Interview | Rob Letterman on ‘Goosebumps’ and Scaring Children
Rob Letterman wants to scare your children, and he’d really like you to pay him for it. Fortunately, his new film Goosebumps – based on the hit scary stories for children, written by R.L. Stine – is worth the money. The film stars Dylan Minnette and Ryan Lee as teenagers who break into the house of R.L. Stine, played by Jack Black, to rescue his teenaged daughter (Odeya Rush), but accidentally release every monster from the Goosebumps novels from their prison in Stine’s library.
It’s a fun idea, appealing to kids and nostalgia fans of the Goosebumps series alike, but Letterman doesn’t just want to entertain. Again, he wants to scare your children. But, you know, without messing them up forever. It’s a fine line to for any filmmaker to walk, and as we talked about his plan to frighten and amuse simultaneously we talked a lot about his influences, the 1980s films that succeeded in this ambitious endeavor, and how to help kids deal with the death of parents in movies… or as Letterman calls it, “Getting Disneyed.”
Goosebumps hits theaters on October 16, 2015.
Crave: What you’re doing essentially is making a horror movie for an audience that isn’t ready for a horror movie yet.
Rob Letterman: Yeah.
How do you do that? What’s the balance you have to strike?
Well first of all, we don’t know if we did it yet. We’ll find out in two weeks.
I liked it a lot, for the record.
Thank you. You know, it’s interesting, a lot of that came from R.L. Stine himself, because Jack and I and Neal Moritz and Deb Forte, who are the producers, went out to New York and met with Stine. The “real” Stine. Jack and I wanted to go out and get his blessing and make sure we’re doing justice to his book series, obviously, but it was amazing. We were having a great time with him and we were up in this weird attic at the Scholastic building and we started talking about this very subject with him, and his thing was you have to balance the fun with the scares.
When he did it he had done a book series prior to Goosebumps that didn’t work, and it was all horror. Then he clued in, just on a lark really, on Goosebumps. Because he really wanted to be a comedy writer. So he started mixing the comedy and the horror and it made it okay [for kids], just borderline okay, and that seemed be the magic sauce for Goosebumps.
So when we came back I thought a lot about the tone of the movie in that regard, and then that just reminded me of all the movies I grew up on, these Amblin films like Gremlins, even E.T., all these movies that were very grounded and then something kind of odd and supernatural entered it. It just kind of built itself up.
They were very threatening, those films.
Those films didn’t pull their punches. Those were movies. The thing I loved about them, at least my memory of those kinds of movies growing up… no one ever thought of them as “family films.” There was no stigma the way it is now. Those were movies for a general audience. I remember going to them with adults, all ages, and everyone enjoying those films because they weren’t… those were movies! And when things were scary things were scary, you know?
Goosebumps, I imagine, came a little after your time.
Yes. Are you saying I’m old? What are you trying to say?
I’m saying I’M old. They came after MY time.
It’s true. [Laughs.]
“The best movies for pure scare, pure fright, [are] really about the anticipation of something and not knowing when it’s going to pop out.”
But here’s the thing, the typical Goosebumps story… to an adult… won’t make you shiver. It’s not going to make you lose any sleep.
How do you clue into what the scare element is? Or is it just as simple as, “Werewolves are scary?”
No, well, I mean there’s a litany of amazing horror films that have been done over the years, and there are certain patterns in them. In the best of them, a lot of the scares are what you don’t see, or what’s right around the corner, and holding that tension. Or making things really calm and then popping in a scare.
Some of those, the best movies for pure scare, pure fright, [are] really about the anticipation of something and not knowing when it’s going to pop out. So there are certain film techniques that have happened over the years that you go to, and for this movie it’s really about doing those up to a certain line, because we don’t want to scare or terrify the kids, but we want them to have fun being scared and overcoming their fear.
When we previewed the movie, early on, I remember there was this moment… and we didn’t know what was going to happen, we had none of the visual effects in. I literally put it up for 300 people, parents and kids, and I was truly scared because I didn’t know if it was going to work. And this is what was interesting, there was these moments early on in the movie where we had a couple jump scares in there. When those happened the kids screamed, the parents [gasped], and they all started laughing because they got over it!
And I love that. It kind of brought my memory back of when I was a kid, going through those moments. That was awesome, and it was part of the roller coaster ride of it, you know?
Let me put it this way: there are different types of scariness.
There’s the “boo” scare, and then there’s the “I will never sleep again because I’m not sure there’s any good left in the universe” scare.
[Laughs.] That’s not this movie.
That’s NOT this movie.
That was Alien for me. That, truly, to this day, made me very uncomfortable. That terrified me.
But then there’s something like, I dunno, Evil Dead 2, which is gory and crazy…
That was fun though!
That’s a roller coaster ride.
I mean that’s way more gory than this but tonally there’s a lot of… I love that movie, and it had a lot of fun. They were doing comedic beats, true comedic beats, and it was true mashup way before its time of horror and comedy.
The other thing I’m thinking, regarding how there’s all these ways to withhold the scares and then unleash them all at once… this movie isn’t about withholding. It’s about shoving every Goosebumps monster onscreen.
Eventually, yeah. Well, the fundamentals of the movie truly are the emotional journey that the characters go through. Nothing will ever be scary or funny unless that works in a grounded way.
But that’s not the tagline: “These characters will go an emotional journey.” The tagline is: “All The Goosebumps Monsters!”
It’s not the tagline of most movies that are good! Because no one’s going to market it [like] “Check out this emotional journey where these characters go through these wonderful arcs!” But we all know the movies that are precious, and the movies that stand the test of time do that. Eliot in E.T., if you break it down this is a kid who’s lonely, who’s dad took off and the mom’s upset about it, and he doesn’t have a friend. There’s certain things that are happening there that make it so special. Even though you don’t key into it. I didn’t key into it when I was a kid, but later in life, studying that movie I was like, “Oh my god, without that this is nothing.”
My kids watch Disney movies now, and the way to get over it so they wouldn’t get so upset about the endless death of parents is, now my daughter’s like, ‘Oh, parents got Disneyed!’
“Missing dad” is always a good shorthand for a kids movie.
It is. Or if it’s a Disney movie, killing dad. Or mom.
As long as there are no parents! [Laughs.]
That’s the important thing.
It’s the important thing in a Disney movie.
See, my parents were together and alive so all these Disney movies alienated me.
You couldn’t identify with them.
“Who is this SIMBA person?!”
Why do they always have to die?
I have no dogs in this race…
My kids watch Disney movies now, and the way to get over it so they wouldn’t get so upset about the endless death of parents is, now my daughter’s like, “Oh, parents got Disneyed!” Just constantly, “Oh, Mom got Disneyed!” That’s how we get through it.
Top Photo: Getty Images North America
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.