EXCLUSIVE: Josh Boone’s passion for Stephen King movie adaptations left me regretful I didn’t publish an interview I did with King several years ago, when an influx of book adaptations done with input from authors raised questions of just how much influence Hollywood owes book writers. While studios once paid big checks to authors and invited them to go away, The Twilight Saga‘s Stephenie Meyer, The Hunger Games‘ Suzanne Collins, Harry Potter‘s JK. Rowling, The Fault In Our Stars‘ John Green and Fifty Shades Of Grey‘s EL James all have been given input that authors used to only dream of. This was back when Anne Rice went public (and later apologized) with ire that Tom Cruise was given the role of Lestat in Interview With The Vampire or Tom Clancy whined to the New York Times about his objection to creative liberties taken on Patriot Games.
King’s had more books adapted or optioned than any living author, and he has seen it all. Here, he explains why his options come cheap but with ticking clocks, and what he expects from the resulting film and TV adaptations. I lost momentum on this several years ago because of a family tragedy, but King’s philosophy still holds true and he gave me permission to go ahead and publish it as a companion to Boone’s story on Revival and The Stand.
DEADLINE: Authors want to do more than cash a check and cross their fingers when they sell their books to Hollywood. You’ve likely made more of these deals than any living author I can think of, and you always seem to option your works for almost no money, with a short leash. What do you ask these days when you entrust one of your books to a film company?
KING: I want a dollar, and I want approvals over the screenwriter, the director and the principal cast. We try to make these people understand, the people that are doing the deal, that I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I’m not a hard guy to get along with. In all the time we’ve been doing this, I’ve never put up a red light to anybody about anything that they wanted to do. Because if they want to make changes, if they want to be a little bit out on the edge, I’m all for it. I like it.
DEADLINE: So rather than making the old deal, with big upfront money, you figure you’ll make your money on the other side?
KING: The other side of this, too, is that if you do that, you can say to these people, what I want is a share in whatever comes in, as a result, from dollar one. So it isn’t just a creative thing, it’s also the side where I say, if you want to do this, let me make it easy for you up front and if the thing is a success, the way that 1408 was a success for the Weinstein brothers, then we all share in it together. You know, of all the people that I’ve dealt with, Harvey and Bob Weinstein were the ones who were most understanding about that. They were perfectly willing to go along with that. A lot of people feel like you want to get in their business. I don’t want to do that at all. I want to be part of the solution. There were things about the 1408 screenplay that I thought were a little bit wonky actually, you know. There’s a part where you brought in the main character’s sad relationship about how his wife had died, she’d drowned, and he was kind of looking for an afterlife a la Houdini. I thought, well this seems a little off the subject. But it was great in the movie.
DEADLINE: So you’re not an author who feels that what’s in your book is sacrosanct, even when it’s translated to the screen?
KING: No. And the other thing is, you start from the belief that these people know their business. There are a lot of writers who are very, very sensitive to the idea, or they have somehow gotten the idea that movie people are full of sh*t. That’s not the truth. I’ve worked with an awful lot of movie people over the years that I think are very, very smart, very persistent and find ways to get things done. And I like that.
DEADLINE: When the author of Fifty Shades Of Grey and her agent made their deal with Universal, it was the first time a debut novelist got full creative control. How much of an impediment is that to luring a great director who doesn’t want to be shackled?
KING: Well, let me say first that whatever script came out of Fifty Shades Of Grey would be an improvement on the prose of the book. I’ve read the book. In some ways it’s terrific and it certainly has an interesting major character and she’s got a sense of humor. If those things translate well, it almost [had] to be better than the prose in the book did. Now I got sidetracked on that, I forgot your question.
DEADLINE: I wondered if giving those controls to an author can cost you getting a great filmmaker accustomed to having control — you had Stanley Kubrick do one of your books, for instance?
KING: I think that that’s very true. When you get a really gifted director in particular who wants to guide the process of the film, the actual creation, that filmmaker wants to work with the screenwriter in order to get certain effects that they want. There was a time when I distrusted that process very much. But having been around the business with so many films, I have more of a tendency to trust good directors than I used to.
DEADLINE: The Shining was one of my favorite books. The first time I saw Kubrick’s film, I remember feeling this wasn’t what I imagined while reading the book. But after watching over and over for years, I appreciated more and more the spectacular visual moments in that movie, and I grew to love it. Initially, you were less than thrilled. How does it play in your memory in dealing with Kubrick, a very insular director who wouldn’t seem the type to be that collaborative with an author?
KING: I talked to Stanley on the phone before he started and I remember I could feel him reaching, trying to find his way into the books, and he said, “Well, don’t you find that all ghost stories are optimistic, don’t you think so? Because it means that the presupposition is that if there are ghosts, there’s an afterlife, we don’t just die, we go on.” And I said, “Mr. Kubrick, what about hell?” There was a long pause at the other end and he said in a very stiff voice, “I don’t believe in hell.” And I said, “Well, OK, you don’t, but my feeling is that if there are ghosts, they’re as likely to be maligned as they are to be ‘come into the light.’ ” You remember the movie with Patrick Swayze, Ghost?
DEADLINE: Yes, of course.
KING: There was a feeling there that ghosts are really kind of on our side, but it’s just as likely that the experience of dying has driven some of them mad. Anyway, I think The Shining is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it. In that sense, when it opened, a lot of the reviews weren’t very favorable and I was one of those reviewers. I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I didn’t care for it much.
DEADLINE: How about now?
KING: I feel the same because the character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change. The other real difference is at the end of my book the hotel blows up, and at the end of Kubrick’s movie the hotel freezes. That’s a difference. But I met Kubrick and there’s no question he’s a terrifically smart guy. He’s made some of the movies that mean a lot to me, Dr. Strangelove, for one and Paths of Glory, for another. I think he did some terrific things but, boy, he was a really insular man. In the sense that when you met him, and when you talked to him, he was able to interact in a perfectly normal way but you never felt like he was all the way there. He was inside himself.
DEADLINE: Let’s say there was a modern equivalent to Kubrick who wanted to turn one of your books into a film. Would you still make that deal with him and trust in a great filmmaker even if you once again found yourself on the outside?
KING: Yeah.. I would. I would. I’ll tell you who I would love to work with sometime, not work with but wouldn’t think twice if he wanted to make one of my things into a movie. You know this movie Melancholia? Lars…
DEADLINE: Lars von Trier? Really?
KING: Lars von Trier. And, in fact, I made an American miniseries out of his Kingdom Hospital. I think he’s the most talented, amazing director in the world and I would love to see what he did. And, again, I would stand aside and say, go to it and have a great time.
DEADLINE: I thought you were going to say someone like Chris Nolan.
KING: That wouldn’t interest me so much. The other thing that interests me is when you get a chance to give a talented newcomer a shot. There was some talk about Ben Affleck making The Stand. I’d have loved to see something happen with him because he’s a terrific director. Affleck understands story, and the fact that movies are this wonderful medium for storytelling. And he’s got a kind of old fashioned style. A movie like The Town, it was a throwback to all the great crime movies that Warners made in the ’30s.
DEADLINE: You’ve dabbled in screenwriting and even directed but haven’t been doing it as much. What was your opinion of that whole process?
KING: Well, it was a learning curve because I came into the whole thing thinking that screenwriting was work for idiots because everything was on the surface. It’s like the difference between skiing and swimming; one is full immersion, and that’s the novel; and the other one is screenwriting, where everything is right out on top, there’s no thought process. Unless you have one of those crappy or crafty voiceovers, it’s all what you see and what people say. But little by little, as I learned, I got more respect for it.
DEADLINE: Michael Connelly had to go through an ordeal to get back rights to his Harry Bosch mysteries which languished at Paramount since 1992 and he found the studio had placed prohibitive overhead costs against them. He said he regretted making movie deals for money that allowed him to write novels early, and he paid a high price for that once money wasn’t the big priority anymore. Ever make a deal like that, one that you greatly regretted?
KING: Never. I never did, because to me it was always a case of go on out there and do the best picture that you can and if it was a success like Carrie or The Dead Zone, I can say, you know, that’s my story. Stand by Me, there’s another one, Shawshank Redemption, Misery. I’ve had a lot of things where I felt, been able to feel really pleased about the outcome. And if it doesn’t work so well, I can say, well, they went out and they gave their best shot but I didn’t have anything to do with it. I’m just a bystander in this car wreck.
DEADLINE: You never had one where you basically gave up too many rights and you felt like you were getting jerked around because nothing was happening?
KING: [Laughs] It’s a crazy business and we don’t see it. Novelists don’t see it. I’m up here in Maine. I’m not out there. I don’t take meetings and I’ve been talking, in fact, I just got off the phone with Ron Howard who has The Dark Tower thing. We’re talking about a new approach on that. Ron is a terrifically bright guy, he’s very persistent and he and I speak the same language. So, that’s been a process where Universal turned it down in order to make that great, smash-hit Battleship. And Warner Bros. has been sort of, ah, well, we don’t know exactly who this is for. Is it for the teenagers? Is it for the super hero crowd? What is it? So, it’s been a little bit frustrating, but to me it’s a side issue. It’s fun to watch and when it turns out well, it’s great. As far as creative input, my feeling is pretty simple with this: be all the way out, and let ‘em do their work, and don’t get involved and throw monkey wrenches and all this. Or get all the way in, you know, and become a part of the team the way that I am with those brothers, and be willing to travel, make the changes. If you have to be on set because stuff comes up, you have to do it. I did a miniseries called Rose Red, with ABC, and one of the principal actors, David Dukes, died of a heart attack on the show, and so I have to go to work and figure out how to make that work anyway. So, that’s it. If you’re going to be a part of it, you have to be all the way in.
DEADLINE: The Dark Tower [which would later find footing at Sony] is a ballsy and disruptive proposition, with movies and TV series part of the construct. What has the long lar with the multi-platform and the limited run television and stuff like that. But I wonder, what has The Dark Tower experience shown you about the climate today in trying to make tent poles happen?
KING: Well, it suggests to me two things. The first is that the one thing studios seem very confidant about, and with justification, is that the comic book super hero movies make great tent poles because people flock to see them. The other thing is, it seems to me, that the studios have shown some extremely bad judgment in picking things for tent poles that are outside that particular narrow field, and I think, I think that it’s timidity to a degree, because they don’t want to make the big, big gamble on something that’s unproved. The result of that, ironically, is that when they do make that big gamble, it turns out to be Battleship or John Carter.
DEADLINE: How does your own work fit in there?
KING: The Dark Tower, to me, and I’m not unbiased because I’m the writer on this thing, but to me it looks like gold on the ground waiting to be picked up.
DEADLINE: Some of the best films made from your work, like Shawshank and Stand by Me, came from unexpected places, short stories that connected with good filmmakers. Is there one there that you’re surprised no one has turned into a movie?
KING: Jeez. You kind of caught me off guard. I’ve written a lot of stuff. I guess if there’s one that I regret is, um, I wrote a book back in the Nineties called The Regulators. It was one of two books that I thought of as repertory company books. There was one called Desperation, and the other one was called The Regulators and they both had the same characters but they were all doing different things, in different places. I had a meeting with Sam Peckinpah a few months before he died, and he was really interested in turning that into a movie called The Shotgunners, and I wanted to write a screenplay for it. I thought it would make a terrific R-rated action-adventure, the kind of thing Sam was terrific at. It just didn’t happen and never went any further than that.
DEADLINE: So it waits for someone to come along and discover it…
KING: Mm Hmm. And I’m a little bit surprised that nobody made Cell either, about the cell phones driving everybody crazy, because I thought it would have made a terrific zombie movie. There were some of those dollar options, one with The Weinstein Company but they couldn’t get a script that they liked. Again, that’s part of the process.
DEADLINE: Do you have a personal favorite adaptation of one of your books?
KING: Oh yeah. I like, well I have a number that I like, but I love The Shawshank Redemption and I’ve always enjoyed working with Frank. He’s a sweet guy. Frank Darabont. And I love the Rob Reiner thing, Stand by Me.
DEADLINE: What about your least favorite?
KING: Should I even say that? I guess there are a number of pictures that I feel like, a little bit like, yuck. There’s one, Graveyard Shift, that was made in the eighties. Just kind of a quick exploitation picture. I could do without all of the Children of the Corn sequels. I actually like the original pretty well. I thought they did a pretty good job on that. Of the smaller pictures, the best one is probably Cujo, with Dee Wallace.
DEADLINE: Yes, and The Dead Zone. Boy that was sensational. Chris Walken.
KING: Yeah. That’s an interesting…but you know, the people who made Cujo, I can’t remember now the name and the company is gone, but they met with me and my wife at the UN Plaza Hotel in New York. I was a young writer at the time and this is a case of them showing some deference to the writer when they didn’t have to, contractually, because they did that. A lot of movie people are not sharks. They’re not fiends. And they’re not stupid and they’re not untalented. And they’ll come to a writer and say, give us some input on this. And I remember them saying, you know, at the end of the novel the little boy died, and they said, jeez, what would you think if we let the little boy live at the end? I said, if you didn’t, I think they’d want to lynch us all at every theater in America. So they made that change and they had my complete approval to do that.
DEADLINE: You published a sequel to The Shining, Dr. Sleep, with a grownup Danny Torrance. Warner Bros. made the first Shining. Is that a priority for you?
KING: Well, I haven’t heard anything from anybody about any of the movie stuff yet, cuz nobody’s seen the book except for me and the publishers, but it’s pretty well done now and sitting on a desk. I would think, I would certainly hope that Warner Bros. would want a first look because that is the, absolutely be the right fit for it. I think they’re talking about a prequel to The Shining. I actually did a prequel to the novel, but it was cut form the novel when Doubleday published it way back in the day. It’s called “Before the Play” and it had a lot of stuff about what I would assume Warner Bros would want, which is how the hotel became evil and some of the people who encountered the haunting force before the Torrances showed up.
DEADLINE: Who wouldn’t want to read that?
KING: It was never published. If you look at the miniseries I did with Mick Garris you can see a piece of that at the very beginning of the miniseries. There’s a shooting in one of the rooms, and that was part of Before the Play. A mafia hit. It got published once as a chapter book. It’s available somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I know where.
DEADLINE: So what, in your mind does a major author deserve from Hollywood when they take on the challenge of trying to turn your book into a movie?
KING: They deserve a fair shake and, okay, I’ve always said to myself, I can’t understand why any filmmaker wants to spend $1 million for a book and then do something that bears very little resemblance to that book. So, I think they deserve a fair shake. Let me say one thing, Mike. The ideal movie…the writer that got the fairest shake that I know of, was Ira Levin. He wrote a novel called Rosemary’s Baby. And that movie is the book. To the point where you can say to people, if you’ve seen the movie, you don’t need to read the book.
KING: Because they’re exactly the same. Exactly. Right down to the point where Roman Polanski calls up Ira Levin on the phone and said, in this one scene you’ve got a thing about The New Yorker and there’s an ad for Burberry coats, and I want to find that issue and I haven’t been able to find it because I want to put it on the coffee table in the apartment. Levin laughed and said, I made that up. So, Polanski doped up one exactly like in the book and put it on the table.
DEADLINE: It’s funny you say that, because I can remember The World According to Garp. I love the book, and I love the movie, yet I felt like they were two free standing creatures in a way.
KING: What happens, particularly when you have a long book, is you get this miracle where the book that is 450 pages long becomes a two hour movie, and it’s perfect.
DEADLINE: But it sounds like when you say “fair shake,” you’re saying the author deserves to have more than to be shut out from the process after they entrust this something they thought about for a couple of years, and struggled to put down on paper.
KING: Well, yes and no. I mean, I know writers – and I’m not going to name any names – that I wouldn’t let within 2000 miles of a movie I was trying to make, because they’re such gremlins. They want to get in and tinker and all this. But the book deserves a fair shake. The writer? Nah.
DEADLINE: So what, precisely, does the writer deserve?
KING: What the writer deserves is a fair accounting if the movie’s a success.