'Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark' Interviews: Guillermo Del Toro And André Øvredal On Which Stories Made It In, The Rating, 'Haunted Mansion', 'Mountains Of Madness', And More

Guillermo del Toro has been a fan of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books since he was in his early teens, when he stumbled across them in a bookstore and was struck by the perfect title and creepy artwork. "It really was like having a campfire between those two covers," he explained at a press event for the film in Hollywood yesterday. During a tough time in his life, del Toro even purchased Stephen Gammell's original artwork that appeared in the books despite being "really, really broke" at the time. That decision "led to a lot of financial trouble, and marital problems," he joked, because "you cannot justify a buy like that." But it sounds like he needed to posses those pieces, and his passion for those images and author Alvin Schwartz's words led him to eventually help adapt the book into a screenplay and produce this upcoming adaptation.

Read on to find out how del Toro found the right director to translate this material for the silver screen, how they largely used practical effects for the film's unnerving-looking creatures, which stories made it into the screenplay, the film's anticipated rating, and even a couple of updates on del Toro's long-brewing adaptations of The Haunted Mansion and At The Mountains of Madness.

"I think the beauty about the book is that each story is self-contained, but that's the nightmare of adapting it and making it into a film," del Toro told a crowd of journalists. "So I had to come up with a concept that encompassed a theme...we tried to find a period of time in which stories affected everyone – who we were as humans, what was the U.S. as a nation at that moment? – and we started to very carefully lay down the pieces to be thematically relevant to the stories we were telling." They settled on the late 1960s – 1968, to be exact – and in addition to not wanting to have to deal with cell phones and selfies, that date was chosen because of its specific time in American history: one of the characters is a draft dodger, a Latino kid who doesn't want to fight in a war he doesn't understand.

Del Toro had previously communicated with Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal when the latter directed Trollhunter back in 2010, and del Toro considered him "the ideal guy" for this job. Øvredal was the one and only director who was approached for this project, but while del Toro clearly had a deep connection to the source material, Øvredal was completely unfamiliar with it. "I didn't know about these books when I got the screenplay," the director explained. "I'd never heard of them because in Norway they were never released. I fell in love with the screenplay...which was just this kind of Amblin-esque, scary movie set in a period that was so exciting."

The Story

"This is not an anthology film," Øvredal stated emphatically. "It's a two-hour feature with one story where everything is weaved together to be part of that story." That story involves Sarah Bellows, a girl in the small town of Mill Valley who experienced horrors in her past, and a group of teenagers who end up biting off more than they can chew. "The kids find a book, and the book writes a story specifically for each of them that has to do with who they are and what they have the greatest fear for," del Toro said.

In addition to the trailer that premiered yesterday afternoon, we also saw a short clip inspired by the story "The Big Toe." One of the young characters pulls a bowl of chili from his refrigerator, and though his friends try to warn him via walkie-talkie not to eat any of it, he takes a huge bite anyway – only to find that yep, a disgusting toe was mixed into his bite. Gross. He should have listened to his pals, who were watching the book write itself right in front of their eyes. If that wasn't bad enough, the corpse wants her toe back, and as you can see in the trailer, the boy ends up hiding under his bed to try to get away from her...but she's really not happy about that whole "toe" thing.

How Many Stories Are Adapted?

"We distilled it to about five or six that we like the most, and some of them are told in their entirety," del Toro said. "Some others are referenced. Those that know the books will see more than people who haven't read the book, because some of them are there in name or infused one with another, or a song or rhyme. But we basically distilled it to the ones that everybody seems to remember the most. The books obviously have many, many more stories, so this could go on or not, but we said, 'Let's do a greatest hits.'"

He said they chose which stories to use based on how they could illuminate the movie's characters, with specific fears used as the deciding factor of which creature each character would encounter. Øvredal later told me the key set-piece stories were "The Big Toe," "Harold," "The Red Spot," "The Dream," and "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker," and he reiterated that there are "tons" of references to others throughout the rest of the movie.

Will It Be Rated R?

"The anticipated rating is PG-13," del Toro announced. "The idea is that the books are favorites among young readers. I think there's two or three generations of parents that know the books, so it's not an unknown. They know that this is like a roller coaster: it has a sense of fun – a really throwback, wholesome feeling – but it's also scary. It's really a ride but there's a safety bar in it." Anecdotally, I think a lot of people were first exposed to these books when they were in elementary school, so it makes a certain amount of sense that this movie (with its teen protagonists) would be aimed at a relatively younger crowd.

It sounds like there might be some sentimentality at play among all of the scares, too. "I want to make movies with heart," Øvredal told me. "I receive all these screenplays that are clever, smart, scary, and real, but I have to love the movie, and to love the movie, there has to be a heart. And this one [had it]."

The Creatures Look Tactile For a Reason

If you watched the trailers and were impressed that these creatures look as if they stepped right out of the pages of the books, it's because del Toro went out of his way to make sure that they looked as accurate as possible. "As I always do, I went with physical effects," del Toro said. "So we had makeup, mechanical creatures...I wanted [a team] that could embody the exact feeling of the sculpture and the painting and the creation of each creature, so we used several of the best creature guys in the business to render each of the drawings and bring them to life."

And it's not always the most grotesque elements of the creatures that stand out the most. Del Toro is most afraid of the Pale Lady, and perhaps unsurprisingly, his explanation stems from the design. "The reason why we wanted to render Gammell's drawings properly is because – sculpting that is incredibly difficult. You miss a little bit of the benign, what is really scary is how peaceful [the Pale Lady] looks and how happy. And at the same time, how there's something empty in the eyes. So when you sculpt to that level, you're sculpting character. It's not about a creature that has wings and teeth – it's personality, so it was extremely difficult."

What André Øvredal Brings to the Table

While del Toro continues to develop several movies at once, he needed a director to take the reins here who could strike the right balance between this movie's Amblin-style tone and the primal fears that Gammell's disturbing images conjured for people. Øvredal was the first and only choice, and speaking with him after the press conference, it's easy to see why: he's passionate about the material and was confident from the beginning that he could bring this story to life. "I remember when I was pitching the movie to CBS," Øvredal told me, "and it was like, 'You guys kind of have to trust me that this is an instinctual movie for me to make. I grew up with this movie. Even though I'd never read these books before now, I know this movie by heart. I can instinctively make the right decisions.'"

When I spoke with del Toro after the press conference ended, he elaborated about why Øvredal was the perfect choice:

"André has two things that I like above anything else. He's very elegant, with the way he builds the story with the camera, he's very classic in that. And he's also fun. His movies are fun to watch. I have fun watching Trollhunter, I have fun watching The Autopsy of Jane Doe. It's very rare. You can have horror that's very disturbing or horror that is very entertaining, and they're two different beasts. There's great disturbing directors – Cronenberg being one – and there's great entertaining directors. And André has love for the disturbing, but can be entertaining."

Del Toro Updates Us On Two Future Projects

As the press day was coming to a close, I tried asking del Toro for an update about Zanbato, the Bad Robot film he's been developing for several years. He wouldn't reveal any more details about that project, but he was willing to speak about The Haunted Mansion and At the Mountains of Madness, two movies he's spent several years trying to get off the ground.

When I asked him if he was still interested in making Haunted Mansion, a new adaptation of the Disney theme park attraction, he responded positively. "I would hope so, yeah. We tried for many years, I think a decade or more. We did four or five drafts. We got it to a place where I felt it was ready, but that draft is there if they want to do it."

I wondered if the same thing was true for At the Mountains of Madness, another passion project of del Toro's that once nearly had Tom Cruise on board to star. Is a script for that one ready and waiting as well? "Well, that draft, I think, was of the time," he said. "I think the movie was enormous. Not by any means one of the largest – I mean, movies cost $300 million nowadays, you know? But it was a very big movie for our horror. That was not my decision, but I think if we were to tackle it now, it would need to be rewritten."

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark arrives in theaters on August 9, 2019.