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Childhood can be scary, and few authors in recent memory have captured that feeling quite so well as R.L. Stine, whose 58 Goosebumps books have sold more than 400 million copies worldwide since 1992. Next year, Gulliver’s Travels director and screenwriter Rob Letterman will bring some of Stine’s most famous creatures to life in a Goosebumps film starring Jack Black, who plays a grumpier, more eccentric version of the author.
Spinoff Online sat down with Letterman at Comic-Con International in San Diego for a one-on-one discussion of the film, how it relates to the books, and his ongoing creative relationship with Black.
As he did in 2010 with Gulliver’s Travels, which also starred Black, Letterman is taking a familiar story – Stine’s children’s books – in a completely new direction. However, the filmmaker doesn’t see that as a trend.
“Every project’s different,” he said, “so I don’t really think of them as the same thing. Goosebumps was a great opportunity. I just love those old Amblin-type of movies, you know? The premise when the studio showed it to me was just ripe for that sort of thing, this Pandora’s box of creatures just being let out. It was a very cool idea.
“I love working with Jack, and I just responded to the material,” he continued. “In many ways, like Gulliver’s, Goosebumps is very true to the underlying material. The books, while they’re an anthology series, and our movie kind of has its own take and is not any one of the books, it does stay with the spirit of the books, about kids dealing with something that adults don’t believe them, that’s actually happening, and having sort of a grounded world and real issues and relationships and then this weird thing happens and they have to deal with it. It’s very much like the books. And those books, for kids — at least for my kids — are legitimately scary and funny at the same time. So we’re trying to weave that same tone.”
Having worked with Black on Gulliver’s Travels and Shark Tale, Letterman said he’s developed a creative rapport with the actor. “It’s a lot of fun. He’s awesome. I’m pretty lucky, it’s pretty effortless now, because we’ve worked together, and we’re friends,” he said. “He’s amazing. On this one, what I was really impressed with, prior to this movie, he did this film Bernie. It was amazing, and he was amazing in it. So when we started talking about this, it was like, having Jack – he’s a classically-trained actor, he’s super funny, but he’s classically trained – he can come up with a character, and seeing him take on R.L. Stine was awesome.”
Although Stine is a major character in the film, Black’s character isn’t quite like the real-life author. “They both wear the same outfit,” Letterman joked about similarities. “No. It’s semi-true. Jack’s suit is a little more tailored than Bob Stine’s outfit. Obviously, it’s fictionalized, it’s not literally R.L. Stine. His character is very much a misanthrope who lives very much in his own imagination, and that imagination manifests itself into reality. That’s the whole thing. And Jack sort of took on that ‘writer who lives by himself,’ in his own world role, and dived into it and made that his thing. It works amazing in the movie.
“The real R.L. Stine is a very sweet man,” Letterman laughed.
Black’s Stine will be joined on his adventure by two teen heroes, Zach (played by Dylan Minnette) and Hannah (Odeya Rush). “Zach is a kid who moves from New York to this small town with his mom, played by Amy Ryan,” Letterman explained. “He’s transplanted from the neighborhood and the world that he knows into this other world, and he doesn’t want to be. And you find out that his dad passed away prior to them moving, and he’s doing his best to fit in but it’s all new. He meets this girl who lives in the house next door and kind of falls for her. The problem is that that turns out to be the daughter of R.L. Stine. And one thing leads to another, and that’s how the adventure starts. It’s a little bit of a love story between him and Hannah, and he also befriends this kid named Champ, who’s played by Ryan Lee. And the three of them, plus Jack Black, go on this crazy, crazy ride.”
Letterman was tight-lipped about which Goosebumps books most influenced the movie. “There’s a certain number of them that I gravitated to, and then just over the course of development, others popped up,” the director said. “But I think the idea is to let them all out, put them on screen, but also follow the basic construct of those books: a kid or kids moving into a place, and it’s all through their point of view, stumbling across something and the adults don’t believe them and they have to deal with it. It’s very much in the spirit of Goosebumps.” He did say, however, that Night of the Living Dummy plays an “obvious” role in the film.
The filmmaker also praised the production team, saying he “fought really hard” to get director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe on the project. “He’s not the obvious choice for a movie like this,” Letterman said. “It’s something I’m very proud of, because the look of the movie is unique. He did Blue Jasmin, and he did The Road, and he did this amazing horror film The Others. You just really wouldn’t expect that for this kind of movie, but it elevated the material, so there’s a very natural, grounded look to everything. Plus we have one of the greatest visual effects studios in the world doing visual effects, MPC. So there’s a lot of mixtures of talent going into this movie to take it to the next level.”
That talent, Letterman said, will allow the grounded feel and the special effects to blend seamlessly. “It’s laying a certain tone; a lot of the movie’s shot on location, and a lot of it is naturalistic, both in the characters, the emotion and the acting, but also the look of it. And the visual effects will fit into that. I’m confident that the team we have, when you see a creature, it’s going to look photo-real. It’s gonna look like they’re there, and that’s pretty exciting.”
Goosebumps opens Aug. 7, 2015.