So, I met Bernie there, and we really hit it off great. He’s such a great guy, and I’ve always been a fan of his work since the SWAMP THING comics. Finally, when it came time to do (RIDING THE BULLET), I thought, “Who would be more perfect than Bernie Wrightson? I wonder if he’d do this.” I sent him the script, and he said, “This reads like my life. I’d *love* to do this.” (Laughs.) The whole art student thing really resonated with him. And it was so great to bring him up to Vancouver to paint these wall-sized paintings to go in the bathroom. In one scene, they come to life in animation, which is kind of cool.
Getting back to the idea of a “Mom Film”, guys generally go for the “Dad Film”, like FIELD OF DREAMS, particularly as it pertains to Fantasy. They’re a little more squeamish about movies that ask them to examine their relationships with their mothers.
Yeah, that’s probably true, but my parents split up when I was fairly young, and I know King’s parents split when he was even younger. So, that may have had something to do, again, with how it resonated with me when I read the story. It’s about a kid who is brought up by his mother, and it has to do with the loss of a father at an early age, too, which is something I kind of amped up in the screenplay, inventing a backstory that kind of haunts it all the way through. It’s a road trip, but the whole mom thing… you’re right, people are a little squeamish about that, and maybe the audience will be, too. And it may well be why it’s an independent movie, and not a studio feature.
But once you break down that resistance, I think sometimes you can really touch on something that guys don’t think about that often. And when it hits them, it hits them hard.
Absolutely. And here’s a choice between life and death for a twenty-one year old character who has never thought about death in any way other than, “Isn’t this a cool reaper I’m painting.” To be touched by that… it changes you. It deepens you, is what the film tries to say. It was great when we showed it in Montreal at FanTasia. It was closing night, and we had just gotten the first print out of the lab the day before, so I had never seen it finished before seeing it with 700 of my closest friends. (Laughs.) To hear people actually sniffling and crying at the end of the movie was something that you don’t much experience at your general cineplex horror movie.
Was that even something you had expected?
It’s unafraid of being sentimental, so I didn’t expect it, but I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if that happened?” I’m sure there are going to be people, particularly in the horror community, who think it’s overly sentimental or sappy, but, you know, it’s genuine. One of the reasons Barbara Hershey responded to it so well and took it on was because it was unafraid of being sentimental. It was… let’s say “emotional” rather than “sentimental”, because that has so many negative connotations.
Some of those horror fans are guys who would probably chastise Lucio Fulci for going soft on, I don’t know, THE BEYOND as compared to ZOMBIE.
(Laughs.) Exactly. “Where’s the spike through the eyeball?” You know, we have some of our horrific moments in it. I’ve always wanted this to be a horror movie, but I wanted it to be a little more. “Never less than a horror movie, but hopefully more than a horror movie,” is how I said it to the money people. (Laughs.)
Well, and having done the “Mom Film” with King in SLEEPWALKERS, but, um…
(Laughs.) Yeah, that’s a different kind.
(Laughing.) A horse of a particularly… I don’t know, a different Oedipal tincture.
And that after PSYCHO 4.
So, yeah. Geez. What’s going on here?
Don’t tell my mother. (Laughs.) But it was very funny that SLEEPWALKERS followed PSYCHO 4.
I’d like to talk about what seems like a dead project right now: THE TALISMAN.
(Resignedly.) Yeah. It was one of the things I was most passionate about writing, even though it was for television. There had been a script written for a miniseries that just ignored the book, so when I got a chance to dig into it I really went back to the book. It’s extremely faithful. It was with Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy and Spielberg all producing – people I’d worked with in the past extensively. Spielberg finally said, “Yeah, okay, let’s go to a network with this. We haven’t been able to make it as a feature, so let’s try to do it as a miniseries. Let’s have Mick write and direct it, and you can go to ABC.” ABC never answered for weeks. Finally, I got a call from Kathy Kennedy saying, “The network said it’s just too expensive”. It was really because of who was involved: Spielberg, Kathy Kennedy, Frank Mashall, Stephen King, Peter Straub and myself – all on the above the line. But they knew that before! I thought, “Hadn’t they read the book? Didn’t they look at who the producers were?” So, that ended it after everyone had been very passionate about the script I had done.
You’d think with all of those track records that they’d be a lot more willing to take on a project that might be a little more expensive than your typical miniseries.
ABC changed a lot after Disney bought it, and I’ll just leave it at that, since I’m doing DESPERATION for them. (Laughs.) But, then, Frank and Kathy said, “We’d love for you to do (THE TALISMAN) as a feature.” That’s what I thought was going to happen, but various people changed their minds. I know Spielberg was working with Ehren Kruger on THE RING at the time, and when that came out and did so well, he asked him to do a pass at it. I haven’t seen any of the feature drafts, and I would’ve loved to have tackled that, but that’s not the way it turned out.
That’s too bad.
Even just writing it. I wouldn’t have minded not directing it.
For me, it’s one of the top five things King has ever written.
It’s pretty spectacular.
And, obviously, with Straub. Would you be comfortable sharing King’s take on THE TALISMAN debacle?
I don’t really know. I don’t think he’s been involved in it in any way since then. They bought the rights to the book from him long ago. I had sent him my script, but I’ve really not discussed it with him. I really don’t think he’s part of the process. The main history of King and the movies is that people buy his material and say, “Goodbye”.
Having worked a lot with King, and having done so many adaptations, has that sparked an interest in your own prose writing?
I’ve been writing short fiction since I was twelve, and I put out a book a couple of years ago of my short stories (LIFE IN THE CINEMA), and a screenplay based on one of them. King wrote the introduction, Tobe Hooper wrote the afterword, and Clive Barker did the cover art. Two of the stories are Hollywood-based horror stories, and I’ve actually adapted them into the first two chapters of my first novel, which I’ve finished and (voice swelling with self-deprecating pride) I’ve got a big-time New York publishing agent handling it. The editors all love it, and the publishers all think it’s too weird to publish. My agent said he’s gotten the most unbelievably wonderful rejection letters he’s ever seen. It’s too horrific to sell as a Hollywood satire, and too satirical to sell as straight horror.
Well, when you’re eliciting that kind of creativity from the publishing houses, that’s *something*.
There you go! (Laughs.) It’s fine with me. At least I don’t have to rely on that for my living.
I was curious about the difference between shooting for television and film. What kind of adjustments do you have to make when shifting between those mediums?
You know, I don’t consider any difference because I don’t watch network television. I have rarely ever seen a miniseries other than something I’ve done, or a friend has done. I don’t watch T.V. series, so I try to approach them the same way. The vast differences, obviously, are in budget and in the length of the show; you know, you have to do a specific number of acts for television. And the censorship. But as far as how I do the work, it’s the same whether I’m doing a feature or television; it’s just that (for television) you have to say every hour is, I think, forty-two-and-a-half minutes of programming. And usually there’s a big budgetary difference. Of course, in the case of RIDING THE BULLET, it was not much more expensive than a healthy sized television movie. An HBO movie, probably, not an ABC movie. As far as framing and composition… really, I work the same way. I figure everyone watches movies on DVD anyway, so you don’t need to shoot more close-ups or cut less often or more often because you’re doing something for television. On the technical end, I treat it the same way.
Another thing I want to touch on… I always heard about “The Fantasy Film Festival” on Z Channel when I was growing up. It was one of those fascinating, kind of intangible things; I had no idea what it looked like. So, I was so excited when your interview turned up on Criterion’s new DVD of VIDEODROME.
Isn’t that great? I mean, it is for me, but I look and see this clumsy version of me that looks like he could be my son.
Well, yeah. And to imagine that period when Universal had John Landis, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg making horror films.
It was a great time.
I would love to see more of those interviews.
Well, I’ve got a bunch of them. They did not save the master tapes. The cable company that did the show is now Adelphia; they’ve had two or three owners since it was Century Cable when I was doing it. The masters have disappeared, and all I have are bad Betamax copies taped off the air. If I had good copies, I would love to whip together some DVDs; although, it might be really embarrassing. (Laughs.) It was a great time, and, even before that, I was at Avco-Embassy when they did THE FOG, THE HOWLING and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. And all of those “Making Of’s” that I did are on the DVD’s.
And they’re great. I mean, you got to be on the set of these genre classics.
I’m even *in* THE HOWLING. I’m like, “Wow! How did that happen?” I feel like the Zelig of horror.
(Laughing.) There are worse titles to have. But being there in that era, it must’ve been so inspiring. It’s no wonder that you came out of that and were able to get this great career going.
It was a different time, and nobody else seemed to be interested or nobody was doing what I thought would be interesting to do. I’m sure there were plenty of people who could’ve done it a lot better than I did, but they didn’t think about it, so that left a big wide opening for me.
I feel like we’re all in your debt, because, to watch these featurettes… that’s pretty much all we have documenting that era.
Yeah, there wasn’t a lot of coverage of that stuff, Spielberg aside. I mean, he covered everything he did pretty extensively, from JAWS on.
Do you have any fond memories of a particular set?
Well, I wasn’t around them *that* much. It would usually be for a couple of days, or something. THE THING was amazing. In fact, that “Making Of” has never gotten onto a DVD. I shot that on film like I did for THE GOONIES and GREMLINS. I got to go up to Alaska and British Columbia where they were shooting on a glacier, and see all this amazing stuff. I spent the night on a logging barge with the crew off of Hyder, Alaska, and it was unbelievably exciting to be able to go up there and shoot this stuff with a cameraman who has since gone on to win an Oscar. That was amazing. Being on the POLTERGEIST set, even though I didn’t do a “Making Of” on that. I was a consultant; I did the interview of Spielberg for the making of POLTERGEIST for Frank Marshall. To be on that set and watch Tobe and Steven on the set, it was really fascinating.
I’ve got to ask this, because this is one of those things I’ve always heard about. The PIRANHA interview you did for Z Channel.
Joe Dante wore a fish head for the interview?
No, (producer) Jon Davison did. We opened the show and introduced people, and Jon had a Piranha head on. I introduced him, and he said, “As you can see, Mick, this was a very personal project for me.”
But did it ever air?
Yeah. It did indeed, and, actually, when they were doing the movie about Z Channel earlier this year, I was in Vancouver shooting RIDING THE BULLET. They wanted me to do an interview for it, so they transferred all of my Betamax tapes to mini-DV so I could put them on to DVD for myself. I’ll certainly be glad to let you look at them.
I’d love that.
I’ve got two or three missing. I did have to redo one, and it might’ve been PIRANHA, because they mocked the movie way too much. The program director said, “You know, people aren’t going to watch the movie, now,” because we ran the interviews before the movie.
At that point, you’re like, “Anyone tuning in for PIRANHA is going to watch it no matter what we say.”
Yeah! C’mon, it’s Z Channel!
Did you have much contact with Jerry Harvey?
Almost none. My experience with him was not all that great. He basically cancelled my show without ever telling me. I kept calling, “Well, who do we have for the next one? What are the movies I’ve got to work with, so I can call the guests?” Never returned the call, never returned the call, and, then, finally, an assistant to the original program director, Hal Kaufman, basically said, “Well, didn’t he tell you the show’s not on anymore?” “Well, no he didn’t.”
What year was this?
That was 1982.
Have you seen the documentary?
It’s great. It’s a little long, but it’s great.
I didn’t mind that. Just watching the collision of clips from high to low, THE LEOPARD to Eurotrash Erotica was just—
It was fantastic. It was all just about loving movies. And a really, really sad situation with Jerry Harvey, obviously.
But this unconditional love for any kind of film – I miss that. You read something like FILM COMMENT, where they’re sometimes afraid to embrace trashier fare.
Yeah, give me VIDEO WATCHDOG. All the old Joe Dante reviews… that’s great stuff. I’m sure you know that Joe Dante did a lot of second unit on ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. I just love that, because Joe is so *not* a rock-and-roll kind of guy.
I heard that while you were making SLEEPWALKERS that Spielberg would come over and hang out to decompress from HOOK.
He came over one day, and just hung out. They were going to do PLASTIC MAN at the time, and I wondered… “Is there something you want to talk about?” “No, no! I just want to watch.” I just wondered why he was hanging out, and I guess he was just enjoying it. I was shooting a scene with cat monsters, he was doing HOOK, and Francis (Ford Coppola), on another stage, was doing DRACULA. So, it was like Francis, Steven… and Mick. What’s wrong with this picture? (Laughs.) But later that day, he asked me to do PLASTIC MAN for them, which never happened.
Finally, I have to confess that I was the guy who infiltrated the “Masters of Horror” dinner.
Oh, that was you!
Yeah… that was me.
Well, that’s alright. And I know who it probably was through. It’s very cool. Now, you’ve heard about the show.
Yes, and I was hoping you could talk about it a little.
We actually have it fully financed without taking it to a network. We’re going to do thirteen episodes up front; it’s financed by a DVD company (Anchor Bay). I’ve got commitments from John Landis, John Carpenter, George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Guillermo Del Toro, Joe Dante… just a ton of people are going to be doing hour-long episodes. And they’ll be censor-free hour-longs – no commercials.
That’s great. I do have to say, however, that I still have nightmares of John Landis barking from across that table at me.
(Laughing.) That’s John! Don’t worry about it; he forgets about it right away.
It was just that I’m staring him down in the presence of some of the most influential filmmakers in my life.
Thank god there wasn’t a terrorist act that night. There’d never be another good horror movie.
Thanks. Great fun, Beaks, and as RIDING THE BULLET rolls out in limited release in the weeks ahead, give it a try. It’s a gem.