Director Rob Letterman Talks Balancing Humor with Scares and More on the Set of GOOSEBUMPS

     July 22, 2015

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Last year, a group of journalists and I went to the set of Rob Letterman’s adaptation of R.L. Stine’s popular young adult horror novels, GoosebumpsJack Black plays Stine in the film, and the author’s creations unexpectedly come to life thanks to a teen neighbor (Dylan Minnette).  Subsequently, Stine must team up with his neighbor and daughter (Odeya Rush) before the numerous and varied monsters destroy their small town.

During a break in filming, my fellow journalists and I spoke to Letterman about the movie. He talked about balancing the humor with the scares, re-teaming with Jack Black, filming in Georgia, the importance of using a real ventriloquist dummy for the antagonistic Slappy, and much more.

Check out the full interview below. Goosebumps opens October 16th.

goosebumps-posterYour kids have been running around on set all day, how aware are you of making this movie for kids to enjoy?

ROB LETTERMAN: I don’t know if we’re aware. I try to just treat these movies like movies. I don’t really think about it in that way. I love the material and I love these old classic Amblin films. I grew up on them and they were always very grounded and very real with the characters and the emotions and the world and the supernatural stuff kind of entered into it, and that’s always been in the back of my mind. I don’t think they really thought of those movies as kids movies or family movies back then, they were just movie movies, so I tried to treat it the same way. Having said that, I do take a step back and just make sure it’s appropriate and accessible, but that’s about the limit of it.

So would you say in terms of how scary it is, the film could be very scary for audiences and there is a sense of danger. In this film, is there still that sense of danger and if so, how do you balance it with the humor?

LETTERMAN: You use the humor to balance it. Those movies were very grounded and even though the visuals weren’t necessarily scary per se, it’s because the characters are so real and the world is so real that you’re invested in it, at least in my memory of it, and that’s why they had tension which is so great and the underlying material, Goosebumps, when you read those books they have legitimate scary moments. They’re awesome and there’s a lot of levity to deflate those moments and release some tension before the next buildup so I’ve been kind of doing that.


With the Amblin movies, we’ve seen a lot of practical effects stuff and we know there’s some CGI, but can you talk to us about the distinction between the practical and VFX effects?

LETTERMAN: First of all, the best visual effects are when you shoot as much of what you can in camera. That just makes for the best visual effects, so any monsters that we could do practically, we did, and then some monsters are hybrid. We have these bug-eyed aliens that we built the suits and then from the neck up, inside the space helmet will be CGI. And there are some things, like the sixty foot tall praying mantis, that you just have to commit to visual effects. But we try to flip cars and crash windows and do everything we can in camera as much as possible. And it’s really good for the actor’s performance to have something real, so Slappy is operated by a ventriloquist dummy.

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Image via Sony Pictures

We met him.

LETTERMAN: Yeah. [Laughs] And he really comes to life. And I would only use visual effects if it’s a shot that’s just impossible to do with a puppeteer.

Can you talk about working with Jack Black again? Also, on top of that, we spoke with [producer] Deborah Forte earlier, she was really high on him as being her primary hope for this film, she was really pumped he was the lead. Can you talk about that whole process of getting him into this movie?

LETTERMAN: This is my third movie with Jack, so it’s a pleasure. And we hang out, he’s an awesome guy, and when we talked about it initially, he was always the first choice. What we talked about initially was the chance to see him play a character in a grounded way that was different than anything he’s ever done before. It’s funny, I saw him in Bernie and I was so amazed by his performance, and Bernie I thought was just fantastic and it just felt like a great opportunity to try do something, and he’s such a great actor and just explore another avenue, and he’s got incredible chops, and he’s a very skilled trained actor, and he can do anything, not just the humor. That was fun, and then the other part of it going back to your initial question of the balance of the tone of the movie and the scares be legitimate but having fun at the same time so we don’t over scare the kids, Jack’s one of the few guys who can walk that line. It’s a very tricky thing, and just having his presence in the movie helps us navigate that.

What was your first exposure to Goosebumps? Was it the books? A little bit beyond the APEX I think, was it the show?

LETTERMAN: I’m of the age where I just missed the Goosebumps [laughs]. I won’t tell you how old I am. Back in the 90s I was aware of it because people were already trying to figure out how to turn it into a movie. My first exposure actually was when I was at DreamWorks working on my very first animated thing, and I feel like Steven Spielberg was after the property and somehow had a video game of it…I was exposed to it in that way, and then I remember seeing the TV series that everyone saw, and just knowing about the books. And then when the project came up, I had read a handful of them, but there are so many. But then I dived in, and they’re very cool.

Why did you want to make this movie in Georgia? There were obviously a ton of other places that you could have picked to film this movie.

LETTERMAN: There were only three possibilities. There was Vancouver, Louisiana, and Atlanta.


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Image via Sony Pictures

Was it because of the tax buybacks?

LETTERMAN: The tax buybacks, yeah, the rebates, and they all kind of fit the setting. With Vancouver, the timing didn’t work out because when we were looking at it at the time it was the rainy season, and then in Louisiana, I couldn’t find the locations and there were so many movies going into Louisiana at the time. I was flying around all three of these places and I came out to Atlanta and fell in love with this little town called Madison, which is about an hour outside of Atlanta and it was great. There’s this 200-year-old courthouse with kind of a clock tower, which I think in retrospect, I was thinking Back to the Future with the clock tower, I’m sure that’s why I was like ‘something feels right’. But it was a great landmark and I kind of keep it in the background of a lot of shots. I fell in love with that, and there were so many little neighborhood streets that I found that fit that world and it just felt like an every place, any town, USA type of thing. Also, the peaches are really great. In Atlanta, the food is so good, I mean it’s incredible.

We saw in the other rooms some screen shots of pre-vis sequences. How much of the movie did you pre-vis on? Was it some of the bigger scenes?

LETTERMAN: Basically anything with a visual effect in it and/or action I pre-vised. The rest of it is shot less and occasional storyboarding. All of the pre-vis stuff, I storyboarded first and then that turned into pre-vis and there was a lot of creature design work that went on for six to seven months of just crafting each one of these monsters and trying to find the design language of each of them before we could even think about what they did in the scene.

Speaking of that, there are a lot of allusions we know just looking at some of the concept art to Universal old school monsters, and it seems like you have kind of a variant on It. Can you talk to us a little bit about the nods to pop culture in the existing movie?

LETTERMAN: I wish I could take credit for that. My interpretation of all of the books is each book is making a nod to those anyway and so I went to those sources and at least flipped it into something original, but I ended up in a place where every monster is totally realistic and totally photo real, whether it’s visual effects or practical. But at the same time, they all have to feel like they’re from Goosebumps, and I made sure they have certain accessories that can take the edge off. For example, the werewolf wears basketball shorts and Chuck Taylor converse sneakers, and we have vampire French poodle and it’s got a little pink bow on its head. They look totally real but then there’s little things in there. I didn’t want to be cartoony or goofy or childish. I don’t like these kinds of movies that play down to kids. Kids are much smarter than that and you want the adults to enjoy the movie as well.


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Image via Sony Pictures

Was there a certain monster that took a little bit extra time for your vision to coordinate with the designer’s vision or did everything kind of go? Was everyone on the same page?

LETTERMAN: I haven’t finished designing all of the monsters so I can’t fully answer that question. I move pretty quickly through that stuff. I don’t know if it’s because of so many years of animation but once I lock into the language I’m going for, it’s easy to apply that. I’ve worked with some of the best creature designer guys around, so they make it easy.

What are you guys conceptualizing? You said you’re still working through some of them.

LETTERMAN: There’s just a big, empty football field that’s supposed to be filled with monsters that I haven’t even thought of.

The books have very catchy covers. Are there going to be any shots in this film that reveals nods to any covers we’ve seen before?

LETTERMAN: I’m not allowed to use any of the book cover art, and I wouldn’t want to. I wanted the movie to have its own original thing. There’s no shot that’s out of the covers per se, but there are certain things, not everything that’s Goosebumps related is a monster, so they may be one or two things in the movie that are…I don’t say anything, no one says anything about it, but they’re there in the background. And if people notice it, great, if not, you know.

We were told R.L. Stine has a cameo. Are there are any other cameos potentially from people who were on the show?

LETTERMAN: I don’t know of anyone other than Ryan Gosling, who I’m pretty sure is not coming in for a cameo.

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Image via Sony Pictures

Have you contacted Ryan Gosling?

LETTERMAN: I just don’t want the ‘no’, I just don’t want the rejection. It’s better to be like ‘yeah, we just couldn’t find his number’. No, it’s just Mr. Stine.

I know you said you haven’t finished developing all of the characters yet. Just based on what we’ve heard today, it seems like Slappy is far and away the lead as far as monsters go. Do you have any idea in your mind which of the monsters might turn into a breakout star, for lack of a better term, with what you want to do with it?

LETTERMAN: Ah, that’s a tough question, I don’t really know. There’s no way to plan for it. I hope they all do, but there’s a certain magic that happens at the end when all of these pieces come together that you never expect sometimes. The thing I put all of my effort into or everyone in the crew and all of the designers think ‘that’s a slum dunk’…no one cares. And then the one thing that was sort of an after thought on the day ‘oh, that’d be cool, just put a clown in there, yeah, fine’. That’s the one everybody loves. I wish it was that easy, I’d be doing a lot better in life. But no, I have no idea.

Speaking of which, is there anything or a particular monster or sequence that you’re very excited about to show?

LETTERMAN: To show? I’m excited about all of them. One of the biggest sequences, because it’s huge and complicated, and there’s a lot of very intricate cinema going on. I don’t think anyone’s gonna know because other than technicians of the craft, but this giant praying mantis chase scene is pretty wild. It’s pretty incredible, so I’m excited about that. Then we have a scene in an ice rink with a snowman, and I have no idea, it’s just a big blank ice rink right now, but the principal is going ‘ah!’. But I’m pretty sure that’s going to be good. And I love for some reason even though it’s not big visual effects, there’s a great moment towards the end of the movie where Jack Stein confronts Slappy and it’s this realization of the alter ego and it happens on a stage with a certain backdrop which I won’t tell you guys, but it’s just a quiet moment between the two that I love. I thought that was amazing. It’s not bells and whistles amazing, but it’s a very great one-on-one moment.


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Image via Sony Pictures

There was a reference to the Anthony Hopkins movie Magic for that scene he was telling us about it. Was that an inspiration that you can share?

LETTERMAN: That movie freaked me out. It just freaked me out. It’s one of the reasons why Slappy is not a fully CGI character and I went to all of the trouble building it. It was very hard to build. There were multiple people involved from all corners of creature creators, puppeteers, ventriloquist dummy designers, but magic was just that moment in the end. It’s so terrifying and it’s the weirdest looking, over sized ventriloquist dummy. That one was a big one. There were a couple of Twilight [Zone] episodes that I looked to that was really interesting, there’s a lot of old black-and-white movies. The general theme of the puppet master is no longer the puppet and now the puppet is pulling the strings kind of theme was what we folded into it.

I wanted to ask for you to comment on the casting of Dylan [Minnette], Odeya [Rush], and Ryan [Lee].

LETTERMAN: Those guys are awesome. They’re amazing. It took a while to cast the kids, I was very particular. Dylan came in, he was the first guy to read for the part and I just couldn’t get him out of my head as I read. God knows how many other people…he’s just so good, he’s that good, he’s amazing. And Ryan, we were going around and around in circles and he’s just hilarious and these two writers, Gene [Stupnitsky] and Lee [Eisenberg], recommended him because he’s on their show, Trophy Wife. I brought him in and it was just like it popped. Odeya came in and she’s amazing, and she’s blowing up, she’s in The Giver. I wanted that character to be very special. In the end, you realize why her character is special but I needed to hide it throughout the movie. She had to work on multiple levels and it was a lot of bringing them in and trying different pairings, and once I had my sights set on Dylan and Odeya, then Jack came in and read with them, and that was amazing. I remember Jack turning to me and being like ‘they’re the ones, there’s no doubt.’ We all knew it. And Ryan came in, we did that, and it just sort of gelled. They’re awesome, they’re super talented, and they’re really good kids, which I think is most important. They’re friends and you can feel the vibe on and off screen. They’re just amazing.

For more from my Goosebumps set visit, click on the links below:

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