Sony Pictures opened its programming at Comic-Con International in San Diego with presentations of two movies that unleash fictional characters into the real world, Pixels and Goosebumps. While the first consisted of a video-only teaser, Goosebumps star Jack Black and director Rob Letterman were on hand for a lively and spirited discussion of their forthcoming film.
The panel began with a video presentation of Pixels, director Chris Columbus’ video games-come-to-life movie starring Adam Sandler, Peter Dinklage and Ashley Benson. In the video, Columbus offered a teaser of what fans could expect, but that footage was simply a man recoiling in horror as he shouted "Oh, my God, I'd recognize that centipede anywhere, it's Centipede!" before being chased by a tennis ball on a stick. After the scene closed with a cry of "Centipede, you son of a bitch!" Columbus explained that it's too early for footage, but that fans could expect appearances from Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Q*bert, Space Invaders, Galaga and more as 1980s icons invade the real world.
The Goosebumps portion also began with a video message, this time from author R.L. Stine, who joked about the actors who might have played him in the movie, saying his son suggested Morgan Freeman. When Stine offered that he could portray himself, his wife said, "You're too old to play yourself." He said that Black was his first choice, prompting Black and Letterman to come on stage.
Knowing he would be playing an on-screen version of the author, Black said he met with Stine before filming began. "We didn't want to do it without his consent," he said. But after meeting him, Black realized "his" Stine couldn't be too much like the real one. He said he told the author, "I can't play you like you are; I need him to be a little more sinister. I need him to be creepy and crawly and a little bit scary." And Stine was OK with that.
Stine's Goosebumps is an anthology series, Letterman said, so "each book is different, has different characters. But the idea behind the movie is, what if all of R.L. Stine's creatures got loose, and they had to go on a quest to put them back in the books."
As to the tone of the film, Letterman said, "The books themselves are legitimately scary, but they're legitimately funny, and we try to capture that." He added, "We never want to undercut the scares."
Letterman then played a clip, with the caveat that Goosebumps just finished filming two days ago, and the video would consist of "raw material that was cut together just for you guys," with unfinished visual effects. Black added, "We just put the bun in the oven, y'all. Give it time to rise!"
The footage showed teen heroes Zach and Hannah's first meeting, and established the mysterious and menacing figure of her father. When Zach and his new friend Champ break into Hannah's house to rescue her from her "psychopath" dad, they discover a library full of Goosebumps manuscripts; Zach dismisses them as "kids' books," but Champ says, "Kids' book help you fall asleep, these books keep you up all night." When they meet Stine, he explains that "every monster I've ever created is locked up within the pages of these books." Of course, before long, they escape, and the chase begins.
After the clip, Letterman described the process of letting his actors loose with the material. "We had a great script, to start with,” he said. “We rehearsed a lot, to work out places we could ad lib and things we could play around with. We do a lot of takes for the script, then a lot of takes for ourselves, and then just one for fun."
"We had a wonderful creature design team," Letterman said of the crew that brought Stine's monsters to life. "Some of the monsters are full CGI visual effects, some are a hybrid of full creature suits with CGI visual effects, and some are incredibly detailed makeup."
"And some of them are real monsters," Black added.
With that, the floor was opened to questions.
A young fan from Sicily -- without any apparent Italian accent, which would become important in his banter with Black -- came up first and said, "When I was 5 years old, you picked my friend and I up – we were in panda costumes. When you were there, did some martial-arts moves. Can you still do those?" The crowd cheered and laughed, but Black said simply, "Yes I can."
In some disbelief that the kid was from Italy, Black said, "If you speak some Italiano, I'll do some kung fu." He did, and Black did.
A young girl came up next to ask Black whether he had read all of the Goosebumps books. "I have read quite a few, but not all of them. There's like 50 books -- more than 50? More than 50 books. I've read a good number of those.”
"When I was a kid, they didn't have Goosebumps," Black explained. "They came along in the '90s; I grew up in the '70s. I'm old as the hills." He concluded by adding, "You can blast through them in like 45 minutes, I should have read all 58 of them. Give me time, give me time."
Asked whether Haunted Mask would feature in the movie, Letterman hesitantly replied, "Yeeeah?"
As to how to balance between pleasing fans who grew up with Goosebumps and those who are of an age to be reading them now for the first time, Black said the film should have no trouble appealing to both. "I have kids of my own, a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old, and they love monsters,” he said. “But they're also afraid of scary movies, so they're in this sort of very torn existence. They want to be scared, but not too scared. I mean, I get it, I know the line. Usually, me and the boys just watch old scary movies, like Frankenstein from the '30s, because those are scary-ish. There's no nightmare stuff in there that's going to keep them from going to sleep for three weeks."
Asked if there were any monsters they couldn't use for any reason, Letterman said, "Yeah, for budget reasons: We just ran out of money." He said they chose what was appropriate to the movie's story, but he was reluctant to give away any details. The next fan asked for an "exact count" of monsters, but Letterman replied, "I actually don't know." Black added, "A lot."
Letterman: "More than three?"
Black: "An official bucket-load."
Letterman: "We actually don't know."
Black: "More than 10, but less than 1,000."
With fans still fishing for monster info, someone asked the panelists about their favorite creatures. "I loved Night of the Living Dummy, that was the one for me," Letterman said, with Black concurring.
Black did say that Slappy the Dummy will serve as sort of a "kingpin" of the other monsters in the movie, as hinted in the clip. "He's kind of R.L. Stine's dark side." Letterman prompted Black to talk about his training for the movie related to the dummy.
"Part of my research was, because the ventriloquist dummy is such a big part of the movie, I wanted to do some work with a ventriloquist," Black said. "I actually spent like 40 hours a week with a ventriloquist, working on my ventriloquist skills." He brought up Slappy to do a bit, drinking water as the dummy continued to speak. But then Slappy took over.
"Slappy ... Slappy ...," Black said as if struggling for control. "I AM IN CONTROL OF YOU!"
"Guess who's pulling the strings now, Jack?" Slappy said menacingly. From here, more Goosebumps monsters climbed on stage and carried Black away, wrapping up the panel.
Goosebumps arrives in theaters Aug. 7, 2015; Pixels launches May 15.