Adapting to horror: an interview with Mick Garris, pt. 1

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Mick Garris is a man of many talents, most of them seeped in the inky blackness of good old fashioned horror.  That being said, he certainly is no one-trick pony.

As a filmmaker, most horror fans will know him for his Stephen King adaptations (Sleepwalkers, The Stand mini-series, The Shining mini-series, Riding The Bullet, Desperation and Bag of Bones).  He also directed Critters 2: The Main Course and Psycho IV: The Beginning, Anthony Perkins’ final stab at the role of Norman Bates.

As a writer, Mick helped create one of my all-time favorite family friendly spook films, Hocus Pocus.  Garris actually has three credits in the film, truth be told.  He then created my favorite horror mini-series anthology of all time, Masters of Horror, a collection of one-hour horror films that premiered on Showtime in 2005.

So, basically, Mick Garris is who I want to be when I grow up.

A 1986 Edgar Allan Poe Award winner for his work on the television series Amazing Stories, Garris has lived and breathed horror for as long as he has been able to.  He also happens to be one of the most well-respected interview hosts in the horror world, even dedicating a whole website to his chats with horror icons throughout the years.  In case you aren’t jealous of the man’s fantastic career yet, he also is a member of the board of advisers for the Hollywood Horror Museum.

Garris is a gentleman who does not have the word ‘complacent’ in his vocabulary.  Whether it is pitching an idea, discussing working on a project in a different country and filmed in a different language, or brewing up some new ideas on how to revolutionize the horror anthology world again, Garris simply cannot- and will not- slow down.  A horror fan making horror films, Garris has had an incredible thirty-plus year career that is still piping hot.

I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Garris recently while he was in his California office and below you will find the first part of our two-part discussion on a variety of topics, spanning Mr. Garris’ illustrious career.

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Mangled Matters:  Were you a big horror fan growing up?

Mick Garris:  I actually was.  You know, I had many interests growing up, but that was always my primary focus of interest.  I was that oddball, outcast like so many of us fans of the genre, that was really drawn the dark side.  Not to the exclusion of other things, but professionally, once you get painted with the horror brush, it’s hard to shower it off. (pause) I’m going to have to make a t-shirt that says that.  I came up with that one right on the spot there.


MM:  I like that.  I’d definitely buy that shirt.  Was there any specific movie or moment in your childhood that really cemented the love of horror within you?

MG:  Well it wasn’t really a horror film but the first movie I remember seeing was The Son of Kong.  My family watched it together when I was very young.  My mother saw it on a re-release in the theatre when she was a tiny, little girl and it scared the shit out of her.  I was one of four kids and we all watched it together, as a family, with mom and dad.  You know, King Kong was a really incredible, adventurous film but The Son of Kong is really a comedic film, outside of the heartbreaking ending.  So she was kind of embarrassed, watching it again, that she ever made such a big deal about the film in the first place.  I was captivated by it.  The gorilla looked jerky and artificial but there was so much magic to it.  I couldn’t have been more than six years old and the world, the creative world, really opened up to me after seeing that film.


MM:  How and when did you get into the filmmaking business?

MG:  My introduction to it, my first job, was as a writer on Amazing Stories and I got to watch Robert Zemeckis work on a script of mine.  Getting to watch Steven Spielberg directing, Martin Scorsese directing, it was just a revelation every time.  It was my first job in the business and it was just such an incredible resource each and every time I had the chance to work alongside these men.


MM:  What inspired you to create the Masters of Horror series?

MG:  Well, really, it all started when I had put together a series of dinners.  A lot of the genre filmmakers meet one another at film festivals and conventions and such, and there’s always this thought of “oh, we should do dinner sometime”, you know, so I realized after a couple of years of this, nobody is going to do these dinners unless I do. (laughs)

So I took about a week to figure out a schedule that would work for about a dozen of the filmmakers.  It took forever to finally pin down a date that worked for all of us, but it was me and John Landis, William Malone, and Guillermo del Toro, Tobe Hooper and Stuart Gordon.  There was a dozen of us and it went so well that about a month or two later, we met up again and it took about an hour for us to decide and agree that this was a project we could all get behind.  I came up with a format that I thought would work great for both the audience and for the filmmakers.  You know, it was “we will do this series of really explicit, wonderful horror stories if you, the network, don’t interfere” and we were able to do it because it was the chicken and the egg thing- ‘well, we can’t sell the show without the filmmakers and we can’t get the filmmakers until we’re committed to a show’.  You know, lightning struck.  We pitched it to three places and the first place we pitched it to said, “how much and when can you start?” and we were off and running.  The dinners, I haven’t had one for a while now, about a year, but they still continue and that first one was a dozen years ago.  The last one, we had about thirty-five directors.


MM:  Lightning definitely struck.  This was one of the coolest projects I ever remember seeing.  Would you ever consider tackling a new round of Masters of Horror?  Has that been something discussed?

MG:  I’m really happy that we made twenty-six really special one-hour movies with these amazing filmmakers.  It was really one of the best experiences of my life, too, because not only was I able to bring in a lot of people I hadn’t met before like Takashi Miike, but really my job was to give them creative freedom and be a cheerleader.  I took pride in protecting them and giving them the opportunity to do something that really had never been done before.  It turned into an international success.  That show had such an impact all around the world.  I still feel like I’m twenty-one years old and starting, with the enthusiasm of a rabid fan.

That project gave me the chance to be a fan, a creator and a contributor to a project that I felt was really important.  It was so great to see so many different approaches to creating a film, because, as you know, directors don’t work on other director’s movies so you don’t see how they all work.

And then, Fear Itself, which was a spin-off of sorts, really went the wrong way.  It got watered down.  There were studio notes and network notes and I ended up leaving because of the writer’s strike before the first one even started.  I didn’t go back because I could see that things were going to go south in a hurry.  That said, I would love to do another project like that and I’m working on an anthology series of horror stories in the similar vein but has a little bit of a different take.  I can’t tell you how many people suggest, “you should do apprentices of horror!” or something along those lines, but I want to do something unique in that field that would still give creative control to the filmmakers.  We might be close to getting something like that off the ground.  The timing is just not quite right for me to be able to really talk about it yet, though.


MM:  That’s exciting.  I’d love to see something come out of that, because I loved the series and would love to see more.

MG:  Me, too! (laughs)


Garris at the Stanley Hotel. photo by Richard Alden Peterson

Garris at the Stanley Hotel.
photo by Richard Alden Peterson

MM:  You mentioned earlier being a rabid fan of the genre yourself.  It’s always refreshing to hear someone who does this for a profession still have such a zest for the craft.  Horror fans making horror films make the best horror films.

MG:  What’s great is this genre, more than any other, is encouraging.  Because we are kind of lumped into a ghetto, a gutter, in a way.  The horror genre is only respected at the box office.  You know, if you have a successful horror film, fantastic.  Otherwise, you are an adolescent, because Hollywood sees horror as meant for kids, teenagers and college kids.  Whereas, everywhere else in the world, it is not looked at that way.  It’s just another genre that is looked at with a respect and appreciation.  It’s not all about slasher films.  Some of the greatest literature and cinema has been in the horror world.

You don’t have Western film festivals and comedy conventions, things like that.  We feel like outcasts and when we are able to be together, we encourage and support one another.  Plus, filmmaking is always in a state of flux and evolution and if you don’t embrace change, you’re going to be left behind.  Your brain is going to get gray, as well as your hair.  I don’t ever want to see that happen to me.  I want to be contemporary, I want to be a part of my time.  I love classic filmmaking styles and techniques, but I want to evolve as the planet does, just like all storytellers do.


MM:  Speaking of storytellers, you have quite a famous relationship with Stephen King.  I won’t even put this in the interview, but if I can fan-boy for a moment, you’ve done some of my favorite King adaptations, including The Shining mini-series and Desperation.  I love both of those.

MG:  Oh, put that in! Definitely put that in! (laughs) Thank you very much.


MM:  I love the work you’ve done of Mr. King’s, definitely.  I’m curious, how did the friendship come about?  You and Mr. King are pretty closely knit, having worked together so often.

MG:  It all started with Sleepwalkers, which was not a King adaptation, obviously.  I had just made Psycho IV.  So, I got a meeting at Columbia, which was making Sleepwalkers, and it went really great.  I was a young filmmaker with two small movies and a few television scripts under my belt and it went really well.  I really respect King’s work and the studio didn’t quite get it, but they knew they had a Stephen King script.  So I left the meeting with them saying “this went great, we have a few obligation interviews to do but this is going to be great. We’re sure you’re going to do a great job” and I left thinking I got the job.  Then they hired one of the guys they had an obligatory interview with. (laughs) So I kind of moved on and then I got a call to have lunch with one of the producers.  It was a weird meeting and they said the filmmaker had taken it into a totally different direction than what King wanted and King had director approval.  He wasn’t happy at all with it.  They wanted someone to come in and bring it back into the King world.  So we talked and I gave them some of my ideas on revisions and such.  What I didn’t know was, after lunch, they led me to an office- my new office- they had hired me without me even knowing!  I moved into an office on the Columbia Pictures lot and started work right then and there, so it all worked out well.


MM:  Sleepwalkers has received criticism both positive and negative, but it’s a real cult favorite.
MG:  It was a tough movie to make.  The studio didn’t understand and appreciate it, and I get it- it certainly isn’t King’s best work or my best work but it was the number one movie the weekend it opened.  It was huge.

We went back to the MPAA five times to get an R rating, re-cutting it each time because they weren’t going to give us a rating.  We finally got the R rating.  But King, his wife Tabby and I are the only ones who’ve really seen the rough cut of the film I envisioned.  It was just the three of us in a theater in New York, and I’m screening him the rough cut, my cut of the film, and they’re having the best time!  He’s laughing and clapping and screaming (laughs).  It was just amazing.  He was so happy with it that even after the cuts kind of adulterated the movie, not much but there was still some adulteration, he was the one that said “We’re gonna make The Stand. Would you be interested?” so he asked me and me being this young and cocky filmmaker, “well I make movies, I don’t do TV” (laughs), I thought it out and got this giant phonebook of a script delivered to my door and it was the most amazing thing I’d ever read.  Something that had never been done before like that, I was just thrilled to do it.  It turned out to be the highest rated TV series in history and it turned out great.  So we met on Sleepwalkers and really became friends on The Stand.

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

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

Stay tuned for part two of my conversation with Mick Garris, coming soon!

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One thought on “Adapting to horror: an interview with Mick Garris, pt. 1

  1. Pingback: Adapting to horror: an interview with Mick Garris, pt. 2 | Mangled Matters

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