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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

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

Stephen King’s The Stand

When Stephen King published The Stand in 1978, the book represented a major increase in scale and ambition for the author, whose story of a nationwide battle between forces of good and evil was both his longest and most sophisticated novel to date. 16 years later director Mick Garris took a similar leap when he graduated from modest horror fare like Critters 2: The Main Course and Psycho IV: The Beginning to helm the miniseries adaptation of The Stand, a four-night, six-hour (not counting commercials) epic with hundreds of sets and speaking roles. Stephen King’s The Stand premiered on ABC in May 1994 to spectacular ratings and solidified the relationship between Garris and King that had begun with Sleepwalkers in 1992; in the years following Garris would direct at least five more King adaptations, including the 1997 miniseries version of The Shining and the criminally underrated 2004 feature Riding the Bullet. The Stand is newly available in an exquisite Blu-ray edition as part of Paramount’s Stephen King 5-Movie Collection, a set that also includes Silver Bullet, both versions of Pet Sematary, and David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone in its U.S. Blu-ray debut. In addition to a stunning transfer, the Stand disc features an illuminating and often very funny six-hour commentary track by King, Garris and several members of the cast and crew. The movie itself plays better today than ever; part of its power undoubtedly comes from its current resonance as a tale about a virus that initiates the end of the world and exacerbates social divisions, but credit must also be given to Garris’ energetic camerawork and firm control over his complicated material. In spite of its length and complexity, The Stand flies by with clarity and power, deftly balancing horror, humor, pathos and philosophical and political provocation to immensely powerful effect.       

It’s a good time to be a Mick Garris fan; his extraordinary prose collection These Evil Things We Do was published a few months ago, and the anthology film Nightmare Cinema (produced and co-directed by Garris) is currently streaming on Shudder and other platforms. Garris has also gone back to his roots as an interviewer with his Post Mortem podcast, a movie buff’s paradise where one can find exhaustive conversations with a wide array of filmmakers including John Carpenter, Karyn Kusama, Joe Dante and Walter Hill. Garris started out as a rock journalist (he wrote for the San Diego DOOR at the same time as Cameron Crowe when they were both in high school) and in 1979 he hosted a series for the Z Channel in which he interviewed sci-fi and horror icons like Steven Spielberg and Harlan Ellison. The same enthusiasm that makes him a great filmmaker makes him one of our finest pop culture historians; to delve into Post Mortem or the other materials on his www.mickgarrisinterviews website is to get a crash course in the last 40 years of genre filmmaking that’s as entertaining as it is informative. Interviewing a guy I consider to be one of the best interviewers we have was a little intimidating, but I hopped on the phone with him a few days before the release of Stephen King 5-Movie Collection to get the inside story behind the making of The Stand.     

Filmmaker: Revisiting The Stand for this interview, the first thing that struck me was the sheer size of it. What did you find exciting about that, and what were the challenges?

Mick Garris: I had never done anything on that scale before—the biggest thing I had done was Critters 2. Now I’ve got 600 extras and a hundred shooting days and almost a hundred scripted 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 were the Brat-Packers [Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald] doing adult roles and everybody else. We were on the road most of the time, and I would say 75% of it was outside. And every day outside, the weather was wrong. When it was supposed to be sunny, it was raining. When it was supposed to be raining, it was snowing. The longest days had to be shot on the shortest days of the year. Add to that, we’re trying to create a decimated dead planet when just outside of the frame life goes on wherever we are; there were freeways being held with miles of backed up traffic. Every bit of it was absolutely daunting and intimidating.

Filmmaker: Where do you even start planning your shots for something of that size? Do you shot list or storyboard the script all at once, or are you planning each week’s work or each day’s material at a time? 

Garris: It’s just too big to plan it all in advance. I mean, you go through the broad strokes and make sure everybody on the crew and the team knows what you’re doing. I create what I call a visual manifesto for every project, where we talk about what the lenses are, what the color schemes are, what we’re trying to convey, so each department head is on the same page. But when you’ve got a hundred-day shoot, all of the ideas you come up with before shooting are moot by the time you’re on the set and everything has changed, and the location is different, and the actors want to approach it in a different way that’s better than the way you originally planned. So, every weekend I would shot list, knowing that I had to be flexible but that if I had an idea about how to use a Steadicam or something else technical that was important to heightening the emotional resonance of a scene, then that would go on my shot list. I don’t storyboard, other than visual effects shots and stunts where everybody has to be very specific about their requirements for the day’s work, but every weekend I would do the shot list for the whole week. And there would be days I would never even look at the shot list, come home and go, “Oh, I shot the shot list.” Or, “Gee, none of the shots that I put on my shot list were what we’ve done.” Even with a small project, but especially a large one like this, the ability to roll with the punches is absolutely crucial—to be able to make a decision on something that’s better than what you had in your brain when you actually get onto the location or the set. You have to be nimble with something this size with so little time. We basically made four movies in a hundred days, so it was not an elaborate schedule except by network TV standards. We also shot it with a 16-millimeter camera, so we could be very mobile and carry a hot head crane every day of the shoot as well as a Steadicam and not wear out the Steadicam operator.

Filmmaker: Was shooting in 16-millimeter a typical thing for TV movies in those days?

Garris: No. In Europe, they would often use 16-millimeter for exteriors and then video for interiors. But until the switch to HD, network TV has always relied upon 35-millimeter film. We were hobbled a bit by the producers, who insisted on shooting it in 16 to save $300,000 over a $28 million budget. I resisted it as much as I could, but once I realized it was a losing battle I embraced it. We could be much more fluid and think on our feet with the hothead crane and the Steadicam than if we had to carry a lot of elaborate dolly track and things like that. If you don’t use a lot of diffusion and are careful about the lenses you use and how you light, you can make 16-millimeter look great—but it requires caution, because there’s four times as much grain in the frame as there is in 35-millimeter film. You just have to be careful not to smoke up every scene where the grain is amplified. Working with Edward Pei, who is a great DP, we actually got nominated for an Emmy for the cinematography despite being the only 16-millimeter contender in that group.

Filmmaker: You mentioned earlier the massive cast, and I’m wondering how you made it work with an ensemble that has so many different approaches and levels of experience. You’ve got theater people like Sinise, TV actors, young people, actors like Ray Walston who have been around forever and done it all… 

Garris: Well, that’s probably the most important part of the job as director, learning very quickly how each of the actors work. If they run out of steam quickly and give their best work on the first couple of takes, you want to cover them first. You learn who takes time to ramp up to their best performance. Someone like Ray Walston, he memorized everybody’s dialogue for the whole thing in every scene he was in. He was one of those guys that every time you did a take, he’d do it exactly the same, unless you’d give him direction to make an alteration to fit better in the fabric of actors with whom he’s playing. He was just a stalwart and reliable and so good because of his years on Broadway, and he was able to translate that to film. Not everybody can do that as nimbly as he did, where you’re playing to the bleachers but can then play intimately to a camera that may be two feet from your face. A lot of them were brought up on film acting. Some of them, like Ossie and Ruby, were brought up on the stage and crossed over very well into film. But all of them were really 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 everybody had respect for the book and the fact that it was Stephen King’s biggest book—not just as a paperweight, but as far as popularity goes. Everybody was excited to be there, though I found out after we shot that Molly Ringwald said to Gary Sinise, “Oh, have you seen it? Isn’t it awful?” It was like, “Wait, you’re the star of it!” So that was kind of a shock.

Filmmaker: Since you brought up Stephen King, I’m curious about his involvement. He wrote the screenplay, so it seems like this is an adaptation where he might have been more intimately involved than usual. How often was he on the set, and what was that partnership like?

Garris: It was the best experience you could ever hope to have. He was around for at least a third of it, close to half of it, off and on. He had lived in Boulder and taught there and was intimately familiar with the area and was the best resource, even though we only did second unit in Boulder. A lot of people think because I’ve worked so much with Stephen King that I’m his bitch and that I do his bidding. The fact is, he has never once in our collaborations together told me how he thought I should shoot something or direct someone. He knows the difference between movies and books, and he’s a complete supporter and cheerleader when he’s around. He’s also a great resource if you have questions about what a character’s motivation might have been, what his thoughts were behind a scene you’re doing thematically, what was the most important dramatic effect he was seeking. But he was really there as a cheerleader, and the longer it went on the more relaxed he became about it. He knew the scope of the project. As you said, he had written the screenplay himself—a 460-page screenplay, I might add. And he’s a guy who trusts you if you instill confidence in him. We’d worked together one previous time on Sleepwalkers, when he was never on the set except for the two hours in which he shot his cameo. In this case, he’d come and visit the set and boost morale constantly. Everybody was excited. Even the biggest stars in the cast were thrilled to see Stephen King, all six feet five of him. He cast a long shadow, and it was a thrill to everyone, no matter how successful as an actor they were, that he was there and that they were doing their best to give honor to his bestselling book ever.

Filmmaker: Getting 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 hypnotism scene, for example: how do you approach something like that so that it’s not monotonous but you’re also not forcing the camera to do things that are distracting?

Garris: Yeah, for that scene you’re talking about I think we had 11 actors and a page count of around 13 pages, and everybody’s sitting at a table. But first of all, the good news is that you’re working with a screenplay that has captivating characters. What’s going on in the scene is really potent. So, like you said, you don’t want to masturbate with a camera to make it flashy, because then you’re going to distract. The point of the camera is to heighten the emotional impact of the scene, not to distract from it. I was racking my brain trying to figure out the best way to do it. The idea of putting a circular track around the table was the first thing that came to me, and it seemed to not call attention to itself but to give it a fluidity and motion that matched the impact and heartfelt feelings that grow during the course of this scene. Then covering it, because the camera is constantly shifting its perspective, you’d have to shoot two different angles, the over-the-shoulders from the opposing characters from either side, because you’d need to match where it was going. People tried to talk me out of covering it with static shots, with a circling master, but I knew that what was important was what was being said. So I covered it in two or three sizes with the master going one direction and then matched those sizes going the other direction. And then had to cover everybody on their static coverage, because we couldn’t keep moving on every character that way. Cutting in and out of the coverage of that, you don’t feel it if you catch it at the right moment. Preston Sturges once said that when it comes to editing films, the movie 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 if it’s captivating and what the shot contains is fascinating, then you know when it’s time to move in tighter for a more emotional read. We had a lot of choices in the editing room. But it all had to be done on one day, so we shot like 13 pages on one day.

Filmmaker: Wow. Well, speaking of the editing, I’m curious what kinds of challenges there are, not only when you’re dealing with this amount of material, but with the fact that it’s a network TV miniseries. You’ve got to worry about commercial breaks, and each episode has to be a certain length. That seems difficult when you’re dealing with a genre piece where you’re trying to constantly raise tension.

Garris: It’s incredibly difficult, because you constantly, with every act, have to start at the beginning and build up to a high tension level, then know that you’re going to be leaving for a few minutes and have to ramp up all over again. So, you have to keep people wanting to come back. It was written in acts, but each night had to be specific to the second, a length that was like 89 minutes and 28 seconds or something each of the four nights. So, it was incredibly important in editorial to be able to have a lot of footage, more than you needed, so that you could lose whatever had to be lost. But technically, even more crucial was the fact that our editor had never worked with an AVID before. It was brand new, and it would only hold three gigabytes per drive. We had three-second handles on each cut, and if we wanted to make a change of 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 went to a film finish, which is why I never thought there would be a Blu-ray, because the expense of going back to the 16-millimeter negative and reformatting everything from beginning to end would be so great. This year I was thankfully proven wrong. 

Filmmaker: And what about dealing with standards and practices? I would think that another challenge with doing horror for television, aside from the commercial breaks, is that you’re going to be hearing a lot from the network about what you can and can’t show.

Garris: We did, but the good news is that 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 did have some things with standards and practices. The very first note was, “No open eyes on dead people.” And our middle finger to ABC was in the opening titles. I moved right in on one of the dead, with clouded wide-open eyes, and just pushed the Steadicam right into a closeup during the credit sequence. We managed to get away with literal murder because it was Stephen King. If it had been Mick Garris’ The Stand, you can bet that it would not have had as much potency. Standards and practices were not that big a hindrance, because it was Stephen King, and it was his biggest novel ever. People knew what they were in for.

Filmmaker: Before I let you go I want to circle back to your visual manifesto. I’m curious what your philosophy was in terms of how to use color and lenses on the film.

Garris: Color is obviously very important, and when you’re working on location, the only way you can affect that is in wardrobe and set dressing. There’s a lot of muted color when the characters are traveling; they’re often in blue jeans and brown shirts or muted earth tones, greens, browns, that sort of thing when you’re on the move, and you kind of represent the land that you’re crossing. But once they settle into their new homes and start rebuilding, we use more primary colors. Obviously when you’re dealing with Randall Flagg [the villain played by Jamey Sheridan], you want to use abrasive colors, the reds. The sort of Nazi flags are all red and black, and despite Flagg being in blue jeans and cowboy boots, everything around him is a fiery color. Whereas when you’re with the Mother Abigail (Ruby Dee)-Stu Redman (Gary Sinise) team, it’s much more muted and much more friendly and much more salt-of-the-earth and not as elaborate. When you’re representing Las Vegas, you have the fortune of every colored light you can imagine being available to you. We really embraced the gaudiness, all of the reds and yellows and flashy colors and harshness of it. The ending, the climactic sequence of the three from Mother Abigail’s troop being held on stage in front of 600 extras as they’re about to be executed, is really like a scene from Dante’s Inferno.

In terms of the lenses, that was the first time I really discovered the ultra wide lenses that don’t go to the point of a fisheye effect. One of the best parts of the movie is the locations, and not just the exteriors but also the interiors; I really wanted to take advantage of them and to be able to see the world, so usually I would shoot from the bottom up, looking up and feeling the world around you. Because it’s an empty world, and these locations are all so crucial, I want you to see them and experience the way the actors do, and to make the actors feel insignificant. I like to use wide lenses and long lenses; I’m not much for the 35 to 50-millimeter lenses, because that’s what our eye sees, and we’re building an artistic version of reality that is more than real, rather than real or less than real. If you move between wide lenses that show you everything and longer lenses with a shallow depth of field, and are also constantly moving the camera to shift perspective, you create a sense of tension and excitement about what’s going to happen.  

Plus, this movie…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 in which we live was founded upon. And here we are, starting over, getting the chance to make up for ways we fucked it up, with Gary Sinise representing that in his very cool Gary Cooper kind of performance as a regular American caught in the struggle between good and evil, but looking for the good. When we have him jump the fence of the facility in which he’s been kept, the most important shots in the movie to me are when he jumps out and he lands on his back on the grass. He’s looking up at the American flag, and it’s waving there, just like every propaganda film from World War II. And yet, it’s the rediscovery and the realization of what our country was founded upon, on this freedom of religion, freedom of speech…every kind of freedom that has been taken away by people who think they know better than we do. And so, it’s a real statement on what our society can be if we all band together. Not just the good guys versus the bad guys, but altruism versus fascism. It’s incredible to me how prescient it was, because it seems exaggerated. Nobody could have imagined the circumstances we’re living in now would be possible when we made 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 streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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