'Annabelle' Filmmaker Gary Dauberman on 'It 2' Gore and His 'Salem's Lot' Vision

The screenwriter, who makes his directorial debut with the latest 'Conjuring' spinoff, weighs in on building a universe and adapting Stephen King.
Gary Dauberman   |   VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images
The screenwriter, who makes his directorial debut with the latest 'Conjuring' spinoff, weighs in on building a universe and adapting Stephen King.

Genre filmmaker Gary Dauberman is used to high stakes.

As a screenwriter, Dauberman has adapted Stephen King's classic novel It into two films and has been one of the architects behind The Conjuring universe, having written all three Annabelle films as well as The Nun. He also produced 2019's surprise spinoff, The Curse of La Llorona.

This week, he ups the stakes even further with the release of Annabelle Comes Home, his directorial debut. While the move caused him some anxiety, he drew upon his friendships with directors James Wan and It's Andy Muschietti.

Dauberman has also seen a finished cut of It: Chapter Two (opening in September) and despite his hesitance to spoil anything, he confirms he's very pleased with the final product. Given the success of It, he plans to use a similar approach on another King property, 1975's Salem's Lot.

"I like to be as true to the story as I possibly can until it gets a little too unwieldy for a movie," Dauberman tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I’m very, very excited to be a part of [Salem's Lot] and tackle it. It hasn’t had the big screen treatment yet, which is how I felt about It. It’s so fun to play around with vampires and make something truly scary."

In a conversation with THR, Dauberman also weighs in on Jessica Chastain's extra bloody It: Chapter Two scene, the surprise cancelation of Swamp Thing, and his unmade Are You Afraid of the Dark? script.

I’m exhausted just looking at your recent slate. How have you kept your head above water?

(Laughs.) I have a great support group around me — the people I work with and of course, my family. If you look at the things I get to work on, I feel very fortunate. So, a lot of the time, it does not feel like work.

You’re making hay while the sun is still shining …

There you go. That’s another one I fall back on as well.

Because you’re concurrently working on so many genre properties, do you often find yourself nixing ideas because they’re a better fit elsewhere? In other words, have you written a particular sequence or scare for the It movies that you ultimately decided was more apt for something Conjuring-related?

Although I have multiple things going at once, when you’re looking at the 30,000-foot view, the reality is I really only try to tackle one project at a time. I’ll get a draft done, and then I’ll move on to something else. When I’m in the thick of the Conjuring universe, I’m not thinking about what’s going on over in Derry or Salem’s Lot. It’s just me trying to get to the finish line of whatever script I’m working on. I wish I had so many ideas where it’s just like, “Oh, that’s gonna go there and this is gonna go here,” but that’s just really not the case. I just try to immerse myself in whatever world I’m currently in, and I generally come up with what tends to fit in that world.

Once a new story, such as Annabelle Comes Home, is agreed upon within the Conjuring universe, do you and your producers discuss what connective tissue to include before scripting takes place?

I think we may in broad strokes, but I also think it’s: “Let’s write this story and see how it fits. If it doesn’t fit, let’s figure out why.” But, I don’t think we’re going, “Well, we have to include this or we can’t include that.” Although it’s part of the universe, Annabelle Comes Home is also a very self-contained story. It takes place literally and figuratively within the universe. It takes place in the Warren’s house, which we established in The Conjuring, so I knew I couldn’t burn it down or anything like that. We are careful of that stuff, but first and foremost, we’re thinking of the story.

Annabelle Comes Home introduces the Ferryman and the Bride, and if Annabelle and Valak are any indication, these new characters could lead their own franchises someday. So, I think the precedent is why there’s a belief that these new characters are included to serve the story and greater universe.

Well, I hope they’re potential movies, but we’re really not going into this thinking of the business of it and going, “Oh, this could be a cool spinoff.” James [Wan] and I might go, “Omigod, we’d love to tell more of this story,” but we’re not putting it specifically in there, hoping it’s going to be a spinoff. Something I pride myself on, and I know the others do as well, is that we’re not looking at any of these movies as a launchpad for the next movie. We’re hoping the audience responds in a way that we can tell further stories, but it’s not the reason why this movie exists. The reason the Ferryman exists isn’t because we go, “That could make for a great spinoff,” although I think it could. The reason why it’s there is because I thought it could be a really cool scare, and it’s something that fit with the Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) backstory I had early on.

Regarding your Annabelle Comes Home script, did you write more descriptive action and stage direction than usual since you knew you were directing?

Quite the opposite. I had a shorthand with a lot of the people I’ve worked with on these movies: Michael Burgess, the DP; Kirk Morri, the editor; J.P. Wetzel, the first AD; John Fox on storyboards. These guys were all at my side all the way through. So I could pick up the phone and go, “Here’s what I’m thinking for this particular scene,” and they could get cooking on that. So, I wouldn’t have to actually spend time being so precise, because I could really get ahead on any ideas or challenges. We all collaborated very early on, which is something I really appreciated and leaned on. So, I could be a little bit broader and a little bit more quick and dirty on the page because I was already having it boarded out. That was a really fun way to play.

Since this was your directorial debut, whose advice did you seek out?

Well, James Wan, first and foremost, is so involved in all these movies. We come up with the story, and then he’s there or available through prep, production and post. So, he’s with me at my side, and it felt like he never left even though he’s off trying to save Atlantis. He’s so accessible and so patient. So, really, he was the one I leaned on the most. That said, every filmmaker I’ve worked with previously has been so generous and gracious. I’ve been on the set for all these movies, asking questions, observing and hopefully soaking up the right things. Andy Muschietti is a great friend and always has great advice. David Sandberg is also a great friend and someone you can email. Really, there’s not a bad apple in the bunch. I’ve been very, very fortunate.

Your entire cast has been relaying all sorts of creepy anecdotes from set, including unexplained power loss, stopped watches, illegible set photos of Annabelle and on-set nosebleeds, to name a few. Would you like to take this opportunity to admit that you and your crew orchestrated all of this in order to evoke the most authenticity possible from your performers?

(Laughs.) Oh, man. I wish I was that organized to where I could think beyond what was happening in the movie. But, these events are the reasons why we have these sets blessed by priests at the beginning of every production.

I had this voodoo doll made that I wanted to feature in the movie, and Tom Spence, our prop guy, built it so beautifully. I was featuring it in a shot, and Tom suddenly couldn’t find it. Twenty minutes later, he came up to me and said that it was on the next stage over, which we weren’t using for anything. But, the voodoo doll was burnt; someone or something had burned it. It was singed. So, I did not end up using that in the movie, because I did not want to invite any sort of evil onto the set that day. It was a hard day as it was. Things like that always seem to end up happening on these movies. I don’t know what that means, but I think it’s pretty cool as long as no one gets hurt. 

Did you ever feel bound by the rules you established in the first two Annabelle movies, or did you allow yourself some creative leeway?

I think you get a little bit of leeway because it’s such a supernatural story. We talked about the mythology of the doll in Creation. The first one was also a little bit of a prequel. This story, I wasn’t really building out the mythology of the doll; I was more interested in Judy Warren (Mckenna Grace) and her relationship with the doll and artifact room as a whole. I thought a lot about her time in this house and what it’s like to be the daughter of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), having grown up in a house that has all these haunted and mysterious objects locked in a room that is not far from her bedroom. So, I talked with her [Judy Warren Spera] a lot about that. I also wanted to explore some of the other artifacts and Annabelle’s relationship to them as well. You can’t undo things that came before, but I never felt limited by what had come before.

Have you seen It: Chapter Two yet? 

I have, yes! (Laughs.) I’m very, very happy and I’m very, very proud. I don’t know if you can hear the joy in my voice as I try not to answer this question, but I’m very excited for everyone to see it. As a very, very anxious person, I have no anxiety about that movie whatsoever. 

Jessica Chastain said she filmed a scene with a record-setting amount of fake blood. Is that something you proposed at the script level, or is that Andy Muschietti pushing things to the brink during production?

I think that’s Andy pushing it to the brink; he has a great relationship with Chastain. But, yeah, that’s definitely Andy. I know the particular scene you’re talking about, and there’s no way to do it without a ton of blood. Knowing Andy, he always takes things and multiplies them, which is what you want out of your director. It’s pretty incredible. 

While you were working on Chapter One, you obviously developed a plan for Chapter Two. But, once Chapter One exceeded everyone’s financial expectations, was there pressure to make the movie even bigger in scale since expectations and budget were that much greater?

There’s always pressure, of course, but we all kinda kept our heads down and proceeded with the plan. There was never a moment where we said, “We really gotta outdo ourselves this time.” Stephen King and the novel did a lot of the heavy lifting for us. I can’t speak for anyone else involved, but I stuck with the plan we had because it seemed to work the first time. If it ain’t broke …

Stephen King has already praised Chapter Two. As cool as it might be to join the company of Stanley Kubrick, is King’s approval always a giant weight off your shoulders?

I can’t explain to you the relief I feel when he signs off on something or likes the work you’ve done. That’s the first person I’m trying to please when I’m adapting these things. It is an enormous amount of relief. I know I’m never going to be able to please everybody, so I just hope that he’s pleased. It really is a huge relief, and everything else for me is a bonus.

Is Salem’s Lot going to receive the exact same approach as It?

I like to be as true to the story as I possibly can until it gets a little too unwieldy for a movie. I’m very, very excited to be a part of that and tackle it. It hasn’t had the big-screen treatment yet, which is how I felt about It. It’s so fun to play around with vampires and make something truly scary. I haven’t seen that in a long, long time, and I’m excited for people to see it.

You also wrote a screenplay for the Are You Afraid of the Dark? feature that is now in limbo. Out of curiosity, were the “phone police” part of your script?

(Laughs.) No, but others were. Now that you mention it, I’m going, “Damn it, why weren’t they?” I don’t know why I didn’t have them, but I had a couple others that were exciting, visually, not that you don’t get that with the phone police. But, yeah, that was something I was excited about.

Swamp Thing. What can you say about it at this point, and is there any hope for a revival somewhere else?

I can’t speak to the last question because I don’t know. I love that show. Mark Verheiden did such a great job captaining that ship. What Mark and I set out to do was to be true to the spirit of the comic, and I think we really accomplished that. I’m so happy to see that critics and fans are embracing it the way they are. We were really confident that people were going to dig it. I got giddy thinking about the idea of just being able to adapt Swamp Thing for TV. There are so many stories you could do — set within that swamp and that town. We had such big ideas for the following seasons, and it’s a shame we can’t explore those now. But, man, I’m really happy people are seeing it and loving it the way that we do.

Is it safe to say you were blindsided like everybody else?

Yeah, that’s safe to say. It was a gut punch.

  • Brian Davids