Stephen King's new book 11/23/63 is like what Triple Agent was for Eric Rohmer: They are both late works that explore the era of their authors childhood, though not so much in a vein of romantic nostalgia but through a more critical lens. The subject of Rohmer's Triple Agent is the opaqueness of others, even those that are closest to us, through a look at humanity at its extreme within the behind-the-scene politics of the Popular Front in France in the thirties, as the Russian Fiodor betrays his Greek wife Arsinoé. While for King it is the cultural and emotional legacy of the post-WWII American rural life, with the large catastrophe being the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas Texas on November twenty-third in nine-teen-sixty-three. In 11/23/63, Jake Epping time-travels from the present to the past to do something "good", make the world a better place, but what he finds there is just as racist and vicious as anything today - and say that the assassination was prevented, whose to say the world would a better place? Even though the two artists are different in sensibility they very much to speak to a certain regional populace for both of their respective countries, with Rohmer being in the tradition of a French discursive and articulate intellectual tradition while for King that of a blue-collar and mainstream America - the voice of the people.
To get ready for the class on The Shining (tonight, Monday June 11th at 7PM) in the series In Nayman's Terms: The Films of Stanley Kubrick at the Miles Nadal JCC, I've found and transcribed a rare interview with Stephen King where he discusses his thoughts on the Kubrick adaptation as well as other anecdotes. Vincent LoBrutto in his excellent Kubrick biography Stanley Kubrick: A Biography first brought up this King interview, which I then found in the June 1986 issue of American Film that I was able to find at the Film Reference Library.
Though to start off here is how most people would be familiar with King's views on Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining, from the introduction to the reprint edition of The Shining:
"My single conversation with the late Stanley Kubrick, about six months before he commenced filming his version of The Shining, suggested that it was this quality of the writing that appealed to him: What, exactly, is impelling Jack Torrance toward murder in the winter-isolated rooms and hallways of the Overlook Hotel? Is it undead people, or undead memories? Mr. Kubrick and I came to different conclusions (I always thought there were malevolent ghosts in the Overlook, driving Jack to the precipice), but perhaps those different conclusions are, in fact, the same. For aren't memories the true ghosts of our lives? Do they not drive all of us to words and acts we regret from time to time?"
"King of The Road" by Darrel Ewing and Dennis Myers (American Film, June 1986)
He's the self-proclaimed "Sears catalog with a plot," the chronicler of contemporary America's dreams, desires, and fears. His name is synonymous with literary horror. He is Stephen King, and he holds the imagination of millions of Americans hostage. Mixing humor and horror into the landscape of middle-class America, King fascinates and terrifies people in record numbers. With his extensive mainstream popularity, he is, in effect, the literary counterpart of Hollywood's Stephen Spielberg. Spielberg and King have similar sensibilities. Both situate the evil aspects of the world within the commonplace. The difference between the two, of course, is that Spielberg offers transcendence and escape, but for King the horror is never ending, and often apocalyptic.
King's film credits include eleven movies based on his writings, with another four in development, and Maximum Overdrive, the first film he has not only written but also directed. Based on his short story "Trucks," it is set for a national release date in July.
Question: Can you talk about Maximum Overdrive - what was it like directing your first movie?
Stephen King: The movie is about all these vehicles going crazy and running by themselves, so we started shooting a lot of gas pedals, clutches, transmissions, things like that, operating themselves. We had one sequence: The gas pedal to the floor, the gas pedal goes up, the clutch goes in, the gear shifts by itself, the clutch comes out, and the gas pedal goes back to the floor again. We were able to shoot everything but the transmission from the driver's-side door. The transmission was a problem, because we kept seeing either a corner of the studio or a reflection.
So I said: This is no problem, we will simply take the camera around to the other side and shoot the transmission from there. Total silence. Everybody looked at everybody else. You know what's happening here, right? I'd crossed the axis. It was like farting at the dinner party: Nobody wanted to say you've made a terrible mistake. I didn't get this job because I could direct or because I had any background in film; I got it because I was Stephen King.
So finally [cameraman] Daniele Nannuzzi told me I'd crossed the 180=degree axis and that this simply wasn't done, and although I didn't understand what it was, I grasped the idea that it was breaking a rule.
Later on I called George [Romero] up on the phone and I said, "What is this axis shit?" and he laughed his head off, and explained it, and I said, "Can you break it - the rule?" He said, "It's better not to, but if you have to, you can. If you look at The Battleship Potemkin" (which I never have), "it crosses the axis all the time and the guy [Sergei Eisenstein] gets away with it." Then I saw David Lynch and asked him: "What's this about crossing the axis?" and he burst out laughing and said, "Stephen, you can do anything. You're the director." Then he paused and said, "But it doesn't cut together."
Question: What effect were you aiming for in Maximum Overdrive?
King: I wanted it to move fast. It's a wonderful moron picture, in that sense. It's a really iilliterate picture in a lot of ways. There isn't a lot of dialogue in it. It's fast. A lot of things explode. It's very profane, very vulgar, quite violent in some places. We're going to have trouble with the Ratings Board, I guess.
Question: Did you pay attention to character relations in the story or did you want to wow the audience with spectacle?
King: I'm interested in my people. One of the few really sensible things that anybody said at the story conference that we had at MGM in L.A. - those people, what an alien mentality! - But somebody did say that if the charactersdon't stand out and this is just a movie about machines it'll be a bad picture. Their solution was to suggest that a lot of dialogue and scenes between the major characters be added for character and texture. I was always calling them the jumbo "John! Oh, Martha!" scenes because they're like soap operas. We shot 'em. We just cut 'em all out in the editing room, every single one.
It's like that classic moment in The Swarm where Fred MacMurray and Olivia De Havilland have this scene, and Fred says the equivalent - I swear this is true - he doesn't actually say this, he says something like, "The bees are coming, and we'll all probably be killed, but thank Christ I'm not impotent anymore." That's really what they want.
I'm interested in character eccentricity, in the interactions of daily life that you don't necessarily see on the screen. I'm not particularly interested in character in the traditional sense of, let's say, Scorsese. I prefer Hitchcock, because the character that you find really interesting in his picture are always in supporting roles, like the old lady who lectures about the birds in The Birds: "They can't. It's simply not possible. Their brain pans are too small."
Question: What do you feel are some of the scariest moments in your film adaptations?
King: You mean that scared me in the theater? When that hand comes out of the grave in Carrie at the end. Man, I thought I was going to shit in my pants.
Question: You had no idea ... ?
King: Yeah, I knew they were going to do it, and I still almost shit in my pants. The first time I saw Carrie with an audience they previewed it about a week and a half before Halloween. They didn't do a screening in Maine, but they did one in Boston, so my wife and I went down to the theater, and I just looked around in total dismay, because the regular picture that they were showing was Norman, Is That You? with Redd Foxx. The theater was entirely full of black people. We looked like two little grains of salt in a pepper shake, and we thought: This audience is just going to rate the hell out of this picture. What are they going to think about a skinny little white girl with her menstrual problems? And that's the way it started, and then, little by little, they got on her side, you know, and when she started going her shtick, I mean, they're going, "Tear it up!" "Go for it!" and all this other stuff. These two guys were talking behind us, and we were llistening to them, and at the end they're putting on their coats and getting ready to leave. Suddenly this hand comes up, and these two big guys screamed along with everyone else, and one of them goes, "That's it!" That's it! She ain't never gonna be right!" And I knew it was going to be a hit.
Question: What do you think of the movies adapted from your books?
King: Firestarter is one of the worst of the bunch, even though in terms of story it's very close to the original. But it's flavorless; it's like cafeteria mashed potatoes. There are things that happen in terms of special effects in that movie that make no sense to whatsoever. Why this kid's hair blows every time she starts fire is totally beyond my understanding. I never got a satisfactory answer when I saw the rough cut. By that time, Dino [De Laurentiis] was regularly asking me for input, so I'd give him the input. Sometimes he'd take it. In that case...
The movie has great actors, with the exception of the lead, David Keith, who I didn't feel was very good - my wife said that he has stupid eyes. The actors were allowed to do pretty much what they wanted to do. Martin Sheen, who is a great actor, with no direction and nobody to him - and I mean there must have been literally no direction - with nobody to pull him in and say, "Stop what you're doing," he simply reprised Greg Stillson [in The Dead Zone]. That's all there is; it's the same character exactly. But Greg Stillson should not be in charge of The Shop [secret government organization in Firestarter]. He's not the kind of guy who gets that job.
Question: You were disappointed in The Shining - if you were directing it now, what would you do with it?
King: Oh, I would do everything different. There's a lot to like about it. But it's a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery - the only thing you can't do is drive it anywhere. So I would do everything different. The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre. Everything about it scream that from the beginning to the end, from plot decisions to that final - which has been used before on The Twilight Zone.
The best illustration of what's wrong with that movie, and I guess it is a scary moment - yeah, there is one scary moment in The Shining. It's a classic fairy tale situation, the Bluebeard situation, where Bluebeard says, "You can go anywhere in the castle, but don't go into this room." Only in this case, what Bluebeard says is, "You can do anything you want or go anywhere you want, but you can't look at my book - which I'm going to leave right here." So she can't help it, she looks at it. And we're frightened when she does that because we know the conventions of the genre and we know that the conventions of the genre demand that she be caught. The it gets worse, because when she starts to thumb through the pages she sees that he's writing the same thing over and over again: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." And she's thumbing through it faster and faster and faster, and we're cutting back and forth to her face, from the book to her face, from the face to the book, back and forth, and it's great, because you know he's going to come.
Then for some reason that I still don't understand, Kubrick cuts away and shows us Nicholson approaching her. Now, sometimes this works. Hitchcock said that if you show the bomb under the table and then have the guy sitting down, it's worse than if the bomb just explodes, and that's right, except that sometimes it's wrong. In this case, you know that he's there, you don't need to see him, and what should happen is that while she's looking at the book, there should be just this [King grabs the interviewer's shoulder], and cuts away and shows us Nicholson first, so there's no payoff. That's the end of it; that's the dissipation of the climax.
I wanted to like that movie. I was so flattered that Kubrick was going to do something of mine. The first time he called, it was 7:30 in the morning. I was standing in the bathroom in my underwear, shaving, and my wife comes in and her eyes are bugging out. I thought one of the kids must be choking in the kitchen or something. She says, "Stanley Kubrick is on the phone!" I mean, I was just floored. I didn't even take the shaving cream off my face.
Just about the first thing he said was, The whole idea of ghosts is always optimistic, isn't it?" And I said, with a hangover and one eye almost open, "I don't understand what you mean." He said, "Well, the concept of the ghost presupposes life after death. That's a cheerful concept, isn't it?" And it sounded so plausible that for a moment I just floundered and didn't say anything, and then I said, "But what about hell?" There was a long pause on his end, and then he came in a very stiff voice and said, "But I don't believe in hell." He doesn't believe in ghosts, either, he just found the whole concept very optimistic, which is what leads his version of the happy ending for Jack Torrance - this closed loop where he is always the caretaker. He didn't seem to want to get behind the concept of the ghost as a damned soul.
Question: It sounds as though he was trying to rewrite the horror genre.
King: I'm sure that he wanted to bust it open, to do something new with it, but it is very unbustable, which is one of the reasons it has endeared as long as it has.
Question: What was it you liked about David Cronenberg's direction of The Dead Zone?
King: If there were no element of horror in my books, they'd be the dullest books ever written. Everything in those stories is totally ordinary - Dairy Queens - except you take one element and you take that out of context. Cronenberg did the ordinary, and nobody else who has used my books really has. I thought that Lewis Teague, who directed Cujo, did to a degree, except that Teague always seems to me to get this kind of soap-opera look in his people and his sets. But once you got them to the house, I mean, that movie just Sonny Liston. I love it.
One of the guys who worked on Dead Zone, someone I respect very much, told that Dino was the first producer David Cronenberg ever had who forced him to direct. Who forced him to approach the job, not as this gorgeous toy that was made for David Cronenberg, but as a job where he had a responsibility to the producer and to the audience. And that's another reason why Dead Zone was a good picture.
Question: Where did you get the idea for it?
King: For some reason I had just a scene in my mind of this teacher, and a test going on, and how quiet the room is when you're having a really tough test, and everybody is bent over and there's no sound whatsoever, and then this girl finishing up and handing her test paper to the teacher, and their hands coming into contact, and the teacher saying, "You must go home at once. Your house is on fire. Everybody's going to die." And everyone in the room looks up, sort of pinning him with their eyes, and him being very self-conscious and like a crazy person. Something like that.
The scene never ended up in the book at all - it was just a focus point. The story was supposed to be about this guy who eventually would shake hands with the man is going to blow up the world. I got interested in the idea of whether it would be possible to write a moral novel where an assassin, an American assassin, actually was a good guy, or where the act would be justified. When you write a novel - well, at least for me, because I never think about theme as a starting point - I just think about story. But sometimes about three-quarters o the way through the first draft you'll discover that there is a theme, or the potential for a theme. Or you discover what it is that you were actually talking about all along.
In Dead Zone, I thought that what I was talking about was the way that we sometimes think gifts or special talents are actually the things that cause people to be totally rejected by society. Books like Carrie and Firestarter are instinctive rebellings against that. I think that Dead Zone is the only time that I was able to go back and actually approach the whole rewrite of the book with one unifying idea in mind, which made it into a novel. I mean, it's actually sort of thoughtful.
Pet Sematary to some degree is the same: It's supposed to be a reflection on what happens when people in a materialistic society, people who live only for materialistic reasons, come into contact with questions of faith and death and outside forces.
Question: What do you think of America at present? Is it ordinary?
King: I think the same thing about it that I have always thought: I think it's fantastic. We're killing ourselves; we're fiddling while Rome burns. I mean, while we've got enough explosives to turn planet Earth into the second asteroid belt, the largest weekly magazine in the country talking about where celebrities shop, and why people in Hollywoo don't want to serve finder foods any more. It all seems really ridiculous to me, but I love it. I love everything about it.