In Goosebumps, arriving in theaters next summer, Jack Black plays a semi-fictionalized version of R.L. Stine, prolific author of the Beloved Goosebumps book series. In the film, Stine finds his creature creations escaped from the pages of his books and must find a way to return them before they wreak havoc on his small Maryland town. Goosebumps also stars Odeya Rush, Jillian Bell, Amy Ryan, Ken Marino, Dylan Minette, and Ryan Lee.
Director Rob Letterman was on hand at Comic-Con to give fans an early look at some footage and talk about his approach to the film. Before his panel we sat down for an exclusive interview. He talked about the challenge of making of age-appropriate horror film, why Jack Black was the perfect man for the part, how they decided which of Stine’s many monsters to include, bringing Slappy the dummy to life, and more. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
ROB LETTERMAN: I got a call from the producer Neal Moritz and he sort of gave me the pitch of what the movie take was, and I immediately thought that was the coolest thing and a great excuse to try and do a movie like the movies I grew up watching, all the Amblin movies, with cool monsters and a very grounded world and grounded characters, and having a supernatural character enter almost a mundane world. So he gave me that pitch and said the movie was going out to directors and asked if I wanted to come in for the job. It was like American Idol I just went in like five or six times until I finally got it.
Were you familiar with Goosebumps? I mean, it’s very well known, but mostly as a kids thing from the 90s.
LETTERMAN: Yeah, I was definitely familiar with it. I mean, I’m older so I wasn’t of that particular generation, but I was familiar with it because it was a project that people were trying to crack for a long time in Hollywood and could never figure it out. So the books were always out there and I’ve read them a couple times. And I have kids now and they’re of the age, so they’re reading it and getting scared. Still reading it, but scared. Don’t want to put it down, but kind of do. It’s funny to see that phenomenon right before my eyes.
The books have this distinct tone where they walk the line of horror, but stay fun and age appropriate. How difficult is it for you as a filmmaker to strike that tone?
LETTERMAN: It’s difficult. It’s the number one reason I went to Jack. He’s one of the few guys who can do that and I kind of leaned on him pretty heavily to help me navigate that. Because I want it to be scary when it’s scary. You don’t want to undermine the tension of it, but at the same time after you get the scare out you have to have levity and it has to be funny to build up for the next moment. So it’s just balancing. There’s a lot of action, there’s a lot of adventure, there’s a lot of scares, there’s a lot of comedy – it’s a mashup of all those things and I didn’t want it to feel disconnected. There had to be one tone, so he really helps me steer through that.
You don’t usually associate Jack Black with darker material, but man, Bernie showed he can do it.
LETTERMAN: That’s the thing. The truth is after Bernie – we’ve worked together obviously before, but Bernie is so awesome. It’s an awesome movie, he’s amazing in it. I talked to him after that film and said, “It’d be great for you to figure out a new character again, be awesome to try that stuff. The R.L. Stine character, some thing you haven’t done before and just invent something.” That was cool.
Slappy is arguably the most iconic of the Goosbumps monsters, so of course he’s got to be in it, but how did you choose which monsters to incorporate?
LETTERMAN: [laughs] It was a long process.
There’s a lot of them.
LETTERMAN: Yeah, a lot of it was just running out of money, which forces you to choose a certain subset of monsters when you have a very limited budget that we had. But Slappy was a no-brainer. There’s a bunch that I think were both very memorable and at the same time fit well into the story. I felt like I could have fun with and also do a really good job with. Not all of them are easy to pull off cinematically. We tried to narrow it down that way. And there’s just a lot. We have a lot. We just have a lot. It’s very difficult to manage all that. We had an amazing team of artists, because the monsters are being done with basically every feasible way to put monsters on the screen. So VFX, a hybrid of full creature suits combined with VFX, pure practical makeup, classic old school monster effects, and costumes. It’s just everything that we could get our hands on, we did. Each monster has its own methodology for working. It just makes my head hurt sometimes. It’s crazy.
With Slappy, did you have an actual dummy with a ventriloquist operating him?
LETTERMAN: Yeah, I really didn’t want to do a CGI Slappy. Although at some times in the movie we need digital effects to help us work it out. I auditioned so many ventriloquists. I can’t tell you. Just endless. One guy kept coming in, young guy from Alabama, never worked in a movie before, just kept driving over two hours every day to audition. I had professional guys flying in from LA, I mean we had the top guys, and this kid just kept driving in and I kept bringing him back and bringing him back and finally at the end I was like, “I don’t know what it is, but he’s just the one.” It was magical.
That’s awesome. What’s his name?
LETTERMAN: His name’s Avery. I don’t know if we’re spoiling the magic of Slappy, but he’s really talented. It was a very cool discovery and he just moves that thing around. We put so much time and effort into building that ventriloquists dummy. It’s so neat. It doesn’t move – it’s limiting, it’s a ventriloquist dummy. They’re creepy when they just sit there.
[Laughs] Yeah, they are. Obviously the original generation of fans are adults now, but you’re also making this movie for a new generation. How are you balancing fan service with grabbing a new generation of fans and keeping everyone happy?
LETTERMAN: I don’t think about it that much, I just want to make a good movie. I do feel like nowadays you just have to make a good movie. I think fans are so hip to everything that all you can do is just rely on making a quality film about characters. Making characters compelling enough that the audience cares about them enough to be scared for them, to laugh with them, to be excited with them. So that’s what I think about first and foremost. Then, as far as fans of Goosebumps, there’s a certain spirit to the way R.L. Stine constructed his stories. They are like Steven King books, but accessible for kids.
A little nicer.
LETTERMAN: Yeah, a little nicer, but he does follow the proper format of a horror story, which is great. So you try to make the set ups in the movie kind of follow that and the spirit of it and then really try to stay true to these creatures that pop out. I think they’ll be recognizable by the fans, but also I think the fans are going to be psyched because they’re completely photo-real. I mean, they come to life. They are real. They’re not cartoons. Even though a lot of them are CGI, the CGI stuff is totally top-notch visual effects. The way we shot the film, it’s very grounded and naturalistic. So I think it’s going to be, fingers crossed, going to be received well.
LETTERMAN: Well I love actors who improv. I’ve done comedies before, so I just love comedic actors. Even if they’re not supposed to be very funny I love casting them. So besides the main cast we have Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, and Ryan Lee as the teenagers that are along the ride with Jack. We have Amy Ryan. She plays Dylan’s mom- Oscar nominated actress. She’s amazing. She was also in The Office. She’s top notch. We have Jillian Bell, who plays his aunt. She was in 22 Jump Street. She’s hilarious. Also in Workaholics, which is one of my favorite shows. We have Tim Simmons from Veep. We have Luka Jones. And Ken Marino from The State, so funny. My boy Ken.
That’s a great cast.
LETTERMAN: It’s killer. It’s a killer cast. I’m super stoked.