An evil doll. A demonic nun. A killer clown. While such creatures are nightmare fuel for some, screenwriter Gary Dauberman embraces them. “These characters have been very good to me,” the filmmaker says with a laugh. “So I’m not scared of them. They don’t show up in my nightmares.”
Dauberman has made an art of out finding new and creative ways to scare audiences, having written all three installments of the “Annabelle” series, focusing on the porcelain doll that serves as a conduit for evil that was first featured in 2013’s “The Conjuring.” When 2016’s “The Conjuring 2” introduced a new breakout villain in the form of the demon nun Valak, Dauberman was tasked with creating the mythos for 2018’s “The Nun.”
Then Dauberman took on one of the most enviable but also intimidating tasks for any fan of horror: adapting Stephen King’s massive novel “It” for the big screen. The first installment of the film, directed by Andy Muschietti, was a critical and box office smash, grossing over $700 million worldwide off a $35 million budget. This week sees the release of “It: Chapter Two,” set 27 years after the first film and again helmed by Muschietti.
The first movie followed seven young friends batting a demonic force that frequently appeared to them in the form of a grinning, drooling clown named Pennywise. The sequel finds the ensemble brought back to finish the job, weaving in flashbacks and new scenes with the young actors who originated the roles. Everything is bigger: the stars (Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader join the cast), the scares, the emotion, not to mention the real-life stakes — the first film is one of the most profitable and heralded horror films of all time.
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If the writer is feeling the pressure, it’s not showing. Seated in a coffee shop he refers to as his office, Dauberman expresses more excitement than nerves. “There’s a lot to live up to with the first one because everyone just killed it,” he says. “And I know that it’s hard to catch lightning in a bottle twice — but they did it.”
Dauberman grew up outside Philadelphia in a town called Glen Mills, which could almost pass for one of those idyllic towns featured in so many genre films, with its trees changing color and wrought iron and brick structures. “When Halloween would roll around, it felt like a Ray Bradbury story come to life and I loved it,” Dauberman recalls.
He has vivid memories of seeing “Poltergeist” at a sleepover at the age of 7. Movies like “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th” were staples, but he was also influenced by “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (the face-melting scene in particular) and “The Lost Boys” (look for that film’s poster in “It: Chapter Two”). And then there were the books; authors like Lois Duncan, Christopher Pike and R.L. Stein were required reading. And, of course, Stephen King.
“It was an event when King would release something,” he notes. “I’d rush to Waldenbooks and there was a big display with these great covers and I can remember buying them and cracking open that binding.”
But it wasn’t just King’s writing; it was the man himself. “I remember seeing him in interviews and thinking, ‘Oh, he seems so normal.’ He was a great ambassador for horror because he seemed like a regular guy, not someone holding rituals in his basement of the middle of the night,” Dauberman says.
Dauberman says he really learned to write through reading. Originally, he wanted to write and draw comics or be a Disney animator. The only problem, he notes, is that he wasn’t a great artist. “So I put all my eggs in the writing basket,” he says.
Things actually worked out in comics — Dauberman penned an entry for the DC Comics anthology “Cursed Comics Calvacade,” and has just released the first issue of “The Mall,” a four-part graphic novel he penned with Michael Moreci for Vault Comics. He also adapted the DC comic “Swamp Thing” for a 10-episode series on DC Universe this year.
“His scripts are lyrical and he is so detailed.”
After graduating from Temple University, Dauberman moved to Los Angeles and found an early supporter in Cathryn Jaymes, a manager who once worked with Quentin Tarantino. “I was waiting tables when I saw a posting on Craigslist from her, looking for an intern,” he reveals. “I didn’t even tell her I wanted to be a writer at first.” When he finally did show her a script, she was impressed, and became a mentor to him.
He cut his teeth on two 2007 films for SyFy, “In the Spider’s Web” and “Blood Monkey,” which he refers to as a great film school. “It was like my Roger Corman years,” he says. “It taught me how to write and to write quickly.”
A spec sent to New Line Cinema impressed them enough to bring him onto a horror roundtable, and a fruitful relationship was born. “Gary came in with such great ideas and we knew immediately he was someone we wanted to keep working with,” says Richard Brener, president & chief creative officer at New Line Cinema. “Fast forward 10 years and he has written eight movies for New Line, served as an EP, a producer, and recently made his directorial debut with ‘Annabelle Comes Home.’ Gary is an exceptional talent and collaborator.”
Dauberman was already a fan of James Wan’s “Saw” when he met the filmmaker at an early screening of New Line’s “The Conjuring.” He instantly knew it was going to be one of his favorite horror movies of all time. Wan, for one, is also a fan of his protégé. “It feels like I’ve known him forever,” Wan tells Variety. “He’s truly one of my favorite people in the business.”
“The Conjuring” launched a cinematic universe by introducing audiences to Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the real-life paranormal investigators who collected artifacts from their cases for their Occult Museum in Connecticut.
The real-life Annabelle is a Raggedy Ann doll that still resides at the museum — eagle-eyed viewers might spot a Raggedy Ann cameo in “Annabelle Comes Home.” But developing a backstory and legend was a conversation between Dauberman, Wan and New Line.
One of the biggest challenges of penning the first “Annabelle” film was simply justifying why anyone would ever keep such a disturbing-looking doll. “People always ask about that,” Dauberman says with a laugh. “But have you seen the creepy dolls people have? It’s not so outside the norm.”
Made in a condensed time frame on a $6 million budget, the film went on to make $257 million worldwide; 2017 follow-up “Annabelle: Creation” improved both in box office ($306 million) and reviews. When it came time to make a third movie, this year’s “Annabelle Comes Home,” Dauberman not only wrote the script, but stepped behind the camera for his directorial debut.
Dauberman says the original “Annabelle” was the first time he was on a set for an extended time, and he used the opportunity to learn everything he could. Wan took notice.
“I would catch Gary taking ‘filmmaking’ notes during discussions between the producers and director,” Wan says. “We all felt it was time for Gary to step behind the camera, and direct ‘Annabelle Comes Home’ — and he’s so naturally talented at it. What I love most about Gary as a director is his focus on creating interesting and likable characters. His writing skill is one of his big secret weapons as a filmmaker.” On another note, Wan adds, “Oh, and like myself, he’s a fried chicken fanatic!”
One of the biggest challenges with scripting the horror genre is coming up with new ways to scare audiences looking for a bigger adrenaline rush. Dauberman is aware of this, and says he tries to get ahead of expectations.
“You try to zig when they think you’re going to zag,” he says. This is also where comedy can come in handy, something that is a trademark of Dauberman’s scripts — nervous laughter is often a necessary release following a tense moment. So it’s no surprise to hear one of this other favorite genres is the romantic comedy, citing “When Harry Met Sally…” as a big influence. He notes, “The timing of comedy and horror are actually very similar. You’re setting something up, then hitting the punchline.”
To hear his actors tell it, Dauberman’s screenplays often contain laughs that aren’t intended for audiences. Bonnie Aarons, who plays the titular character in “The Nun,” says the scripts are as fun to read as to see. “His scripts are very lyrical and he is so detailed. As you’re reading his words, you see it coming alive,” she says. “Also, he writes these little side notes in parentheses that are very humorous.” For example, Dauberman says the “Annabelle Comes Home” screenplay contains the description: “There’s a Remington typewriter, which I’m going to steal after production is over.”
Brener also enjoys reading the scripts. “Gary has an unmistakable voice in his storytelling and you know a Gary Dauberman script without seeing the cover page,” he notes. “He is an incredibly visual writer and has a way of putting you in the story, which is valuable for horror because it gives you the visceral effect of a given scene. Gary carefully crafts every detail to draw you in and you can feel every beat and emotion alongside the characters.”
Dauberman says he doesn’t always like to script frights out too carefully. “Sometimes when it’s too planned out, it can feel a little joyless. I like a little messiness,” he admits. “And if you’re fortunate enough to work with a great director like James or Andy, they’ll come up with amazing ideas on the day.”
As for every artist’s real-life nightmare, writer’s block, Dauberman says he works through that by actually yelling at himself on the page. “I will write out: ‘What is going on with this scene, why can’t I figure it out?’” he reveals. “Whatever my internal monologue is, I try to get it on the page. Because if it’s stuck in my head, I’m just spinning my wheels.”
Having found so much success in horror, it’s inevitable that people will ask when he intends to leave it behind — moving onto more “prestigious” genres. But Dauberman has no intention of departing anytime soon. He’s currently scripting an adaptation of King’s vampire classic “Salem’s Lot” for New Line and the American remake of the Korean zombie hit “Train to Busan.”
“Horror isn’t a stepping stone for me. I love horror,” he notes. “With this genre, you get comedy and drama and suspense and you get to play around. Plus, I love the horror community. It’s a nice, familiar atmosphere where I get to work with a lot of the same people.”
Dauberman also notes how cathartic the genre can be and how it can be used as a metaphor for bigger statements. “It” isn’t just about a murderous clown, it’s a coming-of-age tale about facing your fears and the value of friendship. “The Nun” grapples with issues of faith while “Annabelle: Creation” is a study of grief. In “Annabelle Comes Home,” the evil doll’s powers aren’t unleashed out of malice — it’s because a young girl has lost her father and is hoping to find proof of life after death.
His directorial debut was even personally healing for Dauberman, who lost his own father before filming began. “When I told my sister what the film was about, she said, ‘Well, that’s interesting,’” Dauberman recalls. “I didn’t know what she meant. She pointed out our father had just passed. I don’t know how I didn’t see it. If I had consciously known that going in, I might not have done it. But it ended up being a wonderful experience and really helping me through it.”