It’s like we barely made it. If we had one less hour, the movie would’ve fallen apart. It was crazy.
There’s a long-standing tradition of Yuletide, home-invasion horror stretching back to Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher Black Christmas. Now Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out is destined to become a perennial favorite in its own right, especially for the dark-hearted who prefer their holiday-themed entertainment as perversely un-wholesome as they come. Deck the halls with your red right hand because, a home run of a genre mash-up, this is Scream meets Home Alone.
It’s Christmas time on a quiet, suburban street in Anytown, USA. 17-year-old Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) has Luke (Levi Miller) in her charge while his parents (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) head off to a holiday party. At age 12, you might expect Luke to chafe at still requiring a sitter. In reality, he can’t wait to declare his love for Ashley and—hoo boy—consummate it. Clearly a nonstarter from the get-go, his romantic scheme is further thwarted by strange phone calls and a message-bearing brick flying through the window. “You leave, you die,” the note reads. Mysterious figures start appearing around the house: a clear threat of menacing intruders. Up till this point, the film is mechanical in its assembly. However, Better Watch Out’s slice of familiarity is anything but once the second act spills onto its festive rug, before it’s ripped from underneath us.
So who could be tap-tap-tapping at the door? Better Watch Out is the kind of movie that demands you go into it completely cold and enjoy its bounty unspoiled. We can say this much: It’s a mean-spirited central conceit, comfortably seated between real malice and cartoon craziness.
Anthem reached out to Peckover during Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea to discuss Wes Craven, his “weird” past gigs, and his second feature Better Watch Out.
Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival runs July 13 – 23.
Better Watch Out had a very positive reception at BIFAN. People really warmed up to this young boy having such a crush on his babysitter, and that’s where all the laughs were.
I was fortunate enough to get flown out to Italy for the Torino Film Festival and it was my first time watching the movie with a non-English speaking audience. It was so interesting because people were laughing just as much, but not on the same beats. I think it’s because they didn’t do a word for word translation. They did something better, which was to translate it so the humor and tone would come across but not necessarily on the same lines. It made me appreciate translations.
In writing about Better Watch Out, critics have been using the shorthand “Scream meets Home Alone.” Is that something you once said in an interview?
Those weren’t my words. I feel like when you have something really unique, people find what mash-up works for them. When I was pitching this around, I was telling people, “What if you took a John Hughes movie set-up with a 12 year old boy trying to win over his babysitter and then gave that script to Quentin Tarantino, like, ‘Now fuck this up’?” [Laughs] I feel like it’s really easy to mess up tonal blends, which is why so many people are afraid to make those movies. At least in my experience, the trick is to just be honest with the characters and make it situation-based because, as soon as you try to have one-liners, it immediately crumbles. Every time I do a movie, the horror and the comedy is the icing that brings in the audience, but deep down, the reason I hope it resonates with people is because the acting is really good and you believe the characters.
Your young actors got progressively better, too. You’re a big Wes Craven fan, right?
I’m not being disingenuous when I say that Scream put me on this movie-obsessed path in life. I think it came at the right time for me. What was your experience like?
I was also at the perfect age for that movie. It came out in ’96, right? I was 14. I was at that perfect age of just wanting to see cool stuff. I’d watched a lot of slashers before Scream, but it’s like I appreciate it more as an adult now that I’ve really watched them all. Kind of like The Cabin in the Woods, it just takes the entire genre and deconstructs it, and that’s definitely a part of what inspired Safe Neighborhood [the original title for Better Watch Out]. My favorite movies these days in horror are the ones that subvert expectations, particularly in the home invasion genre, which has gotten really oversaturated and a little stale. I think that’s why people responded so much to Don’t Breathe last year. I guess the subversion with that one was in asking, “Who are the real victims in this story?” With Better Watch Out, we did a similar subversion. That’s why I loved making all those references to Wes Craven in this one. It puts you in this false comfort of, “I know that reference, I know what this is.” Then when it’s not, it’s more shocking to people, hopefully.
You started with a very pitchable idea. It’s an idea that you can safely assume would be very infectious to others. Did you find that was your experience with investors and whatnot?
Yeah! Again, people usually freaked out when they heard, “We’re going to do horror and comedy” because that’s failed so often. But when I said, “John Hughes meets Quentin Tarantino,” everyone’s eyes always lit up and they said, “I would watch that.” From that mash-up and succeeding with pitching it to people, I kind of knew to stick to that because, generally when it works in a pitch and as long as you stick to that same feeling, it should work in the film.
I was laughing the other day when I saw the poster for your 2010 found footage movie Undocumented. It just screams Trump America. It’s Uncle Sam with the tagline, “I want you to go home.” You were toying with found footage well before Cloverfield.
So Cloverfield came out in the summer of ’08. When I went around with the script for Undocumented, the found footage genre hadn’t started up yet. When we made it, all these other found footage movies started getting announced. I just remember going, “Noooooooo.” [Laughs] That was another very pitchable idea. I pitched Undocumented to three different companies and they all said, “If you write it, we’ll buy it.” I was one year out of film school, so it was a cool feeling to have struck this idea that everyone wanted. But in hindsight, I feel like the movie came out five years too early. I’ve always been very sensitive to some American views towards immigrants. I was raised in Texas where, you know, there’s this very thin line between patriotism and racism. It always bugged me. I’m not a U.S. citizen—I’m half Canadian, half Australian. So even though my skin was the same color as them, I always felt kind of like an outsider. Plus, I have a lot of friends in L.A. who immigrated illegally when they were kids and I heard all these horror stories about what they went through to cross the border. It was an easy premise to come up with because I kept hearing more stories from real people who’ve gone through it.
You were originally set to film Better Watch Out in the U.S. Maybe this ties into you being Australian, but how did you end up shooting it in Australia and with an Australian cast?
A buddy of mine who’s also a fellow horror director, Marcel Sarmiento, was able to secure funding to make three movies for $1.5 million. We were about to shoot Safe Neighborhood for half a million in South Carolina when a mentor of mine at the time read it and said, “I have so many people who would make this for a larger budget. Let me shop this around.” Also, I was developing another project at Universal and this mentor was the executive there. I was like, “I don’t mean to double-dip, but would you read this other script that I just finished?” Anyway, he knew that I was Australian so he sent it to some Australian investors. Lo and behold, they responded very positively and said, “We’ll make it for $3 million Australian,” which is about $2 million U.S. It was very hard to say no to that. [Laughs] Even though we weren’t gonna have snow or anything like that, we did get told we’d shoot this on a stage. I had never shot on a stage before, so that was exciting. My production designer was the supervising art director on Mad Max: Fury Road and he just finished Thor: Ragnarok. So all these really incredible talent came together for a low-budget movie. It’s kind of a dream come true. And because it was an Australian production, every single person had to be Australian, including all the actors. We were able to get Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen from the U.S., but that was it—that was the hard line.
That was a nice touch. They’re both very likable actors.
They’re wonderful. I’d never seen them in a movie together and it had been a bit of a dream of mine. It really turned out better than I could’ve hoped. The things they say—it’s not what you expect to come out of parents’ mouths. That’s the John Hughes-ness of it. John Hughes always starts his movies with larger-than-life characters.
At USC, there are a lot of industry-focused courses about pitching, which you’re obviously good at and had a lot of luck with. Do you feel like film school helped you in the long run?
I’m going to surprise you: I wasn’t in the production program or the writing program. I was in the Peter Stark Producing Program. I kind of knew I was cheating the system by applying there because I never had any aspirations to become a producer. But I’d heard that Hollywood was so tough and so dog eat dog that, I thought, what if I went to school for producing so I could learn everything that producers want? And everything that studios, agents, managers, and financiers want? And just learn about that world so I can place myself in it with a little less difficulty? It worked out. Undocumented was produced by my classmates Josh Finn and Keith Calder, who graduated one year ahead of me, and Better Watch Out was produced by another classmate, Brion Hambel. I basically graduated with all these other people who wanted to be producers. I guess it was a sneaky move that turned out okay. [Laughs]
It’s kind of brilliant, isn’t it?
I guess it’s brilliant because it worked, but if it hadn’t, I’d be crying in my soup right now because USC was expensive.
You saw over 200 actors to cast your two male leads. I guess that’s a familiar story: casting a wide net like that to find younger talent. Is it because there’s a smaller pool of known, talented actors for that age bracket? You ended up casting recognizable faces in the end.
I think the reason we read so many boys was because those two characters, both Luke [played by Levi Miller] and Garret [played by Ed Oxenbould], have to play high on multiple substances, and they both have to be charming and turn that leaf when things get gritty. I kept reading boys who were really excellent actors, but they wouldn’t hit all the marks that the movie needed. In hindsight, I really shot myself in the foot by writing characters that had so much a need for range and writing a movie that required the audience to be able to watch 12 year olds for 90 minutes. That’s tough. I lucked out. Levi and Ed are, as far as I know, the two best teenage male actors in Australia right now. And Olivia [DeJonge] is, as far as I know—and I spoke to a lot of people about this—the most talented female teenage actor out of Australia right now. I’d love to say that it was because the script was awesome and it attracted everybody—and I hope that’s true—but as far as I’m concerned, it feels like it was a great deal of luck to get the cast that I did because when you see the movie, everyone’s chemistry is insane.
Did your actors really undergo psychological evaluations before signing up for the film?
Yes. [Laughs] It was a specifically Australian thing. It’s child services and it’s good that they’re there. Considering the content of our movie, we went through the ringer. We had to hire a psychologist who had to assess the boys and make sure that they were emotionally capable of handling it. One of my proudest moments was when the psychologist came out and told child services, “These boys are more emotionally mature than most of us, so they’ll be fine.” There was a day where—I’m not going to spoil the scene—Levi has to use the f-word a bunch of times and I remember we were getting told, “You’re only allowed to do two takes per angle and you’re only allowed three angles because this is a lot for him.” I remember Levi just turned and said, “It’s just a word.” Then we got to do as many takes as we wanted. [Laughs] Levi and Ed are mature. Acting already requires this emotional maturity to be able to tap into all these feelings. Talking to them was so interesting because, yeah, they were 13 and 14 when we were shooting, but you talk to them and it feels like, on some level, emotionally, you’re talking to 30 year olds. Then, of course, between takes they’re like [Chris feigns childish giggles] with their phones out, being teenagers again. But when they’re focused, they’re very adult. It was really cool working with them.
There are actual grown-ups in Hollywood that need psychological evaluations.
[Laughs] Oh sure.
The world building that’s happening in Better Watch Out inevitably starts with this set you constructed on the stage. You built that entire house from scratch?
We built the entire house and backyard from scratch. It’s all one giant set. We got to move the camera around wherever we wanted to. That was Richard Hobbs, the production designer. He’s a master. When you walked through the house, it actually felt like you were in a real house. It didn’t feel like production equipment was just around the corner. It was a real house on set.
I hear that you didn’t have the budget for air conditioning.
Oh Jesus… So, we ended up shooting in the largest stage at Fox Studios in Sydney. That was not the plan. We were too low budget for that. We were planning to shoot in a warehouse somewhere, but with every single warehouse available, as soon as we’d go visit it, you’d hear all these really loud planes going over and it’s like, “Sorry! Depending on which direction the wind is coming from, the flight paths change over Sydney.” So we were forced to shoot at Fox because that was the only place that had soundproofed stages. And because Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge was using all the other stages except for the largest one, we were forced to take the largest one. That ended up costing us so much more than we were expecting. We couldn’t afford air conditioning. We were allowed two hours per day and it was the equivalent of like 90-100 degrees outside and everyone was wearing snow outfits. It was ludicrous! We can laugh about it now, but I remember everyone just wanting to roll around in the snow and realizing it’s gel on paper and feeling worse for it.
I’m curious to see how you’re going to market the film without giving away the juicy details.
The trailer won’t give anything away. We’ve cracked a very cool code where it still gets across the fun and the creepiness and the horror of it without actually saying anything. If I tell you how the trailer will be, then people will know that’s not what really happens so… [Laughs]
This was a 30-day shoot?
It was 30 days, but only ten hours a day because we had an all-teenage cast. They’re allowed to shoot eight hours a day, so there was only so much we could shoot before it’s a bunch of inserts. I was also promised no reshoot days because all of our money went into this Fox stage. That took away any possibility for reshoots. That made it so my editor had her work cut out for her. She had to know that we had every shot by day 30. It was pretty scary. At one point, we had two different cameras going on in two different portions of the house, with me shooting the scene of the day and the other camera handling “reshoots.” The actors had to keep running back and forth between sets, changing outfits and changing make-up for different segments of the movie. It’s like we barely made it. If we had one less hour, the movie would’ve fallen apart. It was crazy.
There’s a lot on a director’s plate during production. A lot of it is head stuff so it’s imperceptible. How do you keep your head on straight? What do you find works for you?
What I’ve learned is that, by the time you’re on set, there’s very little you can do if things are going to fall apart. I make sure that all my heads of crew have the same vision as I do, so by the time we’re on set where everyone’s asking a million questions, it’s spread out between the six of us as opposed to just me. I’m a huge fan of storyboarding every shot so that any crew member at any point can go and look to see what shots were taken care of and which ones are coming up. My special effects guy knew when to make the blood pump like, “I have 30 minutes.” A lot of it is just communication and people management skills. Once you’re on set, it’s a lot less about creativity and a lot more about making sure that the machine is going steadily and not falling off the tracks.
Going further back, you made a short called Alive and Well about cannibalism. I’m curious to see what horror realm you’ll explore next after cannibalism, found footage, and slasher.
It hasn’t been announced yet because it’s not for sure, but I’m in the middle of getting my next movie set up. It’s going to be my first supernatural film and I’m so excited to finally do that. My first two films were about the horrors of the human heart and I’ve gotten to say some pretty cool things with that. I’m really excited about exploring the horrors of the unknown. My next project involves a doppelgänger. I’ve been getting very little sleep recently. [Laughs]
I’m trying so hard not to shoehorn this question into our conversation…
Just ask me.
Can you tell me about the time you babysat Arnold Schwarzenegger’s kids?
Oh my god! [Laughs] You did do your research.
How did that even come about? Babysitting for The Terminator? Jesus Christ.
I worked for a lifeguarding company that specialized in lifeguarding for famous people’s pool parties. So none of these people are going to remember me, but I for sure remember them. I was a lifeguard at Jim Carrey’s house during his Fourth of July party in the summer of ’07 or ’08 and Judd Apatow’s daughter’s party. Eventually, you kind of get passed around if you’re good. I became the go-to guy one summer any time the Schwarzenegger boys wanted to go to Raging Rapids. I was their chaperone and we would go around and try to lose the secret service by going down a water slide and stopping to hold the walls. In the lazy river, we’d all be drifting and then climb out underneath the bridge and stay there for awhile. I remember the secret service came up to me once and said, “Don’t do that again.” It was fun. The boys are grown up now but, at the time, it was this really surreal thing because I was like, “If anything happens to them, it would be the worst thing to ever happen.” They were aware of the fact that they had to be followed, but they weren’t aware of their power or anything. To them, it was just more the fun of losing the adults.
I only know of Patrick because he’s sometimes in the tabloids. How old were they?
It was Patrick and Christopher. They were two years apart. I want to say 8 and 10. They were super cool. I’ve had such weird jobs… I could easily write a book about all the weirdness. I was also a caterer for a while. I catered at Elton John’s Oscar party. I had to deal with actors bickering with each other and—oh my god, I shouldn’t be talking about this… There was an actress who was misbehaving because she’d gotten a cheese plate and she told the waiter like, “I specifically said that I don’t eat cheese! Take this back immediately!” and the waiter got all frazzled. Ellen DeGeneres was sitting at that table. She took her cheese plate and mashed it all into a giant ball and put it on her plate and brought me over and said, “Could you give this to her?” So I hand the plate to the actress and she looks at the plate, death-fire eyes up at me, realizes there’s no way I would do that, looks around, spots Ellen, and Ellen’s sitting there holding her champagne glass up like, “Cheers.” [Laughs] It’s kind of surreal being this servant in the midst of hyper-famous people, but it was fun. Ellen handled her very smoothly. I had such respect for her after that.