How many times have you thought that the film adaptation of a Stephen King story could have been made better? Come on, you know that most of the films that are the best of King’s work suck. Granted there are some fine examples that do manage to successfully make the leap from page to screen but they are few and far between. Frank Darabont has been at the helm on a few of those exceptions and The MIst, is another success.
I saw this film a month ago and it is still with me. This is disturbing actually. It hasn’t helped that in the past week, the mist has been creeping outside my house and courtesy of this thriller, I now sleep with all my windows and doors shut. I don’t know why I think this helps, but it does. This film centers on a group of everyday people trapped inside a store by some unknown horrifying force. When fear is introduced everything gets flipped upside down. Michele Williams of the Austin Movie Show and I met with Frank and had a nice talk. Video footage of this interview will be available on our website.
AUSTIN DAZE: So you are in Austin for the first time. How do you like it?
FRANK DARABONT: I really like it, I’m not just saying that. That are very few places that I like right away and this is one of them.
AD: What do you like about it?
FD: It’s hard to say. I have a lot of friends out here. Robert Rodriguez is a good buddy of mine. And I know Harry Knowles and all these folks who are in the film world down here. I’m really delighted to be here finally and bring this movie here. You could call last night our world premiere-it was the first time I showed it to an audience in its completed form that was not a secret test screening or anything.
AD: It was at the Alamo Drafthouse with a special themed meal. Was that the first time you experienced that?
FD: It was a totally new experience for me. I didn’t quite grasp the rather slick formula of how they pull it off. They do it quite well. The whole sort of dining and movie experience was new for me. At first I thought, “No way.” But then I realized that’s why people are coming-that’s the experience that they expect. Bizarrely enough, I don’t think it detracted from the viewing experience at all. It was really good.
AD: We all had a great time. Did you enjoy it?
FD: I actually was watching the audience most of the time.
AD: So you were saying that you were originally really into horror and the old universal monster movies.
FD: That’s what I grew up watching. Most people my age would say that their very first movie in a movie theater was Mary Poppins for me it was Robinson Crusoe on Mars. My older brother took me to see it and I was about four years old and I made him sit through it like three times. He actually couldn’t pry me out of the movie theater. So that really set the template for things for me. It wasn’t at the exclusion of other things, I grew up appreciating and loving Stanley Kubrick movies and a whole spectrum of film but the special little niche love for me has always been horror. I’ve got monsters all over my house. The posters on my walls are Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Frankenstein. I do have the Third Man too but it’s mostly Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I was a real oddball.
AD: You grew up in LA and all of these types of films were happening in LA it seems odd that you would be seen as an oddball.
FD: It might as well have been Illinois. Even though the film industry really sort of permeates Los Angeles, Los Angeles doesn’t necessarily permeate the film industry. If you’re not in the film industry it’s as mysterious a mountain off in the distance as it is to anybody anywhere. I suppose if you went to Beverly Hills high school where everybody’s dad was in the industry it’s not but that wasn’t my experience. I was more like an east side kid and that was a mysterious and distant room to most of us.
AD: So tell us how you got to know and got to working with Steven King. How did that collaboration come about? Did you start as a fan?
FD: Completely. I read The Shining when I was in high school, this was probably in ’75 or ’76, and became a constant reader-I would just read everything of his. I wrote a letter in 1980: “Dear Mr. King, there’s a short story of yours called The Woman in the Room and I would like to try and make this a short film.” It was a stab in the dark; a dart I threw out into the universe. It is a testament to the beauty of his generosity when he started experiencing this success, from the very earliest days, he devised this policy where if some young filmmaker wanted to do a short film based on his short stories he would grant them the transcript for a dollar. This is a policy that he has had in place for a very long time. And I was one of what he calls the “Dollar Babies”-he granted me the rights to the story. I spent three years making this 30 minute short with my friends which he liked very, very much. And so when I went back to him some years later, I think it was 1986, my career as a screenwriter started to take off and I thought, Maybe I’ll ask for another story. I asked for Shawshank and he granted me the rights to Shawshank. Everything just kind of bloomed from there. We got to be very good friends through the years. We torment each other with emails. I love knowing him; he’s one of the dearest men you can imagine.
AD: So I know that other directors have worked on Steven King’s work before but it seems your relationship with him is the most symbiotic. What do you attribute that to?
FD: I was really the son he gave up for adoption. I think it’s the power of his work. There is something about his voice as an author that I respond to. I love his storytelling. He really digs in there and also writes great human stories and that tends to be what I respond to as a fan and then that tends to be what I get inspired by as a filmmaker. You really can’t go wrong with that thing for you to get behind the camera with. So it’s really just his voice, he’s a master story teller and I responded to it from the day I opened the Shawshank Redemption when I was a teenager and first read that. No matter how whacky the premise is, it’s just the context for this incredibly character driven intense human story. It has more in common, I think, with Lord of the Flies, than it does with a creature feature where monsters are running around munching on people. That core of humanistic storytelling is what gets me excited.
AD: I know that in The Mist there were a few changes that you made in the story that you had to kind of run by Steven King. I know other directors have had to change things here and there, not necessarily to his liking. For example, I understand the changes Kubrick made in The Shining were not to his liking.
FD: I’m with Steve on that one. That was the very first book of his that I read and one of the most emotional pieces that Steve ever wrote. It was really fantastically good. And Kubrick directed this specifically unemotional thing. Stanley Kubrick, I love and revere him, but Steven Spielberg he ain’t. He’s more of a master chess player than an emotional storyteller. I remember being very disappointed with The Shining. I’ve since grown to like it as a Stanley Kubrick movie and I can totally separate it from the source material.
AD: Your changes seem to be inspiring to him.
FD: It never bums him out. And I’m delighted by that. Certainly one must take some intelligent, hopefully appropriate, liberties. I try and stay as closely to what Steven’s intention is. I like to say that I try and speak to the spirit of what he wrote if not necessarily the letter of what he wrote. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but the two languages are very different languages-fiction and film. They are just two different ways to speak. You have to do that translation in the sense of reorganizing things and collapsing characters and bringing in certain elements of the story out that may not exist on his page but make sense to exist on the screen. I want the audience, when they see the movie, to feel like they saw the same story as Steven King wrote and that they might have read. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me through the years and say, “Wow Shawshank Redemption is such a faithful adaptation.” And I always thank them and chuckle and don’t betray what is going on in my head which is, It actually takes quite a lot of translative liberties with the material. For example, the entire James Whitmore character, which is the crux of the movie and focal point of the movie–the entire theme–that character wasn’t in the story but he was mentioned in passing in one tiny little paragraph where Red, the Morgan Freeman character says, “I remember an old con named Brooks Hatlen, who got paroled and couldn’t make it on the outside. He died in an old folks home.” That’s literally all that’s in the story. That gives me the seed to then say, “Ok I can use this character to help realize fully what he is talking about on the page.” So it winds up feeling like he is saying the story to people. So when I’m adapting them I try and do my little impression of Steven King and honor any intention of that. He’s always really dug what I’ve done with that. And with this story, there are really two key things that I did: one is a young story line and the other is the ending. Steve’s story was really open-ended. Through the years we would talk casually about this and he would say, “You know you are going to have to come up with an ending because I never could.” “Yeah Steven, I’m aware of that.” I told him I had something in mind and didn’t want to tell him until it was written out. So I said, “I’m going to write it and send it to you and you can tell me what you think.” He wrote me back and this is what he wrote: I love your ending I wish I had thought of it because I would have used it in the story. Basically all this blabber boils down to that he really trusts me to look after his work. He seems to think that I do a good job with it. And that’s tremendous because he’s Steven King. When I’m making a movie based on one of his stories, he’s the guy I want to please the most.
AD: You’ve assembled an amazing cast.
FD: Aren’t they great?
AD: They were wonderful. Considering how the characters are such an important part of this story it is really incredible that you were able to find actors that were in tune enough and giving enough to be able to really give that to the film.
FD: They are the most important component of it. Of all the important components of any movie I think the cast is crucial. They are the primary tool for which the story is told and I don’t use the word “tool” disparagingly in any way. Casting is half the battle and there are times when I think it is all the battle. To find that cast ensemble that can really dial into the intention, not only of their character but the intention of the story overall is fantastic. It’s like my ultimate goal. Particularly because Steve always throws a curve ball or two character-wise. There are always those characters that are just a little bit more extreme than normal people. That’s what makes for great villains and heroes. It’s not easy to play someone like Ms Carmody. It’s way easier to play a mom than it is to play an extremist fanatic. To me, an actress like Marcia Gay Harden can come in and play counter to over-the-top so that it winds up being a real person with extreme views and behaviors rather than the character that is just going over the top. The same is true of all the other actors. They are in a very heated situation and they have to play to reality. I was very blessed to have this particular ensemble together.
AD: I had a question about your directing style. Are you one of those actors that are very hands on or do you stand back and let the actors work?
FD: I’m actually both. I think the most important thing a director needs to be is a barometer that is sensitive to the needs of any specific actor. So I can be as hands on as they need me to be or I can be as hands off as they need me to be. The key job is to recognize which is which. If you are working with an actor like Morgan Freeman, he doesn’t need a lot of direction. He works from intuition-right from the gut. I don’t know what his process is because it is invisible to me. Tom Hanks, the same thing. These are guys who generally don’t need to know much more than, “Do you want me to turn on this line or not?” I get to lay back and see what they do. An actor like Tim Robbins doesn’t come from the gut, he comes from the head. And that requires more conversation and more perceptual stuff on the side so that he can filter that down to his gut and then get there. So it kind of depends. I love to back off let the actors do it. I try not to confront them with my preconceptions right off the bat. I want to see what they bring to it first and then if I have something of my preconceptions that I’m hoping for than I’ll ask for elements of that but I never try and tell them how to do it because they can tell me about a character as much as I can tell them anything about it. But it’s literally different from moment to moment. For me on this one, we were shooting so fast. We shot this in 37 days-this was a six and a half week schedule-and everybody was really on their game. This cast reminded me in many ways of the Green Mile cast because there was enthusiasm on the set and everybody was really into what they were doing and really into what the other people were doing too. What’s really exciting is when you see that the actors are inspiring one another. You see someone raising the bar a little bit and then the others want to get serious and respond by raising the bar right back. It’s like watching great basketball players play a game. They’re just impressing the hell out of each other and working as a team towards the same goal. And when that attitude takes over it becomes somewhat infectious.
AD: Most of this film happens in one location so people are locked in that one place. I would imagine that forced you to interact a lot anyway. Maybe that had something to do with them having a more collaborative experience?
FD: Maybe so. The same effect happened on the Green Mile too and a lot of that movie took place on one set as well. You wind up going to the same place every day and you wind up being with the same group of people every day and so perhaps it becomes a more common goal rather than when you have different set locations and this cast member never sees this cast member. But it’s also really about personalities. When you have an actor like Tom Hanks who says, “I’m an actor, I show up to work, and nobody is less important and nobody is less important than my character and I am no more important than the rest of this cast.” When you get that going it’s very egalitarian and very smart. I don’t achieve as much if it becomes about one person more than the others. Even the extras are vital to a film like The Mist. My actors would be hanging in some of those scenes if those extras weren’t totally on board.
AD: I think some of the shooting techniques probably helped foster that feeling of always being engaged on set. Because there was a lot of hand held stuff and a lot of panning nobody ever really knew at any particular point if they were on camera. Can you talk about that a little bit?
FD: It was a completely different approach and we had never done it before. Personally, one of the pleasures of doing this movie was too put all my technique and all the stuff I’ve done in the past aside which is very brain surgery-it’s very thought out; it’s very precise. I was able to get out of the comfort zone of what I know and shake things up with this much more intuitive flow and moment to moment process. “Improvise the camera work” were words that never would have flown out of my mouth before now. I had two brilliant camera operators’ guys I worked with when I directed an episode of the Shield. And Ron Schmidt the cinematographer who knows how to light for this incredibly fluid and improvised style. This is how I want to shoot this and it’s very immediate and the actors never know where those cameras are going be because they are always looking, always hunting. They could physically be way across the room but you never know if all of a sudden they zoomed into close up. It can be a little unnerving at first because you’re used to the two shot coverage and close up and there’s no saving you from the close up in this style because you never know when the close up is going to happen. Camera could be back there and you think you’re not even on camera and then all of a sudden, boom the lens is right there. You’ve got to be on your game at all times. They really learned to love it because it’s a very in the moment, intuition of what you do in a way when you are not preserving yourself. You have to be on you’re “A” game on every take because you never know what is going to end up on film. The other thing was that we wouldn’t do a scene in pieces. We were shooting the scenes from beginning to end even if it was 8 pages. We would play it through so once people were in the flow of what that scene was and things started to build we went all the way through to the end. It creates an immediacy that you can’t fake. It feels real and textured. I think it’s thrilling for everybody. Exhausting, but thrilling.
AD: I did see the film twice and what I thought was a testament to the film was the first time I saw it I could not remember a single product.
AD: I was so engaged with all of your characters I didn’t recall seeing anything. And of course I was looking because I was wondering about it. How did that relationship work? Did they come to you or did you go to them?
FD: We made deals with a lot of companies and a lot of people responded. They would send us all kinds of products-ten gallons of pickles–enough to fill a medium sized supermarket. It was a hell of a lot of stuff. When we finished shooting we donated it to all local charities which was great. I’ve always been very weary of product placement; I always thought it was a crass thing to do. I understand why people do it and I thought, Oh great, now it’s a movie filled with products. There are products every where you look. But I was delighted it wasn’t a self-conscious product placement. You are in the supermarket and there is just stuff on the shelves or floor or whatever. We never went in for the big sell where it was, “Ok make sure you sip the Pepsi in the shot because they are going to give us $50,000 if you sip the Pepsi.” We didn’t need the money that bad. We were low budget yes, but not that bad. I never wanted to do that. It’s just part of the background; it’s just part of the texture. I think we were probably too under the radar anyway because of our budget; our scale. It’s not like we had Lexus breaking down our door. I always hate when you see the grill of the car because it is a Lexus. It’s like, stop it!
AD: It was pretty realistic.
FD: For David I knew I needed something old, I needed something big, and four wheel drive, and four doors. Get an old Land Cruiser. So we got a 1960s Land Cruiser from Louisiana -that’s what he is driving. That feels real to me for an artist living in New England who isn’t a suit and tie kind of guy. There is something very old school about Steven King’s texture and I want to go after that over the product placement. We got lucky too because we got a lot of off brands. So it’s not like you see the Nike brand logo. We put that stuff on the shelf. Coca Cola or Pepsi sent us a lot of stuff but we put the stuff on the shelves that are not the most famous logos. It was regional brands. You get something that looks real, that’s what it is.
AD: What’s next for you?
FD: Vacation. It’s been a crazy year and as soon as we are done doing this press work I’m going to go and kick it in the Caribbean for December. As far as work is concerned, I’m hoping, hoping, hoping that Fahrenheit 451 is going to stay on track for next year. It’s a little tough to tell with the strike happening and everything being thrown into uncertainty with the schedules and everything but that is the one that I really want to do since I first read that book. Things are looking positive but you never know for a fact until you are on the set and the cameras are rolling.
AD: What advice would you give a future filmmaker?
FD: There are no practical measures to take because everybody’s path is different. Filmmaking is one of those last frontiers of fluky happenstance. It’s not like you go through x number of years of school and then you are a dentist. Mine was very fluky. You look back on the things in your past that contributed to the day you sit here and are doing what you are doing and it’s like, I could never predicted that meeting this person or getting that opportunity would have led me here. Or that I would have known that really important things are happening like your meeting the person you write your first script with. So in terms of that, I can’t tell anybody how to get an agent or get a break as a writer because it’s going to be different for everybody. But I do think the way to do it is to work your ass off and that’s the honest answer. I spent my 20s in that chair in front of that keyboard writing. Really trying to develop my craft for one thing and then following through with the persistence that is required. Faith, persistence, and a hell of a lot of hard work is what will get you that. That creates a lot of what you need to then proceed and stay on that course. I’ve been very, very lucky.
AD: Well thank you for all your hard work.