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We talk to Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark and Troll Hunter director André Øvredal about working with Guillermo del Toro, finding the line with tween-friendly horror, and the good-and-bad of anthology films. (And, yes, we threw in a few Troll Hunter questions.)
“It’s fun-scary, as opposed to you feeling scared because it’s disgusting or something.” —⁠André Øvredal
Produced by Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro, who also has a Screen Story credit on the film, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is a new PG-13 horror adapted from the three-book series of the same name first published between 1981 and 1991.
Prefiguring the likes of Goosebumps and its many imitators, the original Scary Stories books, written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, presented short horror tales aimed at a young-adult readership. Many of the stories were inspired by (or perhaps the source of) widely known urban myths.
Despite the stated target audience, the stories—with assistance from some deeply disturbing illustrations (see below)—struck a nerve and traumatized readers of all ages. They were controversial to the point where there was, briefly, a minor movement to have the books removed from schools.
A movie adaptation would seemingly point to a classic horror anthology film, but del Toro and his collaborators have instead constructed a singular narrative around a group of young teenagers in 1968.
After learning the tragic story of a girl who was murdered in their sleepy little town many years earlier, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her friends start encountering supernatural events that allow for various Scary Stories to come to life on screen.
The film’s director is Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal, the man behind 2016’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and the inventive 2011 found-footage fantasy epic (and Letterboxd community favorite) Troll Hunter.
What was your relationship to Guillermo del Toro before you worked together on this film?
André Øvredal: I was a big fan of his from when I went to film school, because I used to live with a Mexican friend and he showed me Cronos when it came out. I was floored by the beauty of that film. Mimic terrified me, I loved it. Even though I know there is a tough history behind that film and the cut that came out, I still found it terrifying. And then Blade II was just one of those amazing sequels that stood out beyond the original.
That didn’t really happen very often back in those days, that the sequel was better than the original. And on and on with Pan’s Labyrinth and one great movie after another, culminating with The Shape of Water. But our relationship started on Twitter; he tweeted about The Autopsy of Jane Doe, that he enjoyed it. And we had a Twitter exchange about that.
Had he seen Troll Hunter? It seems like it would be right up his alley.
Yeah he had, and he liked it. Obviously I’m sure he’s paid attention to other people’s love for monsters and creatures.
So how did you end up getting this job?
He was supposed to direct Scary Stories himself. It was supposed to be his next movie after The Shape of Water, and then he decided not to make it his next movie and they decided, well, let’s find another director. He proposed me to the other producers on the film, Sean Daniel and J. Miles Dale, and they all agreed that I would be a good fit.
They offered me the script to read and of course I fell in love with it immediately. It’s the kind of movie I grew up loving, like an Amblin-esque movie, but the idea being to do it with a horror sensibility and make it really scary. I thought it would be a great movie for me to be able to make. And speaking of the PG-13 audience, it was what I grew up with as well. When I was a kid in my teens, those were the movies I got to see. So I felt very close to this movie through the whole process.
There is indeed a nice Amblin vibe informing this movie. How would you describe that vibe, if you had to put it into words?
There is a sense of humor. It’s out to entertain more than it’s out to hurt you as a horror movie. It’s not an existential horror. It’s not out to grind you down. It’s out to use horror as fun; there’s a playfulness. It’s oftentimes several characters, a group of friends, that these movies are about. It has a high energy and it can go from intense, suspenseful, or in this case very scary and horrible, to playful banter between friends. I think that broad range creates a feeling of real life.
All the characters in those movies back then were very grounded; even though they were fun and had a lot of energy, they also had real issues in life, they also came from a background where there were serious things they were dealing with. I found that very interesting, especially about the character of Stella, who has a lot of things in her life that are profoundly affecting her. And how that also relates to the life of the antagonist, Sarah Bellows. And in some ways how it feeds into today. I think the social commentary thing is clear in Amblin films as well.
How challenging was it to make this good ’n scary without it ever spilling over into being too ‘adult’?
It’s about playing with the audience. The audience should know that they should enjoy being… tormented, if you will. So it’s kind of trying to communicate both ways. So I’m like, setting something up, I’m always thinking of the audience, shot-by-shot-by-shot. How does the audience feel? If we put the camera here, what will the audience feel then? If we put it up here, how will the audience react then? And if we cut from there to there? It’s all about communication. I’m trying to imagine how it’s going to make the audience feel, so it’s about back and forth. I think that creates a playful tone. It’s fun-scary, as opposed to you feeling scared because it’s disgusting or something.
What do you think this film gained from tying together the various short stories into a single narrative, as opposed to having them play out in the traditional anthology format?
Guillermo has said something that is kinda true about anthology films, which is that they’re never as good as the best [story], and they’re always as bad as the worst [story]. So you always have one story that isn’t great, and it kind of deflates the whole experience. In a way, [a traditional anthology movie] isn’t a whole experience because you never get to engage in characters for a long time and feel all their dilemmas, because as soon as you’re out of [each story], you’re on the next one. And that can work, but I’m not attracted to that as a storytelling form, it’s just a personal thing. Many other people are, and thank god for that, because then we get a diverse set of movies.
I love a full narrative. When I received the script for Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, I thought it was an anthology, so when I opened it, I was so happy when it wasn’t, because by page ten I was in love with the characters and then I saw that I was going to follow them all the way.
We’re massive fans of Troll Hunter at Letterboxd.
That’s fantastic, that’s great. It’s a great site. I go there a lot to see people talking about the movies.
What kind of life has that film had since it was released? Everyone who sees it loves it, but it deserved a much bigger audience. Was a remake or sequel ever considered?
There was talk of a remake. Chris Columbus [writer of Gremlins and The Goonies, and director of Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter films], and a company called CJ Entertainment, bought the rights for it years ago. So I was in awe—one of the heroes of my youth, Chris Columbus. So I was sorry to see that that never came through. We talked about a sequel of course, but I feel like I told the story of this world, and anything else would just be more trolls.
The way you used scale in that film was amazing. No blockbusters made since have come close to how effectively you conveyed the gargantuan size of the creatures.
That’s great to hear. I don’t know how other people shoot movies but it was shot so much in reality. I mean, we CGI-ed in the creatures, but everything else was so grounded and real with a hand-held camera. We were just running around in the wilderness shooting it for real. So we naturally had to position it, physically, in some natural way, a very simple natural way, and maybe that helped.
‘Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark’ is in US theaters now, and rolling out globally over the next few months. Comments have been edited for clarity.