Johannes Roberts interview: Strangers 2, John Carpenter

Johannes Roberts talks to us about The Strangers: Prey At Night, his 47 Metres Down sequel, and John Carpenter movies...

For many the eighties remains the greatest cinematic decade and with good reason, but for horror fans it saw the birth of its most famous icons, with the slasher genre taking form following John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978 – a film that used tension and very little blood – and would see a slew of imitations that eschewed those values, replacing them with increasingly gory and inventive deaths (I’m looking at you, my beloved Friday The 13th). Regardless, the genre flourished, especially with the advent of VHS where an entire generation of teenagers could gain underage access to the masterworks of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and the continuing adventures of Michael Myers, with a little nudity on the side if you were lucky.

The reason I mention the eighties, is because The Strangers: Prey At Night is full of reverential love for that decade and especially the work of John Carpenter, with a score and style that plays homage to the great man, giving the belated Strangers sequel a similar sense of dark comedy and mischief that ran through his work. If you’re the kind of person that gets a kick out of watching a family persecuted to the beautiful sound of Kim Wilde, in a film that gives a modern twist to good, old fashioned stalk and slash thrills, then Strangers 2 is for you.

And while we’re on the subject of stalking, we took great pleasure in harassing director Johannes Roberts for an interview, something we’ve been sure to do since our first chat back in 2010 for hoodie horror F, with intervening years seeing the underappreciated scares of The Other Side Of The Door and last year’s independent summer hit 47 Meters Down. We had a good long chat with Johannes, and here’s how it went…

The Strangers: Prey At Night – I really liked it, but I’ve always been a fan of slasher movies, so the fact you entwined it with eighties music was always going to be a winner for me. Traditionally though, you’ve never been that much of a slasher fan, so how did you get involved?

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Yeah, you’re right I’m not a huge slasher fan and so I think the influences on this movie are slightly different, which makes it slightly odd, but I took the movie because I had finished 47 Meters Down and people had liked it (this was before the cinema release) but the Weinsteins had dumped it and then Byron (Allen) at Entertainment Studios had picked it up, but nobody really knew who he was, yet he was saying he was going to release the film wide. I was kicking around Hollywood doing meetings and couldn’t get a job, nobody was offering me any work and then I had dinner with the guys from The Fyzz, who had produced 47 Meters Down and really loved it and said “Look Relativity are going into bankruptcy and are doing a fire sale, so we can pick up The Strangers for ‘X’ amount of money” and obviously the first one did a lot of money back in the day, so we thought ‘shall we take a crack at this?’

Ten years had passed since the last one and all these other movies, like the first Purge, had ripped it off, so was it still relevant? We didn’t know, but then reading the script I thought ‘I can make Christine here’ – that was my first thought and I’d been going in to Sony every week trying to convince them to let me direct a remake of Christine and nobody is interested! So this came across my desk and I thought ‘Yeah, I can do this’ – scenes like the burning car weren’t in there to begin with!

I did wonder!

The basics of the script were there, but I wanted to make Christine, so I wanted to make the car a central character and have eighties music, instead of rock ‘n’ roll, blasting out, so that’s where I came from. So if you look at the John Carpenter movies that influenced Strangers, Halloween is probably the least of it. I mean the movie it is – it has the Halloween and slasher stuff in it, just because of the genre, but my sensibilities, especially in the second half of the movie take it in a different direction! [laughs] Which has annoyed some people I think.

Oh really, like fans of the first film?

I think the difference in my sensibilities, compared to Bryan Bertino (writer/director of the first Strangers) is that his template is darker, he looked at movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and that’s what he wanted to do. Whereas I looked at John Carpenter movies – if I could have got Big Trouble In Little China in there somehow, I would have done, so my version is much more fantastical and the Strangers themselves are much more supernatural. [he also discloses another choice he made towards the end of the film, that I won’t disclose here for spoiler reasons].

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Talking of John Carpenter, people always cite Halloween as the advent of the slasher, but it was more of a thriller and the violence wasn’t very explicit. It was only when Friday The 13th came along at the start of the eighties that it became about inventive deaths over tension. In Strangers: Prey At Night what I liked was – and I think it’s the most Carpenter film you’ve done, in the best way – but it has that sensibility of dark humour mixed with the fact that actually, in terms of violence, its restrained. It’s more about the family dynamic and the stalking.

Yeah, we didn’t show… there’s a few things – I think you could probably do like a montage collection of ripped faces from my movies, so you get that bit with the aunt and uncle, which is the same effect that I used in F and Roadkill and I think in Storage 24… did I do a jaw thing in The Other Side Of The Door, I’m not sure! I do it in every movie – since I saw it in The Ring, I was like ‘Fuck, that’s great!’ but yeah, otherwise it’s not hugely gory.

It was a really weird one, in terms of the way I directed the horror scenes, it was very different to anything that I have done before because Other Side Of The Door was very much a ‘Boo!’ movie, there would be like jumps and scares and 47 Meters Down became that towards the end, when we really re-shot some of the shark stuff and the shark was just jumping out left, right and centre – it was doing crazy shit! [laughs]

And with this film, I really went about it in a totally different way, so there are a couple of fun jump scares, like the tunnel, but actually most of it, you let the audience know before the characters. So you see the Strangers standing there before the characters know, or when there’s a death, the Stranger is just sitting in the car and he’s just looking. There’s no scare, you’re just watching the inevitability of what’s going to be happen and I have never done that before and I really enjoyed playing around with that, just trying to create a feeling of dread rather than trying to jump people all the time. We actively just took away – we even cut out some of the jumps and with the music tried not to sting the jump scares and make people get out of their seats. So just approached it in a different way to how I would normally do something like that.

But it probably helped that you weren’t a fan of the genre, because then you’re not coming at it with the genre baggage. If I was making a film like this, I would lose all sense of restraint immediately.

I quite like gory movies, oddly. I don’t like nasty movies, but I always find gory movies fun, but I felt that this wasn’t… the first one had made such a big thing about not being gory, that we sort of followed the footsteps.

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I thought the cast were really, uniformly great, did you have a hand in the casting as you were involved quite early on?

Yeah, it was a really easy one to cast. Normally, you have your lists – they’re the same lists that you have for every movie and you just go down them. You start at George Clooney, by the end of it you’re thinking how far down the list do you really have to go? Yeah, it was a really weird one with this, we were just getting the list together and then suddenly the casting director came to us and said “Do you know what?” – before we’d even gone out with it – “Christina (Hendricks) wants to do it” because she was a big fan of the original. Christina is a little bit of a big kid, it’s funny, she’s a really unique person and when the first one came out, her and her friends used to play around quoting the film. So she wanted to do the movie for that kind of reason, even though she didn’t know what the script was about, she just came and did her thing and then that was it! It was brilliant. So she came on just like [clicks fingers] that and that was that done.

And then we were just getting the lists together for the male role and the casting director went “Oh, do you fancy chatting to Martin Henderson, because he wants to do this?” I was like “Oh my lord, I loved The Ring, but Martin Henderson used to be the lead guy in Shortland Street when I was a kid. So Neighbours was on at 5.35pm, Home And Away was on at 6pm and at 5pm Shortland Street was on – a New Zealand soap opera] that was really quite hard hitting at the time.

Martin Henderson used to be the good looking kid in it and I used to love that show, so I was like “Fuck yeah!” So we did a Skype call with Martin and I was like ‘Martin, I loved you in Shortland Street‘ and I remember he looked at me as if to say ‘So you know me from all my best work then’ [laughs] and we just hit it off! He was very funny, I liked him a lot.

I thought he was especially good as the dad and very sympathetic.

Yeah he was a great everyman, you really feel for him I think; he was a fun guy, I really enjoyed working with him. So then we’re like, ‘Okay, well we’ve got these two and we haven’t even gone out to casting yet’ and then it’s like ‘Let’s look at the kids’ and even before we looked at the kids, the financing company had Bailee (Madison) at the top of one of their lists and then the agent said that she wants to do this, so we didn’t even look for girls and she was great; she was the most driven person I have ever worked with and she was only seventeen at the time, but has laser sharp focus.

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The only person we sort of kicked around and auditioned for was Lewis (Pullman’s) role and as soon as I saw him, I was like “Fuck, this is the guy – I love him”. Because with the script, you could read it in a way that you really hated all those characters and I was really worried about that and Lewis brought something to it that just made the dynamic work and he’s like the big brother that you always wanted. He’s just a phenomenal person and he’s very different to Bailee, because she was a technically accomplished actor and she knows all the shortcuts to get to where she needs to feel and you could just throw her into this chaos. Whereas with Lewis, he was very raw and not at all ‘Hollywood’; he would just come up to me and say “What I gave you there was just grade A trash, I need to go again” I always used to joke that he was just a good Montana boy – he’d come give you a handshake!

So I had a very wonderful time with them; I think you can tell in the second half of the movie when I’m working with the kids that we sort of just kicked back and played. The movie then becomes this sort of crazy – everyone backed me, so I was just able to have fun and I think the second half of the movie also coincided with 47 Meters Down when it had just come out at the cinema and people had actually gone to see it. So the first half of the movie was the lead up to 47 Meters Down and everybody knew that the movie was going to tank and the tracking was disastrous and it was going to be this embarrassing thing where this guy had picked up the film and didn’t know what he was doing, spending a lot of money on posters and we had this big premiere, so halfway through filming Strangers I had to fly off to do the premiere and we all knew that it was going to be a disaster and then it came out and people went to see it and kept on going to see it, every week and it was just getting bigger and bigger. And I think that just took a real weight off my shoulders. So at the beginning it’s a very intense, dark movie and by the end it’s just… probably a week off referencing Big Trouble In Little China! [laughs] Egg Shen would have come in with his bus!

It’s so surreal, especially when we were talking about if I’d reviewed it, because how do you review a film that feels like one of our nights out?

Exactly, exactly! [laughs] That’s what I love about the movie, is oddly how personal it is because the script, it was a very well written script, but it wasn’t material I was close to. Out of all the movies that I have made – and particularly you – if you sat down and watched all of my films you were asked which one was mine, you’d go “Ah yeah Johannes directed that one!” because it just is. Just the way the cameras move and the music; everything about it is me. I thought to myself ‘fuck it; I’m going to do what I have always wanted to do’ and I was really nervous then that people would hate it and the have! [laughs] No I’m kidding, it’s been good!

I think for horror fans it’s great, but for critics it’s always going to be divisive just because of the genre and how much joy you get from it.

There were a couple of reviews where it was mentioned ‘this is a soulless cash grab’ and you could say that this movie is a terrible movie and you could say it’s badly made if you want to, but to say it’s soulless whilst you’ve got a burning car with Air Supply playing, it’s got some kind of soul!

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There’s all kinds of love in your movie!

Yeah there’s all kinds of love, so that would annoy me, but at the end of the day, I am pleased that people went to see it, we got some nice write ups. I don’t know how it’ll play in England – maybe we needed to put some rabbits and Queen Victoria in it that seems to be what people want! [laughs]

The swimming pool scene, I think that was probably my favourite – the combination of the music and that by that point you were attached to the characters, so the tension in how it was shot made it fantastic, plus there were the neon palm trees.

Those palm trees worked didn’t they?

I wanted to ask, how much of that was location and how much of that was added to.

Freddy (Waff) the production designer did a great job. That pool sequence is a really funny one; the toughest scene in that movie by far to do, was the fucking driving scene at the beginning – where you’ve got four characters in a car driving along and you have to put the car on a low loader and you go through traffic and it’s the most thankless, awful thing to do and the actors end up hating you and that was a nightmare.

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However, the pool scene was fun and it was nowhere near the trailer park, so we shot in Kentucky and then in certain areas of Kentucky, you get even bigger tax incentives, certain depressed areas so James (Harris) the producer said “We need to go shoot in this area” I can’t remember what it was called. “We need to go shoot there because need to get an extra 5% shoot tax break” and I was like “okay, fine” so we went out to this place, which was where the playground was and I could make use of that and then he showed me this swimming pool and I was like “Holy shit!” – in my mind the pool was like you would see in some kind of Americana film, a motel pool.

This pool was like three times the size, Olympic sized pool – it was ridiculous, it’s like two metres deep. And I just thought, “What the fuck am I going to do with this?” [laughs] I told myself that we were going to make it work, but to be fair I didn’t know how I was going to make it work. So then we got there and Freddy bought these horrendous palm trees and we thought ‘should we use them or not?’and we thought we’d try and then instead of trying to make the pool look smaller, we just said “let’s just use the whole thing”. I just put the camera all the way back and you have this enormous pool with these palm trees and it worked.

It was crazy because on the right hand side of the pool where the palm trees are, that’s where we were shooting against but on the left hand side is a river, like a huge river, but having never done this, apparently nobody knew this – when you turn on huge lights next to a river, the entire nightlife of Kentucky came out – the water was bubbling with creatures and there were ten people trying to wrangle them and I was thinking ‘I can’t shoot this, this looks like a journey to the bottom of the ocean!’ [laughs] There’s a leviathan and a kraken in my swimming pool! You can see it on some of the wide shots, it’s just frothing with insects. But aside from that, it was easy. I mean it was not easy, I have had harder scenes to film, but I filmed it all on an iPhone while we were just waiting, setting everything up and we just followed the shots.

I cut it all on the iPhone and Lewis was great, Damian (Maffei) – the man in the mask – was phenomenal. Those guys did it and the underwater stuff was easy, having come off 47 Meters Down, shooting in a swimming pool wasn’t particularly frightening! So we added to it, but Freddy definitely brought those horrendous palm trees in which really made it actually, it really made a great backdrop.

Have you had any love from Bonnie Tyler yet, or Kim Wilde, because they were both your choices right?

Oh yeah, I think that’s probably when I had the most fun on the movie is that we knew we were going to use an eighties track for the pool scene and I knew it was going to be Total Eclipse Of The Heart. I don’t think we even tried anything else. I just sat down with Martin and just cut it and said “Try Total Eclipse” and he put it on, we didn’t work out where to put it on, so he just threw it on. We watched it and we were like “Yep, job done” and it just worked and then when we were cutting the movie together and trying to make it work and I just realised how much the car had become a presence in the movie and obviously in Christine, there’s obviously always rock and roll music playing out of the car and that was a big thing that I wanted to do and I’d known I was going to do that – the car was always going to be playing music but it’s just like “Why don’t we keep this eighties theme going” because I have shot it like an eighties movie with all these zooms and stuff and it is a very retro movie so let’s explore.

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I think the first thing we did was we put Starship – Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, we put that song over the beginning and I just loved it and then we started playing around and then it just didn’t feel right and I heard the Kim Wilde track and I hadn’t heard it for ages and that synth opening just sounds like a John Carpenter movie. So we put that on and it just seemed to work with the themes of the movie as well, the kind of nihilistic… whereas with Christine Carpenter just puts on Bad To The Bone and goes “that’s it really, that’s the story of the movie, this car is Bad to the Bone” and we kind of played with that, with Strangers we put on Kids In America and it’s just like what’s the reasoning behind this and it’s just the way the world is at the moment.

The best thing I think was I got the music supervisor to get me tickets to see Belinda Carlisle. I went to see her because we were trying a few Belinda Carlisle songs and I have a huge crush on her and we watched her play at the 02 and it was absolutely phenomenal. I didn’t realise we had meet and greet things, so we went to the bar afterwards and I had a little bracelet on, but I didn’t realise Belinda was coming so I just thought we would be having some drinks.

So I am sitting there having some drinks and I obviously drunk too much, because I got overexcited by being there and then Belinda comes in and I see her in the corner of the room I still cringe about this now, I was like “I’ve got to go and speak to her before she goes” and she was obviously making her way around so that she can speak to people and before Jess (the person he had gone with) could stop me I ran up to her and just babbled at her, I can’t even remember what I said. I think they were so close to throwing me out of the place, I just remember her horrified, looking at me and I sort of backed away and sat back down and I felt very sheepish afterwards. In the end, we didn’t use a Belinda song, though we did try a few.

My favourite response we had is, I used a song called Night Moves in the playground sequence where the car is going round and round and it’s a Marilyn Martin song, it’s very us that song. I had not come across it before, it was part of my research. Marilyn Martin actually wrote to us and said “Thank you ever so much” because she’s kind of got forgotten about and she was like “thank you for remembering me and the song” which I thought was a really sweet thing.

But no letter from Kim Wilde?

No, I don’t know if Kim has seen the movie or not. The thing I love most about the movie is some of the songs are from my childhood like the Mental as Anything song and obviously, Total Eclipse Of The Heart – then there are ones that I have kind of fallen in love with more recently like the Air Supply’s song and my favourite thing is that when the whole sequence in the car, we started off with The Breakup Song by the Greg Kihn Band and that was great, and then they saw the cut and went “No, no, no no! We’re not being associated with that!” and it turned out Greg is a born again Christian, so we had to change that so we were like “what are we gonna use?”

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We were struggling so much to find the song to go over this really important sequence and I remember just sitting down, as I would do every night, and going through all these tracks, drinking my Bud Light and sitting there. Then suddenly I saw the words Kim Wilde and Cambodia, and thought ‘has she written a song about ‘Nam!?’ and I heard the song and thought ‘Right, we’re done, job done’ and the music supervisor was like “What the fuck?” because everyone was struggling to find the money pay for a big track to go over it and suddenly I was like, “I want Kim Wilde’s Cambodia!”

I am just so glad to have that song in the movie, it’s just so weird, but it works so well on that sequence, but yeah I had great fun choosing the songs, every one of those songs was from the heart and soul.

There’s a gag at the beginning of the movie where the brother calls the sister a “queef” which made me laugh as, like the dad, I had no clue what it meant! Surely you didn’t either?

So it wasn’t a gag in the script and then I changed it and changed the line to something else and I couldn’t remember what it was and asked someone “can somebody tell me what a queef is” and I think maybe it’s an American term, I don’t know. I’d never heard of it and then because Martin is actually a Kiwi, both of us didn’t know, so we just played it as a joke and Martin’s character is a little bit of a nice, hapless guy but it’s odd, that line went in probably the day before we locked the movie – it was a last minute addition. I have never seen it with an audience but I think, from what I hear, people find it quite funny.

The audience do find it funny because it’s an age gap thing so people laughed if they didn’t know what it was and laughed if they were young enough to get it!

So what’s next for you? I know Hearts (based on Stephen King’s Hearts In Atlantis) was in the works.

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It’s still around – I have a list of things I’m going to go and do, I’m jumping into 13 O’clock so hopefully that goes now and then 48 Meters Down, or 147 Meters Down I think we might call it, kicks off. But I love Hearts, so, so passionately but the problem is people think ‘Oh Johannes Roberts, Stephen King – great as they’re both ‘scary’ guys, we can make a fortune off this. But wait, where are the clowns in this?’ and there aren’t any and that’s tricky, so it’s going to take some time to get that going and get the right partners, but it will happen if I have make it myself and play all the roles!

But 48 Meters Down is locking in now and is cave diving themed?

Yeah, people like the script and is basically The Descent under water, with sharks and so we’ll probably start shooting that in September. But yeah, another under water movie! [makes a sound that gives away how much of a challenge that is] As long as we can squeeze Matthew Modine in there!

And finally – I know from a previous interview that your favourite Statham film is Ghosts Of Mars, but why? Why?

Why? I’d say Duncan, why is it not your favourite Statham movie!? Why is it not everybody’s favourite Statham movie? I love it because you’ll never see another movie like that made for thirty million dollars and I love that it has a flashback, within a flashback, within a flashback, within a flashback! I’m not sure Statham knows what kind of movie he’s in, but he’s never been finer – I don’t think even The Meg will trump Ghosts Of Mars, but I’m looking forward to Meg

Johannes Roberts, thank you very much!

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The Strangers: Prey At Night is out in UK cinemas on May 4th.