Screenwriting team Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski first met at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts in 1985, where they were roommates. In the late 1980s they sold a black comedy script about a terrible child who makes life hell for his father. The screenplay then evolved under the studio’s supervision, ultimately becoming the broad comedy Problem Child (1990). The film was savaged critically, but proved to be a box-office success, ultimately spawning two sequels. While the film wasn’t the type of project Scott and Karaszewski were interested in making, it established them in the industry and paved the way for bigger and brighter things to come.
They later approached director Tim Burton and convinced him to make a biopic about offbeat Z-grade filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. Alexander and Karszewski then went to work on a screenplay, producing the shooting draft in a mere six weeks. The film, Ed Wood (1994), would be met with critical acclaim and received many accolades, including a Writers Guild nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The film would also win two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Martin Landau) and Best Makeup. After the success of Ed Wood, Alexander and Karaszewski’s careers took off.
The duo would become known for writing quirky biopics such as The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), Man on the Moon (1999), and Dolemite Is My Name (2019). They also wrote the biographical television series The People v. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story (2016). They have performed uncredited rewrites for a number of films, including Mars Attacks! (1996). They made their directorial debut with the comedy Screwed (2000), which starred Norm Macdonald, Dave Chappelle, and Danny DeVito. Their screenplays have received many awards and nominations, and the duo has received two Writers Guild Awards for their work on their Larry Flynt and O.J. Simpson biographies.
While Alexander and Karaszewski are primarily known for biopics, they have also written several mainstream films including Agent Cody Banks (2003) and Goosebumps (2015). One of their most significant non-biographical projects was the Mikael Hafstrom-helmed Stephen King adaptation 1408 (2007). The screenwriters initially took the assignment, thinking it would be a project they would work on for a short period of time. They wound up spending a year-and-a-half on the film, which would ultimately become one of the finest King horror adaptations to date.
ANDREW J. RAUSCH: Were you guys fans of Stephen King’s work prior to working on the screenplay for 1408?
LARRY KARASZEWSKI: We both grew up in the 1970s, so that first giant wave of Stephen King books was very important for us. Particularly The Stand (1978), which was a book that meant a lot to both of us. We were teenagers when Carrie (1974) came out, so we experienced Stephen King mania as it happened. We were guys who went to the sneak previews of The Shining (1980), with that initial disappointment everyone felt about Kubrick not doing Stephen King’s book justice. And then, obviously, The Shining has become recognized as one of the greatest films of all time. So King was obviously someone who was on our radar.
I don’t know if we were necessarily giant consumers of his work. Stephen King was one of those guys who has just written so many books. I’ve probably read most things up until the Christine (1983) period. After that I sort of paid attention to what he was doing, but—
SCOTT ALEXANDER: So you’re saying you were caught up until thirty-five years ago? [Laughs.]
SA: He actually wrote so many books that he came up with another name, Richard Bachman, so he could put out even more books!
LK: The guy was doing a lot of writing.
Had you guys worked on any other horror projects prior to 1408? There aren’t any on your filmography, but I wondered if maybe you’d had unproduced projects or had done any rewrites on horror films.
SA: I had history with horror as a crew member. When I was in college, during the summers, I used to work as a production assistant or in other small positions on low-budget horror movies. This was during the early-eighties’ slasher era. I’d been a boom operator on a few movies where there’s a girl in a dark house and she’s backing into a hallway and you can see a guy hiding behind her with a knife. That kind of stuff. I was familiar with the genre. I had been on the set of these movies, been in the cutting room, and I had worked as a music editor for a few years with Christopher Young, who had scored a lot of horror films. I had been there for the process when the filmmakers are trying to figure out how to make it scarier; how to do the jump-scares and how to build the tension. They were looking to the composer to amplify those moments. It’s actually a very interesting and analytical process.
I’ve never really thought about this until you asked that question, but that was probably useful.
“[T]here was this idea that we were going to try to elevate this and make one of the greatest horror movies of all time.”
LK: I never thought about that either, but that was totally helpful because you were able to think about set pieces and scares, having worked on those films in the post-production of it all. I think you definitely brought that knowledge to the screenwriting process.
SA: In terms of the original question, I don’t think we ever worked as writers on any actual horror films.
LK: That was the first time we ever worked on a horror film, and I think that’s actually why we said yes.
SA: No, we said yes because we’d never worked with the Weinsteins.
LK: But also horror because we had this attitude that we had written different types of films, and one of the things we always liked about comedy writing was set pieces. Like in Problem Child where Junior was going off to play baseball. There were a lot of scenes with these big comic set pieces. We kind of thought, what if you brought that to the horror genre? Comedy is sort of similar to horror, but instead of a punchline it’s a shock. So we were looking at it analytically like that.
SA: It was one of my favorite showbiz experiences. We had backed into the job for totally mercenary reasons, and then it ended up being a total blast. When we were doing all of our biopics in the nineties, Harvey Weinstein was still sort of king of the world. We would have these celebrated biopics that would go into awards season, and then they’d end up getting crushed by whatever Harvey had out that week. And we had never actually worked for the Weinsteins. It seemed to be a gaping hole in our career, because they liked to make off-the-wall movies, and that’s what we did. It’s a total con job to try to make an off-the-wall movie at one of the major studios.
So our agent called us and said, “There’s a rewrite of this Stephen King story with a guy trapped in a hotel room.” We said, “Pass.” And he said, “Well, it’s with the Weinsteins and I think it would be really good for your career, just to establish a working relationship with them.” So we said, “How long?” And he said, “It’ll just be three weeks.” So we said fine.
We were initially just doing it as some kind of career management, and then we ended up having so much fun with Bob Weinstein who ran the project, with Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the producer, and Mikael Hafstrom, who was the director. The five of us were swinging for the fences. Larry and I were brought in to do a rewrite on Matt Greenberg’s script, which laid out the story well as a horror piece. But Bob was saying, “Look guys, let’s shoot for greatness.” We went in for the first meeting and he said, “Let’s talk about Polanski. Let’s talk about Bergman. It should be like Wild Strawberries (1957), with the old man looking out of the train.” And suddenly there was this idea that we were going to try to elevate this and make one of the greatest horror movies of all time. So instead of leaving after three weeks, we wound up working on that project for a year-and-a-half, which was insanity because at a certain point the money ran out. But we were having so much fun that we just kept hanging around. We kept trying to do new stuff and Bob would say, “This is great. But it’s only an A. I want you guys to give me a fuckin’ A-plus!”
LK: The movies we talked about all the time were Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968), and Repulsion (1965). Lorenzo di Bonaventura would come out of these meetings and say, “What are you guys talking about?” [Laughs.] He didn’t understand why we were spending all of this time talking about Ingmar Bergman movies, but we felt there was a way to do those things within the horror genre.
At a certain point you go into that project saying, “Our hands are tied behind our backs here, because it’s one guy in a room.” That’s not a lot to work with. And the Stephen King story is barely even a story because he hadn’t even intended for it to be a complete work. It was originally going to be a writing exercise in his book On Writing (2000), so it wasn’t really a complete short story with a beginning, middle, and an ending. And even within that very short short story, half of it is just Mike Enslin sitting in the office with Mr. Olin.
SA: There’s very little about what’s inside the room, so the challenge became: how do you turn this into a movie? The game became trying to figure out how to make tension and how you then build it with psychological terror, and then how do you get out of that goddamn room? And you have to be crazy and clever and weird about it. We weren’t taking any psychedelic drugs, but our attitude about the project was that we would keep going back to our office and saying, “Let’s think as far outside the box as we can. How cuckoo can we go here?” And then we came back with all these weird fantasies within dreams within imaginary events kinds of stuff going on. And Bob would always joke, “I don’t know what you guys are smoking.” Lorenzo would say, “I’ve worked on 150 movies and this is the first one with no rules.” And he said that with a big smile on his face.
So we just tried to push things as crazy as we could. One example would be our Duck Soup (1933) homage, where we managed to create the character of a guy across the street who’s doing the mirror routine with Cusack, which has nothing to do with anything! [Laughs.] That was just us trying to see how crazy we could go. It was also, “Hey, we can go across the street!” Anything to try to get imagery that was outside that room.
LK: So for us, it really was about writing a script with your hands tied behind your back, in the sense of writing a script that takes place entirely inside one room. That became the fun of it. Where most people would say, “You can’t make a movie like that,” we looked at it from the other side. So we just went through everything we could think of… What are the things inside a hotel room? There’s the chocolate on the pillow. There’s the folded toilet paper. There’s the mini-bar. There are the people downstairs calling. There’s the list of cable movies you could rent. So we went through literally everything a person would do that was banal, asking how we could make that banality evil. How can you make that stuff scary?
I remember being at one of the first test screenings. We take a long time to introduce the scares in that movie, but when that chocolate mint is missing… The audience just freaked out. I remember Lorenzo said, “Holy shit, they jump at the mint!”
SA: When the mint reappears on the pillow, and then the toilet paper refolds itself.
LK: The audience screamed at the toilet paper. We got them. Another thing I want to say is there was a long build there. That was one of the things we brought to the piece. When it came to us initially, it had a bunch of fake-out jump scares in the first ten minutes of the movie. So we said, “Let’s make a deal with the audience. We’re not going to jerk them off. We’re not going to have something scary happen, and then it turns out it was nothing.”
SA: Bob was great about that. Bob said, “How long are you guys gonna go?” And we said, “We’re thinking the entire first act. We want to go twenty or thirty minutes without a scare.” So it’s making that pact with the audience: “No bullshit here. We’re going to be straight up with you.”
LK: That was our conception, that yes, he is searching for haunted houses and that’s his job, but those kind of houses aren’t really haunted. Bad things happen, and he’s got this emotional past where you know there’s something funky going on, but it really is this dark sadness that’s haunting this guy, not any sense of “it’s the boogie man” or anything.
SA: Also, Larry and I brought a lot of our patented snarky cynicism to the first act in that he schleps out to this inn in the rain in the middle of nowhere, and nothing happens because there’s nothing there. Because there’s no such thing as ghosts. And then he schleps his way to a book signing, and it’s not the movie version of a book signing with a crowd lined up outside the book store. He’s not Stephen King. He’s not a celebrity author.
“The section of the movie I’m the proudest of is when John Cusack leaves the room. He thinks he’s escaped and gone back to his old life. And we decided to really go for it.“
I’ve had that book signing. I know what that’s like.
SA: We did it because we had a friend who had just published his first book, and he’d gotten that cross-country tour from the publisher where he’s staying in $68 motels, and then he’s driving himself to the closest Barnes & Noble, and there are three people there and lots of empty folding chairs. And he sells one book, and then he drives to the next town.
LK: We were sort of putting this layer of sadness and loss of faith in Mike Enslin in his own sense of purpose. It’s like his entire life is just a big jerk off. There’s no point to anything. And that’s the first act. There’s just a lot of dark comedy and bleakness and he’s by himself. But we thought this was the pact for the audience in that there’s no bullshit here. We’re just showing you his life and we’re showing you why he doesn’t believe in anything. Of course he doesn’t believe in anything, because there’s nothing to believe in.
I think you guys did a great job making something that elevates the material. There are some great King films, but when it comes to the horror stuff, a lot of it is not, let’s say, Bergmanesque.
LK: [Laughs.] I’ll give lots of props to Mikael Hafstrom and to John Cusack, who both undestood the game we were trying to play. The mix of drama and comedy. It’s not even really heightened, it’s just a little sarcastic. Mikael was able to move so effortlessly between spookiness and sadness and jokes. So you never feel like you’re just being jerked around in a jump-scare horror movie.
The observation that Mike Enslin makes about hotel rooms being creepy places comes almost verbatim from King’s introduction to the short story.
LK: We tried to mine as much of Stephen King’s observations about the story as we could and actually put them into the story itself. I’m happy that you caught the fact that we were using the intro to the story as much as we were using the story itself.
SA: There was so little to work with.
LK: By making Mike Enslin a writer, he becomes a guy who can actually talk flowery. When he presses that little record button, he can actually comment on the situation he’s in. That’s something that’s rare for a character in a movie, because you don’t want to have them saying what’s going on or just coming out and saying their thoughts. But he could actually frame what we were watching, which I think made it kind of interesting. It made him seem intelligent, and it put things into context, because a lot of what King was talking about in that intro was the things that are actually kind of creepy and yucky about hotel rooms. You walk in there and you’re like, “Who’s been here before? Who’s had a horrible night? What’s happened on those sheets?” All that kind of stuff you prefer not to think about when you’re actually in a hotel room because everything’s all nice and perfect. But crazy shit has gone down there at some point. So we used the intro to set it all up.
SA: That’s funny. I totally forgot we grabbed stuff from that intro. We were so happy when we realized we could use that.
LK: The amazing thing about King’s story is that, for the most part, it’s simply the Mr. Olin scene. It’s literally mostly that sequence we made in the film with Sam Jackson. We decided to really just run with that scene. In a normal script, a scene is like two pages. But we decided to almost play that scene in Sam Jackson’s office as a mini one-act play. Just these guys going back and forth with one another. We’re very proud of that scene. Both guys are great, and the dialogue is snappy, and you actually feel them playing chess with each other over this hotel room.
SA: We were so happy with that sequence that we then felt compelled to try to keep Olin in the movie, which led to us being completely cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and doing stuff like putting him inside the refrigerator. [Laughs.] “Hey, there he is again!”
Since you’re on the subject of the refrigerator, I was wondering who stocked it. Since the hotel help don’t want to come into the room and they don’t rent this room out, how is the refrigerator stocked?
LK: No, they actually say maids come in and change the sheets, but they do it in pairs and they never close the door.
Okay, I stand corrected.
LK: That was one of those little funny things where the refrigerator scene really excited the director because he could do all those crazy perspective shots and things like that. But what’s amazing and probably the most horrifying scene in the movie, is when it just cuts to Cusack yelling at the refrigerator. There’s nothing in there, but he’s just standing there yelling at it. You’re just like, “Holy shit. Wow. He is gone.”
SA: The section of the movie I’m the proudest of is when John Cusack leaves the room. He thinks he’s escaped and gone back to his old life. And we decided to really go for it. And again, Lorenzo and Bob were giving us a full leash to run. We might have gone fifteen pages in the script. I mean, the movie started over. It really was him moving back to Redondo Beach and then Mary McCormack shows up. He just starts living his life again. We wanted people to believe it was actually part of the movie—that the third act of the movie was about this guy who learned a lesson about life in a hotel room, and then he gets his life in order.
And there’s the whole conceit of the dream-within-a-dream, you know? The Nightmare on Elm Street movies always did this really well. You get faked out in those, but you get faked out for like a minute-and-a-half and then the movie goes “gotcha,” and you find that it was actually a dream. Again, 1408 was the movie with no rules, so it was like this was the third act. And that just goes and goes and goes. We shot all this stuff, and we were all just giggling. “Oh my God, this movie is out of its mind!”
The movie had a lot of test screenings, which were really useful. What we started learning in the test screenings was that there was a certain point where the fakeout would alienate the audience. We didn’t want to do that. If it went on for too long, it would turn into an exercise where the giggling filmmakers were pulling the strings and saying, “Can you believe we got away with this crazy shit?” But yeah, if John Cusack is in Redondo Beach for twenty-five minutes, of course you got away with it. But when you would go “gotcha, he’s actually still in the room,” the audience would get really angry because we had overstayed our welcome in California. So then it became this whittling down, where we started pulling parts out of that section. We wanted to go as long as possible, because that was the fun of it; the fun was seeing how long you could stay out of the room without the audience becoming angry and saying, “Fuck you, 1408! You broke the pact!” We were always trying to be honest with the audience, so that section probably got cut in half in the final cut.
There’s a section in that sequence where he actually went and visited his father, and he sort of comes to terms with his father, paying off all the father relationship stuff. It was this really heartfelt scene. We’re led through it, and he’s finally making things right. But we threw that on the cutting room floor because we were breaking our bond with the audience. We were taking too much glee in watching them see this stuff that didn’t really happen.
The first time I saw the scene in the version that was released in theaters, I remember feeling so winded when he ends up back in that room. It was just so brilliantly done. It’s commendable.
LK: It’s really cool when Cusack goes back into the room. He’s sitting there and the room is now totally bombed out. That next five or ten minutes is just hell on earth for him. He’s in such an existential hell.
Sometimes when I go to a high school and talk to them about screenwriting I say, “The first act is you get a man in a tree. The second act is you throw rocks at him. And the third act is you figure out a way to get him down from the tree.” So what I do sometimes is run 1408 at a higher speed so it goes by really quickly. Then I say, “See? We’re getting him up the tree. Now we throw rocks at him.” Watching the movie at that speed, it’s literally throwing rocks at this guy. There’s a flood; there’s a wall; there’s his dead daughter. It’s just all these horrible things happening to this guy, and then the movie resolves. It’s really a funny screenwriting lesson in five minutes.
Did you get any feedback from Stephen King himself?
SA: We heard that he liked it. I don’t know if he read the script, but he really liked the movie. My memory of it is that part of the deal was that you couldn’t put Stephen King’s name on a movie poster without his permission at that time, because he’d been ripped off so many times by all the Children of the Corn (1984)-type movies. When he saw the movie he gave the Weinstein Company permission to use his name in advertising.
LK: I think Mikael drove a copy of the movie up to Stephen King’s house and screened it for him. Stephen King said, “This is great. You can use my name.” At the time we were told it had been twenty years since he’d let his name appear on a poster, which was a big deal. We were all really happy about that.
How would you assess the final film once everything was said and done?
SA: We actually had the rare opportunity to see the movie again recently, with an audience. The Cinematheque here in Los Angeles did a month-long tribute to Stephen King. I found the film very satisfying. Like my favorite movies that Larry and I have done, it has a mix of tone. I’ll credit Mikael for having the ability to sustain that even keel for two hours. I just love the mix of reality and scares and sadness with a lot of jokes. And Cusack gives one of his all-time most incredible performances. He just holds that tone.
LK: Cusack is phenomenal in the film, and it’s such an intense character study. What he goes through and all the emotions he experiences… My reaction to the film is I’m just very happy with what we did with the character. We start tracking this character from the bookstore signing and then tell the story of the daughter, and you really become sympatico with the story of Mike Enslin. And Cusack just knocks it out of the park.
SA: It’s hard to remember specifics ten years later, but Larry and I have always taken a certain glee in being secretly autobiographical in our screenplays. That script is just packed with things he and I were going through during those eighteen months. There are just so many references within the movie to our own lives that nobody but us knows about. That brings me a certain morbid pleasure.
LK: It’s funny, with a movie like that you think you’re not really inserting your personal lives into it, but we did. For instance, my grandmother was in a nursing home at the time. I remember walking into the nursing home and hearing an old woman shouting, “I wish I was dead! I wish I was dead!” And I was thinking, This is crazyville. Then I walked around the corner and it was grandmother. That was just bone-chilling. And that’s what we had Enlsin’s father say when he sees him.
SA: For the fans, we should probably discuss the wackadoodle various endings to the movie. There are so many versions in circulation.
All four versions of the ending still exist and either air somewhere or appear on a different version of the DVD. The endings are like the ghosts in this movie—they refuse to die.
SA: You can be a fan of the movie and say, “I’m gonna watch 1408 again,” and you never know if John’s going to live or die this time! [Laughs.] When the movie first came out the Weinsteins had some exclusive deal with Blockbuster. So the movie that screened in theaters, John lived in that. Then in the Blockbuster Blu-ray version John dies. And this information had not been imparted to anybody. Nobody passed this along! Just to entertain ourselves, Larry and I used to go to the Imdb message board. And people would get in fights on there because they would talk about him living, and then someone else would say, “You idiot, he doesn’t live at the end. He dies!” They’d talk about the funeral, and someone else would say, “What funeral? There’s no funeral!” They didn’t realize they were seeing different movies. I mean, why would there be multiple versions? [Laughs again.]
In the short story he dies. He burns up to a crisp. Again, because we had such freedom on the project, we all had lots of conversations and the movie had a million revision pages. We were doing endless color revisions all through shooting. And one of the big conversations was, does he live or die? There wasn’t a right answer. You could make an artistic case for both versions. We ultimately decided as commercial filmmakers, and because we had John Cusack whom we knew was a great actor who drew a lot of empathy, for all the guy’s going to go through, why don’t we just let the fucking guy live?He’s gone to hell and back. Let’s let him live at the end, for God’s sake. It really was that simple. There wasn’t a strong counterargument saying “No, he needs to die.” No one had a strong opinion.
We just wanted the audience to walk out of the theater saying, “Wow, that’s a great movie!” So we kind of said, “Fine. He’s going to live.” And then Larry and I messed around with all these different versions of “how freaky an ending with him living can we have?” We had all these A, B, C, D, E, and F versions of him with Mary at the end, in terms of, is he sane? Is he crazy? Do we want to put a weird final spin on things? So we ended up with the version that was basically the theatrical version, which is him back with Mary and then he finds the tape. He listens to it and they hear his daughter’s voice, then they look at each other with a frightened expression, and the movie’s over.
In the cutting room, Mikael and Peter, the editor, were incredibly creative and they came up with a totally nutty version. I don’t think this one ever made it into any of the versions in circulation. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. In that version, they cut out the reaction shot of Mary. So they came up with a version of the closing scene where John finds the tape and Mary’s across the room. He puts the tape in the player and the daughter’s voice comes out, and John gets the frightened expression. And then you cut to Mary and she’s just opening mail in the background. They just grabbed a shot of her from a different part of the scene. So in that edited version, it’s all in John’s mind. Just by flipping the shot of Mary, it completely reinterpreted the scene. It was really interesting and we were like, “Wow, that’s kind of cool and crazy.” And Mikael said, “Do you think it’s better?” We weren’t sure if it was better or worse, but it was really fascinating. I think it’s the cleverest thing I’ve ever seen an editor do, in terms of reinterpreting a scene just by changing a single shot.
LK: All these endings are pretty good. I’m not sure we ever knocked the ending out of the park. Bob was like, “How can we make the ending better?” He was so proud of the movie, he really wanted the ending to have a little bit more, like a possible jump scare. We had a very extensive reshoot, which took place at Cusack’s funeral.
SA: So we were like, he’s gonna die now. So then we were asking ourselves what was the meaning of it all? And that was Cusack died to free the room. So we put those words in Mr. Olin’s mouth when he comes to visit at the funeral. “Your husband died for a cause.” And then we had him go back to his car and there’s a dead Cusack in the backseat and it’s a big jump scare. It got a huge reaction in the test screenings. But I think we all felt at the end of the day that the scene of Cusack and his wife alone listening to the tape had a general creepiness that the other stuff didn’t have.
LK: I’ve always been kind of upset with the whole ending business because I actually think the theatrical version ends well. I think that original ending with Cusack and his wife was the definitive ending.