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Stephen King - American Film interview

King of the Road

[Stephen King did this interview while promoting Maximum Overdrive. Though that movie is the focus of this article, he also talks about his first screening of Carrie and a few of the other films based on his works. You can download a scanned pdf of this article (which doesn't include most of the photos below) by clicking right here.]

American Film
June 1986
By Darrell Ewing & Dennis Myers

Stephen King has seen eleven films made from his works and hated most of them. Now, finally, he's in the director's chair.

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 Steven 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 vehicle goings 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 goes to the floor, the gas pedal goes up, the clutch goes in, the gears 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 of 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 I 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, "That always gets me." And I asked if you could do it, and he gave me this startled look 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 wonderfully moronic picture in that sense. It's a really illiterate 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 characters don'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 scenes between major characters be added for character and texture. I was always calling them the jumbo "John! Oh, Martha!" scenes because they're all 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 Haviland have this scene, and Fred says the equivalent -- I swear this is true -- he doesn't exactly 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 characters that you find really interesting in his pictures 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 in the theatre? 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 theatre, 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 theatre was entirely full of black people. We looked like two little grains of salt in a pepper shaker, 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 doing her schtick, 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 listening 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 movie 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 me whatsoever. Why this kid's hair blows every time she starts fires is totally beyond my understanding. I never got a satisfactory answer when I saw the rough cut. By that time, Dino [De Laurentis] was regularly asking me for 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. Martin Sheen, who is a great actors, with no direction and nobody to tell 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, 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 screams that from the beginning to the end, from plot decisions to that final scene -- 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 the conventions of the genre demand that she be caught. Then it gets worse, because when she starts to thumb through the pages she sees that who'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 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 just be this [King grabs the interviewer's shoulder], and him saying: "You like it?" But Kubrick cuts away and shows 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 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 back 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 to 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, do something new with it, but it is very unbustable, which is one of the reasons it has endured 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 is just Sonny Liston. I love it.

One of the guys who worked on The Dead Zone, someone I respect very much, told me that Dino was the first producer David Cronenberg ever had who forced him to direct. Who forced him not 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 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 who's 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 -- at least for me, because I never think about theme as a starting point -- I just think about the story. But sometimes, about three quarters of 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 Semetary to some degree is the same: It's supposed to be a reflection of what happens when people in a materialistic society, people who live for only 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 always have 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 is talking about where celebrities shop, and why people in Hollywood don't want to serve finger foods anymore. It all seems really ridiculous to me, but I love it. I love everything about it.