Having adapted a Stephen King work certainly doesn’t make Mick Garris unique. Dozens of directors have used the horror master’s novels, stories and screenplays as the basis for projects, with wildly varying degrees of success. What is unique about Garris, though, is the relationship he’s established with King, who has trusted him to helm some of the author’s most personal works.
They met briefly on the set of 1992′s Sleepwalkers during one of King’s signature cameos. From there, King pushed for Garris to direct 1994′s epic miniseries The Stand, and then another passion project of King’s, the 1997 miniseries of The Shining, which hewed much closer to the novel than Stanley Kubrick’s version. He also helmed the 2004 feature film adaptation of Riding the Bullet, and the 2006 miniseries Desperation.
Garris is back directing another King work, Bag of Bones, which will air Dec. 11 and 12 on A&E. It stars Pierce Brosnan as Mike Noonan, an author grieving over the sudden death of his wife, Jo (Annabeth Gish). He takes refuge at his summer house on Dark Score Lake, where he gets drawn into the struggles of a young mother, Mattie (Melissa George), and the vengeful spirit of jazz singer Sara Tidwell (Anika Noni Rose).
In Part 1 of our two-part interview, Garris talks with me about the miniseries, and how he was willing to wait out Bruce Willis to get it made:
Obviously this isn’t your first Stephen King rodeo. What made you or the powers that be decide that Bag of Bones would be a good adaptation?
Mick Garris: Not the first, no. (Laughs) It’s been one of my favorite King books for a long time. Years ago, right after it was published Bruce Willis had bought the rights to produce and maybe star in it, and so I thought, “Damn!” So after that lapsed — I had always really connected with it because it’s really kind of a grown-up ghost story, and [it has] the best of Stephen King with all the emotional depth and melancholy that is often not a part of the movie adaptations of his work. So when it became available, my producing partner Mark Sennett and I talked to King about it, and he was happy for us to give it a go. We tried making it as a movie first, it’s been about five years trying to get it going. It had a temporary home at ABC, [but] nothing happened there, and then we hooked up with A&E. Once that deal was done it was full speed ahead.
You’ve said that what attracts you to Stephen King stories is his great characters and great stories. How does Bag of Bones demonstrate these traits?
MG: Well, Bag of Bones is really a lot about sorrow and about loss. Very early on in the story the lead character is deprived of his spouse in a very shocking and unexpected way, to him and the audience. I have suffered more than my share of loss, having lost a parent and two brothers and a mother-in-law, and … when horror movies are all about death, it’s usually kind of spitting in the eye of death, or whistling through the graveyard. But King’s stuff is so much more interesting, because it’s about mortality and the real face-to-face with death, and not just a playful tone, or teenagers hooting their immortality. So that’s what really appealed to me about this one; it’s all about sorrow and mourning and loss versus retribution, told in a really I think smart, sophisticated ghost story. It’s really passionate. I’ll usually pick a key word to communicate in shorthand with the crew and the cast what we’re going through. When we did The Shining miniseries that word was “dread.” On Bag of Bones, it’ was “passion.” It’s the thing we wanted to keep reminding ourselves of, because that’s what that book to me was about.
At the time Bag of Bones was released it signified Stephen King’s departure from Viking to Scribner, and he also seemed to enter a phase where he began being perceived more seriously by the literary crowd. Do you think this story signifies a shift for King at all?
MG: I would agree with that. I think he’s always taken his work seriously, but it was a turning point. This and Lisey’s Story, which followed in a very similar vein. I think that is a turn that probably enabled him to get the National Book Award [Lifetime Achievement in 2003] and get the attention he really had been denied because he was so damn popular. It’s hard to win over the intelligentsia if the hoi polloi embrace you. That was probably the case. I imagine Charles Dickens was too popular for the snobbery in his day. There are definite correlations there. I wouldn’t disagree with you at all.
What’s the relationship like with you and King when you’re working on projects of his? Was he as involved this time out, since he didn’t write the screenplay as he had for the others?
MG: He wasn’t really involved in this other than as friends and as people who have worked together a lot in the past. I would always run ideas past him. He had casting approval for a couple of the lead roles, and obviously he had director and writer approval and all that. But he’s pretty good about knowing the difference between a book and a movie, and he’s very encouraging to do whatever it takes to make it as a movie the best it can be. Mostly it would be in discussions early on about who we were thinking about casting and locations and things like that, but it was pretty much at arm’s length on this one. He’s not a producer, and as you said, he didn’t write the script.
I have a superficial question here, about Pierce Brosnan and Melissa George’s accents. Are they still playing Americans?
MG: Melissa has an American accent [in the film]. Most of the time she works with an American accent. A lot of people don’t even realize that she’s Australian. We first met almost 10 years ago when I shot a pilot [Lost in Oz] in Australia that she starred in, but as an American. But Pierce is using his natural accent, and we just don’t even point at it. If you look closely on his wall you’ll see that there’s his degree from Trinity College in Dublin, just a hint that he’s gone to school across the pond.
Just as well. Nobody wants to hear Pierce Brosnan with an American accent anyway, right?
MG: I don’t think I would. (Laughs)
You said this was considered as a movie at one point, but do you think miniseries is the more proper format?
MG: I think a lot of the Stephen King’s stories, the books, the novels, are best done as miniseries. I mean, The Stand, we could never have done as a movie, although there’s talk of doing it as a couple movies now. Or were. Bag of Bones is a pretty dense story. Our original script was for a two-hour feature film and it really felt like it was missing stuff, so when we had the opportunity to turn it into a four-hour miniseries — which is really a three-hour movie, minus the commercial breaks and promos and things — it really needed that breath. It needed a little more room to build up the tension and the mystery and the whole curse of Dark Score Lake and what all of that was about. In this case I think it’s just the right length. A three-hour movie over two nights works really well for this. King’s books are awfully dense, but they’re often very internal, and so movies are an external format. Books are internal, prose is internal, so it’s kind of a challenge that people don’t think that much about in adapting Stephen King because his books are very cinematic, but they’re also a lot about what’s going on inside.
Your other television projects with Stephen King have been on broadcast networks. Did you notice any difference, as far as what content you could include, in going to A&E?
MG: Yes, as a matter of fact. (Laugh) All the other King stuff I’ve done has been for ABC, and after the success of The Stand, we were able to go pretty far with The Shining. The last hour of The Shining I think probably would have gotten an R rating at that time if it were a theatrical film. But this one we have a very disturbing rape and murder sequence in here. There are things that — it’s not a gore ride at all, but it does have some intensity that I think would have been much more difficult to reach on broadcast, because they have to appeal to the widest possible audience. With basic cable at least, people know that it’s not on the airwaves and so it’s more controllable. But A&E is a little more conservative in that regard than, say, FX. But we just heard from broadcast standards yesterday that we got through without making any changes. It’s intense, but it’s not a gorefest by any means. It has its horrific elements, but it’s more about the tension and the mystery and the ghost story.
So it sounds like the movie’s all put to bed and ready to go?
MG: Not put to bed yet. I literally finished shooting it three weeks ago and yet we’re locking picture hopefully today. It’s been very fast because of when it has to air. We have to deliver it in early November with everything finished. But it’s working out great. We’ve got two editors that I’ve worked with before working at the same time, and that has made it possible. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible it all. I’ve never worked with two editors on a project in my entire career. But it’s actually been great and made this a really great experience because now we’ve got three people thinking about how it all fits together rather than just two.
Click here for Part 2, where Garris talks about casting the actors, and what his thoughts are on those rumored remakes of “The Stand.”
Photo: © 2005 by Lisa O’Connor/ZUMA Press/Newscom