If you’ve been following along with our coverage for SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, you know that these children books are paramount for being a gateway into the horror genre for many of us. When it was first announced that these series of short horror tales would be made into a film, I was shocked because it wasn’t the stories that terrified many of us, it was the wispy black and white illustrations that conjured up many nightmares. I wasn’t sure how that would translate onto the screen, but when it was announced that acclaim director André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) would be directing, I was 100% in. Having been such a fan of his earlier works, it was easy for me to trust in his immense talent, knowing that if anyone could bring these fantastical images and tales to life, it would be him.
For the release of SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, I had the opportunity to chat with Øvredal about his experience in directing the film adaptation of these beloved books. During the interview, we talked about everything from his introduction to the series, how he goes about building tension and suspense, and his experience working so closely with executive producer, Guillermo del Toro
What interested you in wanting to direct SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK and how familiar were you with the source material?
André Øvredal: I did not know the source material whatsoever because I didn’t grow up [in the United States], I’m from Norway and the books were never published there. I didn’t know about them at all as opposed to Guillermo [del Toro] who obviously loved them from his youth. I got into [SCARY STORIES] through the script for the movie and [the stores] are so much fun. There is a playful tone to the stories and to the drawings even though they are terrifying they are also playful in their own crazy inventiveness and how everything is depicted. That tone was very important to me, to retain that, especially with the first book. A lot of the stories end with [the saying], “and then you turn to your friend and/or person next to you and go BOO!” and we had to keep that attitude in the film as well because it was so playful. For example, very obviously in the scened under the bed, it has to literally have a creature go boo!
One of the aspects of the film that so many of us loved was how you were able to build tension so successfully. What was the process like in doing that?
André Øvredal: I love building dread and tension with camera work because then it becomes the filmmaker’s world in a way. It’s all about the cinematic element, it’s all about sound, about the length of the shot, angles, the actor’s performance – when they are realizing stuff when they are understanding what’s going on. Building that tension in certain sections is like okay, it needs to get to there and then it gets to there and he or she gets there. It’s a lot of fun building these moments out and it’s something that I love when I go out watching these scenes. The ending from Back to the Future, for example, with connecting all the lightning and the car – it’s these extended [moments] that are so much fun. I think suspense is what horror is really all about. If you look at The Conjuring, which is a wonderful horror movie, the best scene in that film is when the two girls are lying in bed. One is being dragged a little bit and then suddenly they both get up and they stare into the darkness next to the door and they see something there and [that moment] is dragged out. It’s so inventive and so simple and I love the simplicity of it.
Something that I found really interesting, from a visual standpoint, was that some of the creatures had specific colors associated with them. For example, The Pale Lady was red, the Jangly Man was green and The Red Spot was pink. Was there a reason behind those color choices?
André Øvredal: Yeah, it was in trying to keep it varied but also indicating that we are kind of hiding an anthology structure here. Each little creature from the book had its own little world so it kind is a homage and a structural thing to hint at the anthology aspect. I’m really happy you noticed those details because you work a lot on creating this thing and then maybe nobody notices (laughs).
What were some of the challenges, if any, that you faced in maintaining a PG-13 rating but also trying to push the envelope?
André Øvredal: [The PG-13 rating] was exactly my pitch to the studio. I wanted to make a film that felt good, that had heart and warmth, and that you could fall in love with this group of friends and characters alike. Kind of like movies that Amblin made in the ’80s. But at the same time, it had to be as scary as I could make it within the writing. It had to be, ideally, terrifying because being scared doesn’t really have anything to do with the writing. There are certain specifics that put into different writing starting with profanity which then goes to gore and violence and how gruesome you depict scenes. That, in a way, is easy to avoid because this film had to have a heart and a warmer feeling that a lot of these almost negative, hardcore, going-for-your-throat horror movies can have. Those are fun in their own right and some are absolutely fantastic within the genre, but in this case, this was not what we were going for. It was easy to stay within PG-13, it’s all about building suspense and having fun. I think a sense of fun and a general tone of having a little bit of humor here and there also helps to alleviate the tension.
Guillermo del Toro has talked in length about being a massive fan of these books so what was the process like in creating this movie while working so closely with him?
André Øvredal: He was an amazing producer. I had a fantastic team of producers. Sean Daniel, who actually came to me with the script in the first place in collaboration with Guillermo, he was production president of Universal Pictures when they were doing movies like Back to the Future and E.T.. He came in with an enormous amount of experience. They are all such warm and wonderful producers who were protective of my position as a director. Obviously, Guillermo has had some tough times with certain movies and protecting his own movies against the people he was doing it with. He knows, as a producer who has produced quite a few movies, how to handle that balance in giving that friendly advice versus strong friendly advice. When he had an opinion he would be very strong with it but he would always let me make a choice. [That said], I knew when I didn’t really have a choice (laughs). It was an amazing experience to work with such a warm human being.
Now that you’ve lived with these stories all throughout the inception of this film to now, have you found yourself being drawn to one of the creatures more so than the others?
André Øvredal: I keep going back and forth. I’ve actually said my favorite creature was a couple of different ones during interviews the last few days. Every time I think of them I’m like, “Wait a second…”. I saw the movie again recently and I was like, “Okay, I love Jangly Man” partially because we invented him a little bit on our own but also because it’s based on a couple of the stories. Between the practical and the physical and the acting and the CG enhancements, it becomes such a complete character to me. But then you have The Pale Lady who is really unique and she’s deceptively scary and she’s so benign-looking but there’s something terrifying about what the hell she wants. Those two are the ones that I keep skipping between.
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is now available in theaters. For more on the film check out our review, and more, here.