By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
What can be said about author Stephen King that hasn’t already been explored ad infinitum by thousands of scholars, journalists, filmmakers and fans throughout his half-century career? King hasn’t been “just a writer” for a long time. He’s long since transcended his profession to become a pop culture phenomenon and a recognized literary brand who has inspired legions of constant readers to invest millions of dollars in the fruits of his fertile imagination.
In the intervening years, the story of King’s rise to fame has become something of an American folk myth in which the struggling author’s unfinished manuscript for Carrie is fished from a wastebasket by his ever-supportive wife, Tabitha, launching his career and making him a bestselling author virtually overnight. What is often left out of this mostly true tale is that Carrie‘s initial 1974 hardback printing was, at best, a modest midlist success. It would take another two years, a paperback edition and a hit film adaptation by Brian DePalma to drive King’s first published novel to the top of The New York Times bestseller list.
From the beginning, film and TV adaptations have been crucial to King’s dominance of both the horror genre and the pop culture landscape as a whole, a point that Belgium-born documentarian Daphné Baiwir makes abundantly (and lovingly) clear in her new film, KING ON SCREEN. Featuring extensive interviews with such filmmakers, writers and actors as Frank Darabont, Mick Garris, Mike Flanagan, Amy Irving and Dee Wallace (among many others), Baiwir’s film is the most complete exploration of the many translations of King’s work to film yet produced. Recently, Baiwir sat down with RUE MORGUE’s online managing editor, William J. Wright, to discuss her lifelong love of King and the many challenges of bringing KING ON SCREEN to life.
What was your first experience with Stephen King’s work? How old were you? And what effect did it have on you?
Well, actually, I was pretty young because I discovered Stephen King when I was 10. And I’ve always been a huge reader. I really loved horror, even as a child. So I asked my father to recommend some horror stories to read. [He said], “You should read The Shining“ … I read the book in like in two days, something like that. After that, I read IT and other stories. Then, I saw all the [film] adaptations. I’ve pretty much always been a King fan.
Ten seems to be the magic number for becoming a King fan. That was the age I was when I first snuck off with my mom’s copy of Night Shift back in 1981. Childhood seems to be when Stephen King gets his hooks in a lot of horror fans.
King’s work seems uniquely American and so tailored for an American audience, but of course, you’re from Belgium. Why is he so universally loved? Why do you think his writing appealed to you as a European?
Well, I think it’s interesting to see because Stephen King has a great reputation in Europe. He is much read. I think Europeans, in general, are intrigued by his vision of America and how complex it is and the way he’s able to describe small American towns and the ambiance that he sets in every one of his novels. I think it’s something that is quite appealing for Europeans – and the political aspect of it as well because Europeans are really sensitive to that.
How did this project come about? And why did you decide to concentrate solely on the films based on King’s work rather than the novels and stories?
It all started in 2019. I was talking with my producer, Sebastian Cruz, and I was telling him that I really wanted to make a documentary about Stephen King. There were a couple of documentaries that already existed about him, but [those were] mostly based on his life or him and his books and not so much about the films. With Stephen King being the most adapted living author, I thought that it could be great to have the directors’ points of view because they take on this incredible job of taking King’s novels and putting them on the screen. And it’s such an impressive process, I think, and such an interesting work to do. So I really wanted to be able to speak with the filmmakers about how they worked on their films and what happened.
KING ON SCREEN spends quite a bit of time dissecting controversy around Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining. Why do you think that that film found its audience, especially since it was originally so derided by King fans as well as the author himself? Why do you think it has defied the odds to become a classic Stephen King film?
Well, I think, first of all, it’s directed by Stanley Kubrick, who was one of the most renowned filmmakers of all time. I think that’s what made the film so popular somehow, and at the same time, I think that the movie is stunning … The imagery is really interesting, and it has a lot of interesting things in it. But at the same time, when I read The Shining when I was 10, and I watched the film a couple of days after reading the book, I was pretty much able to see the differences between the two works. I was a little bit disappointed because it doesn’t have the Stephen King vibe in it. You know, it was like following more or less the recipe but without the heart of Stephen King in it. That’s something that I noticed because I thought it was lacking a lot – even the characters, When you see Jack Torrance, for example, you see that he’s not depicted like in the book. That’s something that I think bothered a lot of fans.
In your opinion, what is the best King adaptation? Or if not the best, your favorite?
My favorite would be The Green Mile because I think the film is so moving. It’s such a well-done film, a gem. I think everything in the film is perfect. The actors are amazing … Honestly, I think it’s a perfect film. Everything – the rhythm, the actors, the pacing – is perfect. It’s a film that takes the time it needs. I think it’s the most powerful King adaptation.
Stephen King is kind of conspicuous by his absence in the documentary. Was it ever your intention to have him involved? Or is it by design that he’s not in the documentary?
Well, we, since day one, when we said, “Okay, we are going to make a documentary about the filmmakers who adapted [King],” we thought it would be a bad idea to have in the documentary because it would give the impression that we would have put together two completely different films. I mean, talking with Stephen King about the adaptations of his work is a documentary in itself. I wanted the filmmakers to talk about their films and to have their voices. The result wouldn’t be the same if King was in its giving his opinions. So I didn’t want to have him there. We thought about having him in the introduction, the fictional introduction, but we couldn’t make it happen, which was a shame, for sure.
However, you are in that fictional wraparound that bookends the doc. Tell me about that shooting those scenes.
I was! We wanted to have this special journey of the director of the documentary going and discovering the Stephen King universe. It’s kind of a metaphor, somehow – and going into the directors’ work and talking to the directors. It was a way to enter into the universe of Stephen King and the documentary at the same time.
How many Stephen King easter eggs are in that sequence? Because I stopped counting at around 50!
I think there are more than 300. There are actors who were in previous Stephen King adaptations and even how they are dressed is a reference. The dialogue contains a lot of different references, too. It was crazy because we built the Creepshop, and it was like entering into the Stephen King universe. It was pretty amazing. We even got help from some of the directors. The Creepshow puppet that we see in the fictional introduction is Greg Nicotero’s puppet. He kindly sent it to us so we could put it in the window and we were so thrilled.
Are there any directors that you wish you could have spoken with who declined to participate or weren’t available? John Carpenter jumps to my mind for Christine.
Yeah, absolutely. We really wanted to talk to John Carpenter or Rob Reiner or Mary Lambert, for example, but they couldn’t do it in terms of schedule, or sometimes, they just didn’t want to speak in the documentary. We are still amazingly happy with the directors like Frank Darabont and Mike Flanagan that we had the chance to have because they are amazing. I think it’s okay to not have the other names because, honestly, I was so thrilled to speak to these amazing directors that we have.
It is a wonderful selection of talent. Every one of these films could have its documentary, and you’ve barely scratched the surface of King movie adaptations. There are so many more to talk about. Would you like to come back and do another volume of KING ON SCREEN?
Oh, we could because we have like something like 40 hours of interviews. So we have a lot. We plan on having a book with the full-length interviews so fans can have more insight about the film and the directors’ work.
Along with the companion book will there be more content available, perhaps a special edition Blu-ray or DVD?
Yeah, it’s something we think about. It’s still in the works, but there should be some great behind-the-scenes material on the Blu-ray as well.
If you could direct a feature based on any Stephen King novel or short story, what would you pick? And it doesn’t matter if it’s one that’s been produced before because we’re well into the age of Stephen King movie remakes now.
I wouldn’t choose one that hasn’t been made before. One that I think is great and that has never been adapted is Duma Key. I really love that book, and I think it could be great on the screen because it’s so visual. That could make a great movie. It’s one of the stories that I wish I could perhaps maybe have the chance to do, if possible.
What’s next? I understand you are working on another documentary about another very important figure in the suspense and horror genres.
I just finished a documentary about Alfred Hitchcock – and not only about Hitchcock. It’s about Hitchcock and John Steinbeck. They worked together on the film, Lifeboat. It was released at the end of the Second World War, and it was very controversial at the time. The film will be shown at the Venice Film Festival in September. We are pretty excited about this one. And I’m now preparing a documentary about Tim Burton, as well.
KING ON SCREEN is now playing in select theaters. Look for it on VOD and Blu-ray on September 8.