Posted on Wednesday, April 12th, 2017 by Blake Harris
From quirky hits (like *batteries not included and Critters 2) to epic haunts (like Stephen King’s The Stand), filmmaker Mick Garris has proven himself to be one of the industry’s true masters of horror. Literally, even; creating the beloved Showtime series Masters of Horror. With such an impressive portfolio of spooky stories under his belt, it’d likely be hard for any horror fan to pick their favorite Garris project. And yet, almost instantly, they’d probably discard one of his films from contention: Sleepwalkers.
So naturally, that’s the film that I wanted to speak with Mick Garris about. But before we went back in time to discuss how Sleepwalkers got made, we talked about the making of his career; an amazing story that involves interviewing auteurs, operating R2D2s and catching the eye of Steven Spielberg (then later Stephen King).
Mick Garris Interview
How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Sleepwalkers edition of the HDTGM podcast here.
Synopsis: When Charles and Mary Brady move to a sleepy Indiana town, the residents are eager to welcome this duo with open arms. But little do they realize that these newcomers are actually shape-shifting cat-like creatures who are there to feast on virgins.
Tagline: They feast on your fear…and it’s dinner time.
Part 1: An Overwhelming Mallet to the Head
Blake J. Harris: Hey, what are you up to?
Mick Garris: Oh, there’s a bunch of stuff going on. I’ve got my own podcast. And I’m in the middle of a secret project that I can’t talk much about. It hopefully will not be featured on How Did This Get Made?
Blake J. Harris: [laughs] What did you think listening to the episode?
Mick Garris: Oh, I actually thought it was very entertaining. I was delighted [laughs] by how many good things they found in the movie. I was very amused by the things they didn’t like and [answering the episode’s big question] yes, they were mother and son.
Blake J. Harris: That was the burning question.
Mick Garris: Yeah. It was a lot of fun. I laughed a lot. And I only cringed a few times as the nails went into my ankles and palms.
Blake J. Harris: Well let’s start by talking about non-cringe-worthy moments. Tell me a little bit more about you and how you got into filmmaking. And personally, as a writer and journalist, I’d love to hear about your journalism background too.
Mick Garris: Well, I actually started writing for my high school newspaper, doing interviews. My first interview was with the Moody Blues. You know, I was very much into music. Staring at 18, I was in a band for seven years. A prog rock band. I was the lead singer and a song-writer (not a very good one). There’s some stuff online, but none of it was ever professionally recorded. It’s all demo quality stuff. From an era where we didn’t have GarageBand.
Blake J. Harris: Right.
Mick Garris: There’s some stuff you can find out there, in drips and drabs. But as far as writing, I did journalism for the local underground newspaper: The San Diego Door, which was the paper that Cameron Crowe was writing for that he made Almost Famous about. And we both ended up making movies later on.
Blake J. Harris: Yup. And how did you get into screenwriting?
Mick Garris: The first guy to hire me as a screenwriter was Steven Spielberg for Amazing Stories. I realized years later that I was the first person asked to write a script for the show. And then I wrote another one and they asked me to go on staff there. So my own personal amazing story…
Blake J. Harris: I’m sure that it’s an amazing story probably worthy of its own podcast, but what’s the short version of how you even got that opportunity?
Mick Garris: Well I had been doing film journalism for a while, for various publications and the like. And the “Z Channel” was the first paid channel in LA. Even before they started to carry HBO. So I went to them and I first started writing for their channel guide; you know, doing stories about the movies they would run. And I proposed to them an interview show called The Fantasy Film Festival.
Blake J. Harris: Okay.
Mick Garris: So they went it and [laughs] I made the grand sum of $100 a show.
Blake J. Harris: Ha!
Mick Garris: And so they would tell me the movies that they had programmed and were coming up and asked who I could get. So I did John Boorman for Zardoz. I got Steven Spielberg for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I was just very excited and enthusiastic and managed to track these people down. And because of where this cable system was located—you know: Beverly Hills, west side LA—a lot of the people in Hollywood watched it.
Blake J. Harris: Okay.
Mick Garris: I was not the world’s greatest interviewer, but it was always about the subject and in the genre. And it got a bit of a following. So I managed to get a job…my first movie job was answering phones for the Star Wars.
Blake J. Harris: Really? That’s great.
Mick Garris: Yeah. At the grand sum of $150 a week. And then I was hired to operate R2D2 at various personal appearances. Including the Oscars that year. Yeah. The first and only time I’ll ever attend an Oscars, I’m sure. And so this is a very long and boring story…
Blake J. Harris: No, no! This is great. I even have more questions. So I’m curious: when you’re doing the Z Channel show and you’re speaking with all these really interesting people at such an exciting time, what did you learn about filmmaking? Which I know is hard to boil down to a few sentences…
Mick Garris: Well, it was the sort of thing you learn when you read film magazines and the like. They weren’t guests promoting something necessarily at the time. They were there to do just more like a conversation. So it wasn’t Entertainment Tonight sound bytes. But the people who make movies, these were people were like me. They loved movies (they were born with sprockets, maybe), but it was just an enthusiasm. There wasn’t a lot of technical things I learned then. But just the creative approaches that people had. And what was more important to them? Was it the technical stuff or was it emotional stuff? You know, everybody approaches it from a different direction. And directors don’t work together. That was kind of an overwhelming mallet to the head. Wow. The filmmakers are very much in their own kind of bubble.
Blake J. Harris: Right.
Mick Garris: So it was kind of a revelation to me and I realized why so many of the great filmmakers are one of a kind people. You know, they have a vision. They may be influenced by other filmmakers, but they don’t work with them on anything. So it was a pretty great revelation.
Blake J. Harris: And that’s pretty different than screenwriting. What was the beginning of your screenwriting career like, after Amazing Stories? And how did you begin to work your way up, or around, the industry?
Mick Garris: You know, I was in my early 30s when I was knighted by King Steven. Suddenly, all the agencies and studios who never read my scripts when they were submitted; suddenly they were offering me jobs. Still having not read any of my scripts!
Blake J. Harris: [cracks up] Yup.
Mick Garris: But someone else had made the decision for them that I was hirable. It happened to be Spielberg at the height of his career. It was really great. I was hired to write The Fly II. Which there were four other writers on it after me. Hocus Pocus. That was something where there were a dozen writers after me that worked on it and it got made 8 years after I wrote it.
Blake J. Harris: Well tell me more about that one. That’s one of my wife’s favorite movies. She was excited to hear I was talking with you. Any behind-the-scenes tidbits from Hocus Pocus? Or any fond memories of how you crafted the story?
Mick Garris: Well, it was devised by a producer named David Kirchner who created a character called Strawberry Shortcake, that was animation that also was tied into toys. But he also created An American Tale, the animated film for Spielberg. And he has this wonderful idea about kids in Salem, Massachusetts. And this story of the Sanderson sisters. He and I met, got along great. We both now had the Spielberg connection between us. So we actually initially pitched it to Steven, [after] David had already gotten interest from Disney in doing it. And at that time, Spielberg and Disney were kind of competitive, they didn’t want to work together.
Blake J. Harris: Okay.
Mick Garris: And so I did the first couple of drafts. And it was really great and really exciting and then it just kind of died. And they kept on bringing in other writers. Then, eight years later, they got Bette Midler (at the height of her career) interested. Basically, they had gone back to the script that I had done. They had made some changes—it was much more broadly comedic. Mine was darker, but obviously their commercial instincts were better than mine. And they went back to enough of mine that I’m credited like three times in the credits. So it was nice. And everybody’s wife’s favorite movie is Hocus Pocus it seems.
Blake J. Harris: That’s quite an honor! The favorite movie of wives everywhere!
Mick Garris: It is. And everybody knows it and every girl from 4 to 50 seems to be in love with that movie. You know, it’s great. That and having done The Stand, which I think was the highest rated miniseries ever. It’s really, really great on that stuff. Any of those things.
Blake J. Harris: Well, you had said that like 8 years later the movie came out. So I’m kind of curious: you’re doing this interview show where you’re interviewing people and it’s airing. And then you’re writing a TV show where episodes are conceivably airing shortly after. But so much of film writing is movies don’t ever get made, or they get made years later but different. How did you kind of find creative fulfillment? Or did that not bother you?
Mick Garris: For me, I never went into this to make money. I went into it because I’m a writer and that’s my passion. You know, you do it…you get an opportunity and you start working with Steven Spielberg for $100,000 a year when you’ve been on food stamps, it’s like: holy shit. The good news is it happened when I was 33. I was not a guy, like, who had come out of film school and wowed Hollywood. But I wrote because I loved writing. And then Disney offered me to direct an episode of the Disney Sunday Movie which was a new series. So suddenly studios were offering me things and I was also writing spec stuff on my own, which I continue to do today. You know, you write it because you love it and you hope you can make it. With luck, you’ll sell it. But the vagaries of what sells in Hollywood and what the studios are buying is way beyond me. And way beyond anything I’m interesting. So I do what I do and hope it is something I can get made. I also write books for the same reason. Because I love writing and in books there’s nothing between the audience and myself, except the page (electronic or paper).
Blake J. Harris: Right.
Mick Garris: But it’s also a very singular art form. Filmmaking is kind of the ultimate collaborative art form.