Gary Dauberman on Annabelle Comes Home, working alongside James Wan, and juggling so many projects.
Gary Dauberman has been working as a screenwriter in Hollywood since 2007 but it wasn’t until he became part of James Wan’s Conjuring Universe team that his career really took off. Since 2014, Gary has written seven screenplays. The result of these screenplays has turned him into one of the most sought after genre writers working today. Gary has been the writer behind four films in The Conjuring Universe including Annabelle Creation and The Nun. He also happens to be one of the writers behind the successful IT movie as well as the upcoming sequel IT: Chapter 2.
After several years of writing screenplays, Gary has finally gotten the opportunity to move over to the director’s chair with Annabelle Comes Home. The film serves as another chapter in the expanding Conjuring Universe. After seeing the film, I had a chance to chat with Gary about the project as well as his career working alongside James Wan. My entire interview with Gary can be read below.
Scott: Hey, Gary, how are you?
Gary: Good, man, how are you?
Scott: I’m good. It is nice talking to you again. We met briefly at the event the other night.
Gary: That’s right, yeah. How was it?
Scott: It was good. I love the fact that they put the Annabelle doll in the theater to watch the movie with us. Right before the movie started, someone said, “Oh, do you like the person behind you?” And I literally looked behind me, and I’m like, “Oh, oh, wow, ok.”
Gary: I love when they do shit like that.
Scott: Yeah, it’s great, and I thought they did a nice job too on the lot, I think WB really knows how to use their lot to their advantage and throw a nice little event as they did with that movie.
Gary: Yeah, it’s cool. I still get goosebumps when I get to go on a Studio Lot like that, you know? There is so much history.
Scott: Oh I know, me too. I’ve done that tour so many times, and I still love going on it no matter how many times I’ve done it.
Gary: Absolutely, it’s awesome.
Scott: Hopefully, this movie will be featured this year in the nighttime Halloween event that they did for the first time last year.
Gary: Oh, yeah, well, I hope so. That would be cool if it was, but yeah, we were in production on Annabelle Comes Home, or going into production, when they were doing that. So we got to sneak over and go through the mazes, which was a lot of fun.
Scott: Yeah, it’s awesome, and maybe you’ll be part of the Universal Horror Nights as well right, who knows?
Gary: Oh, my God. No, dare to dream. I love going to that.
Scott: Me too! Every year they have something new and different, and I love that they continue to build on that, and it’s become even bigger than anything else that they have at Universal, at least here at the one in Hollywood.
Gary: I agree.
Scott: The big question for you as this is the first time that you’ve gotten to sit in the director’s chair after writing several films that are part of this universe, what was that like for you?
Gary: It was daunting, thinking about what came before, and you hope to rise to the occasion when you take on something like that. All that said, it felt very comfortable and organic, because of having worked on the previous movies, knowing all the players involved, having such a close relationship with James, Peter Safran, and New Line, I always felt like I was in good hands, and everybody was around me to encourage and support me. We really try to foster a really creative collaborative vibe on all these movies, and that was something I wanted to really push going forward on this one, and I think we achieved that. And it was also really thrilling and really exciting. It was great to be the final say on a lot of things, as opposed to just offering suggestions. It was nice that I can actually make changes because I have a say.
Scott: Good, I’m glad to hear it. I always think this is something to say about a film when you can look at it and you can see the director’s fingerprints on it, where it doesn’t just feel like, “this just feels like another entry in this universe.” But it has your own unique stamp on it if you get what I mean.
Gary: Oh, cool. I do get what you mean and love hearing that and I appreciate you saying that. That was important to me. Working within the universe, there are boxes you have to check in a great way, and I don’t mean in that in a perfunctory way. But I also wanted to try to get my voice in there. If you read my scripts, there’s a lot of asides, quips, and stuff in the action stuff that people never see when they’re watching the movies.
But I wanted to try to achieve that a little bit in this movie as well. As you said, my fingerprints, so just get a little bit of that in there. And really, I hope it’s reflective a little bit of the movies that I grew up on in the ’80s where you’d watch a movie and suddenly in one scene you’re in a horror movie and in the next scene you’re in a comedy. So it feels a little bit more like a ride, and a little bit more adventurous, as opposed to just sticking with the one thing all the way through. And I think that’s a good way to also keep people on the edge of their seat, and make them question where’s the scare going to come from because I was just smiling in the previous scene, you know?
Scott: That’s something that I wanted to comment on too, I’ve noticed that you really earned the scares with this film. You truly earned your scares in this movie. You built a lot of atmosphere, tension, and suspense. What was the thought process behind that, and how exactly do you write that into a script?
Gary: How do I write tension?
Scott: Yeah because tension is something you feel. So how do you put that into words so that actors get it?
Gary: I appreciate you saying that, man, thank you, because all that stuff is important to me, especially about earning the scares. Because of the challenge with this movie that takes place over the course of one night, which on its own, I thought of originally. And I was going, “Well, that makes it feel a little bit different from the other movies too.” It was a throwback to the ’70s slashers and stuff that I like. So there’s a good portion, where, yeah, you’re trying to hope to build up that tension, that tension. And I try to do that, in a weird way, visually on the page as well, so it’s almost not even word choice, but it’s how it looks on the page. So if I wanted a moment to be drawn out, I’ll leave a lot of space. So on the page, it takes you a little while to get to the thing that’s about to happen, the bang, or the jump. So when you’re reading it and there’s a lot of periods and stuff, so mentally, it stops you, and then you go, and then it stops, and then you go, and then it stops…
It’s a weird thing. If we had a page in front of us, I could point it out and go, “Oh, here’s where I was thinking I was hoping I could really draw attention here.” But yeah, so I try to think visually too, when I’m writing, in a weird way. You know, when you’re writing in a document, how you can zoom out to 50%, so you can’t read the words, but it just looks like black on a page, you know, the lines? I do that with my scripts. When I’m done writing my scripts, I zoom out, so I can see visually what it looks like when you’re reading it, so I can tell you even without the words, going, “Oh, that’s a scare.” Or, “What’s this.” or whatever.
Scott: So, Becks and Woods, the guys who wrote A Quiet Place last year, have you read that screenplay and the way that they wrote it? It’s pretty fascinating how on certain pages, there are only a few words, so it makes you see what they are going for.
Gary: No, I have not read that screenplay. I should. I haven’t done the thing, where it’s like, “Oh, this page only has a few words.” I think that’s super interesting. But I’ve not read it, but I’ll read it on your recommendation because I love that movie. But yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. It’s like, “How can you play with it?” You play with the form a little bit, to get what it is. I see these messages boards, where people are on, and going like, “I’m not supposed to say, we, in it, or I’m not supposed to do this, or I’m not supposed to do that.” No, you’re supposed to do whatever it is to best tell the story. It does not matter. No one’s going to ding you because, “Oh, this was not the proper formatting for WB or Paramount.” You got to tell the story.
Scott: I completely agree with that. The thing about Annabelle Comes Home is that it works great as a standalone film, but it also works as another chapter in this universe. Was that the intention when you were writing this one. I like that I didn’t have to see the others in order to actually enjoy this one.
Gary: Yes, that was my intention and I was really digging into the mythology of Judy Warren as well and what her backstory was. We’ve seen what happened when people are in a house, they don’t know the dolls in it yet, or they don’t know yet the doll’s haunted. So I thought about Judy knowing already at the start of the movie that this doll is a thing of evil, and it’s in a room filled with things of evil. And I thought a lot about what that would be like, to grow up in a house like that. So I wanted to expand the mythology of the universe, using her, as opposed to just getting deeper into the mythology of the doll. Does that make sense?
Scott: Yeah, and that’s something that at first when I walked out of the movie I had a little bit of problem with. I felt like the plot itself was very thin because I feel like its so simple. But the way that I look at this film now is that it’s just another chapter. They have been marketing these movies as another chapter, and that’s how I feel. This is just one night with Annabelle kind of thing, where this girl has her past, and then she goes over to the house to explore, and then her nightmare becomes a reality. And at first, I was like, “No, that’s a negative.” But now I’m like, “it does work.” Because it just means it’s more self-contained, and it’s just like another chapter in a book, where there’s more to come.
Gary: Exactly. You said it better than I could. Take what you said, put it in quotes, and attribute it to me.
Scott: I’m always very transparent when I talk to everyone. If I don’t particularly love something about a film, I will tell them. And that was one of my things when the publicist asked me, “What did you think?” I’m like, “Well, I like the atmosphere and the tension, but I wasn’t too crazy about the story. I thought it was too basic.” And then I thought about it for the past couple of days, and I’m like, “no, it’s like a chapter in a book with more to come.” And by looking at it that way, I realized that I did like that.
Gary: I appreciate you saying that. I like to hear that stuff too. And I agree. It’s a simple clean story, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, especially when it’s over the course of one night. You’re dealing with Judy Warren, inside the Warren’s house, so that presents challenges too, where you’re like, “Well, I can’t burn it down because we see it The Conjuring Two.” So there are things, where you’re like, “Well, okay, how am I going to do this?” And honestly, I thought about a lot of the late ’70s, early ’80s, movies, where it’s just, “How can we make this terrifying?” I’m not making an epic here. I wanted something fun and that feels like a ride, and by the time it’s over, you’re like, “Wow, that was really fucking cool and fun.” And you’re smiling when you leave the theater. I really wanted to achieve something like that, as opposed to something so dense and weighty, where it feels a little oppressive, you know?
Scott: Yeah, and thinking back on the film now, that’s what I liked about it. It was a simple story, and it works for what it is. It doesn’t feel convoluted, which I think a problem that a lot of horror movies face nowadays.
Gary: Oh, really?
Scott: Yeah, I think so.
Gary: I think there’s a little bit of the reaction. I just wanted to tell a clean story and believe me, I had many drafts where it got very convoluted, and it got way into backstories. But the idea was just to strip all that away and try to tell a really clean through-line, simple tale that’s hopefully really scary and also really enjoyable. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all.
Not to say I don’t like the other type of movie when movies do say something or get deep. But I guess it was just where I was at my creative life, where I was just like, “No, I want to write something really fun and that feels like almost one of my favorite songs, where I can put that in and just listen to it.” It might not be some opus or something, but I thought a lot about re-watch-ability to, you know?
Scott: I think that’s important because I feel like that’s something that’s missing from a lot of movies nowadays.
Gary: Yeah, I agree.
Scott: You have this long-standing relationship with James Wan for several years now where you worked alongside him many times. Is there anything that you would say that you learned from him?
Gary: Oh, man, I mean, that’s a long conversation. I mean that’s one long answer.
Scott: How about the most important thing you feel like you learned from him?
Gary: Well for him, it starts with the story. And I’ve learned a lot about how the structure of a film is important. He’s really great at editing in every facet, so even in post and I mean that literally and figuratively. So when it comes to the story, and we were just talking about the details, he’s very good at “Oh, you don’t need that. Strip that away. Get to the meat of it, get to the heart of it.” He’s really inventive on set, which is something I love.
I don’t think he would acknowledge that he’s improvisational, but when I watch him, he’ll look at something, and then keep trying it, and tweaking, and tweaking, and tweaking until he gets to right where he wants it to be, which I adopted as my style too, a little bit, where he’ll see the thing on its feet, and then just start tweaking, tweaking, and tweaking. And then by the end of it, he’s like, “Okay, cool, we can move on.”
But I mean, honestly, he’s been at my side for all these movies, and through the script phase, and through when I was a producer, working with him as a producer on things like The Curse of La Llorona, or The Nun. And then it was really cool. This happened at a great time, because he was just winding down on Aquaman, and he wasn’t jumping into anything yet. So he had some time to really spend with me on this one, and come to set, and hatch some creative ideas with me while we’re shooting, which is super fun. And then honestly, some of my favorite moments of making this movie is sitting in the edit suite with him and Kirk, who’s edited most of James’ movies and also edited this one, who’s a genius in his own right. But sitting with them late at night and just trying to, “Hey, what about this?” Or, “Try that.” Or, “Try this.” There’s a playfulness that he brings to his projects that I really admire and try to adopt.
Scott: Awesome. I know we’re getting close on time, so I want to try to squeeze in these last two questions. As a writer, you’ve become so in demand over the next couple of years you are writing, Are You Afraid of the Dark, Salem’s Lot and many others. How do you balance all this without going completely nuts?
Gary: *laughs* It helps to love what you’re doing, so it never feels too much like work. Sometimes it feels like work, I won’t lie to you, but I try to get involved in projects that I’m really passionate about, and I feel very, very lucky to be involved in, so it’s a lot of fun. And so, it’s a lot of fun to go and sit down and whittle away at these things. If you look at these projects, you’ll find that a lot of times I’m working with the same partners that I’ve worked with on other movies, and that really helps manage time schedule as well. I think the biggest luxury is actually being able to choose who you want to work with on these things, because you spend so much time with these people throughout this process, and I just love the guys … I love everyone at New Line. I love, obviously, James and everyone at Atomic Monster and Peter Safran, and … So we’re all on the same page in terms of, “Okay, this going to happen next, and then this.” And all that stuff. But I also, I love making the process about a conversation, as opposed to me going away for 12 weeks, and then coming back with a script. I bring people in early on and like, “Hey, let’s talk about this. Here’s what I’m thinking first act.” And so, it also helps to know that hopefully, you’re writing a movie and not just a script if that makes sense.
Scott: Mm-hmm, yes it does.
Gary: Because there’s a lot of places that just seem to want to develop and not make anything, and I like to work with people who want to make stuff. So it just incentivizes me more to finish the draft and, “Let’s get going.” you know?
Scott: Yeah, and I mean, have you ever while writing let’s say Annabelle Comes Home, have you ever thought of an idea for a particular movie, and then you’re like, “Oh, shit, we can’t do it for this one, but then let me put this idea in one of my other movies.”? Does that ever happen?
Gary: No, I gotta say, because I’m very narrow-minded. If I’m working on … I’m also not a guy who … I know people who can like, “Well, I’ll work on this in the morning, and I’ll work at this at night.” I really can’t do that. I have to write until it’s completely if that makes sense. So every idea I have, I’m trying to put it into that project, and I’m just thinking about that. So yeah.
Scott: Ok, my last question because I know they got to wrap you, It: Chapter Two, can you tell me something about it? The world’s excited about this movie. When that trailer dropped, the Internet went crazy.
Gary: Man, I wish I could tell you something in detail but I can’t. I can tell you that I’ve seen it, and I loved it. I’m really fucking proud of it. Andy really outdid himself yet again with this one, and the cast is just on fire. And it’s something that I’m super proud of. You can’t wait for the mic drop. I can’t wait for it to come out, because I know people are just going to love it. We’ll definitely be talking more about it, I promise.
Scott: Oh, I know, absolutely. All right, thank you for the great chat, take care.
Gary: Thanks, man. We will talk again soon.