TERRIFYING TUESDAYS: INTERVIEW WITH TRICK ‘R TREAT DIRECTOR MICHAEL DOUGHERTY
Trick ‘R Treat, the long-delayed directorial debut from Superman Returns screenwriter Michael Dougherty, finally comes out on DVD today. Here is Dougherty talking about the origins of the film, why it was delayed, and how the support of the horror community kept it alive.
Festival screenings generated great word of mouth. How important has the online horror community been to getting this film released and generating excitement?
It’s funny because I think this movie is a rarity in that it took a very long time to get it made, it took a very long time to get it out. And I think had this film been [released] anytime before the Internet became such a phenomenon, before the Internet became an important method of communication for people, it could have easily just been dumped and forgotten about. But it was the Internet press which really kept it going. For whatever reason, I think a lot of mainstream press were just unaware of it, or I think just chose to blow it off.
But it was a lot of bloggers which actively sought it out, came to screenings, saw it and then ran stories about it, and kept running stories; you know, ran reviews. Ain’t It Cool News was one of the first big supporters of it. Harry Knowles came to me, sought me out and said, ‘I want to screen it at my film festival.’ He has a personal film festival…
And it’s an amazing experience. I suggest any film lover go see it. At the Alamo Draft House. He screens movies for 24 hours straight. You don’t know what the line-up is, it’s up to him because it’s his birthday party. You can drink and eat, and it’s the best group of people in Austin, all film lovers. So you lose a lot of that LA pretension of people who claim to be film lovers and work in the industry, but they’re just in it for the money. So it’s truly just film lovers. He wanted to screen it as the final film, to cap off 24 hours. I’m thinking, ‘You’re nuts. These people have been up for 24 hours, they’re cranky, and they want a really good movie to end it.’ And, honestly, at that point in time, I didn’t know if I had a good movie. And to be completely frank, I was told that I didn’t have a good movie, by certain people.
And so Harry said, ‘I have faith in it. I think there’s something here, and I want to show it.’ And he did and it went like gangbusters. And so a lot of reviews popped up around there. And it kept spreading, and the buzz built, built. Screened it again at ScreamFest, more press came, more Internet press came. They kept writing and writing and writing about it. So, yeah, it’s the Internet that’s kept the film viable; Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, the word has been spreading via that.
And I honestly think this film has had a better theatrical run than a lot of genuine theatrical releases. And by that mean you have a lot of films which will come out in New York and LA, play for two weeks, in one theatre, that’s it and they go to DVD. This film will play in upwards of, I think, 15 to 20 cities over the course of four or five months, and be seen by more people in a theatre than some limited theatrical releases.
Were you surprised about the debate as to whether it should go to theatres or not?
I can see why there would be, but I think that was the intent. I was trying to create an audience-pleaser. It’s not too gory. It’s not too scary, to be honest. It’s not like I was setting out to make Texas Chainsaw Massacre or even A Nightmare on Elm Street. I was trying to create a fun film that I grew up watching. I mean, Poltergeist is a perfect example of that. A lot of the ‘80s Amblin horror films. Even Gremlins, in a lot of ways, I would consider a horror film; it’s really twisted and dark if you go back and watch it, but you can kind of take your pre-teens to go see it. And that’s what I set out to make. I was surprised that there was resistance to giving it a theatrical release.
At the same time, I can understand the logic because it’s not a remake, it’s not a sequel. It’s a weird, non-traditional horror film. It’s an anthology film, which is a format which has been dead for decades. Literally, decades. So I can understand from a business point of view the challenge and difficulty of marketing something like that, but I for one am always up for that kind of a challenge. It’s a little off-putting to think that certain people might have given up on it or said, ‘Oh, it would be too hard to sell it.’ Whereas my outlook was ‘well, why don’t we try?’
But the studio has definitely come around and is now giving it a shot in a very non-traditional fashion.
How many pumpkins were killed in the making of this film?
[Laughs] It was a mix of real pumpkins and fake pumpkins, but we were in the hundreds.
There’s an EC Comics vibe at play in your movie, not only in the opening credits but in its eye-for-an-eye morality. Was EC an influence?
Huge. It was the type of thing passed down from father to son. My dad grew up with EC Comics; the Warren Publishing stuff, Tales From The Crypt. And he and his friend had boxes of it. I remember going to visit him and his childhood friend, and they just said, ‘Here, have these. We don’t read them anymore.’ And I just got lost in them. It was the same time that Twilight Zone was on cable a lot, Tales From The Crypt was on HBO, Amazing Stories was on the air. It was a golden age of anthology on film and on TV. So that was a big influence.
The movie is set in Warren Valley, Ohio, and your IMDb page lists you as having been born in Columbus. Does Trick ‘R Treat have things about it which are particularly Ohioan?
Well, I lean towards Ohio because I think Ohio is that ultimate kind of all-American, mid-Western city. They use Ohio as a place to test market new merchandise and foods. So it’s just Americana.
Your IMDb page also lists your birth date as being Halloween. Is that true?
No, that’s a myth. [Laughs]
It makes for a great story!
It does make for a great story, but I was born three days before. My mom likes to tell the joke, I think, that she was actively trying to squeeze me out before Halloween because she hates the holiday. But because I was born on the 28th, a lot of times my birthdays were very Halloween-themed, or we’d just wait until Halloween. I would have black cats on my birthday cake. And then it would be come out for birthday cake and then we’d go trick-or-treating.
What importance did Halloween have for you as a kid? Was it an important holiday?
It was. Still is. To me, it’s just the best holiday all around because there aren’t really any family commitments. There kind of are when you grow up because you have the bond between parents and kids because they’re taking you out trick or treating, so you have that bit of family dedication.
But then it changes when it gets to your adolescent years, and it’s you and your friends, and you’re out roaming, toilet papering houses, egging cars and stuff, and getting into trouble. And then in your twenties it’s about sex.*It’s this holiday that changes with you, and it stays with you, and it can become important at any stage of your life.
And now, as adults, we still celebrate it, and it’s fun to see how people get creative with their costumes. How that weird, quiet guy in accounting, in the next cubicle, will come dressed as the Karate Kid or something. And people turn themselves into these canvasses and they get creative. I have a party every year, costumes are mandatory, and I love seeing what friends/acquaintances come dressed as.
All aspects of Halloween – childish, adolescent, adult – are in Trick ‘R Treat. Was that deliberate?
I think it was and it wasn’t. It just kind of naturally happened, and then I realized that theme was popping up, kind of the four seasons of Halloween. You know, Halloween is celebrated between father and five-year-old son, adolescents and the cranky old man. I started to go back and re-emphasize some of those themes, but it wasn’t intentional when I sat down to write it.
Where did the idea for this film come from?
I lost my job doing animation, and I said, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll take people’s advice and start writing screenplays,’ and went out and bought [the writing program] Final Draft. And I had taken a couple of short stories I had written previously, a couple of new ones, put them all together, and said, ‘This is my anthology horror film.’ Because at that point it was when writing a feature-length screenplay with three acts and a normal plot structure were beyond me. It seemed too intimidating so I said, ‘I’m going to cheat and write four short stories and call it my anthology film.’
Your friend Bryan Singer produced the film. What advice did he give you when Warner decided against releasing it theatrically?
It’s been fine. He was instrumental in getting it set up, really helped me shape the screenplay to get ready for shooting, and he’s directed so many films, two of which I was on set with him the whole time so [I] learned a lot from him, both on set and the politics of making a film. Because he would tell me stories, editing-room stories about how hard it can be to sit in the editing room and craft something that you love but is also commercial and is also something the studio can get behind.
And then as far as the theatrical controversy, he’s still very encouraging, saying ‘we’ve made something special. We are still making something that is becoming a phenomenon.’ So he’s always been kind of that coach, encouraging to never give up.
The child character Sam has taken on a life of his own, with toys being made available even before the movie comes out. What is his story? Where did he come from?
He started as a character in a short film that I made back in 1996 when I was at NYU. It was a short film called ‘Season’s Greetings’. Just this three-minute animated short, and he just started as a doodle. He’s my personal Frankenstein creature, in that he’s something that I came up with, and I guess I fell in love with him because I think he’s kind of a representation of my own mischievous prankster. He’s like my inner child, and he just never went away. He kept showing up in my greeting cards, illustrations, script doodles, and I feel like he’s been pushing me to get himself out there.
Is he evil?
I wouldn’t say he’s evil. I really wouldn’t. I’d call him mischievous. I don’t think he cares if you’re good or evil. He’ll just punish you if you’re not following the rules of the holiday; he’s like a dark version of Santa Claus.
That EC morality again.
I think that influence is there. I think that part of the fun is watching a bad guy get his comeuppance. But with Sam I don’t think he sticks to traditional morals. It’s all about the rules. There’s a point in the film where he crosses paths with one of the kids in the movie and he does nothing against her. He sees that she’s wearing a costume, just kind of nods to her and walks away.
Why should a mainstream audience give this film a chance?
It is a Halloween film. I wouldn’t even call it a traditional horror film. And because it’s a Halloween film, that is the one time of the year when everyone kind of becomes a fan of the genre, whether you realize it or not. The fact that you’re hanging up black cats and bats in your windows, or hanging up that plastic skeleton in your door, means that there’s part of you – or dressing up your kids – there’s part of you that has a love for the holiday and remembers the holiday and participates in it, and I think anybody can sit down and watch a film about it and enjoy it.
Trick ‘R Treat is available on DVD via Warner Premiere.