James Cole

Posted: October 27, 2000
Here is an interview with James Cole that a friend of mine, Anders Jakobson and I did for the Nordic Stephen King Fan Club we run. This interview was published in Följeslagarna (which is what the club is called) on June 7, 1999

Följeslagarna: Please start this of by giving us some general information about yourself, including a list of all the work you've done in the movie business!

James Cole: I grew up in New England and began making short films when I was eleven. I began writing seriously in college, and have been published in Castle Rock: The Stephen King Newsletter, The Stephen King Encyclopedia, and The Lost Work of Stephen King, as well as Sci Fi Universe and Video Watchdog magazines. I moved to California to pursue a writing career in 1991. I have been writing scripts for over ten years, but none have been produced as yet.

Följeslagarna: The reason why we're interviewing you is because of the short movie for Stephen King's Last Rung on the Ladder, for which rights you paid $1. When did you shoot this film? How much did it cost to produce? How many official airings have there been and could you tell us some funny incident or similar from the production of the movie?

James Cole: Production on The Last Rung on the Ladder began in 1986 when I was 20. I had moved to a small town in Cape Cod in 1984 and met Dan Thron, a fellow filmmaker and Stephen King fan. We decided to adapt this story in 1985 but could not find a suitable barn, so the project was abandoned. However, we decided to try again the following year. We found two local kids and useable locations, and shot for nine days during the summer of '86. We had no crew and only two Super-8 cameras, but were able to accomplish a great deal.

There was no single 'funny incident' I can recall, but there were many moments of laughter from flubbed lines and goofing around. The kids were terrific (aged 11 and 13), and we had a lot of fun, despite the difficult settings and rushed schedule. The total cost was around $1,500 - mostly for film and processing, plus the rental of editing equipment and the transfer to video.

Följeslagarna: How come you picked Last Rung on the Ladder to develop into a movie? What is it in the story that you like so much?

James Cole: Night Shift was one of the first Stephen King books I read. I discovered King at age 13 or 14, and though I don't remember when exactly I read Night Shift, I loved every short story. However, as 90% of the stories are genuine horror, I remember being surprised and a bit confused when I began reading Last Rung on the Ladder. Within a few pages I knew this was unlike the other stories; a simple story about a brother and sister set in another time. It immediately became one of my favorites, but I never imagined making it into a movie.

When I met Dan Thron years later, we quickly compared favorite King works. It turned out he loved Last Rung on the Ladder too, and for whatever reason, we decided to try and make it. The fact that it required no monsters, no makeup, and no special effects was one factor in our choice. The biggest reason we chose it was simply because the story MOVED ME. It made me cry the first time I read it, and I knew I wanted to see if I could faithfully adapt such a beautiful tale and have it work on screen.

Följeslagarna: The whole story behind the film can be read in your essay Why Kitty absolutely had to die, or how I made a movie of a Stephen King short story for a buck, published in Stephen Spignesi's Lost Work of Stephen King. In the essay you write that you wrote a script for a long version of the film, but didn't get an OK from King at that point. A year later, you write, a man called Lucas Knight got the rights to the movie and started to look for you to get hold of your script. How come he got the rights and what do you know about this upcoming version? Is it based on your script?

James Cole: I adapted a feature version of The Last Rung on the Ladder as a personal challenge. I went ahead and did it without King's permission, simply because I first wanted to see if it could be done; if a 12 page story could be successfully expanded into two hours. I wrote three drafts between late 1992 and 1993. When I was satisfied, I then approached King about the rights or an option. Neither request was granted, so the script is in limbo. (Without King's approval I obviously cannot sell the script.).

I got word of Lucas Knight's involvement with the same story through the internet. The news terrified me because I was afraid he was doing his OWN feature version as well. Eventually he tracked me down, and I learned he was doing a SHORT version, just like mine, only with a bigger budget (I guess you could call it a "remake"). So, to answer your question, he is NOT using my feature script. He wrote his own short script, and, as of only a few days ago, I heard from him for the first time in months. His script was finally approved by King and he begins shooting his film this summer. As to how he got the rights, I think it has to do with him being a LOCAL filmmaker. Stephen King often supports those in his home state, and the fact that Lucas had the support of a local PBS station might have convinced King.

Följeslagarna: Returning to the first (and still only) version - how did you find out that King sold the movie rights to some of his stories for just $1? Was it just a wild guess or did you know it before you sent him the check?

James Cole: I don't really remember. Though I had contacts with King fans in 1986, I did not know Spignesi nor the other "heavy hitters." I think my contact was a gentleman named Craig Goden, who ran a book dealership in New Jersey. I had met him at a few Science Fiction conventions, and he sold King books. Through him, I discovered the Castle Rock Newsletter and some other contacts. Somehow I heard that I could do a STUDENT film of any King's short work as long as I didn't try to market it or sell it or even show it without King's permission.

(FYI: that is NOT the same as "selling the movie rights." Nothing was 'sold' to me for $1. I did not, and do not, own ANY rights or option to the story. The dollar simply ALLOWED me, a college student, to make the film.) So I got King's office address and sent him a check for $1. A month later the cashed check appeared in my bank statement...with King's signature endorsing the check on the back! So I knew I was "cleared" to make Last Rung on the Ladder and I did. The last part of this unwritten agreement was to send King a videotape of the completed film, and I did that, too.

Följeslagarna: By making a movie for just $1 you are one of the "Dollar Babies", as King himself has put it. Do you know who the other "Dollar Babies" are and what stories they have shot?

James Cole: I only know TWO other "Dollar Babies." One is well known: Frank Darabont. He shot The Woman in the Room in 1983 for a larger, more professional budget than myself. We all know he went on to make The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. The other dollar baby is Jim Gonis, who filmed a FAITHFUL version of The Lawnmower Man" (unlike the feature film). Jim made his film the same year I made Last Rung on the Ladder (in 1987), at New York University film school. We met the following summer (I don't remember how) and we've been friends ever since. Jim lives in Los Angeles as well. I don't know the identities of any of the other "Dollar Babies," but I sure would LOVE to see their films! (I've only seen Woman in the Room, The Boogeyman and Lawnmower Man.)

Följeslagarna: Do you think that there is any possibility that your Last Rung on the Ladder will be available for anyone to see in the future? Doesn't it bother you that people can't see your work?

James Cole: I can always hope. Of course it bothers me that people can't see a film that has been written about so extensively in King publications. However, it IS a film with limitations. It was shot on Super-8 with very little budget, so it certainly isn't as professional looking in some respects as I'd like it to be. I believe that's one reason King did not allow me to make a deal with an interested video company years ago.

Once I get established in Hollywood (as a credited, paid screenwriter), I not only hope to make my FEATURE version of Last Rung on the Ladder, but to also see if I get my short film, and maybe some of the OTHER worthy "Dollar Babies" released on video. Time will tell...

Följeslagarna: In your essay, you also write that the only proof you've got that King has seen your movie is because he's mentioning it in The Shawshank Redemption: The Shooting Script - have you had any contact with him at all during the years?

James Cole: None from HIM directly. I have received correspondence from his office (assistants) and even from his lawyer regarding my quest to get an option on Last Rung on the Ladder, but the answer was always, "no," or "not at the present time." The responses were always decent, but I admit I have been a bit disappointed that after ten years of trying, I have never received any word from The Man From Maine himself. I still hope to someday.

Följeslagarna: Do you have any plans for making more movies based on Stephen King's stories? If you could pick - at least - one story to shoot, which one would it be and why?

James Cole: I have no immediate plans, simply because I am not yet established in the industry. I believe that once I sell a script and get a movie made I'll have a "name" and may be able to get somewhere with King at that point (I'll have "proven" myself, I guess). But I would NEVER adapt another King story without the rights or an option. It's just not worth the work.

As for a story I would pick (as a feature) I would love to do The Long Walk or Desperation. There are other short works I'd love to adapt, like The Monkey. I also love One for the Road from Night Shift, but I've never been able to figure out how that could be done, considering most of it takes place during a Maine blizzard! (As I don't have a Storm of the Century budget!)

Följeslagarna: We've heard that you are a close friend of Frank Darabont, the man famous for his stunning version of The Shawshank Redemption and the upcoming The Green Mile. How did you get to know him?

James Cole: I met Frank in 1993, just after he'd finished shooting The Shawshank Redemption in Ohio. Once again, I don't remember HOW I got ahold of him; who my contact was. I think I simply wrote to his office and identified myself as a fellow "Dollar Baby" (that's before the term was even coined by King). I told him I had also adapted a King short story, that I was a fan of Woman in the Room and that I was thrilled that he was doing The Shawshank Redemption. Amazingly, he responded, and we spoke on the phone a couple times. But this introduction happened in mid-1992. I had to wait almost 15 months before I met Frank in person, in December 1993. We've been in and out of touch in the years since. I'm back in close touch with him since last Autumn, when I visited the set of The Green Mile several times.

Följeslagarna: Have you seen anything from The Green Mile?

James Cole: Except for what I witnessed on set (which was amazing), no. However, I expect to see an almost-complete cut of the film in the next few weeks. I'm very excited.

Följeslagarna: Have you read any first draft or similar to his (always) upcoming adaptation of The Mist ?

James Cole: No. I know it's a story Frank wants to do, but even I don't know if he's written a script yet.

Följeslagarna: What are you working on currently?

James Cole: I just completed my first HORROR script, called Bedbugs, about a boy's battle with his 'monster in the closet.' It may surprise you and your readers, but this is my FIRST horror script. Much as I love King, my favorite genre to write is straight DRAMA. My other scripts include a story of a kid sent back in time to the Depression and a relationship-piece about a man searching for his lost love.

Följeslagarna: Thanks for taking your time to answer this little interview! Anything you want to say to our readers, who definitively haven't seen your film?!

James Cole: Be patient. I truly believe you WILL have the opportunity to see it within the next few years, once I get established in the film industry. And I still hope to make the feature version of Last Rung on the Ladder as well.

Thanks for your interest, too. I've never given an interview to people outside the United States before! If any of you are fellow writers, KEEP WRITING. The more you do it, the better you get!

After seeing the movie (you can read a review of it here) I wanted to see how James feel about the movie today. Therefore I contacted him and asked some follow-up questions about The Last Rung on the Ladder.

Hi Jim!
First, let me thank you for giving me the opportunity to see the movie, it was great of you!

No problem. I'm always happy to get my film seen, even if it's on a one-to-one basis...

Lilja: How do you feel about your movie today? Is there something you whished you had done different?

James Cole: Where do I start? Seriously, the biggest thing I wish Dan and I had done differently back in 1986 was to have had a decent BUDGET. All the movie's shortcomings have less to do with performances or story and more with technical limitations. I am still very proud of the movie today, after 13 years, but parts of it always make me cringe. Some of the insert shots of the letters the adult Kitty had written to Larry are almost impossible to read, because we couldn't easily focus up close. On top of that, the tripods we used were very flimsy, and many of the shots in the film are just too jumpy for my taste. Originally I didn't notice this, but recently I watched the film on a 27" TV and I was quite discouraged at how much unintentional movement there is, even within some quick shots.

In summary, we did the best we could do with what we had to work with, and how old we were at the time (I was 20 and Dan was 15). In a way, it was GOOD that we were inexperienced. It made us just say, "What the heck, let's try!" Had we been older, we would have been more aware of the difficulties and probably decided "it can't be done." I will never regret making it.

Lilja: How do you feel about the fact that Lucas Knight is doing a longer version of the movie? In reality this must mean your chances to do a longer version is pretty small, right?

James Cole: I don't think it will have a long-term effect on my feature version, but who knows? My feature has been on a back burner for a few years, now, and I'm not as interested in it as I once was. Of course, I still believe in it, but am concentrating on selling my original scripts first. I actually wish Lucas the best, because I know he's spent over three years trying to pull together the funding and equipment. Certainly, part of me is nervous to see a "remake" (even though it isn't that exactly -- just a different interpretation of the same story). Clearly he will have more of a budget and professional equipment, but as to if his final film is "better," we'll have to wait and see. I'll always be proud of mine, most especially the performances I coaxed out of my young actors. Even after all these years, it still gets praise from people both inside and outside the King community.

Lilja: Is there anything else by King your thinking of adapting?

James Cole: Not until I sell a script and make a name for myself in the industry, because I would never want to try to do the dollar deal again, knowing there's no guarantee I could get it distributed or seen. And of course, I could not adapt any NOVELS without the rights, which is something King has not granted, and probably won't until I have a bit more "clout" as a writer.

But if I had any dream projects, most are short works. I'd love to do a long-short film version of "The Monkey" from Skeleton Crew, or "One for the Road" or "Gray Matter" from Night Shift. As for features, most of King's books have already been adapted or are in the planning stages. Still, something like Desperation, which Mick Garris wants to direct but has had trouble getting off the ground, is a dream project. King's own script was so tight and riveting, I'd love to direct it myself. But odds are it will be made by Mick or someone else. Still, I can dream.

This may come as a surprise, but I'd really love to be the first director to do a King RE-MAKE. My choice? Firestarter. It's one of my favorite books, and not his usual genre (despite the horror elements, it really is a SUSPENSE novel with many twists and turns). The 1984 film version was abysmal, and it's the first time I understood that a book can be adapted faithfully in terms of structure and plot, and yet have NONE of the King "flavor." To me, the film felt like a flat television movie, with no tension or suspense whatsoever. I think it deserves a more faithful remake someday.

Lilja: Thanks for talking with me, it was (as always) great!

The Last Rung on the Ladder logo and photographs courtesy James Cole.