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Cinematographer Michael Simmonds looks back on 'Cell' adaptation and teases new 'Exorcist' film

Ring! Ring! ... It's 2016, they want to talk about Cell.

By Josh Weiss
The Exorcist (1973) and Cell (2016)

Stephen King adaptations fail more than they succeed. There, we said it. Harsh? Perhaps. Wanna fight? Get in line.

But our declaration still stands: one of the most important literary voices of the last century is extremely hard to translate for film and television. Something about King's inimitable prose, which often relies on a combination of omniscient narration and internalized character monologues, gets lost in the Hollywood process as though it were a game of Telephone played across several continents.

And speaking of phones, that brings us to today's case study: director Tod William's 2016 adaptation of Cell (now streaming on Peacock). The movie, based on King's 2006 novel, takes place in the aftermath of a mysterious cell phone signal that turns a vast majority of the human population into mindless psychopaths. So... not too far off from where we are now.

"Everything was a challenge," remembers cinematographer Michael Simmonds of the Atlanta-based production. "I can't remember what the budget was, but it was not over $10 million. So we were just trying to stay true to the book and the tone of the book and make this thing a fun experience to watch ... I bet you could recognize some of those locations from all the shows now. It wasn't the first, but it was one of the earlier eras of Georgia filming. Stone Mountain and all the woods that you see in every movie."

Rocking a screenplay credited to Adam Alleca (Delirium) and King himself, Cell is a fairly solid example of how to efficiently condense a 350-page book into a lean, 98-minute runtime. It also marked an onscreen reunion between John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, both of whom previously starred in another King adaptation — 1408 — nearly a decade beforehand. ("They're serious dudes. They're nothing alike," Simmonds says.)

As fate would have it, Simmonds received the honor of sitting next to King at a friends and family screening. "It's one of the highlights of my career, that I randomly got to sit next to Stephen King and watch him chuckle and have fun watching this movie,' Simmonds recalls. "He's a gentle, nice, dude. I'm currently reading his new book, Fairy Tale, which is really good."

Unfortunately, Cell bombed hard with critics. It currently holds an 11 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and has been relegated to the abandoned Pet Sematary of King-inspired projects that most audiences have forgotten about.

"Who knows? Maybe average 30-year-olds in Wisconsin see it as a success. You never know with these things," notes Simmonds, pointing out the fact that cult classics can be born out of the most unexpected places. "Movies I've shot — like The Lunchbox, this Indian movie  — it's a lot of people's favorite movie, even though I don't know if [many people] know it. But it plays on every airplane in the world. It’s on a steady rotation. Hopefully, Cell will find its audience on Peacock. It could end up being a handful of people's favorite film."

Cell: A Novel by Stephen King Cover

Since 2016, Simmonds has forged an ongoing partnership with David Gordon Green and Danny McBride on projects like Vice Principals, The Righteous Gemstones, and all three chapters in the most recent Halloween trilogy produced by Universal and Blumhouse.

"That was a long, rough ride. I'm very proud of them," the cinematographer says of their time spent in Haddonfield. "I think for a young generation, for the 18-year-olds of today, this trilogy will probably — aside from the original film — be what is synonymous with the word ‘Halloween.’ We certainly cared and we kept the same crew for all three: the assistant director, me, the production designer. We didn’t want to hand it off to somebody that wouldn't care as much as we did. We really cared about making it good."

Once production on Halloween Ends wrapped, Gordon Green brought Simmonds along for Universal and Blumhouse's upcoming soft reboot of The Exorcist, which is set to kick off a brand-new horror trilogy with Ellen Burstyn, Leslie Odom Jr., and Ann Dowd. The director of photography reveals that the first entry (opening on Friday, Oct. 13) is "90 percent done" and has a vastly different vibe when compared to the saga of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode.

"It's completely different than Halloween," he teases. "It's certainly more suspenseful and claustrophobic and true to the original material. A Halloween movie is going to inherently be like a soap opera [with] drama, moments of camp, and callbacks. Much of these Halloween movies are for the fans with references to random stuff from the last 30 years of these things. And [the new Exorcist] is not gonna be like that."

Linda Blair in The Exorcist

Plot details are pretty much nonexistent right now, although we do know that Burstyn will return to the role of Chris MacNeil, the concerned mother of the young girl possessed by the demon in the 1973 original. "She's like the youngest 90-year-old woman you'll ever meet," Simmons says when asked about getting to work alongside a screen legend. "It certainly gives me hope for aging gracefully."

In terms of the visual style for Pazuzu's big screen return, the DP admits that he's "trying to be true" to the William Friedkin version (shot by Owen Roizman, who passed away early last month at the age of 86).

"I'm trying to make shots that last longer. I'm trying to use zooms. I'm trying to add frames that are scary to look at. I'm trying to make the lighting effective and naturalistic," Simmonds concludes. "And I'm shooting spherical for the first time in a really long time. Because the original Exorcist was not anamorphic, it was spherical. So that's super fun. With the Halloween films, it’s always been anamorphic."

Cell is currently streaming on Peacock alongside Halloween Ends and The Exorcist III.