Brock Swinson

“Real Kids, Real Stakes” Dan and Kevin Hageman Talk ‘Scary Stories’

“Real Kids, Real Stakes” Dan and Kevin Hageman Talk ‘Scary Stories’
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Brothers Dan and Kevin Hageman are best known for their writing credits like Hotel Transylvania, The Lego Movie, Trollhunters, and Ninjago. But, before the animated films and now the live action TV series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the duo worked on screenplays with Steven Spielberg, Chris Columbus, and Jerry Bruckheimer. Not too shabby.

We fell into animation, but we write live action. It was hard to get those movies made because they were kid-lead,” recalled Dan. “Originally, we couldn’t crack into live action movie world, so we started looking at animation and we really respected what Pixar was doing, as far as elevating family fare.”

Headed down the path of animation, the writing duo eventually met Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) for the project, Trollhunters. “Guillermo asked if we wanted to write a horror movie that was ‘Amblinesque’,” said Kevin. “Obviously, we felt like that was a fantastic idea.”

This is a horror film that you will be frightened by. It’s going to be scary. There’s a nuance level to it. So I do feel like there is a beautifully simple little coming of age story for teenagers – from twilight to childhood – for this group of friends. We wanted to make sure these were three-dimensional characters.

They said it’s important for characters in today’s scary movies to react the way real people react. “It’s fantasy and adventure brought to the backyard. And, as much as it’s a horror film, there’s also this stark wish-fulfillment to it as well with this teens, on this adventure, that is going to change their lives.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Kevin & Dan Hageman
Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS

From Animation to Live Action

We’ve been working in animation, but if you start with heart from a character’s point of view, it doesn’t really matter what format it is,” asserted Dan. “You’re still curious how they make it through whatever they’re going through. And, for this film, we were so excited to go back and visit all of our favorite horror movies.

On a logistics level, the screenwriters wanted to capture a horror essence for the YA audience. They read Ehren Kruger’s script for The Ring several times to prepare. “We thought that was a really great example of a truly frightening PG-13 movie that didn’t require excess blood, but still had amazing suspense.

Guillermo gave us the vessel. Kids go into a haunted house, find a book, and one-by-one, the stories come to life. Then it was time to dig into the stories, to get a feel for what type of horror it could be. We didn’t want to take the stories verbatim and put them on the screen. That’s just an anthology. We needed to deepen the characters.”

The writers said they didn’t feel there was necessarily a horror specifically aimed at young adults, because there are so many types of horror already. “We didn’t want the bleak horror where everyone dies, so we wanted a sense of tone where the characters can still save themselves. There was an empowerment.”

Citing the recent It film as a similar example, the screen writers said they wanted the kids to take action quicker. “It was a wonderfully daunting assignment to take all of these stories and put them into one big story that makes sense. We wanted to hit these horror, comedy, and mystery notes, which were the kids stopping the curse.

Don’t Cop Out For Kids

The team also cited a film called Cloak & Dagger as a kid-friendly movie, but not a presumptuous film. “The villains were not easy to overcome. There wasn’t a free pass to win the day just because they were kids. They were real spies, killing people, so there were real stakes. We wanted to created real kids with real stakes.

Since the Hageman Brothers were introduced to the stories through Guillermo del Toro, they came in to the work from his unique perspective. “Guillermo likes horror that exposes ourselves to something we don’t want to see. It’s the darker side of humanity—the things we don’t want to see, but need to see.”

Guillermo says, ‘Stories hurt. Stories heal.’ To be able to write these stories, we instantly fell in love with them. It did make us want to be kids again and we felt that sincerity and love. I think that comes off on screen. Those conversations at Bleak House were the highlights of our careers.

With Trollhunters as somewhat of an audition piece, Guillermo del Toro brought in the writers to bring his vision of the adaptation of Scary Stories to life. There were other versions of the screenplay beforehand, but the team that eventually brought it to the big screen ignored early drafts. “Guillermo kept us on board. So many times, you’re one of many feature writers, but he supported us, so we worked on it, over and over until it was right.”

Ten Percent of the Process

Logistically, Dan and Kevin spend a great deal of time talking about the film before embarking on the writing process. “For us, writing is only ten percent of the process. You don’t just go off and write something that’s horror, mystery, and character driven. We structure and beat it to death.”

Great cinematic ideas don’t exist in isolation. Other  filmmakers can come up with similar concepts. “Around the time of one of our early drafts, Stranger Things came out, and we had to change it.”

They began writing the story before Stranger Things took Netflix by storm, but del Toro didn’t want his story to feel like a copy of it. “When Stranger Things came out, a lot of people in the zeitgeist wanted these wish-fulfillment stories, with kids on bikes, so we had to change everything.

Kevin said, “A lot of stories in the Scary Stories books had a setup, like a campfire tale, where the monster gets closer, and then boom. So you can’t do that over and over again.” Dan added, “We tried to find a little twist on things. Oftentimes, there was something you can’t show in a PG-13 movie, so we had to create it equally terrifying and exciting.”

Throughout the film, there are references to the main five stories, but there are countless ‘Easter Eggs’ for fans of the books and various stories are mashed up or hidden to reveal later. “We really took apart these books. At the beginning of the books, there’s a dedication to a woman named Dina, which is a haunting image of a wheelchair. So we named Stella’s mother Dinah.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Red Spot

How to Save the Monster

We love redemption stories and that’s the true art—how does the villain change? How does the protagonist change? We wanted there to be a connection between Stella and Sarah, like a mirror of similarities. Through saving the monster, you can save yourself.

We love movies that reveal twilight and childhood. Movies like The Goonies, youth isn’t adult yet, it’s the last great wish-fulfillment adventure before adulthood. You’ll actually see that in all of our animation projects. As children, we see things as black and white, but it’s adulthood that asks you to live in the grey. It’s difficult to grow up, but you need those tools for the next phase of life. I’m proud this film isn’t nihilistic and there’s a sense of beauty in it.

For those stuck moments in the writing process, the writers often ask themselves, “What is it about this scene we don’t like? You have to be honest about those moments. Is the character not being smart? Is the character not being proactive enough? What is the itch to scratch? Oftentimes, if you figure out the problem, you understand the answer. What is it about the scene that isn’t energizing you?”

“It’s really fortunate that we’re a team and that we’re brothers. We can be brutally honest with one another when something’s not working. We don’t tend to go that long hitting our heads against the wall. I think we like to find out what’s wrong and work on it. Screenwriting is hard, but we live to say something is not working, then we can be our hardest critics. We sharpen each other.

Finally, the screenwriters discussed the differences between instinct and craft. “Instinct is your taste. Are the things you want to see the same things the audience wants to see? Then, you gather things for your toolbox, but it goes back to refining your taste and getting that taste onto the page. I feel like we’re the same writers on the first assignment as we are now, but now we know how to get to the answers faster.”

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