Over the last several months, Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out (previously known as Safe Neighborhood) has been enjoying a successful festival run, and recently played as part of Fantasia International Film Festival’s extraordinary 2017 programming slate. Daily Dead spoke to Peckover while he was on the ground at Fantasia, and he discussed some of the influences on Better Watch Out, the fun of getting to create a horror movie set during the Christmas season, crafting a home invasion film that stands apart, working with his talented trio of stars—Levi Miller, Olivia DeJonge, and Ed Oxenbould—and more.
Better Watch Out will arrive in theaters and on VOD beginning October 6th, courtesy of Well Go USA.
Congratulations, Chris, on creating a really fun and different home invasion movie, because that's not an easy feat at all. I know there are things that we can't talk about, because I don't want to ruin anything for our readers, but I would love to hear about what the story process was for Better Watch Out, and how you and Zack [Kahn] collaborated on the script together.
Chris Peckover: Zack and I both share a common love for John Hughes and his larger-than-life characters. His approach was true to form, and it was always funny to watch how he captured teenage awkwardness, which is the reality of what we all went through when we were growing up. So, we started with a base of that, and then wondered what would happen if we gave the script to Quentin Tarantino or to Wes Craven, and said to them, "Now, f**k it up." From there, we got to throw a lot of our favorite tones together, and obviously, there are a lot of homages to Home Alone in this, too.
What’s funny is that, on the surface, Home Alone doesn't necessarily scream “horror movie,” but when you consider it from a kid’s perspective, it’s pretty terrifying.
Chris Peckover: Oh, yeah, and it's horrific, what is devised in Better Watch Out, too. In a lot of ways, you could say this is the super R-rated version of Home Alone. In fact, I'm really surprised that Home Alone hasn't had more of an effect on the home invasion genre, so that was a giant gaping hole that we got to jump into and play around with, because it almost seems like audiences were craving something they didn't know they wanted to begin with [laughs].
Was there something in particular about setting this story around Christmastime, maybe the idyllic season made for a nice juxtaposition to the nastier elements of the story you were telling?
Chris Peckover: I mean, Christmas is just always the most fun to mess with, in my opinion, because it's such an idealized time and setting. We're always on our best behavior. Families actually get together and decorate together, and even spend more time together than usual. I find myself reveling in [the times] when things go horribly wrong, and I think general audiences do, too. Those elements can make for a great black comedy. I also feel like Home Alone kicked off this Christmas genre of where things go horribly wrong, too, and I think we just enjoy seeing something “perfect” go off the rails.
I would love to talk about your cast for this, because this movie lives and dies basically with Levi. Both Olivia and Ed are super important, too, and they are really, really great, but I feel like had Levi taken his role one way or the other, it might have somewhat changed the tone that you guys were trying to establish in this film.
Chris Peckover: Oh God, yeah. In hindsight, it was idiotic of us to write a movie that relied on 12-year-olds holding the audience's attention for two hours. We really lucked out because, as you were saying, the range that it takes to play Luke is huge, and it’s so important to this movie. I ended up reading about 200 different boys for the roles of Luke and Garrett, and a lot of kids were able to fill some of the buckets, but not all of them. But when Levi read, he had some stuff that was so incredible in the audition that we actually put it in the movie. I won't say what that was, but I knew he had “it” from the very beginning, and he could really navigate some murky waters. Also, Levi had made a career, up to this point, of being the awestruck young boy in Pan and all of his other films, so I think the fact that this was so different was something he enjoyed.
He had just turned 13 when we started shooting, and teenage boys revel in this kind of stuff. I can't even tell you how often during auditions, the actor would come up to me afterwards, and would be like, "I don't even care if I get this role or not. Thank you for writing this movie because this was so funny." I'm shocked to know that actually teenagers are one of our best crowds for this, because I thought it would be too deep for them, but they loved it.
You mentioned having to navigate these murky waters between the horror and then the comedy because again, if things go just a little bit further or if the situation gets a little bit more out of hand, it really could have gone a completely different way. Yet, you were able to keep a playfulness to this, and yet the stakes are very real. How challenging was that for you guys when you were writing the script?
Chris Peckover: That's a really great question. Tone has always come really easily to me, but I think it's because when you have characters who aren't egging to the camera and playing up the humor of the situation, if you believe them, it's cool what tones you can mix together and they work. For instance, the bigger the situation gets, Olivia and Ed, their roles were so important in grounding the movie when things got nuts.
But I really lucked out. It didn't occur to me until afterwards how important this was, but Olivia and Ed were already best friends because they starred in M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit together. By the way, everyone always asks me, "Did you do that on purpose?" I always say, "No, the real question more so is why on earth did M. Night Shyamalan cast two Australian teenagers to be a brother and sister in Philadelphia [laughs]"? It really did help that they had known each other for years at this point, and were best friends after that experience. When Levi arrived, it was like, "Join our gang." They really got this great rapport going between the three of them.
What were the challenges of keeping Better Watch Out on a visual level? You have some really great set pieces and the colors and lights of the Christmas season add a lot, but I was wondering if you were concerned at all going into this that it might be a challenge visually working within the confines of one space?
Chris Peckover: That's another story, because in hindsight, writing a movie that takes place over the course of one night with kids was crazy. Initially, we were about to shoot this movie for about $500,000 in South Carolina before [producer] Brett Thornquest in Australia said, "No, no, no. We can make this for a bigger budget if you want, if you shoot this in Sydney." In hindsight, shooting it for a half a million in South Carolina would have been impossible, because either you have an open space where you can actually see outside the windows, but you shoot at night with kids, which they would have gone stir crazy by day three, or you tarp the house, which makes lighting way harder, and then it just feels claustrophobic, and that can become a really bad situation if you're shooting a one-location movie.
The trick to a one-location movie is that you have to make the location where you shoot really visually interesting and always have other things up your sleeve. It has to be an evolving set. The fact that we got to shoot in Sydney on a soundstage really, really helped that. Also, I really lucked out with Richard Hobbs, who was my production designer. He had just finished being the supervising art director on Mad Max: Fury Road. In fact, he had to skip the wrap party for this because he had to fly up to Queensland to pick up the supervising art director position on Thor: Ragnarok.
But yes, what a generous soul that man has, and that he was willing to do such a low-budget movie was an amazing gift. Because when we walked onto that set, it felt like a real house, and Richard is just an absolute genius.
*Above photo taken by Sean O'Reilly.
Keep an eye on Daily Dead for more coverage of the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival, and check here for our previous news, reviews, and interviews from the festival.