Playing Tag with Death: Part 1 of an Interview with Mick Garris About Bag of Bones


On December 11th and 12th, A&E will air a four-hour miniseries based on Stephen King's 1998 novel, Bag of Bones. The movie is directed by Mick Garris, who is no stranger to adapting King's work. He previously directed Sleepwalkers (1992), The Stand (1994), The Shining (1997), "Chattery Teeth" in Quicksilver Highway (1997), Riding the Bullet (2004), and Desperation (2006).

Bag of Bones stars Pierce Brosnan in his first television appearance in over 15 years. Annabeth Gish and Melissa George co-star. I talked to Mick Garris about the project a few weeks ago while he was working on post-production. Due to its length, we will publish the interview in three weekly installments. On the fourth week, a few days before the miniseries airs, I plan to bring you my review of A&E's Bag of Bones.

Before we get to the interview, a little bit about the book on which the miniseries is based. Though Bag of Bones, King's first novel with Scribner, has horror elements, the publisher played up its literary and romantic aspects. King said at the time that he wanted to write a Gothic novel about buried secrets that are slowly revealed, and that Bag of Bones contains everything he knows about marriage, lust and ghosts.

Mike Noonan is a mid-list novelist whose wife dies unexpectedly in the book's opening pages. In the aftermath, he discovers that she was keeping secrets. He also acquires a monumental case of writer's block. The simple act of launching Word makes him physically ill. Because he used to be prolific, he is able to keep his affliction secret from his agent and publisher. Whenever they need a new book, he gives them one of the extra manuscripts he has been stockpiling for years.

Eventually, though, the vault runs dry. When the time comes to sign a new—and lucrative—publishing contract, Mike escapes to his summer home on Dark Score Lake in western Maine. He has been dreaming of "Sara Laughs" for years, but has avoided going there since his wife died. After he returns to his personal Manderley (one of the novel's many literary allusions), his life is turned upside down. Something otherworldly in the cottage seems to be sending him messages, and he meets a much younger woman who sparks his romantic interest. He finds a new mission in life: helping Mattie Devore battle her malevolent, vastly wealthy father-in-law, Max Devore, for custody of her daughter, Kyra. He even starts to write again. But terrible secrets from the past push their way to the surface.

Bruce Willis optioned the novel in 2001. A screenwriter and director were named and a 2004 release was proposed. However, the adaptation never got off the ground. A couple of years later, Mick Garris acquired the rights, though the project went back and forth between being a feature film and a TV miniseries. 

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Did Bruce Willis ever do anything with the novel? Was there a script?

There were two or three drafts of a script, none of which I had ever seen. I thought he was a great choice, whether it was as Mike [Noonan] or just as a producer and not necessarily that it was going to be him starring in it. But he would have been a really interesting choice for that. It's one of my favorite King books and something I really wanted to do, so fortunately it became available and Steve was agreeable to us putting it together and then the rest will be history in three weeks.

You originally conceived this as a feature film and had scripts done for feature length.

We did. It's a very tough story to make cinematic, especially because it's a genre film. It's a tough sell to a studio as a genre film because it is so grown up. These days they think of genre films as films for teenagers and young people, and this is not Saw—it's not that kind of movie. It's something that's very passionate and grown up. Hopefully it will appeal to a young audience as well, and a wide audience, but it has a lot more depth and heart and passion than you get from your normal genre film, so it's not going to be a Screen Gems film.

Truthfully, the two-hour script really felt like we were missing stuff. It's a pretty dense book and even though the mystery behind the haunting is fairly complicated in the book, and it's been streamlined somewhat, there's still a lot to it and there are still things you have to lose. I actually like the miniseries script much more than the feature version because it is so personal and so human that it needs a little of that breathing time and storytelling and winding the clock before the hauntings get deep into it.

Did you have to be more cautious in the way you framed certain things for television?

I thought we would have some trouble but just last week [the network] saw the cut that we had completed and we didn't get any notes from Standards and Practices, which is pretty incredible. We have some pretty extensive effects. There are some fairly intense and even brutal scenes here and there, and there are definitely horrific moments, but when you're talking about cable, even commercial cable—basic cable with commercial advertising support—it's more liberal than ABC, and we went pretty far with The Stand and The Shining. The last hour of The Shining, I've always said, would probably have gotten an R rating if it came out theatrically. You have certain expectations when Stephen King's name is in the title. I've certainly had more than my share of television censorship, but that never proved to be an issue here, much to A&E's credit. I think they see that there's nothing gratuitous here, that it's all part of telling the story.

Over the time that you've been developing this project, you scouted a lot of different locations. 

We went to Maine first and we actually met with the governor at the time—the former governor, I might add. The good one. They wanted this to maybe be their first film in an incentive program, a test film, but the State Senate outvoted it at that point. Because of financial concerns, we had to go to places where states have incentivized the filmmaking process. Michigan has had a lot of luck shooting there. Louisiana. We needed some place that would work well for Maine. 

At one point you were set to film in Alaska.

We actually went to Alaska in January. It was a beautiful place. We found a lake house and a lake. We could have made it work there, but it ended up not working out, which is all the better, really. Nova Scotia is so topographically like Maine that it does not feel like a compromise at all. We were in Halifax for about half of it and in various surroundings for the other half. If you have to go where there's a tax subsidy for filmmaking in Canada and you're shooting Maine, that's a good alternative. We did Vancouver for Maine for Riding the Bullet, but this worked great. Nova Scotia is a pretty great place. Four months in any location is a long time and you can burn out on it. When we were prepping in June and July there were thirty-five days straight of rain. Other than that it was great.

Once you started filming, was the weather more cooperative?

It was, but there are degrees of cooperation. Weather is definitely an issue if you're shooting in Nova Scotia and we had a lot of exterior work that we had to do. Some days we were amazingly lucky. For example, when we were shooting the Dark Score Lake Fair—in the movie it's 1939, it was earlier in the book—it would have killed us to have rain. Those were days we could not reschedule. We really lucked out there. There were other days . . . there's a certain bus crash that takes place in the movie that ended up being on a rainy day, which worked out great, the aftermath of that. It wasn't written to be in rain but it really plays well into the mood of it. It was a consideration almost every day.

The insects can be a little bit daunting, too, I suppose.

Oh, man! If only you'd warned me. We did a lot of exterior shooting and scenes in the woods where Sara Tidwell is attacked and there were mosquitoes like I'd never seen before. They looked like flying horses.

There was a rumor that Stephen King appeared on the set and was doing a cameo.

There was that rumor and there is absolutely no truth in it. It came from some Nova Scotia newspaper or website, I think it was, and who they had been seen was Pierce Brosnan and they knew he was working on a Stephen King project. You know, they're both tall, dark-haired fellows, easily mistaken for one another, right? (laughs) Steve was going to play Buddy Jellison if it worked into his schedule and then Cynthia my wife was going to play Audrey who worked in Buddy's café, but it didn't work out for either of them so that was disappointing, but then we got local actors who did a great job. Steve is great when he does that stuff. It's so much fun to have him around, but unfortunately it hasn't worked out.

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Check back next week for part 2 of my interview with Mick Garris, where he talks about the production schedule, the cast and who else might have played Mike Noonan. 

In the interim, check out the Dark Score Stories website, a prequel to the miniseries, revealing the characters' backgrounds through photo essays with accompanying commentary tracks. Examine the pictures carefully: they are beautiful works of art, but they also contain a gazillion references to Stephen King's work. I challenge you to find them all! Every character in King's novels who has been a writer has a book on a shelf somewhere in these pictures.