Stephen King and Frank Darabont Step Out of The Mist
Stephen King and Frank Darabont
Step Out of The Mist
by Brad Balfour
What can one say about author Stephen King – one of the most successful writers of all time? King is the perfect name for the man, for he has conquered the world of weird fiction, horror and science fiction. And thanks to the success of the many films made from his numerous novels, he has not only turned on millions to once obscure genres but made stars of dozens of actors.
Born in Portland, Maine, King started out publishing his first story in a fanzine but quickly graduated to the professional publishing world. While he cranked out his many novels, Hollywood discovered his work and the rest, as they say, is history. He has made more than $40 million a year, has been nominated for numerous awards, owns radio stations, has played in rock bands, has three kids, and keeps writing even when he has threatened to retire and was injured in an auto accident.
As for Frank Darabont, he’s been one director who has achieved incredible success turning King’s books into films. This three-time Oscar nominee was born in a refugee camp in 1959, the son of Hungarians who fled Budapest during the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution. Darabont is one of only six filmmakers with the unique distinction of having had his first two features receive nominations for the Best Picture Oscars — 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption (with a total of seven nominations) and 1999’s The Green Mile (four nominations), both based on King’s stories. In cinematically adapting The Mist, a King short story from the early ’80s, Darabont has defied expectations, improving on the story with a powerful unexpected ending.
Stephen, you originally wrote this novella during the Vietnam War, yet it seems as much a story for today. What were the origins of the story, and why do you see it as appropriate for 2007?
Stephen King: It wasn’t during the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was over by the time that I wrote it. Kirby McCauley [King’s friend and agent at the time] was putting together an anthology called Dark Forces and he wanted all these original stories from people who wrote in the genre. I said, “You know, Kirby, I don’t think I can do that because I’m blocked, I’m not writing anything.” And I hadn’t. I had just finished three books. There was Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, Night Shift, and I was kind of stuck, really. I happened to be in the local market one time and a lot of people were shopping. I looked at the front windows and thought, if something bad happened, those windows would all blow in — because that’s the way I think. It’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s been a profitable thing over the years.
As I mulled it over, this story came out of it. I’ve always been grateful to The Mist because it broke me out of a place where I couldn’t seem to do anything. This story just came very naturally, and in terms of Vietnam or any other conflict, if you’re writing seriously — by which I mean trying as hard as you can — the issues that are in your mind and the things you’ve been through are all going to play a part.
The movie attacks [religious] fundamentalism. Is this an issue that was relevant back then, and if so, does it apply even today?
Stephen King: Well, Mrs. Carmody [played by Marcia Gay Harden] was there back then, and Mrs. Carmody in Frank’s [Darabont] movie is very much the Mrs. Carmody that was in the story. I don’t want to go out and make political statements. I’m a storyteller and Frank’s a storyteller, that’s what we do. But I’ve said this before, and I’ll say again, that if you’re trying to do your best work, these things are going to come up. They’re going to become part of the story, and people are going to ask questions about it.
Is The Mist a political story? Is The Mist a story that has to do with the dangers of entrenched religion, fundamentalist religion? Is The Mist a story about red vs. blue?
Stephen King: I’m not going to answer any of those questions. You go see the movie. Those questions will come up and maybe you’ll discuss them. If it serves as a springboard, that’s great.
Fear has played such a major role in your work. How has the notion of “fear” evolved in your mind, and how do you apply it in your work?
Stephen King: Fear is a survival function. If you’re afraid of certain things — walking down the center line of a highway at night, going out in hunting season in Maine not dressed in something that’s red or orange, you’re afraid that you might get shot. So, I think of fear as a survival function, and in the stories that I write, the only thing that I’ve tried to do is provide people with nightmares which are really safe places to put those fears for a while. You can say afterwards, “Well, it was all just make-believe anyway, so I just took my emotions for a walk.”
This is a negative emotion; it’s a kind of a pit bull in the human mind. It needs to have a place to walk, and it needs to be petted every now and then, and that’s what these stories try to do. In The Mist, you know that these people are trapped in a supermarket and things happen to them that are inexplicable or not normal. But sooner or later every one of us faces those things in our own life. You might call it “cancer” instead of “things in the mist,” but we’re all afraid of those things, and it seems valid to me to explore them. But if I have any more ideas about fear, I’m glad I do what I do because it’s allowed me to vent a lot of this stuff and get paid for it, whereas people who go to shrinks pay them. This is a “win-win” for me.
This movie straddles between the science fiction and supernatural genres. How did you view this project?
Stephen King: I was writing the book. That’s the short answer to that. In terms of the science fiction, I’ve written a lot of stories that I think of as sort-of science fiction. For me it always has to be “sort-of” science fiction because I was a “C” chemistry student, and a “B-” physics student. I was never a geek and I never had a lot of those skills, or that knowledge base. But on the other hand, I saw a lot of movies in the ’50s like The Thing, and Them, and I know that radiation causes monsters. And most important of all, I know that if we mess around too much with the unknown, something awful will happen.
Frank Darabont: The first law of physics: radiation makes monsters [laughs]. I love this stuff, too. We have a common genetic predisposition towards loving these sorts of things. This is what brought me to this master’s work in the first place, because I love this stuff. But to me it’s the fun part. It’s the trappings. Is it a little science fiction? Yeah. Is it a little horror? Hopefully, it’s a lot horror. But ultimately what makes him such a muscular, master storyteller is the fact that he never dissolves just into the trappings. It’s about the human core of the storytelling.
It’s always about that journey of the human condition. That’s what makes it particularly valid, particularly relevant. It’s an examination of fear. It’s an examination of people operating in a pressure cooker of fear where fear replaces reason. That’s why I’ve always loved this story. It wasn’t so much about the “mist” outside the windows with the groovy critters in it. It’s about what the people are going through inside the market. It winds up being pretty real, and pretty disturbing because there’s nothing scarier than human nature and human behaviors. That’s why I thought the thing had some muscle. It’s about fearing fear itself. What does it do to people, how does it wig them out? How does it compel us? Does it bring us together? Does it tear us apart? Do we make mistakes? This is pretty meaty stuff for a filmmaker, and I can’t thank you enough for letting me make the movie.
Stephen King: Aw, gee.
Frank Darabont: [laughs] So there.
A lot of writers get disenfranchised when Hollywood comes in and tries to turn one of their books into a movie. What makes you feel so comfortable in turning over your projects to Frank?
Frank Darabont: Tell them about your big Wang.
Stephen King: Yeah, I used to have a big Wang, but of course I was younger then. It was a Wang Word Processor. Get your minds out of the gutter. [laughs] I love to work with Frank. I’ve worked with Frank, and I don’t work with Frank. I basically stand aside and let Frank do his thing. Frank still has a child’s imagination coupled with an adult’s ability to see the core of the material and then execute his vision. So, you’ve got a couple of things going on there that hook up together that you don’t see in a lot of filmmakers. You do see it in some, and they do good work. Frank has always done good work. I feel very comfortable that I’m going to get something from Frank that’s going to be usually extraordinary. In my case, he’s done The Woman in the Room, Shawshank, The Green Mile” and he’s done The Mist. And it isn’t just me. I hear from other people all the time. They’ll say, “I just loved those movies, you know.” I gotta tell this story. So, I’m there in the supermarket one day and I’ve got my little cart. I come around the corner and there’s this woman, I’m going to say she was about 95, and she said, “I know who you are. You write those stories, those awful horror stories. I don’t respect that. I don’t like that. I like uplifting movies like that Shawshank Redemption.” And I said, I wrote that. And she said, “No you didn’t.” And that was it [laughs].
What satisfies you in working with Frank? What about the other movies that have been made from your work? Has there been frustration for you?
Stephen King: No, there’s never been any frustration. Either they’re good or they’re bad, and if they’re bad I just kind of laugh. There’s a story about the college newspaper reporter who came to see [crime novelist] James M. Cain toward the end of his life, and the young reporter was bemoaning what Hollywood had done to his books. Cain whipped right around in his chair, pointed at the shelf and said, “They haven’t done a damn thing, son. They’re all right up there.” And that’s the case.
I’m always interested to see what’s going to happen when you beat the piñata. It’s always a little bit different. It’s good sometimes, and you know, sometimes it’s… Children of the Corn. You just can’t tell what’s going to happen. But I’m always interested to see.
What was the book you were doing that you couldn’t do this movie with Frank?
Stephen King: It’s called Dew McKee. It’s going to be out in January… And they make wonderful presents.
When you write a story like this or make a film, how much are you influenced by other literature, films, or theater? One of the scenes in this film seemed similar to Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.”
Stephen King: I haven’t read “Rhinoceros,” but I’m flattered by the comparison to Ionesco, even if it’s just coincidental. But I just get the idea and work on the story and I don’t really worry a lot about influences. I’m sure that I am influenced. But I think the best way to deal with that is you forge ahead.
Frank Darabont: I think we’re all influenced, as any storyteller is probably influenced by the things that came before. Sometimes it’s completely unconscious, but certainly he’s been an influence on me. I think you’ve been an influence on a lot of people. A lot of people have tried to copy it through the years. Nobody’s equaled it, though.
Stephen King: Well I’m a child of everything that I’ve read. The biggest influence on my life is going to be a movie in December – I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. I’ve read Poe and Lovecraft and all those guys. I thought that they were good, but I didn’t have that kind of visceral connection where I thought, “Oh yeah, this guy is doing it on my block, I like that.”
Frank Darabont: That’s one of my top five favorite books.
Stephen King: I love that.
Frank Darabont: It’s high on the list.
Stephen King: And it’s on the bestseller list again now, too.
Frank Darabont: Is it really?
Stephen King: Yeah.
Frank Darabont: Oh good, they’re reading the book. Does it really look like I Am Legend, or does it look like a remake of The Omega Man?
Stephen King: I haven’t seen the movie; they’re reading the book.
Frank Darabont: Yeah, that’s great, that’s awesome. I can’t wait to see it actually.
What are your biggest fears?
Frank Darabont: Oh, people. Check out the 21st century so far. I’m afraid it’s going to make the 20th look like Romper Room. And you know there’s nothing that scares me more than what people are capable of. This is actually what this movie is about. To me it’s a rather timeless thing to say. It goes back to Greek tragedy. What are people capable of when they are influenced by lack of reason and fear? That’s what scares me. The other stuff — you’re taking out the pit bull and petting it, and taking it for a walk, you know. It’s the fun stuff. You exercise the terror mechanism. This gentleman has made a great, great career and a legendary name for himself doing that. That’s the fun part, the controlled experiment in fear. What really scares me is the uncontrolled realities of it.
Stephen King: I’m afraid of everything. It shows in my work – elevators, cars. The thing that started the new book was basically a combination of an accident that I had with a truck that was backing up and the beeper was broken. Somebody said, “Look out!” and a whole big long novel came out of that. But I’m with Frank on this, and that’s one of the reasons why I love this movie because it was a little bit like having somebody scratch a place on the middle of my back that I couldn’t reach myself.
I mean, every night when I go to bed and nobody popped a rogue nuke somewhere in the world, I feel this sort of combination of “I don’t believe we escaped for another day,” and gratitude because we did escape for another day. There’s so much of that stuff out there. I’ve written a lot of different things about that from The Stand to The Mist, where a lot of people out there are afraid, they’re angry, because fear and anger go hand-in-hand. They’re the original sin version of the Bobbsey Twins, you know, fear and anger.
There’s always somebody to say, “Well, we had the answer, we had the only answer,” because whatever the religion might happen to be, they’re the ones who say “we have the only answer, so let’s get down on our knees and pray about it” — and then on your way out there’s guns in the vestry.
Frank Darabont: “And do as you’re told, or we’ll kick your ass.”
Stephen King: That’s right, or “we’ll kick your ass because our God’s bigger than your God.” Now I’m not saying The Mist is about those things, because that’s for you to decide, but I’m not saying that it’s not. To a degree it’s about big bugs, too.
Frank Darabont: Yeah baby. We love the big bugs.
Stephen King: That’s right.
It’s great to see your movie and books and stories back in theater for the first time in a while. How do you make the decision between making a movie or a TV miniseries for your stories?
Stephen King: First of all, I think it’s good to see my movies back again too. They were in rehab for a while, but they’re better now. No, I mean… whenever anybody talks to me, whether it’s a musical version of Carrie or whether it’s — there have been two, you know, play versions of Carrie. One was great, and the other was so weirdly bad that it was great too. It sort of was. So, whenever anybody wants to try, I’m sort of up for that as long as they make a minimal amount of sense. If nobody else came along and wanted to make another movie, I could live with that. But I’m hoping that Frank and I can work together again at least four more times.
Frank Darabont: Yeah. I’m waiting for the next prison story.
Stephen King: I thought The Mist was sort of a prison story.
Frank Darabont: Well, it is, yeah. We need another one, man. Of course, it winds up being kind of a prison story doesn’t it?
Stephen King: Sure, yeah.
I know that Frank wrote the ending for you. How was your reaction when you first read that ending?
Stephen King: I loved it. I loved it. It puts a button on it. I thought about this when I wrote the story. If you guys have got it, you’ll see that Frank has been very faithful to the story. But when Frank and I talked about The Mist, he would always say to me, you know, it’s got to have a strong ending.
Frank Darabont: And you would say the same thing to me from time to time.
Stephen King: That’s right. What we were too kind to say to each other was that the story has — I won’t say it’s a weak ending, exactly, but it was the kind of ending that my late mother didn’t respect. She called them “Alfred Hitchcock” endings, you know, you were kind of left to make up your own mind. She had nothing but contempt for that. Frank came up with an ending to the movie that I thought was terrific on the page, and the only time that I ever wavered even slightly was when I actually saw it.
I said to myself, “This is so shocking that there ought to be ads in the newspaper that say if you reveal the last five minutes of this movie you’ll be hung by the neck until death.” That’s the one thing that I hate about the Internet age, all that stuff goes out.
Frank Darabont: Me too, me too.
How do you feel about this adaptation compared to Frank’s other three?
Stephen King: I love it. Frank does good work, and this thing has a different look. It’s a wonderful sort of documentary feel. It’s separated from the other field of horror suspense movies of the last couple of years because of that documentary feel. It has a sense of The Twilight Zones that I loved when I was a kid, The Outer Limits episodes that I loved as a kid. But also, here’s a movie that was made by an adult. It’s not — I’m not going to name any names, but it isn’t part of this pack of young guys who haven’t quite come to a realization yet that this is as serious as any other genre. So, you’ve got a picture that asks some serious questions. If people want to ask them, or if they just want to have a good time, it’s there, too. But it has a wonderful realistic look that I was just crazy about. Frank also has a number of different actors that he’s worked with over the years. Some of them are in the movie — Jeffrey DeMunn, who’s always been a favorite of mine, to the point where he’s recorded some of my books on tape. I love Thomas Jane, always have.
Frank Darabont: Bill Sadler, who played the Thomas Jane role in the audio book of The Mist, God knows how many years ago.
Stephen King: It’s amazing. And Marcia Gay Harden. So, what’s not to like… for me?
You talked about the sort of limited budget that you worked with here. Do you have an affection for films that are based on sort of economy, and getting as much as you can out of that?
Frank Darabont: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I was anxious to embrace that aesthetic. Some of my all–time favorite movies in the genre, the most muscular things, Night of the Living Dead, for example…
Stephen King: … Night of the Living Dead…
Frank Darabont: … came out of very limited resources.
Stephen King: Which project?
Frank Darabont: There’s some muscularity to that sometimes that you can capture.
Stephen King: Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Frank Darabont: Yes, absolutely.
Stephen King: Like Joe Bob Briggs used to say, “[To] the Texas critic ain’t nothing better than Saw.”
Frank Darabont: Joe Bob.
Stephen King: Joe Bob, yeah.
Frank Darabont: I haven’t seen him in years. No, I really wanted to embrace that aesthetic because I felt that this had a real ballsy muscularity, I would have to say. To categorize Shawshank as a different kind of story, I would dispute that because the commonality here is Stephen King never lets you down in terms of writing a muscular, human story. Whatever the trappings, whatever the settings are, whatever the specifics of the story are, it comes from that storytelling muscle, which is why I think this guy single-handedly took horror out of the ghetto of literature and put it into the mainstream. I have said you never saw grandmas in an airport lounge reading a horror novel until Stephen King came along and brought the storytelling values of a real writer to the genre and elevated it. And we have him to thank for that.
Stephen King: I try to put real people in stories. I would like to be able to do that, to put real people who are not clichés. I’d like some texture in my stuff, you know, and Frank has always respected that. This is a movie you could categorize as a horror movie. I never tell anybody what to do about that. Call it whatever you want to, but please, they’re real people in that supermarket, and you get a real sense of human people. And it’s not Friday the 13th – Part VI. It’s got a lot more texture than that.
I’m curious about the role of the military in The Mist.
Frank Darabont: The role of the military is incidental. The role of the creatures, honestly, is incidental. To me it’s all context for the story that’s being told, which is that super-heated character ensemble of people who are getting the hell scared out of them and colliding like pinballs. I mean, that’s the physics of the story that Steve set in motion, and that’s what really attracted me to it. It’s what happens when the thin veneer of civilization is laid aside and people are scared, and they lose their reason and their ability to have a rational conversation. It makes it pretty timely, it makes it pretty relevant. It also makes for just damn good storytelling. That’s why I always loved the story.
Stephen King: When I was writing the story, it certainly crossed my mind. It isn’t even a conscious thought. It’s almost like something that’s gone through and been absorbed into your imagination and your subconscious, is the idea that we’re all sort of puppets. There are a lot of people fooling around with a lot of things, and we don’t have any say, in a lot of cases. Apparently, AT&T and some of these other companies were listening in on people’s phone calls long before it started to be a political issue. They have that technology, and they can do it. We couldn’t very well call it the collateral damage market, but in a sense, you know there’s something going on, and these people are not responsible for it. They’re, would you say, caught in the middle.
Frank Darabont: Yeah, well, the reasonable people are always caught in the middle, caught in the middle of a lot of machinations, and a lot of which I’m sure we don’t know about. That makes me paranoid, and who was it that says sometimes we’re not paranoid enough. I think that’s probably true.
Stephen King: You’re not paranoid if they really are after you.
Frank Darabont: And they are, Steve, they’re after you.
Stephen King: But I have my tin foil hat, Frank. Takes care of a lot of things.
Frank Darabont: I’m wearing my tin foil underwear right now. It’s a lacy little number, and you’re receiving signals from somewhere. Sorry [laughs].
How would you say your writing has evolved over the years? Has your writing gotten more angry or softer over the years? And Frank, what book of Stephen King’s have you not done yet that you want to do and why?
Stephen King: Oh, good question. Be thinking about that. I want to hear that. First thing that crossed my mind when you said how’s my writing evolved, I say probably I know two or three thousand more words than I did when I was 24, so my vocabulary’s improved a little bit. No, I’m not as angry as I used to be – because I’m not 25 anymore, I’m 60. That’ll kick your ass every time. There’s an Elvis Costello song that says, “I used to be angry now I’m just amused,” or something like that.
I’m not amused, but there’s a little more despair in some of the works than there used to be. In that sense The Mist is actually a fairly mature work in that it’s darker than some of the other stuff. I’m still just trying to tell good stories and find a way to do that. Not repeat myself and not fall into a rut. Furnish it and find new ways to do things. And I guess that’s it.
Frank Darabont: Well, he’s getting less angry as he gets older. I’m getting more and more pissed off. I always had this sunny optimist in me. He’s just getting a little beat up lately. You know, when I was younger, I always had this notion that we can pretty much work anything out. But I’ve realized as I get older that that takes some goodwill on the part of the people who are doing the talking, or not doing the talking, as the case may be. And it’s just making me kind of angrier.
Stephen King: If you get his emails…
Frank Darabont: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I’ll rant. I’ll rant on occasion. I don’t think there’s anything we can’t work out, but we seem to be determined not to. And in a way that kind of feeds back into The Mist as a story. I’m clinging to hope, but it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. I’m stuck in the middle of that argument that Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman had at the mess hall table. Is hope a good thing or is it just stupid? I’m right in the middle of that equation. The pleasure of doing what we do for a living is that we can work some of this stuff out in our work, we can tell stories, or co-opt a great story to express those things.
What was the weirdest story Mr. King has written?
Frank Darabont: Probably the weirdest story Steve ever wrote is “The Long Walk.”
Stephen King: Oh yeah.
Frank Darabont: [to King] I’ve been meaning to ask you; didn’t you start writing that when you were in high school?
Stephen King: I was in college… a freshman.
Frank Darabont: This is amazingly mature work for a kid who was in college. That, I do believe, was in the shadow of Vietnam, wasn’t it?
Stephen King: Oh yeah, very much. That was started in ’67, so it was, right…