Michael Dougherty exploded onto Tinseltown’s radar with his work on the screenplay for ‘X2’. A few years later he found himself writing for Superman’s triumphant return to the big screen. While his success as a screenwriter has been nothing short of phenomenal, Michael has managed to pull a new ace from under his sleeve. What is the ace you ask? Well…, he somehow managed to put his pen down for a bit and directed one of the best Halloween films of the past three decades. ‘Trick ‘r Treat’ has been an instant hit with critics and fans alike, and is now challenging the throne of John Carpenter’s classic ‘Halloween’. Guided by the advice of his good friend Stan Winston, Michael Dougherty shows no signs of slowing down and is hell bent on pumping original content into the industry he loves so much. Steve Johnson of Icon vs. Icon recently caught up with Michael to discuss his past, his career as a screenwriter, the state of modern horror, and everything ‘Trick ‘r Treat’.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Columbus, Ohio.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
Well… I don’t think I really knew until probably high school. My Aunt tells me a story of when I was four. She asked what did I want to do when I grew up. I said dig up dinosaurs or make movies. So, apparently I knew back then. [laughs] The dinosaurs thing I put on hold, but I still intend on doing that at some point. [laughs]
Did you have any influences, be it other directors or otherwise?
Yeah! Tons! It’s a pretty long list. I was a child of the eighties. I really feel like that was a decade when all of the big franchises, which we are now sequelizing and remaking, established themselves. That was the birth of the franchise movie. We had ‘Indiana Jones’. We got our first ‘Star Wars’ sequel in ’81. All of the horror movies included. ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, ‘Friday the 13th’, ‘Poltergeist’. That’s where it all really started. ‘Predator’, ‘Aliens’. It just goes on and on. Take the directors of those movies and that was a pretty potent inspiration growing up. ‘Evil Dead’! So it’s the Cameron, Lucas, Speilberg, Zemekis era. Sam Raimi of course!
You are a director, writer, editor, and producer. Is there one aspect of film making that you prefer over the others?
Writing and directing. It’s fun to really create something from the ground up, create something that’s yours. When you just screen write, it’s less work, but there is the anxiety of you having less control over how it’s going to turn out. If you’re writing and directing, you obviously get a lot more control. It’s not like you have to hand over your baby to somebody else and hope that it turns out well. It’s all on your shoulders. There’s more stress, but I think there’s also more reward.
You have done a small bit of acting in your career. Is that something you would like to pursue further?
Acting! Those are little cameos. No, I don’t think I would be very good on the other side of the camera. I’d much rather prefer to work behind the camera.
What is the typical screenwriting process like for you?
It’s never typical and it’s never easy. It’s the type of thing where there’s a lot of inspiration followed by procrastination and frustration. I have to be very disciplined. I have to isolate myself and remove all distractions, otherwise not much gets done. It’s different every single time. Then of course the revisions come, which is probably the hardest part. It’s kind of like building a house of cards. Pluck the wrong card or tinker with it too much and the whole thing comes tumbling down. I find that the longer you have to actually write something and let it marinate… I like to finish a draft, finish something, and just let it sit there and not even think about it, go do something else for weeks and come back to it. It’s different every single time.
You wrote for ‘Superman Returns’ and ‘X2’. What were those experiences like for you and were you a fan of the comics prior to participating in those films?
Yeah. I was and still am a big geek. I was the kid in the back of the room who didn’t really talk much and just drew pictures. Then I went home and watched movies and read comic books all night and all weekend. So, I think it paid off! Those movies were very different experiences from each other. They were fantastic learning experiences. I had the rare opportunity to be on set throughout both of those films, which is something that a lot of screen writers don’t get to experience. A lot of writers will email a script into the studio and the studio says, “Thanks! We’ll take it from here!” Then the writer is lucky if they get to show up at a premiere. I got to be involved from the ground up and through post-production on those movies. They really helped train me for directing Trick ‘r Treat.
Comic books have a lot of back story and plot points. Were there any challenges to writing the screenplays for those films?
It’s a double edged sword. On one hand you don’t have to come up with your own characters. There’s a mythology already there for you. The downside of that is that you’re not creating as much originality. You are almost beholden to the way the characters were written from their comic book pages. People have expectations and everyone has their own interpretation as to what a character should look like, or sound like, or behave. So that was a challenge. The biggest challenge to adapting a pre-existing title like ‘X-Men’ or ‘Superman’ is bringing your own thing to the table, but also trying to make millions of fans happy who have had these characters in their heart for years.
If asked, would you return to films based off of comics in the future?
I wouldn’t say no to it. I take everything into consideration, but at the same time I do enjoy working on original films, original ideas. Again, ‘X-Men’ and ‘Superman’ were great training grounds, but I am actively trying to do as many original projects as possible. As much as an uphill battle as that might be right now. We’re caught up in this age of everything being a sequel, a remake, or a remake [laughs] or a reboot. I kind of want to go against the grain and try as hard as I can to get some original stuff going. I do think that there’s an appetite for it out there that’s growing.
Remaking classic movies is the current rage in Hollywood. As a writer and director what are your feelings on this latest trend?
The thing is, I am not against remakes as a rule because some of my favorite things out there have been remakes. I am an absolute nut for the ‘Battlestar Gallactica’ remake TV series that was on for the past four years. It’s a fantastic show and I think it’s an example of a good remake. They took something that had a great concept and an execution that worked for its time, but needed an updating. The creators did it with love and passion and brought something new to the table. They brought their own ideas. They made it more relevant to today. If you look at ‘The Thing’. If you look at ‘The Fly’. Those are other examples of fantastic remakes. My biggest concern is that it shouldn’t be the only option out there and every day someone else is announcing another remake or a reboot. I genuinely think it’s getting out of hand. There used to be an era where we mostly had original films and the occasional remake. I think that’s what it should be versus mostly remakes and then the occasional original film. [laughs]
Have you always been a fan of horror films and do you have a favorite?
Yes, since I was a kid. Again, I grew up in the eighties and at the time cable television was just getting started. All of the cable networks were filling the airwaves with stuff pulled from libraries. Old TV shows and movies. So I grew up watching all of the same black and white and cheesy monster movies my dad did when he grew up. I just had a much quicker, concentrated dose of it. ‘Godzilla’, Universal monsters. All of those things were a huge influence growing up. ‘The Twilight Zone’ for example. That genre, horror/sci-fi, has been my absolute favorite. Anything involving monsters just makes me really, really happy. So it’s been a huge favorite. The all time favorite, honestly, is ‘Aliens’. I can’t get enough of that movie. It’s on my iPhone. It’s like a good album. I’ll just put it on in the background while I work.
You sound like me. I have a few movies like that. You just put them on in the background and go.
Yeah! There’s a rythm to them! You can quote them! You can turn down the volume and you can recite every line. ‘Aliens’, for that, has been mine for years.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the horror genre?
Well this has actually been a pretty great year for horror. I think Halloween is the perfect time to look back at the state of horror. We had ‘Paranormal Activity’. We had ‘Zombieland’. I actually thought ‘Orphan’ was pretty underrated. We still had our fair share of remakes, but at the same time if you looked harder into independent horror there was a lot of stuff out there. We still are drowning in a lot of unoriginality, but this year, I thought was a pretty solid year for both studio and independent horror.
How did you first come up with the idea for ‘Trick ‘r Treat’?
It goes back to childhood. I am obsessed with Halloween. [laughs] I’m literally standing in my house right now surrounded by Halloween decorations in every room. I’m having a party. The obsession with the holiday has only grown over the years. When I finally reached that point where I decided I wanted to really get into the film industry, I thought it would only be fitting if one of my early films was a Halloween movie. The first script I ever wrote was ‘Trick ‘r Treat’. I think it’s funny that it was the first script I wrote and the latest movie I have actually finished. There’s something about the holiday that is so fantastic. It takes everything that we love about horror and the things that scare us and it makes them fun. Halloween isn’t really a scary holiday. If it was really scary we wouldn’t be sending our kids out into the streets to go knock on a stranger’s door. I really wanted to create a film which embodied both of those aspects. It’s scary, but it’s fun. It’s cute, but it’s creepy. That’s why the movie isn’t some hardcore shriek-fest. It’s not ‘The Shining’. It’s not even ‘Friday the 13th’. It’s a fun-house ride. I’ve always wanted to make a film which captured that essence. Even Carpenter’s film is one of my all time favorites. I just watched it again last night for the eighty billionth time. [laughs] It’s a genuinely scary movie. There aren’t too many light moments in that. So I wanted to create a Halloween movie which captured the true spirit of the holiday, which again is a combination of the scary and the funny.
‘Trick ‘r Treat’ is quite the tale and has a very elaborate storyline. Was it challenging for you to weave the stories together and how long did it take you to develop the script?
Oh god! The first draft was done in 2001. God! Worked on it off and on for five years. It’s one of those stories… I love these kinds of stories. I tend to find that all of my favorite horror movies went through the same process. From ‘The Omen’ to ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, you always hear about the script that was passed on by every single studio. ‘Trick ‘r Treat’ was one of them. People read it and they thought it was a great writing sample for me, but they were shy about making it. A lot of times I heard, “Well, can you make the ages of the kids older because you shouldn’t kill kids in movies. Blah, blah, blah…” So I got a lot of that. It took five years to really get it from first draft to greenlight. It was a long ride, but I think it was worth it. As far as the structure of the film, that was a huge challenge. I think I was a little unprepared for how complicated it could be to tell a story this way, to make an anthology film where the stories and the characters criss-cross into each other’s stories. At the same time, it was a fun challenge and it was worth it in the end. It made things more interesting as we were making it and made it more fun as we were making it. I feel like if I just did a traditional three act narrative, it wouldn’t have been challenging enough for me. I really wanted to juggle a bunch of stories. I wanted to make my own ‘Twilight Zone’ movie.
It reminds me a lot of ‘Creepshow’.
Yeah! It’s closer to ‘Twilight Zone’, but it’s definitely Creepshowesque in terms of feel. ‘Creepshow’ is definitely more tongue-in-cheek or campier if I dare say. We actually did a double feature in L.A. a few weeks ago of ‘Creepshow’ and my movie. It was the first time I had seen ‘Creepshow’ on the big screen. I realized I was definitely influenced by it, but it definitely has a pulpier tone to it than my movie.
What was the biggest challenge for you while working on the set of ‘Trick ‘r Treat’?
Time. Definitely time. That’s one thing that you’re never prepared for as a director the first time you step into the director’s chair. You sit down to shoot what you think is a very simple scene of two people talking and it might only be a half a page or a page long, but then you realize how complicated it can be. Every time you want to setup a new shot, the D.P. and his crew have to move the lights. Everything has to get shifted and moved. So, I always found myself underestimating the amount of time it would take to shoot something. I learned very, very quickly about how to shoot things quickly and efficiently. It was always a race against the clock to get everything you needed.
You directed a lot of highly talented actors and actresses in the film. What was the vibe like on the set?
It was fantastic. It was fantastic. Actors are some of my favorite people, especially on this movie. Everyone got along, everyone had a great time, and I made a lot of new friends. I am really happy I had that experience. It was the most down to earth and talented group of actors that I have ever had the experience of working with, probably since ‘X-Men 2’. We’ve become good friends because of it.
Now for the million dollar question that’s been on everyone’s mind for years. Why on Earth did the studio decide against releasing the film to theaters and were you disappointed with that decision?
Yeah! [laughs] Wow! You’re the first person to ask me that question I think! You know what… It’s all good! It’s all good! Why wasn’t it released? It’s a weird movie. I kind of get it. It would be a huge challenge marketing wise because it’s not a remake. Again, as we mentioned earlier. It’s not a remake. It’s not a sequel. It’s not based on anything. It’s not like we can hold up a comic book and say, “Oh! This is based on the ‘Trick ‘r Treat’ comic book, which was a huge thing for the past twenty years.” Right now studios are very averse to risk, which personally I think is a huge mistake. I like a good challenge. When Warner Brothers watched it I think they just looked at it and said, “This is one of the weirdest things we have ever seen. We don’t know how to handle it.” In my mind it’s kind of like an independent horror movie, which snuck into a studio, got itself made, and then the studio looked at it like this ugly baby. If you think about it, a lot of the favorite horror films that we love and cherish were independent. ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’. These movies, I don’t think, couldn’t have been made in a typical studio. They needed a certain amount of freedom. Had those movies been made in a studio, I don’t think they would have come out the same way. I think they would be subject to a lot of tinkering and retooling. They would have been redone so that they were more safe. I think this film is similar to that. It’s off beat, it’s quirky, it’s weird, but I also think those are all the reasons why people like it and that people are coming around to it. In the end that’s what matters to me. As long as people like the movie and that seems to be what’s happening. You can always tell if you have made something that you think is working. My gut, based on all of the reactions and feedback that I have been getting from people and that I see online, it’s all positive. In a lot of ways the path that this movie has taken is the best one. If I had to choose between the path this movie has taken, which was a string of underground film festival screenings around the world versus a 2500 screen release. Maybe it comes in at number six on a given weekend and then fades away by Monday. I’ll gladly take the path we took. [laughs] You know what I mean? If you think about it, there have been quite a few horror movies that came out over the past year, which doesn’t make a dent. Maybe they were good, but no one really knows because they were put up against some huge blockbuster and they opened up OK and then faded away. I’ll gladly take this path.
Trick ‘r Treat’ has been referred to as “the quintessential Halloween film” and has been called “the best horror anthology in years.” Did you ever expect that kind of reaction to the film?
No I didn’t! Again, that’s why I am really grateful and really happy right now. We’re a day away from Halloween. I finally got this thing finished. The reaction to it is beyond my wildest dreams. I am eternally grateful and flattered. I never expected it to go over this well, both amongst critics and fans. It’s been a long, long road, but it has a really happy ending. So, I’m good! [laughs]
There have been rumors that there may be a sequel. Is there any time frame on that or have there been any discussions?
No! No! [laughs] I love the Internet! You say one thing! One thing and everyone takes it out of context and runs with it! I had some fan send me a message on Facebook, or Myspace, or something like that. He said, “I heard you’re in pre-production on the sequel and that it’s coming out in 2012.” I’m like, “What!? No! Hold on! Hold on! All I said was that it would be neat to do a sequel.” I love sequels. I love good franchise films. Again, ‘Aliens’ is my all time favorite film and it’s a sequel. That said, they’re hard to do. They’re hard to do right. Most horror movies, especially, don’t get better with each sequel. They tend to get worse. I would love to do one if this one is successful enough and so far we’re off to a pretty great start in terms of sales. Again, there are business decisions to be made. Yeah I have ideas. At the very, very least, I think it would be neat to do a sequel in graphic novel format. Maybe do a graphic novel every year that gets released in early October. My mind is already kind of kicking around ideas for the next one. I definitely know, generally, who the main villain would be. Sam obviously comes back, but I don’t really consider him a villain. I consider him more of an anti-hero. [laughs] So I know who he would be facing off against in the next one.
Do you have any future film projects that we should be on the look out for?
Yeah! I try not to talk to much about them because I’m a little superstitious. I prefer working on stuff quietly and privately and then revealing it when it’s ready. It’s much more of a Steve Jobs approach to film making. [laughs]
He’s not doing anything wrong, so he’s a good model to follow!
Exactly! I’m a huge fan of Steve Jobs! It’s funny. Every time you open up the trades there’s always somebody announcing one thing or another. I always feel like it’s way to early for them to be yapping about it. Just keep it quiet! You know!? [laughs]
What is the best piece of advice that someone has given you along the way in your career?
It’s funny you mention that. One of the first producers on the project and someone who was one of my first contacts when I came to L.A., who kind of took me under his wing a little bit was Stan Winston. The creature effects guy. When I was in high school I always dreamed of working for Stan. Working in the shop and sculpting monsters and stuff. As luck would have it, he had seen my short film ‘Season’s Greetings’, which is a short film that ‘Trick ‘r Treat’ was based on. ‘Season’s Greetings’ has been my calling card for years, since college. It’s gotten me a lot of different meetings. Stan really loved it and he said, “We should work on something together.” So when I finished the first draft, I sent it to Stan and I said, “Listen. I’m not showing this to anybody else. I just want your opinion on it. Please don’t show this to anybody else, but just let me know what you thought about it.” He read it and he really loved it. We worked on it for a while, but unfortunately it didn’t get off the ground with Stan. The one piece of advice that he gave me, which I’ll never forget, and I always think of it whenever I’m having a bad day… All he said was, “Be Fearless.” He played Obi-Wan for me for a little while and I’ll never forget that piece of advice.
That being said, do you have an advice for anyone who would like to get involved in the entertainment industry?
I’ll pass on Stan’s advice. Be fearless. If I had to tack anything onto that it would be don’t quit. It sounds like the end of a ‘G.I. Joe’ episode where they say, “Knowing is half the battle.” [laughs] I hate to hand out fortune cookie cutter advice, but it’s true. Be fearless and don’t quit.
Do you have any last words?
Sit back, enjoy the ride, have a slice of pumpkin pie, and don’t be afraid to laugh.
All the best to you, Michael!