Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Screenwriter Gary Dauberman has found great success as one of the creative minds behind the ANNABELLE franchise. But instead of solely concentrating on writing the third chapter in THE CONJURING spin-off series, ANNABELLE COMES HOME, he was given the chance to direct the picture as well. It would be his first time helming a feature – and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity he couldn’t refuse.
In the gripping, intensely frightening film, the titular demonic, Puck-ish spirit conduit escapes her glass case interment in the Warren family’s artifact room and wreaks havoc on babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), her bestie Daniela (Katie Sarife) and their charge, young Judy Warren (Mckenna Grace). They spend the night being tormented by a host of devilish spooks.
I recently spoke with Dauberman over the phone about everything from the spooky stuff that plagued their sets, to one artifact room item that didn’t make it on screen (despite their efforts), to how sound design helps tell this story.
Did it take much convincing the higher ups that you wanted to play with not just one artifact in that room, but a bunch?
They were fully on board from day one. That was always one of the first ideas that James and I had for the premise. There was never any challenges that way. The biggest issue there was just which ones we were going to play around with and try to be judicious about it. I had drafts where there was pages of backstory and exposition and too many artifacts, where it had just become a little bit like white noise. That was an early issue I saw where I thought, “I gotta whittle this down a bit.”
Were there artifacts you did not want to touch on because of superstition? Was anything in that room too scary?
[laughs] If it’s too scary, I’m going to definitely throw it up on screen. There was one artifact: Tom Spence, our wonderful prop guy, made a voodoo doll that I wanted to incorporate. It was going to feature in a shot and it went missing. It turned up twenty minutes later on the next stage over, which was not being used by us at all. It’s leg was burnt a little – as if someone took a match to it. I ended up not putting that in the movie because it just felt wrong in some kind of way. [laughs]. Maybe I’ll use it for something else, but it felt like a clear, “Don’t do this.” And I went, “Okay.”
The guides on the Warner Brothers tour have said that on each of these CONJURING movies, something spooky happens on their soundstages.
Oh yeah. That’s why we have the set blessed by a priest generally before we begin. It sets everybody at ease. That said, Mckenna was taking pictures of the people and they were crosses and were blacked out. Strange stuff like that. She tried to take a picture of the doll – and she was using one of those new Polaroid cameras – and that picture didn’t develop. All the girls experienced something a little off.
There are always shenanigans with that doll.
Yeah. It helps the atmosphere – get in the mindset.
Was there an inciting circumstance – maybe motivated you externally or internally – that led you to take this leap from writing to also directing?
When we were talking about the story, I got very excited by it. When we talk about the story, we always talk about filmmakers and stuff. It was kind of a, “Why not you” question posed to me and I was like, “Yeah. Why not me?” It’s always something I’ve wanted to do. I had the advantage of being on the sets for all the other ones and got the good wisdom from all the other filmmakers. I felt like it was the right opportunity to apply what I’ve learned. I’m still learning. It’s still an education. I knew I would be working with the people I’ve worked with for so long, so it felt like a very safe space. It felt like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. What better situation am I gonna have to direct my first feature than this one? There wasn’t much internal debate. It was a quick decision.
Was there a challenge to adding texture through sound design, cinematography and editing?
It was a challenging, but coming up with those shots with Michael Burgess, who is an extraordinary DP, was one of the highlights of the experience. We had the advantage of what we could go over on the Warner Brothers lot – go walk the set and think of cool shots and how best to tell the story. I didn’t want to do something so crazy of a shot that it takes you out of the movie too. You want it to feel organic to the story. Kirk Morri, had been an editor with James [Wan] for years on his movie. So to get into the edit suite with him was like, “What better hands to be in?”
I’m so glad you mentioned sound design too, because it’s something James and I love finding. It’s such an important part of storytelling, especially in horror. It’s the things you can’t see, but you can hear. One of the things that scares me is if I’m working at home late at night and I hear a creak of the house, that stuff always makes my hair stand on end. I like to do that in my movies too. You hear that creak, but what caused it? That sounds design that Aaron Glascock worked at length on was another element of storytelling that I never before was able to get my hands too dirty with, but on this one, I was.
I love that Annabelle has her own signature sound – like an earthquake rumbling – and the artifact room does too – like all the air has been sucked out of it. That hollow sound is what terrifies me.
Oh great. I’m so glad you picked up on that. We worked hard on that stuff. Sometimes it works on a subconscious level. But it’s exciting to hear someone who noticed it because we really work hard at.
You go pretty practical on the stunts and scares which is something this franchise does so well. How limiting was that for you?
Again, it’s something we pride ourselves on. We work with a great practical effects group. It makes everything more real and scary a lot of times. Sometimes you can’t do it and that’s fine too. It helps with the actors to play against something versus nothing. I think they tend to enjoy it more. I loved it when the demon walked on set, because he looked so great. Or when the Ferryman appears in a big black cloak – things like that are that kind of movie magic, where you feel like, “Holy shit! I can’t believe I get to do this.”
Since you’re a writer, does it make easier for you to come up with alternatives for what’s not working on the day – and know the new piece will still work in context?
I think it does help. But I don’t know what it would be like without that. A lot of the filmmakers I’ve worked with are already great storytellers too. It did feel like, to a certain degree, I was still writing the movie when we were shooting it. I was very quick to throw out lines, or I’d see a moment and say, “Let’s try it,” and incorporate it. I’d imagine all filmmakers do that, but I did feel free to do that because I had the ownership to the script. Also, Maddie, Mckenna and Katie were also very gifted storytellers and huge fans of the genre, so it was a very collaborative, playful atmosphere on the set so we were all free to throw out suggestions and try options. My producers are also great storytellers. I never felt like I was alone, on an island, being the lone person trying to come up with a fix. I tried to bring everyone into the conversation and discussion.
Was it intimidating building a narrative around a real life person like Judy, who could give you feedback versus 100% fictional characters?
Yeah, but I talked to Judy a lot about what it was like being the daughter of Ed and Lorraine Warren, what was it like growing up in this house that had all those neat, evil artifacts locked away. I was nervous how she’d react to the story. I never would want to disrespect her or her parents in the work they dedicated their lives to doing. They really helped people out of these situations that the normal authorities could help out. I talked to Judy and her husband Tony and they were very pleased with the end result, which was a huge relief for me.
Gore notwithstanding, when you write these kinds of movies, is there a difference between a “Rated R” scare and a “PG-13” one? Do you have to tone things down after you’ve written them? How does that work for you?
It’s interesting. I don’t think about the rating. THE CONJURING movies, if you think about it, I think this movie has a couple, “fucks,” but there’s no gore, no real violence. I think they’re all rated R for intense scares, or something. I don’t know how that works – why one works over the other. I always just try to write the scariest thing I can write and then if we need to pull back, we can pull back. Obviously, I know if we rip a body to shreds, I get that. But in terms of the scares themselves, I don’t think about them in a different way.
ANNABELLE COMES HOME opens on June 26.