"There are two nice people in Hollywood," Stephen King once wrote in the introduction to the book A Life in the Cinema. "And they are both Mick Garris."
Writers are not given to praising directors, you must understand. So, this is especially high praise, given that Garris has directed six films based on Stephen King stories, including the acclaimed miniseries for The Stand and The Shining. And given that Stephen King is...well, Stephen King, not someone given to puffery praise.
It may help that Garris himself is a writer, having worked on Steven Spielberg's series Amazing Stories and written the screenplay or story for such films as *batteries not included, Hocus Pocus, The Fly II and many others, as well as the novel Development Hell.
You may have somehow gotten the impression here that, nice guy though he is, Mick Garris likes to scare people relentlessly. Fair enough. He has, after all, received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the New City Horror Film Festival, and was elected to an International Horror & Sci Fi Hall of Fame.
But after a career terrifying the public, Garris has decided to do what any self-respecting horror practitioner would do, and that's turn the tables and terrify himself -- stepping in front of the camera. But that's what Mick Garris starts doing tomorrow, interviewing legendary talents of the sci fi and horror genre in a new series for FEARnet.
How he got from there to here, though, is a journey itself. Especially for one so utterly genial.
When I first met Garris, I was writing press kits at Universal Studios, and he was brought over by the new head of the company to join us in the PR department, specifically to work on special projects. Let's just note that his unofficial title was "Vice President in Charge of Monsters." It was pretty clear early on that horror was...okay, in his blood.
Oddly enough, though, the first movie I saw that he wrote and directed not only didn't have a creature, knife or dead body in it, but it was actually a romantic comedy:
Because our office space was full when Mick arrived, the only place to put him was all alone underneath the deserted Universal commissary. (God may work in mysterious ways, but He was spot on with His office assignments back then.) It was dark, gloomy, and -- considering his future career -- an amazingly perfect setting for him. One day, Mick invited me down into this eerie cavern to see a movie he'd made. It was a wonderfully funny film about a guy having a disastrous time trying to get into a serious relationship, called Breaking Up. And one of the first TV movies he ever wrote and directed was -- yes, this is true -- for the Disney Sunday Movie. It was a sweet tale about a little girl who has an imaginary friend...that turns out not to be imaginary at all, Fuzz Bucket.
This from the man who later would direct, Pyscho IV: The Beginning.
The road to a Horror Hall of Fame, of course, requires many detours before getting the chance to scare the bejeepers out of people. Along that very-crooked path, he's had some pretty odd, albeit memorable jobs. His first work in the film industry was answering phones for George Lucas's company during the original Star Wars and operating R2D2 during the robot's personal appearances (including at the 1978 Oscars). And he was an extra in a music video, because his friend John Landis was directing it. It turned out to be Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
One of the challenges of being so identified with scaring people and so entrenched in the horror field is that people tend to be wary when you're not terrorizing helpless humans, and pigeonhole you. One of the most charming screenplays I've ever read is Garris's unproduced piece, Uncle Willlie, about a washed-up old man who used to be the star of a beloved children's show. Still, Garris does make an effort to at least periodically walk in the sunshine. For instance, he made a foray into normalcy with the TV courtroom movie, The Judge, starring Chris Noth. And even recently directed an episode of an upcoming ABC series, Happy Town.
Make no mistake, this is no case of the clown crying through his makeup because he wants to do Shakespeare. He loves making "regular" stories, but Mick Garris adores horror. (He's about to start shooting a seventh Stephen King movie, Bag of Bones,) Further, he's had a warm affection for those other filmmakers who work in the horror genre, a field often look down upon by the public. It's why he created the Showtime series, Masters of Horror -- getting a commitment from the network to let him gather the best names in the field (both writers and directors) and, as long as they kept to a budget, let them tell the tales they wanted without any corporate interference.
(One memorable episode was "The Homecoming," a controversial parable about the zombies of dead soldiers from Iraq returning to life to vote the president who sent them to the war out of office.)
And it's that same love of the craft, its history and his fellow-compatriots that has finally got Garris to step out in front of the camera for the first time. This new series he's hosting and producing, Post Mortem with Mick Garris, features in-depth interviews with many of the top horror filmmakers and talent. ("I'm the Charlie Rose of horror," he quips.) Each episode focuses on a single guest, including Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Roger Corman, Frank Darabont, actor Robert Englund (Freddy's Nightmare), John Landiis, and Tobe Hooper. It's scheduled to begin tomorrow, Friday, at FEARnet On Demand and online at FEARnet.com. with a one-on-one conversation with Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker, whose latest creation is for the upcoming The Wolfman.
Garris has enjoyed the experience, he says, and there are more to come. But he can't wait to get back behind the camera. It's one thing to be a nice guy. But sometimes, you just have to terrify people.