After penning Annabelle (2014) and Annabelle: Creation (2017), along with related films The Nun and The Curse of La Llorona, screenwriter Gary Dauberman makes his directorial debut with the third entry in the series, Annabelle Comes Home. The new film takes the story of the malevolent doll — which acts less like a living entity herself and more as a conduit for all kinds of unearthly spirits and creatures — back where it started, to the home museum of real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, who we first met in 2013’s The Conjuring.
When Ed and Lorraine (played once again by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) go out of town on a brief overnight trip, they leave their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace, The Haunting of Hill House) home with her trusted babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle). But after Mary Ellen’s troubled friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) arrives at the house, Annabelle manages to escape from her priest-blessed glass cabinet and summon the many entities attached to the Warrens’ collection of haunted and dangerous artifacts.
The resultant mayhem makes Annabelle Comes Home into one of those giddy, monster-filled horror movies that is as celebratory as it is genuinely suspenseful and scary. Dauberman’s trio of heroines is empathetic throughout, and he manages to invoke the style of the other movies in the Conjuring universe while giving this one his own personal stamp.
Dauberman has also written both chapters of the enormously successful adaptation of Stephen King’s It — with the second one coming out this September — he’s an executive producer on the now sadly canceled Swamp Thing, and he is writing the script for a film based on King’s classic ‘Salem’s Lot, which he and Conjuring universe creator/producer James Wan are shepherding. We spoke with Dauberman about Annabelle Comes Home, directing for the first time, his King adaptations and his love of the horror genre.
Den of Geek: You’ve been around this series of movies for several years now, but how did you prepare to direct your first feature?
Gary Dauberman: Well, that was really my preparation because I had been on these movies for a while, and I’ve worked with filmmakers who were kind and generous enough to allow me to be part of the processes as much as I could be. So I had the experience of being in prep, and being in production, and being in post. It took away a lot of the unknowns for me.
There’s still a ton of those of course, but it wasn’t as much as not having been a part of the process or conversation for as long as I have been. And then of course, I was able to work with a lot of people that I’ve already known and had been friends with for years. That helped a great deal too, so it felt like a very safe environment to take this leap.
What about the job, if anything, surprised you?
It is a exhausting job. With writing you get to make your own hours a little bit, right? And while it’s exhausting in its own right, sometimes if I’m writing something and I’m stuck, I’ll go, “Fuck it. I’ll just go for a walk” or something.
You don’t have that privilege or that luxury when you’re directing. Suddenly it’s, “Oh, the director’s just walked away off set. What’s he doing?’ So, you don’t really have the chance to go and clear your head and go, “Look, I’ve got to figure this out.” There’s a more immediacy to the problem solving a lot of times than it is with writing. So, I know now a little bit because I’ve been on all these sets but it does get exhausting after awhile.
But another thing I was surprised by was what my process was as being a director. I hadn’t done this before, so I didn’t know what that was going to be. I made shorts and things like that but nothing like this. So, I know what my writing process is like, I had no idea what my directing process was going to be like, so I was surprised to learn what that was.
Horror is one of the hardest genres to get right. Do you have your own personal esthetic of what you want on the screen in terms of a horror film?
Yeah, I have my writing voice and I like to try to get that on screen as much as I could. I liked changing tone a little bit and keeping people on their feet. On this movie I hope people are laughing a little bit before they’re screaming. And I like to move in and out of the genres just to make it feel more like a ride and not so like we’re living in one world for too long. So I like that, but that was also one of those things that I’m still developing.
One of those things that I started to develop through this movie is trying to figure out, well am I going to be able to match my writing voice with my visual style, and all that stuff? And in the way I tell the story visually, I think, there are some moments in there that I got that but it’s still an education.
Did you want to develop your own visual style while also keeping a connection to the other films in the Conjuring universe? I’m thinking of alll that negative space, those deep, deep blacks and so forth.
The James Wan aesthetic is what I call it. But that just happens to be how I like my darks and blacks and all that stuff too. Which is maybe why, I think, James and I share a similar sensibility when it comes to that, but he’s also taught me a great deal about that stuff. So, it’s hard not to be influenced by someone who you’ve been around for so long. So it just works out that it makes it feel like a part of the universe, I hope anyway. But there were some things that I maybe wanted to try but didn’t get a chance to because it felt like, “Nah, that feels a little too different from everything that’s come before.”
On the other hand, the scene in Judy’s room where the lamp falls over and the colored gels are shining on the wall felt like something we might see in a Mario Bava movie, the way the colors are used.
Well, good then you get my references. But I thought so too, I love that playing with color, and subverting that, and making that scary because we hadn’t seen that before and that was something I thought about. I had this idea of, “What can I do with her night light?” because I have kids, they have night lights and I was, “How can I take this thing that’s supposed to provide comfort and make it feel evil?” And I was just doing some research on these color wheels that people used to have … lava lamps and all that stuff back in the early 70s and I was like, “What can I use here?” And these color wheels appeared and I was, “Man, that sounds like a good setup for a scare.”
How important was the production design for you in terms of having a lot of verisimilitude and ability to move around? You literally had the entire interior of the house built on the soundstage.
That’s everything. When you start very early on with the models and stuff trying to design your shots, and then you go over during every stage of the construction and you’re like, “Oh, hey can we make this door a little bit wider so we can get the camera through to do this?” Or, “Can we make this a little bit higher because I’d love the camera to creep up over it?” So, it’s always a constant conversation with Jen Spence, the production designer, about what we want to try to achieve.
And then, I also thought about, while it’s one location, it really should feel like two locations once the the house becomes possessed by the artifacts or once it becomes infected by all the supernatural, because you feel one thing during the day and then as the night falls, and the artifact room really starts to take over, it just almost feel like a different kind of location.
Are you involved in Conjuring 3 at all?
No, I’m just cheerleading that one. I know everybody involved and I’m friends with everybody involved, so I’m just cheerleading that one and I can’t wait to see it as a fan.
It: Chapter Two, what can you tell us about that?
If you are pleased with the first one, you’re going to be very, very pleased with the second one.
You’re working now on ‘Salem’s Lot. We haven’t seen a movie in which the vampires are truly frightening in a long time so it was a goal to get back to that scenario with that book?
Yeah, that’s exactly what I said and that’s exactly what I thought. Which is why I said, “Hey, can we make a movie of this?” Because we haven’t seen that in a really long time and they should be terrifying, and the novel’s terrifying, and it’s fucking great to work on. I can’t wait to bring it to the big screen, we’ve seen it on the smaller screen and it’s going to be awesome on the big screen. I’m really, really excited by that one, I think it’s going to be huge.
Are you working on a script now?
Could that potentially be a two parter? It’s not as big as It, but it’s got lots of characters and so many subplots.
It does have a lot of characters, but it doesn’t have the organic — it felt very organic to break It up in two parts, and this one really doesn’t. I think the cool thing about ‘Salem’s Lot though is there are so many stories to tell within it.
This is a good time for horror filmmaking and it’s a good time for horror literature. Are there any authors or books that you have close to your heart that you’d want to adapt outside of Mr. King?
I optioned a book by Thomas Olde Heuvelt called Hex that I love. It just felt like one of those instant classic books, that I felt like, “Oh man, I got to do something with this.” So I am doing something with it that I’m really excited about. There are some great books. The Fisherman is a great horror novel. There’s some really great stuff out there that I love reading. I get inspired by others, and I get inspired by their creativity with stuff. You’re right, as a fan of horror myself, it’s a great time to be a fan of horror.
Annabelle Comes Home is out in theaters now.
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