Horror Business: Mick Garris on Writing, Directing & Podcasting
Mick Garris is one of the most prominent names in horror history. He is a prolific writer, prolific director, and prolific person in every sense of the word.
One of the most interesting things about Mick is that he’s been working in horror in one way or another since the ’70s and has watched cinematic history unfold. He began his career answering phones on Star Wars and went on to do publicity work on American Werewolf in London. He even makes a cameo appearance in The Howling (he’s the guy on the couch at the end watching Dee Wallace turn into a werewolf on TV).
Mick has produced, written and directed a countless number of movies and TV shows. He’s also had a famously long-standing collaborative relationship with Stephen King. Mick has also worked on such films as Critters 2, The Fly 2, Psycho 4: The Beginning, The Shining (TV movie), Bag of Bones, Hocus Pocus, The Stand, Riding the Bullet, Tales from the Crypt, Sleepwalkers, and Batteries Not Included; and multiple TV series including: Amazing Stories, Freddy’s Nightmares, and the very epic Masters of Horror.
Mick’s new film, Nightmare Cinema, coming to limited theaters and on demand on June 21st, is an anthology horror film, featuring Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade, and Alejandro Brugués directing alongside Mick. Check out our previous article on Nightmare Cinema for more information.
Mick has been interviewing big names in horror for decades and you probably know him best for his podcast, Post Mortem with Mick Garris. If you don’t, close this window right now and go listen to Post Mortem. Right now. Seriously. We’ll wait.
In addition to having worked in horror for so many decades, on so many movies, in so many different capacities (writer, producer, director) Mick is beloved in the industry and has had close friendships with some of the biggest names in horror: Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, George Romero, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and Guillermo Del Toro all have the pleasure of Mick’s friendship.
Here are three keys from Mick Garris for aspiring horror filmmakers:
- Keep calm and write on – Even if your script doesn’t get bought, it can still have an impact further down the line. A lot of aspiring screenwriters are put off by the risk of spending months on a spec script because there’s always a chance it won’t get made. Mick tells us that’s not the point. Even if it doesn’t get made, a producer can still read it and take note of your style, dialogue, or storytelling ability and contact you for something else later on. Because of this, it’s important to approach everything you write or create as a potential calling card and potential stepping stone. Don’t skimp on quality because it’s “just a spec script.” Spec scripts matter.
- Also, when you do write on spec, the script is entirely yours. Mick has written a ton of projects, a lot of which have gotten made, but some of which haven’t. In Mick’s experience, pitching a fully developed script, as opposed to just a concept or treatment, enables you to have way more control over the project. When you pitch a concept, producers are likely to assign multiple writers, other producers and different people who will want to weigh in and leave their mark on your project. This quickly causes movie-by-committee, which no director wants.
- Possibly the most important element of writing spec scripts is this: it enables you to work on your craft. Each script you write makes you a better screenwriter. So, to avoid writing because you’re afraid it won’t get sold is preposterous, because the more scripts you write, the better your writing gets and the more likely it is that you’ll be able to sell a script. It’s important to hone your storytelling, dialogue, and writing skills; spec scripts allow you to do all of that. So write that script as well as you can. If it doesn’t get bought, it can still open doors for you; and if it does get bought, you’ll have more control over the project. Regardless, you’ll be a better writer and storyteller for having written it. Which segues nicely into the next point:
- Read On Writing by Stephen King – In an interview, George R.R. Martin (of Game of Thrones fame) asked Steven King, and I quote, “How the fuck do you write so many books so fast?” This book tells you how. It’s the most straightforward, no-nonsense, actionable guide for not just aspiring writers and screenwriters, but artists in general. A lot of important people cite it as a critical volume–and it’s an easy read. Check it out. I’ve read it and listened to it, and I recommend doing both. Steven King does the narration, and it feels like he’s sitting down talking to you and giving you writing advice, which just feels cool. So listen to it to get the basic principles, then read it to really let those principles sink in.
- Ego is the enemy – Mick touched on something that doesn’t get discussed very often but makes a huge difference in careers: Be the kind of person people enjoy working with. You know those actors that fall off the map and you never hear from them again, and you think to yourself, whatever happened to that person? Most likely they were assholes on set and were never hired again. Same goes for directors and writers. Be the kind of person who is enjoyable to work with. Mick is beloved in the industry and always has been–and it’s mostly because he’s a great collaborator. Being collaborative is a big element of Mick’s success both as a director, writer and producer. There is no more communal job than filmmaking, so while it’s important to fight for your vision, always be open to the fact that some of the best ideas can come from outside of yourself.
- Don’t network, make friends – Your immediate circle of friends can be a huge part of your success. The inspirational value they can bring you is invaluable. Mick’s closest friends were people like Tobe Hooper, Stephen King, George Romero, Wes Craven, the list goes on… Imagine how much that shaped him as an artist, and imagine how much he helped shape all of them. Organize dinners and hangouts with people who inspire you. You are the sum total of the five people you spend the most amount of time with–so choose your circle of friends wisely.
Dread Central: Hey, Mick. How’s everything going?
Mick Garris: Never better.
DC: It sounds like you’ve got a lot going on these days.
MG: Yeah. It’s a good time. How about you?
DC: Everything’s good. One thing I think is particularly fascinating about you and your career is how comprehensive it is. You started behind the scenes with a lot of movies having worked on The Howling and American Werewolf, and working with George Lucas and Spielberg, it seems like you had a front row ticket to cinematic history. And you worked in different capacities behind all these iconic films. Is it fair to say that was your film school?
MG: Absolutely. I could never have afforded to go to film school in my youth, and yeah, that was definitely an earn-while-learning. It was starting out at Star Wars answering phones for $150 a week and ending up operating R2D2 on the Oscars (which is the only time I’ve ever been or will go to the Oscars).
DC: That’s very, very cool. Historically, you put yourself in a place where you’re interviewing a lot of top names in horror and you’re still doing that today, obviously, with Post Mortem. How has that shaped you as a filmmaker?
MG: I’ve always been curious, and I started out doing rock-n-roll journalism and interviewing. I was fifteen years old and interviewing Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
DC: That’s so cool.
MG: But I was also a singer in a band. I didn’t love school, but I love education, where you actually are learning what you’re passionate about. What better way to learn than to talk to the people who are the best, or whom you admire? So, my first-ever interview in high school was Ray Bradbury, and Rod Serling was my second.
MG: So, I just was fascinated by that, and asking questions that, if they interested me, I figured they would interest other people as well. I’ve always maintained that curiosity because I always feel like a beginner, even though I’ve been doing it as long as I have.
Directors don’t work together, so you don’t know the process with anybody else. It’s a very personal process. So, starting back with the Z Channel and doing people from John Boorman to William Friedkin to Tobe Hooper and all, yeah, I learned a lot. What I learned mostly is that everybody’s vision and approach is different.
I do interviews because I love to learn and I love to get insight into every kind of filmmaker … from a veteran who’s been doing it for fifty years to somebody new like Coralie Fargeat or Ari Aster, or people who have one movie to their name.
DC: What do you think is the price of entry for directors who want to get into horror today? What’s different about this time period that directors need to be aware of if they want to enter the horror business?
MG: Everything is different … People want their stuff online and they want it for free. There are filmmakers who’ve made movies you know and love who can’t make a living doing it because there’s so much material available that the people in charge of distributing don’t need to pay for it (or they pay very, very little for it).
I started as a writer, and for me, story and screenplay and performances are everything, but once I started directing, I learned what the emotional impact of a certain shot would be; how it’s composed, what lens you use, what movement you do. I think the best thing you can do is watch movies and watch them critically. Watch them, pick them apart. It’s hard to do because a good movie, you don’t want to pick apart. You get sucked up in it and you go, “Oh, shit, I forgot to watch how this was done.”
Post Mortem is also of value to see how filmmakers work and the process, but if you want to become a screenwriter or filmmaker to get rich, well, fuck you. It’s very unlikely that’s going to happen. Do it because you love it.
I would say the number one rule for making your film, whether it’s a short or a feature, is: Don’t hire your friends as the actors unless they are the best possible actors around. Go to film schools. Go to drama classes. Find places where there are good actors around and don’t get Jimmy because he made you laugh at a bong party last week. Realize that you’re not just competing with other amateur filmmakers. You’re competing with the best filmmakers on earth, because everybody’s doing streaming now, Netflix and Amazon, and they’re getting the most expensive, most acclaimed filmmakers to do it. So, the competition isn’t the guys entering the film competition. It’s the guys making movies.
DC: Right, and I feel like the bar has been raised. Particularly now with horror, I think of something like Hereditary, where the entire cast was composed of such serious, established actors and I think that that elevated it so much.
MG: Ari (Aster) had made a couple of very well-received short films, and that was his entrée. He got the opportunity to do this. If you’re making a short film, it has to stand out. If you’re writing a screenplay and you give it to an agent, that agent, every Friday night, takes home thirty scripts, and you’ve got to write the script that makes him keep turning pages. Because they’re going to read the first three or four pages, and if they’re not knocked out by that, they’re going to toss it aside and go to the next one.
MG: So, even if you write something that might not get made, if it draws attention, that might get you a job writing something that would get made, or at least some meetings to meet the people who might be interested by your work. So, now, the tools of filmmaking are so ubiquitous and so inexpensive that you can make a quality feature film on an iPhone like Steve Soderbergh. Unsane is a terrific movie, and yes, he had great actors, and he’s a great DP and knows how to light and all of that, but he uses the tools that anyone has available.
DC: You had a background in film marketing. I know you worked on publicity for American Werewolf. I would imagine that your marketing background probably helped you with pitching films. Did that experience come in handy?
MG: It helped me in other ways because it gave me access to filmmakers. I would interview them for press kits and things like that. I’d go on the set and watch how a film was made. As far as the marketing and pitching and things, I hate pitching. I think I can do it well if called upon, but I’d much rather just write a script on spec. If they like it, great. If they don’t, well, then onto the next one. I do that to this day. I’ve still got a ton of scripts that have never been bought.
If you pitch a project and get hired to write it, well, that’s huge, that’s fantastic, but it also means you have to outline it first, you go through the development process where they disagree, they give you notes, they make changes along the way. If you write something on spec, it’s entirely yours. Nobody has any input but you. So, it’s a bigger crap shoot because you may take months of your life to write a screenplay that nobody wants to buy, but for me, that’s worth it. I’ve only produced three spec scripts over the course of thirty years of filmmaking. I’ve got a dozen, at least, that have not been made, but I love them, and they’re good samples. So, whether they get made or not, they can lead to something else…and often have.
DC: Yeah, and I’m sure that just the sheer act of writing these spec scripts really sharpens your writing ability and helps you articulate your own vision. I feel like that’s something a lot of aspiring filmmakers don’t take into account because they think: ‘I’m not going to waste my time writing a spec script, nobody’s going to buy it’. But that’s not the point, you’ve got to hone your skills, and specs also can act as a calling card, like you mentioned before. Even if they don’t get made it, producers will see them and they’ll get a sense of who you are as a director, and then that might prompt interest later down the line.
MG: Yeah. You do it out of honing your craft. The first time you sit down to do a sculpture, it’s going to suck, but the more you do it the better you get at it, if you care. First of all, finishing a script, your first screenplay that you finish, that’s huge. Very few hopeful screenwriters finish what they set out to do. That’s a big deal worth celebrating. Then honing it.
The best book on the writing process I’ve ever read or ever will read is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s wonderful, and one of the things he says is the first draft of anything you write is entirely yours. You put your heart and soul into it. And then, if you’re lucky enough for it to go to a studio where they’re interested in it, then the studio dogs can lift their leg and leave their yellow stain on it.
You’ve done your version, and then if a studio executive gives you thirty pages of notes or three pages of notes, if you address half of them, and are able to talk your way through why you didn’t do it their way (or make them think that you did, by how well you tell your story), they love it. You can do a third of the notes, and they love that as long as you can justify it.
DC: Nice, that’s great to know!
MG: But it’s also really great to be somebody that people want to work with. The artistic ego is bullshit. It is arrogance and selfishness. There’s no more communal job than making a movie. So, you’ve got to be collaborative and somebody that people want to work with, or there are another hundred people waiting in line for that job.
DC: Right, and you collaborated with a lot of people who have these very, very strong visions, everyone from Stephen King to Clive Barker. What do you think are some of the keys to having those effective collaborations?
MG: Well, you share that vision. I’m a huge Stephen King fan and a huge Clive Barker fan, and the way I work with them is collaborative. Working with Stephen King is like working with your closest friend, batting ideas back and forth, but also respecting what their vision is about. We have a lot in common in our taste and things that we don’t have in common, but if you embrace their vision and don’t try and make it entirely yours … Respect for the material is paramount, and then your job is to make it the best that it can be as a filmmaker, either as a director or as a writer and director.
It’s a matter of flexibility, but also knowing when you’re right. When I say collaborate, I don’t just mean writers or producers, it’s also the crew, it’s the cast. You want to be somebody people turn to because they trust your vision, and flexible enough to be able to recognize good ideas, whether it’s coming from a cameraman or an actor or an art director or a writer or even craft services. When they’ve got an idea that’s better than yours, you’re an idiot not to do it.
DC: Yeah, and I think it’s important for people to realize that the best ideas can come from anywhere and the creative ego is a trap, whereas collaboration can shape things into magic.
MG: Yeah. Well, ego is important, because if you don’t have a strong and healthy ego, you will be steamrolled at every corner by people if they have better ideas. You have to have the sort of ego that allows you to have the humility to realize your ideas aren’t necessarily the best ones.
DC: So, it’s a balance between having that healthy ego but also having the kind of mindfulness that allows you to internalize other people’s ideas and then recognize what’s going to serve the project?
MG: Exactly. Well put.
DC: So, going back to writing, I’m pretty fascinated by writing processes in general. Do you have any specific writing process? Do you adhere to any daily minimums of like, 1,000 words a day or anything like that?
MG: Well, because I’m a director and a producer as well as a writer, I don’t really have the time to do the page count every day. Plus being a podcaster and doing all of that too. You’ll be very disappointed in my answer, that writing comes very easily to me. I’ve never spent more than five weeks writing a draft of a screenplay, and even that is rare.
If I’m writing on spec, I’ll sit down with an idea just because I want to write, and then just start on page one and not have an outline, not necessarily know where I’m going, and just let the muse take me. I know King does that too. He doesn’t really outline as much as just forges forward, whereas Clive Barker outlines meticulously every move before he writes the final book.
I really enjoy the process. I started seriously writing at the age of twelve with short stories and the like, and it’s also why I write books. I’m working on my third novel right now. I love the writing process, and it comes relatively easy for me. I don’t struggle over it. In fact, if something is taking a long time, and becomes a struggle, then it means what I’m doing is not very good, because there’s an intuition when it comes to the arts, whether you’re a painter or a singer or a songwriter or a writer or a filmmaker, that when everything is clicking, it just moves like crazy, and that’s how I like to write. When I am on a project, I like to write at least ten pages every day, and probably seven or eight of those will be before lunch because I do most of my writing early in the day.
DC: Cool. I think something about intuition is huge when it comes to the artistic process. David Lynch credits his transcendental meditation practice as enabling his writing and his directing and his overall artistic sensibility. Do you have any mindfulness practices of any kind that contribute to your creative process?
MG: Nothing like TM, or a philosophical or religious sensibility that guides me, but I do rely on intuition. When I get up in the morning, I read the paper, I have my breakfast. I know that’s very old fashioned. And then, where I am right now is in my office, which is next door to my house. I come in here and I catch up on things, and I just start writing. The process is sacred in itself because this is my little shrine here. It’s away from the rest of the world. I’m surrounded by things that come from my movies or posters. It’s my man cave in a way. It becomes my shrine, and the rest of the world gets locked out while I’m working.
A lot of people are inspired by music when they write. Music distracts me, especially if it has lyrics. Stephen King writes with AC/DC blasting. I can’t play vocal music or melodic music because I can’t tune out and focus on one thing. Same thing if I’m in a restaurant and there’s a bunch of conversations going on. I can’t tune any of them out. They all come in, and I feel like Stephen Lack in Scanners and my head’s going to blow up.
DC: That makes a lot of sense. So, one thing I thought was really interesting was that Masters of Horror came from these dinners that you used to throw with close personal friends of yours that were major directors. Can you talk about these dinners?
MG: Well, people think that it’s a networking-type thing where we’re all sitting around talking, making horror movies and this and that, but mostly it was a social thing. We would run into each other. We’d become friends, either going to directors’ guild meetings or film festivals or conventions or whatever, and everybody would always say, “One day we’ve got to put together a dinner with all of us.”
I put together a dinner at a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, and it was John Landis, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Stewart Gordon, Guillermo Del Toro, Bill Malone, Tom McLoughlin … There were twelve of us. We had the time of our lives. These are some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever known. We had amazing people come and be a part of it.
It was an opportunity for people of like employment to share experiences and ideas as well as just be social with one another. So, the idea did come up: what if we were the masters of our own fate? What if we could make movies the way we wanted to? So, I came up with the concept of the hour-long weekly anthology and put together the idea that these guys will do these movies if you leave them the fuck alone. So, we pitched it to three different places, and all three of them wanted it, and the first one said, “How much and when can we start?” It began there.
DC: Very cool. What, if any, are some of the commonalities between them as people, that enables them to make such great movies?
MG: Good question. I feel that most of them—us, including myself–were outsiders in their youth. They were never the popular kids. That’s less so today because horror has become popular, but it really is the idea of embracing the outsider and seeing things through the filter of somebody who’s not part of the happy crowd, the athletic team, the cheerleader squad, the president or king and queen of the prom. We’re working within a genre that doesn’t have respect, and I think a lot of us came from a place where we were not disrespected, but not even acknowledged, because we weren’t into what everybody else was into, music or film or books or whatever.
I think one commonality, of the fans as well as the creators, is that idea that “I don’t feel like everybody else does.” We made careers out of it, and I think that’s one reason why horror conventions and festivals are so big when no other genres have them. It’s a bunch of people going, “Wow, we all love this together. Isn’t this amazing? We have kinship. There’s brotherhood and sisterhood here.” That link is formed by the dark art that we create or love.
DC: Throughout your career, were there any courses or books or resources that were particularly formidable, that you would attribute your career success to?
MG: Well, even though I was well into my career when it came out, I still think On Writing is the most inspiring book I’ve read on the process. Screenwriting books bother me because once you get past learning the format of a screenplay, I think it teaches you how to write scripts like everybody else. What you want to do, to stand out, is not write like everybody else; to write something special. This event happens with these number of pages, and ten pages in you have to do this, and act, act, act. I’ve never in my life written knowing what an act break was going to be or even thinking about that act break until the script was finished. I figure it out when I go back to the development people and talk about where act one ends and where act two begins. Maybe you can get some benefit out of it. I never did.
And filmmaking, I think the idea that you’ve got commentary tracks to movies, which I didn’t have in my wonder years, is fantastic. Robert Rodriguez does particularly good ones called 10-Minute Film School that are amazing, and I just think you can learn from that and learn by watching movies that you love and trying to pay attention to their construction. If you can’t write, you can’t make yourself into a good writer. So, couple up with somebody you know who is, who you are compatible with. As far as filmmaking goes, again, so much of it is intuition, but it’s intuition through education. The more you know, the better you can work with the tools that are available to you.
I think it probably is worthwhile. I’m sure there are inexpensive or free online courses where you just learn about what the tools are, what lenses do, what kinds of lighting and colors affect people in a psychological sense and things like that. For example, Alfred Hitchcock, when he wanted somebody to be intimidating, the camera would be placed low, looking up and give them power. And when you want to intimidate, you shoot down on somebody so that they seem more insignificant. Using a long lens in order to put a tight focus on just one plane of vision, where everything in the foreground and background is soft and out of focus, is a very effective way to build tension too, and a wide lens that shows you the world and everything in focus allows you to do another geographic manipulation.
So, there’s reasons for everything, and I know there are resources out there, and a very long answer to your question, which is, yeah, On Writing.
DC: What’s the most common advice you give to aspiring filmmakers?
MG: I just think the best thing you can do is watch films by the best filmmakers, listen to commentaries by filmmakers you admire, and just do it, keep doing it. It costs you nothing to write, nothing but time. Get people you trust to give you their feedback, not people who will blow smoke up your ass.
Writing is a lot of work. I started writing at age 12 and started making my living at it at 33. So, it took me 20 years of doing it just because I loved it and doing it all on spec. It’s worth it. The more you work, the better you get.
DC: So what can you tell us about Nightmare Cinema?
MG: The intent was that after Masters of Horror ended, I wanted to do an hour-long weekly anthology where each of the episodes was shot in a different country by a filmmaker from that country. So, it was this incredibly inclusive international anthology, but it was way too ambitious, so it ended up being a movie shot in L.A. by five directors from four different countries.
I’d love to be able to do more of that. We can do it here; it doesn’t have to be shot around the world, but it has to be international, with great horror filmmakers doing it. We hope that this movie will launch that kind of series. That’s what we would like to come out of this.
DC: Very cool. Yeah. It’s fascinating to see how other cultures treat horror, and how in other places, it’s taken very seriously. The French take horror very seriously. Korea, Japan, they take it very, very seriously.
MG: And it’s for grown-ups. Their stories don’t just involve camps in the woods and slashers and 18-year-olds.
DC: Exactly! Mick, this was real honor. Thank you very, very much. Any parting words of wisdom for aspiring horror directors out there?
MG: Yeah. I want to be really encouraging because you can do this. When I was learning how to make films, films were made with 35-millimeter cameras and great expensive lab costs and everything. You can do it on your MacBook, you can do it on your iPhone, you can do amazing sound design and everything. Just don’t make excuses not to do it. And, again, find the best possible talents to help you rather than just whoever’s closest to you. It might hurt your best friend’s heart if he’s not the romantic lead in your short, but you also want people to like the movie.
MG: The biggest sign of an amateur film is amateur performances.
DC: Cool. Great. Mick, thank you again. This was a real honor.
MG: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.