Ask any true horror fan who Mick Garris is and they'll snap to attention. There are few names in the horror-movie world more respected than his. His colleagues and fans alike will attest to him being a kind, gentle and warm hearted man... who just so happens to have an unquenchable thirst for some of cinema's most sinister offerings. His career began with small yet successful movies such as Critters 2 and The Fly 2 and has seen him rise to become one of Hollywood's premier authorities on horror. He has become one of Stephen King's strongest collaborators as well as pushing boundaries with the awesomely gruesome Master of Horror tv series. You will see from the posters throughout this article that his stamp on the genre is permanent and incredibly influential. In addition to his film and television work, Mick is also an accomplished author and presented a fantastic interview-based webseries for Fearnet.com called Post Mortem with Mick Garris. I have certainly grown up with his films and again I have been blown away by how generous movie-folk like Mick can be. With a heavy workload and all sorts of commitments he has found the time to sit down and answer my questions. I didn't think my appreciation for this man could have grown any more but it has. With the hint of a scoop and insight into some of his lesser known work, I have just picked the brain of Mick Garris (OMG).
What was your favourite movie as a child?
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN
At what age did you make up your mind to pursue filmmaking?
Who were some of your early influences?
I loved the Universal classics; they were the doorway into the horror genre. I saw the Corman/Poe films on television, and also a lot of the noir detective type films from the 1940s. Then came Romero, and I became bathed in the blood of horror cinema.
I recently interviewed SS Wilson and briefly discussed *batteries not inc. It’s a little gem of a film and I believe the original story comes from you… was the end product a fair representation of your vision?
Actually, the original concept was by Steven Spielberg. It was originally going to be an episode of AMAZING STORIES called GRAMPS AND GRAMMY AND COMPANY. But when he asked me to do the screenplay and I developed it into the feature script, we were entitled to share the “story by” credit, but in his generosity, Steven offered me full story credit. So because there were other writers on the film once Matthew was brought in to direct it, I was fortunate to receive sole story.
It was a bit more kid-oriented and slapstick than the script I wrote (and the outline Steven first came up with for AMAZING STORIES), but the general basis was there. It’s hard to see something objectively when you spend months on a project and it changes, so I can't tell you if it’s better or worse or the same as the original script, but I'm proud to be associated with it.
Two of your early scripts were Critters 2 and The Fly 2. Both are about as good as sequels could possibly be to such strong properties, what challenges did writing sequels provide?
Well, the primary issue with sequels is to give the audience that wants to see a continuation of the storyline satisfaction, but bring enough new to it that they want to see more. Surprise and entertainment value are just as important to a sequel as they are to an original film, so it’s sort of a balancing act. I'm glad those sequels work for you. Again, there were other writers involved in both: David Twohey wrote the first CRITTERS 2 script, and I did the rewrites when I was assigned to direct it. Frank Darabont and the Wheat Brothers were on FLY II after me, and it did change a lot, becoming more of a teenage monster movie that what I had originally set out to achieve.
And of course you also made Psycho 4, which predates the new Bates Motel prequel screening on A&E. Can you tell us a bit about stepping into such a beloved legacy?
It was a very quick and amazing process. It was made for Showtime, the network that ran MASTERS OF HORROR years later. It had a low budget but a high pedigree. John Landis championed me for the job, and the movie was done for a division of Universal that made shows for cable TV at the time. I had created a series called SHE WOLF OF LONDON for them with Tom McLoughlin, and Ned Nalle, who was a mucky-muck in that division at Universal, knew me and liked the idea.
Of course, I was thrilled to be working on a prequel/sequel to one of my favorite films of all time. There had already been a sequel made by Richard Franklin, who was not well known in the US at that time, and Anthony Perkins himself had directed the second sequel, which was not a success, either at the box office or with critics.
So I felt that there was some remove there, not such high expectations. So sure, I was nervous as a newborn colt to take it on, but had a lot of love for it and ideas, and tried to make it visually original yet compatible with the Hitchcock original.
You enjoy a healthy creative relationship with Stephen King and your first adaptation of his was Sleepwalkers, if I'm not mistaken. This was also one of his first movies, not actually based on a novel. There are some divisive themes in that film, did you feel like you were pushing boundaries at the time?
Yes, it was his first produced original screenplay, and the first time we worked with each other. Yes, it was very transgressive at the time, and it came from dealing with some of the very same themes as we’d played with in PSYCHO IV… which was one of the reasons King approved me for the project in the first place.
I had no idea what we were doing would be quite as potent as others did, though. We had to go back to the MPAA five times to get an R rating, after lots of cutting and manipulating. They really had problems with some of the violence and sexual content we had shot, which actually were quite mild.
You also adapted The Stand, which is one of the most daring and epic of his adaptations. It was a phenomenon at the time; did you ever feel like you had bitten off more than you could chew?
Fear is a healthy thing for filmmakers, painters, musicians, performers. It was incredibly intimidating to have this 460-page stone tablet delivered to my door, based on history’s most successful writer’s most successful book! It was overwhelming.
But you take it a scene at a time. Once you know the script is in good shape, then you just chip away at it, a scene at a time, until the sculpture is finished. I knew the book was great, and so was the screenplay. We got a great cast and a wonderful group of creative cohorts to share the burden, and everybody did their best, most inspired work to create something as special as the book we were adapting.
You kept looking for the light at the end of the tunnel… but that tunnel was made of light. The hardest work I’ve ever had or will have, but as rewarding as it gets.
Your work with King has continued over the years with films like The Shining, Riding The Bullet, Desperation and Bag of Bones amongst others. What’s the key to your working relationship with him?
We're friends, we like a lot of the same things, we've both been in bands and have rock’n’roll in our souls. But we're also writers, and simpatico in so many ways. We have similar backgrounds in our home lives and pop culture upbringings, but maybe it’s mostly because of the respect I have for his work, and for him as a human being as well as an artist.
For an all too brief period of time, your TV series Masters of Horror was about as good as horror had ever been on television. How did the series come about and was it disappointing to see it shut down so prematurely?
Thanks. I’d rather look at it with the happy memory of two incredible years of being able to do something with such creative freedom that some of our great filmmakers did some of their freest, finest works in years in that format. FEAR ITSELF was going to be the third season of MoH, but it was for commercial television, which itself was a mistake, and was made under circumstances which made it impossible for me to remain in place, and I had to leave my baby to live with others.
So it is not with disappointment that I look back on MoH, but with pride and contentment.
With today’s television audience so hungry for horror content, can you foresee a Masters of Horror resurrection?
Maybe something like that, but not MASTERS OF HORROR itself. I have some things I'm working on of an anthological nature, but it will not have that title. But watch this space.
What’s been a career high for you? … And a low?
MASTERS OF HORROR was an amazing high… but so were all of the King projects. THE STAND being so hugely successful was a landmark for anyone. And creatively, I think in many ways THE SHINING was an equal high.
FEAR ITSELF would have to be the low point. It was a horrible situation, and a dismal flop in the ratings. It was the biggest disappointment of my career, and it could have been great. Breaks my heart.
What have been a few of your favourite films recently?
Hmmm…. That’s going to take some time. Most of my favorite recent films have not been in the horror genre. I have some catching up to do. I have been seeing a lot of films at international festivals, and most of the best ones never get a theatrical release. So I’ll have to get back to you on that.
I am based in Melbourne, Australia and ask most of my guests if they have any favourite Aussie films. Do you?
I love Peter Weir films; Richard Franklin was amazing. I love DEAD CALM and TWO HANDS. LONG WEEKEND, of course. And THIRST is one of my very favorites.
Australian genre films (Ozploitation) have enjoyed a new lease on life over the past few years. Have you watched much Australian horror?
Lots. But never enough.
What is a question you have never been asked in an interview before?
I think I may have answered all of them! Waiting for a new one; your move!
If you couldn’t be a filmmaker anymore, what would you be?
An author. I do write books as well, and it’s great to have an outlet for more intimate work than film or television can possibly provide.
Do you have anything in the pipeline you care to share?
There’s a lot of stuff coming up, but the biggest project I'm involved with at the moment is UNBROKEN. This is a bestselling book about my father-in-law, Lou Zamperini, who has had an amazing life, first as an Olympic runner, and then in World War II, where he faced incredible challenges, including crashing his plane in the Pacific and being on a life raft at sea for 47 days. Angelina Jolie is directing, from a script by the Coen brothers and Richard LaGravenese. I’m Executive Producer.
Mick, thank you for taking the time. I regard your work highly and it’s been an absolute pleasure getting the chance to ask you a few questions.