One of this writer’s most anticipated movies coming into 2019 was the big screen adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which was directed by André Øvredal and is being produced by Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro (I just love writing that!). Ahead of its August 9th release, the film and its memorable characters were celebrated at the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con where both del Toro and Øvredal were on hand to discuss their approach to bringing Alvin Schwartz’s timeless stories (with artwork by Stephen Gammell) to the big screen and give us some more insight into their collaborative relationship on the project.
Here are some highlights from the SDCC Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark panel from last weekend, and be sure to check back here for the second part of our panel coverage, where we dig into the design process for the film’s iconic creatures and characters from some of the artists who helped bring them to life.
What struck you about these books originally? And what stayed for you after all these years?
Guillermo del Toro: Well, I was in a used bookstore in San Antonio, Texas. Back then I was very poorly financed, as is anybody at that age, and I used to go to the bookstores. It was a used bookstore that I used to go there and read in the aisles. I knew I couldn't afford the books, so I would read a few stories. When I saw this book, what immediately captured my imagination were the Stephen Gammell illustrations. I fell in love with them. They were so creepy, so unsettling. Then, I must say, the Alvin Schwartz retelling of the stories was so amazing. These are things that seem simple, because the stories are basically transmitted orally in every country. You have heard them in one version or the other. Many of them happened to a friend of a friend, blah blah blah, and they need a simplicity that is actually incredibly complicated to write. They have the structure and tempo of a campfire tale, you know?
I read a few stories. I went away. I came back to the same bookstore a second time. I read most of them. And then I came a third time. I finally bought the book. And it stayed with me. Then in 2001, there was a gallery in LA called Storyopolis. They did an exhibit of the original illustrations of the book. In 2001, I was hoping to do Blade II, but I was very still under-financed. I saw those illustrations, though, and I said, “I've got to buy them, because I'm never going to see them again.” I was very imprudent. I bought five or six of them. We can all relate to that, right? That's what happens when you're in front of something that is so beautiful that you have to bring it to your life, you know?
These stories, even as a grownup, they still are very terrifying to read, especially if you're reading them by yourself home alone.
Guillermo del Toro: To me, what happens is the theme. When we started talking about this about five years ago, I had to think about it. I love the books, but I didn't want to do an anthology film, because anthology films are always as bad as the worst story in them. They're never as good as the best story. Then, I remembered in Pan's Labyrinth, I created a book that was called “The Book of Crossroads,” and when you open it, it reads you the future and writes itself for you and only for you. I thought that it could be great if I have a book that reads you for this. You're reading the book, and it writes the thing that you're most afraid of, and then it happens. I thought that was good.
Then the theme became the stories we tell about each other. I think that's as good for 1968, '69, which is when the movie is set, and a lot of these stories, or with social media, which is the way we shape each other through our conversation and our stories. It must seem very prudent right now. Basically, when you see the movie, there's the equivalent of social media bullying one of the characters, but in the '60s. I thought it's prudent to do it now.
What made André the right director for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark?
Guillermo del Toro: Well, first of all, I needed somebody with a ridiculous accent, so I would then sound like Laurence Olivier [laughs]. The reality is André Øvredal was the first and only person that we wanted to approach. I don't know if you guys have seen it, but he's done a couple of what I think are the most innovative and great genre movies of the past couple of decades. He did Trollhunter, and the one that Stephen King loves as much as I do, is The Autopsy of Jane Doe. What is great about André, if I may, is his style. He loves the genre. This is not a guy that is doing horror movies while he gets a chance at a drama. This is not a guy that is going to abandon the genre, you know? He loves it with a passion. On top of that, he's incredibly elegant. He understands that part of the genre is the elegant piece before the punchline.
Okay, André, tell me about the first conversations that you had with Guillermo about bringing this to life.
André Øvredal: I was terrified. To meet Guillermo and to pitch him the movie I wanted to make was one of the most scary things in my life. I remember when you came to talk to me, you were so warm and so inviting. Then I could relax, and we were able to sit and talk about it. It was all about creating the right tone of the film. We needed to create the film that is most scary, suspenseful, and funny, too. It came down to characters, how they behaved on screen, and it was about getting across the tone of Gammell's characters. A lot of our conversations were about how we needed to stick to exactly what they look like in the book. That was so important to me and Guillermo.
Can you talk about the tone of the film?
André Øvredal: When you're doing a movie, you have to go in and you have to pitch it to the people who are making it. I grew up with the movies of Amblin: Back to the Future and all those films. I saw an opportunity to create a horror movie that was in that space, which I've never really seen. Poltergeist was kind of the closest thing to it. I presented that idea to Guillermo at the studio, and he liked it. So, how do you do that? Again, it comes down to the characters. You really have to ground it in characters you care about and love, and then put them in peril and create fun scenarios for the audience.
Guillermo del Toro: It's important also to say that for me in the '60s, the less resources they have, the better. They cannot Google anything. They cannot use a cell phone. I didn't want any of that. Beyond that, the importance of the period is that the stories traveled slower but deeper than they do now. Now everybody here, we process a hundred or a thousand times more information than anybody in the history of humanity.
I couldn't deal with the kids in this movie being in that moment, because then it would be wrong. The '60s was important for thematic reasons, too. There was a war going on where kids were being killed for a story somebody told them on a war that was so far away, but they didn't even know in the map where that was happening.
What's great about producing is you get instincts that are different than yours. When we were talking, I pitched André a whole thing about the movie. He said, "That's great, but that's not what I want to do." He said, "I want to do this for this reason." It was so beautiful to me. Every time I produce, I learn. I learned a couple of things from André, a couple of things from J.A. [Bayona] on The Orphanage, and a couple of things from Andy Muschietti on Mama.
When you were moving forward on this project, who was your intended demo for this film?
Guillermo del Toro: I think we were making a movie for ourselves at age 12. I mean, when we talk as artists, we never talk about the business. I never talk about demos or quadrants. Screw that shit, you know? We talk about what we want to see. To me, what was beautiful is there are three generations that have discovered these books. For example, when I made my Trollhunters, the series on Netflix, I thought about watching that with my dad and my brother on the sofa eating cookies and milk. We always felt that this was something that kids and parents, fathers and brothers could watch together.
André Øvredal: I grew up with certain movies that I was so taken by. I just want to give back that same type of experience to this audience. That was my dream.
Guillermo del Toro: It's the equivalent of a young adult novel. That's what we talked about creating.
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Photo by Heather Wixson / Daily Dead: