Halloween: How David Gordon Green’s Horror Took Shape

David Gordon Green on his lifelong passion for Halloween and why he only would make the movie if he could return to the source.

Halloween 2018 Jamie Lee Curtis David Gordon Green

When I catch up with writer-director David Gordon Green, it is the day before Halloween’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. While he’d previously screened some sizzling footage of Michael Myers on a killing spree in Haddonfield (an artist in his element), in a matter of hours Green, writing partner Danny McBride, producer Jason Blum, and a number of the stars, including the scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis, would reveal the whole movie to the world and press.

Of course now it all seems kismet with how well well-received this Halloween revival has been, from those early reviews to the deafening box office, but at the time Green was just even-keeled and happy to talk about Halloween like he would any other movie. Indeed, the filmmaker loves talking movies. It’s from many of those late night chats, going back to his college days with McBride in North Carolina, that his passion for John Carpenter’s Halloween was crystallized. Like any aspiring filmmaker in his age group, he dreamed of one day getting to play in the sharpened wheelhouses of many of his favorite onscreen boogeymen—be it Jason, Freddy, or Leatherface—but Michael Myers was special. He was the Shape Green’s parents forbade him from seeing as a child, and who he’d love to one day get to reimagine.

Hence why on the eve of revealing that vision, he seemed jazz to talk just what that wound up entailing, including returning to the source of Halloween, beginning by getting John Carpenter’s permission and then by having Carpenter involved as a composer… and of course Curtis as Laurie Strode. In the below interview, we discuss that process, what drives Green to transition from one genre to another, and just why he wore a “We Are Laurie Strode” sticker on Curtis’ last day on set…

When we last spoke, we talked of your passion for types of movies that goes back to being at North Carolina School of the Arts with your friends like Danny. What were the discussions like with Danny regarding slasher horror in general and then Halloween in particular?

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David Gordon Green: From our early days in film school, we always loved Halloween because of its lack of supernatural, you know? It felt like it could happen anywhere: any town, anyone. And that was something that really scared us in our conversations about horror movies, and something we wanted to preserve and integrate into our version of it.

And slasher movies as a whole were just always obviously a part of every film student’s vernacular at that time, for sure, just growing up on Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw, and Nightmare on Elm Street. Those are just formidable movies in our upbringing. Black Christmas is one, Toolbox Murders, movies that we loved and discussed, and always fantasized about getting our hands on this type of content as filmmakers.

So it’s funny… Danny actually initially having no intention of becoming an actor when we met. He wanted to be a writer and director. And that’s how we studied and watched, filmed together, and lived. We lived on the same hall of the dorms and go right into each others’ rooms and introduced movies that we hadn’t seen and talked about.

So it’s cool that whatever 25 years later to be in the ring and bring them to reality, and hanging out with our idols.

Do you think your time with people like Danny and having these conversations kind of influenced your passion for pursuing an eclectic, wide-ranging interest in the type of stories you want to tell?

I think so. But you know, I worked in a film archive [at school] of one of the largest 35 millimeter archives in the world. And as a preservationist of film, and working in that environment, you’re exposed to so many different types of films. I mean one day you’d be watching a technicolor musical; the next day you’d be watching pornography from the 1930s.

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And so your diet and exposure to these films was just so diverse, and you saw such excellence and such atrocities being filmed that it became just tremendously entertaining. So we’re just looking for buried treasure all the time. We’d stumble on a short film that you’d never heard of, like “A Day with the Boys” or “Number One,” one day. And then the next day you’d say, “I wonder what Black Narcissus is?”

And so just, I think the energy and appetite for filmmaking as a way to, in our minds, travel and experience stories, that translates to being on the other side of the entertainment. [Storytelling tries] to create those escapes and those emotions.

Jamie compared you and your friends to John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and that entire group of friends. Did you ever talk with John about such parallels between the making of the original Halloween and you and a lot of people you’ve known for a long time making this new one in 2018?

Not really. When he came to set, we’d be mostly talking about the movie, so typically it was not so nostalgic. But although we’re a very low-budget movie, I think comparatively, he was making fun of us. Like how much equipment we had and how large our crew was. So I would love a glimpse, and I’ve seen a lot of behind-the-scenes still photographs, but I’d love a glimpse of the reality of making a film in Los Angeles at that time. It must have been pretty crazy. But it was apparently a very intimate affair.

But it was fun just having him there for counsel and creative energy and certainly anytime he would walk on set, everybody had this work ethic and mode of respect that’s just really awesome to see, the honor and appreciation that our team had for him and his body of work.

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I read that you and Danny had to pitch your concept for the movie to John. What was that like, and why do you think the two of you zeroed in on perhaps something others have overlooked in the series’ mythology?

The experience was great. Obviously nerve-wracking, and Danny and Jason Blum, and myself went over to his house and gave him our idea, sat with him, and got his feedback.  So I think every filmmaker would have a different approach. There’s so much to take from the body of the mythology of the franchise that’s existed. We had an approach that was fairly broad at that point, and I think what made our design so specific is that we were looking for his fingerprint and his involvement. Not only as a composer, which to me was going to be a very fun and inspiring opportunity, but also the creative consultant along the way, to read the script, to get his thoughts, and his input was very valuable.

So yeah, he was not a voice we wanted to dismiss. It’s easy to see something evolve in a direction and you can jump on the moving train and make your version of it. But we actually put forth the effort to go back in time and slow everything down, and have conversations and get opinions from very smart people. And that, to me, was the only way to go about this ethically. Because I’m never going to please 100 percent of a fan base, because everybody brings their own nostalgia, their own intentions, their own interests and passions to what they’ll be seeing. But if I can make my efforts very specific and make something that invites and inspires Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter, and Nick Castle and the creative elements that inspired us to make this movie in the first place, and truly involve them in the engineering of it, then I’ve got something that regardless of any public response to it, I’m going to be proud of it.

It was initially a broader approach when you were pitching the idea, but I assume you always had in mind that Jamie had to come back. Were there certain aspects that you and Danny came up with that you felt needed to happen for you guys to make this movie?

I think those elements were John and Jamie. And if they were—it’s easy to get excited about putting a Michael Myers mask on someone and putting a familiar, iconic theme song on top of those images, but if we couldn’t get the two godfathers of this universe reunited for another experience, to me it wasn’t going to be worth the risk.

Why do you think it was so important to go back to the beginning and ignore or push aside the sequels’ additions to the mythology, including John’s Halloween II script, which was I believe where Laurie became Michael’s sister?

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I don’t think it was important at all. It was just the path we chose, because part of what terrifies me about the original is the simplicity, and if you integrate anything beyond the first one, a lot of dialogue that needs to go into explaining things to a new audience. If you go with just the original film, we can play on that primal simplicity that I think makes it very ambiguous and haunting.

I wanted this movie to appeal to die-hard fans, and I also wanted this to appeal to unsuspecting teenagers going to see a horror movie and not have to necessarily have had the backstory and facts of the original film if that makes sense.

You’re doing it in a way where fans don’t need to know how many times Michael Myers has been dead and brought back to life.

Exactly. If I have to explain the Cult of Thorn in the opening 15 minutes of the movie, there’s just going to be a lot of talking. And I think there’s something transcendent and universal and timeless about a dude with a knife walking around without a specific agenda or ambition.

Well, he has one ambition.

 [Laughs] Yeah.

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further reading – Halloween: The Feminist Slasher Movie

Could you talk about both the collaborative process with John scoring this Halloween, and maybe if he surprised you at all with what he came up with for your film?

I don’t know about how surprised I was but I was really excited and impressed to not only have him exploring the world of iconic themes that he’d created but also evolving new ones for our new characters and it was just … you can imagine the geek in me sitting in a studio with John Carpenter and Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies as they’re presenting music, and then I’ll give notes and they’ll revise, and we’ll discuss what the scene is trying to intend, and sometimes we’ll say, “What happens if we play it with no music here? What happens if we go with just atmosphere? What happens if we go with full-blown theme?” Just those explorations with intelligent, creative parties is amazing. And then every 20 minutes, when it hits you who exactly you’re sitting with, it’s a nice wave.

It also must’ve been a nice wave to bring back Nick Castle. Could you talk about the decision of returning with Nick Castle in the role of Michael Myers 40 years later?

Yeah, one of the things early in Danny and Jeff Fradley, our co-writer, and I’s discussions, we talked about, in terms of the texture of the following films, the mask and the character of the Shape seem to kind of take on their own life and interpretations, and we wanted just to try to go back to the root of it. And so it became valuable to get that education.

We were going to do extraordinary amounts of stunt work with that character, so it wasn’t like Nick could be in the entire scene of the entire film, but it was fun to have him there on set and talking to James Jude Courtney, who plays [Michael] a substantial amount of the film, that Nick could be there and teach him about the head-tilt and a way he’d turn his head to change direction of his body, and the physicality of the role, which I think is really important. And then how to embody Christopher Nelson’s mask, which in our efforts was just a 40-year evolved version of the original mask.

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Do you think something has been lost with all the recastings that have gone on with the character and kind of a disinterest in who maybe is under it?

I don’t think that anything has been lost. I think every interpretation of this world, to me, is fascinating to watch, and it’s full of technical and budgetary and artistic creative vision, involving various groups of people. So I just enjoy that as a viewer, and as a creator involved in this, you see some of the struggles of “how do I get him in a mechanic’s suit? Crap! How do I get his mask back? Dammit!” All these things that, narratively, you have to put the pieces together to put him in these iconic situations if that’s your goal, or to evolve it. He could run for president in a movie, and that would be something I would watch. I wouldn’t want to make it, but I’d be entertained by it.

So I’m not judging the decisions other people have made because I know how difficult it is, not only from your own creative intentions, but to acknowledge that there’s a world and a fanbase out here that is so intrigued and curious and excited and passionate about these characters that I want to fulfill my own self-indulgence, I want to inspire the creators of the original film, and I want to entertain audiences, old and new.

further reading: Halloween Timeline Explained

I know Jamie told us a really funny anecdote about her being the first to greet Nick on set when he came out in the costume. What was it like to see these two right back where they were, 40 years later?

It was surreal to the point—you know when your body gets to that point of excitement, physical excitement, that emotional excitement that you kind of black out? That’s what was happening to me. So people ask me about that, and I have very little recollection of it. I also, on that first day, my parents were visiting set, and they don’t like rated R movies. So I was nervous for every imaginable reason. [Laughs] They were very strict parents. They would never let me see the original Halloween. It was a point of contention in our household. So for them to visit the set and see what I was doing among these historical icons was pretty hilarious.  But yeah I kind of just blanked out at a point.

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Did they have any thoughts about you making our own slasher movie, after I’m sure the first one gave you nightmares?

They seemed to be very proud, so we’ll see what they think of the film if I let them see it. I’m not sure I’ll allow them to see this one. It might not be suitable for grown-ups. [Laughs]

It’s about mothers and daughters as well. Actually, the film really is about legacy. And most of the Halloween sequels have been made by folks who were of age when the original came out, while what we’re just talking about right now is you and now multiple generations have grown up with Michael and Laurie, and Michael as your personal boogeyman. Do you think that subtle distinction changes the process for how you might approach Halloween as a filmmaker passing the legacy on?

… I think there is a sensitivity to my interpretation of the film because of that period in my life. And I look at the period of my life between 11 years and 14-years-old as really pivotal in my excitement, my enthusiasm, my education of films. And when the mysteries of films are just starting to explode in my mind, the imagination of someday making movies. And that was a really, for music, for movies, everything in my life that I looked to with that kind of lifelong passion was really introduced to me during that time, from Led Zeppelin to Halloween, you know?

So I think being able to bring that respect and honor and nostalgia of my own helps me in my interpretation, trying to adhere to those formulas, if that makes sense.

Yes. And do you have any interest in maybe making sure to pass this wonderful nightmare on to a younger generation who may not be as familiar with Halloween as you were?

Yeah, and I think that’s important too, to be the movie that kids aren’t allowed to see and beg their parents to let them watch, or sneak in with their friends on HBO late at night. You know, those are fun, very sentimental, somewhat disturbing moments of my childhood. So as Danny McBride often says, if we can screw up the next generation of youth and have them end up as enthusiastic as we are, that’s an okay thing.

further reading – Halloween Ending Explained

Jamie was telling us that it’s really about trauma to her. And that while you’re definitely making a scary slasher movie, you also wanted to tackle the grim realities of a teenage girl who experienced something that, at least in the 1970s, was quite inexplicable: the trauma of teens being murdered. Could you talk about kind of focusing on these elements as part of Jamie’s arc in the film?

I think that Jamie has her own interpretation, which is really important for her character and her understanding of Laurie, and I can’t really speak to that. But I can speak to the fact that, again, back to the simplicity of this narrative in a world these days where every week there’s a new headline of something catastrophic and astronomic in terms of the size and scope of these epic horrors. If we can take a step back, strip it down to the intimacy and simplicity of the man in the mask and a knife, I feel like we have something that will last forever on our hands.

There’s always going to be a new technology or a new terrorist organization, or a new headline of some epidemic, but the simplicity of this is what I’m betting on. The lifelong neuroses of the monster in the closet or what’s under the bed. Those are what, for my entertainment and my taste in horror, those are what appeal to me.

There’s something very primordial about it, the mythic quality. Do you feel like this movie can both be tapping to the zeitgeist while being timeless?

It doesn’t have that intention in its engineering, but I hope to hell it happens.

Jamie talked about a really great moment on the set where your entire crew wrote on name stickers that they were wearing, “We Are Laurie Strode” during a major emotional moment for her character. How did that moment of solidarity come about, and how did you react to it?

It was our assistant director and co-producer, Atilla Yücer who had the idea. He’s just an extremely passionate filmmaker and he had the idea—he always has ideas of ways to involve and connect actors to their moments and their environment—and I give him all the credit for bringing out something that was very profound and emotional for the whole crew.

Did you wear the sticker yourself?

Of course I did.

We are all Laurie Strode.

Exactly.

We’re all Laurie Strode, but the one and only is bringing the fight to Michael Myers in theaters right now.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.

Read and download the Den of Geek NYCC 2018 Special Edition Magazine right here!