He burst on the scene as the hapless proprietor of a strip mall dojo in the low budget The Foot Fist Way, and Danny McBride just scored his biggest success as co-writer of the low budget sequel to the 40-year old John Carpenter film Halloween. Its $80 million opening gross, a record for October, likely will prevent him from being able to sneak up on people anymore. McBride has carved a career writing and starring in comedies that include the HBO series Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals. He is writing and directing the next one, The Righteous Gemstones, an HBO series that will star John Goodman, Adam Devine and Edie Patterson. Here, McBride discusses how he and his cohorts got away with treading on Halloween‘s hallowed horror ground, figuring out ideas for the sequel, and how, if Jamie Lee Curtis hadn’t reprised Laurie Strode, it might have fallen to McBride to replace the Scream Queen.
DEADLINE: Way back when you, David Gordon Green and your other Rough House Pictures partner Jody Hill were scraping together the money to buy beer at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, had I told you that one day you would make a Halloween sequel with John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis and it would gross nearly $80 million on opening weekend, what would you have said?
MCBRIDE: I would have laughed. There’s no way in hell I would have thought we ever would have been part of this. It’s mind blowing. Now that it’s done, it is also one of those things where David and I are looking at each other and saying, ‘Whew, if that had gone wrong, imagine the public flogging we would have gone through?’ I’m really glad that audiences responded. It feels good to take on a movie we have such admiration for, and be able to give something to the fans that feels like a worthy part of the original.
DEADLINE: The original is such a minimalist masterpiece, one of the great horror movies ever. There have been so many attempts to tap into that Halloween mythology that weren’t nearly as successful. What elements from the original were you able to capture to make a film that connected so many people to that first film?
MCBRIDE: Weirdly, I think it was writing for television that prepped us to be able to do this. Whether it’s writing on Eastbound & Down or Vice Principals, you come back for the new season for a show and thinking, how do I give the audience something new but enough of what they already liked? That train of thought helped. David, Jeff Fradley and I pored over all the Halloween films, thinking, how do we put our mark on this and why’s it even worth trying? It just brought us back to the first one and how simple it was. Carpenter didn’t spend the first 45 minutes of the movie explaining how Michael Myers was still alive, and what cult he’s part of, and what bloodline he’s from and what relative he wants to go after. All of that was gone, and instead he set up this relate-able, grounded, realistic world that leaves you filled with dread at the thought of him coming back and destroying it all. For us, that was the start. How can we clear away the clutter and go simple, so the horror can take the front seat and not all this baggage and exposition? That led us to directly connect it to the first one. That became the touchstone.
DEADLINE: You make movies like this to launch or revive franchises. How far along are you on the inevitable sequel?
MCBRIDE: We definitely have ideas of what we would do. I think we did not allow ourselves to really indulge those ideas until the movie came out. We just wanted to put all our hopes and dreams in having this film stick the landing. But we do have thoughts and ideas of what we could possibly do. We hadn’t invested a ton of time on them, but now we’re being asked to figure it out. There are definitely talks on whether we will do more of them and we’re just trying to see what best makes sense.
DEADLINE: John Carpenter’s name is on the new film and I recall Jason Blum saying that he wouldn’t have gone forward if that wasn’t the case. Besides the legitimacy his name brought, what was the most valuable thing Carpenter gave you guys?
MCBRIDE: He would read the scripts and definitely gave us his thoughts about the beginning of the movie. At one point, we imagined shooting the climax of the original Halloween from a different point of view to set up how our movie starts. He was like, ‘nah, you don’t need to mess with that. The audience will understand where you are coming from.’ That was a very smart note. Also helpful was his advice to David in directing it. Keep it simple, and relentless, he said. And man, this movie wouldn’t be the same without his score. It is so iconic and so fused to what makes Michael Myers work, that having him put his stamp on the movie just with his music, that really elevated the entire project.
DEADLINE: Did you write the script knowing Jamie Lee Curtis would come back? Her Laurie Strode evolved from scream queen to warrior, similar to the way Sarah Connor changed from James Cameron’s first and second Terminator films. Those wouldn’t have been the same had Linda Hamilton not come back in a much tougher package.
MCBRIDE: We were warned when we first came onto the project. There was no guarantee she would want to do this. She came back before and her time might be finished and she might not want anything more to do with Laurie. That was something David and I and Fradley had to get our heads around. What would we do if we didn’t have her? What would this movie be? It became quickly apparent to us we didn’t have a movie without her. So we really just wrote this to attract her to come back. We didn’t have a story we’d want to tell without Laurie Strode. And we knew nobody else was going to come in and play this role besides Jamie. So we put it upon ourselves to write a character it would be hard for her to say no to. We committed to that, wrote the whole script without knowing if she would be involved. Just doubled down on, we have to create this so it will be too hard for her to say no. She called David within a day of when she got the script, to say she was in. Man, that was such a sense of relief. We didn’t have any other plan.
It either wouldn’t have gotten made or Laurie Strode would have been turned into Laurence Strode, and that character would have been played by me. And we probably wouldn’t be having this interview right now.
DEADLINE: What did the original film mean to you?
MCBRIDE: I can’t remember when I first saw the original, it was that weird mix of where I was not allowed to see it, so was left to being scared, imagining what happened. Being a kid growing up in the 80s, the horror section was the best one to wander through in the video store. Going past all these VHS boxes with all this amazing cover art of killers, ghosts, monsters. Nothing my parents would let me watch. I would make up these stories in my head. Why did my parents not want me to see these movies? What’s so scary about it? Michael Myers, that image of him being emotionless in that white mask, I remember that being particularly creepy. It stuck with me from an early age and I couldn’t stop thinking, what does that guy in that white mask do that so terrifies my parents? I started breaking down their willpower slowly and I began renting these movies and these horror movies became a passion of mine as a kid. Especially Michael Myers. Carpenter just captured lightning in a bottle. There was a simplicity, a creepiness to him. He wasn’t goofy, no one liners like Freddy Krueger had. He’s just relentlessly scary and that resonates with people.
DEADLINE: The mythology they spray painted white a William Shatner Halloween mask from Star Trek adds to the lack of financial resources they had to make the original.
MCBRIDE: Jamie would tell us how little money was spent on the original and she told us all kinds of stories from that original set where John was the oldest person and it was him and his film school buddies making this movie for next to nothing. And here we were this many years later in Charleston, South Carolina and the movie was populated with our buddies from film school and we were making a movie on a shoestring budget and just hoping it connected. But that’s the power of Michael Myers. You don’t need a giant budget when you have something that works as well as he does.
DEADLINE: When you co-architect something that succeeds so smashingly like Halloween has, what’s that like?
MCBRIDE: This is all new. We’ve never really had anything that worked, before. My sister got married in Wimberley, Texas on the weekend. I flew to Texas last Friday, out on a ranch with no cell phone or internet. When I got to the airport Monday, everyone I knew had left messages and texts about the numbers. It was so exciting. We’re trying to take it all in but we stay busy here at Rough House. We’re constantly trying to create, write. I’ve got a writer’s room going right now for the HBO series The Righteous Gemstones. We’re writing that right now and developing some other things. But the reaction to this has us thinking about more Halloween as well. I wrote the Righteous Gemstones pilot earlier this year and directed it this summer. We got picked up and now we’re writing the rest of the series and will start production on that early next year. It’s me, John Goodman, Adam Devine and Edie Patterson.
DEADLINE: Your track record doesn’t exactly scream genre. Why did Halloween change that?
MCBRIDE: I met David and Jody Hill, the other partner in our company, back at film school in North Carolina. What brought me there were films in general, of all genres. Horror, Westerns, sci-fi, drama, comedy. I didn’t go to that school with a specialty or unique desire for comedy. I got my start making the comedy The Foot Fist Way with Jody Hill, and that was comedy and people cast you in things they feel you are capable of doing. I always felt I was capable of more, even though I love comedy. But after writing the comedic TV shows and movies I’ve had my hands in, I wanted to spread my wings and try something else. We’d been flipping around how to make that leap and when David was approached by Jason Blum for Halloween and he asked if I’d help him crack it, it felt like the perfect thing. It was just scary enough. Because failing would have stung, big time. The stakes were high enough.
DEADLINE: There are plenty of other classic horror films that could be brought back to life. Which have you been offered?
MCBRIDE: None yet, but it’s early in the day, so we’ll see what happens.