Stephen King scares a lot of people, but not director Mick Garris, who keeps coming back again and again to team up with the best-selling author. Their latest collaboration is the movie "Riding the Bullet," based on a short story King published online following his near-fatal accident in 1999. In it, Jonathan Jackson ("Tuck Everlasting") plays Alan Parker, a suicidal college student obsessed with death. When Alan learns his mother (Barbara Hershey) has had a stroke, he hitches his way across Maine, enduring the ride of his life. MTV News' Andrea Engstrom hit up the horror veteran for the gory details on the spooky story, which also co-stars Erika Christensen and David Arquette.
MTV: "Riding the Bullet" is your fifth collaboration with Stephen King. How did your relationship come about?
Mick Garris: We actually first met on a movie called "Sleepwalkers" that I had met with the studio about and they'd kind of said, "Well, you're going to be our guy. We just have to meet with someone else as a technicality." And they met with him and hired him instead. And then they fired him and hired me back. So we started working together on that and had a lot of fun doing that together, and that [led] to doing "The Stand," and we got to be really, really close friends on "The Stand." And then "The Shining" [miniseries] after that, and then on and on leading up to this one.
MTV: What attracted you to this project?
Garris: Well, it was a short story. It was first published on the Internet. And what attracted me to it was that it was about mortality, it was about isolation, it was a good old-fashioned ghost story, but set on the road and in a way that kind of hit home with me. My wife and I had gone through crises in our lives — I had lost my father recently, and her mother was very ill — so we started thinking about mortality a lot, and this story kind of addressed it in a way that felt kind of anachronistic. It's about life-and-death choices, so I put it in 1969, which I think was a period where the whole world kind of went through life-and-death choices, and it was an opportunity to tell a story that became really personal.
MTV: For those who read the story online, what can they expect of the film?
Garris: They can expect a lot more to it than that. A back story for [the main character,] Alan. It's basically good old-fashioned on-the-road ghost story, but also kind of with the emotional elements of "Stand by Me" and some of the other books that he's done. Plus a lot of great 1960s music. Maybe it's more VH1 than MTV in that regard, but as usual, King's stories always have a lot of popular music at their heart, and this one was one that I changed the setting from 1999 to 1969, so the music in there has a lot to do with it. The Beatles figure as a symbol that runs all the way throughout the film.
MTV: Word is that Jonathan Jackson actually sings a song on the soundtrack.
Garris: He does — the song "Ride." He wrote and sung the song with his band and his brother Richard, and that's the only non-'60s song in the movie. It's a very cool song.
MTV: How did that come about? Did he offer it up?
Garris: We were putting this together, and I told him we were doing all '60s music and it was all in the script as well, and he said, "I have an idea for a song that would be great for the movie." And I said, "As long as it has the flavor of the era." And he came up with this song, "Ride," and I thought it was terrific because it's very contemporary but it also has a lot of the kind of wistful feel that some of the more psychedelic songs of the era did.
MTV: You wanted to keep "Riding the Bullet" a small, independent film. Was the indie experience what you thought it would be?
Garris: It was just what I expected, and that's good and bad. You know, there were a lot of great things about it. I had much more creative control than had I gone to a studio. Of course, we went to studios first, but because it is kind of ... It's not your standard studio horror movie, and it's a little bit unusual in that it is in a way a kinder, gentler horror movie for better or for worse. Studios like movies that are easy to sell, that are like all the other movies that were easy to sell. And because it was so personal and because it seemed like they didn't get it, I probably could've rewritten it for a lot of money and gotten a much bigger budget, but doing it independently at least gave me more creative control. What it did not give me was a lot time or money to make it. So, you know, we made it in a very short span for a much more limited amount of money, and yet we were able to get really great cast members that you don't ordinarily get on an independent film setting.
MTV: Did Stephen have any influence in the casting?
Garris: You know, this was the first time I worked on a Stephen King project where he wasn't really involved. All the other ones, he's written the screenplay, and this one I had just asked him if I could adapt his story, and he gave me the opportunity ... he gave me the rope with which to hang myself. And so in this case, I told him everything that was going on in every step of the way, but the casting really was done all in house.
MTV: How did you find Jonathan Jackson?
Garris: The casting director thought he was really good, and so I saw "Tuck Everlasting" and thought, "He's good, but I can't tell if he's Alan," and then I was reminded that he played the boyfriend in "Insomnia" and had a great scene where he was interrogated by [Al] Pacino when they thought he might have been the murderer in the movie, and it was a really galvanizing thing in the movie. And once I met him, he just blew me away. This, I think, is the first time he could really show what he can do. There's a really wide range of emotion that he goes through in here. There's strength and there's sensitivity and there's really, you know, emotional depth that he goes through with his mother. I couldn't be happier with him.
MTV: Which horror DVDs were on David Arquette's study list?
Garris: Well the original "Haunting" was one of them. Well, of course he was well versed in the classics like "Exorcist" and "Pyscho." But the makeup department really did the job. They would just ply him with DVDs as they were doing the two-hour makeup job every morning, so I'm not sure what else was on there. But I walked in one day when it was "The Haunting" and he actually knew the lines, one of the adlibs in the movie, he stole a line from "The Haunting" where he says, "You're not going be out here all alone in the night, in the dark." It was so good I had to use it.
MTV: You've been involved in the horror genre for more than 20 years now. How's it changed since you first began?
Garris: What's interesting is when I started in the '80s, horror movies were mostly slasher films and very bereft of ideas, but in recent years, starting in '99 with I think 'The Sixth Sense,' 'Blair Witch,' 'Stir of Echoes,' they've gotten much more creative. ... There are interesting, unusual stories, and that's not always been the case. It was just mostly about the babysitters who were being decapitated by the bad killer if they had sex.
MTV: What's next for you?
Garris: I start shooting in less than three weeks on "Desperation," based on King's novel. We're doing it as a three-hour television series for ABC, and King wrote the script as well. We're in pre-production now. We begin shooting on Election Day.
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