Making a feature-length episode of Into The Dark for Blumhouse and Hulu is no game. Paul Davis (Into The Dark: The Body) returns as the director for Uncanny Annie, the October episode that has jumpstarted both the Halloween season as well as the second round of the year-long holiday anthology series. If anyone knows how to work well under the pressure of a three-week deadline, it’s him.
Luckily for us viewers, a short, limited shooting schedule does little to effect the quality of his work. Uncanny Annie is a fun, twisted supernatural horror and Davis was kind enough to share his experience taking a double-turn back Into The Dark.
“[…] it’s wonderful that Blumhouse is giving new filmmakers a platform to tell these kinds of stories, which we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”
Jessica Rose for Nightmare on Film Street: You did The Body, which was so much fun. Now you’re opening up the second season with Uncanny Annie and, again, it is such a blast. How did you come back to directing another Into The Dark episode?
Paul Davis:It was very unexpected. If I’m honest, and this isn’t me being old British self-defacing, but I kind of felt that with the The Body I was surprised that Blumhouse and Hulu were willing to go ahead with that as the first entry. Blumhouse is a very specific brand and that has expectations that come with it. The Body was this silly little thriller that was inspired by Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night meets After Hours meets The Terminator. I didn’t know how all that fit Blumhouse, but they loved it and it became the first one. I knew going into it that it was going to be very divisive among fans and it was. I kind of felt like it didn’t get the response that people were hoping it would.
Although it did get great reviews in some respects, I just felt like people across the board were expecting something a bit bigger. I was not expecting to be asked to come back. I literally just happened to be in L.A. and they were just getting ready to start the second season. Alex Koehne and Lauren Downey are the executive producers that are overseeing Season 2. Alex was the post-production supervisor on all of the first season. He was the one who e-mailed me and asked, ‘What’s your schedule like?.’ I just thought he was being social, so I said, ‘I could meet you for a drink on Tuesday’ and he was like, ‘No. What’s your schedule like for the next five months?’ and I was like, ‘Oh, send me the script!’ That’s literally how it happened.
I got sent this remarkable screenplay and when I read it, it came with a wave from Alex saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re already doing a rewrite on this’ because the version that I read was literally a one hundred million dollars Tim Burton lovechild. It was huge. I loved the concept and I knew that there was a version of the movie that we could make under the Into The Dark banner. Within three days the deal was done. I stayed in L.A. and we had three weeks of prep from the moment I got the script to when we started shooting, which is insane. That doesn’t happen in movies, but that’s the way these movies are done. We shot Uncanny Annie in May and they’re already just about to start shooting the next one in April. These movies move pretty quick. I ended up flying back to London because I needed to pack more clothes so I could stay in L.A. for a while and l would do late night Skype sessions for the designs of the board game and all that kind of stuff until I was able to fly back to L.A.. Then we started filming on a soundstage and in some city in California. We were there for three days doing all the stuff in the void, which was difficult because we were essentially, for the most part, shooting the end of the movie first.
That was very challenging, especially for the cast who, considering how little prep time we had and very little time for rehearsals, were literally jumping into the end of the movie. They didn’t have the opportunity to go on that journey with the characters yet. When we got to the house location, we were there for 13 days and it was right on to the next set. They absolutely fly and you don’t necessarily get what you would normally get on a on a low budget feature, let alone a studio feature.
These things are shown on television schedules, which is a challenge for a filmmaker, but I think it’s wonderful that Blumhouse is giving new filmmakers a platform to tell these kinds of stories, which we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Though it’s grueling, it sets us up to go into a regular movie scenario ready for war. I think that with this kind of set up, you’re able to do anything.
“The main inspiration [for The Prankster] was Julian Beck who played Reverend Kane in Poltergeist II.”
NOFS: As a viewer, you don’t think about the schedule and how fast things have to go. We just wait for the episodes to be released, but you don’t think of all that goes into pumping these episodes out and the stress that goes into a schedule like that.
PD:The biggest anxiety-riddled thing I had on this movie was the scene with The Prankster. Later on in the movie with the main Prankster sequence where the kids are throwing all the stuff around and he’s popping up and scaring them, we shot all that in one day.
NOFS: Oh wow. That’s one of the best parts of Uncanny Annie too.
PD:That was one day. We did something like 52 setups in that day. It was absolutely insane. Once we got it and it was in the can and we had everything, the rest of the shoot was a breeze for me. That was the one day I was just like ‘How am I going to do this?’
Everybody was wonderful. Camden Toy, who played The Prankster, was such a joy. I met him in 2005. I was a horror journalist at the time and he was at a convention in Birmingham. The entire troop that he was with came down to London and I was invited to go and stay at the hotel with them and I sat down and I got talking to him. I said to him, ‘This isn’t really what I want to do in the long run.’ He said ‘What do you want to do?’ and I said, ‘I want to make movies’ and he said, ‘Well, the only way you’re gonna make movies is to make movies.’ I never forgot that.
In the original script, The Prankster was a translucent CGI goblin and I was like, ‘Okay… Well, we’re not doing that.’ I showed the producers a picture of Camden. The main inspiration was Julian Beck who played Reverend Kane in Poltergeist II.
I proposed, ‘What if we just did something that was completely wide-eyed and the entire time it just giggled?’ and they loved it. I didn’t think that we would actually get the opportunity to cast Camden. We sent the script to him and he said ‘Yes’ immediately. I kind of got to repay that little moment that he gave me back in 2005. That’s one of the things that I love to do. This business can be so grinding. When you have the opportunity to thank people that gave you that nudge, that’s what I’m all about. I always try to pay it forward so that was a nice little moment for me.
NOFS: It’s great how that came full circle for you both. What about your relationship with the rest of the cast? With a super grueling schedule and a bunch of young adults in one spot, how was it working altogether?
PD:They were wonderful. Every single day there was high energy. There were no complaints. Everybody brought their own ideas to the table. I always love to listen to everybody’s ideas. I’ll go on record to give Adelaide Kane, who plays Wendy, full props here. When she defeated Annie, the original ending was that she was going to back away and then turn and start walking into the void. Then the upstairs hallway was going to stop appearing beneath her feet and then she was going to be upstairs back in the hallway where you cross the gap. Then she runs down the stairs and stops calling out everybody’s names and sees the board game. We were blocking the scene out and she was like, ‘What if I just fall backwards on the couch and then I hear something come. Then you just whip pan and we’re back in the living room?’ and I was like silently to myself ‘That’s actually a really good idea.’ At the time I was like, ‘Yeah, we’ll think about it.’ Then one of the producers came up and told me, ‘You know what? That could save us like a day of filming.’ That’s what we ended up doing and that was her suggestion. She was absolutely great. Dylan Arnold played Michael and his improv was a pain in the ass for me, as the director, and for the editor to come together, but he was just so funny.
NOFS: I thought he was funny as well. Was there a lot of improv?
PD:I gave the cast carte blanche to do what felt right for the characters.They knew the end game for all of these characters and they knew the fundamentals about what made them work and what made them tick and what the forward momentum was, so I said to them, ‘As long as you stay within those parameters, have at it! Have some fun!’ The film kind of lives and dies by the chemistry of those characters.
I did a fun little thing, which I did on The Body as well. When I have an ensemble cast, I’ll organize a rehearsal day, or like a couple of hours for this because of the schedule, but I got everybody in to rehearse one scene. After that we all just sat down in the circle and just started talking, shooting the breeze and whatnot, and then I excused myself from the circle. I’d be gone for like 10 minutes and then I’ll come back and I’ll see them all just vibing and swapping phone numbers and just becoming friends so that they can get to that friendly place, where the characters need to be by the time we’re on set. They feel 100 percent comfortable with each other so that you’re watching a group of characters that look like they’ve been friends for a long time. I admitted to one of the cast members that I did that on purpose and they were like, ‘You sneaky son of a bitch!’
“[…] the tone for Uncanny Annie was a cross between Joe Dante’s criminally underrated The Hole, which I love, and Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty.”
NOFS: That’s actually a really effective teaching method! I don’t know if you know that, but that’s a technique used in classrooms.
PD:It worked because they all hang out now. They’re all best friends. It was like that on The Body as well. With David Hull, Ray Santiago and Aurora Perrineau, after we wrapped and the movie came out they were inseparable. They were hanging out all the time. They vibed. I like to play the “Friend Cupid”, so to speak.
NOFS: Sometimes young adults are a little bit harder to connect to and a little harder to relate to. I think that’s because they are so restricted in their roles, whereas you’re allowing them to be a little bit more natural. That comes off a lot more genuine and they’re watchable and natural.
That was important for me because this is, for lack of a better word, Jumanji. I read a comment on Twitter that said, ‘Oh my God this is so unrealistic!’ and I’m thinking, ‘What part of ‘supernatural board game’ were you thinking would be realistic when you came into this?’
NOFS: Well, you can’t listen to comments like that. Most of the genre is based on the unrealistic.
PD:I embrace the fact that this was very out there and it needed to be. You know how I said The Body was It Happened One Night, After Hours, and The Terminator?Themovies that really kind of inspired where I wanted to take it with the vibe and the tone for Uncanny Annie was a cross between Joe Dante’s criminally underratedThe Hole, which I love, and Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty.
NOFS: It is a lot like The Faculty. I love The Faculty! That’s a good combination!
PD:Those are the two movies that I watched and referenced. I tried to go a little bit David Lynch (Twin Peaks) with the void, but when you only have three days on a soundstage, it’s hard to do that.
NOFS: I thought that was such a cool way to isolate them. You don’t have to worry about those factors of ‘Why don’t they just call for help? Why don’t they just do this and that?’ It was done in an artful way, but also a pretty practical way. I also really liked the way that you had the characters acknowledge that what’s happening to them is not reality. They know the situation is weird and strange, but it’s happening and they’ve got to keep going. Brilliant.
PD:That’s the fun part about the narrative of this film. It adheres to the rules of the game. Which is why any rewrite on this was a pain in the ass. If you change one thing, you have to go back and look at the previous rounds of the game to see if it works. Really everything has to start again from the beginning.
NOFS: So it plays like a real game? Tell me how that was a struggle as far as directing.
Thankfully that wasn’t my problem. The Bachelor brothers had to deal with that. My thing was just to make sure that everything was consistent and that there were no plot holes created by any slight changes. We just had to be mindful of that stuff completely and it does play like a real game.
Uncanny Annie is available exclusively on Hulu along with the other horrifying holiday tales of the Into The Dark series.Are you streaming the second season of Hulu and Blumhouse’s Into The Dark anthology series? What did you think of the series’ first episode, Uncanny Annie? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!