By LORENZO RICCIARDI
IN THE TALL GRASS is a brutal little short story Stephen King co-wrote with his son, Joe Hill, for Esquire magazine in 2012. Other than an e-reader and digital audiobook release, it’s been kept pretty low-key; the story hasn’t even appeared in any of King or Hill’s short story collections so far.
When siblings Becky and Cal hear the cries of a young boy lost within a field of tall grass, they venture in to rescue him, only to become ensnared themselves by a sinister force that quickly disorients and separates them. Cut off from the world and unable to escape the field’s tightening grip, they soon discover that the only thing worse than getting lost is being found.
Natali, a longtime King fan, was approached by a producer friend who had a connection to both King and Hill, and an idea that he would be perfect to adapt this unflinching tale of people supernaturally lost in the tall grass next to a rural highway. So he pitched his idea for the adaptation, which included the addition of a character named Travis, who’s only briefly mentioned in the short story: the boyfriend of the very pregnant Becky, who comes looking for her after she gets lost in the titular tall grass.
King and Hill gave Natali the the so-called “The Dollar Baby” option, an arrangement where the authors grant permission to students and aspiring filmmakers or theatre producers to adapt one of his short stories for a dollar. Natali was given three months to deliver a draft, but the timing of the deal was problematic for the writer/director. He had already committed to some TV projects, which meant that he had to bang out the first draft in just about three weeks. He met his deadline, the option continued to the next step, which was to get it set up at a studio or production house in a timely matter. But the Canadian director soon found out that this story wasn’t exactly studio material. It’s one part psychological horror and one part gorefest. Natali technically lost the option some five years ago but a few years later, after the great success of It: Chapter One suddenly anything with King’s name on it was golden again, and Natali was given again from King and Hill the green light to continue trying to make the film. We caught up with Vincenzo Natali to talk about finally translating the book to screen.
In the tall grass is your first long-feature based on a novel. What kind of experience was that?
Well, it’s the first produced one but prior to this I had written adaptations of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and JG Ballard’s Highrise, which were great primers for the adaption process because they required a non-literal adaptation to work as movies. In the tall grass is much the same, except in this case the material didn’t need to be reimagined as much as it needed to be expanded upon. My approach was to pretend that I was writing the novel version of this story. I didn’t invent new characters or locations, I just found a way to extrapolate on what already existed in the original novella. In that way, I hope I retained the spirit of the original work and yet at the same time was able allow it to grow into something more.
What’s the difference between the process of adapting a novel and making a movie “ex novo” starting from an original idea born in your mind like most of your movies?
The difference is that I get to step into someone else’s skin and explore their worlds. It’s a bit like acting, playing a role… taking on the voice ofanother (and in these cases) far superior writers… writers who were very influential to me. I can only hope I did them justice. With my own films, I never have to think about the ‘voice’ it’s just me… for better or worse.
In the tall grass is a short novel, was there enough material to make a long-feature? Was that difficult to adapt?
As I said, it needed to be expanded on, otherwise it would have been a short film. Fortunately the novella is pregnant with so many powerful ideas and images that it was easy to let this seed of a thing grow into something bigger. The novella deals with the primal issues of being human: like sex death, religion and our relationship to nature. There is so much there, it could easily spawn a second film.
How was the project berthed?
The story was given to me by a producer friend, Gloria Fan. At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it because I thought it might be too close to other things that I’ve done before, but then it sort worked its magic on me and I was pulled (willingly) into that grass world. That was about five years ago, which is about my average timeline to get a movie made.
“The novella deals with the primal issues of being human… There is so much there, it could easily spawn a second film.”
What about the story convinced you to come on board to direct the movie?
There is a specific scene that I don’t want to reveal and spoiler. It horrified me, which at this stage in my life is not so easy to do. But it was more than just grotesque, it was getting at some kind of basic truth about life… about how we are made from the same stuff we consume. And then there were powerful religious parallels. On some level this movie (and the story) is about how religion is used to both liberate us as well as trap us. I thought it was all very potent and boundary-pushing, which I always feel is what the best horror films do.
You already worked on Joe Hill’s stuff with Locke & Key, based on his comic books. Was he involved in the production and writing process of In the tall grass?
He was very supportive throughout and as we got closer to actually making the movie, Joe and I corresponded a fair amount. He wrote a beautiful speech for Ross, which is one of my favourite moments in the movie. He has remained a staunch supporter. And then I just loved working on Locke & Key. The graphic novel is where I first encountered Joe’s writing. I’m a big fan.
It’s really tough to put Stephen King’s stories on the screen. Did you feel a big pressure, the big “weight” of responsability on yourself because of this? Are you a fan of his books?
It was a little bit terrifying, but I had just come off of my Gibson and Ballard adaptations so I had already jumped that hurdle a few times already. And like many in my generation Stephen King was a formative influence. The Shining was the first ‘adult’ book I read. As a kid I tried to imitate his writing style. I really keyed into the psychological complexity and the truthfulness of his characters, who are almost always average people. He really understands blue collar America, which was a place not a lot of horror had really explored at that time. It’s very truthful stuff. Some of the film adaptations fail because they can’t replicate the depth of those characterizations.
What in the story did you want to keep at all costs and what did you want or need to change?
I would not have made the film without the scene I’ve talked about before. That was a deal-breaker for me. In terms of the original story, I didn’t need to change much, it was more about moving some pieces around so that there are some surprises left for later in the film… and then it was just about extrapolating this character who is referred to in the story but not seen, who now becomes part of the triangle that is the emotional center of film.
IN THE TALL GRASS was produced by Canada’s Copperhead Entertainment for Netflix that had already produced two King’s adaptations, Gearld’s Game and 1922. Watch it now on Netflix.