When he worked full time in comics, Troy Nixey brought his inky and expressive linework to stories both unsettling and heroic on projects like “Jenny Finn” and “Batman.” That work has come to bear fully on his directorial debut, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” which opened in theaters last weekend, as well as a new tie-in novel from Disney’s Hyperion Books entitled “Blackwood’s Guide To Dangerous Fairies.”
“I still have so many close friends that are in comics,” the director told CBR News during our discussion of how and why he made the jump from sequential art to moving images. “I worked in comics for 17 years, and I really never felt comfortable in the medium in terms of my participation in it. I mean, I love comics. I think it’s an amazing platform for people to tell stories because you’re not limited by anything other than the time you want to put into it, but I never found my groove in it, I felt. My love and passion for movies was always stronger than comics. So, after 17 years, I hit the wall, and I needed to see if it was movies that I was really meant to work in.”
That drive to make movies led to “Latchkey’s Lament” — a self-financed short film that “truly represented me visually and emotionally.” After getting support from friends online, the short was forwarded to filmmaker and producer Guillermo del Toro who at the time was filming “Hellboy 2” based on the comic series by Nixey’s former collaborator Mike Mignola. And the director wanted to confab. “I was finally able to get a hold of him,” Nixey recalled. “He was very complimentary and very supportive, and he just said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this script I wrote called “Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark,” based on an old TV movie.’ I had never heard of it. I was one year old when it came out.”
Del Toro was interested in having a first-time director bring the re-imagined film to life for him, and Nixey answered the challenge. “I was hoping I’d be able to prove to people that I could tell stories in that medium, but I was not expecting at all for this to come from Guillermo, who’s my favorite working director right now.”
The process took four years from call to final film, and the first-time helmer dove in to making his version of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” a fully-realized world. “We loved having those conversations about the mythology behind the creatures. That was in place from the very beginning. There is much more beyond what you see in the movie. [del Toro] and I talked about that, and we both love fables and fairy tales, of course. We talked about the universe of these things, and when we got closer to the end of the production, we started talking about what we could do to support the movie that would be sort of cool.”
The result was “Blackwood’s Guide” — a novel co-written by del Toro and writer Christopher Golden that lays out the history of myth in the world of the film through the eyes of one of the characters whose brief appearance on screen opens up the entire story. The book features a mix of spot illustrations by the director, detailing everything from Irish Boggart’s to Scandinavian Trolls. Nixey described the project as “a journal that leads up to that [first] moment” of the film. “It’s sort of the prologue to the prologue, if you will,” he laughed.
For both the book and the film, Nixey utilized his artistic chops to shape the visuals of the world and its many creepy creatures. “Of course, I jumped all over the opportunity to illustrate them and came up with the designs for about 20 of them,” he explained. “During the production, and especially during pre-production, I was drawing a lot. It’s nice to have that as a communication tool when you’re talking to the art department. You automatically connect with the other artists because you’re able to talk from the same part of your brain.” Along with designer Keith Thompson (whose movie mural art makes for the cover of the new book), Nixey brought to life an entire cast of tiny mythological monsters.
Helpful in the process was the fact that the director was not familiar with the TV film del Toro’s script was based on. The core concept involved making horror monsters very small for big thrills, and Nixey followed that intent without getting bogged down by the original. “I did eventually watch it, but not until after I felt I had a really solid grasp on our version of the movie. I felt, not a sense of obligation, but a sense of wanting to pay respects to the original filmmakers. In their version, it was vastly, definitely different from what we wanted to do, so I thought, ‘I don’t have to worry about [changes] at all.’ Eventually, what I did was put a nod to the original [creatures] in the design. In the original, they’re all hair from the neck down, and we kept some of that on their backs. Obviously, the whispering is a huge part that we kept over into the updated version — it was fun to be able to do that. We said, ‘It’s very different,’ but at the same time, we put some nods to their version.
“This movie, I’m very happy to say, will be in my life for the rest of my life. It will carry on to the next one and the next one. I’m very specific about the kinds of stories I want to tell,” Nixey continued, saying that he’d eventually like to look back on his film work as a whole creative effort similar to del Toro’s unique stylings. “I’m very proud of this movie. I think it’s great, and I think that there’s some really amazing things in it. I can’t wait to take what I developed in this movie and put that into the next one. I definitely won’t dwell on it, but I’ll always love talking about this because it was such an amazing experience.
“There’s sort of been a pause button here in terms of being able to aggressively move forward on another project. There’s something I’ve been writing myself that I absolutely adore, and I tell people that if I could only ever make one more movie, I’d want it to be this one. It perfectly represents who I am as a storyteller. Thankfully, that’s not going to be the only other one!”
“Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark” is in theaters now, and “Blackwood’s Guide To Dangerous Fairies” is in stores now from Disney/Hyperion.