Talking about Stephen King’s The Mist and Fahrenheit 451
When it comes to interpreting author Stephen King’s work to the screen, two names usually come to mind, one being Mick Garris who has adapted some of King’s weightier novels as TV movies, but the only director who has earned more respect for his adaptations of King’s work is Mr. Frank Darabont.
Although Darabont has shied away from King’s horror stories with the three he’s adapted, two of them, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, have earned Oscar nominations for Darabont’s script. For his fourth collaboration with King, he tackles one of the master storyteller’s most memorable short stories, The Mist, which first appeared in the 1980 horror anthology “Dark Forces” before being reprinted as part of King’s “Skeleton Crew” collection five years later.
In the movie, which is very faithful to King’s story, Thomas Jane plays David Drayton, a painter living in Maine whose trip to the supermarket with his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) turns into a nightmare as an impenetrable mist sweeps over the area, and they’re trapped with a large group of panicking people who realize the danger and death in the mist for anyone who goes into it. Anyone who loves horror and sci-fi should appreciate what Darabont has done with the story, which combines a great ensemble cast that includes Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher and Toby Jones with lots of creatures and gore galore!
ShockTillYouDrop spent two days in the presence of Mr. Darabont, first with a couple more intimate interviews and then with a full-on press conference with Stephen King, which you can read and see here. Basically, if there’s anything you still want to know about Darabont’s take on The Mist, you should find it in the two interviews that follow.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: You would have to have a real passion for a story to work on it for this long and then be able to talk about it at length for a couple days after finishing it.
Frank Darabont: You need that passion for a story to invest that kind of work into it. Even something as quick as this winds up being really over a year of work. I mean, it was a six-week shoot, and it was a very condensed post, but between prepping and finishing and then coming here it really is over a year. I don’t think people really realize the commitment involved in something like “The Green Mile” was three years, you know? So one doesn’t approach it lightly. You really got to love it to want to do it.
Shock: Do you ever watch your movies again after they premiere, or do you move on and never look back?
Darabont: God, you have to put them aside. Certainly you do watch them again eventually, but you got to let years go by before you can even begin to approach anything objectively. Probably watching them again is more common now because you wind up having to do commentary and things like that for the DVD, and “Shawshank”, for example, we wound up doing the special edition DVD for its ten year anniversary so you want to get acquainted with the movie a good bit after the fact and that’s always really interesting. By then it’s almost kind of fun because you’re looking at the movie thinking, “Hey, this ain’t bad. This is pretty good.” It doesn’t really feel like you anymore. You don’t really feel like an immediate part of the process anymore. It’s just a movie that was made a while ago and you can look at it fresh.
Shock: You had the rights to make this movie for a long time, almost thirteen years, so why did you wait and it took so long to get it going? Was it just a matter of finding people who wanted to finance the movie?
Darabont: It’s not like it was a thirteen year struggle to make it. It was more like it was on the back burner which is not unusual. You have a number of projects in life that are in various stages of maybe–maybe happening, maybe having to wait some more–or what not. This has really been on the back burner for a while, but during those years, I was primarily making my living as a screenwriter for hire, you know? That was the primary focus of the career. Other opportunities did arise. So suddenly you go make “Green Mile” and that takes two years, you make “The Majestic” and that takes a year and a half. It’s not like this was just sitting there and I had nothing else to do, but the date does come when you think, “Okay this has been simmering on the back burner for some time now and it’s really starting to feel like now is the time.” And you take it and you serve the dish. This was starting to feel more and more timely to me, this story, you know, the relevance that did urge me along. I was also really ready to shake it up in the kind of movie that I make and the way that I make them because it’s good to do that. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone as a technician as it were, as a storyteller, as an artist. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone in the approach you have and say, “Okay I’m going to shoot something like totally different now. Shoot something in a totally different way.” And this was a much more in the moment sort of documentary approach. The camera work that was improvised, you know, it infuses a completely different energy into what you do versus the more classical filmmaking approach that I’ve employed in the past, and I was really ready to do that. I was really ready to just take my clothes off and jump into the volcano.
Shock: Your career has been linked so closely to that of Stephen King, though this is the first horror movie you’ve directed. I know you’re a fan of the genre, but is there a different mindset that goes into adapting a King horror story over one of his heavier dramas?
Darabont: I mean ultimately, not really because the task winds up being the same which is, how do we end up telling the story through the eyes of character as well as we can? So fundamentally the task is really the same. It’s all those things writers love to talk about, subtext and meaning and theme, so from that standpoint, not really, from every other standpoint, yes, completely different. Like I say, that’s more the approach to how it was done and I thought this material required a different approach than the other ones I’ve done. I think the material linked itself to this more ragged approach. It was more like playing jazz than playing Beethoven. Where in Beethoven you have to hit every note perfectly and it’s all very planned and very precise, and here it’s like you’re playing jazz with three drunk guys and part of the allure of playing Jazz is that it’s got a ragged sort of improvised feel to it.
Shock: It was very faithful to Stephen as far as the dialogue, and it might be one of the most faithful King adaptations in a long time. As a writer, when you adapt King, do you have to presume that the way he wrote it is right and you should go for that or do you feel to add your own imprint? Obviously, the ending is all you.
Darabont: There’s always a translative effect. The two languages are very different. Written fiction and film are two different languages. You always do have to translate. What I try to do though, certainly when I admire the material I’m adapting, is always bear in mind the author’s voice, bear in mind the author’s intention in the story that he’s telling. Even if I’m changing things I’m trying to have the net result be the same and have it feel like you’ve seen the same story that you’ve read. A great example of that really is I think is the James Whitmore character in “Shawshank” because that character was somewhat whole cloth invented by me for purposes of the movie, but the scenes were planted in Steve’s story. There’s one little paragraph in Steve’s story of “Shawshank” where Red, the narrator, the Morgan Freeman character says, “I knew an old con once named Brooks and he got paroled and he couldn’t make it on the outside.” And that’s the extent of that character in the story. For me, for the illustrative value of what that character can bring to the whole notion of the movie, I then invent that character and lay it in, but at the end of the day it feels like the same story. I didn’t just jam something in that was unwarranted.
Shock: With this novel, it has a lot of characters that pop in and out, but you don’t feel that in the movie and you always feel like all of the people in the story are still there.
Darabont: Which was very interesting for me because you kind of get the same thing when you’re writing the script. It’s kind of interesting because when you’re writing these scenes you focus on those characters that need to function in the scene and it’s easy in your minds’ eye to forget that everybody else has to be there too until you’re on the set and you’re like, “Oh geez. Well, you stand here, and so and so, you stand there. And let’s figure out some organic reason for you to be here because you need to be here. You’re not a Greek chorus just standing in the background.” You actually have to have texture in the scene, and that’s really interesting because the reality of being on the set and what you have to shoot versus the little selective perceptions of what you write when you write it it’s like, “Oh yeah. I forgot those other three characters who are in this scene. Now I have to deal with them.”
Shock: You ended up having the cast remain available for the entire shoot in case you needed them.
Darabont: Exactly. So, yeah.
Shock: I interviewed D.J. Caruso a while ago, and he mentioned how you were a big fan of “The Shield” and that you used their camera crew for this. Can you talk about how you incorporated that technique knowing that you’d have a lot of CG creatures added later?
Darabont: As “The Beatles” say, “A little help from your friends.” I believe in making the best use of the most talented people and when I saw “Pan’s Labyrinth” which is a masterpiece. I think the best film in the fantasy genre in a decade at least.
Shock: I just had a chance to see him working in Budapest.
Shock: In the novel, each of the creatures might be described with just a few sentences, so it’s amazing how you guys built on that. Were you running stuff by Stephen as you were doing it?
Darabont: Oh, I would email him. Every once in a while there would be a really cool sketch or something and I’d send him that as an email and say, “Hey check it out. Here’s kind of in process what we’re thinking of.” And of course he’d get excited because he loves stuff like that, too. Ultimately, the challenge was to try and create these designs in such a way that they feel very unique to this film and not like somebody else’s creature. There have been so many designs through the years. Not somebody else’s dinosaur, or dragon, or spider, or whatever, but to do stuff that was very unique to ours. That was the primary goal and the great pleasure of working with Greg because he’s incredibly versed in film history and genre history. He knows, as I have, what’s been done, what designs have existed. And we’d see something that looked a little too much like some monster from some movie we knew we’d veer away from that. We’d kind of take it in another direction.
Shock: Have you seen the movie “The Host” yet?
Darabont: I have not. I have the DVD. I have not had a chance to see it.
Shock: It’s an interesting comparison because that’s a strange-looking creature, but because it looks so strange, it freaks people out even more, and I think that’s the same with the creatures in “The Mist.” So how did you incorporate those creatures into the improvised camera work?
Darabont: It’s amazing what they could do in the computer in terms of tracking. We’d have little tape marks, or tracking markers. Little lights in the shot and they used that in the computer. No matter how hand held the shot was they were able to place that effect into the shot and replicate the camera move exactly so it looks like handheld footage of something that wasn’t actually there. It’s very, very cool.
Shock: I know you’ve been talking about “Fahrenheit 451” a lot. Unlike “The Mist”, Ray Bradbury’s story had already been made into a movie in 1966.
Darabont: Not as far as I’m concerned.
Shock: Okay, but this movie was almost timeless from what Stephen wrote. For that one, do you feel like it’s going to have to be updated to include the modern world, or still very faithful to the book?
Darabont: The only aspect of modernity that needs to be incorporated is the fact that the world is now run on computers and that’s one aspect that Bradbury didn’t quite count on. But it’s a very easy aspect to work into the thing without being self consciously all about computers. It just has to become a texture of the reality of the future that you depict because it is what it will be. Aside from that, I’m looking for again, a very spiritual faithful adaptation of Bradbury’s novel.
Shock: Have you been in touch with Ray Bradbury in the same way as you’ve communicated with Stephen?
Darabont: Yes, I have and I’ve really gotten to know him well in seven years or so, and I really adore him.
Shock: You could tell that Bradbury influenced the ending of this movie as well.
Darabont: There’s a little bit of that and there’s a little bit of Rod Serling.
And for those who can’t get enough of Mr. Darabontâand really, could there ever be enough of him?âhere’s some stuff we talked with him about earlier in the day during a roundtable interview with a couple other journalists.
Shock: Can you talk about balancing the out-and-out gore and scares with the more subtle tension like having a clothing line return from the mist covered in blood?
Darabont: Well mostly keeping the focus on the human drama and the conflict. I felt like I was on really solid ground there. The sequences, primarily the three sort of, the more fun action effects sequences of the film, I always felt like they were the icing on the cake. That’s the fun stuff for the visual eye candy. That was tremendously satisfying to do too because it was not something that I had ever really done before at least to that degree. But I felt I was on very solid ground with the narrative because the novel Stephen had written was so muscular and kind of subversive and let’s face it, metaphorical. When I first adapted the script I thought, “This story would work even without ever catching a glimpse of anything.” It would still function as powerfully as it does. So yeah, so the critters were just kind of a fun bonus for me. Hopefully for the audience as well.
Shock: Without giving it away, the masterstroke of the movie might be the new ending, so how did you come to an agreement with Mr. King on what to do and what inspired the ending?
Darabont: When I’m adapting King, he always plants little seeds along the way. There’s one line in the story that suggested this ending to me, which I can’t quote right now because I have a blank on it, but if I did it would give the ending away. I’ve had the rights to it for about thirteen years now. Through the years we talked casually about that and every once in a while he’d say, “Have you thought of an ending yet?” Because he knew that the open ended ending that he had provided wasn’t necessarily going to fly for a film so he’d go to me a little bit every once in a while, “Have you thought of an ending yet?” And I said, “Yeah, Steve. I actually have had an ending in mind and I don’t want to pitch it to you. Let me write the script and you read it and tell me what you think.” So I sent him the script and then he read it and sent me an email and said, “I wish I had thought of that ending. If I had I’d have used it in the story.” And that’s a terrific endorsement. I felt like I was on solid ground. Once I really had his blessing because if you love a story and if you love an author and you’re adapting that, you don’t want to drop the ball. That’s the person you’d like to please most. I always want him to feel like I’ve done right by him.
Shock: The studios have been pretty notorious about requesting positive endings in movies, so did you have to fight for this one?
Darabont: I didn’t have to fight for it so much as just embrace the aesthetic of the low budget horror movie. Ultimately my resources were quite minimal. I had some people offer me X number of dollars as my budget with the string attached that I change the ending. And instead I came and made it for Bob for less than half that amount because I thought, “You know, I’m too crabby and old for me to sell out now. You know? I’m trying to stick to my guns most of my life. So I’m not going to flip-flop now.” I think to pull the teeth out on something like this would’ve taken away the reason to make it. It’s like giving “Night of the Living Dead” a happy ending.
Shock: It seemed like that constraint helped you. The movie does kind of have a retro feeling to it, like you’re watching a movie made in the late 50’s early 60’s.
Darabont: I love that. That’s a huge compliment, because it’s exactly what we set out to make. I was excited and exhilarated to embrace the aesthetic of the movies that I love the most in the genre. The ones like “Night of the Living Dead”. Not that the two are comparable, but there’s more to it going on than the monsters outside the farm house, and I love the fact that they had to shoot it so cheaply and shoot it so quickly. I thought, “Well hell, if I’m going to make a movie like this, then why not? Let’s go with that idea.” Along with that sort of documentary feel because some people can’t afford a dolly to put the camera on and that’s how they shoot. I mean it goes back to Cassavetes. That can be very thrilling too. It gives you a very in-the-moment feel. Even stuff like the film stock that I shot on. We ran tests with a lot of stuff. We even tried digital and it wound up looking too beautiful for this movie. So I wound up shooting Fuji which is 400ASA which is a very fast film. We could’ve easily shot a slower stock, 100ASA, but that 400 gave us this grain in the image. And I remember being a kid and sitting in the first row of the movie theater watching whatever low budget movie came my way and just loving the grain. It was like little magic specs telling me the story. So I wanted to infuse that kind of sensibility into it too. So it was really, really fun to do. And mixing time periods into it as well for that matter. You know, yes people have cell phones because we don’t want to confuse people and make it a period piece, but there are no bar code scanners in the market, the MP who walks through the door isn’t dressed as a modern MP, and you might notice he wasn’t driving a Humvee, he was driving an old Jeep. With my production designer I discussed this quite a bit. Without completely putting a neon sign on it, we wanted to mix eras a little bit so that it could look kind of familiar and look kind of weird so you might not know what’s slightly off about it. But if you really stop and think about it, they don’t drive Jeeps anymore. They don’t walk in with white helmets, you know? That sort of thing. So that was really fun to play with.
Shock: The cast was very impressive, mostly character actors rather than big stars and the acting is all top-quality. Did you not want to hire any big name actors?
Darabont: I know aren’t they fantastic? Certainly on a budget of this you’re not going to get one of those twenty million dollar guys because the entire movie isn’t even costing that. Even if I had that resource, I’m not sure that I would want one of those guys because for the very aesthetic reason you’re saying, it really does feel like a cast of the right actors cast for the right reason, and in that sense it’s a bit of a throwback. I don’t know about you guys but I am just sick to death of movies with teenagers in them. Okay, slasher and torture and blah blah blah. And it’s all like these teen casts. Apparently, nobody exists on this planet except teenagers on screen and I wanted to see real people. Even when I was a kid or a teenager I didn’t necessarily need teenagers on screen in order for me to become engaged, and that’s been a kind of weird and annoying trend especially the older I get.
Shock: What was the budget?
Darabont: Seventeen and change.
Shock: Did you cast Andre Braugher as Norton to add to the antagonism? Even though his race isn’t mentioned, you always get the feeling he might say, “You’re against me because I’m black.”
Darabont: Yeah, that was something that Andre brought to it. He brought this amazing subtext to that character and when I was watching what he was doing I thought, “Wow this is a guy that got picked on when he was younger, and had some names called at him and grew up to be this incredibly powerful and prominent man.” You could see that chip on his shoulder though of the guy who grew up in rough circumstances. That was never intended in the script, in the story necessarily. It’s a layer he brought to it which was why when we were shooting those scenes everyone was around the monitors with their jaws wide open, and you go, “God damn. That’s why you hire an actor like that, you know?” He’s going to go above and beyond. He’s going to find his own way into the material. Even though he’s saying the words you wrote, it means so much more. And Andre was like a gift because he had not really crossed my mind. I had been a fan of his since “Glory”. His performance in that movie–the performances in that move across the board were stunning–but he made such an impression on me in that film of this skinny young man. He was so dammed good. Apparently, he read the script and I got a call from his agent saying, “Andre read the script and he really likes it and he’d kind of like to play the part if you’d consider him for it,” and I said, “Are you kidding me? Of course. Let’s just say yes to that.” If you’ve got an actor of that caliber coming on board, you know you’ve got something special happening. Marcia indeed was a similar situation. I did approach her because I knew I needed an actor of enormous chops to be able to pull that role off in a way that you would believe. I had this situation before. Like in “Green Mile” there were a bunch of characters that were a couple of really sort of over the top characters in that. They were kind of extreme in their attitudes and their behavior. Percy Wetmore and Wild Bill, played by Doug Hutchinson and Sam Rockwell. You have those guys come in and do it and you still believe that those are real human beings as extreme as they are. I would say that it’s easy to play a mom or a baker than it is to play a fanatic. To be able to do that and play counter to it, and still make you believe it’s a real person is quite an achievement. And I knew I needed an actor like her to pull it off and she did a fantastic job.
Shock: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about Thomas Jane because this is by far the most emotional performance he’s given, and he’s put in a very vulnerable place.
Darabont: I think it’s his best performance. Just from the get-go, when I first called Tom–because I knew him somewhat socially–we weren’t great pals, we are now. I had met him a few times and he read for “The Green Mile” I always remembered his work. I’ve seen roles that he’s done, smallish roles in other movies. He’s one of those guys that I just knew had way more depth that he’s generally been elicited to show in other roles that he’s done. So I called him and I said, “I got this script and I’d love for you to play the lead. Let’s read it and let’s discuss it.” And our very first conversation once he’d read it was, “Tom I think you have more depth than something like âDeep Blue Sea’ allowed you to show. What I don’t want is a square-jawed action hero here. What I want is a really flawed, well intentioned guy who loves his son and it’s a movie about a guy trying to protect his little boy. As far as you’re concerned that’s what the whole movie is about. Are you ready to take that leap?” And indeed it was something he had been hungry to do. It was something he had been hoping would come along so that he wasn’t just action dude, square jawed, monosyllabic. He wanted to tackle something like this. And we promised each other going in that if the movie hero alarm ever sounded in our heads that we’d call each other on it. He’d caution me and I’d caution him in terms of what his character needed to be and to not diverge into the wrong avenues with it. For me it was a pleasure working with him because he’s a not bullshit guy. We had the same goal for this movie and that always makes the process a pleasure.
Shock: There’s a very political element to this movie as well.
Darabont: Oh good heavens yes.
Shock: Is it just luck that a story like this is still relevant in this day and age?
Darabont: I don’t think it’s ever not relevant. I mean it does go back to “The Lord of the Flies” and “Monsters on Maple Street” and “Life Boat”. It’s the study of human nature approach to things and human nature isn’t always glorious as in “Shawshank.” Sometimes not our best instincts come to the fore. So it was never in my view not relevant, but boy, in the twenty first century, it has become more and more relevant, hasn’t it? It was one of the things that really got me to take it off the back burner and put it on the front burner because it is that subversive horror movie that has more on its mind than just the beasties, and it winds up being a pretty pointed metaphor and allegory as you say. That’s what makes it so exciting to make a movie like that.