[Interview] David Poag for SPIRIT HALLOWEEN: THE MOVIE

[Interview] David Poag for SPIRIT HALLOWEEN: THE MOVIE
In David Poag’s feature film debut, SPIRIT HALLOWEEN THE MOVIE, three middle school friends who think they’ve outgrown trick or treating make a dare to spend the night locked inside a Spirit Halloween store in a deserted strip mall on Halloween night. But they soon find out that the store is haunted by an angry evil spirit who has possessed the creepy animatronic characters. The kids will need to embark on a thrilling and spooky adventure in order to survive the night and avoid becoming possessed themselves.

For the release of the film, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew e-chatted with Director David Poag, where they discussed everything from translating a Spirit Halloween store into a movie to using live-action animatronics, and more!

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, David. SPIRIT HALLOWEEN is your first feature film. How did the film come across your radar and what prompted you to want to make a film such as this? 

David Poag: My connection was with Hideout Pictures, here in Nashville, TN. I had developed a good working relationship with their team over the years doing music video and commercial work. This project came across their desk and they thought of me possibly being a good fit for it. I had never considered making a PG Halloween movie before, but the more I thought about it the more it appealed to me. “Stranger Things” has certainly increased the appetite for this style of throwback horror in the general public, but while “Stranger Things” is about kids – it is aimed at adults and our nostalgia.

What I liked about this project and wanted to fully embrace, was the fact that this was a movie about and directly FOR a much younger audience. It’s here I should point out that I believe the PG-13 rating is an unfortunate mistake or a google misprint that has proliferated, and the producers are looking into it. This was by design a PG film, aimed at kids 7-12.

What was the process like working with Spirit Halloween on this movie? What it something that Spirit was very involved in or was it left for you to take control of the reigns? 

David Poag: The script [by Billie Bates] was inspired by her own kids’ infatuation with the Spirit Halloween stores, but when we were getting started with preproduction, Spirit Halloween the store/franchise was not attached to it yet. They had no idea the project had been transpiring. It took quite a few discussions to work that out, I think simply because they had never done anything like this before. But when they came on board, I felt like they were really excited about it, and really got the concept of the story we were trying to tell. They were a huge help in getting us everything we needed to stock out the store we shot in and were very flexible with us as we had to create a kind of hybrid store layout to serve the story.

Our production designer Ruby Guidara did an amazing job of designing set pieces that we needed for the story but still felt like they belonged in the Spirit Halloween environment. There was no overbearing sense of product placement or demands they made on what we saw or didn’t see. A lot of that happened naturally just because that is the environment we were building the movie in. It was fun collaborating with them on which animatronics to cast as her monsters, and for some of the ones we picked, they had to work really hard to get to us because their stock changes every year as monsters cycle in and out.

Ultimately, we were working with a bunch of people who love Halloween and were excited to be involved in this movie.

Courtesy Strike Back Studios

It was great to see Christopher Lloyd and Rachael Leigh Cook in this. What was the process like for casting? For the kid actors, how much did they enjoy working inside Spirit Halloween? 

David Poag: I feel so lucky about where our cast landed, all across the board. Christopher Lloyd is a legend. I was born in the 80s so I’ve been watching him on screen my whole life. It was surreal to meet and work with him. Rachael was terrific to work with and told me she was excited to be doing a movie her kids would love. Marla Gibbs was as graceful as you could expect, and at 91!

Casting the heroes of the film: Jake, Carson, Bo, Kate – was about a 3-week process of zoom interviews and auditions from all over. I’m really happy with where we landed, they all gave it their all and were a pleasure to work with. Looking at boys aged 12-14 was daunting, you really have all shapes and sizes in that age range and I tried really hard to put together a group of friends that felt genuine and unrefined. They quickly became that group of friends off-camera and I was happy to see that.

Shooting in the store was a lot of fun for them, there is a scene early on in the adventure where they finally get to cut loose in the store, run around unsupervised and play with anything on the shelves. I think that is every kid’s fantasy at some point, and throughout most of the shoot, they were just bugging me to shoot that scene.

Animatronics terrify me so bravo on finding my Achilles heel. How did it work with bringing the animatronics to life? Do you have a favorite one?

David Poag: We knew early on at this low budget level that our scope of CGI would be very limited, so the decision was made almost immediately that the animatronics would have to be live-action. Which was fine with me because not only does it feel more accurate for the classic tone we were going for, it is just much better for everyone to not have to act and react to green screens or thin air. It is much better to be chased down a dark hallway by something real!

We had to “cast” animatronics that could be converted into costumes, and that process was the hardest part. Hats off to our small costume department and special effects team for making it all work, and to our monster performers! Nightcrawler for example was played by a contortionist [Lisbeth Mikoleit] who was walking on all fours, upside down and backward, down slippery cave steps and old factory stairs, it was wild. I have a soft spot for Buzzsaw, the demented lumberjack guy with a rubber saw and hammer for hands. In the sound design process, we hid a few of his one-liners here and there as the boys walk around the store.

Outside of this being a fun Halloween flick there’s a sweet coming-of-age story beneath the surface. Is there anything you hope viewers will take away from the film after seeing it? 

David Poag: My primary intention and hope for this little film is that it is received and enjoyed as the fun slumber party movie that it is. I tried to make a movie for my ten-year-old self, and through all the challenges and pitfalls, and compromises that come with a low-budget feature and an impossible shooting schedule, I am proud of it.

And yes, we wanted to say a bit about growing up, and parents letting go, and working through those family issues. Billie did a great job of weaving those themes into the DNA of this script and maintaining them through countless rewrites as the film took on a life of its own. Middle school is an awkward time in most people’s lives. It certainly was in my experience, and I hope there is something here for kids to connect with.

SPIRIT HALLOWEEN THE MOVIE will be released on all VOD platforms on October 11 followed by DVD and soundtrack releases later that month. To learn more about the film, check out our review.

Shannon McGrew
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