There are some things from your childhood you just can’t shake. Having grown up to become a massive horror fan, I can pinpoint where my interest began to a few specific things and one of them is the “Goosebumps” book series. Growing up with unending access to the books thanks to my librarian mom, plus the dated albeit fun television show, it’s a series that is near and dear to me. So you can imagine my excitement as I stepped into East Mountain Studios outside of Atlanta last summer and was greeted by none other than Slappy the dummy himself, welcoming us to the set of Goosebumps.
Instead of a straight adaptation of any particular “Goosebumps” story, most of which were easily condensed into the 24-minute runtime of the mid-90s TV series, the film will put every book in the series in a blender and combine them to form a smoothie of scares and fun–a sort of Jumanji meets The Cabin in the Woods hybrid. Upon entering the studio we’re directed to a side room where our interviews will take place, but tacked to the walls all around us are photographs of the monsters from the depths of R.L. Stine’s mind come to life.
Six different Ghouls of various stages of decay, a decrepit mummy, a hooded executioner, a clown, a troll, vampires, a witch doctor, a snake woman, a bog monster, a character named Madame Doom (who looks suspiciously like Mrs. Ganush from Drag Me To Hell), scarecrows on giant stilts, and even a few monsters I recognize from book covers like “The Haunted Mask,” “The Creeps,” and of course the film’s version of Slappy. The best part? They’re all real.
The best visual effects are when you shoot as much of what you can in camera, director Rob Letterman tells us. So any monsters that we could do practically, we did, and then some monsters are hybrid. We have these bug-eyed aliens that we built the suits and then from the neck up, inside the space helmet will be CGI.
Other monsters present for the film will be completely digital, such as the eponymous “Werewolf of Fever Swamp” and “The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena,” plus the giant preying mantis from “A Shocker on Shock Street.”
There are some things that you just have to commit to visual effects, Letterman says about these all-digital beasts. But we try to flip cars and crash windows and do everything we can in camera as much as possible. And it’s really good for the actor’s performance to have something real.
At the anchor of all this chaos of course is none other than Jack Black, who plays a fictional version of series creator R.L. Stine. He facetiously tells us that like Johnny Depp’s preparation to play Hunter S. Thompson in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, he moved in with Stine to study him.
I was able to shadow him for a few months. Its what I do for all my characters, I like to soak in the personality; and I wear his underpants, Im actually wearing his underpants right now. I live and breathe R.L. Stine….No, I spent a couple of hours with him before we started shooting. We went out to New York and had a little lunch and just a little chitchat about scary things and about our plan 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 and just to see if he had notes on what we could do differently or if he liked the direction that we were going and he was into it, so that was great.
Stine even visited the set of the film, which did put the cast a little on edge for fear he might disapprove, but Black admits that Stine liked what he saw and we ‘re told he even makes an appearance in the film.
I took lots of liberties, I dont really look, sound or act like him in this movie, Black says of his work as the author. In other words, yeah, dont be coming into this movie like, ‘I know R.L. Stine, this is no R.L. Stine!’
He said it was 22 years of this movie trying to be made, co-star Ryan Lee says. And now that it’s finally being made, once he was on the set watching us it was, I don’t know, it’s not pressure but you want him to like it. I think he will.
Stine’s arrival also offered a fun mirror for the other actors, as witnessing him speak to Jack Black showed off the eccentricities brought to the role versus the real man.
We’ve been acting for months with Jack who is playing this version of R.L. Stine and then seeing R.L. Stine in person is just kind of made me realize what we’re actually doing here and the character Jack is playing is a real person, which I knew, but obviously star Dylan Minette says. It was just really cool because he was a big part of my childhood. I always grew up thinking R.L. Stine was the coolest person for writing these books, and meeting him was really a special moment. My childhood kind of came full circle there.
There are a few secrets for Black’s version of the author, who goes by the name Mr. Shivers as the film starts, in order to preserve his identity. The most important secret though is that the nightmares from his books are locked away in safely guarded manuscripts. He’s not alone in hiding this secret, as Odeya Rush (The Giver, We Are What We Are) plays the role of his daughter, Hannah.
He goes through many identities, Rush says. So a lot of my life we’ve been moving from different places and taking on new personas.
Im very protective of her, Black says of Stine’s relationship with Hannah. I dont want her dating strange boys, I dont want her really leaving the house because she, as I am, is a keeper of this secret of the creatures actually existing and a protector of the manuscripts from which they came and escape. So, just like any father it freaks me out when she leaves the house or shes not around, and maybe Im a little more protective than your average father and super cranky.
Dylan Minnette of Let Me In and the TV series R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour plays Zach Cooper, the other new kid in town who is why the events of the film really kick off. He’s joined by Ryan Lee (the zombie obsessed Cary in Super 8 and also The Haunting Hour) as Champ, self-described as the weird kid” that wears a three piece suit on any given day. You know the type.
One night he hears a scream and decides to go try and save Hannah, Minnette says. Then in the midst they find this collection of Goosebumps books, and they accidentally open it up and one of the creatures breaks loose and then they all have to go and get the monsters back in the books.
It took a while to cast the kids, I was very particular, Letterman reveals. Dylan came in, he was the first guy to read for the part and I just couldn’t get him out of my head as I read…. Ryan, we were going around and around in circles and he’s just hilarious and these two writers, Gene [Stupnitsky] and Lee [Eisenberg], recommended him because he’s on their show, Trophy Wife….Odeya came in and she’s amazing, and she’s blowing up. It was a lot of bringing them in and trying different pairings, and once I had my sights set on Dylan and Odeya, then Jack came in and read with them, and that was amazing. I remember Jack turning to me and being like ‘They’re the ones, there’s no doubt.’ We all knew it.
We see the aftermath of the first monster escape being filmed, as one of the fully digital monsters emerges and Lee lets out an earth shattering shriek. The beast lunges toward him, but Minnette tackles him out of the way just in time. Later in the day we see a scene that takes place a few minutes down the line from Lee’s screaming wherein Black’s Stine has been informed that the monsters have gotten out of their containment. He instructs Hannah to takes books N through Zed while he grabs A to M, and reminds her to be warry of the man eating plants and the bug eyed aliens. Even though he’s faced with this situation, he remains calm and collected, until he realizes Slappy has been set free too.
Hello, Papa, the tiny ventriloquist puppet says, seated in a chair across the room. The shivers come to life on Black’s face, knowing that his darkest and most twisted creation is finally free.
Oh no, Black mutters.
So nice to see you again, Slappy, he says with a combination of fear and anxiety in his voice. The pair exchange some more dialogue before the lights flicker off, and Slappy is gone, having taken some of the other manuscripts with him. Some storyboards we’re shown reveal that Slappy steals Stine’s car, which appears to be what every evil car should look like, and drives it around town, throwing open books into the streets. One image in particular sees some Lovecraftian tentacles spouting from the pages of a text.
Slappy is performed by ventriloquist Avery Jones, who both operates the puppet and provides the voice on set. During our visit we’re told that to add a layer of two-sidedness to Stine and Slappy, Black would be providing the voice of the evil dummy during post-production, but everyone has been so impressed with Jones’ work that his voice will bring Slappy to life in the final cut.
Its earie, hes too good at it, Black says of Jones’ work. I think they did one of those like nationwide searches of ventriloquist dummy professionals and this guy just sort of came out of the woodwork and he was blowing everybody out of the water, he was by far the best….I was a little nervous because he was so captivating and magnetic that I was like, ‘Hes upstaging me. Hes too good!’ and his voice is so awesome.
A shy young man, Avery tells us about his history working with puppets, and says that he’s spent his entire life trying to convince people that they’re not scary, but here he is, voicing one of the most terrifying evil puppets of all. None of the ventriloquist puppets I’ve ever seen are as detailed and intricate as Slappy for this film, as his eyes, mouth, and eyebrows all move in any direction the operator chooses. If he didn’t scare you before, he probably will now.
A few other set pieces from the film that we can see from concept art and storyboards show where all of the monsters attack throughout the film, including an invasion of the police station by aliens, a gnome attack where they are clearly shoving someone into a fireplace, and the previously mentioned giant preying mantis smashing up cars.
This giant praying mantis chase scene is pretty wild, Letterman says. It’s pretty incredible, so I’m excited about that. Then we have a scene in an ice rink with a snowman, and I have no idea, it’s just a big blank ice rink right now, but the principal is going ‘ahhh!’. But I’m pretty sure that’s going to be good.
Though this sequence in particular sounds like a direct reference to the cover for “A Shocker on Shock Street,” Letterman tells us they can’t use any of the actual covers from the books in the film.
Theres no shot that’s out of the covers per se, but there are certain things, not everything thats Goosebumps related is a monster, so they may be one or two things in the movie that are (referenced)…I don’t say anything, no one says anything about it, but they’re there in the background.
One of those things that fans should be on the lookout for is some sort of reference to the classic Goosebumps title “Say Cheese and Die,” which was the favorite book of the three principal kids of the cast.
It’s kind of hard to replicate that, Minette says of the evil camera-themed story. Because Say Cheese and Die, what was unique about that Goosebumps book as that it wasn’t based on a creature of a monster, it’s just a mysterious camera and bad things started to happen so you can’t really incorporate that into how we’re doing this movie, but there’s a nod. There’s a good little nod.
Minette revealed in our interview that he was a long standing fan of the series since his childhood, which lead to his interest in the project. Others in the cast revealed their first connections to as Odeya Rush has six brothers who were all big fans with Ryan Lee admitting that he wasn’t much of a reader himself, but was aware of the series due to its popularity with his friends.
My first exposure actually was when I was at DreamWorks working on my very first animated thing, Letterman says. I feel like Steven Spielberg was after the property and somehow had a video game of it…I was exposed to it in that way, and then I remember seeing the TV series that everyone saw, and just knowing about the books.
Lest you worry that the film will be only for kids, both Jack Black and Rob Letterman say it’s chock full of key moments for the adults in the audience, many of whom were no doubt “Goosebumps” fans growing up.
Its a mistake to just go make a movie where the whole thing is talking down to the kids like, ‘Ok, we gotta bring the IQ of this movie down because its a kids movie,’ Black says. You dont have to do that, kids can laugh and parents can laugh at different parts and thats fun… A good movie is a good movie.
I didn’t want to be cartoony or goofy or childish, Letterman says. I don’t like these kinds of movies that play down to kids. Kids are much smarter than that and you want the adults to enjoy the movie as well…I try to just treat these movies like movies. I don’t really think about it (in terms of ‘for kids’). I love the material and I love these old classic Amblin films. I grew up on them and they were always very grounded and very real with the characters and the emotions and the world and the supernatural stuff kind of entered into it, and that’s always been in the back of my mind. I don’t think they really thought of those movies as kids movies or family movies back then, they were just movie movies, so I tried to treat it the same way.
Though it’s taken over two decades for this film to become a reality, that doesn’t mean they’re not already looking toward the future. When asked if he’d return for a follow-up film, Jack Black simply replied:
Absolutely, the deal was done. You know how it goes down, you cant just do one movie. Well see.
As we prepare to exit the studio after our long day of gawking at practical monster effects, there’s a notable absence at the door. Slappy has disappeared following our greeting that morning. Perhaps it was finally time for his close-up, or maybe he had retired to his trailer for the day.
Goosebumps will debut in theaters on October 16.