This piece was published during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, THE BOOGEYMAN being covered here wouldn’t exist.
In Rob Savage’s latest film, THE BOOGEYMAN, based on the Stephen King short story of the same name, high school student Sadie Harper (Sophie Thatcher) and her younger sister Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) are reeling from the recent death of their mother and aren’t getting much support from their father, Will (Chris Messina), a therapist who is dealing with his own pain. When a desperate patient unexpectedly shows up at their home seeking help, he leaves behind a terrifying supernatural entity that preys on families and feeds on the suffering of its victims.
Leading up to the Digital release of THE BOOGEYMAN, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew spoke with director Rob Savage. During their chat, they discussed everything from adapting Stephen King, the casting and development of Lester Billings, and figuring out the best approach to hiding the titular Boogeyman.
Hi Rob, thank you so much for speaking with me today. What has it been like for you to be part of this unique collective responsible for bringing the adaptations of Stephen King’s work to light?
Rob Savage: It’s kind of surreal now that it’s done. While I was making it, I was really trying to put that out of my head because I think I would’ve crumpled under the pressure. It was very much about this one story and how to expand out this one short story that terrified us all. I think the only moment that really hit me was when I went to the New Beverley to see Carrie at a midnight screening and they were playing a bunch of retro-Stephen King trailers. The guy doing the intro shouted me out and said, “The next director of the new Stephen King adaptation is here in the audience.” The place of this movie in that canon kind of hit me then in a really big way which was very surreal. All we hoped while we were making it was that it would be able to slot in with some of the best Stephen King adaptations and feel like it had a home there.
The entirety of Stephen King’s short story focuses on the character of Lester Billings. However, in the film, he’s only in it for a brief amount of time but his impact is of the highest importance as he is responsible for kicking off the story. In terms of filling that role, how did you know that actor David Dastmalchian would be the perfect choice for that character?
Rob Savage: I’ve wanted to work with David for the longest time. I’ve always thought he was such a phenomenal actor and I knew that he liked some of the stuff that I was doing like Host. Originally when we were writing him, we were kind of keeping it much more in line with the Billings in the short story, who’s almost like the truck-stop harbinger of doom from the Cabin in the Woods. He’s very old-timey, racist, misogynistic and that’s a lot of what Stephen King’s story is touching on.
Our story is much more about leaning on other people through times of distress, through times of grief and it felt like we wanted a different take on the character. Somebody who could come in and be fucking terrifying and make you think, maybe he’s going to jump across the table and stab me with a pencil, but then have these moments of tenderness where you really feel for this guy, and it felt like that was the balance that we wanted.
For the audience to not know whether to believe him or not, or whether he’s a person in grief or whether he’s murdered his children, and to play that tension. We offered the role [to David] and he came with that same instinct that he didn’t want to play it as a kind of classic tobacco-chewing horror movie character. He wanted to play him as somebody who could have been Will (Chris Messina) two months before. We wanted to play a lot less into the class dynamic that’s there in the Stephen King story.
What really makes this movie scary is your ability to hide the terror of what the Boogeyman is. What was the process like for you in trying to balance between revealing it and also letting the audience imagine what it could be?
Rob Savage: Right from the very first pitch I was like, I really want to hold this creature back. I want this creature to be seen in the same way that the shark is seen in Jaws or the alien is seen in Aliens, which are two obvious examples but they’re obvious because they’re the best. Having done years and years of TV before jumping into studio features, you get used to this process where everyone kind of is on the same page at the beginning and then you realize that everyone was kind of full of shit. It just becomes the same old boring stuff as everything else on TV.
With this, it was amazing because the studio, the producers, and everyone I was working with really stuck to their guns on it. The studio was telling me to cut back the monster. The studio was telling me we don’t need to see as much. I wanted to make the creature as little seen as possible, but also feel like he’s omnipresent. I was always trying to find ways to light him to suggest his presence with shadows or glinting eyes or a kind of glimmer on the skin so that every time there was darkness in the frame, we purposely kind of lit it so that there would be these huge swaths of darkness that the creature could be hiding in. You are always feeling this oppressive presence of the creature even if he’s not actually there.
On the wall in the edit [room], we had the amount of screen time that the alien is in Aliens and the amount of screen time that the shark is in Jaws and we were constantly timing our creature and we’re like a second less than both of those. We really do try and hold back.
All the actors do a fantastic job of bringing this story to life but I was blown away by Vivien Lyra Blair’s performance as Sawyer Harper. She really stole the show. What was it like to direct Vivien and was she aware of the movie she was in?
Rob Savage: I’ve worked with kids a lot and I think I tend to be able to get really good performances out of younger actors cause I have quite a playful directing style. I like to try a lot of stuff out. It’s not too prescriptive. That being said, sometimes you’re holding things back or you’re trying to get to a desired result in indirect ways.
The first couple of days working with Viv, I was using that toolbox that I’d built up from working with other child actors. It became apparent very quickly how in control of her craft she was and how wise beyond her years she was but at the same time, being able to switch it off and run around and be a nine-year-old again. Ultimately, I was able to talk to her like I talked to any of the other actors and really, she’s fiercely committed. You’d be able to hone in on a moment or even something that’s small and unspoken and she’d be able to play it just right so the camera could see it.
The scene that we used in the trailer with the flashing red light is the only scene that we shot twice and it’s because that was the first day I was shooting with Viv. She gave a really good performance, we shot it, and then the rest of the shoot happened and I realized how phenomenal she was. I was looking back at that scene and I’m like, that’s her big scene and I only got a quarter of what she’s capable of in that scene. I called the producers and I said, please let me shoot this again now that me and Viv know each other better and we’ve got this working relationship. And she was able to walk the audience through that scene. That scene is about the way that her emotions carry us through and I’m so glad we got to reshoot it cause I’d underestimated her.
Lastly, what would you like to say to all the writers and actors who are currently on strike due to improper compensation from the studios as well as how their jobs will be impacted due to the rise of AI?
Rob Savage: I’m in full support. I think the industry is going to look so different in the next 10 years and I think we’ve got to make sure that the industry still works for all of us who love movies so much and have committed our lives to creating. Now’s the time to do it and now’s the time to dig in our heels and now’s the time to make sure that we can create a fair industry, cause it’s going to change under our feet very fast otherwise.
THE BOOGEYMAN is now available digitally and will arrive on Blu-ray and DVD on October 10. For more on the film, check out our review.
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