Garris, Mick (Development Hell, Masters of Horror)


Mick Garris interivewMick Garris is truly a legend. A writer, director, producer, author, and creator of one of the coolest things to happen to our genre in a long time; Masters of Horror. His most recent accomplisment is the publication of his first novel, Development Hell (review), through the folks at Cemetery Dance Publications.

The CD guys arranged for me to chat with Mick a while back and it’s taken some time to get this interview put together, but here it is in all it’s massive-ness. Hope you enjoy!

Johnny Butane: Let’s start out with Development Hell. To me it seemed like Development Hell, the story, was told in almost vignettes, as it were.

Mick Garris: Episodically, yes, and there’s a very good reason for that. I don’t know if you saw my first book, but “A Life in the Cinema” was my frist short story originally published in David Skall’s Silver Scream. When I decided to do my first book, I wanted to revisit that character 12 years later and wrote “Starfucker” as a short story. I really enjoyed this character, so I decided to write a few more short stories, each one starting where the other one left off, and Stephen King read them and said “You know, it’s sort of like a loose novel…”, and the light bulb went on over my head. I never thought I’d have the discipline or wherewithal to do a novel, even though I’d been writing short fiction since I was 12 years old.

So I went and did a few more stories that way and decided that if anyone was every going to read them they should all be in one book. I finished the first draft then went back and tweaked some of the short stories so they would link a little more closely.

JB: So “Starfucker” was what was chapter two of the book…

MG: Right, the Jean Harlow story.

JB: I just wanted to say that it was twisted as hell! Though I honestly think the monster baby was probably the most disturbing.

MG: That was published in several collections and it had sort of a reputation. That came out because I knew David was putting together a collection of short stories which later came to be known as Splatterpunk, and it was a collection that I knew would have authors like Clive Barker in it so I wondered how completely unfettered I could be. I would read Barker and just be amazed how he was able to let loose with some of the most outrageous, insane things and I wondered if I could be that unlocked. So that was the result.

JB: When did you actually find the time, with all the projects you’ve been juggling, to actually sit down and put this together?

MG: There was a sallow period right before I started shooting Riding the Bullet when it was really hard to find the right project, or the time, or to get anybody wanting to make the kind of movies I was interested in making. That was when I really had the time and motivation to get it done, so the book has been done for a while. Cemetery Dance sometimes takes a little time to get their product out, as I’m sure you know, but it was worth it because they do such great stuff.

JB: That they do, and I wanted to ask you how you got involved with them in the first place.

Development HellMG: Rich Chizmar asked me, actually. He had seen the first collection and asked if I was interested in working with them, so he was really solicitous and a really great guy. Amazingly enough we have never met face to face yet, either! We’ve known each other for years but he’s in Baltimore and I’m in L.A. We missed each other by a day in Vancouver, when we had just shot and episode that he and John Shcaech wrote for Masters of Horror…

JB: Right, “The Wasingtonians”…

MG: Right, that was the one. But I had to go cut my show, which was shot right before “The Wasingtonians”, so we missed each other again (laughs).

JB: Something I didn’t ever realize until I finished reading the book and sat down to write the review was that the central character was never given a name. What was your reasoning for that?

MG: It was very intentional because this character represents a lot of people who are or want to be in this business. I think this guy does not have a center, he’s not really a human being yet; I mean the title Development Hell is really more about him than it is about developing a script. So I don’t think he’s ever really developed and because of that he becomes a nameless one; he becomes just a guy at the end credits of a movie, not the beginning.

So yes it was very specifically a choice, though not when I wrote the first story. I just wanted to avoid the cliché of, you know, “Jack Burke had a problem…” you know, when you name a character in your first sentence (laughs). That just feels like every kind of crummy anthological horror story, so that’s why I didn’t do it in the first story. Then I decided that there were deeper reasons throughout. And let me tell you it was kind of a challenge to not have him named! But if you didn’t even notice until you finished, that’s a good thing!

JB: Of all the crazy, fucked up stuff that happens to this character, how much of it was based on similar, though not quite so extreme, events that happened to you during our tenure in Hollywood?

MG: I’m not bitter about this business, first of all. I’ve had my heart broken more than a few times, of course, but that happens anywhere; in life, in business, in love, all those things. What it is really is things that have happened to me or people around me exaggerated to the point of being insufferable. A lot of the things are drawn from a period of my life when most of my work was making TV movies, and then that suddenly evaporated, and there have been sallow periods in my time as a filmmaker, but mainly it was based on those filmmakers who lack the knowledge of cinematic history…

JB: Something he suffers from a quite a bit at the beginning…

Legendary direcotr Billy WilderMG: Exactly, then he goes through a reverse process, and part of his development is learning the genius of Billy Wilder (laughs). I’m a huge fan of all the people that he starts out as a huge fan of, but also it’s important to go back to where all those people got their stuff. The people who created those movies in the early days were geniuses because no one had figured out the language of cinema before them.

JB: I know what you mean; what those filmmakers came up with out of their own imaginations is now what modern day filmmakers are basically ripping off.

MG: Right, exactly. It’s just a language, you know? When you learn a new language or system it’s a matter of how you use that language and the use of tools. It’s great to have a knowledge of where things came from and how they came to be in the first place, that’s the only way it can grow.

JB: Now during the development of Masters of Horror was there any talk of possibly adapting one of these stories for the series?

MG: I was originally going to do “A Life in the Cinema” for my Masters episode, but ultimately there were just too many reasons not to. First of all, too much stuff happens in it, in that first chapter, that it would be hard to do the passage of time cinematically; having him go from hot shot to winning an award to crashing and burning. Secondly, on our budget and schedule to have a mutant baby be totally realistic…

JB: Which would have been very important considering how the story is told.

MG: Very important, yes, and it can be done; Eraserhead did it for almost no money at all and that’s one of the most wonderful and disturbing creatures ever. Taking those things into consideration I lost my confidence in being able to do it well, and I really didn’t want to do it half-ass.

What I’d like to do is maybe take it to HBO or Showtime and try to do it as a series of one-hour chapters, basically a novel for television that would be nine hours long, and bring in some of the directors from Masters of Horror to do different chapters.

JB: Now that would be a cool idea!

MG: I still have a feeling that the first chapter would be a challenge. The reason I wrote that first story the way I did was that I didn’t have to think about budgets for schedules and special effects and actors, I just put it on the page and it was the be-all end-all. But now, as a film director and seeing what we’ve done on Masters of Horror, I think Development Hell could be a very interesting series.

JB: It definitely could be, though I would feel bad for the director who had to deal with the incident in which he … stops beings among the living, I guess is the most spoiler-free way to say it. That was an incredibly tragic part of the book, that really got me down.

MG: Well, in a way I’m glad! Not that it got you down, but I’m glad it really affected you. That was written at a time when I had lost a brother, my wife was in the process of loosing her mother, and my father passed away right around that time, too. That’s when I really started thinking about making it Development Hell. This guy can’t learn by halfway living, he’s got to learn through death.

That’s really the one chapter that we forgo the humor of the rest of the stories, and what humor there is is very bleak and dark, that was the one where I really wanted to forgo the snarkiness for a while.

JB: To take a somewhat lighter approach to that; do you think a show like “Suicide” would ever actually be created?

MG: Well I don’t know … I thought it was outrageous to begin with but the way reality television is now it would not shock me. Of course they’d do it in Thailand or something fist, they’d do it in another country and if it were a huge hit then the producers of “Survivor” would have to do an American version.

JB: Unfortunately you’re right; I could see it happening in this day and age.

MG: I really wanted to take things to just beyond the point of what is happening now, because that’s really what satire is. That’s what Paddy Chayefsky did when he wrote Network, but all that reality programming that was in it that was so satirical then is not even a step away from what we’ve got now.

JB: It’s scary how true that is.

The last thing I wanted to ask you about the book; how many people do you think are walking around Hollywood right now that are actually possessed by the spirit of a dead hack director?

MG: (laughs) Well, whether it’s supernatural or not I’m not sure, but I’m sure there are many out there who are inspired by those spirits if not actually in possession of them. I refuse to say which directors inspired some of those people, but there actually was a young hot shot director fresh out of film school who inspired this character when I first wrote “A Life in the Cinema”.

JB: Did they ever go anywhere?

MG: They had a great deal of success and then went missing for a few years, but I think they started working again. But that’s as much as I’ll say!

JB: So let’s move on to Desperation, which recently came out on DVD.

MG: Sure!

JB: How did it do on ABC?

Desperation adMG: Terrible. ABC really dropped the ball on that one. ABC, since Disney bought them, is really a different network than when we did The Stand and The Shining. They were nothing but supportive when we did that; this time they put us up against the last night of American Idol. And they didn’t promote it at all; when we did The Stand and The Shining for months in advance you’d see billboards on buses and promos all over the place, TV and radio ads, everything. With Desperation, even though it was a 3-hour sweeps movie that cost them $12 million, which is a lot of money for a TV movie, they just didn’t do anything with it. It got to the point where both King and I do not want to work with that network anymore.

JB: I can’t say that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s always seemed strange to me that King’s work was being adapted for network television. I just seems like there’s so much that has to be taken away for the general viewing audience to enjoy it.

MG: Strangely enough, though, they didn’t have me change a frame of Desperation. They were very supportive and they claimed to really like the film. When you spend that much money on it, and you’ve got Stephen King, you have to like it, but they just didn’t know what to do with it.

It’s a movie that King was extremely enthusiastic about, he called it the best movie made from one of his books, and I don’t know if I agree with that but I’m happy that he thinks that! Sometimes TV is the best way to get his books done; certainly The Stand couldn’t have been made any other way and it served both that and The Shining well. And though Desperation is the length of a feature film, so it could’ve easily been a theatrical movie and almost was many times. We were so close; New Line was going to do it in 98, and we were close many other times, but we could never get the right times. Finally when ABC said they would do we decided better to do it there then not do it at all. And we got such a great cast…

JB: I was going to mention that, actually. Ron Perlman was just brilliant.

MG: Yeah, I couldn’t have been happier with him, and again ABC fought me on Ron Perlman. I had known Ron since Sleepwalkers and I wanted him from the very beginning, even though he didn’t know it, and he thinks now it was his best opportunity as an actor yet. He really nailed it!

JB: Did he have any issues coming back to TV?

MG: He was very happy to be there, he was glad to do it. He’s such a unique actor and he doesn’t really get leading rolls offered everyday, and he’s a huge King fan. We all had a great time working on it, when it wasn’t miserable working conditions (laughs).

JB: Was that just because of the locations…

MG: Well, that, and shooting six day weeks at the instance of Touchstone Televison. I found out after that almost no one shoots six-day weeks any more. So there were a number of things that were not the most ideal working conditions. But great movies don’t always come out of comfort.

JB: Why do you think it took ABC so long to finally air it, since the movie’s been done for a while?

MG: It was always planned to be a May sweeps and we talked about speeding it up for November or February, because it was finished in June, and we even could have sped it up for the proceeding May, but they had spent all their advertising budget launching Desperate Housewives and Lost, which became huge hits, so they had no more money. The offered the following May stating that we’d be better off and they’d be able to promote it well. Little did we know!

JB: So how’s it doing on DVD?

MG: I don’t know, to be honest. It’s only been out a week or so (editor’s note: as you can tell, this interview was conducted a few weeks back), but the Lionsgate people tell me that the orders were very good. They were really great about it, by the way, they really know what they’re doing with the promotion, although I haven’t seen a great deal about the DVD, either, except the great ad in Rue Morgue.

I’m just hopeful that people get to see it the way it was intended. ABC didn’t even show it in HD or letterboxed, which was the way it was shot…

JB: Well, that doesn’t make sense, especially when regular television shows are being show widescreen and in HD…

MG: Right, but with a $12 million movie they just didn’t bother. But the DVD is the way it was meant to be seen.

JB: So is there any chance of The Regulators ever being made?

MG: I don’t know. I think Desperation lends itself to cinematic treatment then The Regulator does; that book is much more internal and complex and not without the strong throughline narrative that would take to the camera.

That being said, it was based on a script that King had written for Sam Peckinpaw, which over the course of years eventually became a novel.

JB: I wasn’t aware of that, wow! I had read them both when they came out and was a much bigger fan of Desperation, but as soon as the talk of the film came out the online community started saying that The Regulators would make a better movie, which I found very odd.

Desperation, not on DVDMG: I’m with you, though I like them both, Desperation is really something I responded to more.

JB: So how are we on Season 2 of Masters of Horror?

MG: It’s doing great! I think Season Two is going to be better than Season One. The shows weren’t intended to be more ambitious but they are. They’ve been a lot harder to finish in the time frame, that’s for sure. Right now number 10 of the 13 is shooting, which is Stuart Gordon doing Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” with Jeffrey Combs as Poe.

JB: Which is brilliant! I know it’s something he’s wanted to do for a while now.

MG: He has, and he’s just such a great actor and really wonderful guy. I finally got to meet him recently and I really like him a lot, I’m so glad that Stuart brought him on board. He tried to get him in last year for Dreams in the Witch House but we couldn’t work out his schedule.

I just finished a cut of my episode yesterday, which is based on an original story Clive Barker wrote for the show called Valerie on the Stairs, and I showed it to Clive yesterday and he was really very enthusiastic about it.

JB: I was very interested when I heard he was doing an original story for it. Haeckel’s Tale was basically an original story for the series, even though it was published in the Dark Delicacies anthology. How did that come to the Masters table?

MG: I had gotten it from Clive before it was published, actually, and at the time it was intended to be Roger Corman directing, so I had taken that story because it was a period piece and we could make it like a Roger Corman/Richard Matheson Poe movie, you know? It would’ve been really fun but the Roger couldn’t do it and John McNaughton came on board and it became less of a Corman Poe movie and more of a McNaughton/Barker movie, but he really made the most of it and did a great job with it.

JB: So what is “Valerie on the Stairs” like?

MG: It’s a very moody, odd and haunting and, as you can imagine, erotic, but it’s much more of a horror story than Chocolate was. I know a lot of the online real horror fans hated Chocolate because it was not enough a horror tale.

JB: Right, a lot of fans really didn’t like it just because it wasn’t straightforward horror, but it was still a damn good episode.

MG: Thanks! I’m very proud of it and how it came out. It played really well at film festivals, especially in Europe, and the reviews were good, but the online horror community I think wanted more beasts and blood. Happily I can say that Valerie on the Stairs offers both!

Masters of Horror, Season 2 posterJB: Since you mention beasts; it seems like there are a lot more monsters this season than last…

MG: Last year was our evil naked lady year; this year is our monster and politics year (laughs)!

You know there’s no plan for it. We wanted them all to be as different as possible, but somehow the starts aligned and a lot of them have monsters; Carpenter’s has one, mine does, Tom Holland’s got a clown monster; there are just a bunch of them in there.

JB: I noticed the trailer that Showtime had up seemed like it featured a lot from Pro-Life, which I’m very excited about.

MG: Oh, that one turned out great! Ron Perlman, again, is so good in it. It’s funny if you look at the series there are so many people involved from movies I’ve done! Part of it is coincidence, of course, but part of it is the relationships we forge.

JB: I hate to ask, but of the ten that have filmed so far, are they any favorites?

MG: They’re all really good… Brad Anderson’s is really unlike any of the others, though, and it might have the reaction that Chocolate did cause it’s not a monster movie, but it’s just fantastic. You talk about that chapter of Development Hell being very bleak; this is really disturbing and sad and heartbreaking and very real world. To me it’s a reflection on how repressed sadness becomes madness. It’s called Sounds Like and it’s just really special. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it my favorite, cause they’re all so good on their own terms, but it’s the one that strikes the closest emotional core to me.

JB: Well, I don’t think anyone’s going to go into a Brad Anderson episode looking for action and violence.

MG: No, you’re right. My wife didn’t know anything about it, she had never seen the dailies or read the short story it’s based on, and we watched it last night and at the end of it she said, “This is a masterpiece. I don’t think I can watch it again, but this is a masterpiece” (laughs), which was pretty much the same reaction she had to The Machinist and Session 9. They’re really, really great movies but they can be very hard on you if you have a tender psyche. They’re not just about external horror, they’re more about internal horror which, to me, is much more potent. I love a story that you can carry out the theater with you beyond the end titles, and Anderson is a master at that.

JB: Agreed! It was a bit disappointing what little attention both is films were given, but they’ve found a following for sure. I know a lot of people that didn’t like Session 9 at all when it came out but, upon giving it a second chance, fell in love.

MG: That’s the thing; you go to a movie predicting something and it doesn’t give you what you expect, it can be disappointing. But when you go in and you know what you’re in for … Riding the Bullet had a lot of that. People were expecting a King balls-to-the-wall horror story, but they got a meditation on death and The Beatles(laughs). It was the same with Chocolate, with people expecting a big strong horror story. Of course, I may be rationalizing my work in reaction it, but I think if people know more about what they’re in for they’re able to open up their psyches.

Masters of Horror, Season 2 posterJB: So what’s left to be filmed for this season?

MG: Stuart’s is #11 actually, “Washingtonians” was #10. Next is Rob Schmidt, who’s doing an original script by John Esposito called “Right To Die”, and then the last will be in Tokyo where Norio Tsuruta is doing a story by Koji Suzuki, who did Dark Water, called “Dream Cruise”, which will begin shooting at the end of this month (August) in Tokyo.

JB: Do you think there’s going to be another “Imprint” this season?

MG: Well, “Cruise’ won’t be it, as it’s a ghost story, but we knew “Imprint” was going to be tough. Showtime always had the right not to show any of the episodes since they’re only licensing it and not producing it. They don’t have the right to cut them, though, so thy simply chose not to show it. Have you seen it?

JB: Not yet, now (editor’s note; I since have, and I do understand)

MG: Well once you see it you’ll understand why they didn’t air it. It’s potent. I think it’s mostly culture differences because it played fine in Japan, it played in Australia on television, it played in the UK uncut, so it’s just a different culture.

JB: I just wanted to tell you that I, for one, was very happy you chose to not air it rather than cut it up to shit. A lot of fans weren’t happy about it, but I’m glad we’ll get to seeit uncut.

MG: Well, actually Showtime never said they wanted to cut it, they just said they didn’t want to show it, and we were all pleased because we were like “fine, let it sell three times as many DVDs!”, you know? I was confused as to why the fans were upset, to, since they knew they could rent it for next to nothing or buy it for $20 and get it uncut with all the hours of extra material. It was just strange.

We made the film; we sure didn’t make it so no one would show it. We wanted it to be seen as it was meant to be. But there were still a lot of fans screaming they were going to cancel Showtime and all that stuff, but I understood why they didn’t show it.

JB: Well, you know how temperamental we horror fans can be.

MG: I do, and especially the online community. The haters are the ones that always come out in droves, too. People who like what they see are happy, they don’t go post things like, “I LOVE THAT GODDAMN MOVIE!” (laughs)

JB: Let’s talk about Anchor Bay for a second; what was behind their decision halfway through the series to change the covers?

The unused cover for Joe Dante's HomecomingMG: Well, I gotta tell you, I thought the illustrations of the directors looked like they were done by an untalented 12-year-old. Horrible. And mine was probably worse than any of them! I draw, as does Joe Dante, and Joe hated it more than anybody, so his was the first one not to feature the old artwork.

But I think it was just a matter of the first ones were selling less well than they expected, so they wanted to concentrate on each one individually rather than putting them out two at a time and selling the concept, because the concept had already come out. They wanted to sell “Homecoming” as a movie rather than an episode of Masters of Horror; they wanted to sell “Jenifer” as a movie rather than an episode, and apparently “Jenfier” is doing really well in sales, so I guess its’ working out for them.

The fans were so interesting with this whole series, too. Half of them loved some episodes that the other half hated…

JB: I know what you mean! Some of the episodes other fans could not stand were my favorites!

MG: No two people have the same list from top to bottom, and I think that is a sign of the show’s success ultimately. We’re giving people a lot of different things; we’re not doing “Tales From the Crypt” every week.

JB: So aside from the pictures being gone, were you happy with the concept of the DVDs being sold as stand-alone movies?

MG: I’m fine with it, though I would like there to be a little bigger branding on the DVD of the MoH name, since that’s what the show is all about, but I’m happy with whatever gets it to the fans. They already know about it, and the discs are all identified as Masters of Horror, so I’m fine with them all having different art and glad that each is getting individual attention.

JB: The most annoying thing for me is that the first batch all had the director’s names on the binders, now it’s the film titles, so it looks weird in my DVD collection!

MG: (laughs) Well, I’m sure there will be box set eventually, so that should take care of it…. The UK is doing one already, though they’re doing it in two volumes.

JB: It’s a good idea, though obviously there’s not much more they can put on them, since the discs are loaded, but it’d be nice to have them packaged that way.

MG: I’m really interested to see what they do with the DVDs for Season Two for the returning directors. You can’t really do a history of John Carpenter twice, you know? (laughs). So I’m curious to see what they’ll come up with for those.

JB: So do you think there will be a Season Three?

MG: We hope so! We have not got word yet, since we’re working on pushing this season right now. But I’ve been told we’re their second most successful series, after “Weeds”, which Showtime does produce and promote heavily, so as long as that remains the same we should be back.

You know what’s the weirdest one? We are the “Emmy Award Winning Masters of Horror”; that is really bizarre! (laughs)

JB: So were there any directors for Season Two that you really wanted to get on board but just couldn’t?

MG: Absolutely; we really wanted to get Rob Zombie but he wasn’t available because of his tour and now his Halloween movie, Guillermo del Toro has wanted to do both seasons but couldn’t, Wes Craven wanted to do one, we’re still dying to get Romero involved and he really wants to but his life has been hectic lately, we’d love to get Cronenberg but something tells me we probably won’t. I think he doesn’t like to think of himself as a horror director. I would love to get a female in at some point, too, but they’re pretty far between. Mary Haron would be great, American Psycho is a brilliant film, but she doesn’t really see herself as a horror director, either.

So yeah, lots of the people we want really want to do it, as well; Eli Roth, for example, but when the feature iron is hot you don’t want to turn that down for a scale-paying one hour TV movie.

But the real test as to how good the show is is that a director like John Carpenter wanted to come back; he doesn’t ever have to do anything, but he had such a good time doing this, and it’s just such a unique experience. You know, we don’t offer much of a budget or a schedule, but we do offer the freedom to make the most personal film you can, and that’s attractive to any kind of director.

I would like to put forth a big thank you to Mick Garris for taking the time (nearly an hour!) to chat with me about all his projects, and to Brian Feeman of Cemetery Dance Publications for making it (finally) happen.

Masters of Horror: Season Two premieres on Showtime on October 27th at 10/9 central, so make sure you don’t miss it. Development Hell is currently available through Cemetery Dance Publications, Desperation is on DVD right now, so be sure to pick it up!



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