'Gerald's Game' Screenwriter Jeff Howard On Adapting Stephen King And His Upcoming Projects [Interview]

Jeff Howard has been director Mike Flanagan's screenwriting partner since 2013. Actually, that's just their first produced film, Oculus. They go back even further. So when Flanagan wanted to adapt Stephen King's Gerald's Game, Howard helped him realize his vision. The Netflix original film is based on King's 1992 novel in which Jessie (Carla Gugino) agrees to her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood)'s bondage game, but Gerald has a heart attack and dies, leaving her chained to the bed. While she tries to find a way to survive and escape, Jessie also reflects on her traumatic childhood.

Howard will also be on the writing staff of Flanagan's Netflix series adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. They worked on a proposed reboot of I Know What You Did Last Summer and are next adapting a Joe Hill novella, Snapshot 1988. Howard spoke with /Film by phone this week. Gerald's Game premieres on Netflix Friday, September 29.

This book was deemed unadaptable for years. It takes place in one location, most of the action is internal, and the main character on the page is nude for much of the story. Was there ever a discussion other than "obviously we're going to put her in a slip?" I feel that's just one of many weird decisions you had to make while adapting this book.

I know that there was a discussion internally with Flanagan himself because he's lived with this book for so long that he thought through all those issues. And I think really the cleverest answer was that the neglige would become part of the plot later. That way it was more than just a concession to making a movie. I believe we all would've gotten tired of the creative angles it would take to hide nudity for that amount of time. It would've just become very strange and no one would have done it and no one would want to see it. Sometimes with books, especially books that you love, there's just one or two things that you have to make concessions to actually make it something that will work. Flanagan would never do anything not in the spirit of Stephen King. This world is just inside his DNA and he really, really cares about the material, really respects Stephen King the way I respect Billy Wilder.

Another thing that's new is Viagra didn't exist in 1992, did it?

No, not at all. Or only the CIA had it.

Did that give you a new take on the accident?

I think it helped take away some of the physicality of the relationship that's in the book that is not necessary to the spirit of the story. This book is not in my DNA but it was in Flanagan's. Literally, the first time that Flanagan and I ever sat down to talk about writing screenplays together, he brought this book. It was like, "I'd really love to get the rights to this book." It was just like yeah, someday, maybe, but for now let's focus on stuff we could do.

Also new since 1992 are cell phones. Did it not take much at all to just keep the cell phone just out of reach?

Just by the nature of the source material, cell phones were able to be defeated in this movie in a way that they are really, really hard to defeat in modern movies. Movies changed for real after everyone had a cell phone that could do everything and worked almost everywhere. You go back and look at some classics, the world has changed but they had their obstacles too. There's always a new one but cell phones have made it really difficult to help suspend disbelief. Fortunately, a story set in a remote cabin on a getaway with a lady handcuffed to a bed does lend itself to not being able to reach a cell phone.

The usual fix is "Oh, there's no signal." Do you as a screenwriter feel an internal challenge to come up with something more clever than that?

Yes because I don't remember the last time I didn't have a signal.

The biggest adaptation is the ghost of Gerald talking to Jessie. Did that solve a lot of the problem of the book's internal monologue?

It is so much more the imagination of Jessie and all her projection of all her various understandings of Gerald way more than it is any kind of Gerald's ghost. The entire story is Jessie just talking to herself the entire time. So whether it's represented in the book by all of her friends and neighbors and people she grew up with, or whether it's in this movie with Gerald, she's really just talking to herself. She's exploring the darkest parts of her mind to figure out how to find the answer to survive.

Was that Mike's or your idea or a joint collaborative idea?

Literally on this one, Mike Flanagan has been living with this book since he was 19-years-old and has been watching a version of this in his head. I think all of his regular contributors like me and Mike Fimongari, the DP, Trevor Macy the producer, in an unspoken way have all looked at each other over the last year or so and said, "Look at Flanagan go." I don't think anybody is so much of an auteurist anymore, but this is really about as close as you get. I won't take credit for anything in Gerald's Game. I think Flanagan and Stephen King deserve credit.

Given that it's so much from Mike, was this more of an assignment from him? Did he say, "I want to do Gerald's Game. Write it for me?"

To me? No. Our process has always been the same. We talk endlessly about stuff and then somebody will own an outline and somebody will own the draft and that's the last two years. It used to be that we would squirrel away into a little place in Studio City and we would sit down and just stay there until we were done. He's made a movie a year and he's cut a movie a year for these last five years so now we're more pen pals.

The book took several more flashbacks to tell the whole story of the eclipse. Were you able to consolidate that in the movie?

With a novel, especially something really rich, you cherry pick all the moments that you have to do. Then you look at that list and you're really following a thread. A movie is much more of a short story than a novel. You're kind of taking away your favorite novel and turning it into the best short story version of it that you could do. That's kind of what makes Netflix and these series now so cool. Instead of doing that, you can blow it out and do a full version.

The books were written in the same year but since the movies were decades apart, could this still be the same eclipse from Dolores Claiborne?

I would find that to be a huge, huge flattering comparison. That and Misery, for me, I look at Rob Reiner and the run that Rob Reiner had in that stage of his career where he made like 10 of the greatest movies ever in a row. To land in the Rob Reiner pocket in terms of character and story, and I think we have come really, really close with the Joe Hill adaptation we're going to do.

The eclipse specifically makes those two stories shared universe.

Yeah, and there's also shared characters in the novels. It seems like now the Stephen King cinematic universe is being mined of particular characters for other projects. So I think Stephen King has to parse out characters and the universes. There's easily three or four awesome allusions to other Stephen King cinematic and literary universes in the movie which I hope people find in their own way. Flanagan is just such a fan that I think he just subconsciously weaved them in and same thing with Snapshot. Our Joe Hill [movie] has a nice little allusion too. I think this is all viewed as part of the same cinematic universe, but in our legal reality, you know...

Was Cujo an obvious reference because there's a dog in Gerald's Game?

Yeah, there's nothing you could do about that.

Since the book was written, there have been a lot more movies like Buried or Phone Booth that are so contained they basically ask, "How the hell are you going to make a whole movie in that one place?" Did you take anything from the success of those movies that helped you craft Gerald's Game as a screenplay?

My favorite was always Death Trap, Sidney Lumet with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. It's a couple in a cabin. They don't stay nearly as compressed but it's the same kind of feeling and the cabin and the environment becomes as much of a character. Sometimes it's a prison and sometimes it's a palace. It moves back and forth. That one was always the one for me and I watched it again recently and wow, it still holds up.

How descriptive were you of the hand scene? Did you just know Mike was going to do what he did with that?

I don't think any of us knew what that was really going to be until we saw it. Then when we saw it, it was quite startling. I know people who've worked on the movie and still have not watched that particular bit.

Gerald's Game trailer

Are you working on the Haunting of Hill House TV show with Mike?

Yes, very happily one of the six other writers in the room. We are just about done and very, very happy with it. It was like getting a larger band together because Flanagan's there and I was there and Trevor was there and Fimongari was there, the DP, the Newton Brothers but then there was like five new people who came on board. It was a lot of fun. We all got to play together, have a great time. I was just so impressed that Scott Kosar who wrote The Machinist is sitting there with us. One of my all time favorite shows is The Strain and Liz Phang from The Strain is there. I got to talk to her about her episode the day after it aired. Meredith Averill from Good Wife was there. It was awesome. And I'm going to get the chance to say that we are working for Steven Spielberg. It's awesome.

Was there untapped material from the Shirley Jackson book that wasn't in either movie versions?

It's definitely not like the movies. It's a very Shirley Jackson style take on it but we made it a family story.

Does it have to be updated for 2017?

Yeah, it definitely takes place now. It's current. It's a good, solid family drama with really good scares that are both the external kind and internal kind.

Are you still writing I Know What You Did Last Summer?

We finished a long time ago. It's just sort of the Sony and Neal Moritz, there's just a lot of factors in getting something like that made. We've been in a five million dollar scary movie world and I think it's hard to justify to a studio spending multiples of that when Jordan Peele can take four and a half million and turn it into 140.

I'd definitely rather see lower budgets and bigger ideas like that.

Yes, and our I Know What You Did Last Summer could be stripped down to a smaller version like that without a doubt. It's not in any way some blown out studio set pieces kind of movie. It's just a Sony movie and I think they like making more expensive movies.

It doesn't have to be a big name cast like the original either.

No, and the original wasn't a big cast when they were cast. They were all sort of beginning. Our I Know What You Did Last Summer fits into a world of all of these Netflix series that go on now about killing cases. It's really a complement to where we are now so I hope they make it. It's not a docudrama like that but it fits into that world very well. It's like one of those stories done as a pretty cool movie.

Did you have fun updating that for 2017?

Yeah, we had a blast. We sat with Neal Moritz to talk about it more than any other producer. It's a title that really means a lot to him and he was super passionate about it. We all love our take. It's just a matter of when they could push it through and where. Come on, Netflix!

But did you have fun with text messages and other ways he could say "I Know What You Did Last Summer?"

Our I Know What You Did Last Summer evolved. We didn't go from zero to 60. We let it build. I'm really proud of it and I think people would love it. It's got a little Agatha Christie. It's got a little true crime. I think it's a fun ride.

What's the Joe Hill book you're adapting?

We just turned into Akiva Goldsman and our best buddy Jason Blum a script called Snapshot 1988 that's an adaptation of Joe Hill's novella. Wow, we had a great time. Look, this is me talking so I'm slightly biased but I think it's like a new Stand By Me.

Did that book lend itself to adaptation?

Yes, especially now. It's about memory and loss and monsters and human monsters, all the stuff that Flanagan and I did through all of these things. It was fun and now all I want to do is adapt a book by Stephen King's wife. I'd like to cross through the entire family if possible.

Is it set in 1988?

It is. It's half set in 1988 and half set today

Now that the '80s nostalgia of It and Stranger Things is in full flux, did you have to raise your game on the '80s references?

You know that we are both children of the '80s so I feel like my '80s references may ring truer than other '80s references. I was there. I was on the front lines of being an '80s kid. I was the same age as our lead character at the time, pretty much about the age. We do a couple songs and we have fun with some joystick stuff. He's a pretty clever, timeless kid. It's a really nice little look at childhood and having a good childhood versus maybe losing a childhood.