Q&A: Talking with Stephen King

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jon Mahoney / Bloomberg News / Landov

Stephen King.

Stephen King likes to start the conversation and so the horror author began asking questions before TIME's Gilbert Cruz could even take a seat to interview him in New York City.

STEPHEN KING: So who's going to be TIME Person of the Year?

TIME: I really don't know, there's a very small group of people who make that decision.

I was thinking, I think it should be Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan.

Yeah. You know, I just filmed a segment for Nightline, about [the movie version of his novella] The Mist, and one of the things I said to them was, you know, "You guys are just covering — what do they call it — the scream of the peacock, and you're missing the whole fox hunt." Like waterboarding [or] where all the money went that we poured into Iraq. It just seems to disappear. And yet you get this coverage of who's gonna get custody of Britney's kids? Whether or not Lindsay drank at her twenty-first birthday party, and all this other shit.

You know, this morning, the two big stories on CNN are Kanye West's mother, who died, apparently, after having some plastic surgery. The other big thing that's going on is whether or not this cop [Drew Peterson] killed his...wife. And meanwhile, you've got Pakistan in the midst of a real crisis, where these people have nuclear weapons that we helped them develop. You've got a guy in charge, who's basically declared himself the military strongman and is being supported by the Bush administration, whose raison d'etre for going into Iraq was to spread democracy in the world.

So you've got these things going on, which seem to me to be very substantive, that could affect all of us, and instead, you see a lot of this back-fence gossip. So I said something to the Nightline guy about waterboarding, and if the Bush administration didn't think it was torture, they ought to do some personal investigation. Someone in the Bush family should actually be waterboarded so they could report on it to George. I said, I didn't think he would do it, but I suggested Jenna be waterboarded and then she could talk about whether or not she thought it was torture. And then the guy from Nightline said, "Well, obviously you've not been watching World News Tonight with Charlie Gibson." But I do — I watch 'em all!

You might be one of the few people who does.
We're news junkies in my house.

Do you actually think Britney and Lindsay should be on our cover?
Yeah, I do.

Sort of a, 'This is what the media's actually interested it, so let's just put it out there' thing?
I think there ought to be some serious discussion by smart people, really smart people, about whether or not proliferation of things like The Smoking Gun and TMZ and YouTube and the whole celebrity culture is healthy. We've switched from a culture that was interested in manufacturing, economics, politics — trying to play a serious part in the world — to a culture that's really entertainment-based. I mean, I know people who can tell you who won the last four seasons on American Idol and they don't know who their f------ Congressmen are.

But you've been well in the public eye for decades now. Is it pretty blatant how much worse it's gotten?
It's worse every year. And the guy says to me — the Nightline guy — I didn't get the guy's name. Granted, I haven't been feeling real well and it was a long day of interviews. But he said to me, "If we didn't cover cultural things, we wouldn't be covering you and The Mist, and promoting the movie." And I'm like, "Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan aren't cultural." They aren't political. They're economic only in the mildest sense of the word. In fact, if I had to pick somebody, some celebrity who has had some impact this year, some sort of echo in the larger American life, I would say Hannah Montana. That whole issue of online ticket sales and scalping fascinates me. There are [legitimate] issues there about the Internet, so that actually does seem to have some cultural significance.

But Britney? Britney Spears is just trailer trash. That's all. I mean, I don't mean to be pejorative. But you observe her behavior for the past five years and you say, "Here's a lady who can't take care of her kids, she can't take care of herself, she has no retirement fund, everything that she gets runs right through her hands." And yet, you know and I know that if you go to those sites that tell you what the most blogged-about things on the Internet are, it's Britney, it's Lindsay. So I think it would be terrific [to have them as TIME Persons of the Year]. There would be such a scream from the American reading public, sure. But at the same time, it's time for somebody to discuss the difference between real news and fake news.

True, in terms of Britney Spears, she's still fairly young. When you were young, fame sort of screwed you up a bit, didn't it?
The difference is that Britney is now famous for being famous. Her sales have gone down with almost every album, bigger and bigger jumps, so that nobody really cares about her music anymore. They care about the tabloid headlines and whether or not she's wearing panties. I mean, is this an issue that the American public needs to turn its brainpower on? Britney Spears' lingerie, or lack thereof?

I'll pass your suggestion along. So you're a news junkie?
I got hooked by my wife. You'd be surprised, or maybe you wouldn't be surprised, being that I'm around John Mellancamp a lot — he and I are doing this play. But it's the news 24-7. Always on.

What's this play?
It's called Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. It's a musical.

What's the plan with that?
Hopefully we'll open out of town next year. Maybe in Atlanta, if they have any water left.

When next year?
My guess it probably like June or July. We're at the point where we've got the director. The music's set. The book's set. We're fairly set. At least until audiences turn up. If they turn up their noses then things change. We're supposed to be, maybe in Atlanta, maybe in Boston, I've heard talk about California. But we've got to open out of town and see if people like what we've got.

What's the gist of the story?
[Mellencamp] had bought a place in Indiana by a lake, and he said that the person had told him the place was haunted. Well, you hear that — when you buy a place that's been around for a while in the woods, people are going to say it's haunted. [Apparently], there was some kind of tragedy that involved two brothers and a girl in the fifties — one of the brothers shot the other one apparently in some kind of a drunken game. Killed him. So the other brother and the girl jumped in the car to take the kid to the hospital, because they thought maybe they could save him. They ran into a tree and they were both killed. So apparently the ghosts haunted the place. So John asked me, "Do you think we could turn this into a play?"

In a way, he came to me at the right time. He's been doing what he does for a long time, and I've been doing what I do for a long time. John has tried things, he's tried to keep the music fresh, he's continued to release new music, [to] try different things and different formats. And he wanted to graze, to try this idea of doing dramatic music. I've always been up for something that was a little different — just keep turning the earth over, so you don't dig yourself a rut and furnish it, you know what I mean? That's how we got together.

So you expanded that little snippet of a story?
Yeah. That's my job, to take something like that, which is fairly generic, and make a story out of it that's unique. I [wrote a little and Mellencamp did some music] and then I went to him and said, "We've reached a decision point here. Neither of us knows s--- about theater. The only thing I know is that, at this point, it either becomes like Andrew Lloyd Webber — and everybody sings everything — or it can be like My Fair Lady, where people actually talk in between the singing. They go blah blah blah and then [he sings] "I could have danced all night." And then they blah blah blah some more.

Well, if it opens in New York, I'll check it out.

It probably will. We're a bit radioactive, because it has a subtext about homosexuality and it's set in the fifties so they bandy about a lot of pejorative words that were common coinage back then. But, Tennessee Williams got away with it.

Alright, I have to ask you some questions about The Mist.
Of course you do.

Short questions. First one...
And short answers!

This is the third movie you've done with Frank Darabont, the third movie he's directed based on your work.
Well, actually, there are four. The way I met him was, he did a short film of [my story] "The Woman in the Room." That was back when he was in his early twenties and he was trying to break into movies. Like [The Shawshank Redemption], which he did next, it didn't have so much as a smidge of the supernatural in it.

Are you guys film soulmates? Does he just do Stephen King better than other people?
He does it really well, though there are other people who have done my work and I've been pleased with the results. But the only person that I can say that has come back for seconds and has really done me proud other than Frank would be Rob Reiner, who did Stand by Me and then came back and did Misery. And Frank will say, "I have the world's smallest specialty. I only do prison movies written by Stephen King." And he's been going on about how proud he is that he made The Mist and broke out of that mold. But I told him, "Frank, it's still a story about people in prison. They're just in prison in a supermarket!"

Is he going to do more of your stuff? There are tons more stories out there that haven't been made into movies.
Frank has the option on a short story called "The Monkey."

The one that was on the cover of the old Skeleton Crew paperback?
Right. And he'd like to do The Long Walk, which is one of the Bachman books [written by King under a pseudonym]. But The Long Walk is so downbeat, it makes The Mist look like Young Frankenstein.

Part of The Mist is this subtext about how fear makes people irrational. How do you think that's playing out in the world today?
Well, it's always there. What The Mist reminds me of is a big, exciting version of a Twilight Zone episode like "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street." In that episode, these aliens did an experiment to see what fear did to human beings. [In The Mist], there really are monsters and they show up on Main Street in this little town. Granted, the situation is unreal, but an audience can say, "Here's a good, harmless place where I can actually test drive what I would do in a disaster." Particularly if the disaster was just totally inexplicable. But in the real world, if disaster strikes us, it seems to me that it's always inexplicable.

There have been so many movies and TV miniseries made from your stories and, not to be disrespectful, but some of them are stinkers. Sleepwalkers, Sometimes They Come Back and its various sequels, etc... How do you maintain quality control? Do you even try?
I'd go crazy. I don't try to maintain quality control. Except I try to get good people involved. The thing is, when you put together a script, a director, and all the other variables, you never really know what's going to come out. And so you start with the idea that it's like a baseball game — you put the best team you can on the field, and you know that, more times than not, you're gonna win.
And in my case, more of the movies than not — if we except things like Return to Salem's Lot, Children of the Corn 4, The Children of the Corn Meet the Leprechaun or whatever it is — if you do that, then most times you're going to have something that's interesting anyway. That doesn't mean you're going to have the occasional thing that's just a train wreck like Dreamcatcher, because that happens, right?

Why do you think filmmakers are so fond of your work?
It's visual. I grew up at the movies. I went to movies before I wrote. My first editor Bill Thompson used to laugh and say "Steve King has a movie projector in his head." Filmmakers react to that. They see, because they're visual creatures themselves, and they say, "Gee, I'd love to do that." In some cases they run their heads into the noose, because it's easier to make it up in your mind than it is on the screen.

You retired there for a while but then came back with a few books. What are you working on now?
When I said to that lady from the L. A. Times I might retire, I was still recovering from the accident that I was in [where King was struck by a car], I was in a lot of pain, and I was under the pressure of finishing The Dark Tower. At that point, retirement looked good. When the pain went away and The Dark Tower finished up, retirement started to look bad. I have a book that's coming out in January called Duma Key, and there's the musical. I'm like Travis McGee, I can take my retirement in chunks.

Are you enjoying it?
I have a good time. I came in last night, after the premiere [of The Mist] and I kinda said to myself, "This is not a bad life." They give you the keys to the playground and they say, "That's your job for now on, you play for the rest of us. You're the designated kid. Make up stories," so what's not to like? Well, sometimes there's stuff. Lot of interviews, sometimes it gets you down, but, mostly it's good.