Mick Garris Talks About His Career and Previous Issues With Fear Itself

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I chose not to come back to the show and this was before it ever started shooting. So all the rewrites were done after that— in a non-union way. I couldn’t approve of that as a member of the writers guild. I saw the notes come in from network and notes come in from studio. All the rewrites that I didn’t approve of were being done at someone else’s behest, my baby had been kidnapped.

—Mick Garris on  his issues with NBC’s Fear Itself

Mick Garris

Garris during the ’07-’08 writers strike.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Master of Horror and all-around great guy Mick Garris. If you don’t recognize his name you haven’t been looking at the credits hard enough. He wrote the 1993 Disney movie Hocus Pocus, the Fly II, and Batteries Not Included. He directed Critters 2, Psycho 4 (my favorite of the Psycho sequels), Sleepwalkers, The Stand, The Shining (TV Mini-series), as well as episodes of Masters of Horror, Steven Spielberg presents Amazing Stories, and Freddy’s Nightmares.

Did I mention he created the Masters of Horror series? The man is a genius writer and a master director. His art has inspired me in so many ways since I was child: the soundtrack from Sleepwalkers moved me to learn to play music,  Psycho 4 motivated me to pursue a degree in psychology, and Masters of Horror inspired me to be a writer. I’ve had varying degrees of success with these endeavors, yet all of them have been my main source of catharsis as I deal with everyday life. I owe the man a lot, and getting to sit down with him was a true honor. I’ve interviewed dozens of writers, actors, and directors and none have been as nice or as generous as Garris. This in fact is part 1 in a series of interviews I will be posting as Garris gave me almost two hours of his time when we met at Salt Lake Comic Con FanXperiance.

Jasen: I’ve listened to all the commentary from the Masters of Horror DVD’s and I know that going into production Showtime only had a couple of rules for you guys: no child violence, and no male full-frontal nudity.

Mick Garris: There were actually five rules. No child violence in either direction, no male full-frontal nudity and I forget what some of the others were but they were things we never did, and things we never would have done.

J: It seemed that from season one to season two [of Masters of Horror] episodes  became pretty tame. Were you faced with more rules or restrictions as the series progressed?

MG: Not at all, not at all. If it was more tame, and I’ve never thought about it that way, it’s because those were the stories the film makers chose to tell. You know, ‘Pro Life’ was even stronger, Joe Dante’s ‘The Screwfly Solution’ is intense. And maybe even the most intense thing I’ve ever seen him direct. So, no. It was entirely due to the taste of the film makers, and the choice of the stories they wanted to tell.

J:  Now, from season two of Masters of Horror (MOH) into Fear Itself. I heard you say earlier that you haven’t watched all the episodes, I’m kind of curious as to why you wouldn’t watch them all? Did you have a lot of issues with NBC during production?

MG: Well, It’s kind of a long story but I’ll be concise. When they came to me, first we were going to do a third season of MOH and then the company that owned it sold it to Lions Gate. Lion’s Gate wanted double the money from Showtime. Showtime only paid ten percent of the cost of the show to license it which is why they had no creative input. Showtime said no [to Lions Gate] because they had had it for two years at that price and that was what it was worth to them, even though it was their number two show for two years. So Lions gate first made a deal to sell it to HD Net and then they said they wanted theatrical rights as well included in the price and that was a deal killer. Then Lions Gate took it to NBC and at that point I told them I couldn’t be a part of it anymore. This is not what the deal was. The intent was to give these guys compete creative control. And now there are going to be advertisers, a network and studio with a lot of input and there’s going to be censorship by the very nature of commercial television. However, Stuart Gordon and a couple of the other directors decided to give it a try because look what happened with The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. I was hesitant but I agreed to do it, and it was my baby so it kind of had to be with or without me. And basically what happened was we got all the first drafts of all 13 episodes written before the writers strike began. And when that strike began they wanted to bring people in who I did not approve of who were non-union because they were from another country. And deliver it regardless and they tried to talk me into staying as a producer and giving notes to these writers and I said I can’t do that. I can’t say here’s what I want you to do to my script. They decided to go ahead and do it that way. I chose not to come back to the show and this was before it ever started shooting. So all the rewrites were done after that in a non-union way, which I couldn’t approve of as a member of the writers guild. I saw the notes come in from network and notes come in from studio. All the rewrites that I didn’t approve of were being done at someone else’s behest, my baby had been kidnapped. So I did not go back because for me personally so much damage had been done that I could not with good conscience go back and support these guys. There were people like Joe Dante and Tobe Hooper, who didn’t do it because they didn’t want to be a part of it without me protecting them. So the show became what it became and it was not successful at all. In fact, several episodes never aired. So that is the sad story of Fear Itself. You know, I gave it the name, it was going to be like MOH but the network wanted it to be their own show. So I named it, I wrote what I was going to direct but it didn’t happen so, it’s the most heartbreaking thing of my career. The hardest thing I ever had to do was leave a series on network TV that I created before it even started shooting. That’s hard to do.

J: I know there have been rumors that George Romero was possibly going to do a MOH  episode in the first season.

MG: He was going to do ‘Haekles Tale,’ which is why it says George A. Romero presents and then when he couldn’t do it, because I think he was shooting Land of the Dead and that got in the way, Roger Corman was going to do that. And I had written it to be like a Corman-Poe movie even though it was Barker-Corman, but then Roger Corman said “You know, at 80 years old, I don’t think I want to be out in the middle of a graveyard in Vancouver in December.” So we tried to get George, and he wanted to do it, but it was all about time.

J: Writing a Clive Barker story into a script, was there a lot of pressure to deliver? Obviously Barker is a master of horror, as are you, but was there a lot of pressure when it came to adapting his story?

MG: Well, you know, I’ve done it before with King, and I’ve done it before with Clive. I had done a couple of things with him that did not get produced before MOH. And then ‘Valerie on the Stairs’ was an original screen story Clive did that I wrote the script for. It’s a lot of pressure. ‘Haekles Tale’ is not a well-known story and it had not even been published, yet when we did the script for it and turned it into a MOH episode. So there wasn’t that kind of pressure you get from already having a fan base like you get when writing The Stand or The Shining or Desperation or even Riding the Bullet. So, it wasn’t really pressurized. You know, Clive and I are friends and he was really enthusiastic. Obviously I was going to give him the script to make sure that he approved of it. He really liked it and was really happy with it, so it was very low pressure because of the relationship that we had. Most of the guys in MOH, especially in the first season, were friends of mine to begin with. It was all ‘let’s go out and put on our own show.’ And it happened and then other people, once they saw what we were doing, wanted to be a part of it and we became friends like Dario Argento– and a lot of other people I did not know well before that. It became one of the greatest working experiences of my life, if not the greatest even though it was not the most financially rewarding or even enough finance on the screen, but it was amazing because there were no bosses. I was the boss. And my job as the boss was to say, ‘you have no boss.’

J: It would probably be pretty hard to boss those guys around.

MG: Why would you want to?

J: So, you got your start at Z-channel, did you have much interaction with program director Jerry Harvey?

MG: I didn’t really know Jerry. The original program director was an old guy named Hal Kaufman. He was an advertising guy and he was the guy who put together the Z Channel magazine and was the program director for the channel. Jerry came on years later as Hal’s assistant and then started working for Hal and kind of got Hal fired eventually. So I didn’t really work with him. He basically canceled my show but never really told me. To this day he’s never told me. They just didn’t schedule it and then an assistant said to me ‘Oh didn’t Jerry tell you…’ and then obviously the tragedy of him shooting and killing himself and his wife is pretty well talked about.

J: On Psycho 4, working with a script from the original writer Joe Stefano, how much input did you get on the film itself?

MG: Actually, a surprising amount especially considering that my only film before that was Critters 2. I had met with Anthony [Perkins], and Anthony was the most complicated actor I had ever worked with in my life. And difficult isn’t the right word, but it was challenging and rightly so because he knew more about Norman Bates than anybody. But, I had a surprising amount of input. I would sit with Joe Stefano and we would talk about it. I would suggest changes. I did some rewriting on some of the dialogue scenes that did not feel contemporary to the time. But it’s Joe’s script, and it’s a great script and something I really wanted to do. Creatively as far as directing goes I was given complete, you know, the good thing about doing it for Showtime was that at that time Showtime had no big movies and no series at all basically. And they weren’t making much in the way of movies, so if it was bad no one saw it and if it was good, people would talk about it and say ‘Hey, did you see it?’–so not that many people. But Universal was really good about letting me do what I do. And I was so devoted to the original and knowledgeable about it and studied it and all, but wanted to make it not like Hitchcock made it. Because he didn’t make it. To be true to it. In a way, it’s why I hyper-stylized the use of color so much to make it opposite visually of what Hitchcock did. Shot composition and stuff was still in a classical style, but in the flashback sequences putting the characters into the things that Hitchcock would not have done. I wasn’t making a Hitchcock movie. I was making a movie from a legend he began. You know, putting the adults in their childhood scenes and things like that weren’t scripted and that was the first time I really felt like a director. Like I had enough experience behind me that I could really achieve what I was trying to achieve and I hoped I did.

In my next interview with Mick Garris we talk about his work on Amazing Stories, what inspires him in his work, and his personal take on Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet. 

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