Horror has always been a pillar of Hollywood filmmaking, even if big-budget tentpoles and awards season breakouts may get the lions share of the hype, but few years in recent memory have shown off the profitable power of the genre quite like 2017. The year kicked off strong with Split, then came Get Out, Annabelle: Creation, and now IT, all of which earned critical acclaim and out-performed expectations. Screenwriter Gary Dauberman had a hand in two of those films, penning the script for David F. Sandberg’s Annabelle sequel and co-writing Andy Muschietti’s IT, which is looking to become the biggest surprise winner of them all.
Don’t get me wrong, everybody knew IT was going to be huge if they got it right, but early predictions underestimated the enthusiasm brewing; a potent mix of nostalgia for Stephen King’s classic horror novel, smart marketing, steadily mounting positive buzz from early critical screenings, and a widespread hunger for a big movie moment after the summer cinema fizzled out to historic proportions, all of which have helped put IT on track for a record-shattering box office debut. It’s a big payoff, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.
IT began at Warner Bros., a much-hyped project that had Cary Fukunaga (True Detective )set to write and direct until it all fell apart under the strain of creative differences. The film moved to the Warner sister studio New Line, Mama director Muschietti took over at the helm, and Dauberman was recruited to rework the script. In recent years, Dauberman has become an in-house favorite at New Line, writing The Conjuring-verse spinoffs Annabelle and The Nun, making him a natural choice for the project, and in the time since this interview took place, he’s also been recruited to return as screenwriter for the IT sequel.
With IT now playing in theaters, I recently sat down for an interview with Dauberman to talk about translating the beloved novel for the big screen. We talked about the collaborative process of getting the screenplay right, how Muschietti’s vision transformed the film into the version we see now, getting Stephen King right in cinema, and why everyone falls in love with Beverly. We also talked about what makes The Nun a unique entry in the growing Conjuring-verse and how James Wan shepherds his franchise spinoffs.
When you came onto this project obviously there was an existing draft of the script.
And then there was Andy’s vision…
And I imagine you kind of had to be the conduit between those two things, to a certain extent.
DAUBERMAN: Yeah, you know, the great thing about Andy and the great thing about working at New Line and working with these producers… everybody is just so collaborative so it wasn’t — you know, the onus wasn’t on any one person so it was just very much like a sort of collaborative, sort of organic way of like, looking at the book, looking at the previous drafts, and looking at what Andy wanted and saying okay, how can we best achieve that? You know? And of course with Andy, so many great conversations, and just at all hours of the day, just talking about what he was thinking this, he’s thinking that. I mean he sort of just roughed something out and he sent it over and see if that works and you know, it feels like a conversation as opposed to like, I’m gonna go away for a couple weeks and then put something up in front of you.
Right. That sounds like it would be a much more efficient process as well.
DAUBERMAN: I feel — hey listen, I’ve done both and I seem to fare better when it’s that conversation and dialogue as opposed to, “We’ll see you in six weeks. Please write something good.”
Right. This adaptation really nails the Stephen King sort of Derry, Maine childhood vibe. The warmth and heart translate. It’s a very … It made me tear up at a certain point and I wasn’t expecting that.
DAUBERMAN: That’s great.
So I’m curious what your guys’ approach was to really nailing that element with the kids opposite the big Pennywise scares. I keep saying this but I feel like people are going to go to this movie for Pennywise, and they’re going to come back for the kids.
DAUBERMAN: Yeah, I agree. I completely agree. And that doesn’t take anything away from Pennywise at all
No, he was amazing.
DAUBERMAN: Yeah, he’s great but it’s … I completely agree and you know, I think a lot of that has to do with just the cast. I think the cast is fantastic and Andy’s direction, But you know, my first time I met Stephen King was with The Body; that was the first thing I read of his and it affected me in a very real way, like nothing had affected me before. And same with the movie Stand By Me. I think for me, like every time I think about [him], I just kind of come from that place and IT was the first novel I read of his and it was like, “Oh my God, it’s taken Stand By Me and mixing it up with all this great sort of horror stuff and dealing with just the real fears.”
It’s a balance, it’s really that coming of age tale and coming over your fears, and I go back and I can’t remember the exact line from the book or from the movie but you know, you never have the friends like you did when you were twelve. And I think that carries through a lot of Stephen King’s books and stories and I think it carries through with this one. That was something really just I kind of had beside me as I was writing. And plus, they’re such great characters and so well-developed from the book, so it’s great to play them off one another in these scenes. To the point where we had the kind of… “Okay, this now is taking away from whatever the scare moment is.” You know what I mean? You don’t want to diminish it in any way.
DAUBERMAN: And then on top of it, you cast these great actors who are just, you know, you just kind of turn them loose, and they come up with these other things that are so great; like it’s even better than what’s there.
Kind of frustratingly talented for how young they are.
DAUBERMAN: [Laughs] No, I know!
It’s interesting because that sort of Stephen King vibe, I feel like Stephen King is so prolific read by so many people, there’s most this shared emotional language we — if you sit down with the Stephen King fan, there’s a Stephen King language we all understand, and yet that seems to be so hard to capture film. Like, so few people have pulled that off.
DAUBERMAN: Yeah, you know, it’s … I was thinking about this the other day and just like my favorite adaptations of the stuff he’s done and, or the stuff that’s been — and you know, it is tough because I think people do miss that, they do kind of miss the human element of the stories, which I think makes the scares all the more scarier, and the ones who really come from a character place seem to get close to that target.
But you’re right about that shared language. I mean, I remember when I was going through my … and I was talking about this the other day, I remember having the conversation with this girl in my class when I was in the sixth or seventh grade or whatever and that was all we talked about. Like, I don’t know what else we had in common but I saw her reading Stephen King and I was reading Stephen King and it was just like, “Oh, oh cool, we can talk about this. Did you read this one yet? Did you read the Bachman Books?” And you trade back and forth. It was a really cool sort of experience to have at that young age where you just like, yeah, we’re both kind of experiencing the same thing at the same time, you know.
Yeah, it’s like Stephen King and math, they’re the universal languages.
DAUBERMAN: That’s great! If you haven’t written that one down, it’s good.
I’ll put that in my notes.
DAUBERMAN: Yeah, yeah, that’s great. But I’m reading On Writing right now. You know, again! For the umpteenth time and it’s just, it’s like, it’s just you know, like a friend sort of talking to you
DAUBERMAN: And just like, here’s something you need to know and it’s so comforting, yeah, it’s great.
Yeah, that one has endless replay value.
DAUBERMAN: It does, absolutely.
Did you have a favorite character to write for in IT?
DAUBERMAN: A favorite character to write for would be… I think I went in sort of enjoying Richie because you get to do the lines and the jokes and stuff like that. But I came away really, you know, as we all do, falling in love with Bev, like just who she is. I mean she’s the beating heart of the losers and stuff and that was the character I really was drawn to and I know Andy was the same way. And she plays it so beautifully that, yeah, that was sort of the one I enjoyed the most.
Yeah, I get that. I’ve got a Big ole star next to Beverly in my notes here because I wanted to talk about her [laughs]. I feel like that story line was handled incredibly well and it’s a tricky balance in a movie that’s still trying to be a fun horror movie but also a legitimate character drama.
Compliments all around because that’s tough material. What was the process like writing for her?
DAUBERMAN: Oh thank you, yeah. Yeah, that was a lot of conversations about how far to go with some things and all that stuff and fortunately she, you can give her a little and she just makes it big and she makes you feel and that was just, you know, I don’t know how many people are able to do that but she certainly can.
She is so talented.
I did the set visit for this film and like, on set she was just very shy and quiet and didn’t talk very much…
DAUBERMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And so when I saw the movie I was like, “Whoa, shit girl, yeah! Nice!”
DAUBERMAN: [Laughs] What part did you get at the set visit?
We went to the stages when they were filming in the sewers.
DAUBERMAN: Oh, yeah.
And the cistern.
DAUBERMAN: That was crazy! I went for that and like, didn’t expect how, you know, it’s like a hamster sort of thing with all the tunnels … I didn’t expect it to be so big.
Like a built maze.
DAUBERMAN: Yeah! It was crazy.
Yeah, it was really cool. That was really cool to get to see that. That’s my favorite thing about set visits. The production design always gets me.
DAUBERMAN: Me too. It’s my favorite part, going to see what they’ve come up with and like, oh my God, they completely made everything better.
So I know Chapter Two is not officially confirmed, but IT is going to be a huge hit. You never know, but it’s a safe bet. Let’s work in that land where it’s happening even though it’s not confirmed, is there something that you’re excited to write that you haven’t got the chance to yet?
DAUBERMAN: I’m just excited to be working on it in general. It’s not… you know, looking at this first movie, the hardest part was sometimes you look at the source material and you’re like, well clearly that’s not gonna work, and clearly that, so we gotta take that out and that’s fine, and streamline and all that stuff. Here you’re looking at a book and you’re going, they’re all … Whatever cuts we have to make, they’re all gonna hurt because there’s so much, there’s like everything kind of fits and everything works and everything has a point to it, an intent. So in terms of, being particularly excited about any one thing to write it was just the whole thing is just an amazing thing to try to not fuck up. But just from a pure horror fan stand point, just the first time I wrote Pennywise … On the screen and knowing that like, you know, oh, I’m gonna write something he’s gonna say here, that was sort of get out of your seat and pace around the room for a little bit.
It is really just that cool thing that we were talking about, production design, it’s like I can write “interior: bedroom”, you know, “it’s dusty in the sunlight,” and blah, blah, blah and it’s like three lines. And then you can walk into it many months later, into that bedroom and they’ve come in and they’ve told a story with what they’ve put on the shelves and done all that stuff, stuff that wasn’t even in my head. And it just makes it so much fuckin’ more.
Before I run out of time with you, switching gears to your other New Line horror hits, how has it been for you becoming such a major player for the writing in this growing Conjuring universe? And how are you approaching the connections between those films?
DAUBERMAN: It has grown into a universe, but like fortunately with IT, I had Stephen King to go to, In the Conjuring universe I had James Wan and that’s a great, great [resource]. You know, if you have that kind of person to lean on for that stuff it’s just a great guy to have. It’s his universe. So you know, everything goes through him, but like working with Andy, it’s just a collaboration. It’s a conversation. We’ll sit down, he’ll tell me what he’s thinking, I’ll go off and say, “Hey man, here, so I took what you had and here’s what I’m thinking.” And it’s just a great back and forth until we get to a place where he’s like, okay, great, go off and write that script.
And also I don’t want to take anything away from Peter Safran, the producer of The Conjuring stuff and Walt Hamada, Dave Neustadter at New Line. We’re all sitting in the room and we’re all having a conversation about the big picture, but I think all of us look to James and go, “OK, you know, when you’re up at 3:00 AM walking around your house, what is the stuff that’s in your head? Please just give us a little sense of that,” And he’s like, “Okay, great.”
So I think we just all really like working together. I think we just have a nice short hand, we have a nice collaboration and that sort of … I think that’s why it works. Because we have a great captain of the ship but it is you know, a great true team effort.
What is The Nun bringing that’s something different from what we’ve seen with the Annabelle films and the Conjuring films?
DAUBERMAN: Y’know, James has been really particular and he wants each movie in the universe to have its own sort of flavor and its own sense of style and not feel like it’s just kind of a rehash of what’s come before and I think The Nun takes a really cool approach that, you know, we haven’t seen before in some of the other movies. It’s not … Just based on the location alone, like where he was very particular about no, it’s gotta be in Romania because of certain story elements, but also because of the production value you get from like, a castle in Transylvania, and this big looming thing, and you get the cross and the fog over the graveyard. It’s very atmospheric, it’s very moody. We talked a lot about the Hammer movies and stuff like that as sort of an influence. So it’s got that kind of vibe to it that I think it’s just different and sets it apart.
Sort of a gothic-y type thing?
DAUBERMAN: Totally, yeah. Big gothic. And then you hire a director like Corin Hardy who just like lives and breathes this stuff and just wraps himself up with it, you know, at the end of every day and it just amplifies ll that stuff to a high degree, which is just, you know, I was on set every day and just watching that happen was really a unique experience.
Was it fun — so the rule of Annabelle was the doll can’t move, right?
So was it fun to write an evil demon that can do whatever?
DAUBERMAN: [Laughs] Yeah, she’s walking, she’s walking. Yeah, that was a nice, but, also, the great thing about The Nun, the great thing about James’ design with The Nun, you can just put her down at the end of the hallway and not have her move, and it’s incredibly creepy and incredibly scary and suddenly you’ve got, you know, it evokes a scare just out of just simple, just shot of a long hallway with archways and boom, there she is down there, flickering torch light, and you’re like, oh man, that’s just creepy.
DAUBERMAN: So yeah, it was great. But it was refreshing that she can sort of, yeah, sort of walk from room to room.
James Wan’s flair for visual iconography is sort of mind-blowing cause, what you’re talking about, just putting her at the end of the hallway, that’s all you need with a lot of his designs.
DAUBERMAN: Yeah, yeah. But it’s just, yeah, it’s his design and it’s like, you know, it’s … He’ll show me stuff, we’ll see stuff early on and it’s like, “Okay, here’s how I want it to look,” and you’re like, “Oh, that’s great.” But then he’ll be like, “Oh, no, no, no, wait. I want to make a change.” But “No, no, no, no, it’s great, it’s great, it’s great.” He’s like, “No, no, no we’re gonna make a change.” And he makes the change, and you’re like, “Ah, well yeah, it is great. Now it’s even greater.” Yeah, he is just, he’s just a really true genius at that stuff, and you know, I’m just happy to be in his orbit.
With these films, is he pretty involved on set? Cause he’s a busy man these days.
DAUBERMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, he’s as involved as he can be, you know, we shot in Romania and he’s in Australia. He’s very involved in pre-production, script developing, story and all that stuff. But he’s always, you know when we’re on set we have a question or whatever he’s always a phone call away or email away and he gets back to you right away. But he’s looking at dailies, he’s making his notes as we go along and all that stuff. So yeah, I mean, he’s involved from the start to the end, which is to the benefit of all of us.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)