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Nightbooks writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis on the challenges and joys of kid-friendly horror
Nightbooks, the new Netflix original family horror film directed by Dave Yarovesky, is the story of two young people, Alex (Winslow Fegley) and Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), who have to find their way out of a dark situation in no small part through the telling of stories. So, perhaps it's no coincidence that the film was written by two people, Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, who know their way around a dark situation, and know how to tell stories together.
Though the duo admit they didn't think of it at the time, looking back on their work on the film based on J.A. White's novel of the same name, it's easier to see the connection.
"Yeah, because we’re basically Alex and Yasmin," Daughtry told SYFY WIRE with a laugh. "Basically, I’m the bitter, untrustful, suspicious, paranoid girl who’s roaming around, and then my real friend comes along. And he’s just nerdy and completely awkward and weird. Everybody thinks he’s weird, but I love him."
Iaconis agreed with a laugh of his own: "It's true."
While their characters meet when they're both trapped in the mysterious, neverending apartment of a well-dressed witch (Krysten Ritter), Iaconis and Daughtry have been collaborating under much better circumstances for quite some time. The duo first gained attention in the horror community with their work on the Conjuring universe film The Curse of La Llorona, then proved their versatility with the romantic drama Five Feet Apart.
When it came to Nightbooks, Daughtry and Iaconis were both intrigued by the idea of working with horror legend Sam Raimi (one of the film's producers) and by White's book and its tale of childhood horror obsession.
"We were very lucky to get the job. We wanted it," Daughtry said. "I think Tobias’s son had already read the book, and as soon as I read it I was like, 'We have to do whatever it takes to get this job.'"
Iaconis added, "And I think, also, what Netflix, in particular, was looking for is I think they wanted some writers with some experience in horror, because they wanted it to be a children’s movie, but they wanted to kind of push it when it came to it being genuinely scary. So, I think that’s another one of the reasons why we had a shot at it, is we had done a horror movie."
Nightbooks begins with Alex's life as a horror-obsessed young kid who's worried his favorite genre — and his habit of writing horror stories of his own down in his "nightbooks" — might have made him the weird kid at school who doesn't have any friends. When he finds himself in the clutches of the witch, though, his knack for making up horror stories just might save his life, as the witch demands a new tale every night in exchange for his survival. That framework meant Daughtry and Iaconis had to work within the structure of White's original story, while also considering how to responsibly script a number of stories within stories so they made sense within the film's scope. As Nightbooks viewers will see, they found a way.
"It’s a story-within-a-story book, so we always kind of liken it to One Thousand and One Nights meets Hansel and Gretel,'" Daughtry said. "So, he’s having to tell a story every night, and the stories become really fantastic. So, finding a way to write that within and not make a $100 million movie, you know what I mean? Because there are these scenes, these really fantastic action sequences, that we were using every tool we knew to kind of scale it back but still have the feeling of bigness about it."
Iaconis added, "The story in the book was there; we just needed to pare it back — not just for budget, like Mikki was saying, but also just in terms of time. A whole novel would be a five-hour movie, so we just had to cut it back. But the great thing is the book, from start to finish, had the central story laid out for us, and the main characters."
Adapting the book also brought with it the unique challenge of crafting a horror story for children. Throughout the film, Alex and Yasmin face all manner of creepy situations, and Daughtry and Iaconis were the first creative voices in the process to decide how far to push them, balancing the scare factor with the family-friendly factor.
"We told the scares as purely as we could, maybe edging them up a little to attract everyone, but also have that youthfulness about it," Daughtry explained. "We’re like, 'What is scary through the eyes of a child here? And can we also bend that a little bit to make it fun and a little bit scary for the older kids, too?' But since it’s told from the eyes of an 11-year-old, we tried to always stay in what would be the scariest thing for Alex or Yasmin, what would be the scariest thing that would occur for them right here? And because we’re such character-driven writers, we always kind of come for that space. We didn’t intentionally necessarily say, 'We need to skew this towards children.' We said, 'What’s their scariest moment here?'"
Iaconis added, "So, in the initial draft of the script, [we said] let’s push it a little far, and then let’s see what everybody says to it. And I think as a team, I think we found that we walked that fine line."
Walking that fine line was, of course, in service to the source material, to the vision of the director and producers, and to the film's young stars, but there's also another layer to Nightbooks that's worth mentioning. It's a story about a boy who's obsessed with scary stories who, among other things, has to learn how to embrace what he's been conditioned to think is weird. In the process of conveying that, the film becomes a love letter to everything from Fangoria magazine to The Lost Boys.
For Daughtry and Iaconis, who count horror classics like The Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Thing among their own horror gateways, the idea that they got to write a potential gateway of their own for young viewers, some of whom might become horror writers themselves, makes the whole process that much sweeter.
"I hope that’s exactly what they come away with. We need more good horror stories. We need bad horror stories. We need stories of any kind," Daughtry said. "The more people are dreaming, the happier I am. Especially if it’s kids."
"Yes," Iaconis added. "If it’s any kind of inspiration for any kind of child, that would be fantastic."
Nightbooks is now on Netflix.