You think to yourself, "I'm an adult." You think that nothing on a film set, a world of faked fantasy, can scare you, much less on a kid's movie. Then you walk into an office where Slappy, Goosebumps's malevolent mascot, is sitting casually on a couch with a crooked smile and menacing eyes pointed right at you. You gasp, and feel both embarrassed and like a kid again. This was our welcoming at the Goosebumps set visit -- a prop that made me lose my cool. But little did I know, this would only be my first real-life encounter with Slappy. The first of many.
R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books have been sold more than 400 million copies worldwide. They've inspired a string of successful television shows aimed to creep out kids. And now, after 22 years of developmental back-and-forth, a Goosebumps movie grows in Atlanta. I was one of the reporters lucky enough to be exposed to the wealth of monsters that make up this scary--but not too scary--adventure. By now, you've seen some reveals of these monsters and madmen. But director Rob Letterman is saving some bumps in the night for the big screen. Still, there's plenty to share about what we did learn cruising the set of Goosebumps.
Forget a direct adaptation. When Sony secured the rights to a Goosebumps movie, we understandably assumed the children's book series would be translated into an anthology horror for kids. Instead, producer Deborah Forte, who also worked on the TV series, said the idea was to transform the books into a cinematic ride. Sometimes this metaphor seemed literal, like when we were allowed to walk through an abandoned amusement park set swarmed by a forest that made it all the more fun and foreboding.
Goosebumps invites a slew of Stine's creations to play in a story that brings them out of their books. Jack Black stars as the actual R.L. Stine, while Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, and Ryan Lee play the three teens who've accidentally unleashed Slappy and his spooky siblings onto the town of Greendale, Maryland. "There is literally hundreds of monsters and creatures all around the town," Black was happy to report, "Destroying, wreaking havoc, and it’s up to me and these kids to get them back in the bottle."
Jack Black got intense about portraying Stine. "He allowed me to move in with him, and I was able to shadow him for a few months," Black teased. "It’s what I do with all my characters. I like to soak in the personality, and I actually wear his underpants. I’m wearing his underpants right now. I live and breathe R.L. Stine."
Then Black broke from the joke, saying, "No, I spent a couple hours with him before we started shooting, went out to New York and had a little lunch, a little chit chat about scary things and about our plans for the movie and he was into it. He was stoked. I mean, it was important to us that we had his seal of approval, just to see if he had any notes on what we could do differently and if he liked the direction we’re going. He was into it. So, that was great, and also, we didn’t want a situation where we made this movie based on R.L. Stine’s books, and he would be like, 'I never agreed to this. This is bull!'"
But don't expect "the real" R.L. Stine. It is a kids' comedy after all. "I am playing R.L. Stine in name. But none of the things that are happening here actually happened in R.L. Stine’s life," Black smiled. "It’s a fictionalized version… He’s a sweet guy, really great guy to hang out with, funny, but he doesn’t come across as like, a scary or like mean dude. The way that this character is written is a lot different than the way he actually is in real life. So I took lots of liberties. I don’t really look, sound, or act like him in this movie. Don’t come into this movie thinking, 'I know R.L. Stine. This is no R.L. Stine!' I know there’s going to be some haters. There’s no way to stop it."
The secret to making comedy for kids isn't that complicated. Goosebumps reteams the sometimes crass comedian with his Gulliver's Travels director Rob Letterman. Black said of making family comedies, "I don’t really think of it differently as making a movie for grownups or making a movie for kids. If it’s boring, it’s boring. You want it to be entertaining and I think funny is funny whether it’s for kids or grown-ups. The only real difference is, you know, language. You can be just as funny in a PG movie, as you can in an R. You just got to go more creative."
For his part Letterman added, "I do take a step back and just make sure it’s appropriate and accessible. That’s about the limit of it."
And the way that Goosebumps producer Neal Moritz described it to us, "When we screen the movie, kids get scared, but they’re so proud of themselves that they were able to make it through the movie! It’s like a rite of passage."
Goosebumps won't be too scary. The filmmakers realize kids like to be scared, not traumatized. Letterman's team took a cue from the Amblin movies of the 1980s, which felt real and scary, but used humor to keep things from getting too intense. In that vein, Minnette described Goosebumps as "a great adventure. It’s going to be a thrill ride for kids." Lee concurred, adding "It’s cool because it’s not too scary. I think it’s just scary enough where it’s a fun experience to watch the movie." And Moritz concluded, "Look, the books aren’t that scary. But when kids read them, they all thought they were really scary books!"
Monsters were practical whenever possible. Using Amblin as inspiration, Letterman favored practical monsters and effects make-up over CGI creatures, though some beasts -- like the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, and a 60-foot-tall Praying Mantis -- demanded to be made in CG. We were lucky enough to see a slew of the practically created creatures in action, from sneering pirates, to groaning ghouls, moaning mummies, vicious vampires, to a cavalcade of other characters. In fact, the practical monsters proved so impressive that the script was changed during production to allow for many of these to get more screentime.
And it made for a positive difference for Goosebumps leads. Ryan Lee said, "It’s a lot easier to act with something that is really there. I did Super Eight, it was a tennis ball the whole entire time. So, you know, it wasn’t as easy. (On Goosebumps) we have a great make-up department who do an amazing job."
The make-up team stayed true to the books. Make-up Department Head Fionagh Cush and Make-Up Effects Designer Stephen Prouty dished with us about their designs. Prouty explained, "With most of the creatures, the inspiration came directly from descriptions in the books, which was what we were given as our guide. We were asked to use that as our main focus for determining what the characters would look like. So, we didn’t really use the covers of books or the TV show as really the inspiration as much as Stine’s words."
The scariest Stine critter is up for debate. The cast couldn't decide. Minnette suggested the clown, whom he called "genuinely scary," but added, "Slappy has always been scary to me." Lee concurred, but his vote went to the scarecrows "that are 12 feet tall!" For Rush, it's the bog monster, a towering bramble of moss, tree limbs and rage. She shared, "It’s just, I’m amazed every time I see it. I don’t really ever get used to it." But also the ghouls. Or the executioner.
Slappy is all the mischief and attitude you'd hope for. Sometimes set visits can be surreal. And that's the only way to describe interviewing a dummy. Puppeteer Avery L. Jones joined us, speaking through the iconic Slappy. And a room full of adults stared only at the puppet, completely forgetting--however briefly--the man manipulating
Jack Black found some inspiration in a forgotten Anthony Hopkins' thriller. In full Stine costume, Black confessed he hadn't yet recorded a second of Slappy's dialogue and was still working out how the character might sound. But he did bring up a movie called Magic, when asked about his ideas for the character. "It was before he became famous for playing Hannibal Lecter," Black told us, "(Hopkins) did this movie in the ‘70s called Magic and he’s a puppeteer. He controls this ventriloquist dummy, but then the dummy starts to talk on its own, but you’re never really sure -- is he talking on his own? Or is Anthony Hopkins going insane? And there was a little flavor of that when we were doing the Slappy scene. It was pretty cool. I felt like there might be an Oscar. It’s too early to say, but I just felt like, I’m really kicking butt right now. My acting is pretty off the charts."
There are loads of Easter eggs for horror fans. The cast told us to keep a sharp eye out for all kinds of Goosebumps monsters and MacGuffins as well as a cameo by R.L. Stine, himself. But old-school horror fans will have fun picking out more mature references, like a nod to Nosferatu in the vampire design, a sneakered lycanthrope as an allusion to Teen Wolf, and what Black described as "a lot of nods to The Shining, which also happens to be my favorite horror movie of all time." Just milling around the concept art and creature designs, I was overcome with nerd glee at some of the allusions I picked out. But to share them all would be to spoil the fun.
Ryan Gosling will NOT be a Goosebumps Easter Egg. The Canadian hearthrob famously had a lead role in the Goosebumps television series, "Say Cheese and Die." But despite all nostalgia and nods to the books' iconography, the filmmakers decided not to reach out to Gosling. Director Rob Letterman told us, "I just don’t want the no. I just don’t want the rejection. It’s better to just be like, 'Yeah, we couldn’t find his number.'"
Goosebumps opens on October 16, 2015.