Filmmaker Rob Letterman thinks he may have the right mix of tricks and treats to make his big screen twist on R.L. Stine’s beloved “Goosebumps” book series a bona fide Halloween hit.
In Letterman’s sack of goodies audiences will find a generous helping of as many of Stine’s kooky take on horror tropes as he could bring to life in one movie; a hearty does of ’80s-era Amblin-style storytelling; a trio of talented teen actors; and Jack Black’s twisted meta-take on both the books’ author and the series’ most delightfully evil antagonist, Sappy the Dummy.
As the director — whose previous films include “Shark’s Tale,” “Monsters Vs. Aliens” and “Guliver’s Travels” — explained during a sit-down with SPINOFF ONLINE, he’s hoping he’s assembled the proper blend of laughs and scares to satisfy both longtime fans of the literary franchise and a new generation of moviegoers looking for some thrills and chills.
SPINOFF ONLINE: From a creative standpoint, what got you excited about the “Goosebumps” property?
Rob Letterman: I was introduced to the project when Neal Moritz called me up, just randomly. He was calling a bunch of directors up to see who wanted to come in and pitch on it, but he called me up and gave me the big idea that R.L. Stine’s in the movie, and what if the books had locks, and they popped open and all the monsters came out?
At the time, I was sort of in my head space just trying to figure out — I was reminiscing about all these old Amblin movies that I grew up on, and I’d done a lot of family movies at that time. When he called, I was just sort of wondering why there was no more “Back to the Futures,” “E.T.s” “Goonies,” “Gremlins.” I was just sort of itching to crack that, because I grew up loving those movies, and they were never kids movies at the time. They weren’t even family genre. They were just big, general audience movies. They were the norm back then. I loved going to the movies with my parents, and people of all ages. It was just like a big event, and they just weren’t making that anymore.
So when he told me the big idea, in my mind, I was like, “Ooh, this is a great excuse.” And that became my big presentation to the studios, was, I would love to turn this project into, basically, a classic Amblin type of film. And they bought into it. From that point, it was all about reworking it towards that.
The trickiest part here is tone, which you nailed. How hard or natural was it to find that proper blend of funny and scary?
Tone is the most important thing, and a lot of it is just, for me, there’s no rules to it. What I did was — it’s about balancing out the fun and the scares. But more importantly, in all those old movies, one thing I always remembered was, they were very grounded. They always started in a very real world setting. There’s a real family dynamic. There are characters that are dealing with real issues.
The “Goosebumps” books also were good about that. And when you start in a real world, and then you introduce something supernatural, for me, that’s the stuff that I love. And that’s the tone I was very specific about. If there’s things that were broad and ridiculous or winks to the camera, it was just not going to happen. Despite crazy stuff happening, the characters have to believe in the moment or despite how silly something is, they have to take it seriously.
All the way through the whole process, the look of the movie, the casting of Dylan Minnette, who is so ernest and so grounded, and the mash-up of that with Ryan Lee who’s really funny, and then the emotional connection to Odeya’s character. Jack [Black], himself, is really a genius at navigating the serious and the funny and coming up with a character. Every aspect, every piece of the DNA of the film, was kind of embracing, kind of keep it grounded, as a universe, and then go crazy.
Did you have to throw out anything that played too scary?
Yeah, I definitely had to throw out a couple things that were too scary. There’s the MPAA, or things that were too incredibly dramatic. You meet a kid whose father passed away. There were a couple of scenes that were just so heavy — I loved them, and it was torture to cut them out because the performances were incredible, but it swung the pendulum too much. We have scenes that are very emotional, but it just has to thread the needle correctly.
Tell me, what is it about that common phenomenon among kids, of wanting to be scared, but not too scared?
It’s interesting. Jack Black and I have talked about this. There’s some sort of coming of age ritual when you’re growing up of overcoming your fear and movies that are scary, but safe scary. Not inappropriate scary. It’s really fun when you’re that age to anticipate the scare, get scared, and overcome the scare. It’s like a roller coaster ride. The same feeling of going to a theme park. It’s one of those universal things that kids love.
What is that primal scary thing that was your specific freak-out monster as a kid?
Freak out monster as a kid? Well, had nothing to do with this movie. It was always “Alien.” Freaked me out. And a little bit of “Jaws.” But I’ve got to say, there’s one movie that stuck with me as a kid, it came out in the ’70s, that actually inspired the haunted car, which is this movie “The Car.” Not the greatest movie, just a classic B-movie thing, and it stuck with me. I was talking with the production designer, who had also loved the film. “Let’s try and capture the spirit of that.” So that kind of worked its way into the movie.
I noticed you went for practical effects whenever you could, rather than over-relying on CGI. Tell me about that philosophy.
Well, just because you can do anything doesn’t mean you should. It’s funny: I don’t want to take anything away from the visual effects — we’re chock full of visual effects in this movie — but the reason I picked the particular visual effects team that I did — and I have a visual effects background and an animation movie background — was because I loved the movies that have spectacular visual effects that were mostly built on things that were captured in camera. I’m a true believer of, “Do as much as you can in camera, and then, augment it with visual effects that looks the best.” It’s the best for performances. It’s the best way to cut the movie together, because you’re cutting with something there.
I’m also a fan of and nostalgic for creature makeup. I love that stuff. So as much as we could, we went through every monster, put ’em up on our big war room board, and just broke it all down. Some of it had to be visual effects. When you have a 60-foot-tall, giant praying mantis chasing a car at 50 miles per hour, that’s a no-brainer, that has to be CGI. Or, a 14-foot-tall snowman. But there’s other characters that we did suits, like the aliens for example. Just the faces were replaced and the hands replaced, so there’s combos.
Then, there’s the full-practical. The greatest practical thing, and the best decision, was making Slappy a totally real ventriloquist dummy and auditioning all of these incredible ventriloquist dummy puppeteers until we found our guy, who is on stage with us. There’s something about it. It’s very hard to say, but when he was on set, that’s all real. That’s all in camera. There’s no magical computer effects other than painting out Avery, our puppeteer, but that was it. Really, man, the performances pop, and it’s awesome. It’s got a great look to it.
Tell me about finding the Jack Black-ness in Slappy’s design, and then showing that to Jack.
A lot of work went into creating Slappy. A lot of amazing artists. Ironhead Studios, they actually built it and sculpted it. There was a very famous ventriloquist puppet creator who did all the mechanics of the inside. Our puppeteer flew to the shop and worked with them to make it. All along, I wanted to subtly design Jack’s features into Slappy’s face, because there’s a moment in the third act of the movie that’s very important for it all to line up. SIt was all designed from the beginning.
How did you get the eyes just right? The eyes are Jack’s eyes!
You know, these guys are incredible artists and craftsmen. I can’t take credit for the workmanship. They’re so good at what they do. They do anything, from the Batman suit, to Slappy. They’re just so good. The movie people are so good at what they do. I can’t tell you. It’s all in the eyes.
Jack is kind of his own special effect, but he doesn’t just get to fall back on easy, standard Jack Black-y things here.
We talked early, early on about just that. It was a while ago, when we went out to lunch, and we were talking about it. I was kind of singing his praises for this movie, “Bernie,” which he had done with Richard Linklater. I was like, “Oh, my God. I’m so proud of you. I love that movie. Your performance was so awesome!” Hhe got nominated for a Golden Globe, and I was like, “Man, Jack, people don’t realize there’s this other side of you. You’re a trained actor, you can do the dramatic stuff. And that would be so fun.”
We talked about the Robin Williams of it all, but he kept bringing up Gene Wilder. We talked about Willy Wonka, the ’70s one, where kind of, at first, you’re not sure if he’s a good guy, and he pulls a curtain back. And just having fun with transforming a central character where you think at first, maybe this is the villain, and then you pull the curtain back, “Wizard of Oz”-style, and see somebody else there and how fun that would be for him as an actor to play around with that and create something different.
For me, too, just to try something new, because we have worked together a couple times. So yeah, we just kind of keyed into it, and it was great. It was a lot of fun. I’m really proud of him, and in retrospect, it was sort of a no-brainer, but we didn’t know for sure if that was the way to go.
The flip side of that was working with these emerging young talents. Tell me about working with the three lead actors as they’re learning their paces, so to speak.
Yeah, they’ve learned their paces! They’re so talented. I mean, I auditioned a lot of kids. I really did. I was very, very, very picky, to the point where I was probably driving some people crazy. It was so important, the chemistry of it, finding real teenagers, not 25-year-olds playing teenagers, or 14-year-olds or 10-year-olds. It was just a very targeted age. And then, on top of that, I needed to make sure that they all worked together. I did a lot of auditions when I finally could zero in on Dylan, who blew me away in the audition. I mean, amazing.
And then I got Odeya. And I had to bring Odeya [Rush] in with Dylan, but I didn’t know — Dylan was going to go on another movie, so I had to bring her in with another person, so I was trying all these combinations. I had to call Jack in, and he would read with all these different kids. I just needed to make sure I found the proper Rubik’s Cube of that process. I can comfortably say, they are the best we could have gotten. And they’re amazing. I mean, they’re great people on top of that. They’re genuinely nice adults now — I can’t call them kids. Which I think reflects on screen, too. I mean, they’re great.
What was the most fun discovery of spending time with the real R.L. Stein?
It was really funny, because all he wants to do is talk about comedy. He’s a comedy fan — like, to the point where in cinephile, there’s a comedyphile? But I remember the conversation. Somehow, maybe Sid Caesar had recently passed or something, we got on to “Your Show of Shows.” Then we started talking about the writers’ room on “Your Show of Shows,” which was Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen — like, the most amazing writers’ room, ever. All he wanted to do was talk about comedy and the mathematics of comedy and telling a joke.
That was surprising. I was kind of expecting a weird, Stephen King type, which we end up doing on screen. But instead, we got this kind of jovial, really lovely guy who just truly enjoys comedy and wanted to be a comedy writer and found himself doing horror books. Just a really sweet guy.
Do you want to do more?
Of the “Goosebumps?” I would love to. I mean, I have no control over that, but yeah, I think that would be awesome. It really was — not all movies are as effortless. I mean, God, I’ve had some hard times, too. But this one, it was a real joy, all the way through, from beginning to end. And, knock on wood, I hope it does well.
What were the most influential Amblin movies in relation to this one?
There’s three, for very specific reasons; two of them aren’t really that obvious. But “E.T.,” obviously, is sort of a something that you should aspire to, even though you can never get there because it’s perfect. But you have to aim that high. Because if you fall short, at least you’re somewhere good.
The thing about “E.T.,” and the thing that Spielberg did in “Jaws” and “Close Encounters” that I really, really study over and over again is, there’s these family dynamics that the movies start with that just seem so identifiable, and so much like how my family was. Not contrived at all, just very natural, improvised, families dealing with issues. Those three movies all start there, and then something wild happens. And that keyed in for me in a big way. I tried my best to sort of — even though we only had a mom and her son — try to capture a little bit of that.
And then, “Gremlins.” I mean, I literally have stolen things out of some of these movies, and “Back to the Future” and “Goonies,” for different reasons, just because of the silliness of the adventure. But there’s also, like, a lot of art house film stuff. Those Amblin movies were kind of very static and smooth, and I have a handheld look. I have 1960s lenses on digital cameras. I was doing a lot of stuff to mix it up, and the CGI part of it — I was really impressed with the last “Planet of the Apes” movie. I thought that was the best visual effects CGI I’ve ever seen. I kept hammering the visual effects house. They’re like, “We can’t afford to do that! That’s a 500 million dollar investment!” But I was like, “But the werewolf hair better be as good as those apes!” I mean, I’m a fan of movies.
“Goosebumps” is in theaters now.
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