We met Pierce Brosnan

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Director Mick Garris talks

Garris is back directing another King work, Bag of Bones, which will air Dec. 11 and 12 on A&E. It stars Pierce Brosnan as Mike Noonan, an author grieving over the sudden death of his wife, Jo (Annabeth Gish). He takes refuge at his summer house on Dark Score Lake, where he gets drawn into the struggles of a young mother, Mattie (Melissa George), and the vengeful spirit of jazz singer Sara Tidwell (Anika Noni Rose).

In Part 1 of our two-part interview, Garris talks with me about the miniseries, and how he was willing to wait out Bruce Willis to get it made:
Obviously this isn’t your first Stephen King rodeo. What made you or the powers that be decide that Bag of Bones would be a good adaptation?

Mick Garris: Not the first, no. (Laughs) It’s been one of my favorite King books for a long time. Years ago, right after it was published Bruce Willis had bought the rights to produce and maybe star in it, and so I thought, “Damn!” So after that lapsed — I had always really connected with it because it’s really kind of a grown-up ghost story, and [it has] the best of Stephen King with all the emotional depth and melancholy that is often not a part of the movie adaptations of his work. So when it became available, my producing partner Mark Sennett and I talked to King about it, and he was happy for us to give it a go. We tried making it as a movie first, it’s been about five years trying to get it going. It had a temporary home at ABC, [but] nothing happened there, and then we hooked up with A&E. Once that deal was done it was full speed ahead.

You’ve said that what attracts you to Stephen King stories is his great characters and great stories. How does Bag of Bones demonstrate these traits?

MG: Well, Bag of Bones is really a lot about sorrow and about loss. Very early on in the story the lead character is deprived of his spouse in a very shocking and unexpected way, to him and the audience. I have suffered more than my share of loss, having lost a parent and two brothers and a mother-in-law, and … when horror movies are all about death, it’s usually kind of spitting in the eye of death, or whistling through the graveyard. But King’s stuff is so much more interesting, because it’s about mortality and the real face-to-face with death, and not just a playful tone, or teenagers hooting their immortality. So that’s what really appealed to me about this one; it’s all about sorrow and mourning and loss versus retribution, told in a really I think smart, sophisticated ghost story. It’s really passionate. I’ll usually pick a key word to communicate in shorthand with the crew and the cast what we’re going through. When we did The Shining miniseries that word was “dread.” On Bag of Bones, it’ was “passion.” It’s the thing we wanted to keep reminding ourselves of, because that’s what that book to me was about.

At the time Bag of Bones was released it signified Stephen King’s departure from Viking to Scribner, and he also seemed to enter a phase where he began being perceived more seriously by the literary crowd. Do you think this story signifies a shift for King at all?

MG: I would agree with that. I think he’s always taken his work seriously, but it was a turning point. This and Lisey’s Story, which followed in a very similar vein. I think that is a turn that probably enabled him to get the National Book Award [Lifetime Achievement in 2003] and get the attention he really had been denied because he was so damn popular. It’s hard to win over the intelligentsia if the hoi polloi embrace you. That was probably the case. I imagine Charles Dickens was too popular for the snobbery in his day. There are definite correlations there. I wouldn’t disagree with you at all.

What’s the relationship like with you and King when you’re working on projects of his? Was he as involved this time out, since he didn’t write the screenplay as he had for the others?

MG: He wasn’t really involved in this other than as friends and as people who have worked together a lot in the past. I would always run ideas past him. He had casting approval for a couple of the lead roles, and obviously he had director and writer approval and all that. But he’s pretty good about knowing the difference between a book and a movie, and he’s very encouraging to do whatever it takes to make it as a movie the best it can be. Mostly it would be in discussions early on about who we were thinking about casting and locations and things like that, but it was pretty much at arm’s length on this one. He’s not a producer, and as you said, he didn’t write the script.

I have a superficial question here, about Pierce Brosnan and Melissa George’s accents. Are they still playing Americans?

MG: Melissa has an American accent [in the film]. Most of the time she works with an American accent. A lot of people don’t even realize that she’s Australian. We first met almost 10 years ago when I shot a pilot [Lost in Oz] in Australia that she starred in, but as an American. But Pierce is using his natural accent, and we just don’t even point at it. If you look closely on his wall you’ll see that there’s his degree from Trinity College in Dublin, just a hint that he’s gone to school across the pond.

Just as well. Nobody wants to hear Pierce Brosnan with an American accent anyway, right?

MG: I don’t think I would. (Laughs)

You said this was considered as a movie at one point, but do you think miniseries is the more proper format?

MG: I think a lot of the Stephen King’s stories, the books, the novels, are best done as miniseries. I mean, The Stand, we could never have done as a movie, although there’s talk of doing it as a couple movies now. Or were. Bag of Bones is a pretty dense story. Our original script was for a two-hour feature film and it really felt like it was missing stuff, so when we had the opportunity to turn it into a four-hour miniseries — which is really a three-hour movie, minus the commercial breaks and promos and things — it really needed that breath. It needed a little more room to build up the tension and the mystery and the whole curse of Dark Score Lake and what all of that was about. In this case I think it’s just the right length. A three-hour movie over two nights works really well for this. King’s books are awfully dense, but they’re often very internal, and so movies are an external format. Books are internal, prose is internal, so it’s kind of a challenge that people don’t think that much about in adapting Stephen King because his books are very cinematic, but they’re also a lot about what’s going on inside.

Your other television projects with Stephen King have been on broadcast networks. Did you notice any difference, as far as what content you could include, in going to A&E?

MG: Yes, as a matter of fact. (Laugh) All the other King stuff I’ve done has been for ABC, and after the success of The Stand, we were able to go pretty far with The Shining. The last hour of The Shining I think probably would have gotten an R rating at that time if it were a theatrical film. But this one we have a very disturbing rape and murder sequence in here. There are things that — it’s not a gore ride at all, but it does have some intensity that I think would have been much more difficult to reach on broadcast, because they have to appeal to the widest possible audience. With basic cable at least, people know that it’s not on the airwaves and so it’s more controllable. But A&E is a little more conservative in that regard than, say, FX. But we just heard from broadcast standards yesterday that we got through without making any changes. It’s intense, but it’s not a gorefest by any means. It has its horrific elements, but it’s more about the tension and the mystery and the ghost story.

So it sounds like the movie’s all put to bed and ready to go?

MG: Not put to bed yet. I literally finished shooting it three weeks ago and yet we’re locking picture hopefully today. It’s been very fast because of when it has to air. We have to deliver it in early November with everything finished. But it’s working out great. We’ve got two editors that I’ve worked with before working at the same time, and that has made it possible. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible it all. I’ve never worked with two editors on a project in my entire career. But it’s actually been great and made this a really great experience because now we’ve got three people thinking about how it all fits together rather than just two.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where Garris talks about casting the actors, and what his thoughts are on those rumored remakes of “The Stand.”

Mick Garris: It actually went really well. It’s a very complex movie. It was shot for 39 days in Nova Scotia. You’ve read the book so you know that the Mike Noonan character is in virtually every scene, and a lot of them by himself. Normally an actor doesn’t run from Day 1 to Day 39 straight through and always there, but other than one day Pierce did the whole thing and a lot of it alone. And because you don’t shoot in order, it’s always interesting. There are three leading ladies in this movie with him, so it was like making three different movies, because you shoot for one actor’s schedule and for locations and that sort of thing rather than in story order just to make the production possible. The difference in each of those stories was stylistically and just where we were geographically with each one. It was really, really complicated and fascinating. It just felt like, “Whoa, three weeks ago we were where?” And probably the most interesting and fun challenge was recreating Dark Score Lake in 1939 with the jazz singer Sara Tidwell, who Anika Noni Rose plays. That was so much fun, all the period extras and carnival rides and the hayloft, and Sara Tidwell and her Slick Six, her touring band, performing these great jazz-era classic songs. It was really, really fun and exciting.

It was neat to hear you had gotten Anika Noni Rose for Sara Tidwell. That just seems like perfect casting.

MG: Amazing. You know, I was not that familiar with her work, and they were originally encouraging us to cast a popstar for that part. Finally, when Anika came up, I cannot imagine anyone on the planet being better for this part. She’s so good, she’s so beautiful, such a great voice and a fantastic actress, it was eye-opening. She’s going to really impress a lot of people not just with the musical performances, which are phenomenal, but the intense sequences with her are really quite remarkable. She really went for it. It’s kind of been the best cast experience I’ve ever had. I mean, Pierce does things I’ve never seen before, goes to some real emotional depth. He’s a fantastic actor, but he’s never really done a genre movie like this. He takes it out of the genre movie gutter that often we live in. Really, the material is different from your standard genre material, but then Pierce doing it really lifts it up. It’s a pretty incredible performance.

Yeah, the first perception you have of Pierce Brosnan is the suave, debonair type. You don’t always associate him with dark and disturbing material.

MG: It couldn’t have been better. I could not be happier with him and the rest of the cast. It’s really exciting. Working with actors is one of my favorite parts of this job, and sometimes it can be complicated and all, but everybody was on the same page and everybody genuinely enjoyed working with one another. I’d worked with Melissa and with Annabeth Gish before, so that was great. We already had a shorthand and a relationship going. But Pierce, from the very beginning once he settled into everything he just knocked it out of the park. He would try things, he would just go for it. A great actor is defined by an actor who is not limited by the potential of being embarrassed, who’s not afraid to go out on a limb, and when you see The Matador and him walking through a hotel lobby in his underpants and … boots you know this is a fearless actor. He really was a delight to work with. I don’t want to sound like a press agent.

I noticed Jason Priestley in the cast list. What’s his role?

MG: He plays Mike’s agent, Marty. It was a cameo, really. He does a show called Call Me Fitz that shoots by there, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and so we were looking for somebody who would be interesting to play the part and really bring something to the party. Again, I had not met him before and it was just great. At one point, he and Matt Frewer and Pierce were together in a scene together in a graveyard and started joking about being the kings of ’80s network TV. Brandon Walsh, Max Headroom and Remington Steele were all grouped together. (Laughs) It was really a riot.

The Bag of Bones promos sure are heavy on the spooky kids aspect. Is that a fair representation of the movie as a whole?

MG: Yeah, they do sell that. But it’s very much a part of it. It is a huge part of it, and the curse of Dark Score Lake is kind of the MacGuffin behind all this, so I would not want to downplay the horrific and frightening aspects, but I think what makes this kind of unique is the depth of the emotion that it goes to. It is a very passionate love story as well as a horrific Stephen King book.

When you’re casting a Stephen King project, is it important to you — or to him — that the actor not necessarily be a fan of King’s work, but at least have a good understanding of it?

MG: In a way, you don’t want them to think of it as a Stephen King thing, because some people have misconceptions about what that means. It’s like a “different rung on the ladder” if you’re doing a horror movie than from doing a drama. I think what’s special about Stephen King is that it plays in a very real world. It may take you to places that are not real, but you accept them because of the reality of the bed they sleep in. So understanding Stephen King is a great thing, if somebody comes in like Steven Weber, who is already a great Stephen King fan before you start and understands what he’s about, that’s fantastic. But I just want the best actor for the part, whether or not he’s thinking of being in a genre movie or however that’s handled. I’m looking for the best actor however he approaches it, however we get there.

I’m sure the answer is no here, but back when you worked together on Sleepwalkers, did you get the sense you and Stephen King would have such a long partnership?

MG: Absolutely not, especially because I never met Steve until the day he shot his cameo in Sleepwalkers. We had talked on the phone and faxed pages back and forth, back in the days of faxes in 1992. But we didn’t really meet until that cameo and that was only for two hours. But then when he asked me to do The Stand, that was a very different relationship because he was there for a good half of the show off and on. That was a long five-month shoot, so we really got to see how we work and work together, and got to know each other and became friends during that course of time. That’s really when that relationship developed. Then on through The Shining, where he was around even more. When I was doing Sleepwalkers, the answer’s no, but as things continued, you know, nothing makes me happier than to be able to work with him.

You had referenced earlier how there are new versions of The Stand being talked about. Got any particular feelings on that?

MG: Well, you know, it was great to do it as eight hours, which was really six hours, because it was a huge story. But it would be nice to see it where people had the funds to do everything you need. We actually shot The Stand on 16mm film because it saved us money, and the special effects were in their infancy, and we were using the bargain-basement version of the infancy of CGI. In a way, though, it’s like looking at King and his books. You can’t screw up a writer’s book by making a bad movie of it because the book is still on the shelf. Some of my favorite genre films — The Thing and The Fly — are remakes. And they’re, I think, better than the original, which may be blasphemy to some people. But it’d be interesting to see what somebody does with The Stand. It would be weird to see if I would feel competitive about it. “Ah, mine’s better than that!” There’s so many people involved in making a movie that it would be fascinating to watch. I had done Psycho IV, so I was kind of rooting for Gus Van Sant when he remade Psycho, but I don’t think it turned out that anybody was really thrilled with the results of his little experiment there. But it’d be interesting to see what they’d do, and they’d have a lot more money than I did, that’s for sure.

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