‘Goosebumps’ Set Visit: Scary Fun With Jack Black and R.L. Stine
There are monsters everywhere.
In a large soundstage complex in Conyers, Georgia – a quick ride from downtown Atlanta – a crew of lurching, hobbling, and otherwise swaying monsters mill about, as casually as a pack of monsters possibly can. Some of them are getting their pictures taken for production stills. Others are waiting to shoot a scene. A few are even partaking in the offerings available at the craft services table. But there are a lot of them, and they're all here for Rob Letterman's live-action Goosebumps movie, a family-friendly feature kitted out with all sorts of freaks and creeps, all the better to bring R.L. Stine's intensely popular book series to terrifying (and, if the film is successful, also very funny) life.
Last spring, we were invited to spend the day on the Goosebumps set, chatting it up with Letterman, his stars, the film's producers, and members of the hair and make-up teams (all the better to push forward the film's admirable dedication to keeping things practical whenever possible, hence all those monsters). The set itself, while massive and intricate, was also populated by a generally happy cast and crew, all of who were obviously excited to show off what they've cooked up for the Sony feature, set to hit theaters this fall.
Stine's series first hit shelves back in 1992 and, between the Goosebumps proper label and a number of spinoff lines (including Give Yourself Goosebumps and Goosebumps Most Wanted), the franchise has spawned 180 titles. There's certainly more than enough material to dig into when it comes to the Goosebumps universe, and even though it's been done before (including with the nineties-era television series of the same name and three different video games), Letterman's film uses a very clever conceit to introduce (or, as seems more likely, re-introduce) Stine's story to a cinematic audience.
It's simple, really: the movie is about R.L. Stine. Well, sort of.
Jack Black stars in the film as a fictionalized version of the author – a larger-than-lifer personality who is especially enamored of his written creation, and for good reason – who, along with his teen daughter, Hannah (Odeya Rush), moves to a small town, looking for a little peace of mind. It's not that Stine's celebrity is so big that he needs to get away from it all, but his work has taken over his life in a very weird, very scary way: it's coming alive. In the film's reworked mythology, every story that Stine churns out on his Smith Corona typewriter (an essential part of his writing process) is real. That means the monsters.
The film is appropriately populated by a wide variety of the creepy and the crawly, including mummies, trolls, bug-eyed aliens, ghouls, vampires, a sixteen-foot tall bog monster, werewolves, an Abominable Snowman, and even a pair of "creeps," who look like especially good-natured teen dinosaurs (emphasis on the teen), with teeth to spare. The film toys with the idea of creativity and actual creation, imagining that Stine's talent is responsible for bringing actual monsters to life – the dream, if inflated and more than a bit terrifying – of every artist. Although Stine's creation is especially and literally monstrous, he has come up with a stop-gap measure to keep his baddies from terrorizing the world, thanks to a series of locked books (the original manuscripts, naturally) that actually contain his creations. As long as the books stay locked, none of Stine's characters can get loose, and plenty of young readers can enjoy tearing through published copies. It's a fine plan, really, but it's bound to go haywire, and that's exactly what happens during the opening act of Goosebumps.
Stine – who goes by "Mr. Shivers" until, of course, his real identity it revealed – is eventually forced to contend with his own creations once they're set free by a familiar bad guy, leading both the Stines and Hannah's new friends (played by Dylan Minnette and Ryan Lee) on one heck of a wild ride. Most of the action of Goosebumps takes place over the course of one night – one very scary night, to be sure – and is aiming for the kind of Amblin vibe that fans of Goonies and E.T. should dig. Black himself calls it "one nightmare night," but from the looks of things, it will also be a very fun evening.
Most of Stine's books are targeted at the pre-teen and young teen set – scary stuff not meant for little ones, but certainly not terrifying enough to snag most high schoolers – and the film has picked up a PG rating, a plan that was announced during our visit. (IMDb notes that it's due to "scary and intense creature action and images, and for some rude humor," which sounds spot on.) Letterman's own kids – at the time of filming, they were seven and three – were often on set to watch the action play out, and they seemed both amused and scared, the sweet spot for this kind of film.
If there is one thing that should really freak out the film's audience, it’s the feature's number one villain and, yes, even with a bevy of monsters seemingly spilling out from every corner, there is one main bad guy at the heart of Goosebumps. Darren Lemke's script isn't just content to pile on the monsters, it also sets up one amazing ringleader, a familiar face that has likely haunted Stine's readers for years. You might not know his name, but you know his face.
It's Slappy, the grin-faced ventriloquist dummy from Stine's book Night of the Living Dummy. It's Slappy who is pulling the strings this time, and once he's released from his own book, things really go off course (or, perhaps "off book," as the case may be).
The day of the set visit was actually the young stars' first day working with Slappy, and everyone was very excited about the possibility of acting alongside a nefarious puppet with control issues . And understandably so, because Slappy has something very close to star power. He's not wooden at all.
The day we were on set, the cast – including Black and his three young leads – were filming a number of scenes, including an essential turning point: Slappy's first on-screen appearance, happily touting his new role as page-freed bad dude and totally terrifying everyone in the process. Minnette, Rush, and Lee appeared to enjoy the scenes, which were a strong mix of humor, a little bit of horror, and action-based movement. Minnette, who was tasked with running away and knocking over a lamp repeatedly (Hollywood is very glamorous), was consistently game to do things in different ways for different results, and Lee, who was asked to break out in ear-splitting screams over and over, added a new spin every time. Having Slappy there (in person?) only pushed things to a new level, one that emphasized just how smart the feature's decision to turn to practical effects as much as possible will likely prove to be. It just looked scary.
During our visit, the production was consumed with figuring out how Slappy should sound – although Black was temporarily voicing the creepy lil guy, a plan to allow puppeteer Avery Jones to take over for the final cut was being bandied about, and Jones is currently credited as Slappy's voice on the film's IMDb page – and Jones, who performed as Slappy both on-camera for the day's scenes and off-camera to our delighted (and appropriately scared) group of journalists, brings him to life with serious style. It's not just Slappy's snappy mouth that's so scary, but also his overall look, including movable eyebrows (Slappy's head was created on a 3-D printer) and a scuffed up appearance that hints at past adventures.
He's seen some stuff, and he's more than ready to show us more.
Slappy is lucky enough to be leading a pack of very icky and incredibly clever characters, most of which have been gussied up, practical effects style, by the hair and make-up team. Make-up Department Head Fionagh Cush, Make-Up Effects Designer Stephen Prouty, and Hair Department Head Adruitha Lee eagerly shared their designs with us, emphasizing the need to collaborate on characters in order to achieve the best look possible, while also aiming for maximum creativity. Although Stine's books contains plenty of information on how the monsters should look (and those classic book covers go a long way, too), it was of utmost importance that the characters still seemed fresh and new – hence appearances by the creep kids alongside classic monsters like the Abominable Snowman. It's a heady mix, and one that should appeal to plenty of viewers.
Letterman's feature is poised to not only include some seriously scary creatures, but also a number of large-scale sets, including an ice rink, a cemetery, and a terrifying amusement park, most of which was built behind the film's main soundstage, complete with broken down rides and a genuinely icky vibe (even a daytime visit felt eerie and weird, with a worn-in look and feel to the machines and lots of greenery and foliage adding to the sense that something evil could appear at any minute). That you can walk (or run) through that set is something tangible, and the reality of is should translate quite nicely to the big screen.
It can't hurt that the film's cast appeared to be excited about the feature, especially Black, who had already made the Stine character totally his own by the time we saw him in action. Producer Deborah Forte, the then-President of Scholastic Media (as in Scholastic Books) told us that Black had always "topped the list" as their pick for Stine, while fellow producer Neal Mortiz shared that the actor was always his first choice. Black is well-matched with the film's younger actors, including Minnette and Rush, who he pushed for, and Lee, who provides a terrifying amount of big laughs even in the middle of the film's most high-strung sequences. Although none of them would speak to the possibility of a sequel, the vibe around set was a zippy and amiable one, the kind that anyone would want to recreate for another outing.
If nothing else, it sure looked like some scary fun.
Goosebumps opens on October 16.