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'Clown' co-writer Christopher Ford on how a fake trailer and 'ALF' led to the gonzo body horror flick
Before he tackled Spider-Man, director Jon Watts tackled a clown demon ravenous for human flesh.
Before Jon Watts got wrapped up in the MCU's Spider-Man, he got his start with a clown demon ravenous for human flesh. A little over a decade ago, the filmmaker and his creative partner, Christopher Ford, found themselves a little frustrated with their Hollywood careers and wanted to take matters into their own hands. The pair "decided to make a YouTube post where we would make it look like we had collaborated with Eli Roth on a horror movie," Ford recalls over a recent Zoom call with SYFY WIRE. "It would be like a prank, but we wanted to make it seem as real as possible. We had this whole idea of a body horror movie of a dad turning into a clown demon. So we just did it."
The faux trailer ended up catching the attention of Roth, who reached out to Watts and Ford, asking if they'd be interested in turning the idea into a fully-fledged feature. Of course, the answer was a resounding "YES!!!" and Roth signed on as a producer. "I remember the first time I met him," Ford says. "Obviously, there was all this talking about the creative part of the story — it being scary and funny and all that. But he also could talk about the business in a way that I, as some schmo, didn't understand or know, and immediately realized, ‘Oh, that's what successful people are. They are both creative, and understand how to put a project together.’"
Production on the aptly-titled Clown kicked off in Canada in 2012, but the finished film didn't reach American audiences until 2016. The movie stars Andy Powers ("We cast the nicest guy we could find, the best dad, and then had him have to do such horrible things," Ford admits) as a mild-mannered father and real estate agent whose life is thrown into chaos when he unknowingly puts on the skin and hair of a fictional Nordic demon called "the Clöyne," a malevolent winter spirit that once lured children into its cave to feast on their flesh.
"We really wanted to make up the mythology of the clown and make people think that it's true," Ford explains. "Not that there are real monsters, but that, ‘Oh, don't you know that the clown with the white face and the red nose is actually from this Nordic monster tradition?’"
As the skin and hair fuse with his body, the protagonist undergoes a grotesque metamorphosis, developing an insatiable hunger for kiddos. While this may seem like a nod to Stephen King's Pennywise, Ford insists that he and Watts hoped to channel the classic body horror of David Cronenberg joints like The Fly.
"The idea of it growing out from the suit and kind of mutating in his body felt natural with the premise," he explains. "The kind of American Werewolf thing of your bones breaking and reforming ... The reason clowns have those big, long feet is because they really do grow into wolf-like [limbs]. We all tried to take the design from that original, creepy idea and worked [out] what would be the realistic thing in this unrealistic transformation."
He continues: "We were also inspired by ALF. There’s this one classic ALF episode where he goes through some phase where he becomes ravenous to eat cats. And so, he's like, ‘Please lock me in this cage and no matter what I do, don't let me out for 24 hours.' Then there's this disturbing scene where the kid wakes up in the middle of the night and goes to get a glass of water and ALF is in the cage and he's like, ‘Let me out. I'm fine. I'm all better. You don't have to worry anymore.’ [The kid is] like, ‘Really ALF?’ And he’s like, 'I would never lie to you. Just let me out of the cage…’"
It's a pretty gonzo set-up, but Clown — which certainly shares some cotton candy DNA with Killer Klowns from Outer Space — expertly walks the tightrope between visceral horror and outlandish campiness. In other words, it's a contemporary cult classic in the making.
"I think the trick to any tone is you just have to make sure that for the character, it's all as real as possible," Ford says. "So we just tried to run it through, ‘What would you really do?’ kind of a filter, moment-to-moment, so it's not too zany in the character logics and motivations. That part could be really real and then as your treat for doing all the hard work, you get to throw in rainbow-colored blood splatters. But you've got to earn it ... Honestly, I don't get people who can just write just a straight crime drama or something where there's no wack-a-doo premise that they have to fight against."
Roth encouraged the duo to push the concept as far as it would go, allowing Watts and Ford to do something you rarely, if ever, see in modern horror: put children in grave (albeit simulated) danger. In particular, the third act climaxes with a bloody sequence at (where else?) a Chuck E. Cheese, where the innocent and inviting imagery of ball pits and tube-based playgrounds is suddenly transformed into a horrific slaughterhouse.
"He was more ready to put kids in peril than we were," Ford says of their producer. "So that was a great partnership and it was just baked into the premise from the start that the clown wants to eat kids. So once you accept that, it's not like the Chuck E. Cheese part is going too far. It's already an extreme. I would say the choice there was just to keep it feeling a bit mythological and he gobbles them up as opposed to making it too gory on the kids' side. There's enough tension and fear there without having to hit that too hard. And so, doing something like playing with some iconic ball pit imagery lets you show those images as opposed to showing something that would cross a line."
Made on an estimated budget of $1.5 million, Clown brought in a little over $4 million worldwide. By all accounts, it was a modest box office success, though no follow-ups were ever formally discussed, despite the ripe opportunity for building out this world. That could all change, now that Watts and Ford's stars are on the rise in the world of entertainment (more on that below).
"There's some secret talk of a sequel going on even to this very day," Ford says. "We always intended for it to be kind of a saga, which was part of the fun of it. How can we make a mythology out of this? ... There are so many possibilities. There's following the suit that could lead who knows where? There's also the possibility of going the other way and delving back into the mythology, the origins of that suit, those kinds of demons; or just this idea of forgotten, mythological seasonal spirits. Like if this is a winter spirit, what’s the twisted spring spirit? Is that where we get our Easter Bunny story? What could you do there?"
Just a year after the wide release of Clown in the United States, Watts and Ford made the jump to blockbuster filmmaking with Spider-Man: Homecoming (the duo received screenwriting credits). Peter Parker's first standalone adventure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe brought in almost $900 million worldwide, opening the door for Watts to direct two more installments — Far From Home and No Way Home — both of which brought in over $1 billion at the global box office.
"That was quite a journey. That happened relatively quickly, which is kind of awesome," Ford says of their swing (pun intended) to the big leagues. "For me, just from the writing side — whether the genre is superhero or horror, it's that idea of taking a pretty wacky premise; whether it's a boy who can climb up walls or a dad turning into a clown monster — and then trying to find a cinematic, but real, story to tell using that [concept]."
Based on his critical and box office success with the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler, Watts found himself tapped to direct the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. However, he ultimately exited the project earlier this year in order to focus on a Star Wars-inspired television series, Skeleton Crew, for Disney+. Previously described as a nod to classic Amblin movies, the show stars Jude Law and centers around a group of kids getting up to all sorts of hijinks throughout the galaxy far, far away.
"I would just say we're trying to follow that same playbook of, 'No matter the incredible premise, just try to do right from the characters’ perspectives,'" teases Ford, who serves as a writer on Skeleton Crew. "Kids lost in the Star Wars galaxy. What would they actually do? What would you do? Figure it out from there, one step at a time."
Clown is now streaming on Peacock.