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Mr. Beaks Gets to the End of THE MIST with Frank Darabont!

(Disclaimer: this entire interview is one big spoiler for THE MIST. If you haven't seen it yet, please do something about that. There's a very nice DVD readily available, and a Blu-Ray disc scheduled for release on September 16th. Once you check it out, I think you'll want to come back and read what Frank Darabont has to say about the film's stunning conclusion.)

If I were to revise my Top 15 of 2007, I'd find a way to squeeze Frank Darabont's THE MIST. Though I still have a few problems with the somewhat contrived conflict of the first act (seemingly reasonable characters often take opposing viewpoints because it's narratively expedient), Darabont rewards our suspension of disbelief with a harrowing horror parable that measures up to Rod Serling at his very best. It's especially effective because you don't expect the writer-director of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE GREEN MILE to keep piling on the grim. Even if you're acquainted with the classic Stephen King novella, you still figure that the humanist in Darabont will win out. Surely the kid will at least make it out al-- Bang. And that's just the first sucker punch. As far as I'm concerned, it's the one that comes after the gunshots that has THE MIST bucking for "horror classic" status. Though the film didn't catch on commercially when it was released to theaters last Thanksgiving, people who wrote it off as a low-budget genre programmer are discovering that it's a helluva lot more than that. The question is whether they admire or resent the film for daring to be more than just a scare machine; judging from the many conversations/arguments I've had regarding this film (and its finale) since last November, there seems to be a fifty-fifty split. While THE MIST may never inspire a SHAWSHANK-level groundswell of popular support, I'm confident it will acquire its fair share of ardent defenders as the years wear on. So when I was offered the opportunity to chat with Darabont at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con, I leapt at it - even though the interview would be held on the convention floor (where the din of the geeks is hell on transcribing). Darabont was running a tad late for an autograph signing, but we still managed to get in a solid ten minutes of discussion on the meaning of THE MIST's ending. Once Darabont exchanged pleasantries with a just-arrived Thomas Jane, we dove right in.

Beaks: It's great to be talking about this movie with you now. I missed you during the theatrical release, but now that THE MIST has been out for a while, we can focus on the ending. It's engendered some very passionate responses.

Frank Darabont: Pro and con.

Beaks: I've had a number of arguments over the conclusion, and interpretations tend to break down along political lines - though I do have a left leaning friend who read it as a conservative tract.

Darabont: Conservative!? Oh, no, baby! That's an outraged liberal tract!

Beaks: I agree. But she read your punishment of Thomas Jane's character as a swipe at defeatist liberal attitudes.

Darabont: (Pause) Wow!

Beaks: This is a very well-read individual, too. Very intelligent. But she was pretty resolute on this.

Darabont: Here's my feeling on such things. Whether I agree or disagree with this reading, I am absolutely delighted that the movie opens itself to interpretation. SHAWSHANK certainly does for people. THE GREEN MILE does for people. THE MAJESTIC probably less so. But I love movies that are open to interpretation, where people infer, or bring something of themselves to the table. If that's her interpretation, she's a right to it. As long as it stirs some kind of reaction. There's so much stuff we see that just washes over us; it plays too by-the-numbers, and then you're done. There is no interpretation to be had. There's just, "Okay, I watched something."

Beaks: Filmmakers are afraid to end their films with Bonnie and Clyde getting shot to shit, and then say, "Okay, there's your movie!"

Darabont: "Bye!" (Laughs) Well, I grew up in the 70s watching the movies that were coming out then, and I'm not the blanket acolyte who says, "All movies made in the 70s were genius." No, I was there, and there was plenty of by-the-numbers crap then, too. But I certainly will concede that there was more experimentation going on - certainly within the studio system - than there is now. We're trying stuff like that: the non-obvious stuff, the leave-it-open-to-interpretation stuff. I think that's wonderful. It's definitely what excites me. I don't necessarily want to walk out of the theater knowing exactly every stroke that the storyteller made. Because if I don't, then I get to walk out and think about it a little bit. "Gee, what do I have to bring to that?" It's like Stanley Kubrick movies - not that I'm comparing what I do to Stanley Kubrick. But there was always something that was open to interpretation to a greater or lesser degree, and that was always so stimulating to me, so intellectually exciting.

Beaks: Absolutely. That's the kind of excitement that got me queuing up multiple times for EYES WIDE SHUT. It was the type of film that raised so many questions, I wanted to go back and engage with it again. THE MIST was definitely one of those experiences where, after I'd absorbed the shock of the first viewing, I wanted to get back in there. I didn't think you were going to take us all the way there. I kept assuming there was a safety net, and, because of that, I left the theater shaking.

Darabont: Really?

Beaks: Oh, yeah. I just didn't see it going there.

Darabont: You know, some people love that sensation that you just described, and some people really don't. I knew going in that that would be a divisive thing, but some of my favorite movies were [divisive].

Beaks: Do you find that, after the fact, people are beginning to embrace this as they did SHAWSHANK? For different reasons, of course.

Darabont: I have no idea. I think only time will really tell, and I don't think enough time has passed for me to get a sense of it. But, geez, it took years for me to grasp that there was something special going on with SHAWSHANK, that it had some lasting value for people. So... I don't know. Come back in five or ten years, and we'll finally have an answer to that question. A fair one, anyway. I hope so! It'd be great!

Beaks: Do you think the film's reception was due to people not wanting to be hit in the face with the harsh realities of what it is we're going through as a nation - even on a metaphorical, microcosmic level? We just don't want to be perturbed?

Darabont: Oh, yeah. The whole "Don't Worry, Be Happy" syndrome that we have as Americans has never allowed for much getting slapped in the face by reality, I'm afraid. Certainly now is no different. It may be to a greater degree now than it has been before, but, again, time will tell. Retrospect is always the greatest tool. But, look, a part of me doesn't blame the average moviegoer for wanting to go to the movies half the time and walk out feeling happy because they saw the superhero beat the supervillain. I get that. Shit, I like that. I want that sort of film catharsis, too. Just not at the exclusion of something that challenges me on occasion, or kicks me in the nuts, or dares to piss me off - because I dig those movies as well. The art form, I believe, should count for more than just the opening weekend gross. That's how I feel about what we do. It should count for more than that. And when it does, I'm such a happy man. When I see PAN'S LABYRINTH, I say, "Thank god! Art happened! An artist showed up to work, and he painted with beautiful, elegant brushstrokes." It's like a Monet. It'll last for a while. It's not a blockbuster I'm going to forget in ten minutes.

Beaks: The nice thing with PAN'S LABYRINTH, though, is that people had time to discover that film. It was handled in such a way that the opening weekend was never a factor. But, getting back to the tone of THE MIST, I'm wondering if you were working on it pre-9/11, and, if so, whether the tenor of the piece darkened after 9/11.

I think my idea for what THE MIST was going to be was pretty intact prior to that event. I think what changed after 9/11 was my determination to make the movie. It felt like it was more relevant than ever. The issues it deals with are timeless: it deals with extremism; it deals with a mental condition of fascism; it deals with mob mentality. Those things have always been around, but it just went from being a timeless story to being a very timely story. To me. And that's what really made me want to buckle down and do it. The intention was always there to do it, but [9/11] just sort of reinvigorated the need to do it.

Beaks: When you were developing and, ultimately, shopping the film, did you ever get notes that said, "Well, obviously, you're not really going to kill the kid."?

Darabont: (Laughing) No. What I got was financiers saying "Okay, we'll fund your movie, but, of course, you have to change the ending." And I'd say, "Of course, I won't. And, of course, you won't finance it." I understood. And we shook hands and parted ways. That's why I wound up making it for Bob [Weinstein]. Bob was the only guy who said, "Wow, this is ballsy, this is crazy. I can get behind this, but you have to make it for a price." And so I wound up making it for him for about half the budget other people had been offering me. And I thought, "You know, that's a fair tradeoff. I won't make a salary, and I won't get the little things that I usually get for making a movie. But I get to make the movie my way. And I have to shoot it in six weeks. Financial accommodation was well worth being able to maintain the creative vision of the movie, and it's a choice I'd make again. I'm just happy to have gotten the movie made.

As with many of the interviews I conducted at Comic Con this year, I was prepared to go longer. But, in this instance, the autograph signing session was running fifteen minutes late, and who am I to keep Darabont from his public? Perhaps there'll be more time at a later date. For now, I'm just thankful that a gifted writer like Frank Darabont is out there fighting for the good name of an often disreputable genre. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

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