Child’s Play director on upgrading Chucky for the AI era

Director Lars Klevberg tells us about the challenges of putting a timely digital spin on a decidedly analogue '80s horror...

Remaking classic films can be a tricky business – there’s a fine line to walk between changing the story so much you lose what made it work in the first place, and being so overly reverential to the original that you’re left thinking, what’s the point?

For Lars Klevberg, director of the recently released Child’s Play remake, the aspect that drew him was that the script updated the story in a timely way, while keeping the core of what made the original a success.

At its heart, Child’s Play 2019 is still a story about a creepy looking doll named Chucky that sets out on a knife-happy killing spree. But instead of a voodoo-infused figure that’s possessed by the spirit of a recently deceased serial killer, the new Chucky (voiced by Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill) is a walking, talking smart device marketed as ‘Buddi’ by fictional tech corporation Kaslan Industries. What sets him apart from the rest of the production line, though, is that he’s had all his safeguards removed by a vengeful factory worker. And it’s this malfunctioning Buddi that winds up in the home of troubled teen Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and his mum, Karen (Aubrey Plaza). Gore-laden chaos, naturally, ensues.

Den Of Geek sat down with Klevberg to chat about Chucky’s upgrade and putting a modern, tech-powered spin on an iconic ’80s slasher…

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Child’s Play is a movie series with a big legacy. What was it that convinced you to sign on to this reboot?

I never saw myself making a Child’s Play movie in my career. I have huge respect for the first one – not only because it’s a great movie, but because they did tremendous things, astonishing things with special effects that still hold up today. It’s an iconic movie. When they sent me the script, I was like of course I’ll read it but I don’t think it’s a story thats important for me to tell. But then I read it and I was just blown away by how great the script was – not only that it read like a great horror movie, but the fact they had changed the voodoo to artificial intelligence.

Did that change of angle persuade you that you could bring something different to it?

That was interesting for me because it allowed me to create an antagonist in Chucky who was looking at the world for the very first time. His motivation and beliefs were very understandable – of course, you don’t believe in his solutions [laughs], but you understand his motivations. I thought I could do something interesting with that.

As well as being a horror movie, it’s also something of a satire on the smartphone/home generation…

The AI aspect of it was really interesting for me. Spending time with this doll and seeing him going from A to Z in terms of how he changes throughout the story and the technological aspect of it… It made sense for us to do this reimagination now because the audience is very much aware – whether it’s an Alexa device at home, or even robots and AI assisting doctors with surgery, everybody depends on something that’s technologically advanced to help us throughout the day. But what happens if you have something, an entity, a doll that is self-aware and asks the first question that any self-aware entity should do: “What’s my purpose?” The movie is sort of a satire I guess, but it’s more like, “What would happen if one of our walking Alexas became self-aware and found its purpose?” I don’t think it would be any different! [Laughs]

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It’s kind of like those news stories of Alexa devices randomly laughing. Do you think the idea of sentient tech is inherently scary?

I don’t think the general public is afraid of it – they buy into it – but AI is not dissimilar to a lot of things that potentially pose a threat to mankind. It’s like when (Russian president Vladimir) Putin said that whichever nation leads in artificial intelligence will rule the world – if you don’t slow down or regulate it, AI could be extremely dangerous.

The AI element of Chucky does make for some inventive deaths in the movie – did that give you more freedom to be creative?

Yeah. When you make a horror movie, you always try to come up with great kills and scares. But for me, it’s important to ground those ideas into the story and have them be there for a reason, not just to be a gimmick. We’re dealing with AI and we have a doll who’s able to connect himself through the hub to different devices, but you have to have a clear idea of his motivation and why he wants to kill his victims. Once you’ve figured all that out, then you can get creative! I think it’s important that regardless of what movie you’re making, you have to make sure that the scenes and sequences and ideas are based on the DNA of the story that you want to tell.

Chucky is voiced brilliantly by Mark Hamill in the film – why did you think he would be the perfect voice for him?

When I read the script, I just saw Chucky as this tiny toddler walking around looking at the world for the very first time. His problem-solving behaviours and curiosity were weirdly kind of child-like and innocent. I wanted the audience to connect with the doll in some sort of way, so it would be interesting to see where his arc would take them. I think in this film you care for Chucky in a way that you haven’t done before, and the voice of Chucky had to match that.

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I didn’t cast the voice until I’d wrapped shooting, but I knew very early on that I wanted someone who could help me create this dynamic and complex character. Mark is a terrific actor and I knew that he had a background doing The Joker in the Batman animated series. So I sent him the script and wrote him a letter laying out my intentions for the movie. I didn’t expect anything back – I just though it was worth trying. But then he called us back and he wanted to be a part of it and he saw the reason why I wanted to do it – to find the perfect balance of this evil Buddi doll who eventually and gradually turns into something more humanoid at the end. And he was amazing.

The film walks a fine line between comedy and horror – is that a hard balance to get right?

Yeah, I think that was the most difficult thing on this movie – aside from shooting it. When I read it for the first time, I had a great time because it was so much fun I was laughing – and it’s not often I laugh reading a script. That was one of the reasons I wanted to do it. But then again it is a horror movie and you need to make it scary and creepy for the audience – you need to blend the horror and the comedy of it together in a way that maintains both. We tested the movie, we screened it to producers and to audiences to see where the balance is – is it too funny or is it too scary? You have to make it tense while preserving the humour because you need to have the audience with you in every scene and sequence – if it goes too far one way or the other, if it’s too silly or too intense, the film wouldn’t function. That was one of the most challenging things to figure out.

You’ve gone for more of a practical effects approach rather than heavy CG – was that something you insisted on from the start?

Yeah. It was a risk. I’m a huge fan of special effects, but I think you should try and solve as much as you can in camera on the set. It’s really challenging at times. The Child’s Play movies all used animatronics in a way that served the story and it was important for me to be consistent with the universe that we’re coming from. But also for me as a storyteller and director, I’m responsible for bringing people into the cinema and making them believe what’s on screen.

It’s a big canvas and I need the audience to believe it’s real because then they can have a proper reaction to it, rather than their brain – either consciously or subconsciously – thinking, “There’s something wrong with this.” If it doesn’t feel real, your brain will kind of pull back a little bit and emotionally disconnect you from whatever you see, so if you have too much of it as a digital effect that isn’t perfect or that feels strange, people will be jumping in and out of the movie. Even with all the faults and weirdness of an animatronic, people would much rather look at that than at something that’s an 80 per cent VFX shot for some reason. It’s strange how the brain works.

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Child’s Play is out in cinemas now.