He is the man behind The Lawnmower Man Dollar Baby Film.
SKSM: Could you start with telling me a bit about yourself? Who are you and what do you do?
Jim Gonis: I’m originally from New York; I was a film student at NYU when I made “Lawnmower Man.” I moved to Los Angeles a few years later to be a screenwriter. For the past eight years I’ve been working at Playboy in a department called Playmate Promotions, which is like model booking. However, I’m still writing. I became a King fan in 1980 when I read “The Stand,” it’s may favorite novel and I’ve read it four times.
SKSM: 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?
Jim Gonis: The film was shot in 1985 but I didn’t manage to finish it until after graduation. It was for an undergraduate class called “Junior Narrative.” The original budget was $700 but ended up at $5000 due to various logistical problems. In our very small group of students, we each had very little experience shooting color negative and synchronized sound, so this was pretty ambitious. After all the raw footage was shot I struggled for a long time to edit it myself but finally had to hire an outside editor, which helped tremendously — I had spent so much time on it that I lost perspective, and the editor, Andy, really tightened it. Then finding a negative cutter, composer, mixing the sound, doing an answer print, all these things took time while I was still a full time student, preparing to graduate, getting my drivers license, things like that…which is why it wasn’t finished until a year after graduation. I already had my grade from the course, so I didn’t have to spend the extra money to finish it, but I just had to complete it after all that work and talent had already been invested.
SKSM: How come you picked The Lawnmower Man to develop into a movie? What is it in the story that you like so much?
Jim Gonis: When I first picked up “Night Shift” I started with the shorter tales, and that was among the shortest so it was the first one I decided to read. It blew me away, it was so unremittingly random, graphic and horrifying. When it came time to consider making a short film, my group of about four other film students, we went through so many ideas, all of them original, but none of them exciting enough. And in the class, time was running out to decide on an idea. The problem was, I didn’t really like short films and couldn’t come up with an idea that I liked. But when I thought about adapting a story, my mind first went to King, then to that first story I read. (The mid-1980’s were the boom period for King adaptations, remember.) We were sitting in a car driving around Manhattan, frustrated and desperate for inspiration, when I threw the idea in the air, and it rolled along from there. Because I came up with the idea to adapt it, I ended up with the director’s role, but it was intensely collaborative with such a small crew. By the way, there is a comic book adaptation by Walt Simonson that we worked closer from than the original story itself.
SKSM: 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?
Jim Gonis: Someone had told me about it after the fact, and I made the really stupid mistake of sending him cash! (I didn’t have a checking account yet at that age, but it would have been ideal to have a returned check signed by him.) I think I sent a videotape copy of the film in the same package.
SKSM: Was there any funny or special moment when you made the movie that you would like to tell me about?
Jim Gonis: The funny moments now are when I re-watch the film and notice small errors — there is one shot when you can hear me say “action”…and the shot where the mower flies off the balcony, the tripod case is in the background (though it’s not very visible). And, since some scenes were shot months later than the first shoot, the hair length of the actor who played Parkette is sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, so I notice these things and laugh. And, why didn’t I try to find a larger, more threatening lawnmower?! I do recall one very late summer night when we were shooting only the mower going through the house, and just trying all these gonzo things like taping smoke bombs to the underside of the mower to look like exhaust, and backlighting it; and throwing wood chips against it to look like it was eating through a chair. That was fun, and we used most of those shots.
The memories that are “special” just involve all the people I got to work with on the process — really generous actors; committed film students; the talented craftsmen I turned to for postproduction; and many friends and acquaintances who took the time to drive, get food, and allow us to use their home as a location! When you’re involved in what is more or less independent film making, even on such a small scale, you rely so much on people for so many things, and all that generosity is what stands out in my memory. It’s kind of miraculous in hindsight; I’m sure most indie filmmakers can relate.
SKSM: 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?
Jim Gonis: I’m grateful that your site is now making it possible to for fans to see it. Finally! Although, I suspect a great majority of the short student films that get made are far better in many ways, yet never get much of an audience, so I feel very lucky that my film — just by virtue of being a King adaptation — still gets mentioned on websites and in books. Think of it, next year will mark the 20th anniverary of the shoot, yet here I am still answering questions about it! I think it also helped that the feature version was so unfaithful, that any truer adaptation would be apt to attract more attention.
SKSM: Did you have any personal contact with King during the making of the movie? Has he seen it (and if so, what did he think about it)?
Jim Gonis: After it was finished I sent him the tape but didn’t receive any feedback. A couple of years later he did a signing in New York so I finally met him and asked his opinion, and it was generally favorable — I think he said he got a kick out of it, something like that. Wish I could recall his exact words.
SKSM: 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?
Jim Gonis: I’ve been away from production for so long, and I’m sticking to writing now. But I like those early “Night Shift” stories the most, and if I had to pick one it’d probably be “Battleground” — very exciting, cinematic and fun story. And I’d get a stop motion team for all the effects, no CGI! But then it’d probably take me about 20 years to finish.
SKSM: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything else you want to say to the fans that read this interview?
Jim Gonis: “God bless the grass!” (Interpret that as you will, I know the smoking laws are different in the Netherlands.) Thanks for watching my film, hope you enjoyed it. And thank you, Bernd, for putting it on your site.