As someone who practically learned to read by inhaling the Stephen King hardbacks my parents had lying around the house, interviewing long-time King collaborator (and respected filmmaker in his own right) Frank Darabont for The Mist in 2007 was one of the most fun experiences I've had on the job. Darabont was very gracious with his time and unguarded in a way that few filmmakers are, and we talked about the many pitfalls of adapting a beloved King story, as well as the overall partnership that Darabont and King have cultivated in order to continue bringing high-quality adaptations of the maestro's best books to the big screen. Darabont's time in Hollywood is already so storied that I couldn't possibly ask everything I wanted, but for an under-30-minutes interview, it's not bad.
RS: This movie is pretty depressing.
FD: Oh, it's a musical. Come on! You walk out singing at the end!
RS: Hardly. Did you decide to go this dark in order to poke a finger in the eye of all those people who must come up to you and tell you Shawshank changed their lives, and so on?
FD: I'm only poking my finger in the eyes of people who've slammed me because I'm Mr. Nice Guy-Sunshine and I apparently can't make a movie without a happy ending. Them I'm poking in the eye. Certainly not poking anyone in the eye who ever loved Shawshank. I'm certainly not dissing that movie, cause I still love it. It means a lot to me and it's come to mean a lot to some people. It's something I'm very proud of.
RS: It's stock has only gone up.
FD: It's only gone up. How many filmmakers get a chance to say that? How many people are lucky enough that they put something out into the world that becomes so embraced by so many people?
RS: Would you describe your collaboration with King as a writing collaboration? Would that be accurate?
FD: We never work directly together, but I don't think it would be unfair to call it a collaboration. He keeps writing these great stories, I keep co-opting them and adapting them and putting them on the screen. It winds up feeling a bit collaborative, doesn't it?
RS: As a writer in your own right, though, do you hope to create something with him from the ground up one day? A Peter Straub thing, as opposed to staying in your own domains?
FD: That'd be awesome, I'd love that. That's a good idea.
RS: You don't have anything like that cooking already? That's surprising.
FD: No, but we've talked on occasion about the possibility of doing some kind of series together. Or some kind of anthology thing together. That would be really fun -- it would be tremendously fun, and a great honor to collaborate with him directly in that sense. These things that I've done so far haven't really been like a direct collaboration. He's written these great stories and I've adapted them. The extent of the collaboration is that I send him the script I wrote and say, "What do you think?" and he'll say, "I like it, invite me to the premiere, good luck with the shoot." I will sometimes solicit his opinion on a few specific things, because I want to be sure that I haven't taken a misstep. If there's a question mark in my head at all, I'll ask him what he thinks and he'll always give me his opinion. Aside from that, it's mostly a tremendous amount of good will and trust that he has, that he's given me. I love him for that.
RS: Aside from the fact that the collaborations have resulted in success, what do you think attracts him to you as an adapter? It's gone the opposite way before, most famously with Stanley Kubrick.
FD: I have a feeling -- I can't speak to it from his end, you'd have to ask him -- but he seems to feel that I've done allright by him, I've done right by his material. Which is awesome, because I want to do right by his material. I have this story that he's written that I love -- I don't want to screw it up, so I endeavor not to screw it up and he's always been pleased with the results. I don't entirely know why ... there might be some harmonic thing happening. I really feel like I get his stories. He's such a brilliant writer. I'm not saying anything new when I say that, he's a master storyteller and his stories speak to me, so when I do the translative thing of putting it on screen, maybe there's just a harmonic thing in my sensibilities and his. If that's the case, I'm just grateful for it.
RS: I don't think it can be overstated, his storytelling prowess. I happen to believe that Skeleton Crew is one of the great American books.
FD: It completely is. It completely is. He's written a lot of great American books. I think The Shining is probably the best -- mind you, I haven't read every single spooky story written in the twentieth century -- but I think it's the best horror novel of the 20th century. It's got an incredible purity to it. You're not going to get more muscular and more human and more emotional and scarier than The Shining -- the book. I know why ... I can see why Stephen was not happy with the movie. The thing that Stanley Kubrick did was ... I remember I was disappointed with the movie when I first saw it. I was such a fan of Steve's book, and I felt that Kubrick's adaptation was a spectacular failure as an adaptation.
RS: Would you concede that it's a success on its own terms? I think it's a great film, regardless of the source material.
FD: I have come to that position, but it took me some years. I had to get to the point where I could separate Stephen King's novel, The Shining, from Stanley Kubrick's movie, The Shining. I had to be able to separate the two. My assessment of The Shining now is that I think it's a really good Stanley Kubrick movie. I still think it's a spectacular failure as an adaptation of Stephen King's novel. Kubrick, his entire body of work ... and a brilliant, brilliant director he was, believe me. I ain't putting this man down, I grew up being inspired by watching Stanley Kubrick's work, I'm of that generation. I revere him. But an emotional filmmaker he wasn't. Frank Capra the man wasn't. He was like a chess master, rather than a guy who came from the heart. In his entire body of work, there's one emotional scene, and that's the ending of Paths of Glory.
RS: I was just about to say, what about the end of Paths of Glory? That's a wildly emotional scene.
FD: That's it! And that's in his entire body of work. The thing that Stanley Kubrick missed, and he couldn't help but miss, was the emotionalism, the emotional component of Stephen's story. That's the real strength of The Shining, the book, the emotional journey these characters were going on. Kubrick wasn't into the emotional journey. He was about a lot of other things, but not that. That's where the disconnect is between the book and the movie. But yes, it's a pretty fucking good Stanley Kubrick movie.
RS: That guy in the bear suit. Wow.
FD: Yeah, I know! In terms of imagery and in terms of tone, and the stuff that Stanley Kubrick brought to it, it is kind of great, but I have to be a total split personality with that particular story. Like I say, it's a tremendous failure in the one sense of being an adaptation of a great book. I've learned to dig the movie on its own terms, though, and that does happen sometimes.
RS: Back in March, King sat on the Dark Tower comic panel at NYComicCon. During the Q&A, someone asked, "What of the rumor that Darabont will direct a Dark Tower film?" King put on his jokey, whining voice and said, "I told him, 'Fraaaank, you've got The Mist, you've got The Monkey .... just eat what's on your plate!]" I didn't think about that again until I saw the opening scene of The Mist, which boldly includes that Roland painting. So what's going on?
FD: [Laughs] Steve and I have actually talked about The Dark Tower a number of times through the years. In fact, even a year ago he called me and said, "Let's get serious about this one way or the other. I would be delighted if you were to undertake The Dark Tower." It was kind of my .... I demurred. It was me who said originally to Steve, "God, you know what? A, I've got a lot on my plate, but that kind of pussy-practical reason aside, honestly Steve, I don't even know where to begin to adapt this." It's the man's magnum opus. It's seven books. You put those books together, it's three feet of literary material, and a lot of it is trippy, internalized, head-trip stuff. I said to him, I'm not even sure how the hell I would even begin to put this on screen. And it could take --
RS: -- Ten years.
FD: Ten years? It could take longer. I said, "Steve, I really do love this material so much, but I kind of think it may want to stay as a book." You know, or find somebody else if you really want to try and get it going as a filmed piece of material. So we've kind of gone back and forth on it a few times. Right now I understand that J.J. is taking a whack at it, and I'm very content that he should. He's a better man than I, man, cause like I say, I wouldn't even know where to begin. It seems to me that that's one of those things that could wind up co-opting your entire life. Look how long it took Stephen King to write the books. He started when he was, what, in college? And how old is he now? It took the better part of four decades to write this thing.
RS: You could do the first book, and then --
FD: -- And then run! Boogie. Get the hell out!
RS: Was The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street an inspiration for you in directing The Mist?
FD: Absolutely. I can't imagine it wasn't part of -- you'd have to ask Steve on his end of things -- but I can't imagine that wasn't some kind of seminal inspiration for Steve. And I gotta believe that there's a little bit of Lord of the Flies in the inspiration, the impetus for the story. It's certainly the bell, the gong that rang for me, those two things. Which is why I've always really loved it. I particularly love this story. Also, the other thing it really reminded me of, and I remember this when I first read the story, I thought, "Wow, this has a little bit of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery in its DNA." I don't think Steve was copying anybody, I think he was coming up with something quite original on his own, but it felt like the DNA, the inspiration of it --
RS: The Lottery, with creatures.
FD: The Lottery, with monsters. I mean, come on -- it's so cool. It was only some years later that I found out Steve is a particular fan of Shirley Jackson. It intersects in that place of examining the outrageousness of human behavior and a mob mentality. That's a pretty exhilarating thing to examine. And Steve certainly did it well. I think as classically as anybody has done it.
RS: Human behavior and a mob mentality -- sounds like Fahrenheit 451. Is that a go?
FD: [Knocks on the coffee table] Hopefully. Knock wood. You know, with the strike and everything, everybody's plans have been thrown into uncertainty right now. It's really hard to schedule -- you don't know what anybody's availabilities are going to be. But that's my hope. It feels like we're on track, but you never know until you're actually there doing it, but I'm hoping we stay on track. That's my great wish. Man, I'd love to make that.
RS: By the way, why did you scale down the size of the big dinosaur in the finale of The Mist? In the book it's described as being beyond earthly dimensions. They can't even see the undercarriage of the beast -- only one leg that's as big as a moving skyscraper.
FD: It still looks pretty big, though!
RS: Right, I'm just curious as to why that choice, to size it down. That beast is one of the few that King describes in detail in the book.
FD: That's just one of those filmmaker judgment calls. I thought that, to me, the idea of just a giant leg going by struck me as potentially a comedy moment. You know, like a giant leg in a Monty Python cartoon. You're always looking to circumvent the unintentional laugh. Not that it would have been -- it might have worked great -- but my instinct told me that if it's just a leg, it wouldn't have quite the awe of seeing the beast moving by, as we wound up presenting it. If it's just a leg, it's like, "Eh?" That winds up being much more awe-inspiring on the printed page, then I think it would have played on film. I think on film we needed a little bit more than that.
RS: I like the way you subverted expectations during the scene where they chop off a piece of the beast's tentacle in the loading dock, and they leave that chunk there and go fetch others to see the "evidence" -- we expect it to be inexplicably gone when they return, a horror movie cliche, but you sidestepped that. I can't remember if that's in the book, but good job.
FD: Oh good, thank you!
RS: You've talked about this shoot being deliberately fast and loose -- did that apply to the design stage for the birds and bugs as well?
FD: Noooo, that was a little bit more focused. It wasn't that leisurely, but luckily, the way it worked out was that I spoke to Bob Weinstein in September and he said, "I want to make the movie" and we started planning. We started prepping in January and shooting in February, but as of September I knew I had a movie that was gonna go, so the first call I made was to Greg Nicotero, who is my very dear friend whom I've known for years. He's a monster kid like I am. We speak the secret language of the geek. We grew up watching the same movies and being influenced by the same things. He runs, with his partner, KNB Efx, practical makeup effects. He's kind a legendary dude in the field. He's the first call I made the moment I realized we actually had a movie. I said, "Greg, it's time." We'd thought about doing this movie for a while, anyway. I said, "It's time -- we gotta design these creatures -- let's go, let's move."
RS: Did you make a decision as to practical over CG at that point?
FD: I told him that my instinct was that it was going to be a combination of both, leaning possibly a little bit more towards the CG, because of the versatility of what the creatures needed to do.
RS: Fly around in the air.
FD: Yeah, I felt like that was beyond most practical, cable-operated animatronic puppetry, right? So Greg knew that going in, but what I needed was a good partner in designing these things. So I said, "Okay, we've got three months before we're actually prepping the movie, let's get started on this now. The earlier we get started, the more smoothly everything will go." Those guys often don't have the luxury of time. They're always up against it, sometimes they're the last people hired. I wanted them to be the first people on this, and Greg and I brought on some artists, some great creature designer guys, including Bernie Wrightson, who is another very good friend. We started the process of trying to design creatures that were true enough to what Stephen King wrote in the book, but weren't like everyone else's creatures that you've seen. It's not easy to design a creature that's kind of original, because so much has been done. You wind up, as you're designing, tripping over, "Oh, that looks too much like somebody else's dinosaur" or "that looks too much like somebody else's dragon" or "that looks like the creature in Ghostbusters or this looks like Steven's Jurassic Park critter." So to wind up doing that that makes it unique to our movie required a bit of time, and thankfully we had that. We had a great guy spearheading that. You need somebody who's really got a grasp and understanding of everything that's come before in the genre.
RS: You mentioned Spielberg -- would you work with him again?
FD: I'd work with him again at the drop of a hat, I just don't want to ever get into a situation again where I'm serving more than one master. I've learned in the past that that's not ever a good place to be. You can please one person, but you're not necessarily going to please everybody. In the Indiana Jones 4 situation, I pleased Steven but I didn't please George. I want to make sure I know exactly who I'm working for next time.
RS: Was it his ego that you didn't please?
FD: I don't know. I don't think George bought into the script that I wrote. Steven certainly did. He and I worked very closely together developing the story. He loved it, George didn't, and suddenly ... "uh-oh." Serving two masters is never a good situation and never a sure thing. But no hard feelings, and I certainly trust Steven to make a terrific movie, and I know they've wrapped now. I'd work with him again at the drop of a hat. I adore Steven. Adore, revere, personally, professionally. He's awesome. I find him tremendously inspiring, as a person, let alone as a filmmaker. He's an amazing guy.
Originally published in SuicideGirls on November 20, 2007.