"Audiences are going to be shocked!" Director Jeff Wadlow on new horror, Imaginary

“Audiences are going to be shocked!” Director Jeff Wadlow on new horror, Imaginary

Director Jeff Wadlow tells us about his new Blumhouse movie, Imaginary, and why he wants Chauncey the bear be to a new horror icon.

In his third movie for Blumhouse, director Jeff Wadlow (pictured above) takes the idea of an imaginary friend to the horror space with Imaginary. The movie follows Jessica (DeWanda Wise, also pictured above) who moves back into her childhood home with her husband and stepdaughters Taylor (Taegen Burns) and young Alice (Pyper Braun). Soon, Alice develops an eerie attachment to a stuffed bear named Chauncey she finds in the basement and when Alice’s games with Chauncey become increasingly sinister, Jessica is forced to face secrets from her own past…

We sat down with Jeff to discuss his horror influences, working with Blumhouse and why an imaginary friend makes the perfect idea for a horror story.

How did everything start for you with Imaginary?

Imaginary is a film that came from three areas: I just signed this first look deal with Jason Blum after Truth Or Dare and Fantasy Island. He said to me: Wadlow I want you to make a classic Blumhouse film for your next movie. When he says classic, he means dealing with some of the classic elements of a Blumhouse film, a family, a house, and a bump in the night.

Then there was me. I had always wanted to make a movie about an imaginary friend. I love playing with subjectivity. I love inviting the audience to participate in a game of what’s real and what’s not, and you have the possibility of doing that with a film that focuses on an imaginary friend.

Then the third source was my good friend Greg Erb and his writing partner, Jason Oremland, who is also good friend of mine now. I met with them and they said they wanted to make a movie about an evil teddy bear. And I said, well, I think we can take these three things and combine them and the result was Imaginary!

Why do you think an imaginary friend makes a good theme for a horror story?

Because it’s weird. It’s weird watching a kid have tea with a named character who’s not there. That is creepy and weird. That is so obviously a horror movie. I actually can’t believe it hasn’t happened yet!

Jeff can’t believe a horror movie about an imaginary friend hasn’t happened yet!

Did you have an imaginary friend when you were young?

Well, first of all, I was a film nerd. I collected comic books and action figures and still do to this day. So all my friends were imaginary. That was not a stretch for me. And of course, I’ve seen kids playing with their dolls or with just the air and talking to something that’s not there.

It’s a universal phenomenon. It’s not just western culture, it’s eastern cultures, Latin culture… this idea that kids have these incredible minds that are developing and they can see and imagine not just other things, but whole worlds that we can’t even fathom. It’s out there and I’m just shocked no one’s made a scary movie about it yet!

The movie certainly has some fantastical elements. What was it like being able to let your own imagination go wild in the movie?

I like movies that invite the audience in. I’m a big believer in talking to your audience through the story and making them active participants in the story as it’s unfolding and encouraging them to imagine what’s going to happen next and what’s really going on in this moment. Is this real, or is it not? And if it’s not real, what are the real consequences of it?

And so I love having that kind of freedom. I love a story like that. Because it just elevates the movie and allows me to commune with the audience.

Imaginary has some fantastical elements to it.

Is there a particular scene that you’re excited for audiences to see?

Oh man, so many. The cast is so great. Everyone has really wonderful scenes. There isn’t a bad beat in the movie in my opinion from an acting standpoint. But then there are also really scary, intense set pieces. I think we’ll have people on the edge of their seats, but also, they’ll be having fun. The scares are more akin to a roller coaster than witnessing a slaughter.

There’s more than a few surprises. If I had to pick my personal favourite, it would probably be the twists because they come out of nowhere, but in hindsight, they make sense and audiences are going to be shocked.

How do you go about making a cute teddy bear seem scary?

It was a real challenge designing Chauncey because we knew we were trying to make a modern-day horror icon. So he had to be creepy. But if he looked like Annabelle you wouldn’t believe a kid would pick him up and want to play with him [haha]. So he couldn’t look like Annabelle, but he couldn’t look like Paddington, because then he’s not scary; it’s just funny and weird if he does creepy things.

So we had to strike this balance and it came down to asymmetry. If you look at Chauncey, his ears are off, his eyes are off. Even though he’s cute, that asymmetry creates an unease and an unsettling feeling. It lets you know that something’s not right.

It was a challenge to make Chauncey the bear look creepy.

This isn’t your first horror movie. What is it about the genre that makes you want to create movies in the horror space?

I love the horror genre because you’re allowed to take risks (as long as you keep the budget under control haha). When you’re working with a producer like Jason Blum who likes to protect his filmmakers, you can try things, you can stretch, you can grow. You can push certain ideas, you can be bold and the horror genre allows you to do that like no other genre.

What do you think it is about the horror genre that appeals to audiences?

Great horror isn’t just scary. There’s always other things going on. You laugh, you cry, you care about the characters. You go on an emotional journey, you feel something and the scares just amplify those feelings. That’s why we want to go to the cinema. We want to have an emotional experience. We want catharsis, we want to release, and no genre does that better than horror!

What were your horror influences for Imaginary?

My two major touchstones were Poltergeist, the 1982 original. That movie messed me up. I was six years old when I saw it in the theatre and it changed me forever. I was a normal sweet kid before I saw that movie, and then I became a truly troubled child for a couple of years.

The other film was Pan’s Labyrinth. We talked a lot about Pan’s Labyrinth in this modern day Gothic horror fairy tale that we were creating.

Jeff says that Poltergeist and Pan’s Labyrinth were influences on Imaginary.

How did you go about creating the creatures for Imaginary?

The monsters are usually based on ideas and story points that I’m discussing with my other writers and then I start to think about what they should look like.

There’s a wonderful concept artist named Greg Semkow who I’ve never met in person, but I found him on Twitter when I was developing a He-Man movie for Sony. He’s become a close collaborator of mine. He’s worked on all my movies since.

He starts by creating some images based on the brief that I send to him, and then I start talking to creature houses – Spectral Motion is the best in the business. They do all of Guillermo del Toro’s movies, they do a bunch of James Gunn’s films, and Mike Elizalde is a principal over there. He worked The Curse of Bridge Hollow with me and did some of the monsters on that movie for Netflix. Spectral Motion did an amazing job. It’s a process obviously, we go back and forth. It takes a lot of time and creative energy, but they’re the best.

Do you have a favourite creature in the movie?

Well, I have to say Chauncey otherwise something very bad might happen to me!

You’re the best creature in the movie Chauncey! Please don’t hurt us!

This is your third Blumhouse movie. What has that collaboration been like for you?

Working with Blumhouse is the best. As a filmmaker I can’t imagine a better experience. Jason Blum is a seminal figure in the film industry, on the level of like David O Selznick, or [Irving] Thalberg. He’s changed the film business.

Hundreds of years from now when people are in film school talking about cinema, they’re going to be talking about Jason Blum. So it’s just an honour to be working with him.

Young Pyper Braun is brilliant in the movie as Alice. What was it like working with her?

Working with Pyper was a pleasure. She is a huge talent, on the level of Dakota Fanning or young Drew Barrymore. She was head and shoulders above all the other actors who auditioned for this part.

There’s an expression that directors have. We say ‘get them in makeup’. It’s an old school Hollywood thing that you say when someone nails an audition. It means literally taking them down to the set, putting them in some makeup and putting them on camera now. They are that good.

When Pyper came in and did her audition… she finished the scene from the therapist’s office in one take. It was as good as the take in the movie. She did it right there in this little casting office, and I turned to my casting director and I said: get her in makeup!

Get them in makeup! Jeff (pictured) tells us that young Pyper Braun (also pictured) absolutely nailed her audition.

There are three strong central women in the movie. How would you describe their relationship?

There’s so much to say. The movie is about a blended family coming together. All three of them, even though they’re in conflict, are really strong women, strong characters. The actresses have so much strength that they bring to their work. I can’t say enough nice things about all three of them. DeWanda Wise, Pyper Braun and Taegen Burns are three of my favourite people on this planet.

What do you want for audiences to take away from the movie?

I hope they had a great time. That they laughed and that they connected emotionally with our characters and they were really scared and they might think twice the next time they see a kid having a tea party with an imaginary friend…

Imaginary is in cinemas on 8 March from Lionsgate UK