Perth, Australia native Zak Hilditch dreamed of becoming a professional screenwriter and director. He spent almost a decade fashioning short films and trying to get his name out there. He spent this time developing his craft as both a writer and director. During this time he came close to landing several feature directorial jobs, only to see them fall through at the end of the day. Finally, Hilditch’s struggle paid off, and he made his writing and directing feature debut with the apocalyptic thriller These Final Hours (2013). The film received glowing reviews and screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then, there have been talks with Hilditch to helm an American remake.
Hilditch began reading Stephen King at the age of eleven, and quickly became a fan. Many years later he would read King’s novella collection Full Dark, No Stars (2010). When he did, he would find himself particularly impressed by the collection’s first novella, 1922. The novella, about a father and son who conspire to murder the family matriarch, has been described as a “Midwestern riff on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart” (Tasha Robinson, The Verge). Hilditch wanted his second feature to be an adaptation of the novella, and he eventually found funding to make it for Netflix. “I never thought in a million years that I’d be the one to do 1922,” he says. “The planets aligned, and I was the one who was given the opportunity to do it.”
Hilditch’s 1922 (2017) would star Thomas Jane, who’d previously appeared in the King adaptations Dreamcatcher (2003) and The Mist (2007). The film would be released on October 20, 2017. It would receive critical acclaim, and King himself would praise the film and help to promote it.
ANDREW RAUSCH: You first discovered Stephen King when you read It (1986) at the age of eleven. What do you remember about that, and what was your reaction to what you’d read?
ZAK HILDITCH: I saw the miniseries and I wanted to know more, so then I followed up by reading the book. Reading the book was quite the epic journey! [Laughs.] Then after that, I guess I just led myself down a path of King. I started watching and reading anything I could get my hands on.
What stood out to you when you first read that novel that made you decide to read more of King’s work?
ZH: Those were some of the first things I’d both seen and read, and I came to realize how completely different those two things can be. That blew my mind, because I was absolutely obsessed with the miniseries, being a kid who loved movies. I had the movie on VHS and I would watch it with my friends, and we could all quote the thing by heart. Then reading the book it was like, “Wow, this is actually very different!” That was the first time I’d ever considered and actually realized what an adaptation was. It’s such a wild story. It’s a very dense book for an eleven year old. [Chuckles.] I had to sort of commit to that.
I think Stephen King just has a way of getting under his characters’ skin. That was again the case with 1922, which was why I really felt like it was something that needed to be made into a film.
When did you first read that novella, and what elements of it really spoke to you?
ZH: It had honestly been a while since I’d read any King, and I was trying to get financing for this Australian film called These Final Hours. My producer and I had sort of done everything we could at that point, so we were just kind of waiting for the governing bodies here in Australia to give us the greenlight. I was just kind of sitting on my hands. I don’t remember how I stumbled across Full Dark, No Stars, but I thought the cover was striking with the girl all contorted with the red letters and the black background. And Full Dark, No Stars is one of the most badass titles I’ve ever heard in my life. I was like, “Oh, wow, a collection of four novellas by Stephen King!” This sounded like the sort of thing I should devour right then. I bought it and I opened up the book, and the first story was 1922. It just completely transported me to another place and time. It kind of took my mind off the fretting I was doing, waiting to hear if our film was going to be financed or not. When I finished the novella I thought, Frank Darabont is gonna make this into a great movie one day! [Laughs.] I wonder who’s gonna play Will? Then I went on and made my film These Final Hours, and that opened up doors for me in the U.S., and I got agents over there. So when it came time to find my next project, my mind kept coming back to 1922. I started looking around. “Does anyone have the rights to this? Is anyone planning to make it?” It was such an obscure King title that no one even knew what the hell I was talking about. So I just sort of swept in and got my hands on it. I’d never done an adaptation before, and this was a great one for me to learn how to do that given that it’s just in Will’s head the whole time. And those are my favorite kinds of movies—ones that are told from a particular point of view, from a single person’s narrative. It worked really well, and King’s novella was just written in such a cinematic way. It was a pretty quick period of time that I was playing around with it and adapting it into a screenplay.
I sort of get obsessed with things when I fall in love with them, and with 1922, once I got the go-ahead to adapt it, I just immersed myself in that world of the Depression era of the 1920s and 1930s, and that whole Americana vibe. I surrounded myself with as many images and whatnot from that time as I could. This was my first crack at adapting another writer’s work, and I had a lot of fun doing it.
When you were adapting the novella, what were some of the challenges you faced?
ZH: Nothing, really. King’s story was pretty much written for my sensibilities as a filmmaker, so that’s why I fell in love with it. It sort of took it to other levels.
You know what was probably one of the biggest challenges? How we were going to handle Arlette’s return with all the rats. In the story, she is literally surfing on a sea of rats. The way King describes this nightmare vision that Harlan has of this visit is the big climax crescendo of the movie. It’s just so chilling. But we didn’t have a crazy amount of money to make this movie with, but I really wanted to do this story justice when it came to the bigger horror elements that inevitably evolve. I had to be very specific about the decisions I made, given that they’re going to be timely and costly. “How do we strip things back but still retain that sense of horror?”
But with Molly Parker, a lot of it was done in her performance. Once you put the makeup on her, she just did it in an almost sexy kind of way when she comes down the stairs; she’s a ghoul, but this is his wife. There used to be something there between these two, and the way she sort of fucks with him is really interesting. And that was just sort of something that happened on the day. Molly was kind of playing around with ideas.
I guess the main challenge was just doing the really big horror elements and doing the story justice. As far as doing horror, this was my first horror film. So I was trying to figure out the rules and also figure out how to make things as creepy and full of dread as possible. This isn’t a film full of jump-scares. This is a film about a very slow-burning psychological horror, which is the sort of horror I enjoy watching.
Another challenge was replicating 1920s Nebraska in Vancouver in 2017. That was no easy feat either. But we had a really great crew, and they were all very excited about working on this King film. They were all pushing themselves and trying their hardest to make the best film possible.
Molly Parker really is incredible in the film. But then, truthfully, all the actors are.
ZH: She was my first pick. We didn’t go to any other actress. The weird thing is, she actually grew up in Langley, which is the area where we shot the film. Not only is she Canadian, but she actually grew up in that area. But she was the very first actress that came to mind, and she said yes, which I couldn’t believe. And she got a kick out of it because she’d never done a horror film before, so she wanted to know what it was like with all that shit on her face, sitting there in that chair. She just wanted to experience that. However, I don’t know if she’ll ever do another one. [Laughs.] But she really went the extra mile for us on this.
I read that Tom Jane was actually your first choice for his role, as well. What was it about Tom Jane that made you say, “This is the guy”?
ZH: I didn’t really write Wilfred with anyone in mind in particular. So when it came time to start having meetings, he was the very first actor I had a meeting with. He responded immediately to the material. We had a lunch, and I sat down across from him. He just pleaded his case and explained how much he really wanted to do it. He understood the character, and he was determined to do it. And right then I realized I was sitting across from Wilfred. I could just see it, the way he talked about farming and what it was like to be on the land, and how everything moves at its own pace. Sitting across from him I realized that all of the work was already done. I knew this was someone I could trust with this material. He got it, and he was so passionate about exploring his character. It made my life a lot easier, knowing that there was someone who absolutely was Will.
This was Tom Jane’s third Stephen King adaptation. Is he a big fan of King’s work, or does he just keep getting these roles by chance?
ZH: He really digs King, but it’s just a wacky coincidence that he’s now done three of these films. He doesn’t really go out of his way to pursue King material. I think it’s more of a coincidence than anything else. But yes, he does love the writing of Stephen King. He’s attracted to dark subject matter, as am I. He really responded to this material in a big way.
One thing that’s interesting about 1922 is that it actually ties in with some of the other works that you mentioned. For instance, Mother Abagail from The Stand goes to Hemingford Home, where 1922 takes place. It also has ties to It, because the Ben Hanscom character eventually moves to Hemingford Home as an adult. Did that excite you to be making something that’s a part of that same universe?
ZH: It was exciting. If you had told eleven-year-old me that one day he was going to make a Stephen King movie, I would not have believed you. I’m still pinching myself that I got paid to make a Stephen King movie. And I’m pretty proud of it. I think it turned out pretty well. It achieved everything I set out to do, which was sort of a slow burn psychological examination of this amazingly-rich King character, Wilfred James. But yes, those were nice little Easter eggs, having it be loosely linked to those stories, although once you’re immersed in the story, you don’t really give those things a second thought. But it is a cool thing to have it in that zeitgeist.
Your film was one of four Stephen King movies that were released in 2017. One of those was the remake of It. As a movie buff and also a fan of the original miniseries, what were your thoughts on the newest adaptation?
ZH: I really dug it. When I heard they were going to adapt It again, I thought, you can’t out-Curry Tim Curry. [Laughs.] But then, sure enough, they made this newest version of the film and the character Pennywise something new and fresh. That Bill Skarsgaard guy… Just from that opening sewer scene I was like, “Oh, shit, this is gonna be pretty incredible!” I guess his performance—just everytime Pennywise was on the screen—was my favorite part of the movie. I thought that everything he brought to that role, just that whole creation, the performance, the lazy eye, the whole thing, was just wonderful. His drool… His entire performance was just done so well.
You’ve talked about both Frank Darabont and Tom Jane, so I have to ask: what were your thoughts on the ending of The Mist (2007)? As you know, it really made a lot fans angry. I personally believe it’s brilliant, but that’s just one opinion.
ZH: That visceral experience of The Mist—you don’t see it coming. You don’t think it’s going to go down this godless path, and then it does all of a sudden… [Laughs.] Hats off to Frank Darabont. It would have been very easy not to have done that. And the fact that it added that little kick in the gut certainly does what good horror should do, which is to horrify. In that sense, I think it was a good call.
As you know, Stephen King praised Tom Jane’s performance in your film.
ZH: King has been a great champion of both myself and this movie, from day one. I’ve never spoken to the man, and I’ve never corresponded with him, but through his interviews and through Twitter he’s expressed that he’s a big fan of 1922. And that means a lot. Even showing him a rough cut, he was very positive about it. His feedback was “yep, keep on keepin’ on.” It was great. He’s very hands-off when he lets his babies go out into the world, and I think he was just really happy that this was one of the films that turned out well.
He actually compared the movie to There Will Be Blood (2007), which is remarkably high praise.
ZH: There was a lot of There Will Be Blood blood in this film. That was obviously another big influence on everything. That’s how I saw the movie, but then we added our own element to that. We actually used There Will Be Blood music in the temp score when we were editing. That movie resonated a lot with me, so I thought him saying that was really great.
From a filmmaker’s perspective, what are some of the other King adaptations that most resonate with you?
ZH: The Shining (1980) was a huge influence on 1922. I love Misery (1990). Misery is the kind of movie that, whenever it comes on TV, you have to watch it again—at least a little bit. But then you end up watching the whole thing again. Shawshank Redemption (1994) is another one. What’s interesting is that I think there are elements of all three of those films in 1922. My favorite King adaptations kind of found their way, through osmosis, into 1922.
I was also obsessed with The Stand (1994) miniseries as a kid. I must have watched that thing a million times, as well. I’m kind of excited; there’s been some talk of them doing a Stand remake. I think that would be incredible to watch.
Let’s talk about the music in the film. Mike Patton’s score for 1922 was sublime. It just keeps ratcheting up that sense of dread. It’s just so effective.
ZH: I worked really closely with Mike once it was time to focus on the score, so we spent a few months with me in Perth and him in San Francisco, just going back and forth and working on each cue as we needed to. He just came up with some amazing stuff. Hats off to him. He’s a musical genius, and I just love that we basically went in with the idea of antique psychedelia, and I think it’s exactly that. I definitely wanted Mike to bring his own craziness to it, and he did that in spades. It’s a very unique score. It definitely feels like a Mike Patton score, but kind of a different take on a Mike Patton musical arrangement. It definitely elevates everything in the film.
As we mentioned previously, 2017 was a big year for Stephen King movies. There were four King adaptations released [that year]. With an 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, your movie beats out two of them and comes pretty close to the other. That must be satisfying for you as a filmmaker.
ZH: Oh yeah, it was a crazy year for sure. Who knew that between the films and the television series there would be six or seven Stephen King properties coming out all at the same time? It’s crazy to have come out around the same time as It and Gerald’s Game (2017). Those two were, I think, the two that really took everyone’s attention. I kind of feel like we were the Little Engine That Could. We just sort of went out there and did our own thing, and it’s great that it’s on Netflix because there are lots of people discovering it on a daily basis. It’s kind of a slow burn where every day there are more and more people who are becoming aware of the movie.
Your film came out on Netflix almost immediately after Gerald’s Game. Did that intimidate you at all? Was there ever a sense of competition where you felt like you had to have a really strong product in able to compete?
ZH: Not really, because you’re just so busy trying to get the movie finished in time. And I always knew that Gerald’s Game and 1922 were going to be a sort of double header and that they were coming out at roughly the same time. Even down at Fantastic Fest in Austin, where we both premiered… I got to meet Mike Flanagan, and he was just a really lovely guy. Having the opportunity to watch Gerald’s Game at the Alamo Drafthouse when no one had seen it before was terrific. Experiencing that degloving scene with a packed audience was unlike anything I had ever experiened before. People were losing their fucking minds. It was really great to be able to be there and witness that. After that initial screening, it’s up to people in their own living rooms to experience that. To have seen it in a group like that was a great experience.