December 2, 2014 Interview – Mick Garris
Over the past three decades, the Horror film genre has been defined by a list of distinctive names who have created nightmares on screen before spectators’ eyes. One bigger names among the masters of Horror is writer/director/producer Mick Garris. Drawn to the macabre side of film at a young age, Garris’ passion was more than just an obsession, it was a talent he possessed deep inside. As the mind behind a list of writing and production credits including well-known films Critters 2: The Main Course (1988), The Fly II (1989), Sleepwalkers (1992), and Hocus Pocus (1993), perhaps Garris’ crown achievement is The Masters of Horror series. Now still extremely active creating new ways to frighten people, Garris still has plenty left to bring to the genre. Recently we sat down with Garris for a personal look at his beginnings in film, inspirations, love for Horror cinema, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in writing, producing, and directing for over three decades with quite an impressive resume featuring Horror/Sci-Fi films like Critters 2: The Main Course (1988), The Fly II (1989), Sleepwalkers (1992), the beloved Hocus Pocus (1993), among many others. Did you always have a love for Horror cinema and was it something you wanted to be a part of?
Mick Garris – From the very beginning. My father was an artist and he studied art in art college and all these things. I kind of took after him in that regard. I was twelve years old when I started to write short stories; they were all scary. I was a big Famous Monsters kid. I was always drawn to it. The first movie I remember seeing on TV was Son of Kong (1933). It was always in my blood and my blood has always been all over it.
CrypticRock.com – (laughs) That is very interesting and it has to start somewhere. One can imagine with the resume you have had that you have to love it.
Mick Garris – If you do not really love it, you can tell it becomes labor. Filmmaking is hard work and genre films even harder because of all the technical aspects. You cannot do something for thirty years and not completely be in love with it.
CrypticRock.com – In those earlier years of your time in film, Horror really was at a peak of popularity in the mainstream. Looking back now how would you describe the 1980’s era being involved in the Horror film business?
Mick Garris – The 1980’s was also the nadir of Horror films creatively. They started coming back; The Thing (1982), American Werewolf in London (1981), The Howling (1981). Those were great vision films by visionary filmmakers but most of the rest were stalk and slash, half sex and be slaughtered movies, which to me were just the pits, the worst of Horror films. I know there are a lot of Slasher fans with the nostalgia for all of that looks better, more fun, and more tawdry. At the time it was depressing.
CrypticRock.com – Right that is understandable. The whole Slasher concept really did get over-saturated, but that happens with any genre one can suppose. There were a lot of original stories popping up during that time as well like the ones you mentioned. In recent years you have remained extremely active and contributed some great work to modern Horror. One of the notable pieces of work was your series Masters of Horror which appeared on Showtime for two seasons before you went over to NBC and did Fear Itself for one season. Definitely a spectacular series with plenty of great stories, what inspired you to launch Masters of Horror?
Mick Garris – It started out years ago, a bunch of filmmakers, actors, writers and stuff are friends. We would run into each other at film festivals and conventions and the running line would be that we should get together for dinner. I realized that nobody was going to make that happen, so I took it on myself. I curated a dinner; I spent a week trying to get them together on one night. It was me, John Landis, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Guillermo Del Toro, Stuart Gordon, and others… A dozen of us. We all had so much fun, the next time it only took me an hour to put it together and we have been doing it ever since. The idea of putting together a show where we had our own destiny in our hands was something that was really irresistible to me so I turned it into the idea of “let’s all get together and make a show” and give all of those guys their creative control. We were all very lucky, we took it out to three companies and all three wanted to do it. Anchor Bay said, “How much, when, and when can we start?” Fear Itself was the bastard child of Masters of Horror. It was sold to Lionsgate and Lionsgate wanted to make a lot more money from it. They took it the highest bidder, NBC. To me, you cannot do that kind of series where you offer creative control to some of the best minds in the Horror genre and do it in-between Pampers and Diet Rite Cola ads, along with broadcast standards and the like. I saw the writing on the wall, we had written thirteen scripts before a writers’ strike came up. I left because of the writers’ strike. I am a firm believer in the writers’ guild. They kept writing the show, and then brought in non-union writers and turned it into really awful scripts that were not of the quality of the Masters of Horror series. The creative control was taken away from the filmmakers, I was not going back after the strike. Although I created Fear Itself, I do not claim it, my baby was kidnapped and raped (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – Wow that is very interesting. Now seeing the series lasted only two seasons it seems it could have had a longer shelf life. If given the opportunity to re-launch the Masters of Horror series would you?
Mick Garris – Not as Masters of Horror, but I am working on something that has a similar philosophy; something that may be a little more international in scope to include a lot of the Masters and some other people who were not able to do it. I am not ready to take the lid off that one yet. It is still in the pitching and planning stage.
CrypticRock.com – That is something to look forward to. Masters of Horror was really an excellent series on par with Tales from Crypt and many fans would agree.
Mick Garris – It is hard to keep that up so I was not too brokenhearted. Obviously it was my baby and everyone was so passionate about it. It was done for other than commercial reasons by everyone, except of course, those who financed it. It is always sad when something like that comes to an end. The other way to look at it was that we did twenty-six amazing one hour Horror movies that nobody else was doing at the time. That was within itself was an accomplishment. We could have kept it up, but maybe we needed a few years off to dust if off, exercise, and get back into shape before we do it again.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, you want to keep things fresh. You also did the great web series Post Mortem on FEARnet where you spoke with a variety of Writers/Directors in Horror. Being that you have long since established yourself in the genre, do you find that you often learn new things speaking with colleagues which have established themselves as well?
Mick Garris – Absolutely, that was a version of something I did thirty years before on the Z Channel, LA’s first pay-TV channel. We had John Carpenter, John Landis, William Friedkin, and others. Directors do not work together, that was the great thing about Masters of Horror. I got to watch all these different directors at work. My first job on Amazing Stories as a writer and story editor was to write and work with all these filmmakers as well as watch them work. It was something that was quite precious to me as a learning filmmaker. To be able to keep learning and being inspired throughout my career by these amazing people is an amazing opportunity.
Thirty years later, going on FEARnet with Post Mortem, it was as a peer, as far as we have the same jobs. We are filmmakers talking about the approach to filmmaking. Actually, I just recently started a website with all those interviews. It is really a great opportunity for film and Horror students to be able to access all this material. The website is mickgarrisinterviews.com. There is also a Facebook page and a YouTube channel. We put up new stuff every week and the old interviews from Z Channel and new ones from FEARnet. One of the reasons for doing this is that FEARnet was only licensed in the United States, so nobody outside the US could see any of these shows. Once FEARnet went under, I got the shows back and wanted to offer them around the world. I travel a lot to festivals and for work in other countries. To be able to offer this around the world, free of charge, was something I really wanted to do.
CrypticRock.com – That is great, it gives people all around the world a good introspective into all these writers and director.
Mick Garris – They are all very fascinating people. In every interview I do, I hear people talk about things they have never talked about before because they are not there to promote a project. They are there just to talk about their craft. That is what I want to hear, it is not about the grosses last weekend or selling the next project. Just speaking more generally and more casually. It is not confined to a five minute segment on a talk show. It is like you are sitting in a room with somebody. Like Stephen King’s book On Writing:A Memoir of the Craft (200), even though you know you are reading it, it is like you are sitting in a room listening to him talk. That is where you learn the most and are most entertained.
CrypticRock.com – That is extremely true. Through the years there has been a lot of changes in the entertainment industry from the technology used for special effects to the way we receive our entertainment. It does seem that Horror has really blossomed in television series format in recent years, but not so much in full feature films. Why do you attribute the lack of interest from the mainstream in new feature Horror films?
Mick Garris – I think there is a general lack of interest, understanding, or even caring on the box office front. The movie studios, they do not know or respect Horror. They think it is all for teenagers, so that is what they sell…teenage Horror movies that are all stamped out one after another that are all alike. In television, this is an incredible time, I have never seen so much quality Horror on TV in my life. It is great, everything from Penny Dreadful, to Dexter, to The Strain, to Dusk Till Dawn, even Lifetime’s The Witches of East End and ABC’s Ravenswood. Horror is respected there. Dracula was terrific and Hannibal was one of my favorite shows ever on TV. There is an explosion of respectful and respectable Horror on TV. I am astounded by that. No one was looking for Masters of Horror when we made it. We were to go do it on DVD whether it got sold to a network or not. Showtime was not looking for a series when we sold it to them, but when they saw what it was they bought it. They paid very little to air it, but we got it on air and it became kind of groundbreaking in that respect. Right now there is a renaissance like I have never seen before, and as far as quality in film and television, it is all on TV.
CrypticRock.com – There really is a great offering of Horror on television now a days. Another one is A&E’s Bates Motel.
Mick Garris – It was interesting for me, having directed Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990). I am really into the mythology of the Hitchcock film and all the spin-offs. They took it in an entirely different direction. It took them a while to win me over, to realize it was not Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or II (1983),III (1986), or IV. They took their own route and more power to them. It took a little while for me to breakdown the series. I was the last to work with Anthony Perkins on it, Joe Stefano wrote our script, and Hilton Green was my Executive Producer. Hilton was Hitchcock’s First Assistant Director on the first one. It was hard to let go when you were so close to it.
CrypticRock.com – Anthony Perkins has always intrigued as an actor. He was always very mysterious, perfect for Norman Bates. How was he to work with as an actor?
Mick Garris – He was very mysterious. He obviously knew Norman Bates inside and out, better than anyone including Robert Bloch, who wrote the book, Alfred Hitchcock, or Joe Stefano. Anthony was an odd character, extremely intelligent, extremely verbal, and a little bit nutty. He would sometimes turn a question into a twenty minute conversation with the crew sitting around waiting to do their work. I would not call him difficult, but I would call him complicated. He would watch the stuff he created because he cared. It took its toll on us in a four day shoot as you might imagine. Very smart guy, very generous to the other actors. He had a complicated background. On the verge of being a teen heart-throb, he did Psycho and it sent his career in a very different direction for the rest of his life. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know if he knew the answer to that question.
He was very eccentric. He directed Psycho III, which was not successful critically or financially. He wanted to direct Psycho IV: The Beginning, but Universal did not let him. They hired the director of Critters 2: The Main Course. You can imagine he might have had some pause about that, But it ended up, he was really happy with the film and went on and on about how much he liked it. It ended up a real great experience.
CrypticRock.com – Well those are some great experiences to take with you in life for sure. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror films. If you are a fan of Horror films what are some of your favorite Horror films?
Mick Garris – I might have watched all the Universal Classics on TV as a kid. I probably saw Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) more than any other movie during the first twenty years of my life. I am a huge fan of David Cronenberg’s work. Dead Ringers (1988) is one of the greatest Horror films ever. Obviously Psycho. I love The Fly (1958), An American Werewolf in London (1981), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). There is a lot of them. I like Horror that takes you to a place you do not expect to go. Halloween (1978) was a great film because of that. All the other movies that followed since then, the stalk and kill teenage movies, are not my cup of tea. I like something with imagination that takes you someplace new. I am really character and story oriented. I like Clive Barker’s writing as much as his fimmaking. If a Horror is made with respect and intelligence it wins me over. A little movie that came out a few years ago called Monsters (2010) was absolutely terrific. Excision (2012) was really good. There is a lot of stuff around; most of everything is not good as is often the case in the Horror genre. But Horror is the place where there is the most imagination put to work in books, movies, TV, and painting. It will always be the place where boundaries are stretched the most.
CrypticRock – Yes, character and story drives horror to the best places. It seems now that very often in mainstream Horror movies we are caught up in the technology, the CGI and special effects, while the story lacks. Certainly, it must turn off the avid Horror fans.
Mick Garris – That is what I talk about at film schools, festivals, and when asked. Good Horror has to be good drama. That to me is the hard part. The people who master that really know what they are doing. That is because they can take you places. For example, Stephen King takes the unbelievable and puts it into the real, believable world. Clive Barker takes you from your real world and stuffs you into an unbelievable world. Both of them make you accept the unacceptable. They have two different doorways to the macabre and both of them work like gangbusters.
I want to be surprised. I want to be exposed to a mind that is capable of thoughts I cannot come up with. That is one of the things I love about Clive Barker, like with The Damnation Game (1985), you are thinking, “Holy shit, where are we going with this” and it is just phenomenal.
CrypticRock.com – Clive Barker has not done much in Horror in a while, but there has been talk of a remake of Hellraiser coming down the pike.
Mick Garris – I have been hearing about it. I would love to see what happens with that. I would sure love Clive doing it rather than anybody else, but who knows. His health has not been the greatest over the years, but I am hoping he is going to get back behind the camera soon.