Stephen King Talks About ‘Mr. Harrigan’s Phone’ And So Much More

The new Netflix chiller Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is precisely the million-and-first Stephen King story to be adapted into a movie. OK, not really. But it sort of feels that way, doesn’t it?

Ever since the bestselling author’s debut novel, Carrie, was turned into a horror classic by Brian De Palma in 1976, King’s seemingly bottomless trove of tales from the dark side have kept Hollywood extremely busy.

Netflix spoke to the author in an exclusive interview on the eve of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone’s Oct. 5 release. He shared what it takes to scare the pants off people (including himself), how he feels about the movies that Tinseltown has made in his name (including his favorites), what his daily writing regimen is like (when he isn’t playing Frisbee with his dogs) and the one classic he barely remembers writing.

Where did the idea for Mr. Harrigan’s Phone come from?

I’d always wanted to write a story about somebody who got buried with a phone. The first thing that I thought about was the old thing about some guy who’s going to be buried alive and he has a phone, [he’s] put in a casket, and it rings or something like that. But you can update that for iPhones. I thought back to the iPhone 1. I actually got one as part of the research for the story on eBay. It’s sort of busted up. But it gets all of the apps, you just can’t make phone calls on it because it’s all gone digital now. So it doesn’t work for phone calls, but it works for everything else as good as it ever did. So I wrote the story, and Netflix came along and they wanted to buy it. John Lee Hancock was involved, and he wanted to write and direct it, and that sounded great to me.

There are literally hundreds of adaptations of your stories, novels and novellas. There can’t be much left that hasn’t been optioned for Hollywood. What percentage of everything you’ve written would you say is still not optioned at this point?

Maybe 25%. You know, there’s a big difference between options and actually getting a movie made. You plant the seeds and someone comes along and says, “I’ll buy this seed from you,” and we have a deal where people don’t pay anything for the option anyway because I like to have some control and I like to have a little more money on the back end if something gets made. The other thing is, I want people to get a chance. Netflix has been great for that. There are a lot of streaming services, but Netflix came along and they were the first, they were the best, and they do a wide range of stuff. So when they did this, I was really delighted.

Is there a story of yours that hasn’t been optioned that you feel people are sleeping on? That would make a great movie?

I don’t think anybody ever optioned Rose Madder, which I thought would’ve made a great movie.

What about your Hard Case Crime novels like Joyland?

Joyland was optioned by the guy who made The Help. He did a terrific script, and I thought it would make a hell of a movie. The first one I wrote for Hard Case Crime, The Colorado Kid, turned into a TV series called Haven, and it was on the air for quite a while. The checks never bounced, so that was good.

Do you agree with the Hemingway quote that when it comes to selling your stories to Hollywood, the best thing to do is to meet the movie execs at the state line and throw them your book, they throw you the money, and then you jump in your car and drive like hell back the way you came?

Yeah… but I don’t agree completely. Hemingway also said that the best possible result for a writer was for Hollywood to pay you a ton of money for a book and then they don’t make the movie. I mean, I understand that. But I’ve always thought of it as you want the best for it. It’s like sending a kid to college. You hope that they won’t get into any trouble, that they won’t get into drugs, or get into a bad relationship or get thrown out, but at some point you just have to let it go. There are movies that I absolutely love — and you probably know what they are — and there are movies that I don’t. But either way, the book remains. The book is the boss.

Just for the record, what are the adaptations you like the most?

Oh, man… I like Stand by Me, Shawshank, The Green Mile. I like Misery a lot. The one that people don’t talk about a lot is Cujo. And I always thought that movie didn’t get the attention it deserved. Certainly not for Dee Wallace, who should’ve got an Oscar nomination.

I don’t mean to get off topic, but is it true that you don’t remember writing Cujo because of the substances you were abusing at the time?

Actually, I remember writing it, but what I don’t remember is revising it or doing any of that stuff because I did it at night and I was always drunk and stoned. So I don’t have any clear memory of that at all.

You are credited as an executive producer on Mr. Harrigan’s Phone. What does that mean exactly? That seems like a pretty amorphous title. How hands-on were you on the project?

It means two things. First, you get a little money. The other thing is, it gives you some vestige of creative control over the project. I had script approval, I had actor approval… but how are you going to turn down Jaeden Martell and Donald Sutherland? It’s a no-brainer. And the other thing is John Lee Hancock. Not only does he have a good track record, but I feel more comfortable when somebody writes and directs at the same time — keep it all in the same tent. There’s less friction, less back and forth. I feel some responsibility to do whatever I can to keep an eye on the project and say very gently, “I think this might not be the right way to go.” But with Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, I never had that happen. It’s a scary story, but it’s… quiet. I like that.

The Tammy Wynette “Stand by Your Man” ringtone creeped the crap out of me…

Oh, yeah. But the moment it goes from being just a good film to being a really good film is [when] the teacher he loved is killed by a drunk driver, and Jaeden Martell thinks about that and calls Mr. Harrigan’s phone and says, “I want him dead.” Later, he sort of regrets that. And I think anyone would. But that’s like killing by iPhone. It gives the movie some moral texture. It isn’t just blood and guts.

You obviously have a weird relationship with technology. Cell had similar themes. Are smartphones a force for good or a force for evil?

Well, what they are is a crutch. I love it when at the end he throws away Mr. Harrigan’s phone, and then he goes to throw away his own iPhone, and you see him start to do that motion — his hand goes back, but he can’t go through with it. And he says, “In the end, we’re wedded to our iPhones,” but probably it’s a bad marriage. When you walk down the street and you see everybody bent over their phones, that’s a little bit on the scary side.

Is it weird to see them cast your stories with actors? Because, obviously, you must have faces in mind for your characters when you’re writing?

No, I don’t. No, never.

Really? OK, then, what did you think when they said Donald Sutherland as Mr. Harrigan?

I thought he was just right. Perfect.

A school bully (Cyrus Arnold) picks on Martell’s Craig. Big mistake.

There are so many bullies in your stories, and there’s a great bully in this one.

He’s kind of sad, though, isn’t he?

Totally. But that’s every bully, isn’t it?


You’re so good at writing them. Is that something you went through as a kid?

I think everybody does to some degree or another. I was fairly sensitive. I never had concentrated bullying over a long period of time. But every now and then, there would be… there’s a thing in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone where the bully says, “Shine my shoes.” And that did happen to me. And I said, “I’m not going to do that.” Then at a dance, he took me outside and we had a fight.

How’d you do?

I lost.

You’ve got so many projects going all the time. How many writing projects do you have going at once?

I have only one thing going right now. I generally only work on one thing at a time now. There was a time, when I was fueled by dope, when I would sometimes work on two things. But no, I just work on one thing.

Tell me about your daily writing routine. Is it regimented, are there certain hours, a certain place you have to work?

No, I can write pretty much anywhere, but I’d prefer to work between the hours of, say, 8 and noon. I have an office that’s upstairs, and every now and then I’ll have to go outside and play Frisbee with the dogs for a while or do chores, but generally I’m left alone and I get those three or four hours.

But are you obsessive in the sense that you feel like a day without writing something is a day wasted?

Yeah, particularly because I’m no spring chicken anymore, so I like to do as much as I can while I’m still able to.

What was the longest single session you ever spent writing without a break?

I can’t remember. But I do know that I wrote The Running Man in about a week, because I was teaching school and it was February vacation and it was snowy. So I worked on my wife’s Olivetti typewriter morning, noon and night.

Last question: You’ve written screenplays, acted and even directed, with Maximum Overdrive. If you had to choose one of those to do again, which would it be?

I’d like to do them all. I’d love to direct another picture because Maximum Overdrive was like, “Earn while you learn.” I knew nothing going in, and I learned a lot of stuff since then, and I think I could probably do a better job. As far as writing the screenplay, sure, I’d love to do that. And acting? I’m not very good at it, but…

Creepshow! Come on…

Yeah, that isn’t my best. My finest moment was doing a cameo in Sons of Anarchy, and I got to ride a motorcycle.

Published by Larry Fire

I write an eclectic pop culture blog called THE FIRE WIRE that features articles about books, comics, music, movies, television, gadgets, posters, toys & more!

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