Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Josh Boone

One of the biggest surprise hits of 2014 was the cinematic adaptation of John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars. With a budget of just twelve million dollars, the film went on to earn over three-hundred million worldwide, and gave its director Josh Boone carte blanche in Hollywood. But what Hollywood didn’t know was that Boone was a lifelong horror fan who was more interested in adapting Stephen King than additional teen romances. With production partners Knate Lee and Jill Killington, Boone used his newfound success to pursue dream projects like cinematic adaptations of Stephen King’s The Stand, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and the X-Men spinoff film New Mutants. He’s also optioned Caitlin R. Kiernan’s award-winning The Drowning Girl and her earlier novel The Red Tree, as well as Peter Straub’s Mr. X. In addition, he’s currently working on a TV series based on Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mystery novels, and a feature film version of Stephen King’s Revival. And he continues to be a voracious horror reader, although he admits that these days his schedule keeps him confined mainly to short story collections since he spends his work days immersed in the novels he’s adapting.

So your parents were evangelicals . . . ?

Absolutely. Or Born Agains, whatever you want to call them. We were Methodist for the first seven or eight years of my life and things were pretty normal, but things took a turn when we started going to a Baptist church. They got divorced when I was eighteen and that fervor seems to have subsided. My mom reads Stephen King books now, my dad as well. They’re still believers, but not in the truly scary way that they were when I was a teen. I remember coming across this book—Gorbachev! Has the Real Antichrist Come?—and they were insinuating on the cover that the birthmark on his forehead was the Mark of the Beast.

Did they believe that?

I don’t know, but they had all these books about the End Times, so there wasn’t any real difference between religion and the horror books I was reading. It was all absolutely terrifying.

Where did you get your first horror book?

My dad was always a voracious reader. On the bottom shelf of his bookshelf in his office he had the paperbacks of Carrie, Christine, The Bachman Books, and Salem’s Lot with the Tobe Hooper mini-series cover and the stills in the middle. I remember being fascinated by all that stuff before I could really even read. I recognized the Stephen King logo before I even knew what it said. This was before the Born Again days. The first Stephen King book I read was Firestarter; I got that from the library when I was about seven or eight. I still vividly remember reading that in the bedroom I shared with my younger brother and getting lost in that book. And I watched horror movies. My parents really only policed sex in movies. I could go to the horror section of the video store and rent A Nightmare on Elm Street.

But my dad really read more than anything else—I’d go into their room at night, and my dad would always be reading with one of those little book lights clipped to his book. I really attribute my love of books to him completely. I remember coming across some notebooks of poetry he wrote in high school or college in our attic when I was in high school and being really moved that there was a time when he felt the same creative spark I did.

Is he still around?

Yes, and still an avid reader! We bond over mystery series. He reads all the Michael Connellys, the James Lee Burkes, Walter Mosley’s stuff, so I read those, too. We’ve read every John D. MacDonald title. He reads King, too, and, I think he was especially pleased with King’s recent Bill Hodges series because my dad loves a good detective story.

He must like what you’re doing now, then.

Totally! They’re my biggest cheerleaders. My mom still gets mad, though, when I bring up the time they confiscated some hidden King books they’d found and burned them in the fireplace.

Is it true you have a photo of that?

I do. A very high pile of ashes. Because they burned the hardcovers of The Stand and It. That was the original ’78 version of The Stand, not the later one. That’s the one I read first. Even at the time, I remember thinking how ironic it was that they burned The Stand, which has to be the most Christian horror novel of all time.

Because your dad was kind of into the horror stuff, it wasn’t as if reading it was an act of rebellion for you, then . . .

Not until later. Once we went to a Baptist Church, and everybody was getting saved and baptized, and burning their cassette tapes and records in the church parking lot, I had to become a spy. All that freedom I had—to read what I wanted, watch what I wanted, listen to what I wanted—went out the window. We had to dub Guns N’ Roses albums over Christian cassette tapes—stuff like Petra and DC TALK—to hide them. And King very quickly became banned in our house, almost all horror fiction did. They really believed those books were Satanic or some sort of gateway to Satanism. So, it was subterfuge all the time. And I say “we” all the time because my best friend since birth is Knate Lee, who is one of my writing and producing
partners now at our company, Mid-World Productions. Our moms are best friends, we all went to the same Southern Baptist church. Movies and books were really our window to see outside the craziness of it, because it would get really, truly crazy. It wasn’t so bad when we were younger—the ’80s were idyllic—but the ’90s was like Jesus Camp. That kind of crazy.

One night when we were little kids, Knate and I snuck up into my attic and found boxes of all my dad’s comics from the ’50s and ’60s, and that was how we got into comics. We had a comic book company and still have all these stapled comics we made when we were kids. It was really a completely natural thing for us to want to do a movie in the X-Men universe. We’d go to this store called Smith Books when we were little, which was this independent book store that sold comics, and every month we’d buy the new Spider-Man comics. We’d read them, then hang out and ask, “Okay, what happens next?” We’d tell each other the next issue, see how far down the line we could take it. It was like oral storytelling.

Everything I do in my life today is an extension of all the things I did when I was a kid.

Did you make your own short films growing up?

Oh yeah. Knate and I grew up making movies. We edited them in-camera as we shot them. We started making Batman movies, where his dad would play the Joker. We made a Back to the Future rip-off called Time Trouble, where we had these utensils floating in the air on strings as if in the future your silverware would feed you. And that all eventually led to original stuff. Our first real ambitious effort was called The Rapture. We shot ten or fifteen minutes of it, and we made my brother disappear—we sat him on his bed, hit “Record,” paused it, had him get out of bed so it’s like he’s just gone in a flash. We were making it as if we got left behind after the Rapture, because that’s what we always thought was going to happen. We were like, “He’s never going to take us. We’re done.”

It was all we ever wanted to do. I mean, truly—it was this or flipping burgers. I have been completely obsessed my entire life with writing and making movies. There was simply nothing else I wanted to do.

When you made your first feature Stuck in Love, you put Stephen King in it, and I have to wonder: was that an homage, or part of a bigger plan at getting to him?

When I was twelve, I mailed King a package with the first three books in his Dark Tower series inside for him to sign, along with a letter professing my love for his books and my desire to be a writer when I grew up. I didn’t know King’s address, only that he lived in Bangor, Maine, and I sent the package out into the universe hoping it would reach him. And it did.

A box arrived in the mail several weeks later. Inside were my Dark Tower books, each inscribed with a lengthy note from Steve, who encouraged me in my writing and thanked me for being a fan. He also threw in an expensive limited edition of one of his books, My Pretty Pony, as a gift. My parents, genuinely moved by King’s kindness and generosity, lifted the ban on his books that very day.

Using him was never an ulterior motive or a plan, because the script was so autobiographical that to not include him would have been a huge oversight. King telling me he believed in me when I was a kid was a really big deal, so Nat Wolff’s encounter with Steve at the end of Stuck in Love was really just me adapting my own life. King was truly a god to me back then. In a lot of ways, he still is. A towering figure, you know?

Especially when you’re directing him.

I didn’t have to direct him much. He’s a bit of a natural actor, I would say. I visited him in Florida at the studio where he does his audiobooks and recorded his dialogue for the movie. And no one saw it. It really only gained its audience through Fault. It came on Netflix, and all these kids saw it. I’m really grateful to Netflix because they “spotlighted” that movie for a really long time and a lot of teenagers watched it and loved it. I get messages all the time from teens who say it’s their favorite movie and that makes me so happy because I made it for them. I remembered vividly how it felt to be that age and I wanted to capture that and also give myself a little wish fulfillment and rewrite my teenage years.

Let’s skip forward past The Fault in Our Stars, which you’ve already talked about a lot elsewhere, and go right to the Stephen King adaptations. First off, why do you think so many King adaptations don’t work?

But I feel like so many of them do and a handful could be considered some of the greatest films ever made. We’ve got The Shawshank Redemption, The Shining, Stand By Me, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Misery, The Green Mile, Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot mini-series . . . Did you watch that when it came out?

Oh yeah.

And it scared the fuck out of you when that kid was at the window, right? So that’s an iconic horror scene. Even some of the lesser ones I’m really fond of . . . my biggest Stephen King guilty pleasure is Silver Bullet. I LOVE Silver Bullet. Haim in that insanely fast wheelchair and Gary Busey as his crazy uncle, that To Kill A Mockingbird voice-over by the sister. It’s all so good. And I love Cat’s Eye! I think that’s one of the best horror anthology films ever. Of course, there are a lot of bad ones as well. Without a doubt. It really comes down to tone and sensibility.

Is the problem with the bad ones really that they focus more on the monster or the evil and forget the characters?

Totally. Look at Christine. I mean, I love John Carpenter—look at Halloween and The Thing—but I think Christine is a fail when you compare it to the book. It fails to capture the tone, that melancholy, the tragedy of it. The last twenty pages of Christine are heartbreaking. It’s all what you choose to focus on when you adapt a book. You can strip the beating heart out of it and still have a fairly entertaining horror flick about a killer car, but if you’ve read the book you feel how hollow that movie is in comparison. I would put Pet Sematary in the same category. I think that’s one of the best books King’s ever written. A masterpiece about mortality. I find the movie entertaining, but hollow by comparison.

So what’s your favorite King adaptation?

I think The Shawshank Redemption is one of the great American films. Stand By Me would be a close second. The Shining, Carrie, and The Dead Zone would complete my top five, I guess.

What’s happening with The Stand right now?

We’re working on it. The reason The Stand hasn’t been made yet is because it’s expensive. It’s a problem of perception, I think. We really are attempting to revive the idea of the elevated horror film—movies like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining—A-list films with A-list casts. The 1980s really killed this idea because studios realized you could make horror films for dirt cheap and make a killing.

In theory, every studio wants to make The Stand. It’s a bona fide American classic. It should be an event movie. A big, serious-minded epic with an awe-inspiring cast that is as faithful as possible to King’s narrative and intentions. This should be The Godfather of post-apocalyptic epics. I adapted the book and have King’s blessing. We got that awe-inspiring cast. But WB didn’t want to spend what it would actually cost to make the movie. To have a real conversation about making this film at a level that is appropriate for the book King wrote is an 85-to-100-million-dollar conversation, which from where I’m sitting sounds like a no-brainer considering the mind-numbing nonsense that studios spend 250 million on. Which brings me back to that perception problem. They look at The Stand and wonder why they can’t make this post-apocalyptic horror movie for 35 million. King and I were most excited and continue to be most excited about a single three hour event movie: The Godfather of post-apocalyptic movies.

My hope is that we’ll go make that movie with Lionsgate. My adaptation is incredibly faithful to King’s book but the way I was able to contain all of it in a single three hour film is: I shattered King’s structure and told the story non-linear. That was really what broke everything open for me. The opening scene is Mother Abagail on her deathbed sending our heroes off to make their stand against the Dark Man in Vegas and then we jump back in time and you basically have three spinning timelines going the whole movie—Captain Trips, Boulder, and The Stand, same as the book, but they are all happening simultaneously. Sequences that fall hundreds of pages apart in the book stand side by side in the film, echoing and resonating in new and strange ways. I remain incredibly excited about that script. I can’t wait to make it. The Stand is the movie of a lifetime, so I’m completely content waiting until someone gives us exactly what we need to do it right rather than to compromise.

What can you tell us about The Vampire Chronicles?

Not a ton, but it’s hugely exciting. I’m working with the most incredible producers. Brian Grazer and Erica Huggins and Anna Culp at Imagine and Alex Kurtzman and Jeb Brody at Secret Hideout. Amazing people. We’re working on the first draft for Universal. We’re really focusing on The Vampire Lestat, but we’re using elements from some of the other books as well. These were hugely inspiring books when I was young. They really helped shape me the same way Steve’s books did. Anne is a genius, fiercely intelligent. Obviously, I’m attached to direct that one as well, and I’m writing it with my other Mid-World cohort Jill Killington, who Knate and I have known half our lives.

With any of these projects that are so big and expensive like Vampire Chronicles or The Stand, it’ll probably take a couple of years for any of these things to come together and actually get made just because of how expensive it is to bring these properties to the screen and how complicated the adaptation process is. We have a vision for a trilogy of Vampire Chronicles films and I hope also a spinoff television series to explore all the side characters and their back stories. That’s the dream. We’ll see what happens.

And now you’ve also adapted King’s Revival?

Yeah, and that one is ready to go. My line producer, production designer, and VFX supervisor from Fault budgeted the film. Michael De Luca is producing, which is amazing. He produced The Social Network, Moneyball, and Captain Phillips, but he also wrote John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, so he’s a secret horror nerd like us. Unlike these studio projects we’re working in—The Stand, Vampire Chronicles, New Mutants—where there are so many voices chiming in, we’ve been able to develop Revival in a very pleasant bubble. I wrote it on spec and we are putting together the financing now. Very exciting. I think it’s one of King’s very best books.

Some of these things you’ve optioned—Caitlin R. Kiernan’s books and Peter Straub’s—seem to be smaller in budget. Was that a deliberate attempt to mix projects big and small?

Not really. I just loved Caitlin’s stuff so much. I had a read a story called “Onion” that she wrote years ago, then I read Five of Cups, then I started on all of her Cthulhu Mythos stories, and it’s like I was just lost. She’s just the best writer of short horror fiction on the planet. Like the same way Karl Edward Wagner and T.E.D. Klein were writing Lovecraftian stories in the ’80s, her stuff has this distinct voice because of everything she’s been through in her life. She looks at transformation in a very different way from most other people. I think the world’s waiting to catch up with Caitlin R. Kiernan.

There are books by Caitlin that are like 100 million-dollar sci-fi movies—I mean, they’re weird, but are they really any weirder than the imagery in Alien?—but I just really liked The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl. At first I was only going to option Drowning Girl, but somehow it felt like you couldn’t option Drowning Girl without optioning Red Tree, like it was an extension of the same book where she was working out the same story.

She’s one of my favorite writers, and so is Peter Straub—The Talisman and Shadowland were important books to me when I was growing up. I’ve optioned Mr. X, which is his take on Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. The main characters are all African American, which I thought was brilliant. In the book, you don’t realize that until you’re deep into it. I’d love to have Michael B. Jordan play Ned and his time-eating twin, and have Samuel L. Jackson play his father. I think that’s a big, bold horror story that’s unlike anything else out there.

Any dream books you don’t have your hands on that you’d like to make one day?

The Talisman.

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.