The Cold Case: Director Mick Garris on Michael Jackson's Forgotten Ghosts
Exhausted by endless replays of Thriller? Fed up with CNN treating Michael Jacksons's "ghost" as actual news ? This week, a special edition of The Cold Case talks to Mick Garris about 1997's Ghosts, the all-but-forgotten 38-minute film he created with Michael Jackson, the late Stan Winston and horror legend Stephen King.
In the 24/7 media meltdown that surrounded Michael Jackson's untimely death, it appeared that every clip of the superstar was unearthed, dusted off and replayed over and over. Even so, somehow, every story or tribute package led to 1983's Thriller, that game-changing 14-minute horror short that remains the highest-selling music video of all time. We should probably be grateful that the networks didn't have a working VCR and a copy of 1997's Ghosts, lest we be subject to an immediate overload of TV talking heads' endless analysis of what it meant and, God forbid, what it predicted.
To be fair, this 38-minute short film, not so much a sequel to Thriller than an operatic bookend, lends itself to such discussion. In it, Michael Jackson depicts himself as a misunderstood monster who's persecuted by those who love and hate him -- led by himself. The singer messes with his face, turns white, dies, is resurrected and moonwalks as a skeleton. Most poignantly, Jackson asks his fans and followers whether they've been scared and whether they've had fun. The answers are yes and yes.
Early in his career, Mick Garris, creator of the Masters Of Horror TV series and director of Stephen King adaptations such as The Shining and The Stand, and his wife Cynthia donned zombie make-up for Thriller. A decade later, Garris became part of the team that put Ghosts together. He spoke with Movieline recently about developing the project, working with his formidable creative partners and how Jackson battled monsterdom both onscreen and in real life.
First things first: How did you come to be a zombie in Thriller?
John Landis had already been a friend for several years. We actually met when I was a receptionist for the original Star Wars at an off-lot office at Universal. John's office was next door to mine when he was prepping Animal House. And Rick and his wife at the time, Elaine, had been very close friends and neighbors to me and Cynthia. So when they invited us, we came running. I was a hopeful writer then, doing publicity for studios and the like, just starting to get screenwriting jobs.
Was there the sense that you were seeing pop-culture history being made?
We knew we were doing something special, but had no idea just how special. We knew it was a much bigger scale than music videos at the time had been, and so much different than the usual 1980s performance things. But watching Michael come alive on that first night I was there was electrifying. I became a fan right there.
Did you become friends with Michael Jackson then?
We did not become friends at that point. Later on, when I was shooting The Stand, Stephen King and Michael put together a script for another scary music video -- one with huge scale, even compared to Thriller. King recommended me for it, and that's where I really met Michael on a one-to-one basis. We became friends through that experience.
What did you think Michael wanted to achieve with Ghosts?
Michael wanted to make the biggest, scariest music film ever. Well, I don't know that that's what happened; you can't really be scary in this context, but it's huge, the music and dancing are great, and it's quite the spectacle. And it definitely got its point across. That theme of the outcast stranger that he and King created was important, and stayed the focus through various incarnations.
How did you get involved, and how did the collaboration between you, Michael, Stan Winston and Stephen King work?
I was actually the original director. It was begun in 1993, and I worked with him throughout pre-production and two weeks of production. It shut down for three years before resuming under Stan Winston, who was doing the effects work when I was directing. I recommended him to finish shooting when it resumed, as I was about to shoot The Shining. So yeah, I was on set a lot. But I was not there when the production continued in 1996. I'd get midnight calls from Michael, who was so passionate about finishing it, making it special. He and Stan had become friends way back when they did The Wiz together.
In the beginning, he and Steve did the script together, and I wasn't really privy to what went on then. It was when it was greenlit that Michael and I and Stan would get together for hours on end, planning the complicated effects as well as the music and storytelling. But it started as something completely different. Nobody knows this, but it was originally going to be a video to promote Addams Family Values. In fact, Christina Ricci and the boy who played Pugsley were both in it. We shot for two weeks and never got to the musical numbers. It was very expensive and ambitious. And when the first so-called scandal happened, it was when we were shooting. Suddenly, Michael was out of the country, and the studio no longer wanted him to help promote that film.
What does it mean to you now that Stan and Michael are both gone?
It's incredibly sad, of course, and really tragic. Stan was a very talented and funny and friendly man. But I was closer to Michael, spent more time with him. It really breaks my heart to see what happened to him. He was always very fragile, had lots of trouble sleeping. He reminded me a lot of Don McLean's song about Vincent Van Gogh. The world can be mean, and Michael didn't have a mean bone in him. Very vulnerable and sweet. And what most people don't realize is how smart he was and especially how funny he could be. A very witty, explosively talented guy.
Did Michael hope Ghosts would break out as big as Thriller?
Michael always seemed to hope to make something that would be huge. He thought big, because his whole life seemed to be surrounded by magnitude. I don't know what his hopes were in terms of comparing it with Thriller, but I know he thought it would be very special.
Ghosts and Thriller see him as a charismatic, playful "monster". Do you think he kept having fun with that reputation, even when the media turned on him?
He was very playful with that image, though as the press got meaner, he was definitely hurt by it, and pulled back and became more reclusive. But though we were friends, it wasn't like I saw him all the time. A couple years could go by without seeing or speaking with one another, but when we did, we always had a good time.
Where were you when you heard he'd died? What did you immediately think and feel?
I was driving in my car when I heard on the radio that he'd been found unconscious and had been rushed to the hospital. I was stunned, of course, like everyone. Then, about an hour or so later, when I heard it rumored that he had died, I just couldn't believe it. It took a couple of days for it to sink in. Maybe it was inevitable, I don't know. I just know that he was fragile, sensitive, and an incredibly sweet and generous guy. It broke my heart, just like it broke the world's. And I really felt for his kids, who are terrific and unspoiled in a way you wouldn't imagine. At least, they were when I last saw them a couple of years ago.
As someone who knew him, what's your reaction to the 24/7 speculation and media coverage?
I don't know, I hate to speculate. I know he had his demons, fears, fragility. I really wasn't exposed to the drug usage or any of that stuff. It was not that intimate a relationship. All I know is that he was someone I liked a lot, and was privileged to know and work with, and I miss him. Even though I hadn't seen him in a couple of years, it always seemed like we'd be getting together again soon to talk about movies, and laugh and joke and have fun. It makes me so sad that it won't ever happen again.
Did you see the loneliness and sadness claimed to have been his constant companion?
One of my earliest meetings with him was in New York, where he had a penthouse apartment in the Trump Towers. He was so very lonely. He'd take me to the window and point down at Fifth Avenue below and tell me he'd give anything to be able to just walk down there and go into the shops, but he couldn't. I went out to visit him in Orlando, and was surprised to find that I was the only one, other than staff, that was around with him. There was nobody but us for a couple of days. I don't think he had a lot of close friends, people who didn't want something from him.
Your enduring memory of him will be...?
Making him laugh. When Michael laughed, when you got to him for more than just that giggle behind the hand, it was a sight to see. He just loved to laugh, and it was fun to tease him gently. Maybe one of my favorite memories was on the set of Ghosts; we'd finish a take, and if I wanted another, I'd put on Bullwinkle's voice and say, "This time for sure!" The first time, he just laughed and laughed and laughed. Then he'd keep asking, even after the good takes: "Mick, do Bullwinkle!" That's how I like to remember him.
Will Ghosts get a DVD release now?
I hope so. It was hugely expensive, and never released in the United States. He paid for it out of his own pocket, too. So I don't know who owns it. But I think people would love it. It changed a lot from the time that I worked on it to the time it was finished, but it's quite an accomplishment. I'd love to see it available. The only copy of it I have was one I came across in a music store in Hong Kong, on the old VCD format. It deserves better. ♦