Interview: The Weird World of Mick Garris

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SHOCK’s Trevor Parker chats with veteran horror and fantasy writer/director/producer Mick Garris.

For many years, writer-producer-director Mick Garris has maintained an enviable reputation as an example of one of Hollywood?s rarest breeds?a genuinely nice guy. (In fact, Nice Guy is even the name of Garris?s production company.) This affable demeanor has served Garris well, no doubt aiding him in the herculean corralling of fellow horror legends to participate in the fondly-remembered MASTERS OF HORROR television series that he created and produced a decade ago and the upcoming anthology film NIGHTMARE CINEMA. This is not to discount Garris?’ solo accomplishments, from entries in several major fright franchises to his string of faithful Stephen King adaptations. And let?s not neglect the work that fans may not realize bear Garris?’ fingerprints: the underrated Amblin heartwarmer BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED, to the Disney kiddies-versus-witches caper HOCUS POCUS, to last years? hit wartime biopic UNBROKEN (more on that below).

Here, Garris takes the time to shine some light onto some of the darker corners of his world.

SHOCK: Looking over the credits of your immense media career, the vast majority of them land in the horror and sci-fi genres. Was that the way you saw your career heading as you started out?

GARRIS: Well, I never planned a career at all, other than when I was eighteen I thought I was going to be a rock star. (laughs) And that would allow me to write and direct movies. But I?ve always been a horror fan; the first movie I remember seeing on T.V. at home was SON OF KONG. But there was never any kind of career plan. My tastes are much broader than that, but my first successes were in the genre. In a way, it?s a kind of ghetto?if you have success, particularly in the horror genre? You?re not getting out of that jail. I?m happy to work within the genre, and better to be known for doing work within that field than for nothing at all. I?d love to work outside of it; I?ve done it a couple of times, but not very often. My tastes aren?t limited to that, but so far, my career pretty much has been. And I’m not unhappy about that at all. I’m a proud waver of the flag of the gutter that we all live in. But I think that some were able to do grown-up work, people like Stephen King and Clive Barker and the like, in the genre that Hollywood thinks of as a ?teenage? genre.

SHOCK: You?ve recently uploaded a wealth of archival (Los Angeles television station) Z-Channel interviews, and the more recent interviews you did for FearNet to your website at www.mickgarrisinterviews.com for viewing free of charge. I first wanted to thank you for this largesse, and also ask what was the impetus behind your generosity?

GARRIS: It was just ego, that’s all. (laughs) I had all of these interviews from the Z-Channel, and the original tapes had been destroyed. Z channel was originally (part of) a little company called SATA cable, that was a Los Angeles cable company. And over the years it?s been gobbled up by different conglomerates, and now it?s part of TimeWarner. So when the company was first taken over by a conglomerate, all of the tapes were destroyed. Nobody knew about them. I had taped them off the air onto my Betamax, so that’s why they look so shitty (laughs). And I had done the POST MORTEM interviews with FEARNET and a guy named Peter Block, who was a friend who used to be at Lionsgate and handled all their genre stuff. And so we worked together putting that on, and then the rights reverted to me after the license expired. For fear that they?d disappear after FearNet went under, I decided that I would like to distribute them all and get a DVD manufacturer to want to release them for public consumption, and then it seemed like physical media started to die off around that time. I thought, ?I’ve got all the stuff that could be kind of historic. It might be worth it to just archive them and make them available.? And that’s kind of what I’ve done. It?s something that I wished that I had?all of these (clips) are people who were idols of mine, or just had really interesting careers and the like, to just talk about this stuff. Not in an Entertainment Weekly kind of way, but to really sit down and talk about the genre and their work in it, and not in sound bites or to promote a movie. It was altruistic, actually. But it was also a way to kind of contribute a little bit to cinema and genre history. The cool thing is that there’s kind of nothing like it out there, and it was just great to have this kind of trove of material that otherwise would’ve been lost forever.

SHOCK: You?ve contributed to a great many horror franchises, from PSYCHO to CRITTERS to THE FLY. My question is whether or not there were any franchises that you really wanted to work on? Maybe where you never got the offer or just came agonizingly close?

GARRIS: You know, I’m not really that much interested in franchises, but there was that period of time in my career when every opportunity made available to me had a number in the title. PSYCHO 4, I was very naïve about that one because I thought, ?There?s been a PSYCHO 2 and 3,? and we?re really removed from the first movie. (PART 4) was written by the guy who wrote the original script, Joe Stefano, to the original PSYCHO, so I just naïvely did (the film). With THE SHINING, it was the same thing: it was like, ?Oh, we’re going to do King?s book?. I never really thought of them as remakes or franchises or whatever, so it’s never been a plan. I can’t really say that I can think of any franchise that I was or am chomping at the bit to get involved with. I don’t have a career prep plan, frankly. It’s just creating what I can and then involving myself with whatever opportunities are made available to me, and that look the best as something that I can commit the next six months or year of my life to.

SLEEPWALKERS, writer Stephen King (left), director Mick Garris (center), on set, 1992. ©Columbia Pictures

SHOCK: You?ve carried on a decades-long association with Stephen King, starting with 1992?s SLEEPWALKERS, which came from an original King screenplay. How did the SLEEPWALKERS gig come about? Did you have to pitch a take to the producers?

GARRIS: Actually King and I were represented by the same agency at the time, and we still are now, but it’s a different agency. I got a meeting at the studio and King was not involved, though he had director approval. And the meeting went great. It had been set up by my agents at Sony?well, Columbia at the time. It went really well and they said, ?This is great. We have a couple of meetings that we have to do as obligations, but we really think you’ll be great for this,? and the next thing I heard was that in one of those obligatory meetings, they gave it to another director. And that director took it in a direction that the studio didn?t like, and more importantly, that King really didn?t like. He just kind of rewrote it completely. And so they asked me to come back and have lunch with the producers, and I did?and what I didn’t realize was that day after lunch they were moving me into an office, because I had gotten the job. They didn’t tell me that, but they wanted me to put (SLEEPWALKERS) back the way King had intended it. And to incorporate whatever changes, but within that King world, and so King had approval. He had seen PSYCHO 4, which he did not expect to like, just because it’s not only a number, it’s a high number. And he was surprised by how good he thought it was, and so he gave his approval and that?s kind of how it started. You know, we had our battles with the studio, and with the MPAA and the like, and he had seen everything that had been done uncensored, even though we did not meet in person until the day he shot his cameo. We did meet afterwards when I screened the movie for him in a private screening room in New York; just him and Tabitha. It was really fun, it went great. We talked more after that, and then when THE STAND came up, he asked me if I’d be interested, so that kind of started this, as you say, decades-long relationship that’s as much a friendship as it is a business relationship.

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SHOCK: I?d say that the mammoth THE STAND miniseries is your crowning achievement. Now, Warner Brothers has plans to wedge the STAND story into either one or two feature films. As someone who?s been there before, what?s your thought on this notion?

GARRIS: Well, from what I know it’s going to be two movies, and you could probably do a fair job of that because our eight hour miniseries without any commercial breaks is only six hours total. And you could probably pare it down from six hours to five and a half hours total running time. They might be able to do a good job. I met Josh Boone, who will be the writer-director on the future version, if and when, and he’s a huge King fan. And I think if anybody can do a great job of it, he can. I really liked him a lot and just offered whatever help?if he wants any help, I mean, he certainly doesn’t need it, but I just offered whatever I could to him because I would love to see (THE STAND) be great. It was certainly the most difficult thing that I’ve ever done in my life. It was a year out of my life, away from home… And really difficult shooting conditions all over the place. It was epic, and I’m glad you feel it was my crowning achievement (laughs), because it’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. But I’m also a guy who wanted to see what the Gus Van Sant PSYCHO remake was like; it may not have worked out the way he wanted, or the way anybody might have, but I don’t think remakes are automatically a bad idea. And in this case, who knows? In the case of THE SHINING, we did it because King never was happy with the telling of the story in the movie and thought it could be done better, or at least more appropriately to what he intended with his book. So that wasn’t really a remake. In the case of THE STAND, they are remaking it, because they’re doing the book, which is what we did. But how it will be told and compressed in that manner, and which version of THE STAND they are going back to is a big question too. Even with eight hours of television, we had to do the first version and not the unexpurgated version.

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SHOCK: From what I understand, producing the MASTERS OF HORROR series wasn’t a great experience for you, but if you look at what network shows like HANNIBAL and THE WALKING DEAD get away with in terms of explicitly violent content, would be fair to say that Masters of horror broke that ground for small screen horror?

GARRIS: I would like to think so? you know, TALES FROM THE CRYPT did a lot of sex and violence, but I think we broke ground in the way stories were told?in the way we took it seriously and the way we brought in the best possible people to do it. And just to correct maybe a misconception, I think MASTERS OF HORROR was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I have nothing but great thoughts about that. It was FEAR ITSELF and what MASTERS OF HORROR turned into when other people got involved and took it to commercial television. I was involved for a while but I left because it was really, really turning into something I couldn’t approve of. And they have the right to take it away, but the two seasons (on Showtime) were a great experience. Isn’t it amazing that it was 10 years ago? (laughs) But I would like to think that we were in the vanguard, and I love seeing where television has been forced to come because of cable. The leniency of standards and practices?they still have them out there, but they’ve loosened up substantially, and it’s because of the competition from streaming channels that don’t have to have the same sort of policing of morals. The commercial (networks), they’ve got to compete against all of that stuff. So I’m happy to take some credit for it, but really it’s the evolving universe of the entertainment.

SHOCK: Some genre fans may not be aware of your executive producer role on Angelina Jolie?s hit film UNBROKEN. They may also be unaware that the film?s subject, Olympic athlete and war hero Louis Zamperini, is also your real life father-in-law. So how did you feel about the finished product? Was it an accurate depiction?

GARRIS: (UNBROKEN) was a great experience and I would say that virtually everything in that movie was exactly how it happened, with the little exception of the sharks being shot by fighters in the sky in one particular moment. That didn’t happen that way. But Louis was very involved (with the film), and I know genre fans, if they happened to be at UNBROKEN?likely or unlikely?and had seen my name come up probably said, ?How the f–k did he get involved? (laughs) Yeah, Louis was my father-in-law, and he passed away at age ninety-seven a year ago. But the experience with Angelina was one of the best experiences in the world. We just saw her last weekend, where we dispersed Louis?s ashes here, finally, after the fact. And she was there for a very, very small and private family ceremony. She and (Louis) became very close; she showed him almost a final cut of the movie on her laptop in the hospital before he passed away. And he was a big booster (of the film); it was a hundred percent great experience for him and she is a great filmmaker. And I couldn’t be happier with how that worked out.

Salome

SHOCK: Another aspect of your career that fans may or may not be aware of is that you’ve had several novels published: DEVELOPMENT HELL and the recently-released SALOME. Can you talk about your process as a novelist as opposed to a screenwriter?

GARRIS: It’s completely different because you have no masters. I started writing fiction at twelve; I wrote short stories and that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, was to write. The directing wasn’t in the plan, although I had an 8 mm camera and made stupid little movies as a kid. But for me, the process? I love the process of writing. It comes fairly easy to me, and it’s relaxing, and there’s no thoughts about budgets or egos or schedules or locations or limitations of the physical (world). Richard Matheson once said something to me that I will never forget. He said, ?Books are internal and films are external.? It’s kind of a profound statement: you can convey thoughts in books so much more completely and resolutely in prose then you can in visuals. But for me, the process, I just sit down and I start writing and I keep going. I amuse myself. (laughs) I’ve been doing it all my life, but it’s only in the last dozen years that I’ve started publishing (novels). I?ve published short stories over the years, but DEVELOPMENT HELL was done in a very unusual way, because the first two chapters were short stories written twelve years apart. One was a sequel to the other, and I wrote another one that picked up where that one left off. I?d done four of them and I showed them to Stephen King, who said, ?You know, this is kind of a loose novel.? And it inspired me; I’d always been intimidated and cowed by the idea of writing an entire novel. But like writing a screenplay, once you’ve done that you realize, ?Oh my God, I can do this!? So it was an unconventional way to do it because I wrote them as short stories, but once I decided it was a novel I went back to the beginning and kind of tweaked everything and worked things so it would work more in the fabric of a single story. The other one, SALOME, I just sat down?I was inspired to write it and it was done within three or four weeks just from beginning to end.

(Note: portions of this interview were originally printed in the limited edition magazine HORROR-RAMA #1)

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