411mania.com Interviews: Writer and Director Mike Dougherty
Posted by Jeffrey Harris on 10.28.2013
411mania.com speaks with X-Men 2 and Superman Returns writer Mike Dougherty for an exclusive interview. Dougherty is speaks on his cult phenomenon horror anthology film Trick 'r Treat, the experience of becoming a screenwriter on the biggest tentpoles in town, his upcoming projects and much more.
I recently got the chance to speak with writer and director, Mike Dougherty, the co-writer behind such huge films as X-Men 2 and Superman Returns. Dougherty was also the writer and director behind the cult horror phenomenon, Trick 'r Treat.
In celebration of the film, Legendary Pictures will be hosting a special Halloween anniversary screening of the film at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood for Beyond Fest on October 28. Dougherty is set to be in attendance along with several members of the cast for the screening and also a special panel and Q&A afterwards. Legendary will also be streaming the entire event and the showing of the film on their Facebook page. Dougherty went from working as a freelance storyboard artist in animation to working on some of the biggest projects in town. Trick 'r Treat was the first feature he wrote and eventually directed. The film never had a formal release in theaters, but in recent years it's built up sizable cult fanbase. One of the featured characters of the story, Sam, was later featured in promos for FearNet.
Mike Dougherty: Yeah. I think it's really special. I the way that – whether it's social media or streaming technology like this, it really allows filmmakers and the audience to bridge that gap and also sort of introduce the film to people who haven't seen it before.
Jeffrey Harris: What inspired you to make a horror anthology movie? And were there any classic horror anthology films that informed Trick ‘r Treat?
Mike Dougherty: I mean all the classics. You had The Twilight Zone and Creep Show and Tales from the Crypt. I grew up with that format. I mean for me, horror and anthology just go well together. It's just a no brainer. The format and the genre have almost always gone together. It's a little bittersweet because it almost hasn't been around so much over the last twenty years, and I just viewed that as really tragic. When I wrote it even, I just thought, "Well. It's about time for the horror anthology to come back." Horror is a very cyclical genre. It all just kind of goes in these cyclical trends. At the time that I wrote it, the trend was Japanese horror and sort of that post-Scream, twenty-something horror film; where pretty twenty-somethings are being slashed by someone in a mask. And that was fine. But I just kind of wanted to usher in something new. And I was just inspired by my love of the holiday and my love of tongue-in-cheek horror anthologies.
Jeffrey Harris: The Anna Paquin story in this film that involves vampires. Do you ever have conversations with your producer on the film, Bryan Singer, and joke about how prophetic you were because this happened before True Blood?
Mike Dougherty: Yes. Well, I mean we don't talk about it—it's always kind of slightly amusing because no one saw True Blood coming. And no one saw the big vampire/werewolf/zombie revolution coming. Although, I will say, I first wrote the script in 2000 and even back then when we took the script around to the studios, everyone read it and said, "Vampires, werewolves, and zombies are dated. Who wants to see that?" And it's interesting to see now they are just the dominant form of horror. But no, I think it's just kind of telling. I have a little bit of an "I told you so."
Jeffrey Harris: What do you think of, coming out of this project, the character Sam has become an iconic and cult figure for the film? Now he's also like a mascot of sorts for FearNet.
Mike Dougherty: It's an honor. It's so hard. I feel like the whole horror icon idea is like winning the horror Oscar. You don't get a statue, but you get a character who gets to join that rogues' gallery next to Freddy, Jason, and all the rest. I think there's been a lot of attempts to artificially manufacture the next horror icon over the years. But in the end, it's always up to audiences to really decide which one they really embrace. And it seems like at least they're really embracing him. I kind of just watch it as a very proud parent.
Jeffrey Harris: You're wrong about the statue part because they made some Sam statues and action figures.
Mike Dougherty: I know, I know *laughs*. I think we have six of them now.
Jeffrey Harris: So you got the Sam toys, right?
Mike Dougherty: Oh yeah.
Jeffrey Harris: Did you ever think of a backstory for Sam and where he comes from, or do you just like the mystery behind Sam as this sort of avatar of the Halloween spirit?
Mike Dougherty: It's a bit of both. I know his backstory. I've sort of fleshed out his mythology, even when writing the first one. At the same time, the amount of that mythology that I would disclose is – I have to be very careful about that. The more you learn about these horror characters, the less frightening they are. It's the mystery that really kind of keeps us intrigue. So you got to be careful. It's like I always thought the alien (the alien xenomorph from the Alien franchise) was more powerful because we didn't know where the [derelict] ship came from. It kind of lets your imagination run wild with it. I mean like with Michael Meyers, the first movie always the best because you don't know why he snapped.
Jeffrey Harris: Right like with the Halloween remakes, we see Michael Meyers hearing voices in his head. He sees unicorns or something, and it drives him crazy. It's not as interesting, you know?
Mike Dougherty: Yeah, exactly.
Jeffrey Harris: I totally agree with you. I also like the mystique of this character [Sam].
Mike Dougherty: It's more fun to let people write their own theories.
Jeffrey Harris: In terms of fleshing out the mythology though, do you see a future in Trick ‘r Treat in maybe getting more shorts or even a sequel?
Mike Dougherty: You know, nothing at the moment. We're just kind of focusing on the screening on the 28th. I think the film just had such a weird, long journey where most movies come out and they're a big deal for a month if your lucky. And then they just kind of fade and ride off into home video. But this film had the opposite trajectory where it started small, and it's continually grown over the years. I feel like four years after the DVD release, we're finally starting to like – where it's really expanding. It's starting to go from cult with horror fans to a bit more mainstream even. Both myself, the producers, and Legendary, we're kind of enjoying that before I think we want to get into sequel plans. It would be great. That was always the dream is to make a series of these, so you would have a Trick ‘r Treat movie at least every other Halloween. So, I'll hang on to that dream.
Jeffrey Harris: What was it like directing your first feature? Were you nervous at all?
Mike Dougherty: I was nervous, but at the same time I was lucky enough to be on set throughout X-Men 2 and Superman Returns. Because of the way that Bryan Singer works is that he likes to have writers around at all times because you never know when a script is going to change. You never know when you need new pieces of dialogue. And we were like think tank, my partner Dan Harris, myself, Bryan, we were around. And I – from pre-production, to post-production, to marketing, and distribution…I had to work a lot. I definitely had been trained. So it wasn't quite as intimidating for me to set foot—to walk onto set as it would be for a lot of screenwriters. Because most screenwriters, you're not on set, as weird as that sounds. So I had a good few years of boot camp under my belt. And it was exhilarating. It was everything I could've hoped for and more. I love it because it occupies every aspect of your mind. There's no down time. It's just constant go, go, go, and I like that. Writing can be very solitary, very frustrating, but there's nothing like the kind of energy you get on a film set.
Jeffrey Harris: If it's possible to put into words, what was it like for you 10 years ago when suddenly you and Dan Harris you're on the set of this big giant X-Men movie and then suddenly you are doing Superman. Was that like a really whirlwind period or was it like, "Man, we're in the major leagues now?"
Mike Dougherty: Insane *laughs*. I was doing animation. I was working for like Nickelodeon and MTV and doing freelance storyboard work. I was just writing on the side. I had just started dabbling with screenwriting. And Trick ‘r Treat was my first script ever. It was my spec script. And then that led to X-Men 2. And that was just a massive leap in evolution, no pun intended. It was just like a dream come true. It was also really daunting and overwhelming. Then that leading to Superman and then to Trick ‘r Treat, it just felt like the right path if I can describe it. But [I'm] just really grateful and lucky because a lot of times people get started in the industry and they have to work on projects that they're just doing for the money or even writing on projects of something they might not even really like. I was just going down a checklist of things that I had loved since I was a kid. It was X-Men. It was Superman. It was Halloween. And those are all three things that were just massively influential to me as a kid. So to participate in the big screen versions of them, it was just like a dream come true.
Jeffrey Harris: Are you developing any projects right now and will you be directing again any time soon?
Mike Dougherty: We're finishing a couple scripts. One is another sort of horror-comedy. The other one is a bit more straightforward science fiction. But they are both in that comfortable mid-range budget. After having done the tentpole movies, there's a lot of cool bells and whistles that come with a $150 million or $250 million budget, but the thing that loved about Trick ‘r Treat was that it was $12 million. But it still felt like a massive production. And there's a certain kind of charm when you do these smaller films because you get more control. You have to be a bit more creative and resourceful, not that that's a bad thing, but when you have less money in your budget you have to be a little bit more creative with how you accomplish stuff. And I really like doing original projects. Trick ‘r Treat sprang from the heart, and it was all mine. And that's different then going into a pre-existing property. When you do an X-Men or a Superman movie that's someone else's character. You're just kind of playing foster parent for a while. The new projects are original genre, tongue-in-cheek kind of stuff.
Jeffrey Harris: Has there ever been any interest in maybe adapting Trick ‘r Treat as a horror anthology series, maybe similar to Tales from the Crypt or even say American Horror Story?
Mike Dougherty: Again, whether it's anthology for film or television, I just love the format because I like the variety. I think it forces you to be creative. You can't lean on just doing remakes. Anthologies just lead to a really solid dose of original material. And I would love to bring anthology horror back to TV, or even if it's anthology science fiction or what have you. But I don't know if it would be appropriate under the banner of Trick ‘r Treat because I think there is something special about keeping it as a theatrical experience (if we did do more). I think a Trick ‘r Treat Halloween special would be fun because I do miss sort of the old school Halloween specials. Like everyone had one: Charlie Brown; Fat Albert; Garfield. There was a plethora of all these different Halloween TV specials. But I don't think it would work as a TV series because even I would probably get tired of a weekly Halloween TV show.
Jeffrey Harris: Mike thanks so much for your time.
Mike Dougherty: Thank you very much.
Thank you to Mike Dougherty for taking the time to speak with us. Remember if you want to check out the Trick 'r Treat Halloween event, you can watch it at the above link.