'Halloween' Director on Why It Took 80 Drafts to Get the Script Right
The last time David Gordon Green was at Comic-Con, he was hoping for laughs from the Hall H crowd as he previewed the 2008 stoner comedy Pineapple Express. This year, the director is hoping a different audience reaction as he introduces the latest iteration of Michael Myers with his Halloween sequel.
The movie is set four decades after John Carpenter's classic horror film, and follows Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as she prepares to face the crazed killer that tormented her on Halloween night in 1978.
Heat Vision breakdown
Green will preview his slasher during Universal's presentation, which also includes a look at M. Night Shyamalan's Glass, and admits he's looking forward to getting out of the editing room and showing off the new footage. Ahead of making the trip to San Diego, the director talked to Heat Vision about getting the sequel story right (it only took 80 drafts), working with Carpenter and Curtis, and why a guy in a mask will always be terrifying.
What are you most excited about getting to bring Halloween to Comic-Con?
We've got some new footage and we kind of put a little program together that I think is going to get people even more excited about what we're going to unleash here in three months. When I'm sitting in an editing room or making tweaks with a sound-mixer — all the technical ins and outs — there's the geek in me that keeps jumping up and down and I can't wipe the smile off my face and you know, to see a solid number of folks in a room enjoying the same experience.
I'm sure it will be a little less isolating than an editing room.
You never know. I've spent a lot of days in a dark cavernous environment going through what I think scares me or feels right. And then you get into a room and you see what the public thinks and those are always exciting things to learn from and feed off of.
How long was the scripting process for you guys?
It was probably eight months of 80 drafts, exploring different ways we could go and following different characters. Then we started casting it and we learned Jamie Lee wanted to be in it. So then we geeked out and wanted to beef up the Laurie Strode character. All of a sudden people started showing interest and so our opportunities started to expand even while we're shooting the film. Every Saturday was rewrites for Sunday rehearsals so that I could feed off of what we learned that week or for what an actor's idea might have been or a skill set that we didn't know we had in front of us. So we were writing up until the very last week of production.
How long was production?
It was 25 days.
Wow. That's seems quick.
Oh, yeah. It's kind of funny even just talking to other filmmaker friends of mine, you think when you have this very widely known title, you get a big budget. The Blumhouse team has been so brilliant at engineering very economical, modest budget shoots, trying to maximize with the crew potential and the cast. So this was definitely a rough-and-tumble low-budget film, much in the spirit of Carpenter's 1978 film. We were trying to use that creative energy and some of the limitations budgetarily and schedule-wise to become opportunities for us.
At what point in that process did you make the 1978 film your source material? Was that always the plan from the get-go or did you ever have any plans to incorporate any of the follow-ups?
We started incorporating all the follow-ups and then it got overwhelming trying to engineer something that made sense. Some of the plot points became a little stretched thin as the franchise went on. And so ultimately finding those frustrations, [Danny] McBride came to me and just said, "What’s the Michael Myers movie that you really want to see?" Halloween I was, to me, the most pure and, in a lot of ways, the most simple. I get the real connection with the terror of a movie that isn't so lost in its own mythology.
At what point did you bring the story or this script to John Carpenter and what was that like walking into that meeting for the first time?
Once we kind of had a concept of eliminating Halloween 2 and beyond, that's when we went over to Carpenter’s house, which was a lovely picnic, and nervously presented our ideas to him. Through the course of that very suspicious conversation, [we] saw him go from cross-eyed to big smiles and then that gave us the confidence to move forward pretty quickly and then try to get Jamie Lee Curtis, [original star Nick Castle] and Carpenter himself to do the music. The next wave of ambition kicked in once we, as I like to say, we kissed the ring of the Godfather and he gave us the thumbs up.
Did Jamie Lee Curtis have input on the scripting of Laurie?
Yeah, of course. I do that on all my films. I go to the actors and get their feedback and we do read throughs and rewrites and improvisations. I'm all about reworking. A script to me is always just a blueprint and then [we] feel our way through it, together. There's some scenes that we'll say, let's not even use the script, we know point A and B, let's put it in our own words. I'd play music on set sometimes and just trying to keep it fresh, so it's not so overly rehearsed.
What kind of music are you playing to get everyone in the mood?
It depends. Very often we'd play the original Halloween theme and soundtrack. Other times I'd put on everything from “Puff the Magic Dragon” to Los Lobos and just try to contrast the moment, because a lot of these moments are characters that aren't suspecting something bad to happen. So, if we're strutting to “Stairway to Heaven” and everything is good and we're rocking out in our mind, that then provides the environment that we can really sharply contrast when the samurai shows up with his blades.
Is it hard to do any type of improv in a slasher, as opposed to a comedy feature?
Not really. The only thing that's hard in a horror movie with improv is everybody cusses too much. There's only so many "Holy shit!" and "Oh, fucks!" that I want in a movie. That became the game is how do we do this without, you know, certainly a ton of profanity in the movie, but how do we not have that be so consistent that it gets distracting? My mom and dad are going to watch this. I don't want to get in trouble.
In your filmmaking, how did you toe the line between homage to Carpenter’s work and making the movie your own?
It’s a different era of filmmaking. I was watching Animal House recently and the comedy is just different. We all look at it as a classic, we'll think it's funny, but you show that to a 19-year-old kid today, and he doesn't quite get the pacing of it.
Our filmic approach was very similar, although there'd be a little bit more handheld work and probably more editing and more cuts in this movie than in his. But we tried to be really respectful of long, patient sequences. The compositions where you're looking for 10 seconds and you have no idea where the bad guy is going to come out. Those are the kind of psychological approaches that John took that we inherited.
And we were adamant that we wanted this to feel like this is Laurie, and the characters in this movie have aged. There's a little bit more of a modern spin on it, even in the music that John is scoring. I spent this weekend with him in the studio working on music, and it's very true to John Carpenter, but it's a little bit different. It's got a little bit different technologies and different instruments and things that he's playing with. It's a lot of fun to think of everything about this movie is coming from the seeds of 1978, but with a little twist that I think is going to make it appropriate and very interesting for young crowds that may be less familiar with the original film.
So with audiences that are so inundated with day-to-day gore and violence, how did you guys work to make Michael Myers scary?
We note that in the movie. There's a character that says, "Is a guy that killed a few people on a night 40 years ago really that scary compared to what goes on in the world today?" And my answer is yes, he is that scary. I mean, he may not be that epic, but a dude with a knife that's walking through the shadows and he has his eyes on me, that don't make me happy. To me, if you talk about a huge, horrific event in the universe, I can't even wrap my head around it because it's so overwhelming. It’s so epic that I think that it's almost impersonal. Something like a man with a mask and a knife becomes to me the most intimate of horrors.
It's not a universal catastrophe. It's a fucking monster under my bed or in the closet, and I don't like that shit. I don't like monsters running around where I live.
My final question for you, which kind of goes hand in hand with that, is why do you think this is a franchise that keeps on enduring and keeps on gaining new fans?
[Carpenter] tapped into something very intimate and personal and iconic. There's always going to be the big mythologies of Frankenstein and mummies and wolfmans and so many great classic movie monsters. But again, going back to the simplicity of this character, it's so not extraordinary that you can forget it. It gets under your skin in this way that people keep wanting to relive. It’s incredible the number of people that have stood by so many evolutions of this franchise, just wanting to see more of the man in the mask. Even when the mask evolved in a strange direction in a movie or two, people still came back. What we, as writers, our approach was that anybody can be next. He’s like a wild cat up in the trees and he's just looking to eat. Don't take it personally. He just has his eyes on you. So watch out.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
by Richard Newby
by Graeme McMillan