James Gonis

Posted: December 8, 2000
Here is an interview with James Gonis. He is the man that made a movie out of King's short story The Lawnmower Man.

Lilja: Could you start with telling me a bit about yourself? Who are you and what do you do?

James Gonis: I'm 35 now. I moved to LA in 1993 with aspirations of screenwriting. I still write but presently I have a full-time job at Playboy booking out Playboy Playmates on promotions.

Lilja: When did you make The Lawnmower Man? Can you tell me a little about the production? How much did it cost? How long did it take to film it?

James Gonis: The film was shot in 1985 during a junior-level NYU production course entitled "Junior Narrative." Everybody made films for their credits, working in different capacities. It took about ten days to shoot over two different weeks that summer (continuity sticklers would notice that the length of hair changes on the actor who plays Parkette, sometimes from shot to shot). I can't remember how much it cost, but it was a lot more than I bargained for! Less than $5,000, I think.

Lilja: What made you pick The Lawnmower Man out of all the stories King has written?

James Gonis: It was a standout story in my memory, so bizarre and disturbing, brutal but kinda funny! And despite the inherent challenges in telling that story, it was still within the realm of what student filmmakers could do within their framework -- no UFO's were coming down or anything. It was do-able! At the time, it wasn't long after "Creepshow" and "Cat's Eye" so doing a broad King story was a natural. Also, he hadn't had as much short fiction out back then as he does now so there wasn't as much to choose from.

I don't think we started out thinking to do it broad, though. It changed a bit when we turned to the Walt Simonson comic adaptation, and it's closer to that version than the short story itself.

Lilja: In the movie Andy Clark (who plays The Lawnmower Man) appears to eat a mole and some grass. I assume it's not a real mole, what was it? And how about the grass, was that real? It looks really great!

James Gonis: No, that was a real mole. Andy insisted on realism. (Joke.) It was pieces of a rabbit pelt, boiled liver and red food coloring all mixed up. Real cut grass was pre-washed and scattered in front of Andy so he could scoop it into his mouth.

Andy was terrific. Imagine having to do all he had to do, for the love of the craft and no pay?! He had a great scene in Woody Allen's "Radio Days" a couple of years later, as the Dianne Wiest's date who freaks out over the "War of the Worlds" broadcast. Ed Phillips, who could not have been better, had been in "Tootsie" as one of the TV show crewmen. Sadly, he passed away about a year after our shoot and never got to see the finished film. Helen Hanft, Mrs. Parkette, is a great character actress who's done tons of New York stage work and lots of films for Woody Allen, and a memorable role in "Arthur" ("My husband has a gun!"). She was a friend of Ed's and he was good enough to bring her into the production. It was so gratifying to be directing these talented professionals.

Lilja: Can you tell me some funny incident or similar from the production of the movie?

James Gonis: That rule of thumb, never work with kids and animals? Getting the dog to look like he was chasing the cat was impossible. Getting these animals to do anything was impossible -- they weren't trained, they were pets. And getting a perfect take of the little girl hiding in the bushes who didn't want to eat brussels sprouts...very frustrating. Well, NOW looking back it's hysterical.

The funniest unintentional thing IN the film is that when the lawnwower flies off the balcony (chasing Parkette at the end), you can see the tripod case in the background. We were too tired to notice those details by that point! It all got funny after awhile. It was a sweltering hot season and we were at the breaking point: How do we set up this shot? "Pan's the boss!" Hoo, boy.

Incidentally, it was a pretty dynamic crew. Ethan Reiff, the cameraman, has gone on to become an A-list writer, having co-created the TV series "Brimstone." And Mike DeLuca, the writer/producer, is now the production head of New Line Cinema.

Lilja: How many (if any) official airings have there been of it?

James Gonis: Three. The first was the requisite NYU Film Festival screening. The second was at Horrorfest in Colorado in 1989. It was shown on a video monitor along with Jim Cole's "Last Rung on the Ladder." (I couldn't attend that convention. It would've been great, though, it was at the Stanley Hotel that inspired "The Shining.") The last screening was in 1991 at a New York film festival of Greek-American filmmakers.

Lilja: How does it feel that all the King fans out there can't see your movie? Do you think that will change in the future? Maybe a video release would be possible?

James Gonis: The film has sat on the shelf so long that the thought that it might find an audience is most pleasant and unexpected. Most student films never really get seen that widely; it's only because this happens to be a King story that there might be some broader interest. I can totally relate to the die-hard fans who want to see absolutely everything -- I used to be one!

I had gotten a leter from Milton Subotsky after the Horrorfest screening was publicized, reminding me that I did not have the rights. It was cool to get a letter from Subotsky -- I wrote back saying "OK, I understand, gee, by the way I loved your movies 'Tales from the Crypt' and 'Asylum'..." So I really don't think there will be an official release (despite that Subotsky's deal has probably fallen through by now).

However, the internet makes for a broader outlet now for fans to access and share this kind of material. Maybe there'll be some exposure for the film along that vein. But I'm always sensitive to the legalities.

Lilja: How do you feel about the motion picture version of The Lawnmower Man? Would you be interested in doing a motion picture version yourself?

James Gonis: Obviously the feature didn't have much to do with the story. Too much of a stretch to incorporate the story into the middle of a cyber-reality vehicle just so they could put King's name on it. Pierce Brosnan's cool, but it wasn't an easy film to like. And as for me, having gotten the adaptation out of my system with the short film, I haven't any desire to do a feature on it!

Lilja: Have you gotten any reaction from King on your movie? If so, what did he think?

James Gonis: I think I remember him saying he thought it was pretty good or pretty funny. Believe it or not it's hard to remember exactly what he said, it was about ten years ago! (I went to a book signing he did in New York around 1990, and I had asked him.)

Lilja: Do you have any plans for making more movies based on Stephen King's stories?

James Gonis: No, but I'd love to do "'Salem's Lot" and stick really close to the novel. What a kick-ass book! Of course I couldn't do it justice. I liked the mini-series, but I wish someone would re-adapt the novel and capture it on a more visceral level -- George Romero would've done a great job in 1978. But I have written my own vampire spec script and it's gotten some "bites" you never know.

Lilja: Thanks! It was nice to talk to you.

James Gonis: Thanks for your interest -- take care!

If you want to read my review of The Lawnmower Man it's now available online.