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Mick Garris reflects on 1994's The Stand miniseries, jamming with Stephen King, and writing Hocus Pocus
This week, viewers everywhere will get the chance to experience a new vision of Stephen King's most ambitious novel when The Stand comes to CBS All Access. King's dark fantasy epic about a battle between good and evil in the middle of an American landscape devastated by a pandemic remains one of his most beloved books, but not just because of the text itself. For many fans, The Stand is still celebrated in no small part because of what King himself, director Mick Garris, and a massive cast and crew were able to accomplish in a 1994 miniseries adaptation of the novel that aired across four nights on ABC.
For Garris — whose other major credits including Hocus Pocus, Masters of Horror, and King adaptations like Riding the Bullet and Bag of Bones — The Stand represented the biggest logistical challenge of his directorial career, as he turned a script that stretched more than 450 pages into a production spanning 95 locations, 100 shooting days, and more than 120 speaking roles to become a major television event. The Stand, which Garris credits with making him "fearless" as a filmmaker, was a massive ratings success when it aired in May 1994; it went on to win two Emmys out of six nominations, and for many fans remains one of the definitive King adaptations.
So, ahead of the release of the new adaptation, we thought it fitting to reach out to the guy who made the original possible. SYFY WIRE chatted with Mick Garris about everything from casting the series to its impact on his work as a filmmaker to his career as a podcaster and the continued legacy of both The Stand and Hocus Pocus.
How did you end up working on The Stand?
Well, we had such a great time with Sleepwalkers, even though I only met [King] for the two hours when we shot his cameo. I screened it for him, my first cut, when it was first finished, in New York. We met at a theater with just him and [King's wife] Tabby. He was laughing and screaming and jumping and doing everything you hope to see an audience do, and that was alone in a giant screening room at Magno in New York. So, when it came time for The Stand to come together, he asked me if I would be interested, and it was so far beyond the scope of anything I had ever done in my career up to then.
You've mentioned that the script was 460 pages. When you get something that massive, where do you start?
Well, basically, you just have to start with page one. It was a huge endeavor. You start on a 100-day shoot that has 95 scripted locations. You're shooting in six states, you see the tunnel, you hope there's a light at the end, but you can't even see it.
You just have to trust the script. So, the first step is to read the script from page one, just as a reader, and visualize and try not to work on it. Then, after you finish, then you start digging in and think of the practicalities and how it can be done. It's quite a logistical achievement. Really, it doesn't take a village; it takes a whole damn city. So, there were a lot of really, really great and talented people who gave their all to this, and you have to welcome the input of people who know things better than you do.
Do you have a memory of what was the hardest role to cast?
Well, I will start with the easiest. The very first actor who read for us was Matt Frewer (Trashcan Man), doing the scene where he first meets Flagg in person, and he has the cigarette lighter and the flame in his hand. He brought a pathos to the lunacy that brought us to tears. King was in the room at the time, as well as [casting director] Lynn Kressel and me and our producer, Peter [McIntosh]. We were all in the room, and you could hear a pin drop. It was so magical and powerful. First reading, first day, first hour, here is Matt Frewer, and we hired him in the room.
The toughest one was probably going to be Stu Redman, and yet we read a lot of people, but an agent at the agency where I used to be represented, CAA, who also used to represent King, one of the younger agents there sent me two $5 bills to go see Gary Sinise's movie [an adaptation of Of Mice and Men]. And it was to see another actor in it, but I saw Gary Sinise, and I saw, basically, a modern-day Gary Cooper, a man with such integrity and honesty, a man of the dirt, you know? He was so human and so real and so grounded that that's the actor that I wanted. He was just starting his career. And he had just started his feature directing career, as well. He had come out of the Chicago stage, the Steppenwolf Theatre with John Malkovich and so many other people. So, I had no idea if he would even consider doing television. And we asked him, and he also happened to be represented by that same agency. And he said "yes," and what was going to be the biggest, most complex, most difficult hire of the whole cast turned out to be perfect for it.
Did any of the actors surprise you on set?
Ruby Dee [who played Mother Abigail] was mind-blowing. She was one of the grande dames of the Broadway stage, and in African American theatre as well as cinema, and worked a lot with Spike Lee, and was this highly regarded, beautiful, amazing actress of a caliber, again, you wouldn't expect to get in a TV miniseries based on a Stephen King horror novel. So, Ruby, I think, brought so much heart and soul and just this commitment to her god that was so believable, that was so deep and so heartbreaking.
I shot the scene where she's finally leaving her home at Hemingford Home, Nebraska. We're rehearsing it, and when you rehearse you don't want the actors to use the [full power] of the scene, because sometimes that magic dissipates if you do it too often. So, we're in rehearsal just to basically get all the marks for the actors and move through the mechanics of the scene... And I could see that Ruby was giving it all. She was in tears, and the crew was in tears. And I'm [going], "No, don't use it now," and I tried to stop her. But a committed actor, particularly from the stage, it's very hard for them to just move through the motions and not do it. And by the time we were finally shooting the scene, she had tapped all that emotion. It was a long scene. And she knew it. And we kept trying, and it was good, and you probably wouldn't have noticed, but the magic that we had just seen in that rehearsal had become smoke. So, I actually added a day to the schedule and took it away from other scenes, because I owed her her opportunity to do her best work. So, we came back on another day and redid that scene, and everything that was in that rehearsal and more was there.
What do you remember about Ruby Dee's opposite number, Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg?
Well, Jamey was not very knowledgeable about the genre, had not read Stephen King or anything. So, he wasn't sure he wanted to do it, and he was good friends with Miguel Ferrer [who played Lloyd Henreid]... Miguel was a huge genre fan and a huge King fan, and he said to Jamey, "Jesus, I'd blow Mick to play that part!" [Laughs.] So, Jamey realized that there was more to it than just playing the devil, that the devil is a character who enchants you and seduces you, and is someone who is charming and attractive, and that is why he's so damn dangerous because he's hard to resist. So, Jamey brought this kind of blue-jeans quality to that character. And this was a guy, he'd played lawyers, he'd played all kinds of other roles, but how often do you get a chance to play either the devil or one of the devil's minions, but in a really human form? And, as well, don the Billy Corso makeups, the Steve Johnson makeups, and the like that were required. He was a guy who wasn't that familiar with the genre, but really got into it.
King also had a role in the series. What was it like having him on set more often?
Well, it gives an obvious piece of support, that he believed in it. He was executive producer not just in name, which is usually just part of a contract deal, but he was there for probably half of the shoot, off and on. He had so much fun. Being on a film set for him was like playing with the best toy train on Christmas morning, seeing his words come to life, being there for me, for the cast to ask questions that only he could answer, but to be a cheerleader.
It was really important to everybody, and it added to that sense of camaraderie. But even more than that, there is a scene where we're on a highway out in the middle of nowhere, and there is a long line of broken-down cars, and Adam Storke is playing "Eve of Destruction" on his guitar. So, Adam Storke was there, Gary Sinise and I and King all had guitars with us, and we all started singing "Eve of Destruction" together and playing guitars, and it was just an amazing bit of camaraderie. And you need that. When you're shooting a 100-day shoot and you're shooting six days a week out in the middle of a location that is unknown territory, that kind of camaraderie really bonds you in a way that lasts forever, not just for that day.
What do you recall was the most challenging sequence to shoot for you?
You know, every single one of them was really, really difficult. There were times when we had to tie off the freeways, and people are furiously honking their horns, to shoot a decimated city. I remember one day was very difficult. It was the first anniversary of my brother's death, and we were shooting a scene... You're getting me to open up pretty personally here, but we were shooting a scene in the drugstore with Shawnee Smith [Julie Lowry], where we first meet her character. And it was just really, really rough personally because that day was lying heavy on me. So, emotionally it was a tough one to shoot.
But the very toughest scene to shoot would obviously be in Las Vegas, where we had 600 extras, all of whom [were] going crazy outside the van. We're transporting the prisoners up to the stage, where they're going to be executed in front of Randall Flagg. That was by far the biggest scene I have ever shot in my life, and so difficult. Every move had to be covered by different camera angles, and dealing with the order you shoot those scenes and how you do it.
How you feel about the new version? Have you seen any of it yet?
I haven't seen a frame of it. I have seen some photographs that have been posted online here and there. I'm excited about it. You know, one of the things that [director Josh Boone] told me, on the podcast [Post Mortem] and off, is that so many of the scenes in our version had been done in such an iconic way they didn't even try to recreate it, that they're much more fluid with the material than we were.
Our miniseries, for the most part, was a very true, very faithful telling of the novel, but in a cinematic way, which obviously you have to make changes when you adapt something to film. But they were more fluid. They weren't as slavish to the book. They were allowing for changes here and there. And hour nine, the last episode of their series, is an all-new sequence written by King himself that happens after the book ends. So, I'm supportive and excited. As a viewer, I'm hoping for it to be the best, and I'm expecting it, and I will subscribe to CBS All Access for a couple of months to be able to see it.
What does your podcast, Post Mortem, still give you after five seasons of recording?
Well, the main reason I do it is because I learn a lot from it. I enjoy talking to people whom I admire. I learn something from every single show. There are people I've interviewed who have made films that I have loved, and some that I haven't loved. But I learned from all of them. I think we can have a conversation that allows us to get a little bit deeper and a little bit looser and find things out about people because I can approach them from a perspective that we have both experienced. As someone who is a filmmaker and an author and all of those things, I can talk to those people, maybe sharing insights that they might not share with someone who has not gone through the same experience as them. It's a matter of curiosity, and something that I'm always excited about.
You're also a fiction writer with a new collection, These Evil Things We Do, out this year. What does prose writing give you that film doesn't?
Well, something that was very profound that Richard Matheson said to me was that books are internal, and film is external. Though I've tried to experiment, particularly with something like Riding the Bullet, very internal, and try and find cinematic ways to make it external and put it on the screen. The internal elements of writing fiction are really important. You can go deeper into emotions and imaginings and perspectives. But not only that, you don't have to consider budget. You don't have to consider egos. You don't have to consider ratings. It really is the most intimate way to express a story, to tell a story, when there's nothing between you and your audience but the page. So, it is a pure joy to do that.
We know there's a follow-up to Hocus Pocus coming, but you're not involved in that, correct?
I'm not writing or producing. There will be a credit to me and David Kirschner for creating the original and the characters and the like, but I'm not personally involved in the sequel.
It's a movie that seems to get bigger every year. How does that feel to you now?
It's pretty amazing, you know? Between that and The Stand, but especially Hocus Pocus, to have something that, every year, comes back and it's bigger than it ever was before, and kids embrace it, and if you saw it as a kid you embrace it throughout your adulthood. To be a part of something that is an iconic piece of American pop culture, and now international pop culture, is something that people who create only dream of. For people, when somebody finds out that I wrote Hocus Pocus, suddenly I've got a new best friend, you know? It's very exciting, and it's humbling, and the idea that you have contributed to something long-lasting...
Movies and television are made for the moment. They're made for now. They're not made for later. But when you have got something that lives on and has a long life, it's incredibly rewarding. It's the best thing you could ever hope for for your work when it's intended for a public.
Is there anything else you're working on that you wanted to talk about?
There are some things coming up. The deals haven't been set. Well, one thing, we are talking with Shudder about a Nightmare Cinema 2 that has a very different approach that I'm very excited about. We're just in the talking stages now. I've got a new spec screenplay that I just wrote and just put out, and I'll be meeting with producers about that next month after the holidays.
The one least likely thing is, back in the '70s, I was in an all-original [progressive] rock band called Horsefeathers. We did hours and hours of recording, but we never put out an album. But this year, our keyboard player went back to all those tapes, remastered them. We added some new vocals and instrumentation and put out our first album 50 years after the band formed. It's called Symphony for a Million Mice. It's on iTunes and all of the usual places, but you can also get a signed CD at HorsefeathersMusic.com. So, that is the least likely thing you would expect from me.
It is amazing to be a novelist and a singer in a band and a director and a producer and a podcaster and a screenwriter, all of those things. It's nice to not be defined by one single word.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.