From the very start of his blessed career, producer/writer/director Mick Garris has had the anthology format flowing through his creative veins. He landed his first major job on the ’80s-era trailblazer Amazing Stories, an experience that later inspired him to create the landmark series Masters of Horror. Throughout his Hollywood tenure, which has also found him helming episodes of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt and Freddy’s Nightmares, Garris has enjoyed telling bite-size tales of terror.
For his latest omnibus effort, Nightmare Cinema, which landed in theaters and VOD this past Friday, the Santa Monica-born producer united Cuba’s Alejandro (Juan of the Dead) Brugués, Japan’s Ryûhei (Midnight Meat Train) Kitamura, Britain’s David (30 Days of Night) Slade and token Americans Joe (Gremlins) Dante and Garris himself. In the following interview, the affable filmmaker reveals the joys of being a modern-day Rod Serling.
Tony Timpone: You’ve been attracted to the anthology format your whole career.
Mick Garris: Well, my whole life. I always appreciated The Twilight Zone, which was my introduction to it. And I just love individual stories, for television especially. Knowing that there’d be an entirely new little movie each week, I just loved the idea of multiple contained stories by different filmmakers, different approaches.
TT: Your first major job in Hollywood was working for none other than Steven Spielberg on Amazing Stories. How did you land that story editor gig?
MG: I was doing publicity for various genre movies, like The Howling, The Fog and Escape from New York. And I was doing the Making of The Goonies the first day of shooting up in Astoria, Oregon. And while we’re setting the lights to interview Spielberg, he said, “You must be doing a lot of these things.” And I don’t know how I had the audacity, but I told him, “I’m trying to do a little less of these because I’m really working hard to be a writer.” And he said, “Well, that’s funny. We are looking for writers right now for this new show we’re doing called Amazing Stories.”
I knew about that because my agent had sent them a sample script as a writing sample. My script was being covered by a reader at Amblin’s production offices. And the coverage was fantastic. He sneaked me a copy of that coverage later, and the last three words were, “Hire this man.” So [producer] Kathy Kennedy called me and set up a meeting with me, Steven and Kathy. Steven had come up with 22 storylines for all 22 of the first season, and they gave me one. I went home and three days later came back with a script. And then they asked me to write another after that. And a day and a half into writing that, they called me and asked me if I would be the series’ story editor. Literally, I was on food stamps when I got the call from Steven that changed my life.
TT: What was a typical day like on that set?
MG: It was interesting because it was always different. It acted like a movie. It was very high budget for an NBC TV show, a record-breaking high budget [laughs]. You’d go down there and there’s Martin Scorsese directing Sam Waterston and Helen Shaver, and they’re doing lines that I had written. Robert Zemeckis has got Christopher Lloyd’s head off and holding a Stan Winston fake head in his hand. Just these explosions of imagination. And as it was my first experience in that side of moviemaking, it was like going to a combination of film school and Disneyland at the same time. It was just all these wonderfully creative people being encouraged to do what they do best. I was 33 years old then, but I felt like I was 12 and was going to get in trouble if I got in the way! I would stand on the very edges of the sets and watch the magic take place.
TT: With Amazing Stories, what was the best lesson you learned on creating a successful anthology?
MG: What I took away from that in the work I did afterward is to get the best creative people you can. And encourage them and protect them so they can do it their way. No other anthology did that but Amazing Stories. Spielberg was there as the ringleader, but also as a cheerleader. And I learned that was the best job, not so much as story editor, but just in general. When it came to making an anthology, it was the philosophy that I have now from Amazing Stories that I learned from Steven that I used on Masters of Horror, and again on Nightmare Cinema, is these guys have a voice, let them use it. They’re not making your movie. They’re making their movies. It becomes our movie.
TT: What was the genesis of Masters of Horror?
MG: People talk about the dinners all the time and that really is where it started. As I ran into horror filmmakers over the years, we’d always say, “Well, we all have to get together for dinner sometime and just share war stories.” For the first dinner I put together, there were 12 genre directors there: me, Tobe Hooper, John Landis, Wes Craven, Guillermo del Toro, Stuart Gordon, John Carpenter, William Malone, etc.
And it was just really fun. It was a social thing, not a networking thing. It was just like a group of shoe salesmen might get together in a restaurant to hang out. And we did. And then there was a table next to us where the people were having a birthday party. And they started singing “Happy Birthday,” and we joined in. And at the end, Guillermo stood up and said, “The Masters of Horror wish you a happy birthday.” So that was our mocking name for ourselves. And then we started having a series of those dinners, and we would talk about how frustrating it was doing work that we could be proud of or have control over. And I came up with the concept of doing this one-hour show where each of the guys would be encouraged to make it their own movie. We pitched it to three companies, who all wanted it. But Anchor Bay said, “When can we start?”
TT: Masters is truly one of the best anthologies ever done.
MG: Oh, thank you. I had the most control. But by that control, it meant ceding control to all the other filmmakers. And it’s the most “mine,” even though I share it with the greatest horror filmmakers in history. This was something that came from the ground up that was my baby, and it’s the most personal of mine because it was my creation from the get-go, even though my creation was really a format to fold in really, really great filmmakers to do that. It’s the one I feel most parental about.
TT: What was the high point for you during those two seasons?
MG: They were both equally fantastic. What was great was walking onto a set every day and seeing, say, Carpenter smiling as he’s doing something he hasn’t done in a while and being in control. Or having Tobe directing a couple of things again. Bringing Dario Argento over to do one, going to Japan to have Takashi Miike and Norio Tsuruto do episodes. The high point was every day seeing these great filmmakers working. It was definitely one of the best work experiences of my life because we really were able to do it our way. And people often say, “It breaks my heart that there wasn’t a third season.” We did 26 great movies. What if we did it again and they weren’t so great? I’m happy stopping where we did.
TT: Nightmare Cinema was eventually born out of Masters. Why did it take 11 years to realize?
MG: Nobody wanted to get another anthology at the time. It took forever. The original idea was to do a Masters of Horror-style anthology. But my ambition was to do one in a different country every week with a filmmaker from that country. And it was too ambitious. Nobody wanted to do that. So, then I figured we’d do it as a series of feature films under the umbrella title Nightmare Cinema Presents, and then we do it either theatrically or with a Showtime or somebody or a day and date/VOD and theatrical opening weekend or something.
And again, it was just too ambitious. It took all that time to find a home for it where we had a very modest budget and decided to do it as an anthology feature that would either kick off a series of Nightmare Cinema anthology movies, or even better, a one-hour anthology series of TV shows that we could do the same way, but do it with a Netflix, Amazon or Hulu.
TT: Did the directorial lineup change at all over the years?
MG: It never did. Once we settled in on the anthology movie, those were the first four guys that I asked to do it. I’m a big fan of all of them. The concept of it being international came about, and these are all guys who live in LA. We can shoot it in LA without doing any transportation costs. And they make the movie that way.
TT: What marching orders did you give them?
MG: Well, it was the same philosophy of Masters, but with an even tighter budget. It was just, these are the number of days you can have and we only have this much money, so the production should be as controlled as possible. We can’t afford to go to a bunch of locations. We can’t take trucks and crews and move every couple of days. So, most of the stories were very contained. Mine is set at a hospital, and Ryûhei’s is mostly in a church and school. Alejandro’s is the cabin in the woods, Joe’s was at a plastic surgery center, David’s was all contained in offices. The concept of the Projectionist and the movie theater came about afterward as a way to tie them together because they were all done completely independently as far as the writing goes. And then it was my job to come up with the linkage to put it together.
TT: What shooting schedule did everyone have to work with?
MG: Basically, it was a five-day shooting schedule for everybody, so one week. It certainly doesn’t look like that. I can’t tell you how much it cost, but I guarantee you it’s less than what it looks like.
TT: Kitamura goes for an Italian splatter bloodbath. With kids! How did he pull that off in five days?
MG: It is amazing to me. All of that scene in the church was shot in one and a half days. KNB was there and did all our effects; they just did an amazing job. They’ve done work for me for a long time, and I just love them to death, personally and professionally. So that was a big part of it. Ryûhei comes from independent, Japanese DIY roots, so he knows what he wants. He goes in there and he just shoots the shit out of it. The coverage, the number of shots he shot in the whole shoot, particularly in the church finale, is just astonishing. He knows what he’s doing. I’m just astonished that we got our R rating despite the unbelievable violence against kids in there. One of the [network] rules for Masters of Horror was no killing kids, and the way they’re killed in this was quite brutal [laughs].
TT: Dante’s episode is pure Twilight Zone, while Slade’s is Twilight Zone on acid. Did they want to recreate that iconic series for film?
MG: Not so much that they stated, but obviously Joe did one of the Twilight Zone episodes for the  feature film. And [screenwriter] Richard Christian Matheson’s father wrote so many of the original Twilight Zones. There was definitely linkage there. I don’t think anybody talked about it being Twilight Zone until we saw the finished thing and said, “Oh, this is very Twilight Zone.” I don’t think either of them went in to emulate Twilight Zone. David had just done his Black Mirror episode and had shot it in black and white. And that was more of an influence on him than Twilight Zone.
TT: Three of the stories were originally intended as feature films. Was it difficult for the directors and writers to cut them down to anthology-film length?
MG: Each one was about 20 to 25 minutes. As one of those writers, it was. “Dead” had started out as a one-hour episode of Masters of Horror if there had been a third season, then I expanded it into a feature which felt better and then crunched it back down to the 25 minutes that it is now. But it’s fun to go through and cut the fat and see if you can make it work, because the audience doesn’t know what it was. It only knows what it is. It was actually a really fun exercise, even though I lost a lot of character stuff. We maintained enough to keep an emo horror level going. Ryûhei had never read the feature version of “Mashit,” so that was not a problem for him. [Writer] Sandra Becerril is a very, very practical writer, and she just jumped right in and did it, while talking to Ryûhei and myself during the process. And, interestingly, I’ve never read the feature version of David Slade and Larry Connelly’s “This Way to Egress,” which they’d been trying to make for so long. The script he turned in originally was only 14 pages. So, I don’t know how you get that from a feature, but I actually had to say, “I need you to add at least three pages because it’s too short to go in.” And so, they were glad because they were able to put some of the grace notes in that might’ve been missing.
TT: “Dead” is the film’s most emotional story. What was the inspiration?
MG: Well, I lost more than my share of family and loved ones. It started with Riding the Bullet. That was really personal. After I finished writing the script, I realized I was writing it for my dead brother, Craig. Riding the Bullet is all about how death is not really so recreational. Horror movies and horror art and television shows are one thing. But death is really something beyond that. Since having lost Craig, I’ve lost both my parents, another brother and just a few months ago, a sister. Loss is so painful that it makes you want wrong things. When Riley’s mother comes back, she wants him dead because she loves him and wants to be with him. And that’s really selfish.
But it’s driven by deep-seated pain, love and emotion. And I wanted to see a horror movie that was rooted in real human emotions. I just thought it would be an interesting counterpoint to all of the other ones. But even when it was a feature film script, I just wanted to go someplace that you really felt it as much as you experienced it, that you felt it in your heart as much as in your gut. And I don’t know if it’s the right way to end the movie or not. That was the big question, what order? I think we got the right order.
TT: Did the order get moved around at all to find the best flow?
MG: The script had to be in the right order beforehand because of the editing and wraparound. We wanted to start with a bang, and Alejandro’s [“The Thing in the Woods”] was perfect to start. I knew we didn’t want to do back-to-back with big bloodbaths. And “Mashit” would be great in the middle. Originally, “This Way to Egress” was second and “Mirari” fourth, but Joe Dante, when he read the script, said, “[Slade’s] has a bunch of monster faces in it. Mine really only has one. Maybe mine should come first.” So that was the only change we made. And it was Joe’s idea. He was absolutely right.
TT: Mickey Rourke was an offbeat choice as your host, the Projectionist. Was the part rewritten to fit his persona?
MG: It was written that way. I never met him before. He was a friend of Mark Canton, who’s one of the owners of Cinelou, the production company. So, it was Mark’s idea, and he said, “It’ll help us a lot if we get an Academy Award-nominated actor for the movie.” And I actually loved the idea. I never got to meet Mickey until he was on the set that first day. And he’s very intimidating. From the beginning, he came in there with the attitude, “Let’s get this done.” But he ended up having a really good time and I had a great time with him, and he really got into it. He went to a tailor for the outfit he wears. He had that made and gave us the bill. We didn’t know he was going to do that. It was his idea. He committed. He was really fun. I loved having written that flowery dialogue and seeing it come from Mickey Rourke.
TT: Has any work begun on a sequel?
MG: Not yet. I will use the script I wrote originally from “Tyler’s Third Act” if we get a second one, but everybody’s just holding their breath to see how it does and what the reaction is. The ideal would be to do a one-hour anthology like Masters of Horror, but more international, bringing in filmmakers from around the world. We’ll see. Hoping.