‘The Boogeyman’ Director Rob Savage on Stephen King’s Blessing and the Very Good Reason Why Disney Had Him Remove a Toy Lightsaber

‘The Boogeyman’ Director Rob Savage on Stephen King’s Blessing and the Very Good Reason Why Disney Had Him Remove a Toy Lightsaber

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Above all else, The Boogeyman director Rob Savage wanted what every filmmaker longs for when adapting the work of Stephen King: his blessing. Fortunately, Savage received that and a whole lot more. 

Based on King’s short story that was first published in 1973, The Boogeyman changes things up by focusing on the Harper family, as Will (Chris Messina), a therapist by trade, won’t connect with his children, Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) and Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), in the wake of their mother’s death. The family’s disconnection then opens the door to a mysterious creature that feeds off of grief.

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The horror movie, which was originally meant to be a Hulu release, wowed test audiences before its VFX were even finished, resulting in a theatrical release, and it eventually met the approval of King himself during his own screening in Maine.

“I was in the edit room, putting the finishing touches on the movie, and there was somebody from 20th (Century) who was sitting in the back row of (King’s) cinema, giving me live updates of how he was reacting,” Savage tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So the live feedback was very reassuring, and then he sent this absolutely lovely essay about how much he loved the movie. We all breathed a sigh of relief because his opinion was the one we all cared about.”

But King didn’t stop there, as he then sent a follow-up note to Savage. 

“He sent me an email the next day, saying, ‘Rob, I’m still thinking about your movie,’” Savage shares. “And then he said, ‘I’d love to find something else to work on together,’ which is just a very surreal, incredible thing to get from Stephen King. So that’s going on the wall.”

Viewers will likely recognize Blair from her head-turning role as young Princess Leia on Obi-Wan Kenobi, and because the series had yet to debut during casting, Savage didn’t learn of her secret role until after he had cast the young actor. Blair’s Boogeyman character is rather afraid of the dark, so she sleeps with a moon light in hand, allowing for some inventive scares and sequences. However, in the original script, the moon ball prop was an imitation lightsaber, and as one might expect and understand, Savage was asked by the powers that be to find another glow-in-the-dark toy.

“Disney, in all fairness, didn’t want an image in the movie of young Princess Leia with a shitty knockoff lightsaber fritzing out in her hand,” Savage says. “So they said no and that we had to come up with something else, and so me and the production team desperately searched for (other) kids’ toys that glow.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Savage also details the test screening process and why he was quite concerned going into the first round.

Well, you’ve certainly got a name that’s befitting of a horror director. Did it help decide your fate as far as what genre you’d pursue?

(Laughs.) I think so. This name has got me further than any kind of talent. It just makes sense to be on the end of a horror movie, doesn’t it? 

It worked out well for Wes Craven.

Yeah, I think my name only swayed me.

Director Rob Savage on the set of 20th Century Studios' BOOGEYMAN.

Director Rob Savage on the set of 20th Century Studios’ The Boogeyman.

Patti Perret/20th Century Studios

So who’s the unsung hero in The Boogeyman’s revival following its cancellation, post the Disney-Fox merger?

I think it’s the producers at 21 Laps, Dan Cohen and Dan Levine. They are just so persistent. I was making another movie while we were developing the script on this, and they were just so annoyingly persistent to get notes straight away to, to push it forward to the next draft and to make sure that we got the green light. And it was frankly a little irritating and completely incredible. I was developing a lot of other movies, and The Boogeyman suddenly went to the front of the queue. We got double the amount of development done in a small amount of time because they were constantly on everyone’s case about making this movie.

Coming off of two pandemic-era screenlife films in Host and Dashcam, did it take a minute to get your sea legs on a more traditional film?  

I’d never really thought of myself as somebody who would direct found footage movies. It was just happenstance because we were all locked inside our houses for 2020. So we made this found footage movie (Host), and then we immediately decided to keep the party going and make Dashcam right afterwards. But (The Boogeyman) is a space that I’m much more comfortable in. I grew up on Hitchcock and De Palma and all these visually led filmmakers, and so that’s much more a style that I’m comfortable with. That being said, it had been about three years since I was on a real film set, and so I was kind of anxious about whether I’d be able to pick it up right away. But whether you’re doing it on Zoom or you’re doing it on a set surrounded by a hundred people, it weirdly feels like the same thing if you’re just focusing on the experience you want the audience to have and how you’re attacking a scene. So I was able to take a lot from those found footage movies and apply it here. 

So you committed to The Boogeyman thinking it would be a Hulu release. What happened once test screenings started? 

Well, it was crazy because, prior to the first test screening, I was worried about it. This movie has a completely CGI monster, and we had almost none of it ready for the first test screening. We had animatics in place, and we had a 3D-printed Boogeyman head that I would wave around on a stick in front of the camera. So we had some shots with just that and me going, “Grr.” So I just thought the audience would tear it to pieces, but it scored so incredibly high. You could feel it in the room that the audience was totally with the movie. All of the scares worked. And by the time it got to the third act where you start to see the monster — or more specifically, not see the monster — the audience let it slide. There wasn’t any laughter. They just went with it. They could tell what it was gonna be, and then we only got a higher score and a better reaction on the second test screening. So it just felt like it’d be such a travesty to take what was obviously a great communal experience and put it onto a small screen. 

When that phone call came with the good news, was that one of the best calls of your life?

Maybe this is arrogance, but from the very beginning, I knew that if I didn’t mess it up, we could potentially follow in the footsteps of Barbarian and Smile and all these movies that everyone was talking about. It had been on everyone’s lips for a while, so when I got the phone call, it was amazing. It was a great relief, but it was confirmation of what we were all hoping for throughout the process.

You also did a test screening of sorts with Stephen King. On the day you knew the film was being screened for him in Maine, were you climbing up the walls of your place until you heard his glowing feedback?

I was in the edit room, putting the finishing touches on the movie, and there was somebody from 20th (Century) who was sitting in the back row of the cinema, giving me live updates of how he was reacting. So I was getting texts like, “Stephen King jumped. Stephen King whispered to his nephew,” who was watching it with him. “Stephen King seems to be enjoying it.” So the live feedback was very reassuring, and then he sent this absolutely lovely essay about how much he loved the movie. I read it out to the whole edit team as we were finishing the film, and we all breathed a sigh of relief because his opinion was the one we all cared about.

Is that essay framed on your wall? 

The email that he sent me the next day is genuinely in the process of being framed. He sent me an email the next day, saying, “Rob, I’m still thinking about your movie.” He talked about some other things that he loved about it, and then he said, “I’d love to find something else to work on together,” which is just a very surreal, incredible thing to get from Stephen King. So that’s going on the wall.

From top to bottom, you have a stellar cast. Chris Messina is one of the most underrated actors in the game. You also cast Sophie Thatcher on the heels of her breakout role on Yellowjackets. But when you cast Vivien Lyra Blair, did you know that she was galactic royalty at the time? Obi-Wan Kenobi hadn’t come out yet.

No, I didn’t know. I only knew her from her audition. So we cast her before I knew that, but on the first day of rehearsal, she said, “Rob, I gotta tell you a secret.” And then she whispered in my ear that she was Princess Leia and that the secret project that she’d been alluding to the whole time was (Obi-Wan Kenobi). So she broke her NDA for me and let me know that she’d just come off this huge show. I haven’t seen the whole show yet, but I found a YouTube cut of every single one of her scenes and watched them back to back. And she’s as exceptional in that as she is in this. 

Vivien Lyra Blair as Sawyer Harper in 20th Century Studios' THE BOOGEYMAN.

Vivien Lyra Blair as Sawyer Harper in 20th Century Studios’ The Boogeyman.

Patti Perret/20th Century Studios

Speaking of Vivien, her character’s moon light was a rather inventive prop and light source. Did your DP or gaffer help develop it?

It’s a real thing that you can buy from Amazon. So we bought a few of them, cracked them open and put a light inside that we could control and dial up and down. But the interesting thing about that, especially with the Princess Leia of it all, was that in the original script, she had a toy lightsaber instead of a moon ball that she would hold close to her in bed. That is what I used to sleep with as a kid, and the whole idea was that it was a knockoff lightsaber that started to fritz out when the creature was near and eventually shattered. And Disney, in all fairness, didn’t want an image in the movie of young Princess Leia with a shitty knockoff lightsaber fritzing out in her hand. So they said no and that we had to come up with something else, and so me and the production team desperately searched for kids’ toys that glow. And then we found this moon ball that we thought would be a great prop, and so we rewrote the scenes, which ended up being some of the scariest, best scenes in the movie.

Gosh, what are the odds?

When things like that happen, it always seems to be for the better. 

I have to give you and/or your music supervisor credit because that Nilufer Yanya song is so effective when Sophie’s character returns to school. It puts us directly into her headspace.

It was actually the editor, Peter Gvozdas, who’s incredible. One of his many skills is that he’s able to find tracks that just perfectly get you into the character’s headspace. 90 percent of the music in this movie is stuff that he laid into his very first assembly, and it just became part of the DNA of the movie. 

(L-R): Sophie Thatcher as Sadie Harper and Vivien Lyra Blair as Sawyer Harper in 20th Century Studios' THE BOOGEYMAN.

(L-R): Sophie Thatcher as Sadie Harper and Vivien Lyra Blair as Sawyer Harper in 20th Century Studios’ THE BOOGEYMAN.

Patti Perret/20th Century Studios

The red light scene. Did you turn the lights off and on that day? Or did the aforementioned editor cut to black each time?

No, that was a real thing. We actually programmed it because the intervals of dark had to get progressively shorter and shorter. So we had it on two different timers, a longer one and a shorter one, and then we played it out in real time. As scary as the light device is, so much of that scene rests on Vivien’s performance, and so I didn’t want to break it up into too many pieces. So we ran very long takes and let her build up that fear as we went along. 

I also love the idea of a therapist (Messina’s character) who won’t go to therapy for himself. 

Yeah, the thing that we were trying to discuss with this movie was the idea of the unspoken. It’s about these family members who are all dealing with the same grief, but they’re dealing with it on their own. They’re all on their own separate islands, and the loneliness in their house is the spawning ground for this creature to take up residence. And the initial conversations with Chris were all about, like, “How do we invite the audience into the inner world of this character who’s so able to talk about other people’s trauma, but isn’t able to deal with his own and stare into his own darkness?” And Chris is such a soulful, subtle actor. He was the first person that we cast, and it was because I knew that he was gonna be able to invite the audience into this character who could otherwise be a bit frustrating. He’s a character that’s closed off and disbelieving and emotionally inert when it comes to dealing with the loss of his kids’ mother. But somehow, he invites you into the inner turmoil of this guy in a really beautiful, understated way.

Chris Messina as Will Harper in 20th Century Studios' THE BOOGEYMAN.

Chris Messina as Will Harper in 20th Century Studios’ The Boogeyman.

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing in front of a crackling fireplace and staring at the framed Stephen King email on your wall, what day on The Boogeyman will you likely recall first?

It might be the scene between Chris and Sophie when they’re just sitting on the edge of her bed and talking around the loss of the mum. It’s just a really beautiful, understated scene. It’s one that I can’t believe stayed in the movie and made it to release, because it’s such a quiet, patient scene. It takes its time, and it’s not bombastic or big on emotion. It really makes the audience lean in, and they just performed it so beautifully. I was so used to whizzing the camera around and playing visual tricks in this movie, but we ended up shooting that scene by cross-covering it with two cameras, one on him and one on her. We ran it a couple of times, and they just performed it so beautifully that we didn’t need anything else. So we wrapped early, and you could just feel the electricity in the room on that day. And I just love that a movie with CGI creatures jumping about and things exploding gave space to scenes like that.

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The Boogeyman opens in theaters on June 2nd. This interview was edited for length and clarity.