'Creepshow' Director Rob Schrab On Making The "Avengers" Of Werewolf Stories [Set Visit Interview]

With credits that include Community, Mystery Science Theater 3000, The Sarah Silverman Program and so much more, Rob Schrab has become a go-to director for television comedy. But his experience in the comic book world, as well as his screenplay for the creepy family horror film Monster House, make him a great fit for Shudder's revival of Creepshow. When we visited the set earlier this year, Schrab was deep into directing his segment for the anthology horror series. Titled "Bad Wolf Down," it follows a squad of American soldiers during World War II who are pinned down by Nazis...but it's a full moon, they're werewolves, they are not going down without a fight.

On the set, we saw Schrab's line-up of lycanthropes, which included tributes to The Wolf Man, The Howling, and American Werewolf in London. He cheekily dubbed them the "Avengers" of werewolves and was able to elaborate when we caught up with him on the phone a few weeks later.

Note: this interview was conducted on a conference call with other journalists.

When we were on set, you mentioned this was sort of like an Avengers werewolf setup. Can you talk about the story and how you came up with it? And the werewolf.

Well, I had this story brewing in my head for years, long before Creepshow. I've always had a love for werewolves and had a love for war action. I just wanted to mash them up. When I was working with Greg and pitching this story, I said, 'Hey, we've got an opportunity here to not only pay homage to horror and war comics, but also an opportunity to pay homage to all the werewolf stories.' Greg's a big werewolf fan, too. I wanted to see what would happen if the Wolfman, Rob Bottin's Howling werewolf, and Rick Baker's American Werewolf in London, what would happen if they were all in the same story together. When our guys change, I'm just looking for that comic book splash page. I really got excited when that was possible. I kept waiting for, as I was writing the script and putting it together, I was waiting for the call where either Shudder or Greg or whoever would say, 'Yeah, we can't afford it.' But Greg just loved the idea and wouldn't allow us to phone in the coolest part of this, which is the werewolves. So I'm totally in debt to Greg for having that enthusiasm and refusal to not do anything half-assed. It's great.

One of the things we always hear from horror directors is how much they love practical effects. When we were on the set, we saw how hard it was to pull off a simple decapitation, so can you talk about the difficulties and rewards of working so practically?

Yeah. I only trust what I can see in front of me, especially when you're a guest director. So to say, 'Hey, we'll do it in post,' I'm usually not around. I have two days to edit and then I hand it off, and whether or not my edit stays is up to the producers and I'm not there to oversee a cut or an effect that's done in post unless I'm producing the show, too. But as a guest director, I tend to like to do things practically because I like working with my hands, I build stuff, I do a lot of DIY things in my own shorts and things. I'm working with Greg. Why wouldn't I do all the practical stuff? These guys know how to do this. It's just when you're working at such a low budget, you don't have the man power to have things prepped and ready to go. You have, like, two guys who have to set it up, and it takes a while to do that. If this was, say, The Walking Dead, things would move a lot faster. The head getting knocked off, I was surprised too – it took a while, but totally worth it. In the cut, it worked exactly the way I wanted. This was an episode that was reaching. It was like, 'Wow, we only have three and a half days to shoot this when we need six.' We still pulled it off, too, because I think we were smart with what we concentrated on, and Greg helped out at the eleventh hour shooting a bunch of stuff with B camera. I never would have made it if it wasn't for him. I never would have done anything if it wasn't for him. I think it's a lot more clever and more interesting to do practical stuff because you're always trying to figure out how to make it not look fake or cheap, or trying to make it look as interesting, or have the ability to have people go, 'How did you do this? How is that done? It's obviously not CG, but how did you do it?' It's just more interesting, it's more fun for me as a filmmaker. And I'm here to have fun. It's Creepshow.

I know you've got a lot of experience directing comedy, and I was wondering if you found a preference between comedy and horror, or if you find there's a lot of similarities that overlap between the two genres?

My heart is always in horror. I grew up on the VHS generation. I've been more influenced by sci-fi and horror than comedy. I happen to work well in comedy. I do enjoy working with the people in comedy, but my heart always goes back to monsters, creatures, aliens, things like that. I will say that my horror tastes are more of the Sam Raimi, Re-Animator, the '80s horror stuff is always my jam. Because it's horror, but it's not bleak. Even Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or Return of the Living Dead, two of my favorites, Re-Animator, or From Beyond, these movies, there's a fun quality to it. And Creepshow, especially. It's like, yeah, it's scary, it's creepy, it's disturbing, but I'm not going to be going, 'I hate my life. Life is meaningless,' or anything. I'm more of the creature feature – everything that Tom Savini would do. Dawn of the Dead is very fun to me, even though it has bleak themes. I tend to love that. So I bring that sense of fun. That eighth grade boy who loves monster magazines and collecting masks and doing stop-motion animation in my dad's basement with clay and toys and LEGOs and stuff. That's me, and I'm living the dream. I'm an adult now, but I'm still playing with monsters. If you look at some of my stuff that I've done, like on The Sarah Silverman Program or Community or most recently I did Ghosted with Adam Scott and Craig Robinson, there's monster stuff in there. I'm always trying to get killer robots, ghosts, monsters and stuff into all that stuff. So Creepshow is kind of the absolute perfect property for me to work on, because Creepshow, the tagline is 'the most fun you'll ever have being scared.' 'Fun' comes before 'scared.' I think when people look at my episode, they might not be horrified by it, they might not be scared by it, but they'll be smiling the entire time and they'll be enjoying it, and it will feel right at home with Creepshow. That was always my goal. Let's have this be fun, fun, fun, monster fun stuff. Not to get too heady.

With Monster House, it seemed as if you were really steeped into the literature of Ray Bradbury with The Halloween Tree and a few of his other short stories. I wonder with that literature lean in there, how familiar you are with Stephen King, especially given all the references you just mentioned before with regards to your love growing up with horror?

Well, I never really read Ray Bradbury, so I don't even know the references as far as, we weren't referencing anything with Monster House. I didn't become a Stephen King fan until later in life. I loved the movies and things like that, but it wasn't until about ten years ago that I really started digging into the source material. I think Carrie is a brilliantly written book. It's so great, and It has some wonderful amazing scenes and dialogue and characters. He's known for horror, but his character and story stuff is so great. When I was doing Creepshow, I found the original script for Creepshow online and just read it over and over and over again. I actually would transcribe scenes. I just wanted to feel what it was like to write "Father's Day." I wanted to get into that mode when I wrote the script, because it's a very visual script, and it's a very fun script. There are times when Stephen King puts in parentheses, 'I think this would be fun if we did it like this, totally like an EC Comic.' You're watching half of a conversation from Stephen King to George Romero saying, 'Hey look, this will be fun.' It was really, really great to get really absorbed in that world that they created and just be behind the scenes. I was watching so much director's commentary and all the behind the scenes stuff where Tom Savini is making Clumpy and just working on "Father's Day" and how they lit everything. I really tried to get into that headspace. I tried really hard, even in the description, maybe this is something Stephen King would say, or whatever. I don't know how successful I was, he's one of the greatest writers of all time, but that was my goal, to try to keep it in that Creepshow essence.

Can you talk about casting Jeffrey Combs? Did that come from your love of '80s horror?

Oh my God. Jeffrey is in my pantheon of favorite actors. Re-Animator, [his From Beyond character] Crawford Tillinghast, and I think he in The Frighteners steals the movie. He's amazing. And all of his work with Star Trek, he has such a love of acting, love of theater, love of performance. He's just such a pro. He really is. And a lovely, lovely man. I put him in the same category as like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price. He's like the next generation of horror actors that when you see his name, you're going to see something great and really original. There is a sense of humor, a levity, in his performance. He walks that line of something that, he's definitely playing a villain, but there's also a sense of fun. He plays villains that you want to be or pretend to be. His villains become heroes pretty quickly, especially with Re-Animator. So I adore him. I love Barbara Crampton, Bill Moseley – all these people who were known for that direct-to-video horror. They're just heroes to me. When we reached out to him, I was like, 'Is he going to do it, is he not going to do it?' but he came back and he read the script and we talked on the phone and he was saying, 'This is going to be fun, I really like the script,' I'm like, holy shit, I've got Jeffrey Combs telling me that my script is good. He's not going, 'This is awful, I hate this.' But he's great on set. Really, really, really collaborative, and we worked together. I just adore him. I think he's fantastic. And he brought the gloves that he wore in The Frighteners. So when you see him playing Reinhart in "Bad Wolf Down," just know he's wearing the Frightener gloves. Because that's how big of a nerd I am, I thought that was the coolest thing ever because I love him in The Frighteners. I was playing with that toy in the toy box.

Are there any other easter eggs besides the ash tray that we should look for?

Well, there's a ton of werewolf references. I've mentioned the three big ones: Lon Chaney, Rob Bottin's Howling werewolf, and Rick Baker's American Werewolf in London. There's a lot of werewolf references in there. And I would say there's a lot of Tarantino references. It's kind of a Reservoir Dogs-esque story, these guys on the run, forced into a corner, make almost like this pact with the devil to survive. There's a lot of Inglourious Basterds in there. Originally, the story was set in more of a contemporary world, but it was Greg that was like, 'If we set it too contemporary, it starts to become really political, and that's not what this is about anymore of the EC weird world time. Let's make it World War II.' And everything just snapped into place. We talked a lot about how Inglourious Basterds was a heightened World War II movie, and Creepshow is a heightened almost Coen Brothers level of exaggeration. But it all works. That was the goal. Hopefully I got close. (laughs) I'm putting myself in pretty good company when I say Coen Brothers and Tarantino. Not to pat myself on the back, but I think we did a pretty good job.

Speaking of monsters, is there any creature feature you'd like to tackle in the future, aside from werewolves?

I'd love to do alien stuff. I'd love to do Lovecraftian creature things. I also am a big fan of killer robots, that'd be really, really fun to do. I like all creature stuff, it's super fun. I'd like to do an action movie with a mummy. Die Hard with a mummy would be really great.

Where there any particular moments that you were worried about going in? Any moments in the script that, given the short shooting schedule, you thought might be the hardest hurdle to jump?

It's all hard. When you're doing something bad, you're doing something good, you're phoning it in, not phoning it in – not that I would ever phone it in – it's all hard. But it's all worth it. In the middle of it, you're like, 'I hate this, why do I keep doing this? I'm miserable.' And as soon as it's done, it's like, 'Oh my God, I love it! I've gotta do this again. Terrific!' But I think all of the werewolf vs. Nazi stuff was something I had anxiety about because it's something I wanted to be big and climactic and we spent a lot of time setting up character and story and heightening tension which is all important and good, but it's Creepshow – we have to make sure that these werewolves work. I wish I had another day. I always wish I had another take, another go at something. But you always seem to have just enough time to do everything. We didn't do everything, but in the edit, it's like, 'Well, if we had more, we'd almost start taking away from what we already have.' The werewolf vs. Nazi stuff was what I was worried about, but it all worked out. Greg put together a great team and we had a great crew. I have to tell you, Creepshow is such a big movie in my life, I always loved Creepshow, it was so fun, and to be part of this legacy is just amazing. To do werewolves with Greg Nicotero, I can't believe it. I just really have to keep pinching myself that I'm actually a part of this. I finally feel like this is exactly what I was made to do.

Do you have a favorite chapter from the previous Creepshow?

Oh boy. The thing about anthologies is everybody's got their favorite and it's almost like a rotating – it depends on when you get me. I mean, "Father's Day" is such a quintessential Creepshow. 'Where's my cake?' You hear that and you know we're talking about Creepshow. Just the look of everything, the lighting of it, it's a zombie one and it's not infected people, it's a zombie coming out of the grave. When's the last time we saw that? That's total EC comic book cover. "Father's Day." And "The Crate" is amazing, because I love Fluffy. It's such a mystery. The thing in the box is so scary and fun at the same time. Where did this thing come from? It doesn't matter. All you need to know is just don't stick your hand in there. There are so many iconic moments, I can't even pick.

And the second one, "The Raft" is one of the most terrifying things ever. I remember seeing that in the theater and it was in the summer and it was so hot outside, and for some reason the air conditioning wasn't on but they turned it on at the beginning of the movie. At first it's really uncomfortable and it slowly gets colder and colder, and during "The Raft," it's all about these characters freezing to death on this raft as this oil slick is trying to kill them. So I had this almost virtual reality experience where I was – because I was in a T-shirt and shorts, and by the time the climax comes in this movie, I'm like shivering. I'm freezing to death in the theater. It really affected me. It's like, 'Jeez, how are they going to get out of this?' And the hitchhiker one is really creepy and scary. Those two are really some of the best. Those are really, really great. It's hard to pick which ones.

Tales from the Dark Side: The Movie, which is unofficially Creepshow 3, has a mummy one in there. That's pretty badass. The gargoyle one, it's so, so great, and the transformation sequence is fantastic, too. There are so many great moments. That's why I love anthologies. It's like, 'Well, if you don't like one, there's another one that's going to show up in five or ten minutes and you can compare.' It's definitely a movie after it's done you can sit down and talk about it with your friends and everybody debates, 'No, this one's better!' 'No, that one's better!' I just love it. Creepshow is my favorite comic book movie. I don't care about these superhero movies, but holy shit, more horror comic movies. It's the best.

Speaking of the lighting on "Father's Day," when we were on set, there were some really Creepshow moments with the lighting. Was that purely your vision or was that collaborative with Greg? How did the lighting come about?

To me, it's not Creepshow unless you have that lighting. When you think Creepshow, you think about the images. You type 'Creepshow' into an image search, and you're going to get Adrienne Barbeau with the black and red zigzag shapes with blue key lighting. That, to me, is what makes it a comic book, having those lighting moments. So I really wanted to have that in my episode because I wanted it to feel like it was made with the same spirit as what George and Stephen were doing back in the day. To me, it wasn't even a question of should we or shouldn't we, it was like, of course we've gotta have this in there. We've gotta have the creep shot. I'd be like, 'We're going to do the creep shot here with Jeffrey. This is the introduction to his character and he's pissed off. Do the lighting in the background,' and everybody's like, 'Yeah, we know exactly what you mean.' And it was all practical. Some people were like, 'Why don't you just green screen it? Then you can control it.' It's like, 'No, no, no, no. We're going to do it on set.' When the lights change and we're pushing in on Jeffrey, I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm doing it. I'm doing it.' It's Creepshow. To me, that's what it's all about. It's honoring the legacy of what Romero did. This is all for George.

Can you talk about what it's like working with Greg Nicotero? Since you're directing the episode and he's overseeing all of it, what's it like having him on set?

I've had a man crush on Greg since Day of the Dead. I saw him in Day of the Dead, and then I found out he's one of Savini's makeup people and then went on to do Creepshow 2 and KNB, and I've just been following his career ever since and seeing him in Fangoria and Gorezone and seeing him in From Dusk Till Dawn, going, 'Oh, there's Greg Nicotero again!' I'd always get excited seeing the makeup guys acting in a supporting role or co-starring or cameoing or just being a background guy. These guys are my heroes. Greg is not that much older than I am, and he's living the dream life. He's working on monsters, he's doing zombies, he's working with his hands, and he's so talented not only as a creature guy and a makeup guy, but as a director. The stuff he's doing on The Walking Dead is just really inspiring. I met him a bunch of years ago, our mutual friend Derek Mears, who's Swamp Thing now and Jason Voorhees, he introduced me to Greg. Greg was looking at a script I wrote which was about a herd of giant octopus attacking a Midwest town, kind of like Tremors but in Wisconsin. He really liked it and we sat and talked about it, and in the script, there's all these references to Creepshow. The main character was a horror writer, a Stephen King wannabe, and he was making all these references to Creepshow in it. When I met Greg, we talked a lot about Creepshow. He had the crate in the corner, and we just geeked out about Creepshow and The Walking Dead and zombies and giant killer octopus and we just hit it off right away.

We lost track of each other for a couple of years, but when I found out he was doing Creepshow, I just totally went, 'Hey, I don't know if you remember me, but I have to be a part of this. I'll do whatever it takes.' And he goes, 'Of course I remember you. Yeah, you'd be perfect for this!' and I just kept pitching him ideas, 'How about this?', all these loglines. And I pitched "Bad Wolf Down," and he's like, 'I love that one. Let's do that one.' He was really, really smart with saying, 'OK, I don't want to be a dream killer, but you've gotta pull back on the script, we've gotta make something that's going to be easier to shoot in three days. We don't have the budget we thought we were going to, the time, but let's just be smart about this.'

He's such a big brother on set. He was always like, 'I just want you to get everything, I don't want you to walk away being disappointed or anything.' He just was so helpful. And like I said, in the eleventh hour when we were really struggling, he grabbed a camera and just started shooting werewolf stuff. I never would have made it, we never would have gotten the episode we did if it wasn't for him. I adore him. He's so great. I look up to him and I really am honored and flattered and so touched that he allowed me to be a part of this amazing thing. Because it's like the beginning of so much with me, and I know it's a beginning for him – he met Tom Savini on the set of Creepshow and then Creepshow 2 was basically the beginning of KNB. There's something about Greg that I've always adored. I just think he's really, really smart and creative and has a great sense of humor. Very, very nurturing. I hope to do much, much more with him in the future.