“A Hundred Shooting Days and Almost a Hundred Scripted Locations”: Mick Garris on 1994’s Stephen King’s The Stand
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Stephen King's The Stand

When Stephen King published The Stand in 1978, the book marked a significant increase in the scope and ambition of the author, whose story of a nationwide struggle between the forces of good and evil was his longest and most refined novel to date. 16 years later, director Mick Garris made a similar leap when he graduated from humble horror tariffs like Critters 2: The Main Course and Psycho IV: The Beginning to direct the miniseries adaptation of The Stand, a four-hour, six-hour (no Counting) commercials) epic with hundreds of sets and speaking roles. Stephen King's The Stand premiered on ABC with spectacular reviews in May 1994 and cemented the relationship between Garris and King that began with Sleepwalkers in 1992. In the years that followed, Garris would direct at least five other King adaptations, including the 1997 miniseries version of The Shining and the criminally underrated 2004 feature Riding the Bullet. The Stand is now available in an exquisite Blu-ray edition as part of the Stephen King 5-Movie Collection from Paramount. This set also includes Silver Bullet, both versions of Pet Sematary, and David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone on its US Blu-ray debut. In addition to a breathtaking broadcast, the stand CD contains an insightful and often very funny six-hour comment track from King, Garris and several members of the cast and crew. The film itself is playing better today than ever before. Part of his power undoubtedly rests on his current resonance as a story about a virus that is causing the end of the world and exacerbating social divisions, but Garris' vigorous camera work and firm control over his intricate footage also deserves credit. Despite its length and complexity, The Stand flies by with clarity and power and skillfully balances horror, humor, pathos and philosophical and political provocation to create an immensely powerful effect.

It's a good time to be a Mick Garris fan. His exceptional prose collection These Evil Things We Do was released a few months ago, and the anthology film Nightmare Cinema (produced and co-directed by Garris) is currently streamed on Shudder and other platforms. Garris has also returned to his interviewer roots with his Post Mortem podcast, a movie buff's paradise that features in-depth conversations with a variety of filmmakers including John Carpenter, Karyn Kusama, Joe Dante and Walter Hill. Garris started out as a rock journalist (he was writing for the San Diego DOOR at the same time as Cameron Crowe when they were both in high school) and in 1979 hosted a series for Z Channel interviewing science fiction and horror icons like Steven Spielberg and Harlan Ellison. The same enthusiasm that makes him a great filmmaker makes him one of our best pop culture historians. If you dig into post mortem or other materials on his website www.mickgarrisinterviews, you will get a crash course on the last 40 years of genre filmmaking that is as fun as it is informative. Interviewing a man who I consider to be one of the best interviewees was a little intimidating, but I spoke to him on the phone a few days before the Stephen King 5-Movie Collection was released to get the inside story behind the making of The to find out booth.

Filmmaker: Revisiting The Stand for this interview, the first thing I noticed was the sheer size. What was it that attracted you and what were the challenges?

Mick Garris: I had never done anything on this scale before – the biggest thing I did was Critters 2. Now I have 600 extras and a hundred days of shooting and nearly a hundred locations and 125 actors. It was all exciting because it was all so new to me, but definitely a trial by fire. I had this massive and intimidating cast, with really great actors like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and Gary Sinise and Ed Harris and Kathy Bates, and then there was the Brat-Packers (Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald) who played adult roles and everyone else . We were out most of the time and I would say 75% of it was outside. And every day outside the weather was wrong. If it should be sunny, it rained. If it rained, it snowed. The longest days had to be shot on the shortest days of the year. On top of that, when life continues out of bounds, wherever we are, we are trying to create a decimated dead planet. There were highways with kilometers of traffic jams. Every bit of it was utterly daunting and intimidating.

Filmmaker: Where do you even start planning your footage for something this size? Did you list the script or storyboard all at once, or do you plan each week's work or each day's material at the same time?

Garris: It's just too big to plan everything in advance. I mean, you take the big steps and make sure everyone on the crew and the team knows what you're doing. I create what is called a visual manifest for each project, in which we talk about what the lenses are, what color schemes they have and what we want to convey so that every department head is on the same page. But when you have a hundred day shoot, any ideas you have before the shoot are controversial when you're on the set and everything has changed and the location is different and the actors want to approach it is different from the original planned. So I rolled a list every weekend, knowing that I needed to be flexible, but if I had an idea how to use a steadicam or something other technical that is important to increase the emotional response of a scene, then I would that go on my shot list. I don't do a storyboard other than shots with visual effects and stunts where everyone needs to be very specific about their needs for the day's work, but every weekend I'd make the list of shots for the whole week. And there would be days when I would never look at the shot list, come home and say, “Oh, I shot the shot list.” Or, “Gee, none of the shots I put on my shot list was what we did. " Even on a small project, especially a large project like this, the ability to roll with the punches is absolutely crucial – in order to be able to make a decision about something better than what you had in your brain when You actually get to the place or the set. You have to be nimble with something this size in so little time. We basically made four films in a hundred days so it wasn't an awkward schedule, except for network TV standards. We also recorded it with a 16 millimeter camera, so we can be very mobile and carry a hot-head crane and a steadicam every day without straining the steadicam operator.

Filmmaker: Was shooting in the 16 millimeter range a typical thing for television films back then?

Garris: No. In Europe they often used 16 millimeters for outdoors and then video for indoors. However, until the switch to HD, network television relied on 35 millimeter films. We were hobbled a bit by the producers who insisted on turning it in 16 to save $ 300,000 over a budget of $ 28 million. I fought against it as much as possible, but when I realized it was a losing fight, I took it on. With the Hitzkopfkran and the Steadicam we could be much more fluid and think on our feet than if we had to carry a lot of elaborate dolly tracks and the like. If you don't use a lot of diffusion and pay attention to the lenses and the type of lighting used, you can make 16 millimeters look good – but this requires caution as the frame contains four times as much grit as there is in 35 millimeter film. You just have to be careful not to smoke every scene where the grain is amplified. Working with a great DP, Edward Pei, we were actually nominated for an Emmy for the camera, despite being the only 16mm contender in that group.

Filmmaker: You mentioned the massive cast earlier, and I wonder how you managed to work with an ensemble that has so many different approaches and levels of experience. There are theater people like Sinise, TV actors, young people, actors like Ray Walston who have always been there and done everything …

Garris: Well, that's probably the most important part of the director's job. I am learning very quickly how each of the actors works. If you're running out of steam quickly and doing their best job on the first few settings, you'll want to cover them up first. You will learn who needs time to perform at their best. Someone like Ray Walston has memorized everyone's dialogue for the whole in every scene he was in. He was one of those guys who did the exact same thing every time you took a shot, unless you gave him the direction to make a change to better fit the structure of the actors he plays with. He was just a steadfast and reliable man who was so good because of his years on Broadway, and he was able to translate that into a movie. Not everyone can do this as nimbly as they can where you're playing in the stands, but then you can play in front of a camera two feet from your face. Many of them were raised in film acting. Some of them, like Ossie and Ruby, got on stage and very well translated into the film. But everyone was very excited about this project. They knew it was a big project. Nobody expected it to be as successful as it was, least of all me. But everyone had respect for the book and the fact that it was Stephen King's greatest book – not just as a paperweight, but in terms of popularity. Everyone was excited to be there, although after filming I found out that Molly Ringwald said to Gary Sinise, “Oh, did you see it? Ain't it awful “It was like,“ Wait, you're the star! ”So that was a shock.

Filmmaker: I've been curious about his involvement since you raised Stephen King. He wrote the script, so it appears to be an adaptation that he may have been more involved in than usual. How often was he on set and how was that partnership?

Garris: It was the best experience you could ever hope for. He was there at least a third of it, almost half of it, now and then. He had lived and taught in Boulder and was very familiar with the area and was the best resource even though we only did the second session in Boulder. A lot of people think because I've worked with Stephen King so much that I'm his slut and I do his bidding. The fact is, in our collaboration, he has never told me how he thought I should shoot something or run anyone. He knows the difference between movies and books, and is an absolute supporter and cheerleader when around. He's also a great resource if you have questions about what might have been a character's motivation, what his thoughts were behind a scene you are doing thematically, what was the main dramatic effect he was looking for. But he was really there as a cheerleader, and the longer it took, the more relaxed he got about it. He knew the scope of the project. As you said, he wrote the script himself – a 460-page script, I might add. And he's a guy who trusts you when you trust him. We'd worked together on Sleepwalkers before when he was never on set except for the two hours he shot his cameo. In that case, he would visit the set and keep improving morale. Everyone was excited. Even the cast's biggest stars were thrilled to see Stephen King, all six feet five from him. He cast a long shadow and it was a thrill for everyone, no matter how successful they were as actors, that he was there and that they did their best to ever honor his bestseller.

Filmmaker: Back to the actors: You have so many scenes in the second half of The Stand with a lot of dialogue and a lot of people in the ensemble in the scene together. Something like the hypnosis scene, for example: How do you approach something so that it isn't monotonous, but you also don't force the camera to do things that are distracting?

Garris: Yeah, for that scene you're talking about we had 11 actors and about 13 pages, and we're all sitting at the same table. First of all, the good news is that you are working with a script that features fascinating characters. What is going on in the scene is really powerful. As you said before, you don't want to masturbate with a camera to make it conspicuous as it will be distracting. The aim of the camera is to reinforce the emotional impact of the scene and not to distract from it. I've been racking my brain to figure out how best to do it. The idea of ​​putting a circular track around the table was the first thing that came to mind, and it didn't seem to draw attention to itself, but rather gave it a fluidity and movement that matched the impact and heartfelt feelings, the scene grow over this time. Then, when the camera keeps changing its perspective, you need to capture two different angles, over the shoulders of the opposing characters from either side, as you need to match where they are going. People tried to dissuade me from covering it with static shots, with a circling master, but I knew what was being said mattered. So I covered it in two or three sizes with the master going one way, then adjusted those sizes the other way. And then everyone had to cover their static coverage because we couldn't continue every character that way. If you cut in and cut the coverage, you won't feel it if you catch it at the right moment. Preston Sturges once said that when editing films, the film tells you when to cut, and in this case the performances told us when to cut. There are times when you can hold a shot for quite a while when it's engaging and what the shot contains is fascinating. Then you'll know when it's time to move closer for a more emotional read. We had a lot of options in the editing room. But everything had to be done in one day, so we shot 13 pages in one day.

Filmmaker: Wow. As for the editing, I'm excited to see what the challenges are, not only when you deal with this amount of material, but also the fact that it's a network TV miniseries. You have to worry about commercial breaks and each episode has to be a length. That seems difficult when you're dealing with a genre track where you're trying to keep the tension up all the time.

Garris: It's incredibly difficult because you always have to start at the beginning of every action and build yourself up to a high level of tension, then you know that you are going to leave for a few minutes and start up again everywhere. So you have to stop people from coming back. It was written on files, but each night had to be specific to the second, 89 minutes and 28 seconds in length or something for each of the four nights. So it was incredibly important in the editorial office to have more footage than you needed so that you could lose everything that had to be lost. Technically even more important, however, was the fact that our editor had never worked with an AVID before. It was brand new and would only hold three gigabytes per drive. We had three-second handles on every cut, and if we wanted to change more than three seconds we had to go back to the negative and re-digitize it. And it was edited on standard definition video. It never got finished, which is why I never thought there would be a Blu-ray because the cost of going back to the 16mm negative and reformatting it from start to finish would be so high. Fortunately, this year I was proven wrong.

Filmmaker: And what about dealing with standards and practices? I would think that another challenge with horror for television other than the commercial breaks is that you will hear a lot from the network about what you can and cannot show.

Garris: We did, but the good news is it's called Stephen King's The Stand. Stephen King is an 800 pound gorilla, and you know what you're in for when Stephen King's name is in the title. But we had some things with standards and practices. The very first note was: "No eyes open to the dead." And our middle finger on ABC was in the opening titles. I walked straight up to one of the dead with my eyes wide open and pushed the steadicam straight into a close-up during the credit sequence. We managed to get away with literal murder because it was Stephen King. If it had been Mick Garris & # 39; The Stand, you can bet it wouldn't have had that much power. Standards and practices weren't that much of a hindrance because it was Stephen King and it was his greatest novel of all time. People knew what they were getting into.

Filmmaker: Before I let go of you, let me go back to your visual manifesto. I am curious to see what your philosophy was in terms of using colors and lenses for the film.

Garris: Color is obviously very important and if you work on site the only way to influence it is in the cloakroom and set dressing. There are lots of muted colors when the characters are out and about. You often wear blue jeans and brown shirts or muted earth tones, greens, browns, that sort of thing when you are out and about and you represent the land you are crossing. But once they settle into their new home and start rebuilding, we'll use more primary colors. Of course, when you're dealing with Randall Flagg (the villain of Jamey Sheridan) you'll want to use abrasive colors, the shades of red. The type of Nazi flags are all red and black, and although Flagg wears blue jeans and cowboy boots, everything around him is a fiery color. When you're with mom Abigail (Ruby Dee) and Stu Redman (Gary Sinise) team, it's way more subdued and friendlier and way more salty than the earth. If you represent Las Vegas, you are lucky enough to have every colored light you can think of is available to you. We really embraced the loudness, all the reds and yellows and the flashy colors and the harshness. The ending, the climatic sequence of the three of Mother Abigail's troupe standing on stage in front of 600 extras while they are being executed, is really like a scene from Dante's Inferno.

In terms of lenses, this was the first time I really spotted the extremely wide lenses that didn't go as far as a fisheye effect. One of the best parts of the movie is the locations and not just the outside but the inside as well. I really wanted to take advantage of them and be able to see the world, so I usually shot up from the bottom, looked up and felt the world around you. Since this is an empty world and these places are all so important, I want you to see and experience them as the actors do and make the actors feel insignificant. I like to use wide and long lenses. I'm not much in favor of the 35 to 50 millimeter lenses because that's what our eyes see and we're building an artistic version of reality that's more than real rather than real or less than real. When you switch between wide lenses that show you everything and longer lenses with shallow depth of field, constantly moving the camera to switch perspective, you create a sense of tension and excitement about what is going to happen.

Also, this film is about … yes, it's about the ultimate good versus evil, but it's also about politics. It's about a society. It's about what the philosophy of the country we live in was based on. And here we start over and get a chance to catch up on the way we screwed it up. Gary Sinise represents this in his very cool way of Gary Cooper as a normal American caught in the struggle between good and bad but looking to good. When we let him jump over the fence of the facility where he was kept, for me the most important shots in the film are when he jumps out and lands on his back in the grass. He looks up at the American flag, and it flies there like any WWII propaganda film. And yet it is the rediscovery and realization of what our country was founded on, on this freedom of religion, freedom of speech … any kind of freedom that has been taken from people who believe they know better than we do. So it's a real statement of what our society can be when we all come together. Not just the good versus the bad, but altruism versus fascism. It's amazing to me how forward-looking it was because it seems over the top. Nobody could have imagined that the circumstances we now live in were possible when we did this in 1993.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streamed on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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