06 October 2011

Interview: Trick 'r Treat writer-director Michael Dougherty

I conducted this interview about a year ago. You can find the feature story I wrote then on this blog, but this seems an appropriate time to post the entire interview.

I know your birthday is very close to Halloween, so how much did that influence your interest in the holiday, growing up?

Michael Dougherty: I think it played a massive part in my interest in Halloween. October just kind of became a magical month. A lot of times my birthday party and Halloween pretty much merged. They still do today. I've been having a Halloween party for the last 10 years, and it kind of doubles as a birthday party for my friends who know. But even as a kid, it was, “Let's go trick-or-treating and then come back and have birthday cake.” So the importance of the holiday kind of doubled for me as a kid.

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What was Halloween like growing up in the Dougherty household?

It was really traditional. One of my earliest memories was carving a jack-o-lantern with my dad, which is partially where the Dylan Baker story comes from. It was very much a father-son tradition. I remember seeing my dad carve it and thinking it was the neatest thing in the world but not understanding it or understanding what he was doing. And then you put the jack-o-lantern in the window and you light it, you step back from the sidewalk and you look at it, and it's magic. You just look at it and go, "Wow, we made that." Yeah, it was as simple as carve a jack-o-lantern, hand out some candy and then hit the streets with the parents and my sister. I think it was great to have a very traditional Halloween upbringing. Charlie Brown found his way into the mix. It evolved as I got older, but it just got better.

When did horror movies become part of the equation and what were some of your favorites?

It was fairly early. Again, my dad was big on exposing me to a lot of the classic horror movies first. And being a child of the ‘80s, when cable first started, all these networks were popping up and they just needed stuff to fill the airwaves, so they were constantly airing the classic Universal monster movies and Godzilla. And so that was pretty much my upbringing for forever. Every Saturday was a double feature of a black-and-white horror movie with a Godzilla movie. Halloween, that's when the horror movie marathons would kick in on the TV, and then eventually I got exposed to "Halloween" and a little bit more of the R-rated fare.

Over the years, there have been a lot of movies that have taken place on or around Halloween. But before "Trick ‘r Treat," I hadn't seen a movie that was really about the holiday itself. Was that part of your thinking when you were coming up with the idea for the movie?

Oh yeah. It was a huge part of it. I had kind of the same realization that you just did, that we had seen movies that took place on the holiday—even Carpenter's classic film bears the name—but there was nothing that was really about the holiday itself. Having grown up obsessed with the holiday, I really knew about a lot of the traditions and a lot of the back stories and origins of these traditions—why we carve jack-o-lanterns and why we dress up and hand out candy. Because as a kid, you just think, "OK, we wander around, we get free candy, we wear costumes." But when you research the history of these traditions and you realize they go back thousands of years, pre-dating Christianity, and the idea that you are trying to appease the spirits of the dead by doing the things we do, it suddenly takes on a much more serious and sinister tone. And I thought that was awesome, the idea that American culture just kind of does these things for the sake of having fun, not realizing that they're participating in ancient pagan traditions—that's the best prank in the world, whoever came up with that. But I realized that there was never a movie about that and actively set out to make one that addressed that stuff.

The character Sam, he appeared in the animated short that's on the Blu-ray. When did you first start to draw him and how did you come up with that character?

He started as a character in an animated short film that I did way back in 1996. It was a hand-drawn animated short called "Seasons Greetings." It was simple, three minutes long, completely hand-drawn—this was before computers pretty much took over animation. It kind of became my calling card. To this day, my agents still send out that short film as an example of kind of my tone and style. It's a little creepy, a little cute, it's kind of Charles Addams/Tim Burton-y. So Sam started there, and then he never went away. He kept popping up in greeting cards that I drew for friends. Every Halloween, I send out greeting cards instead of Christmas cards or some combination of the two. But he kept popping up there. But then I decided I wanted to make the transition from animation into screenwriting into feature films, and so I decided I'm going to write a horror anthology film like "Creepshow" and it's all going to be set on Halloween. And then Sam kind of became one more layer added to that film, to that screenplay. I decided to interweave him throughout the stories mysteriously and then eventually give him his spotlight in the fourth story. He's like my personal Frankenstein creation.

The four stories that make up the feature, were they ideas that you had independently of each other long ago or did you write them specifically for the movie?

It was a mix. Two of the stories were written originally in college for a screenwriting class. Those two stories were the Dylan Baker father-son story and the Anna Paquin story. Versions of them were written in film school. They're a little different than what I ended up with but pretty much the same. The school bus massacre and Brian Cox/Old Mr. Kreeg story were written pretty much for the film. I'd always wanted to do stories like the two of them. I'd always wanted to do my version of "A Christmas Carol" set on Halloween. And I always knew it would be a cranky old man tormented by a trick-or-treater. And I always wanted to do kind of a dark version of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," except the Peanuts die. Because in my mind, that's what that is. If you really look at the school bus massacre story, it's kind of like you have one kid who knows all about Halloween and believes potentially in some sort of Halloween entity, taking a group of other kids to this haunted site. In short, it's kind of like Linus killing all the other Peanuts gang. Rhonda is kind of Linus. She's the one who believes in the Great Pumpkin, that knows how to obey his rules and survive the night, whereas all the other kids die. At one point, all the other kids were named, I think we had Chuck, Patty, Linus, Marcie, and Warner Brothers legal said, "No way in hell," so we had to change the names slightly. So if you look at the names, you see they kind of do resemble Peanuts characters—like we have Schrader instead of Schroeder.

With most anthology movies, it's one story, then the next story, then the next storybasically a collection of short films. When did you make the decision to have your stories intersect and do some cutting between them?

The evolution of this movie was so strange and long before it actually got made. It took five, six years before we finally got the movie off the ground. And in those five or six years, there were dozens of different drafts of the script. The first version was very linear—one story ended, the next one started, one story ended, the next one started. There were characters crisscrossing between the stories, but the narratives themselves did not intercut. Now, the script got bought by different companies over the years and got developed in so many different ways, so there were versions where the stories jumped back and forth between each other in that development stage. But when we finally greenlit the film and shot it, it was with the idea that we were back at the original linear structure. So we had one story following the other following the other. Then when we sat down and watched it, it felt long. It felt kind of tedious all of a sudden. Traditionally, movies are three-act structures. So when you're asking people to watch a four-act structure, it just feels long. Even though the cut was only 90 minutes, it feels long. So a lot of debate back and forth. I was completely uncertain. I actually wanted to keep the linear structure but tried the intercutting method in the editing room, and it worked really well. It took some finessing, but it eventually got there. So it was a lot of back and forth on that decision.

Once you started doing that, was it hard to keep track of where everyone was and who was doing what when?

I had a chart. I had a chart and a timeline. I knew exactly where everyone was at a certain point. It does all work together.

There's obviously a lot of humor in the movie. Was it hard to kind of find the balance with that? Did you ever worry about it being too funny?

No. Horror and comedy are such close cousins to me. They're bedfellows, really. When I watch a horror movie, I usually laugh instead of scream. That's my way of relieving tension and I'm having a good time. For me, pretty much every horror film is kind of a funhouse ride, and that's what I think they should be. But yeah, I wasn't really concerned. I think there was more concern from people on the studio side that didn't really understand blending horror and comedy. It's a rare creature these days. We don't have a lot of movies these days that do it, whereas back in the ‘80s you had "Poltergeist"—even "Nightmare on Elm Street" is morbidly hilarious. But you look at the remake and it's not at all. It's straightforward horror and there's little to no comedy. "American Werewolf in London," another perfect example. "Evil Dead," "Evil Dead 2." We were more willing, I think, to accept that blend. We've kind of lost that over the years, which I think is sad.

I know you've said that you had Dylan Baker specifically in mind when you were writing the script. Are there any other cast members you were thinking of as you were developing the stories?

Dylan was a big one. He really was. I had seen him in "Happiness"—I had seen him in a lot of different things. In real life, he's one of the most charming, friendliest men, and yet he tends to take on these roles where he gets to use that kind of charm to creep you out. I described him and his story as kind of Norman Bates meets Norman Rockwell. So he really grabbed my eye. The other cast just kind of fell into place over time. I got to know Anna Paquin and Brian Cox from "X-Men 2," and so they were always in the back of my mind as I was working on the script and trying to get it made. So when we finally got the chance to pull the trigger and offer to them, they were the first calls I made.

This was your feature that you directed. I'm sure through working on "X-Men" and "Superman (Returns)" you got to spend time with Bryan Singer, but did you feel like you were ready and prepared for this?

I don't think anyone's ever truly prepared for their first time. I was more prepared than most. The way Bryan runs his movies is really great because he likes having his writers around at all times. On "X-Men 2" and "Superman," I was around from pre-production through post on those flicks. That's really rare. Usually with writers, you e-mail your script in, and that's it. Maybe you'll get your obligatory invitation to the premiere, but rarely are you on set. So I got sit in on budget meetings and casting meetings and visual effects meetings and sit in the editing room and get feedback. It was really collaborative. So it wasn't as daunting to step into the director's chair after that. You spend 200 days on the set of "X-Men 2," spending 36 days on my little horror movie wasn't that frightening. Now when we actually started making the movie, then I realized OK, there's still a lot of learning to do. I very clearly remember calling Bryan—because he wasn't on set—calling him at home and going, "I understand the pain now. I understand that pressure. I get it." But yeah, overall, I think I was much better prepared than a lot of first-timers.

You actually finished the film back in 2007. After that, you had a long period of limbo, really, where you didn't know what was going to happen with the movie. How hard was that?

Agonizing. It was horrible. Those are really, really odd times, looking back at those years. It was like being pregnant forever. Imagine you're pregnant and you tell friends, "I'm having a baby," and you show them sonograms and everyone's waiting for it, they're like, "When are you having it? When am I gonna get to see it?" The not knowing was really difficult because I felt like it was something special. I was still very, very proud of it. And yet there was a bit of resistance from the studio because they didn't know what it was. Like I mentioned, they didn't understand the blend of horror and comedy. They got test scores back from the test screening, and it said this movie is funny—they would point to that as a flaw. And I'm going, "No, it's OK. Have you guys seen ‘Creepshow?’ Have you seen a lot of these classic horror movies that blend horror and comedy?" A lot of those pleas fell on deaf ears.

Legendary Pictures, which was one of the co-financiers—they put up half the money—they were really, really behind the movie, and they supported it from day one and throughout. They started to ask for permission to take the film out and screen it at festivals. One of the first ones that came up, Harry Knowles, who runs Ain't It Cool News, he said, "Listen, I've been hearing about this movie, I've seen the stills, I think the trailer's awesome. I know you haven't been able to release it. Let me show it at my film festival in Austin." And so he was the first person to screen it in a public forum. It was really daunting because his film festival runs for 24 hours. You're locked in the theater. You watch movies for 24 hours straight. He doesn't tell you what movies he's going to show you ahead of time. It's an amazing experience because you watch classic films mixed with movies that haven't come out yet. So he tells me, "I want to show ‘Trick ‘r Treat' as the final movie of my 24-hour film festival." And I'm thinking, "You're out of your freakin' mind." Because we're talking about the Ain't It Cool News crowd. These are people who know their movies, and they will have been up for 24 hours straight sitting in a movie theater. I was really worried about disappointing them because I wasn't really sure what the movie was at that point. They ended up loving it, and that turned everything around. That screening turned everything around. All of a sudden, there was a buzz. All of a sudden, there were reviews coming out of that screening on Ain't It Cool News saying, "No, this is a good movie."

So then we started doing more screenings and more screenings, and it snowballed to the point where the Internet and a lot of the movie bloggers really embraced it and supported it and kept touting it, and they still do to this day. This is the second Halloween that it's been released and people are pulling it off their shelves and showing it, and the bloggers are talking about it again. Honestly, I think you're probably the first reporter who's actually discussing it in an actual publication. Honestly, I think you might be. I think we might have gotten a couple teeny sidebar mentions in Entertainment Weekly or something when it first came out. But I think you're the first reporter to write an article about it. We've never really gotten that much attention from the press.

But like you said, all the reviews online, they've just been glowing reviews, and there have been some special theatrical events this month. Does that feel like vindication to you?

Completely. Yeah. I wouldn't call it vindication as much as—I feel like a proud parent who's finally watching this kid go out in the world and make something of himself. And that kid would be Sam. The more important thing for me, honestly, as a filmmaker—you want to make a living doing it, absolutely—but the more important thing is to make good movies that people continue to watch down the road.

And this one, every year people are going to be watching this.

That's what it seems like it's becoming. There have been similar films like this in the past—not that I want to put myself up with them yet. But Carpenter's film had a really slow burn. It was not a huge success the first few weeks of its release. It took awhile for word of mouth to build. And "A Christmas Story"—same thing. It was not a commercial success. It became a bigger hit on TV and home video, and it took time. Hollywood these days is all about opening weekend, opening weekend, opening weekend, and so they fall short of trying to create films that people actually want to watch 10, 15, 20 years from now. So I'd be honored if "Trick ‘r Treat" became one of those movies. And from what I can tell, I think it's heading down that path.

I know you've said you have ideas for a sequel. Can you tell me anything about that and whether anything is happening with that?

It's a big maybe. I don't know. It's honestly not really that much up to me. The things that help a sequel are if the original makes money. We have to get to a point where the guys that check out the books go, "Huh. This thing is becoming something, and DVD sales are really spiking. Is there something here?" If that happens, if that phone call ever came, I have plenty of ideas how to do another one. The format of the movie lends itself to sequels because of the fact that it is an anthology. The one recurring character, in my mind, would be Sam. Now where he ends up or when he ends up—if we did one back in the ‘50s, that could kind of intrigue me. But yeah, it would be fun to do more. It would be fun if all the movies kind of tied together in a gigantic way. If you got to a third one and it harkens back to the first one, or if the trilogy loops around entirely, I think that would be fascinating, and I don't think anyone's really done that yet. In a worst case, I would love to do comic books. An annual "Trick ‘r Treat" graphic novel could be really interesting.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I'm working on my Halloween party for Friday. I've got a full cemetery out front right now. I'm working on a couple other things. One is a sort of dark fairy tale. I hate to sound vague when I'm discussing these things with you, but when I say too much I get in a lot of trouble. And then there's another project that involves giant monsters that I'm doing with Robert Zemeckis. That one I'm really excited about because I'd be directing that and he'd be producing.

Halloween this weekend, your party Friday night. Are you going to be in costume?

Yes. I'm going as Indiana Jones.

What have been some of your favorite costumes over the years?

Last year, I went as Khan from "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan." The year before that, I went as a crew member from "Battlestar Galactica." My house tends to be a horror show, my costumes usually tend to be comfortable, flexible-still of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but I'm hosting a party, so I've got to be somewhat accessible.

I think that's about all the questions I have. Is there anything we missed, anything you'd like to add?

Sit down, grab yourself a bowl of candy, pop in Carpenter's "Halloween," Charlie Brown and my movie, and have a good time.

"Trick 'r Treat"
Michael Dougherty

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