Exclusive Interview : Mick Garris


The man behind TV’s “Masters of Horror”

You almost expect a veteran horror film director to have an uniquely grimly voice, an eagerness to talk about his dream to perfect the great cinematic decapitation or slay, and fundamentally, be a little closer to twisted than a dangling phone chord. Yet, as soon Mick Garris hops on the handset, it’s clear he’s anything but a crime-scene snoop.

Despite having directed some of the scariest films and mini-series since Linda Blair first regurgitated pea soup – including the TV mini-series’ “The Shining” and “The Stand” – Garris is the last person you’d suspect to be a blood boffin. He’s just so darn nice, as CLINT MORRIS discovers.

In an effort to exhibit just how different our best-known horror filmmakers are – and put to rest a few of those journalistic assumptions, no doubt – Garris has rounded up a convention-panel sized gathering of veteran horror hitmakers, and offered them the chance to unleash their distinguishing styles – one hundred percent studio meddling free – on audiences who, to a large extent, have probably never seen a decent spook fest.

Called “Masters of Horror”, the 12-part series sees some of the world’s best-known genre directors – including John Carpenter (“Halloween”), Guillermo del Toro (“Cronos”), John Landis (“An American Werewolf in London”) and Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”)– all direct an episode, in their own traditional style, of the series.

Garris says he championed the idea, but needed the commitment of the famous filmmakers if it was going to work. “We’re [the horror filmmakers] all friends, and we’re always running into each other at all these film festivals or conventions or simply just on the street. And we’re always saying to each other ‘Let’s catch up and go to dinner sometime’. After a couple of years of that, I took the initiative – because nobody was going to do it, if I didn’t – and organized a dinner.

“At the first one, there was a dozen of us there – me and John Landis and Larry Cohen and John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper and Guillermo del Toro and…like I said, twelve of us! – And we had a great time. And we’ve since had half-a-dozen of these dinners. Anyway, ultimately we started talking about doing a show together – a show where everybody gets to do it ‘Their way’. So I actually went out and got it organized – got partnerships and so on – and low and behold, to my amazement, here it is”.

If only because Garris, best known as the director of the Stephen King-penned telemovies “The Stand” and “The Shining”, doesn’t consider himself one, he’s quick to point out that ‘Masters of Horror’ is a title that’s rooted much more in an in-joke, than the egos of the filmmakers involved.

“The name is a joke”, his response, joined by a giggle. “We were at our first dinner, it was in a restaurant, and we were all sitting around one table and there was another table next to us, with a group of people who were celebrating a birthday. And Guillermo del Toro stood up and we all joined him in singing happy birthday to the person. And he said (in del Toro’s distinguishable Mexican accent) ‘The Masters of Horror wish you a Happy Birthday!’. So from then on, we started making a joke out of it – John Landis would say ‘The Masters of Horror want to order dessert!’, or ‘The Masters of Horror want to go bowling!’.

Garris’s episode is called “Chocolate, and it is based on a short story I had written over twenty-years ago. I had been trying to turn it into a film that whole time”, he says. “It is basically about a guy who starts receiving senses from someone else – he initially doesn’t know who they are or where they are – and at a certain point, discovers it’s actually a beautiful woman. Even though they’ve never met – he falls in love with her. He loves her more deeply than any man has ever known or loved a woman before. In essence, he becomes a deeper man by experiencing a woman. But then, at the half-way point, it becomes a horror story”.

Not surprisingly, some horror fans haven’t enjoyed Garris’s episode as much of the offers because it’s a lot less gruesome than some might have hoped for (though Garris says his ‘hardcore horror’ episode, which Ernest Dickerson will direct, will turn up in Season 2). The filmmaker says there’s plenty of horror in the other episodes though, for those that like their films a little more ghastly.

“The real horror fans hated mine, because it wasn’t horrific. There were no monsters. And it was about grown-ups. I tell you though, they’ll love the others though, in particular, the Takashi Miike episode. His episode was so intense it makes [Miike’s legendary horror film] Audition look like Disney. Showtime [here in America] won’t even show it. It’s very scary. It’s just so dark and…. there’s a torture scene that’s agonising to watch”. (FYI : Showtime, Australia, will screen Miike’s episode in June)

Miike was given free-range to do what he wanted though, so Garris isn’t complaining one bit. “It’s about letting these directors unleash their own personal tastes. It’s about not having to have a film market-tested for mallrats. It’s what they want to do”.

Garris, who cut his teeth writing episodes of the TV series’ “Freddy’s Nightmares” and “Amazing Stories”, is best known as a frequent collaborator with author Stephen King. Since 1992 King has regularly tapped the filmmaker to bring his stories to life on the big – and small – screen.

“The first thing we ever did together was “Sleepwalkers”. It was the first thing he had ever written that was not based on one of his books – an original screenplay”, he says. “It’s not my favourite, except for the fact that it introduced us to each other”.

If he had to pick a favourite though, his work on the recent “Riding the Bullet” would be up there somewhere. “It’s the one I’m most personally attached to, and it’s the most least successful of the bunch. I’m quite proud of my work on that because it’s based on a King story that is only 30 pages long, and I had to write it feature length. I put an awful lot of stuff into it…it’s about just becoming deepened by death, and just enjoying life. It came out of losing my brother and my father. It’s very, very personal. It may not be everyone else’s cup of tea, but it’s the one I feel most personally attached to”.

“King’s work is just so wonderful”, says Garris, when asked what appealed to him initially about working with King. “People still identify with, that is the success of his work”.

There’s essentially only one Stephen King novel that Garris hasn’t had any luck bringing to the screen – and neither has anyone else. “The Talisman”, written by King a few years back, had had more stops and starts than an unfuelled lawnmower. “It was Spielberg, Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy. They had the rights to it. They tried to make it a feature for like fifteen years. Finally, they said let’s do it as a 4-hour mini series. I wrote a script that everybody was very happy with, and at that time it was for the ABC Network – whom I did The Stand, The Shining and Desperation with.

“[But] it was before Lost or Desperate Housewives, so they [ABC] were in the worst financial state of their history, and with Spielberg, Kathy Kenney, Frank Marshall, Stephen King, [author] Peter Straub and me involved – they just couldn’t afford it. So then decided Stephen decided he wanted to make it a feature. I was involved, and then I wasn’t. It has since seen a few filmmakers and writers come and go from it. I don’t think it is happening anymore, which is too bad, because it was one of my favourite stories. I really wanted to make that”.

For other reasons, Garris also didn’t get to work on the recent Stephen King mini-series, “Nightmares and Dreamscapes”, which filmed in Australia, despite initially being involved.

The series, all stories based on Stephen King shorts, was something he was originally going to contribute to, but couldn’t find the time – due to his “Masters of Horror” commitments.

“I was the first to write one”, he explains “But because we got picked up for a second season of Masters of Horror, I just couldn’t fit it in. Especially, considering I was going to direct it too. I’m hoping to come down and do my episode if the show gets picked up for more – and it’s very likely they will”.

It’s not the first time that Garris has had to back out of an Australian-filmed project, but it’s the first time he’s been responsible for cancelling. “I filmed the pilot for a TV show called Lost in Oz, starring Melissa George, on the Gold Coast there a few years back. It sadly, didn’t get picked up as a series. It was very unfortunate”.

Still, things happen for a reason, and he wouldn’t change his journey in anyway – because it may have just prevented him from being involved in Masters of Horror, a show he believes is “the best horror that has been out there in a long time”.

MASTERS OF HORROR commences on Showtime on May 19th