The Nun Screenwriter Interview

Screenwriter Gary Dauberman joined the Conjuring franchise with the very first Annabelle spin-off, and has written every spin-off since including Annabelle: Creation and this week’s The Nun. In between, he had time to write It: Chapter One and then adapted the rest of the Stephen King novel for It: Chapter Two. He also wrote the Swamp Thing series for the DC Universe streaming service and an adaptation of the Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark?

The Nun tells the origin of the demonic spirit the Warrens faced in The Conjuring 2. This spin-off takes us back to 1952 in a remote convent in Romania. Father Kirk (Demian Bichir) and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) visit the abbey to investigate a nun’s suicide. Spoiler alert: it’s related to The Nun.

Dauberman spoke with /Film by phone about The Nun and its place in the continuing Conjuring universe, as well as his upcoming projects for film and television.

The Nun is the origin story of The Nun. In the Annabelle spinoffs it wasn’t until the second one that you did the origin of Annabelle. Was it a different approach to The Nun?

It was a different approach to The Nun. James [Wan] really wanted to tell the origin story right out of the gate with this one and had this ambitious, fantastic idea to set it in Romania, this huge castle and invoke that Hammer horror sort of atmosphere and moodiness. It feels a little bit different from the other Conjuring movies. That was also part of our strategy there.

Does The Nun have more overt connections to the Conjuring movies than the Annabelle spinoffs did? It opens with scenes from The Conjuring 2.

Yeah, it’s sort of the start of the evil that terrorizes Lorraine that we see in Conjuring 2 but we realize she’s been struggling with since even before the first Conjuring. So yeah, this definitely has that direct tie-in as you put it, a little bit more overt than the Annabelle movies.

Did you have carte blance to invent the mythology of The Nun in this movie?

I always hesitate to use the phrase carte blanche. I think we all make a great team. It’s a very collaborative effort. So while I’m free to come up with ideas as much as I want, go as far off the reservation as I want, I do discuss it with James and I discuss with Peter (Safran) and the guys at New Line and the guys at Atomic [Monster] and we all go, “Okay, what’s going to work best here.” So yes, I was given creative license but you don’t want to do anything that’s going to upset the applecart.

What are the rules of her powers? She can throw people across the room. What are the limits if there are any?

We don’t have sort of the rule book of what The Nun can and can’t do. I do think her greatest power is instilling fear in others, this paralyzing fear. She is a demon so I think she has to adhere to the rules of demons and all that entails. We didn’t want to make her a superhero where she has super strength. She has this supernatural power so I think that’s what we leaned into for her.

Were you able to play with a lot more religious iconography in The Nun?

Oh yeah, just the settling, inherently you can mess around and play around with the religious iconography, taking a castle and transforming it into this abbey that’s been around for hundreds of years. It’s a cloistered convent of nuns that separate themselves from the outside world in order to have a life of complete, total consecration, devotion to God which I found to be a really fascinating setting to put a movie in. A couple of outsiders, although they are with the church, they are still outsiders going into this convent because it is a cloistered convent. Even men can’t enter which is what brings young Sister Irene into the fold.

When you’re dealing with religious horror, do you have to think about The Exorcist which is the ultimate in religious horror?

Oh yes. There’s no way around it. It really is the ultimate religious horror. I think it influences the genre as a whole. When you’re dealing with biblical possessions and heaven and hell, it’s hard not to look at The Exorcist. They did it so fantastically. It really is this perfect movie. It influenced this movie and I’ve got to say, because of its profound effect on me as a kid, it’s influenced a lot of my other work as well.

So much of The Nun is atmosphere. How specifically did you describe in the script what it was going to look like?

I was pretty specific. I took that cue from James because he was very specific up front about what he wanted. I wanted the creepy graveyards with the fog rolling over the hills and down, the lantern glow illuminating off the bare trees and the skeletal branches. I was pretty specific because I think that is a large part of what makes The Nun the movie that it is. It helps evoke that sense of dread. It was so refreshing, you could write about being inside of a castle as opposed to just being in a suburban house. It’s a lot longer hallways. It’s bigger doors with louder creaks. It’s just a fun and unique environment to play around with that I haven’t done before.

Are jump scares written into the script?

Yeah, jump scares are in the script. We try to be judicious with them. I don’t think jump scares are what define the Conjuring universe. I think that James Wan aesthetic of really building up the scares. Sometimes scare sequences are really eight to 10 minutes long. They seem to just go on and on until you get to that exclamation point which is so great. I think every filmmaker that’s come after in this universe, and what I try to do in the script is really just try to match that or come close to it. While we do have our jump scares, I think we’ve set a nice pace, a nice rhythm of the jump scares, the atmosphere, the moodiness, the longer anticipatory set pieces.

Did the R rating allow you to go further with some of the horror?

I don’t sit down and go, “This is going to be rated R so let’s really try to push it.” I think we just try to tell as scary a story as we can and generally it’s come back, “This movie is rated R for general scariness.” We wear that as a badge of honor but I didn’t go into it thinking I can’t do this because I’m trying to make a PG-13. That said, I do think [director] Corin [Hardy], because of his sensibilities, I think we have a little bit more blood than the other movies. I think there’s a little bit more of a gore factor here than some of the other movies but I think that’s because of Corin and who he is as a rabid horror fan, than us trying to go to places that we haven’t gone before because of the rating.

Well, there are more physical bodies in The Nun than some of the movies that were purely supernatural.

Sure, you mean corpses. Then there’s the bath of blood and things like that. There’s a body count to the movie that I think is unusual.

Was there any resistance to the exchange: “Holy shit.” “The holiest.”

[Laughs] No, I think everybody loved it the first time they heard it. I would love to take credit for that but I believe that is a Corin addition. Most of the jokes in there are mine but that was one on the day where either Corin came up with it or Bichir. I have to give credit where credit is due.

It: Chapter One was compartmentalized because you were focusing on the kids’ stories. Is the structure of Chapter Two more complicated?

No, I don’t think so. There was a pretty elegant solution to how to tell this big story and it was to divide the two timelines into two different movies. We really stuck with that in the second one. So I don’t think it’s more complicated. That’s not the word I’d use.

We saw the picture of Sophia Lillis and Jessica Chastain together. Is there by any chance a conceit in the movie where they can meet on screen?

I’ll defer to Andy [Muschietti] on that one. Talk to him, he can answer that question. I’m a little cagey when it comes to these responses. I’m not sure what I can say but I will say for me, being a fan, it was awesome to see them together in that photo.

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