How Fantasy Island Reimagines the Classic TV Show

Director Jeff Wadlow tells us why his Fantasy Island is a darker tropical getaway than the original series.

Portia Doubleday and Lucy Hale in Fantasy Island
Sony Pictures

In Fantasy Island, five people land via seaplane on a mysterious tropical island where they’ve paid handsomely to have their deepest fantasies fulfilled. For one young woman, that means revenge against a school bully; for two adopted brothers, it’s a weekend of sex, booze, and nonstop partying. For the other two–a single woman and a traumatized cop–the fantasy turns out to be, respectively, having the family you decided against and meeting the dad you never really knew.

But as the island’s mysterious host Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña) warns, some fantasies don’t play out as the guests expect and once they’ve started, they can’t be stopped. Not only that, but the guests also soon discover that their fantasies are not only terrifyingly real, but connect in ways they never foresaw. Who or what is behind it all? Is Mr. Roarke on the level? And what is Michael Rooker doing there?

As you may know, Fantasy Island–produced by Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Films and directed by Jeff Wadlow (Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare)–is a reimagining of the classic TV series that ran between 1977 and 1984 on ABC. It starred Ricardo Montalban as the suave Mr. Roarke and, for most of its run, Herve Villechaize as his sidekick/assistant Tattoo. While Tattoo is not around for this iteration, many of the series’ trademarks have been recreated, even as the movie heads into darker, more horror-themed territory than the show ever did (Roddy McDowall playing Satan in one memorable episode aside).

Den of Geek sat down with Wadlow, who co-wrote the movie with regular partners Chris Roach (Non-Stop) and Jillian Jacobs (Truth or Dare), to discuss how his original idea for a movie inspired by Fantasy Island turned into a reboot of the real thing.

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Den of Geek: You came into this because you had an idea for a Fantasy Island-like movie, but someone else held the rights to Fantasy Island itself.

Jeff Wadlow: Well, Sony owns the rights. I think they own the entire Spelling library maybe, because [producer] Aaron Spelling owned the original show. And I had an idea for a different project that was loosely inspired by Fantasy Island. I had just finished Truth or Dare, had a really great experience with Jason. Jason wanted to keep working with me. He heard that I had this idea, and being the master producer that he is, he went to Sony and he said, “Can I have the rights to Fantasy Island?” They said yes. They gave it to him. He came to me and he said, “Well, instead of doing something loosely inspired by Fantasy Island, let’s just do Fantasy Island.” And I was like, “All right, I’m in. Let’s go.”

How much of your idea did you end up incorporating into this?

I’d say a lot of it. I mean I had this idea that you could go to a place that was a little bit scary and a little bit supernatural, and it would manifest your past traumas, and it was a way to kind of have therapy. And that there was someone who owned this place who was sort of a Tony Robbins meets Danny Torrance type of character. It was before I even knew they were doing Doctor Sleep. He was sort of my take on Mr. Roarke, and it was my take on Fantasy Island. So this idea that the fantasies are therapy, I’d say, is still very much the case with the movie that we made. And then the idea for this notion that they’re all kind of tied together in this surprising way was also in my original idea, and something that we incorporated into the film.

I think the original series now has that nostalgic, almost campy type of sheen to it, but when you look back at it, it’s much darker than people might remember.

Yeah. I think it got kind of… tainted is the wrong word, maybe colored, by Love Boat. Because Love Boat was on before it. So I think the cheese of Love Boat kind of spilled into Fantasy Island. I mean to be fair, Fantasy Island is a little cheesy at times, and also there was an acceptance of much lower production values back then, so even though I think there’s a lot of great ideas and a lot of great acting, the episodes themselves don’t really hold up, by and large, because the production values are just not Game of Thrones. So it’s hard to take them seriously. They start to feel cheesy just because they didn’t spend more money realizing the narrative.

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But I think there is something very dark in the show. I mean people have said to me like, “Oh, where did you come up with the idea to do a horror version of Fantasy Island?” And I’m like, I think it’s already there, it’s in the DNA of the show. When you have an episode with Roddy McDowall playing the Devil, you have the makings of a great horror movie.

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Before coming to see the movie, I read up a little bit on the old show…

Did you read how the show was created? Did you see that anecdote?

Refresh my memory.

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It’s amazing. This is what I heard. Aaron Spelling was in the office of the president of ABC and he pitched 10 made-for-TV movie ideas, because made-for-TV movies were big business in the ’70s. The president of ABC passed on all 10 of them. So Spelling, a producer of mythic proportions, gets frustrated, says to him, “What’s it going to take? A movie about an island where you can go and screw whoever you want?” The president of ABC looks at him and goes, “That’s a pretty good idea.” Spelling leaves, hires Gene Levitt, and he writes the TV movie. It’s a big hit. They do a second one, it’s an even bigger hit. And they order it to series.

In terms of storytelling ideas, did you look at any of the old episodes or was everything sort of fresh?

We did. We talked about our favorite episodes. The way I write with Chris Roach and Jill Jacobs, who have written the last few movies with me, is I try to treat it like a TV writers’ room. Carlton Cuse is a mentor of mine. I worked on Bates Motel and The Strain with him. I learned so much from him, not just about writing but also about producing and running a writers’ room. So we treat each script like it’s its own little streaming series.

So we got our writers’ room together, and we started talking about the old episodes, the ones we liked. We then went on Wikipedia and went online, started looking at summaries of all the episodes, and we started writing down the ones that resonated with us. And then we just started brainstorming unique ones as if we were going to relaunch the show.

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It was very important to me to make the structure of the show work before we break it. The show, I’m pretty sure, never did a single episode featuring two fantasies that crossed. Someone, I’m sure, might bust me on that. But by and large, they did not cross because they were designed to be cut back down into half-hour episodes that can be repurposed and sold overseas. So even when they get off the plane, it’s like one guest gets off and goes one way, one guest gets off and the other way. They’re never even in the same shot.

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So I wanted to make the four fantasies work as if we were just doing a new show and a new episode, a new pair of episodes, before we broke the structure and brought them together. So we just started listing our own fantasies that we would do in a new version of the show. We picked our favorite ones, and then themes started to emerge, and then the story just starts to speak to you and it takes on a life of its own.

Was it always four?

We talked about three. It felt like three was not enough, and four at times felt like too many. There was certainly a push at one point in the pre-production process to maybe drop one of the stories. But ultimately I felt that we needed all four of them.

Ricardo Montalban has this sort of iconic presence in pop culture to certain generations. So when you think about casting Mr. Roarke, are you thinking about him at all and how much you want to channel him or not?

Honestly, my touchstone is Marvel. What Marvel does when they adapt a comic book property is they identify the icons of the property, the signposts, the things that you associate with that character, and they literally translate them to the screen. But then everything else is fair game, right? They can change things, they can reinvent things, they can explain things, and they can ignore things. And that’s how I approached Fantasy Island.

I sat down and I listed “what are the icons of this show?” There’s Mr. Roarke in a white suit, he has an assistant, and they’re on a tropical island with colonial architecture. A plane arrives, someone says, “The plane.” The plane lands, guests get out, we meet them for the first time, and they tell us what they want. They don’t necessarily get what they want, but they do get what they need. They learn a lesson. Mr. Roarke says, “Smiles, everyone, smiles,” in every episode.

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I knew I had to do those things. I made my little checklist. And once I had that checklist, I gave myself and the other writers permission to do whatever the hell we wanted to do. Just stay true to the spirit of the show, but yeah, at that point, all bets were off.

So how did Michael Peña fit into that?

When it came to Montalban’s portrayal of Mr. Roarke, I mean they are so totally intertwined, right? Even more so than his portrayal of Khan, I would say. So it was super important to me to find a Latino actor to play the part, because Montalban is such an important actor in that community. But I didn’t want just like an older Latino actor to put on a buttoned up suit, or a three piece suit, and just do the accent, because then it would’ve just been an impersonation. I needed someone who would honor Montalban’s legacy but also add something to it, do something different.

There’s really only one actor that fits that bill, and that’s Michael Peña because he has this incredible ability to play contrasting ideas and make it work. So to me, I feel like in the movie, Peña’s Mr. Roarke is both timeless and contemporary. I feel it’s ominous and hilarious. I feel that he is both caring and cold. And he can do this and he can move back and forth, he’s so versatile that you just buy it. It just contributes to sort of the larger mystery of Mr. Roarke. So I think by paying service to Montalban, he actually created a contemporary version of Roarke that served our story better than I could’ve imagined.

If a sequel is warranted, do you have a little stockpile of possible ideas for another set of stories?

You know, I’m a big believer in this idea that if you plan for a sequel, there ain’t going to be a sequel. So I try to make sure every good idea is in the movie that I’m working on at the time. That being said, this movie certainly invites us to revisit Fantasy Island, and if there was an opportunity to go back, I would jump at the chance.

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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye