Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal has slowly been building a fanbase of genre fans with his early movie Trollhunterand the eerie The Autopsy of Jane Doe. His new movie Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark might be a true turning point, not only because it’s based on the popular book series by Alvin Schwartz, but it also teams him with Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who co-wrote the script and produced the film.
Some of your favorite stories from the books are folded into a story set in 1968 Pennsylvania where a young girl named Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her friends Auggie and Chuck (Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur) end up in a haunted house on Halloween evening where she tells them the story of Sarah Bellows, a young girl imprisoned by her parents in the basement who would write scary stories. The three of them and their new friend Ramón (Michael Garza) find and take the book in which Bellows write her stories before realizing that Bellows wants the book back as stories begin writing themselves in the pages, creating dire consequences for those named in the stories.
Fans of the books and just general fans should enjoy what Øvredal has done in terms of collecting various stories into an overall one — I certainly liked the movie – and The Beatgot on the phone with Øvredal earlier this week for the following discussion about making Scary Stories, as well as his adaptation of Richard Bachman’s The Long Walk, written by Stephen King under that pseudonym.
THE BEAT: I do want to ask about setting the story in 1968, because it’s such a great year, and so many horror movies are now set in the ‘80s, because it’s such a landmark era, so why set it in 1968?
André Øvredal: This was a decision that I think Guillermo was very adamant about back even before I was even involved. That was more or less his decision with the Hagerman brothers [the writers] and the studio, and they all figured out that this was a time period that meant a lot to them. I would have to let him speak to that, in a way, but to me, it’s a wonderful year to portray a time period that you can in some aspect link to today. I thought that was an ingenious way of putting a horror movie in that year, which was very turbulent with a lot of conflict in the world and a lot of conflict in America with the war and assassinations and riots and all kinds of things going on in that one year. We felt that we were able to find impact into the characters’ lives through that. Also, I’m not American, so I can’t really speak to this. Obviously, I didn’t experience that time (Note: Because he wasn’t born yet) but it feels like it’s a loss of innocence in that time period, because you also realize that the government is capable of lying to you regarding the war, or you have a President that is just about to get elected who eventually, famously did wrong things. In a way, it’s a lot of potent politics and playing directly into the characters’ lives, affecting obviously Ramón very directly, and we also loved the idea that this simpler time period in some ways is also a symbol for how we treat each other today with internet and social media, the way it’s possible to lie about each other and tell negative stories and how the rumor mill can impact somebody’s life. Back in that time, that would be a very local thing, but today, very instantly lies can become truths before you know it, for everybody. We found that to be a very intriguing connection, as well. It also impacts Stella’s life very directly, and also the antagonist, Sarah Bellows.
THE BEAT: As soon as I saw the year, I wondered if George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead had come out yet and whether you were going to reference it. I wasn’t sure if you’d get it in there, and you did!
Øvredal: Because that movie came out… as far as I remember, it had a premiere October 1st-ish, and our setting is Halloween and a few days later, so it was the perfect time. It was inescapable. It was meant to be.
THE BEAT: How did you go about finding the kids? I think Zoe Colletti is especially amazing as Stella. She has this nerdy quality to her which is very likeable, and we see a lot of boys in these movies where the boy is in the lead and they are nerdy with a horror obsession, so Stella is a nice change. How did you find her?
Øvredal: We do a very professional auditioning process, but I remember I was sent her self-tape in a separate E-Mail once, very early on in the process. I saw it, and I was like, “This is her,” and I just spread the Email to the whole team. I found her. “This is the girl.” I hadn’t even met her, nothing, and we still kept looking for actually weeks and months, just to make sure, and she beat everybody every time. She was just #1 the whole time.
THE BEAT: I hear so many stories like that where the first person who auditions ends up being the best one, but you still have to keep looking to make sure. I guess that’s just part of the movie-making process.
Øvredal: I mean, you’re never sure, in a way. Is it really that easy? This is supposed to be super-hard to find the star of the movie. It’s not supposed to be that easy, but it was such an instant [thing].
THE BEAT: Were the stories from the books chosen for the movie, was a lot of that a committee decision also with Guillermo and the writers? Was a lot of that decided before you came on board or were you able to throw in some of your favorites?
Øvredal: Guillermo says basically that they had an American Idolkind of competition where they listed their favorites, and they just started dwindled it down to the ones we could actually fit into a movie or they could fit into the script, at that time. Some stories went in, some went out. I remember we had another story in the movie when I received the script, which we had to take out because we changed some aspects of the character relationship and one scene had to go, and then we put in something else. It was shifting a little bit, but those stories they found that really keyed into certain aspects of each of the characters, which was a lot of fun. There is a link between the characters and the stories that Sarah Bellows throws upon them in a way.
THE BEAT: I remember at the event a few months ago how you cast the creature designers and the actors to portray the creatures. Were the creatures in Trollhunter all CG?
Øvredal: Yeah, barring a couple shots, they were all CG.
THE BEAT: How did you work with the performers in this case to create the look of the creatures? I assume there was some CG like for Jangly Man, because you can’t actually have someone fall apart like that.
Øvredal: Those particular shots of him falling apart and coming together are CG but even then, it’s always based on the physicality of the prosthetics, so it’s always based in reality, which always really helps the whole process. The actors are really suffering inside those suits. There’s heat and everything, but they’re so extremely well made, and the people that were doing it were collaborators with Guillermo throughout the whole process. I mean, throughout his whole career, through all his movies actually, so he knew them so intimately well and what they were capable of and assigned each character to each creature designer. It was all an amazing collaboration that I was so lucky to be involved with and see how to do it at that level. It was a masterclass in everything.
THE BEAT: I’ve spoken to a few directors who have had Guillermo as a producer including Juan Bayona and Andy Muschietti, and I’ve known Guillermo a long time as well. What would you say is the #1 thing he brings as a producer that you haven’t experienced with your other movies?
Øvredal: I don’t know what I’ll find elsewhere, but what I can say about Guillermo is that obviously he’s so protective of my position as a director, even towards himself. He was supposed to direct this movie. He developed it for himself, and then he chose not to direct it, and they asked me, and he said immediately to me the first time, “You’re going to go out and make your movie now. Trust your instincts,” and I was terrified. I love Guillermo’s movies, but I can’t make those movies. They’re so uniquely his. It was such a relief to hear that I was given the freedom, and throughout the whole process from the scripting process through the shoot through the whole editing process, he just really protected my vision, which was an amazing thing. This film has, to me, a unified voice at least I can bring to a movie, and with his additional fantastic advice in so many aspects of the filmmaking. Most of them I took in – he will say I didn’t listen to most of them (laughs) – but I believe I listened to a lot of them. Just that alone is so great, because it is a whirlwind to make a movie in Hollywood. It’s a big corporation – any movie is a huge corporation, in a way. It’s a big decision to invest in a movie and make a movie, so it’s a lot of people with high stakes. You invest in a creative aspect and banking on individual people with an artistic vision of something, and they have to trust you with so much. It is a whirlwind to make a movie and then to have a producer who is so strong, but I also had other producers. Sean Daniel is a legend and Miles Dale, he produced The Shape of Water, and he was an amazing on-set producer with me and fixing everything that I needed every day. He was very very hands on.
THE BEAT: It has this tone where you can bring younger kids, maybe from 9 to 11, and it can be their first horror movie. I know kids love the Universal Monsters, and it has that kind of thing where it’s moderately scary but it’s not gory, so you can take kids to it. Was it hard to keep a PG-13 rating in mind while making this?
Øvredal: No, I love those … one of my favorite horror movies of all time is Poltergeist, and it’s so scary, but it’s PG, and it’s like, “Wow,” so it goes to show that you can scare people as much as you want and still retain the rating. The only thing is you have to make sure you don’t do specific things. There are certain swear words you can’t use, and it’s an obvious thing. If you get too gruesome, you’re gonna get an “R” very quickly. I kind of instinctively know that, but I was never into that. I’ve never been into that with my movies or movies that I love watching. I love terrifying the audience, so when I see people leaning forward in the theater, it’s the greatest gift to see, because it is what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to engage you, and I don’t think blood and guts and gruesome killings do that. It’s characters up against life dilemmas, huge decisions and discovering that the world is not what they thought it was and ending up in scary situations. That’s fun, that’s great fun.
THE BEAT: You’re also attached to make a Stephen King movie, which must be its own challenge, since he has so many great books and stories, and he’s having a bit of a resurgence where better movies are being made on his books. What made you want to do The Long Walk?
Øvredal: To me, it’s the ultimate challenge in some ways, because it’s so raw and so naked. It’s just these boys walking and talking about life and being under an enormous threat. It is just the camera, actors and a script and that’s it. It’s a really fascinating challenge, and I gotta make it tense and I gotta make you care about the characters, and I gotta make it engaging for 100 minutes or however long the film will be, in a massive way that also elevates beyond what TV can do today. I like that pressure – it makes it interesting. (laughs)
THE BEAT: And you have a Norwegian film called Mortal you’ve also been working on or is that done?
Øvredal: It’s done. I shot it before Scary Stories, and then I got Scary Stories, and I was fortunate to be able to stop post-production on that, finish Scary, and now I’m going to go back and finish that and release that early next year.
THE BEAT: Are you going to try to bring that to some festivals or is that a Norwegian release and get an American distributor later?
Øvredal: I’m not sure what their plans are. It’s definitely a Norwegian release, I think at the end of January. If it’s going to be at festivals, that always depends on the quality of the movie. If it works, festivals will want to show it. If it doesn’t, they won’t.
THE BEAT: I think with a lot of Americans, Trollhunters was our first experience of your movies but you made movies before that. Any chance of those movies ever getting shown here?
Øvredal: I consider Trollhunters to be my first movie. I made a feature film in film school that was called “Future Murder.” That was just a 16mm end of school portfolio project. That features on my IMDB list but that’s just a $35,000 16mm student film.
THE BEAT: Some people might like to see your earlier work…
Øvredal: Yeah, it’s not a film I’m crazy proud of, but I do have some DVDs at home… (laughs)
Scary Stories to Tell in the Darkopens on Friday, August 9 with previews tonight!