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Gary Dauberman has quickly become the voice for a new generation of horror. He penned the three Annabelle films and makes his directorial debut with Annabelle Comes Home. In addition, his screenwriting credits include The Nun, It, and DC Universe's (short-lived) Swamp Thing TV series. He also has the highly anticipated It: Chapter Two and a Salem’s Lot remake in the pipeline.
Annabelle Comes Home finds paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine’s young daughter, Judy, and her babysitters Mary Ellen and Daniela, terrorized by the demonic doll Annabelle — and her new friends.
Dauberman recently spoke with SYFY WIRE about exploring another corner of the Annabelle franchise, the ghoulish Ferryman, building a better scare, and his upcoming slate of projects.
Annabelle Comes Home is not your first rodeo when it comes to the horror genre. You’ve obviously gotten a sense of what or what doesn’t work. From your perspective, what goes into making a nail-biting sequence?
A lot of it has to do with pacing and building the right amount of tension before you relieve that tension. I think you need to feel your characters are in a certain amount of jeopardy as he or she approaches the corner. To me, it’s more about lingering on the unknown for as long as possible before we spring whatever that monster is on you. I love that creepy sense of dread and tension that you can build with just a simple walk down a hallway or the creak of a floorboard. The “What is that?” is a lot scarier to me than the answer, sometimes.
Annabelle Comes Home focuses in on Judy Warren, the daughter of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine. What made her the perfect gateway into this movie?
It was something I had been thinking about for a long time, of what it must have been like to be the daughter of Ed and Lorraine Warren and having to share them with the world at large as they investigated their various cases. I thought about when you are a kid, you want to be anything but different from the other kids around you. I don’t know if “burden” was the right word, but I would imagine there’s a little bit of anxiety there, a little bit of stress just to be the daughter of Ed and Lorraine, or at least at first, because it makes you feel a little more different than the other kids. I really wanted to tell that story. Hopefully, by the end, Judy accepts and embraces who her parents are and what they do and sees a lot more of them in herself than she did originally.
Do you see her potentially appearing in other movies?
I think there are certainly more stories to tell that center around Judy Warren. But when we work on these movies, we don’t spend too much time considering what’s coming up next. We really try to focus on the task at hand.
Nonetheless, there are so many objects of evil and malevolent spirits locked up in the Warrens’ artifact room. One of them is the Ferryman. Introduce audiences to him. What’s his shtick?
He coincides with the coins we see in a lot of the old photographs online. That is always something that has haunted me and stayed with me since I saw one. As I learned about the mythology of Charon, the Greek mythology of the ferryman who carried souls across the river Styx, I really thought that visually that could be a cool character to play around with. That’s how I started upon the Ferryman.
We get a little bit of the backstory in the movie through a case file, or an audio recording of Ed interviewing one of the girls that the Ferryman has terrorized. If you don’t pay his toll, he takes your soul. That was the start of his whole history and backstory.
A lot of viewers have already responded to the Ferryman in the trailers. As soon as you landed on this spook, did you and James Wan believe you had found the next Annabelle, or Valak the Nun, or the Crooked Man?
I think we talk about the backstory, but we don’t put too much stock in “Oh, we think we have the next real winner here.” Honestly, it’s what works best for our story. We don’t really put much time or effort in making sure “Oh, we really need to set this one up so we can make it the next movie.” I can see how that seems odd, but it’s really not part of the conversation at all.
Even when you look at The Conjuring 2, the reason we had The Nun was from the fan response to her memorable appearance in that movie.
Yeah, it’s really more a part of the conversation of the audience to the movie as opposed to something between James and me. If the audiences raise their hand and are really clamoring for something, it’s nothing we are going to ignore. But we’re also not going to force them to like something they didn’t respond to.
I’m predicting a Ferryman feature film in two to three years. I’m just putting it out there.
I would love that. I’m not gonna lie that I wouldn’t love it. But I’m also not going to will it into existence if no one is asking for it.
We touched on the anatomy of a scary sequence, so let’s break down the scene where Mary Ellen gets dragged across the floor. Was that pretty straightforward for you to write? What made it effective? And how challenging was it to shoot?
That’s part of the Ferryman sequence. I wanted her to run away. I wanted a visceral scare of getting dragged away. If you look at that entire sequence and how it plays in the movie, it starts off small. It starts with Mary Ellen hearing something in the living room. She’s hearing this recording of Ed interviewing someone who has been tormented by the Ferryman. It’s just her going on a “What is that?” investigation. From that, I wanted to really build, build, build. From there we hear coins dropping. Then she’s investigating that. It takes her upstairs. We have Mary Ellen running away from the Ferryman and then, boom, she falls to the ground and something drags her back. It’s just building the natural progression of the scare, so it doesn’t feel like we are flatlining anywhere. I like that the Ferryman has now zeroed in on Mary Ellen as a target. He wants her soul.
Madison Iseman, who plays Mary Ellen, seemed gung-ho for anything and everything.
That helps a great deal. She is such a collaborative partner in these things and was really up for anything. It was a very physical scare for her, but it was something she embraced. It was one of my favorite sequences because we shot most of it all in one day. It was great for Maddie to start small and build to the bigger stuff. I don’t know how she didn’t lose her voice that day, because there was a lot of screaming. Was it challenging to shoot? I was fortunate enough to have such a great crew around me working on all these scares. I didn’t find it all that challenging. I did find it challenging to put Maddie through the wringer as much as I did on that one. But she was so willing to keep going and do another take and do another take that it didn’t present any problems.
Next on your plate is It Chapter Two. Do you feel you can push the intensity and gore with the adult characters compared to their children counterparts?
No, I don’t think I ever pulled back, or Andy Muschietti ever pulled back, because we were dealing with kids. That’s not the type of story we were telling. You try and push the scares as much as you can. I don’t know how this makes me sound, but there’s never a consideration of writing for kids as adults. Maybe it’s the type of scares, but I never go, “Oh, that’s going to be too scary because it’s kids.” That was never really a consideration.
The first It was so well received by fans and critics. What can they expect in the conclusion?
I think it’s a satisfying conclusion for the whole story. If you are a fan of the first one, I have no doubt that you are going to dig the second one. It was challenging to condense that book into two movies, but I had a great team around me to help.
You are also penning the Salem’s Lot remake. In what ways are you updating the TV mini-series?
That’s one of the ones I can’t talk about yet. It’s been a lot of fun working on Salem’s Lot because I haven’t seen a great vampire movie in a long time. I really am excited to play around with vampire lore and really scare people in a different way this time, as opposed to the more supernatural scares we’ve been doing.
We haven’t had that archetypical Nosferatu-type vampire in ages, either.
No, exactly. It feels to be that while vampires have been around for so long, they seem to have dropped off our radar for a bit. I want to put them back on in a big way with this movie.
We’ve talked about that iconic scene where a young vampire comes to his friend’s window and tries to coerce him to let him in. How are you approaching that?
I don’t know. I find that scene pretty perfect. I love that scene.
Lastly, you worked on the Swamp Thing TV series. What’s your take on its cancellation after only one episode aired?
It was a gut punch, because I am so proud of that show and Mark Verheiden leading the charge. The cast and crew did such an amazing job taking what is a really challenging and extraordinary comic and really bringing it to life. I think they did a hell of a job. I’m sad we are not going to be able to carry it forward into Season 2. I’m very proud of what we did achieve. I’m really happy that the critics and fans have been embracing it.
I wish I had some better answer as to why they did what they did, because it would help me sleep better at night, but I don’t have one. I really don’t. I work on the creative. The business side is not my forte. I’m sure they had their reasons.