Playtime is over when Orion Pictures’ Child’s Play comes to theaters on June 21. Directed by Lars Klevberg (Polaroid) and written by Tyler Burton Smith (the upcoming Kung Fury 2), the film is a reboot of the classic ’80s flick of the same name, in which doll inhabited by the spirit of a serial killer torments a young boy and his mother. This time around, the doll—Chucky, of course— is not possessed but rather a piece of rogue AI attempting to adapt to the world around him. In advance of the film’s release, Klevberg sat down down Boxoffice to discuss putting a more “serious” twist on the Child’s Play franchise and how to achieve the perfect horror movie kill.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your experience with the original Child’s Play franchise before you got involved with this film? Were you a fan of it?
I’m a huge fan of the series and the first one, specifically. As a moviemaker, a filmmaker, I’m [impressed by] what they achieved in making that movie, in terms of that storytelling and also how they did the practical effects. I was very much aware of the whole Child’s Play universe before I embarked on this. But I never imagined that I would do a Child’s Play movie, to be honest. I look for certain things in my movies in terms of dealing with emotions and characters. It was so interesting and surprising for me, because [the new] Child’s Play script—I was just blown away by it. I was very happy with how they did the script.
The original Chucky started out as more of a straightforward ‘80s slasher villain, in terms of his motivation. It’s only later in the the franchise that they start fleshing the character out and exploring new facets of his personality. But in this version, he’s introduced as a more nuanced character.
That was one of the most important things for me to fall in love with this story and this movie. How it builds the relationship between Andy and Chucky is, for me, the most interesting thing, because it allows me to create Chucky as a character that as an audience you emotionally connect to. Also, we’re dealing with AI. We remove the voodoo concept of it. [In the original franchise, killer Charles Lee Ray is fatally wounded and uses voodoo to transfer his soul into the body of a doll.] That allowed me as a storyteller to really drive down on what Chucky’s motivation is. What does Chucky want and how can he achieve it? When you look through the eyes of something sinister, at something coming into this world for the first time and adapting to his surroundings, that allows for some really interesting storytelling, I believe. We can flesh out his character and understand his motivations and his actions to get what he wants. That was the most challenging but also the most rewarding thing during this movie, to really see Chucky as a plausible character. It’s almost like a Greek tragedy in the end.
And you can do that—have this more complex character—and still have him be scary.
Yeah. I think you can do that. Many of my favorite horror movies balance nicely on the edge, where it’s drama and horror and also some comedy. It’s challenging to do that, but it’s also a very interesting way of working. It’s a Chucky movie, so of course first and foremost it’s a horror movie. But for this movie and how I wanted to do it, I wanted to not shy away from touching upon the emotional aspects of it, and also the drama and the humor.
What are some of your favorite horror movies that walk that line?
Lately, Get Out is a really great movie. It shows that original storytelling is still wanted by the audience. And also [J.A. Bayona’s] The Orphanage. It doesn’t shy away from being emotional. The ending of that movie—even if I was terrified throughout the whole movie, you kind of reverse it at the end. I was just so emotionally connected. For me, that was a game-changer. And also the Swedish film, Let the Right One In. That’s a horror movie, but it’s also a love story between two isolated teenagers. That’s one of my top ten movies of all time. I love stories that dare to do something like that.
Let the Right One In and The Orphanage are both such beautiful films.
They have such great storytelling. Even if you’re dealing with Chucky—this iconic slasher character that many people remember as as being unfortunately a little campy at the end—I wanted to see how it’s possible to do something completely different with this character and really hit the emotional side of him.
Here’s where I have to admit that I really like the campy Chucky movies.
Oh yeah, I love those! I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which I think is a cool thing. But we wanted to try and make something a little bit more serious. At the same time, it was important to me to keep the humor that all the Chucky movies are known for. Child’s Play has stayed relevant through all these years because it allows Chucky be a character that has a personality. For me, I believe that’s the reason he’s been with us all these years and hasn’t faded away.
Speaking of the blending of horror and comedy—I really enjoyed the kills in this movie. They’re inventive and really fun.
The studio said, ‘Obviously, you’re going to do an R-rated movie,’ and we thought that was the right choice. Not because we just wanted to show gore and kills. But when you’re dealing with Chucky and Child’s Play, it’s always been there. Certain movies, certain series or franchises, you feel like you have to not only pay homage to it, but maintain it as part of a consistent universe. That included having some original kills and not shying away from showing the violence and the gore. Not in a sickening way, but in a light-spirited away. It was important for us. We had a lot of fun designing those kills. Tyler did such a good job writing them. For me, it was trying to make it as visceral and visual as possible.
What, to you, makes a good horror movie kill scene?
It depends on the movie. You have The Blob from ’85, the remake. It’s almost like the mother of all horror movies. [The method of the kills] is baked into the characterization of the antagonist. It’s how the character acts, evolves, and works in the story that allows the movie to come up with those kills. The Blob is probably the holy grail of iconic horror movie kills. On the other side, you have the chestburster scene in Alien, which is my all-time favorite movie. [That kill] made total sense, not only as an iconic horror movie scene, but with the way it integrates the logic and the characterization of the antagonist. It opens up the guidelines of how they xenomorph works and lives and acts. Every kill that is integrated into the story and the character, that’s a great horror movie kill, for me personally.
It’s not just ‘What wacky stuff can we do?’
No, I don’t think so. That’s a little cheap for me. If you find a way to incorporate it into the story and the characters, but at the same time keep the “whoa” factor, I think that’s the best way of doing it.
Can you talk a bit about how you got Mark Hamill to voice Chucky? Obviously, that’s a huge casting coup. The man’s a voice acting legend.
I didn’t look for anyone until I was finished shooting the movie and had started post, because I was so busy. I wanted to have someone who was able to create Chucky as a dynamic and complex character. And I knew that Mark is a terrific actor. At the same time, we need someone that is able to use his voice as his greatest tool. We sent him the script and the look book and wrote him a letter. Of course, we never imagined we would get him. We thought he would turn us down, but that it was worth trying. But he responded to it in a very positive way. I had a phone call with him, and he was super motivated. He felt thrilled to be a part of it. He’s super professional. He watched all the Child’s Play movies back to back, and we discussed a lot and worked together. It was an amazing experience. I couldn’t be happier.
And on top of the performance being good, you obviously don’t want it to be something that replicates what Brad Dourif did.
Yes. For me, when [the news broke about the new Child’s Play movie], the whole [horror] community and the whole movie fanbase and everybody involved kind of said, “OK, who’s going to be the voice? It has to be Brad Dourif, or we’re not endorsing the movie.” I was like: “Oh! I wasn’t aware that the fanbase liked Brad Dourif [as much as that]”. It was really interesting. For me, everything comes from the story and what kind of movie I would like to tell. And I needed someone that was able to create this kind of Chucky that you connect with and that you want to follow regardless of his actions. That was the first priority for me. And then, of course, I was happy getting someone that we—as crewmembers and makers of the movie, but also the future audience—would accept and trust embarking on this story. Mark Hamill killed it. He hit all of those notes.
For Chucky, you worked with animatronics behind the scenes. There were six Chucky dolls, right?
Yeah, we had a bunch of them. We had a couple of RC dolls that could be controlled remotely. Then you had puppets that demanded four or five people operating them. And then we had a stunt Chucky that you can toss around in the room. You can smash him, you can hit him with a bat, you can do whatever and he’ll still maintain his posture. Some of the dolls had more angry expressions, some had a sad expression. That was important for me, and for everyone involved, because we wanted to have expressionistic dolls. At the same time, the production moved pretty fast, so we needed something that would be precise on set every day.
Had you worked with animatronics or puppetry before Child’s Play?
I touched upon it on my first feature, Polaroid. The end scene there had all kinds of departments working together: special effects, practical effects, stunt work, puppeteering, special effects makeup. So I had a little experience with it, but not too much. I was adamant that with this movie, it had to be practical effects. And I knew that would be a challenge. I knew that the original Child’s Play movie from ’88 had a really tough time creating all those scenes. It was groundbreaking at that time, what they did. And it still is. Those effects they did in the original movie still hold up today. I was determined to do it [with practical effects], and so were the producers and the crew. If you present something to the audience, the brain will catch when it’s not real. They feel disconnected from it. For me, it was important to keep it as practical as possible in most of the scenes in this movie.
What sorts of challenges did that present during shooting?
It’s hell! [chuckles] You have to be prepared, first and foremost. When you’re dealing with animatronics, you can’t come to set that day like, ‘OK, let’s figure how to shoot the scene.’ I don’t shoot like that, regardless. I like to be prepared, even if it’s just two actors talking. I storyboard everything. For this, I storyboarded every scene and sequence with Chucky weeks in advance. I discussed with prop masters, I discussed with actors, I discussed with the special effects people how we’re going to do it. Then everybody’s informed about what needs to be prepared and what needs to be done. But it takes time, and we don’t have a lot of times these days making movies, unfortunately. So you have to be prepared, and you have to adapt and move quickly if something happens. You need to have a backup plan. You need to say, ‘OK, this doll doesn’t work. That scene didn’t work how we wanted to do it, so we have to have a backup plan. OK, we’re going to do it like this.’
You read horror stories about Spielberg on the set of Jaws. It sounds awful.
Yeah, but here’s the difference: He went 100 days over. You can’t do that in Hollywood these days. You can’t go one day over. You can’t go ten hours over. It’s impossible. It’s not made for that anymore. That was Hollywood a long time ago. You have to be prepared, and you have to get what you want to get on the days you have.
So do you have this vision of how the scene is going to be done, and then something goes wrong with the animatronic, and then you have to change it all up?
No, we don’t have to. For me, one of the guidelines I had for making this movie was that Chucky needs to adapt to the cinematography and not the other way around. I wouldn’t allow Chucky to force us—me as a director, or the DP—to sacrifice our wishes shooting specific scenes, like when he kills people or when he acts in front of other people. You have to storyboard everything. You have to previz it and show it to every crewmember so they know what they have to prep. That’s the key. If you do that, you’re pretty safe. But suddenly Chucky’s hair starts to fire up because one of the batteries heated. Or the range for the RC operator is too far, so Chucky can’t move his arm, or his mouth doesn’t move in a specific emotional scene between Andy and Chucky. All those things add up, and you kind of have to fix them there, and that’s stressful.