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Friday, July 24, 2020

Glen Mazzara Returns to ‘The Overlook Hotel’ to Detail His Unmade ‘The Shining’ Prequel [Phantom Limbs]

phantom limb /ˈfan(t)əm’lim/ n. an often painful sensation of the presence of a limb that has been amputated.

Welcome to Phantom Limbs, a recurring feature which will take a look at intended yet unproduced horror sequels and remakes – extensions to genre films we love, appendages to horror franchises that we adore – that were sadly lopped off before making it beyond the planning stages. Here, we will be chatting with the creators of these unmade extremities to gain their unique insight into these follow-ups that never were, with the discussions standing as hopefully illuminating but undoubtedly painful reminders of what might have been.

In this installment, we’ll be checking in to The Overlook Hotel, the intended yet ultimately unproduced prequel to Stephen King’s classic horror tale The Shining. Joining us is Glen Mazzara, the screenwriter of this project who has previously delved into horror territory as a writer and executive producer on The Walking Dead and A&E’s deeply underrated Omen spinoff Damien, which he also created. During this talk, Mr. Mazzara discusses the project’s origins, its relationship to King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s classic film adaptation, and whether or not the project might yet see the light of a projector some day.

For those unfamiliar with the story of The Shining, a brief recap: in the frigid mountains of the Colorado Rockies, aspiring novelist and struggling alcoholic Jack Torrance has been tasked with caretaking the Overlook Hotel, a massive resort whose grand scale is dwarfed by its own sordid, disturbing history. Together with his wife Wendy and their burgeoning psychic of a son Danny (whose latent abilities give the story its title), Jack is isolated within the hotel during its shuttered winter months, cut off from the nearest town by the massive amounts of snow covering the roads. As cabin fever begins to set in, figurative demons and literal ghosts begin to play havoc with Jack, turning this tortured patriarch into a familicidal madman out to slaughter his own wife and child. By the story’s end, the haunted hotel has claimed Jack’s life, yet Wendy and Danny are able to narrowly escape with their lives, though not without a considerable amount of trauma inflicted upon them by Jack and the deeply evil Overlook.

Long after the release of both Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film and the King-avowed 1997 television miniseries adaptation, yet before the development of last year’s sequel Doctor Sleep (based on King’s sequel novel), Warner Brothers had intended to dive back into Shining territory with a feature film set before the events of the original book. So how exactly did Mr. Mazzara find himself in the position to script a prequel to one of the most beloved of modern horror tales? “It was an open assignment at Warner Brothers. There was a producer called Mythology Entertainment. This was Jamie Vanderbilt’s company. He’s an established screenwriter and director, and there was an executive named Brad Fisher … a producer who’d done Shutter Island and Black Swan. He recently did the remake of Suspiria. Very talented guy, talented producer. I just went in as an open assignment. What had happened was, when Stephen King wrote The Shining, he wrote a prologue called ‘Before the Play’. He wasn’t the Stephen King yet. I think The Shining was his third novel, so his editor actually told him ’The book’s too long, we need to cut this.’ The only time [the prologue] was published, it was I believe in TV Guide, when they did the Shining TV series.

“So they gave me a copy of that prologue, and there are little vignettes from every decade leading up to Jack Torrance’s arrival. And I think many of the other writers who came in to pitch on this assignment wanted to tell the backstory of the Grady twins. So they were clustering around that, but I backed it out and said ‘Well, we actually have the opening vignette about Bob T. Watson, the man who built the Overlook.’ And I thought, ‘This is interesting.’ Basically, I thought of it as There Will Be Blood: The Horror Movie. Let’s set it up as a robber baron, who has the arrogance and the privilege to build this monument to himself, and yet it turns into his family’s grave, and a grave for all who follow.

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in ‘The Shining’

“So I liked that story. The Shining is basically a haunted house story…let’s talk about the guy who builds the house. I haven’t really seen that. We usually see people move into a haunted house. You don’t see the guy who builds the house. And why does he build that? Brad sparked to that idea. We brought it in to the executive, whose name was Sarah Schechter. So I wrote a first draft of the script. And she said very honestly, ‘This is exactly what we bought, this is exactly what King wrote, this is exactly what you promised…we’re never gonna make this movie. I just know Warner Brothers. They are never gonna make this version of this movie.’ So I said, ‘What will they make?’ She said, “Something else.’ So I said, ‘Okay, that’s remarkably honest. I don’t know what the answer is.’

“But I went off and came back with a pitch. We started to deviate a little bit from exactly what King had. I did so many drafts on this script. So we wrote the draft, and we sent it out to filmmakers. And many of the directors were actually afraid to take this on. Many, many people were passing. The thing was, many of the directors who passed were passing because they did not want to be in Kubrick’s shadow … the original film is a classic. Many consider it the best horror movie ever. Nobody wanted to touch it. They just felt that they just could not succeed, if they were following too closely to Kubrick. And I really studied The Shining when I was writing this script. I was like, ‘Why is this so scary?’ It’s a lot about camera angles, it’s a lot about tone, it’s a lot about direction. The script itself is not particularly scary. The direction of that movie is outstanding. That’s why that film is so frightening, and such a classic.”

Eventually, director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) signed onto the picture. No stranger to crafting stylish, intense psycho-thrillers, Romanek surely would have been an ideal choice to tackle this particular material. But would he have needed to be beholden to Kubrick’s style? Would Mazzara’s script have needed to directly reference the 1980 film? “I felt that I wanted to honor King’s canon. There was never any talk that this needed to set up [Kubrick’s film]. We didn’t have that discussion. I really felt that this is King’s world, but you can’t think of The Shining without Kubrick’s contribution. I did have a conversation with Stephen King regarding this. He famously does not enjoy the film. We spoke about it at length, and every point that he raises – he’s right, okay? That there’s not a lot of character development for the Jack Nicholson character. That he doesn’t find the film scary. He says he just finds it slow, with scary music. He feels that it builds to this big ending, and then a guy just runs outside and ends up freezing, and there’s no ending. There’s no ending, you’re just left hanging. But Mark and I spoke about this. ‘Yes, Stephen King is a national treasure, but he’s not understanding the impact that the film has had on generations. There’s something about that film.’ Storywise, King is correct. The story in the film does not really hold together from a writerly point of view. It holds together from a directing point of view. So I felt I needed to acknowledge Kubrick’s presence. I was very, very aware of the tone that he was creating in that film. I wrote that script with Kubrick in mind, but tried to honor King’s canon, King’s dialogue, the way he develops characters. I was very mindful when I was writing this screenplay … to show shots in which the audience is inhabiting the hotel with the camera, but not the characters. You sort of start wandering the hotel yourself. It creates a sense of unease. That comes from Kubrick. I did not find that in King’s material, I found that in Kubrick.”

So what exactly was the story that Mazzara’s adaptation of King’s ‘Before the Play’ would have told? Opening in the early 20th century, The Overlook Hotel introduces us to Bob T. Watson, a robber baron and “self-made man born to lead other men” whose fortune was made with mining and railroads. Riding horseback and accompanied by his young sons Boyd (12 years old, his father’s son) and Richard (8, nervous and soft), Bob T. traverses an icy, newly carved mountain roadside, leading on a caravan of frontiersmen packed into old time trucks and horse- and mule-drawn carts. This party trudges forth through the icy Rocky Mountains to reach their destination and build Bob T.’s dream project, the “grandest hotel the world has ever seen”.

During an evening stop for the crew, Mazzara crafts the screenplay’s first big scare. After dinner, young Richard gets lost in the woods and happens across a creepy sight: a wrecked coach – empty, save for loads of clothing scattered about the wagon and the surrounding clearing (including the same little pale blue dress that will be worn by the Grady twins a half century later in The Shining). There, he sees a middle-aged woman, mouth bloody, brandishing a human bone in her hand. A moment later, her body lies chopped up on the ground before Richard. The woman, fully restored, then strides away into the dark as Richard trembles and passes out.

Richard is recovered by his relieved father, with the following discussion between the two revealing that Richard has “visions”, a type of power that will surely be referred to as “shining” one distant day down the line. Richard describes what he’d seen, which reminds Bob T. of the McCready party, a family which had attempted to cross the very same mountain nearly a half century prior, only to be beaten down and stranded by a brutal winter. Cannibalism followed, with patriarch John McCready killing and eating his wife and children during the ordeal, before eventually taking his own life.

On Bob T.’s insistence and against the better judgment of contractor Lloyd (curious name for Shining fans, that), the party pushes forward up the road toward their destination, through a terrible storm, only to be hit by a massive flood. In a big, horrific sequence, the wall of water washes down the ravine – crushing metal, shattering bodies, slamming vehicles, carriages, men and horses into one another, crushing and impaling various victims as all of the crew gets washed down the mountain. Only Bob T. and his boys are spared, as they watch the horrific sight from a far ridge sitting above the flood.

Some time later, Bob T.’s wife Sarah arrives on the mountain, just in time to see the Overlook taking shape before her, with hundreds of new workers racing about to bring it to life. Once reunited, the family of four strides through the unfinished structure of the massive hotel. They tour the project as the finished Overlook materializes around them, changing from a mere wooden frame to the opulent lodge we know and love.

On the night of the Grand Opening, the Watson family greets their crowds in fine formal wear, with Bob T. entertaining envious business rivals while noting to another guest that the Indian artifacts which decorate the hotel are actually authentic. In short order, we’re introduced to Eliza, Sarah’s socialite sister who has come to support her brother-in-law’s endeavor and attend the hotel’s opening ceremonies. This includes the Inaugural Ball, which finds two hundred hotel guests dancing away in the lavish Gold Room as the nearby band plays.

Meanwhile, poor Richard continues to have horrible visions. In addition to realizing that the hotel maid Norah is the bloody woman from his vision in the woods, he also notices one of the drowned construction workers looming over his table as his father gives a speech to his guests. In fact, Richard eventually sees the ghosts of numerous drowned crew members as Bob T. addresses his crowd. As Richard shuts his eyes against the chilling sights, his brother Boyd begins to choke on a piece of steak. In a harrowing sequence, a medical student attending the ball assists the family, trying his best to save their son. This leads to an attempted tracheotomy, with the student using a butcher’s knife to do the work. When Boyd struggles against the makeshift surgery, he winds up slicing open his own throat, forcing his parents to watch their eldest son bleed out all over the new hotel kitchen.

With this tragedy breaking the family and a snowy winter closing in, Bob T. decides to close the hotel for the season, destroying his chances at pulling the massively expensive Overlook out of the red. Richard’s horrifying visions continue, including seeing his deceased big brother Boyd. One night, while trying to console his son, Bob T. catches a glimpses of Boyd as well, leaving the previously skeptical man shaken, and convinced that his family cannot leave the Overlook for the winter. But really, Bob T. feels that they cannot leave Boyd behind, not even his ghost – a decision settled by the fact that Bob T.’s hotel project has bankrupted them, leaving them with no place else to go.

Eliza leaves, pleading with her sister not to stay the winter in what now stands as her son’s grave. Before she leaves with her driver, Eliza discovers the hedge maze on the Overlook’s property – not yet conceived, and yet standing before her plain as day. Another aspect of the Overlook, standing out of time. Several well designed, frightening set pieces ensue, even as the focus never strays from the characters and their struggles with both their heartbreaking tragedy and the encroaching supernatural elements which mean to destroy them.

Richard eventually confides in Sarah that he sees the ghosts of Bob T.’s first crew, as well as Mrs. McCready (that is, Norah). He tentatively admits that both he and his father have seen Boyd’s ghost as well, a confession that stuns the boy’s mother. These revelations force a confrontation between Sarah and her husband, with Sarah demanding that their family leave the hotel at once. As she attempts to find Richard, she is halted by Boyd’s ghost, who emotionally manipulates his mother before terrifying her into racing away – sending her hurtling headlong down a massive staircase. Bob T. and Richard arrive just in time to see the accident, witnessing Sarah tumbling down the stairs and coming to rest at their feet, nearly lifeless, having broken her neck and paralyzed herself in the fall.

Trapped in the hotel by a raging blizzard and unable to fetch a doctor for his wife, Bob T. takes turns with Richard in tending to Sarah. The days wear on and take their toll, with our hero nearly murdering a visiting bank representative who informs him that the bank is foreclosing on the hotel. With his money gone, his family in tatters, and the culmination of his life’s work about to be taken from him, Bob T. begins to crack.

Joe Turkel as Lloyd the Bartender in ‘The Shining’

At his wit’s end, Bob T. shuffles off to the hotel’s Gold Room, taking a seat at the bar to be served by none other than Lloyd, his one-time employee and the Overlook’s perpetual bartender. Bob T. chats and drinks, before he’s introduced to the one and only John McCready, weathered and gaunt and drinking whiskey as he sits in the corner of the bar. In one chilling monologue delivered to Bob T., McCready recounts being the first man to have discovered the land the Overlook now sits upon. He tells of how he and his family were abandoned to the elements by the party he’d traveled with. As his family had started to go hungry, McCready murdered his youngest child and resorted to feeding it to the remaining family members, himself included. Another child fell, then another. He admits to knowing that his family would never make it off of the mountain. And they did not.

Haunted and utterly despondent, Bob T. eventually makes his way up to his Sarah’s room, draws her a bath, and lowers his paralyzed and increasingly terrified wife into it, with the ghostly Norah attending. Bob T. pushes his wife under the water, drowning the helpless woman. Meanwhile, Richard finds himself menaced by both the ghost of his older brother, and the figures of Bob T.’s first crew, here engaged in a massive gala in the Gold Room. This is the type of party that boasts wealthy, well-dressed partygoers dancing to a live band – an echo of the successful opening night gala that Bob T. had wanted for the Overlook. In the background, a photographer snaps a picture of posing partiers – the very same picture that will one day grace the halls of the Overlook, as shown in the final moments of The Shining (in a neat touch, Mazzara has the scene blocked in such a way that one would be unable to see whether or not The Shining’s Jack Torrance is front and center, as he is in the eventual photograph).

Richard makes his way to his parents’ room, only to discover his father’s crime (followed shortly after by a vision of his mother’s ghost), leading to a chase between father and son that prefigures the climactic game of cat and mouse between Jack and Danny a half century down the line. With a quite mad Bob T. in pursuit, croquet mallet in hand (another fun nod to King’s novel here), Richard races away throughout the hotel, eventually deciding to burn the evil place to the ground. He soaks several chairs in the Gold Room with booze, then sets them alight. The hotel begins to go up, the flames spreading across carpet, walls, tapestries. Even the lounge’s chandelier cracks and shatters under the growing fire. Bob T. continues to give chase, seeking out his child in the heat of a roaring fire (a nice counterpoint to the snowy confrontation from Kubrick’s film), eventually managing to grab hold of his boy – mallet in hand, maniacal grin on his face, murder in his heart.

Some time later, we find the Overlook Hotel in grand shape, seemingly having healed itself from the damage the fire inflicted. Guests and workers scuttle about, as Eliza returns to see about her sister. She learns in short order that her sister, not being registered as a guest nor recognized as the owner, is nowhere to be found and that the hotel is now under new ownership. Confused, Eliza takes a room (number 217), settles in, and draws herself a bath. Once she’s lowered herself into the tub, her sister Sarah rises from the water, appearing pale and rotted (and not at all dissimilar from the woman in Room 217 in King’s novel, or Room 237 in the Kubrick film). Sarah drags Eliza under, drowning her sister.

The screenplay ends with the hotel’s new owner entering the lobby of the Overlook with his own son. Though he’d known Bob T., he doesn’t recognize the former owner as the new caretaker of the hotel. Nor does he recognize Richard as a bellhop, Sarah as a maid, or Boyd working the front desk. The “First Family of the Overlook” is shown as having been reunited, now in service to the evil hotel that claimed their both their sanity, and their lives.

Brad Pitt in ‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’

The story is obviously large in scope, and whichever actor was chosen to play Bob T. would not only have to lead a big film, but follow to some degree in Shining star Jack Nicholson’s considerable footsteps. So were there any discussions as to who might have been cast in the leading role? “This would have been a big, expensive film. It was period. So they were looking at an A-list cast. There was some talk about maybe going to Brad Pitt at one point. I don’t know if Brad read the script … but there’s a horrific scene in which a young boy ends up dying. We heard that Brad was not interested in playing something that bleak. I never spoke to him, but word came back that it was not something he was … he’s a dad, and it just hit him, he didn’t want to participate. It wasn’t something that he wanted to play.”

Pitt wasn’t the only potential actor being considered for a role in the film. In crafting his screenplay, Mazzara wrote a role with a specific actor in mind, whose casting would have connected this prequel to Kubrick’s classic in a fantastic and satisfying way. “There’s a character named McCready, who is sort of the first man on the mountain. He kinda commits the original sin. It’s written that Bob T. goes in and talks to Lloyd, and Lloyd says, ‘Oh, this drink just came over from the man in the corner.’ And he goes and sits down. In my dream, I would’ve had Jack Nicholson give that speech. I know Jack’s older. I thought he’d be sitting there, and just give him one speech. I thought that’d be a fun thing, as if, ‘Oh, this character is continually circling. He’s trapped in his own hell. He’s constantly circling through different time periods within the Overlook.’ I thought that would have been fun.”

A fantastic story, a proven IP, a celebrated director, and the potential to draw an impressive cast. So why exactly didn’t The Overlook Hotel happen? “Eventually, what happened from my understanding, was that you had a Shining prequel with The Overlook Hotel, and you had a Shining sequel with Doctor Sleep. Warner Brothers wasn’t going to commit to making both, so they ended up going with Doctor Sleep. So that’s how Doctor Sleep won that race. So I looked at possibly developing Overlook Hotel as a TV show, but I wasn’t able to get the rights, and I was busy doing [King adaptation] The Dark Tower, which didn’t get picked up. Now I understand that the guys who are doing Castle Rock are going to do an Overlook Hotel [TV show]. I don’t know if they know my script exists. Whatever they’re making, as far as I know has nothing to do with my script. Unless they’re also starting with ‘Before the Play.’”

Given that Mike Flanagan’s masterful Doctor Sleep sadly underperformed at the box office, and Flanagan’s own Shining prequel Hallorann appears to have gotten the axe, what is the likelihood at this point that this iteration of The Overlook Hotel might yet get made? “I would say ‘zero’. I think people just move on. I don’t expect it. I don’t think anyone who was involved in developing the movie still works at Warner Brothers. I think it’s just sitting in a vault. They’ve moved on. I think part of the thing is – does The Shining mean anything to a young audience? Does it have the same impact? Does it hold up? I don’t know. I think there’s a class of filmmakers that have an emotional connection to that material, but I’m not sure if that’s true for the rest of the audience. Audiences’ tastes change. I’d be interested in knowing how people in their teens react to The Shining. Does it have the impact it did on people of my generation? I just don’t know.”

So ultimately, what are Mr. Mazzara’s thoughts on this particular chapter in his career? “[Projects like this] have risks. They aren’t slam dunks. The Shining is now forty years old. To do a big period piece horror movie based on it is a risk. That’s a risk. I loved working [on it], but one of the things that I tend to do in my career is, I end up taking the hard road. I don’t make things easy on myself. Think about it, I told you that every other writer was talking about the backstory for the Grady twins, and I got the assignment because I was the one writer who went the other way. Well, it ended up not paying out. I’m proud of the work in the script, but it’s a risk as a writer. Sometimes I wonder if I’d be better off kinda throwing it down the middle a little bit. But then, I don’t want to see something that’s thrown down the middle. It’s something I wrestle with in my career. Ultimately, I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to deliver something to the fans, or to Mr. King, but I’m proud of the work I’ve done.”

Very special thanks to Glen Mazzara for his time and insights.


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