By RYAN COLEMAN
Darkness upon darkness, sheaths of black gauze enclose each frame like a dance of veils. Occasionally a TV screen clicks on, filling the room with an eerie, static glow. An orb of soft white light rolls into an empty closet, only to be shoved forcefully back. Just barely out of sight, a spindly, muttering tangle of hate darts from corner to corner, leaving behind traces that clog the emotional arteries of a broken family, threatening to suffocate them all.
Chris Messina, Sophie Thatcher, and Vivien Lyra Blair star as a family fighting through grief transformed into sinister flesh – the boogeyman itself – in the new offering from 20th Century Studios, THE BOOGEYMAN, coming to DVD and Blu-ray on October 10. The story sprung first from the mind of Stephen King as a five-or-so page exercise in dialogic suspense first published in 1973 and collected in his 1978 Night Shift anthology. Now, British cinematic dynamo Rob Savage has come to expand the boundaries of King’s contained universe into a proper shocker.
Following Host, the pandemic’s best horror film, and Dashcam, arguably the most controversial horror film of 2021, Savage steps into a new mode. This time, his budget is big, his concerns shift from friends to family, and his scares are more all-ages. THE BOOGEYMAN follows the Harper family’s slow acceptance that a supernatural entity has invaded their home via the suicide of one of therapist Messina’s patients (David Dastmalchian). They struggle to reclaim their lives after the death of the family matriarch in tandem with their struggle against this ancient malevolence. RUE MORGUE sat down with Savage ahead of THE BOOGEYMAN’s streaming release to talk about his pivot to studio work, the trouble with exposition, and more.
Hi, how’s it going?
[Wearing a Lynne Ramsay shirt] Hello, great.
Oh, great shirt.
Yeah, she is.
So how are you doing with press picking up for THE BOOGEYMAN again?
Yeah, but it’s not too bad. Not too bad. I’m back here in L.A. after a little stint in the U.K.
Nice. Do you live in L.A. now?
I do, yeah, for about three years. You know the Americans, you get all of us British horror filmmakers to come here. There’s been an exodus.
There’s room for everybody! I’m excited to talk to you. I’ve really enjoyed your last three films – especially Dashcam, which I love.
Oh, man! We found the one person!
I didn’t catch up with it until after the release. I kick myself now because I would have loved to have talked to you about it.
We would have loved that, too. [Laughs]
I was primed to love that movie because Annie Hardy was huge for me in high school. I love Giant Drag, and she’s just one of a kind.
She’s incredible in that movie. And she’s just so readily taking the piss out of herself but so committed.
I thought of her while watching THE BOOGEYMAN and of a few of the actresses from Host, Emma Louise Webb and Caroline Ward in particular. You have such a talent for finding these actors who, obviously, they’re doing their jobs, but you can tell there’s this massive offscreen personality that shines through. It’s refreshing in this genre, especially.
Yeah, you put it right just there. It’s like you’re looking for actors that are going to bring a lot of themselves to the role and have a kind of magnetism and a likability that’s there before they even start reading the lines. The big example in THE BOOGEYMAN is Vivien Lyra Blair. Originally, that part was written for a little boy, and then I wanted to start opening it up. She came on the first audition and just spent about twenty minutes telling me about fairies and fairy folklore and the fairies that live in the bottom of her garden. She has this infectious energy about her, and it was, like, if we can get a fraction of that into the film itself … that’s something you just can’t get on paper. You can only get that by casting these brilliant, interesting people.
There seems to be this trend, it’s more like a tradition at this point, where the operating principle in casting a horror lead is they have no personality whatsoever; They’re as blank as possible. I don’t know what the idea behind that is. Maybe because they think a dynamic personality will distract from the scares or something. But you go in the totally opposite direction in your movies.
I think humor’s got such a lot to do with it, as well. Another strand that’s hopefully there across these three movies is that the characters are kind of funny, as well, that they’ve got a sense of humor and wit about them. That means that when they suddenly stop making jokes, and they descend into terror, you feel it that much more because they feel like real people rather than just ciphers.
Something you bring up in a lot of your interviews, which has me curious, is tone. It’s such a subjective word; Different filmmakers use it to mean different things. What is tone for you and why is it so important?
I think it’s about knowing what is your movie and what isn’t your movie and having just a really clear sense in your gut about what that means. I think if you have confidence in that and confidence that whatever it is, you’ll know what you need as soon as you hear it or as soon as you see it. In fact, it opens you up to a much greater level of collaboration. I know a lot of filmmakers who are very … they want every single idea in the film to spill straight out of their head and don’t really invite collaboration in the way that I do. Part of it is [that] I’ll hear everyone’s idea, and even if it’s a good idea, [it] might just not be right for the movie. It might not fit in the tone. My gut just tells me that it doesn’t belong in the movie, and it’s not a judgment call. And it means that you can invite ideas from all over and that there’s no kind of … it doesn’t feel like you’re making your movie any less.
Have you found that there’s a relationship between the difficulty in setting a tone and the scale of production? You’ve said that in THE BOOGEYMAN, the general assumption people have is that the larger production. the less control you have, but that was not the case.
No, right, that did not happen on this one.
In terms of tone, then, is it harder to wrangle tone on a big production?
Interference aside, which we really didn’t get any of on THE BOOGEYMAN, it feels like it’s easier to manage tone on a bigger movie because you’ve just got a greater set of tools, and you’ve got people who are working professionals who can help you fine-tune everything exactly as you want it. In the best-case scenario, when you’re making something like Host, for example, which we made for no money at all, you’ve got to embrace the happy accidents that happen. and let the tone be kind of shaped in front of you because something great might happen spontaneously – a bit of improvisation from the actors or a stunt might go wrong – but it might look kind of interesting, or a scare might not quite play the way you’ve planned it. And so you have to come up with something else on the fly. You’ve still got to have that intentionality, but you’ve also got to embrace chaos a lot more on a smaller scale. So, those movies tend to feel much more alive with possibilities. You’re making them, which is scary but kind of electric…
That’s interesting. That’s not the answer I expected. I’d love to hear about your collaboration with cinematographer Eli Borne. In these last three movies, it’s like you run straight ahead towards shooting things that are not very obviously cinematic or very easy to conceptualize how to frame, how to stage and how to light. There’s so much negative space and dead air and things framed in odd ways in these three movies. How did Eli Borne impact that on THE BOOGEYMAN?
Eli is somebody I wanted to work with forever. He shot this great movie called Super Dark Times, which is a really scrappy, nasty, indie movie that looks just incredible. It’s one of those movies that every time I watch it, I get really jealous because it’s a movie that I wish I could have made. And so I did the next best thing – I stole that cinematographer. Eli just immediately was clear that he had the same sensibility as me. He can shoot slick and with the kind of intentionality that I like, but he’s never fussy. He’ll shoot with natural lights or practical lights. Some of the scenes in this movie are lit with just two lights – a desk lamp and then something bounced off the ceiling – very simple lighting setups that nonetheless look gorgeous. And he comes from that same kind of scrappy indie film background.
Your job as director is about taking the movie that’s kind of already made in your head, and projecting it into other people’s heads. It was so easy with Eli because our sensibilities run so close together. He’s a huge film buff, as well, so we were able to call on the same movies, and I was able to say, for example, give me a Jonathan Demme closeup or a Scorsese dolly move here. He just knew what that meant, which, even though we had a decent amount of time to shoot this movie, it’s never enough. Those shorthands really help. He brought so much to this movie, and so many of his ideas are in this movie, as well. But it’s also the closest thing I’ve ever made to being what I had already conceptualized in my head. The look and the feel of it are exactly what I was after.
Is having a shared set of references very important to you when you’re looking for collaborators you’re going to be working with that closely?
I think behind the camera, yes. And I try and create that even with the actors in front of the camera. There are certain movies and references and bits of writing that feel key, and I’m always kind of sending references for feeling and references for look and references for tone to the cast. The people behind the scenes, normally, get a kind of big chunky lookbook. I put together thousands of images for THE BOOGEYMAN. I communicated to Eli the kind of things that I was interested in, and he communicated that to his camera team. Because a lot of times we’d be shooting one camera, but sometimes we’d have a second camera, so the second cameraman would be looking for things that he knew we were interested in … We’re interested in these kind of frames; We’re interested in negative space; We’re interested in details of behavior, like what’s a person do with their hands? So he had this kind of bible almost of the film’s visual preoccupations.
I’m also thinking about the sources of horror in these three features. they’ve all been quite different from each other. Host is so mysterious. You don’t ever quite pin down what’s going on. It’s not like there’s an exposition dump, and somebody explains what’s happening. It remains very mysterious. Dashcam is the same. You never figure out what Angela is or what happened to her.
If you read all the comments, there’s an answer.
Nobody’s ever going to do that. But it’s all buried in there.
All the comments that are coming up in the livestream?
Oh, wow! That’s really interesting. I have to watch it again.
All the armchair detectives! It’s funny. They’re way more interested in solving what’s going on than Annie is. So around the midway point of the movie, they kind of figure out what’s going on. They crack the case.
Wow! I had no idea. And going off Dashcam, in THE BOOGEYMAN, I wonder how you determined what the appropriate balance of providing information so that the source of evil is distinct enough to be scary, and then not having so much context that it becomes boring. There’s one line from THE BOOGEYMAN that stood out to me – when Marin Ireland says, “I think it’s been around forever.”
That’s kind of all you need, as far as I’m concerned. That’s kind of all you need. It was actually the only place that we did a reshoot, I think. No, no. There’s a couple of little bits and pieces where we did reshoots. But I always tend towards giving the audience less context for what’s going on. I think that feels more true to life. I think just scratching the surface of something is way scarier than being given a complete history of the thing.
The movie tested crazy well the first time, but the only thing that everyone was saying was that they wanted a little bit more information about the creature. And this is, again, it’s a testament to the studio and the producers because I was really worried that everyone would go into fear mode, and we’d overcorrect and then overexpose – that we’d have to write a monologue explaining the centuries-long curse that’s plagued the family or something like that. But no, we just added one line. One single line, and I can’t remember what it was. It was something like “It follows you wherever you go.” It wasn’t even giving you much more context. It was just kind of feeling like you were getting a little bit more about how this creature operates. Then, [in] the second screening, nobody noted back. It felt like we hit that balance. But it’s a taste thing. I know some people still feel like they want to know a bit more. I tend to lean towards scares and plot and tone and atmosphere. I’m less interested in, say, the backstory and plot and those kinds of mechanics.
I don’t think I’d ever read about any filmmaker doing this particular kind of thing, though I’m sure it happens, I read that you map out all your scares on a kind of corkboard – that you track each type. I’m curious if this is a whole classification system you developed yourself.
A lot of it is about rhythm. A lot of it is about, well, I wanted to be able to see the whole movie, in color, so to speak. So I went through it. I can’t remember exactly how I delineated it. But there are jump scares. Then there are more ghostly scares, these ambient scares, I think I called them that, the kind which don’t really have a jolt payoff. They’re all whispery, atmospheric scares. Then, there are kind of hide-and-seek scares, where the dynamic of the scene is about holding your breath and trying to keep the audience’s attention. And then, there were chase scares. So I kind of broke it up like that. There were a few more, but I would just notice that “Oh, we’ve got a run of three hide and seat scares here. We haven’t had a jump scare for a while.”
One of the best scares of the movie, the one where the Boogey jumps through the door, there was a big section of daytime scenes, and there just wasn’t a scare. I thought, “I want the audience to feel like even the daytime scenes are unsafe,” so I knew we had to give them something. I said, “Let’s do a well-executed, unexpected jump scare here to just break up this daytime section.” It was helpful just to be able to not get lost in the weeds, which is always a risk because there are so many details you can focus on.
Before I let you go, one very quick question. What’s your favorite Lynne Ramsey movie?
Same. It’s the best. Unreal.
Absolutely, it is.
THE BOOGEYMAN from 20th Century Studios is available to stream on Hulu, beginning October 5 and arrives on Blu-ray on October 10.