More often than not, the phrase "It's not what you know, it's who you know" implies people often receive privileges from their connections as opposed to the quality of their work.
However, with filmmaker Mick Garris, the phrase "It's both what you know and who you know" would be much more accurate, seeing as his skills in the movie industry have garnered acclaim, but also the fact that he's an intelligent, funny, and charismatic guy that makes the biggest names in horror want to work with him just to get the chance to spend time with him.
Garris started his career in the film industry as a receptionist in the Star Wars offices in the late '70s, eventually going on to write/direct feature films and TV shows. His relationship with Stephen King in the '90s led to multiple collaborations, like directing The Stand, The Shining, and Bag of Bones.
In the '00s, Garris reached out to friends in the industry to bring them in for the series Masters of Horror, which gave filmmakers free reign to make whatever story they wanted with complete creative control.
The filmmaker's newest project, the podcast Post Mortem, allows him to sit down with both up and coming filmmakers as well as horror icons for unique conversations that sound more like two friends reminiscing than promotional efforts.
PopCultureNow recently got to chat with the filmmaker about his illustrious career, what it's like to collaborate with Stephen King, and why fans should be listening to Post Mortem, which releases a new episode every other Wednesday.
PCN: I'm from Massachusetts and grew up in the '90s so one of your earlier films, Hocus Pocus, was a childhood favorite. How did that project come about?
Mick Garris: I wrote that eight years before they produced it. The idea was the producer David Kirschner, who had created An American Tail for [Steven] Spielberg, the animated mouse movie, he had first attained success doing this cartoon show that was also a marketing thing called "Strawberry Shortcake," for little girls. That's where he started his career. Then, he had this idea for Hocus Pocus, which at that time was called "Halloween House."
I was working on [the TV series] Amazing Stories as a writer there, this was in the mid-'80s. David had this idea, and he liked my work. I loved the idea that I was working within the Spielberg realm. I remember pitching it to Spielberg and David had laid out the conference room with all the accoutrements of Halloween. The gourd of plenty, jack-o'-lanterns, candy corn and all that stuff to set the mood before Steven came into the room. It was great, but it was also aligned with Disney at the time.
At that time, Spielberg didn't want anything to do with Disney. They were very competitive with each other, Amblin and Disney. I wrote the script and came up with a lot of the ideas and the like, way back in the mid-'80s with David. I was the first one who wrote the full screenplay. I did two of three drafts of that and then moved on to other projects. There were 11 other writers on it before the movie got made.
PCN: Wow, that's a lot of writers.
Mick: Yeah. Then when they got Bette Midler interested in it, that changed everything. Suddenly, it was on the fast track. Eight years struggling, and then on the fast track. Went right into it. My original version, the kids were 12 years old, when I think Halloween is a more potent and important time in somebody's development. The Disney thing was to make them 16. Mostly, obviously, it follows most of what I've done or I wouldn't have my name on it three times. The Writer's Guild decides who gets what credit. It changed enough to also credit another couple writers on there. It was a great experience.
Mainly, it was a commercial decision because it's easier to sell a movie to teenagers than to adolescents. You want teenagers to come. Ultimately, even though the movie was a modest success when it came out, it's become this Halloween icon that every year you see all over Disney channel and ABC. All of those, Freeform, all the ABC networks seem to show it.
PCN: In my opinion, one of the most memorable lines, due to how absurd it is, is when Thora Birch's character compliments the older girls figure and refers to her chest as "Yabbos." Was that in a draft you wrote?
Mick: I'm afraid I can't take credit for the yabbos.
PCN: Okay, good. I've never heard any other human in the history of the world use the term "yabbos." I was a little confused by that because I've never heard a single person ever use that term.
Mick: Neither have I.
PCN: I'm glad we could get to the bottom of that.
Mick: I must tell you, every time I see it with an audience, that gets a huge laugh. Even though I'd never heard it before, but they always laugh.
PCN: Also in the '90s, you worked on a lot of different Stephen King adaptations, like The Stand and The Shining. What makes King's universe so appealing and how did you two find one another to collaborate so often?
Mick: Even though we have a handful of years difference between us, we're basically from a similar generation. We were raised by single mothers after our parents had split up. We both watched the same movies and TV. I was a huge fan as a reader beforehand. I'm old enough to have seen Carrie when it first came out, and read The Shining when it was first published and all of that. What demarks him from all the other genre writers is that sense of humanity. There's a kind of broken heart at the center of almost every one of his stories, and that really appeals to me.
I jokingly describe some of my work as "emo horror." It's kind of like Steve is into that as well. There's a very real world, and there's a theme that I like a lot that I've done in things that he seems to do as well. That's "Normal Rockwell goes to Hell." You have the idealized America, and then it's dismantled. The beautiful father/mother/son relationship in The Shining is something very much centered on that beautiful family photo, but it's stained by alcoholism. Jack Torrance is a man who means well, but he's dismantled by his addiction to the point where he has broken his little son's arm. He's responsible for that, and he's suffering guilt throughout. There's a level of humanity that is what I'm really attracted to.
Mick: We also have a similar sense of humor. It's a dark sense of humor. For me, everything I do is Shakespeare, whether it's horrific or even comedic. It's gotta be grounded. King's world is a world we all live in, and that's what I really appreciate about him.
On the other hand, I've worked with Clive Barker a lot as well. He has an entirely different approach that I love just as much; Is that King sets outrageous things in a completely believable and familiar world, whereas Clive creates unbelievable and unfamiliar worlds that are phantasmagorical. Makes them real, and puts you in them.
They come from opposite directions, but both are really powerful and potent to me.
PCN: Barker has a knack for creating worlds that seem to exist just to the left of our own.
Mick: Exactly. He makes his logic work for you.
PCN: Many people consider The Shining one of the best all-time horror films, but you worked with King to do your own miniseries in the '90s. Could you talk a little about the impetus to tell your own version when so many people consider Kubrick's version a classic?
Mick: Before I ever met King, way back in 1980 or '81, whenever The Shining came out. I was never more highly anticipatory of a movie than that. I was looking forward to that. I loved the book passionately. When Kubrick's film came out, it sounds controversial to say it now, but every review was bad. Literally, if there had been a Rotten Tomatoes then, it probably would have gotten 15%.
It's because those people had read the book first. If you read the book first, that's what it's about, is the alcoholism and the humanity of a guy losing his humanity. That pressure cooker that's going to blow, that this is a guy saddled by guilt and alcoholism. Whereas Kubrick's film, at the time, I really was not a fan of the movie at all and I didn't know anyone who was, but it resonated with young people like teenagers and everything.
I recognize it now as a great Kubrick film, but a flawed King adaptation. At that time, that book was my favorite book of all time. I was thinking, "God, the genius of Stanley Kubrick and The Shining. This is going to be the scariest movie ever made."
What it feels like was he was making an anti-horror movie, you know? When Dick Hallorann is killed, it's in a real wide shot that was far away from you, that pulls a lot of the jolt away. The scene in the bathtub and the like. You've got something like out of an Italian horror movie, with the decaying old, cackling woman coming out of the bathtub.
It was like he was intentionally not using the tropes of building horror and suspense in a traditional way, that I think was a great experiment and worked really well on a Kubrick level. Kubrick's films are famously cold in a lot of ways. That's not a criticism, it's an observation. King's writing is very warm. It's very warm, and that book was so personal to King that I think he felt, and others felt, that the themes that were represented in his book were not at all represented in Kubrick's film. King had actually written a couple of drafts of the script for Kubrick, and Kubrick basically threw them out.
PCN: I know one issue with the film that King has mentioned was that once you see Jack Nicholson, you don't buy him as a family man, and know from the beginning that the movie won't end well.
Mick: Exactly. David Cronenberg once said to me, "The problem with Kubrick's The Shining, is that they cast the ending."
PCN: That's a great way of putting it.
Mick: He's already that character. I had the great fortune of Stephen King having written the script for the miniseries, and working with him. He was around at least 2/3, 3/4 of the shoot. I had this great resource whenever there was a question or something. King is the sort of guy who, if he trusts you, he trusts you. He just lets you go. There's never been a moment where he said, "You know, Mick, I think you should do this."
Not once in eight or nine times we've worked together. There have been times where I've gone to him and said, "What do you think about this? What did you mean at this?" Never once been a time where he said how I should do my job.
PCN: Some of the more exciting news from Stephen King lately was the upcoming Castle Rock series for Hulu. Considering how often you've worked together, have you had any involvement on that show?
Mick: I have not, but it would be a great thing. I think they're in very early stages. They're probably just in the writing stages now. My experience with King is such that I would so anything that has his name and he approves.
My past experiences in life, in my professional life, of being on a set with Stephen King and working together, it's all pleasure. Never had a moment of discomfort or anything but complete filmmaking joy when I've been around. Personally, when I've been around him, he's just a great, great human being.
PCN: I'm definitely going to cross my fingers that six months down the line, we'll be able to hop on the phone again for, "Hey, you just directed an episode of Castle Rock."
Mick: That would be great. That would be great.
PCN: You recently launched your podcast, Post Mortem, where you interview fellow legends in the horror community. What was the inspiration for the show?
Mick: Well, it goes back decades. In the '70s, I was doing what you're doing. I was doing interviews for magazines and all of that. Then, I started doing interviews for a local pay TV channel here in L.A. called "The Z Channel." It was the first pay TV channel in L.A. I had been doing interviews in the film world, and before that, in the music world. When I was a kid, I interviewed Janis Joplin, Jimmi Hendrix, people like that for underground newspapers and stuff.
In 1979, I think, I started doing these interviews for the Z Channel. I got Steven Spielberg on, I got John Carpenter on, I got John Landis on. It was really an exciting time. I got $100 a show. It was not exactly my living.
It was amazing. They would show Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the Z Channel, and I would do a 15-minute interview with Spielberg before that would air. Then I was a journalist and hopeful filmmaker/writer, whatever. Half a dozen years ago, we did the same thing for the FearNet channel with a lot of the same guests.
I have a website called MickGarrisInterviews.com. Most of those Z Channel shows are posted there, taken off of old betamax recordings I'd made. They look like sh*t, but it is 1980 interviews with William Friedkin, Carpenter and all these people. 30 years later, we did it in HD for the FearNet channel and a lot of the same people. You can compare John Carpenter 30 years apart. That was called "Post Mortem." Those are also on the interview website I've got.
I'm putting together a movie now that's going to be in production shortly, an anthology film, that won't be long before we start shooting it with a handful of international directors. A mini Masters of Horror. My producing partner on that was meeting with somebody from Podcast One, which is the world's biggest podcasting company. Without me even knowing it, he suggested that this might be a good show for them. I met with the head of the company, and they were already decided, "Yeah, let's do it." They were very excited because the horror audience is a consuming audience.
I'm one of them, too. I'll buy the Blu-rays, collect the things, see everything that I can see. I'm passionate about is, as so many genre fans are. People into the genre love to own the things that the love, not just watch them.
The first one was posted last week with Rob Zombie. Every two weeks, every other Wednesday, we'll have new shows. This Wednesday, I've got Joe Dante and John Landis talking politics and horror. That's a pretty ripe subject. It's our first theme show, rather than just doing a career interview. Then, we've got another one with two of the directors from XX, talking about the challenges of being a woman in horror or even in filmmaking at all. We've already recorded six of the shows.
PCN: Have there been any big surprises or things you've learned from these interviews? Any particular episode you're excited to get out there?
Mick: Yeah, every single interview. This goes back to the Post Mortem TV show as well. There are things that I've heard the guests talk about that I've never heard them discuss before. In most cases, they're friends of mine, because I'm not a journalist or a TV host, and it's not an entertainment show where you're there to promote a movie. We're able to just have a conversation. It's among peers. It's a filmmaker talking to filmmakers.
There's a different perspective and people don't have their guard up so much. You're able to feel who they are as human beings as well as professionals. A lot of the revelations are often just personalities. Rob Zombie was very, very open about some of the problems he had with studios and during the production of the Halloween movies.
There are things that normally you don't talk about on Entertainment Tonight, or even a lot of podcasts. The perspective that I hope that we offer is different, just because it's somebody from within having a discussion.
My old Z Channel show, first of all, I was a kid. Secondly, I was a fan and a journalist, hoping to work in film one day, but never knowing I would. Then, in the Post Mortem TV show and now in the podcast, I'm somebody who has fought in the trenches along with a lot of them.
Most of the guests are friends of mine. A lot of them, I've met doing the dinners that I put together that created the Masters of Horror series that I did. It's a very personal and personable show. I think Marc Maron does a show that I really admire, a podcast called "WTF.". I think he's really great at it. He comes in and it's a conversation. That's what I hope that we have to offer.
PCN: It's a totally different vibe when you interview someone familiar or experienced with the genre than when you're just promoting something.
PCN: Who from XX did you interview?
Mick: It was Jovanka Vuckovic and Karyn Kusama, who directed The Invitation.
PCN: Which is incredible.
Mick: It is my favorite movie of last year. It's brilliant. Her part in XX is very, very similar in tone and nature. She's great. Jovanka used to edit Rue Morgue magazine, and she'd made a couple of shorts before that which were really, really good.
PCN: That's a great example. This wasn't Jovanka's first short but one of her first forays into a short in a longer anthology. You're also speaking with Karyn, who made one of our favorite horror movies of last year, but all three of you are peers.
Mick: Absolutely. I've known John Landis since 1977, when I was answering phones for the original Star Wars in the office next door to his production office for Animal House. In some ways, interviewing somebody who's been a friend for 40 years is more difficult than doing an interview with somebody you don't know. It's, "How do I ask him something without it seeming ..." It just feels awkward asking somebody professional questions when he's one of my closest friends.
PCN: Lastly, I just wanted to mention how much I loved the idea of Fear Itself and Masters of Horror and I'm very frustrated that neither series is currently airing.
Mick: I'll tell you, I'm not as frustrated as you are. I was at the time, but for different reasons. We made 26 great f**king episodes of Masters of Horror, and it was a huge success all the way around the world. It sold in every market. It was Showtime's number two rated show when it was on.
Then, Lionsgate bought it. They thought, "Let's make money off of this." Showtime paid almost nothing for it, because Anchor Bay was going to do it for DVD whether it was on television or not. Showtime only paid 10% of the cost. Well, Lionsgate bought it and they sold it to NBC. They were going to sell it to Showtime, they said, "We want twice as much as what you're paying now." Showtime said, "F**k you."
Then, they went to NBC. Suddenly, it's got advertisers and you're going to get notes from Lionsgate, you're going to get notes from the network. The whole point of Masters of Horror was: We don't have much time, we don't have much money, but we will give you complete creative control to these great directors.
NBC wasn't going to do that with Fear Itself. We had censorship issues, and we had all of those things. I said, "Go ahead, you got my blessing, but I don't want to do this." They were very eager to keep me involved because that's how most of the filmmakers were involved, because of my relationships with them and the like; Because they'd had such a good experience on Masters of Horror.
Stuart Gordon was one of the guys who called me and said, "Come on, let's do it. They made great shows with Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. They had censorship and commercials and all of that." I was convinced, we got 13 scripts all written. There was a writer's strike looming. Every first draft was completed the day before the strike, which the deadline was Halloween, October 31st.
Then, they brought in non-union writers who I was not crazy about. I was a member of the union, the Writer's Guild. I had to take myself out of the process. They had asked me, "You can stay on as a producer. You don't have to be a writer." It's like, "What? You want me to tell writers that I don't believe in to give them my notes rather than me do it, or the other writers do it?"
It was the hardest decision of my career that I couldn't do this. I can't give these directors the control, the power and influence over their own work that we could on Masters of Horror. We have to water things down for commercial purposes, for the advertisers, and for the network. We had commercial breaks, so you build up suspense and then you cut to a Pampers commercial. I decided to quit.
It was financially a rewarding job, had I stayed on. I quit before they started shooting. It was heartbreaking, but rather than moan about how we couldn't make more Masters of Horror, I'd rather say, "Look what we did for 26 episodes." Much better to go out that way than to have a series go on a season, or two, or three too long. We all know examples of that that I don't need to give. It's like, "You should have stopped when you're ahead."
It was so new, fresh, and exciting for two seasons. That was great. A third season, well, that's Fear Itself, which was the name I gave to that show when NBC wanted to change it. It had some good ones, but John Carpenter wasn't going to come back a third time. He'd done two and he was happy with what he'd done.
Would we have gotten the level of directors, Dario Argento? They were hard to make, they were rewarding creatively, but maybe it was like, "I've done it, I don't need to do that." A couple of the directors actually said that. I'm really happy that we made two seasons of Masters of Horror and it came out great. The two spinoffs, Fear Itself and Masters of Science Fiction, which I was not involved in once they went into production, they did not do so well. They didn't even air all of the shows that were made because they didn't do well.
Masters of Horror was a success with all the fans and with the sales all around the world. I'd rather settle for that.
PCN: Now I'm looking even more forward to who you pulled together for your upcoming anthology film.
Mick: It's together. We got some great people from around the world. We'll be working on that very, very soon.
PCN: I look forward to talking to you about that, and of course, your potential upcoming gig with Castle Rock.
Mick: Yeah. It's a deal.