“I almost never get cranky, and there were things I did get cranky about.” This is what Mick Garris tells me when I ask him how shooting went in Vancouver on the set of his fifth Stephen King film Riding the Bullet (opening in a limited theatrical release October 15th). It’s hard to imagine Mick getting, um, “cranky.” Furthermore, it’s downright wrong. I’d like to say he’s one mean bastard – it’d be a change from everything else you’ve ever heard about him. The man is the furthest thing from being a typical Hollywood visionary sonuvabitch. In the time that I’ve known him he’s been nothing less than accommodating. A perfect guy to simply “talk about movies” with. Coincidentally, Mick was my very first interview for the web. Ever.
That was about four years back, and he was just about to set forth on adapting King’s first e-book which told the tale of a young man who needed to hitchhike to the hospital to visit his ailing mother. Along his journey he faces an array of unusual characters including one Mr. George Staub who presents Alan with a decision he cannot easily turn his back on. This novella struck a deep nerve in Garris, and it turned out to be a story he couldn’t ignore, one he had to bring to the screen. But like so many personal projects directors desperately pursue, the long road to completion was rocky for Garris.
He and I caught up with each other over the phone as he spoke from the production office of his next King endeavor, Desperation.
Ryan Rotten: What was your attraction to the Riding the Bullet story?
Mick Garris: I know a lot of the on-line people want to know that too. The people who have seen it have been very enthusiastic about it, some of them going, “Garris gets a little sentimental again…” [laughs] But mostly it’s been really great stuff and I know that people are saying, “What’s so personal about this story?” At the time I read it, when it came out, [my wife] Cynthia’s mother had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. I had lost my dad a year or two before, lost a brother several years before that. Mortality was very much on my mind so I read a lot more into this story than most people would. The whole idea of mortality and guilt and isolation, all those questions, seemed to present at least the tip of an iceberg that appealed to me. I immediately began thinking about how it could be a feature film and how it could be expanded without fattening it. I just wanted to go to King and say, “Look, I would really like to write a script based on this, are you okay with that?” Fortunately we have the kind of relationship where he said go ahead and give it a try, let me see it when it’s done.
RR: Has he seen the film?
MG: He has not seen the finished movie, he has seen everything before it as an AVID output with a temporary mix [soundtrack] and temp effects. He was very enthusiastic.
RR: With everything King has been through himself you’d think the mortality issue that touched a chord with you would obviously resonate stronger for him now.
MG: Absolutely. There are a lot of personal elements to the story for him and it was surprising how personal it felt to me. The movie is much moreso. We were both brought up by our mothers after marriages ended at young ages – him younger than me – and in a very lower-middle class upbringing. So that was just the beginning of it. It’s also why I set the movie in 1969 which was because, first of all, the whole hitchhiking idea and secondly I thought a life or death choice was emblematic of a time represented by the end of the ’60s.
RR: The script has been sitting around for a few years, who generated the interest again to get it developed?
MG: It had gone to the studios – that was a very time-consuming process, you know, it wasn’t a remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When you go out with Stephen King project they want it to be a real balls-to-the-wall horror movie. And my whole point was to make it a combination of – you and I have talked about this – the two sides of Stephen King: the scary ghost story and yet the nostalgic drama too. The books all do it. Why don’t the movies do it more often? I found out why. The studios don’t want something that’s intimate and personal, they want one or the other, they want something they can sell in one line. That’s fair. They spend millions and millions to do that.
RR: I guess if you look at the cinematic track record of King stuff that has hit or miss speaks for itself too. The more somber, personal material like Dolores Claiborne didn’t really fly.
MG: No, but the ones that did they hide his name on started with Stand By Me which was a huge success and great film based on a great novella.
RR: Ditto with Shawshank Redemption…
MG: Right, that wasn’t a commercial success theatrically but now video made it a huge hit and now they’re re-releasing it. But anyways, after I went through the studio thing I set it aside very discouraged and was thinking, “Well, that’s the way it goes.” I had never made a spec script even, though I think my spec work as a writer has been most of my best work. I think most screenwriters’ best work is the stuff they do on spec and is never produced. And so everything came up when Joel Smith and I were making the Lost in Oz pilot, Joel was one of the producers on that. I gave it to him to read, he got excited about it and started to take it around. We got a lot of interest on the independent financing side, which is a side I’m not that used to. It can be a fairly shifty world. It looked like it was going to come together that way when Brad Krevoy called – he had tried to get Desperation and had come out to the set of The Shining to talk to me and King about it. Anyway, Brad eventually wanted to get a project going and asked what I was doing, I told him and he asked to see the script for Riding the Bullet. Within a day or two he said, “I can get you ‘x’ amount of dollars to do that.” It was a little less than what we were looking for, but it was a bird in the hand. And it took about a year after making the deal with Brad to actually get it going. Then right before we started to make the movie – before we left for Vancouver to start prep – the bank cut thirty percent of our budget. It was tight circumstances and became “Do I make the movie under tighter circumstances or leave a bird in the hand?” You seldom get another bird to warm up that empty hand.
RR: Every director has a casting wish-list when they start a project, are you happy with who you ended up with?
MG: The first thing I’ll say is Bullet is the best experience with a cast I’ve ever had. Usually there’s at least one diva that’s really difficult but their talent is worth it, sometimes it’s not. In this case it all depended on who played the lead. I was not familiar with Jonathan Jackson’s work but the character of Alan is virtually in every scene of the movie, sometimes twice, because he plays his own conscious. Someone then reminded me that he was the boyfriend in Insomnia where he’s accused of murdering his girlfriend, a great scene with Al Pacino. We wound up meeting and we hit it off. The short version is I cannot imagine any actor doing this role better and more appropriately than him.
RR: How old is this kid?
MG: Twenty-one or twenty-two. Rarely does an actor of that age come in so thoughtfully and so prepared. Usually they don’t know all their lines, young actors in particular are the least schooled. Plus he’s a musician and really got into it. We were very lucky throughout. Having the tight independent budget we didn’t have a whole lot to spend on the actors so we got a really great cast who responded to the screenplay and the roles. One reason was because we had to schedule the actors, other than Jonathan, in a tight window of time. The problem with that is, had we had to change the schedule for any reason and lengthened their period it would’ve cost us a lot. So, we didn’t! We stuck to our schedule and were beat up by weather. It wasn’t comfortable to shoot in but it makes the movie look great.
RR: From the pics I’ve seen David Arquette looks like a fish out of water compared to the usual films he’s been in.
MG: Well, I had no idea there was a faction out there who are not David Arquette fans. But he’s great. The first thing King said was, “Man, George Staub is terrific in this!” He’s really good and menacing with a sense of humor at times. I wasn’t aware of any kind of baggage from him. It’s too bad because he’s got quite a resume. If you only see Eight Legged Freaks and the three Scream movies it may not be the best way to judge a guy. He’s got a great backlog of excellent work and he really rose to the occasion on this.
RR: On the cover page of the script the film is dubbed a “Halloween Ghost Story,” can you talk about this a bit?
MG: That was not my idea. Just like The Babysitter Murders was the original title for Halloween and Irwin Yablans changed made that change of title suggestion to Carpenter. Brad told me if we could put [our movie] out at Halloween we could make more money. That was his motivation. But my motivation was suddenly, look, it’s already a period movie and I love the idea of the magic of a road movie on Halloween where death is around every corner as a symbol or a reality. That added a level to it, we play it subtly. We don’t point at Halloween all the way through the movie but there are little dashes of Halloween here and there. But when Alan has just seen the ghost of his father in the middle of this rainy highway and we flash to a shot of the Bullet and then a slow motion shot of a bus going by filled with children in Halloween masks it just gives you the goosebumps.
RR: The Sixth Sense and The Others aside, ghost stories are a rare commodity these days. Good ones, anyway…
MG: Yeah, and The Sixth Sense is just great. This is not really like The Sixth Sense, but it’s a quieter horror movie like that. But that’s not what the marketplace is looking for! [laughs] And I’ve always had trouble with the marketplace anyway, I don’t know. All I can do is my best work, I can’t sell…be a shoe salesman.
RR: That’s a job for someone else, you do your job and let them do that stuff…
MG: If they let you. But, you know, this is the first time I’ve ever taken a “film by” credit in my career. As writer, producer and director it’s really the first time it feels like it’s my own even though it came from King’s story – which is a huge element. But I’ve been able to turn it into something that feels like a piece of my life. That’s not to say it’s autobiographical in more than a handful of senses but in just an emotional level – it’s me, for better or for worse. And for some horror fans it’s probably going to be for worse! There are going to be people who are cynical about it because it is willing to play to the sentiment. It’s goes to the heart.
RR: Well, depending on the material you need that balance. It can’t be a hammer-to-the-skull every time.
MG: Yeah, but you know the movie does have a lot of horror elements. What I was surprised by is how many people who have read the script didn’t get the movie. They read the script then saw the movie and went, “Oh, this is much better than I expected!” I mean, it’s exactly like the script!
RR: Let’s talk about some of the additions you made to the story to flesh it out. In particular this physical representation of Alan’s consciousness or “inner voice.”
MG: It was my attempt to do something cinematic with something literary. The difference between novels and films is that novels are internal and films are external. It was a way to externalize something that was internal, but do it in an entertaining and visual way. Some people who read the script thought it was the worst idea in the world. Until you see it you don’t know if it works well or not. There were things like that that I added. The character of Alan and the choice he makes is really powerful in the short story, I thought I’d up the stakes a bit by making him an artist who was almost obsessed with the dark side. He’s an art student and loves the imagery of death and darkness, the grim reaper, that sort’ve thing. He even attempts a suicide early on in the movie so when he’s given choice of life and death, him or his mother, it has much more potency other than “Oh, you’re mom’s 48, she’s had a stroke, she’s not healthy anyway, so what’s the big deal?” Now it’s also, “You’ve cut your own wrist, you’re willing to kill yourself, you love the dark side, it’s so beautiful and romantic, so what’s the big deal?” So hopefully it’s about discovering the value of life…which is a little pretentious. [laughs]
RR: Another person who’s absolutely no stranger to Stephen King is artist Berni Wrightson who I hear you brought in to do some artwork.
MG: Isn’t that great? I met him for the first time on The Green Mile set and had always loved his Swamp Thing and everything else. We got to be pretty friendly after that. When it came time to find someone to do the [Alan's] artwork, he was the first guy I went to. I didn’t think we could afford him on our budget. He read the script and said, “You know, this is my life.” We were able to make it work and he came up to Vancouver and painted these wall-sized paintings, some of which come to life in animation. It was very exciting to have him around. When I came back I was planning on asking him to buy one of the paintings that we used and Frank Darabont bought it! Darabont had already bought it before I came home! So I still have to see Berni and find something else to buy.
RR: We’ve heard about your upcoming television series Masters of Horror – was this inspired by those dinners we’ve been hearing about where you and several other recognizable directors get together in downtown Hollywood?
MG: It did kind of come out of that. The purpose of those dinners was not to do work or network, but John Landis had been talking about doing something for a while. But this finally came together, I got new management last year and the company is a big production company and they’re my producing partners on this. Once I told them the plan they were thrilled, my agent and the managers are going to work together with this DVD company who’s going to finance the thirteen episodes entirely. We haven’t even taken it to a network yet. I’ve got commitments from Carpenter, Hooper, Romero, Landis, Dante, Guillermo del Toro and maybe from some others.
RR: What are you guys looking to do with this series? You’re edging in after Tales from the Crypt, Tales from the Darkside, how’s this show going to be different?
MG: Basically I want each of these to be a one-hour “film by.” I want Carpenter to do a Carpenter movie, I want Dante to do a Dante movie, I want Romero to do a Romero movie. What they think of as their movies rather than what I think. As a producer I have to have my input, but these are their movies and I want this to be something they’re excited about. I don’t want this to be Tales from the Crypt, I don’t want it to be the boobs ‘n blood show and I don’t want it to be the Twilight Zone. It doesn’t have to be about a twist ending. As much as I love The Twilight Zone, they did that. I just want this to be an individual movie that stands on its own every week and not necessarily feel like the same series every week. I like these guys. The reason they’re successful in their field is because they created their own individual imagery and style. So we’re going to try and get people like Argento and Shimizu and make it international too. I’m just amazed everybody has agreed to do it, scripts are being written, it’s in the works.
RR: You’re in pre-production on Desperation. That’s another King project you’ve been working on for quite a while, huh?
MG: Oh, about eight years. [laughs] We begin shooting November 2nd. I’m talking to you from the production office right now. KNB is going to be doing the effects, we’re in the casting process. The director of photography is Christian Sebaldt who shot Feardotcom and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, so yeah, we’re there.
RR: Is it still a two-parter?
MG: It’s going to be one three-hour movie. The whole evening on ABC!
RR: Three hours of Desperation!
MG: Which means probably two hours and ten minutes.
RR: Three hours on DVD…
MG: Yeah, and I think Lions Gate is doing the DVD on that as they are on Riding the Bullet next year. They would’ve put it out theatrically but they didn’t have any open slots. We’re kind of doing it ourselves through MPCA.
RR: Where are you shooting Desperation?
MG: We’re going to shoot in Arizona. We found an amazing location that not only has the open pit copper mine and the nearby ghost town strip of Desperation, but also right in the same neighborhood there’s an old movie theater that has been closed since 1978 and not been kept up since then. You can’t build sets like these and it’s all in like a one-mile radius.