The phrase “first time director” is a frightening thing of beauty. It represents potential and promise, but it also brings the same concerns that the phrases “first time barber” and “first time brain surgeon” might. The world has been fortunate as of late with some fantastic first timers – from Duncan Jones to Neill Blomkamp – and after seeing the footage from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark at Comic-Con, Troy Nixey has the potential to join their ranks.
After speaking with him, it’s clear that he has the mind and the fan status to deliver true horror. He talks the talk. Hopefully the movie will prove that he walks the walk.
I was fortunate enough to eat hotel cookies and sit down with the newcomer during the madness of Comic-Con. In full earshot of producer Guillermo del Toro cursing and laughing with child-like wonder, Nixey spoke about the tone of the film, the creation of fear with suggestion, and the reverence for the horror of the late 70s and early 80s.
Regarding the footage you showed us earlier, you showed us a woman’s teeth being punched out. First of all, fuck you.
Second of all, hell yes. Well done.
The teeth are the worst.
We noticed that a lot of people take away a perception of that sequence being far more graphic and gory than it actually is.
Is the rest of the film suggestive in the same way?
Yeah, I think so. There’s some really terrifying, scary stuff I believe, but we have one sequence that is a little gory. It’s a little over-the-top in terms of what we do to one character, but really a lot of the stuff is suggestive and implied. Having watched it with an audience, just having them bristle at a scene before it even starts? You’re like, “Okay. We did something right.”
Which is really refreshing to be honest. It feels like the sort of polished look that your film has doesn’t usually match with the sort of fear that can be drawn out.
And I love that. I love juxtaposing what you’re seeing and what you’re feeling. Creating conflict. I appreciate that as someone who’s watching a movie – when that starts happening, it’s like “Wait, wait! I’m seeing this but I’m not feeling what you think I should be feeling.” So it’s good that you got that because we did work hard on that. I was very conscious of making this beautiful home that, during the day, it’s just gorgeous. All these rich, warm Autumn colors. A very inviting place. A place that doesn’t necessarily creak or groan. But then, at night, being able to light it in such a way that there are lots of blacks. Things do fall into dark shadows.
It felt like there was a high level of detail.
It seems in the last ten years, the thought has been that to do a truly fearful movie, it has to be the gritty, low-budget, hand-held version. Yours doesn’t seem that way at all.
No, no. Oliver Stapleton shot the film, DPed it. Just a consummate professional. The level that he brought to it, he took this beautiful set and made it so rich and dense. We didn’t shoot it in that quick, jerky kind of way because that doesn’t interest me as a filmmaker. That’s not how I want…that’s not the movies that I’m interested in…the movies that I like – like Guillermo’s Devil’s Backbone – it’s very purposeful in the way it’s captured. We set out to do that in a similar way because that’s what I like personally. So, yeah, it’s a little different than what’s out there now, but I hope that it being a little different will help it stand out.
There’s nothing that says something polished and beautiful can’t also scare the shit out of someone.
Oh, yeah! Now you get back to the idea of the house being beautiful, because you sit back and think, “This kind of thing shouldn’t be happening in this type of place.” From day one, for me anyway, was the idea. This house has to be gorgeous.
In the trailer, there was a throwback music feel. It was like a late 70s, early 80s horror vibe.
Who did the music for it?
Well, yeah. There you go.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think the movie has a sort of 70s/80s sort of feel to it, so the movie informs the music and the sound. It all comes together and works really well. I think that people who have seen those movies from back in the day will be really happy. It is definitely a nod back to those kinds of horror films.
Well, the remake world is dangerous territory, and I want to avoid spoilers here, but I’ve seen the original. It was one of those 3AM movies back in high school.
Yeah. It’s perfect for that moment. You have insomnia, and you turn on the television, and that’s what you’re rewarded with.
But you’re working with a property where the ending is already known. How do you treat a remake where a portion of the audience is going to know it? Do you stick with it or change things up?
No, I think that we’re fortunate in the fact that, as great as the original movie is – and it is, it’s very effective and scary – that it’s not really that well known. So, my hope is that with the people that are familiar with the first one, that they’ll be respectful toward the first one. They might have a sense of what’s coming, but they’ll still be engaged by the version that we’ve done so they’ll appreciate where we get to in the end, and they can appreciate it as much as the people that have no clue.
Guillermo was talking earlier about the ending. It’s an all or nothing, shove your chips into the middle ending, and it brings up the idea of remaking something like Sleepaway Camp.
How do you remake that? It has one of the best twists, but…
Yeah. It’s interesting because obviously with something that might be in the public consciousness a bit more than Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is, it might be hard. But you take a movie like the Sixth Sense where the ending is everything. I love The Sixth Sense. I think it’s fantastic, and the ending you’re like, “You didn’t just fucking do that to me, did you?” It worked. And it was obviously successful because people kept their mouth shut. I think that, with a movie like that, there are a ton of people that have seen it and for those who haven’t, you hope that they won’t go dig it up and watch the original first before seeing the new version.
You hope they find the old one, but after.
On that same note, you’re very reverent of that late 70s horror world. Is that a type of horror that you’re a huge fan of?
It’s funny, because I had a friend in junior high school. He was a huge horror guy. Huge, huge horror guy. Every weekend, we’d rent old horror movies, so I think that I didn’t naturally seek them out myself, but through him, I got all this second-hand stuff.
He was your pusher.
Yeah, he definitely was. And I remember that stuff being super scary, and then as I got older, the slasher movies didn’t really do it for me. Not in the same way. So to be able to remember how I felt back then is how I hope people will feel with this new version. Because that was the stuff that scared me. The implied stuff is so much stronger than going all the way.
It would be cool to get back to that.
Yeah, yeah. I hope there’s a swing back to those types of movies.
It always works, so I don’t understand why it goes out of fashion.
Yeah! I know! I wish I had the answer. If I did, I’d be running three studios right now.
I think the real answer is that it’s just plain difficult.
It is. It takes a lot of work. I mean, this movie – it’s a difficult movie in the sense that it’s a dense movie. With these kinds of movies, characters are so, so important because you need to create a connection with the audience. That takes a lot of work, like you said.
Okay, and for the audience that has not seen the original or for skeptics out there wary of remakes, sell them the movie.
I think this movie is genuinely very, very scary. There hasn’t been a movie like this in a long time, and if you want to squirm in your chair, cover your eyes, and jump out of your seat, I think you should go out and see this movie. For most people who are in love with the original, we’ve been very respectful to the original, and they’re going to enjoy this movie as well.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark stars Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce and hits theaters in January 2011.