Rob Savage is a Stephen King devotee.
Now, in an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1973 short story of the same name, Savage is bringing The Boogeyman to life on the big screen. In doing so, he’s achieved something of a long-standing career goal.
“That was a very lofty career ambition that I would never have admitted to before signing onto one,” he tells The Digital Fix. “That’s the gold standard of horror adaptations. And I think I always, in the back of my head, wanted to try my hand entering into that pantheon of King adaptations.”
“Although I tried not to think about that while we were making the movie, because it’s intimidating. To square up to Kubrick and De Palma and Rob Reiner and all these great directors is a bit of a thing.”
“I started out with King short stories, because I wasn’t quite ready for his Bible-sized [stories] when I was a kid,” he explains. “But I knew I wanted to read Stephen King, because it was like forbidden fruit. You know, my parents told me, ‘You can’t read these stories, because they’ll mess you up forever.’ And they were completely right. I read those short stories in Night Shift, including The Boogeyman, and remembered them absolutely terrifying me as a kid.”
The Boogeyman movie expands on the short story by focusing on the Harper family, who have just suffered the loss of their wife and mother. Dr Will Harper, a now single father, must try to come to terms with his own loss while helping his daughters move on. Will hosts his therapy clients out of his home, leading to a meeting with a mysterious and desperate man, Lester Billings.
The scene in the monster movie that lends itself to the original story most rigidly is the meeting between Chris Messina’s Will Harper and David Dastmalchian’s Lester Billings, since this forms the bulk of King’s original tale. It’s an eerie exchange that acts as the backbone for the rest of the film’s events, so it was important for Savage and the team to get it right.
“That was the most intense day of the whole shoot, because everyone knew that if we got this scene wrong, Stephen King fans would eviscerate us and this was where we most directly pay homage to King and we’re adapting the material directly,” he acknowledges.
“We discussed the scene a lot, but we hadn’t read it. And then we did this first rehearsal and David was so brilliant and Chris was so brilliant. You could hear a pin drop on set. The whole room kind of felt like, ‘Okay, something special is going to happen today.’ And we took a long time trying to find that balance of honoring the short story, which is about Lester Billings, but it’s very different Lester Billings from our movie. Our take on the character is he’s threatening, but he’s also kind of deeply sympathetic.”
David Dastmalchian’s performance as Lester Billings stands out as one of the most memorable of the movie, as he harbors a deeply traumatized and haunting performance. Dastmalchian is an actor that always uses the most of what little screen time he is given, leaving audiences with thoughtful and effecting performances. However, Savage admits that getting him on board wasn’t all that easy.
“He wasn’t keen on doing it because it’s such a dark role,” he explains. “And I think there’s a lot of overlap with his own story that it took a bit of arm twisting to get David to do it. I had to meet with him and talk him through my vision for the movie.”
In a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair, Dastmalchian shared that he had suffered from drug addiction and depression in high school, and subsequently ended up living out of cars before his family helped him into a psychiatric facility. But evidently, he’d been aware of Savage’s work, and Savage himself knew of the actor from an unusual link.
“He was a fan of Host. He’d actually done a spoof of Host for Fangoria, where he inserted himself into the movie,” Savage says. “So we were both aware of each other. He was one of the first people I thought of for the Lester Billings character. I just thought, like you say, every single movie he shows up in, he’s normally the best thing about it. And I knew that to give him this kind of showcase, which is more screen time I think that he normally gets in a run, where he really is just dominating the scene, I just knew he’d be totally hypnotic in this part.”
Lester Billings is a man living in the shadows of his own loss and unbearable grief, much like the Harper family at the movie’s start. And with a plot so centered around the subject, Savage recalls personal connections to the story being the motivation for successful execution of emotion vs. scares.
“It was making sure that both felt like they were being honored. The scenes of grief and people going through that process needed to feel grounded and authentic,” he says. “…I had just lost somebody before we started shooting, and Chris [Messina] had just lost a dear friend of his, and so there was nothing cynical in the way that we approached those scenes.”
The scares are brought on most often by the teasing of the Boogeyman itself. When it came to the design and utilization of the monster, Savage had a technique in mind that took some notes from some of the best horror movies of all time.
“When we were doing the edit, we had the screen time of the creature on the wall,” he explains. “Then we had the amount of time that the shark is in Jaws, and the alien is in Alien. We wanted to make sure it was in line with that. Actually, there’s like a second less of this creature than there is of the shark in Jaws and a second and a half less than the alien in Aliens. We really don’t show it very much, because we wanted the audience to be able to, still project their own fears onto it.”
“That being said, it’s a studio horror movie, this family is going to have to square up against the creature at the end. When we see the creature, I wanted it to feel simple and almost like this is a creature that’s been around since there was darkness. We had to imagine this creature as something that’s ancient and primordial.”
Being the Stephen King fan that he is, what does Savage see in his adaptation filmmaking future?
“I want to do an adaptation of The Langoliers and I don’t care who knows it,” he affirms. “One of his best short stories, but a great take on it. It’s been made into a TV movie, a while ago, but that is by no means the definitive version of it. That’s the one, if I could do one more.”
The Boogeyman is coming to theaters on June 2, 2023.
If you want to know what we thought of the movie, check out our The Boogeyman review. Plus, see what Chris Messina had to say about working on the project, and check out how to watch the new Stephen King movie now.