If you happen to like -- or LOVE -- holiday-themed horror films, pre-order the upcoming DVD/Blu-ray release of Better Watch Out. The story (which was formerly titled Safe Neighborhood) revolves around a babysitter about to move away. For one last night, she agrees to watch a boy who has a crush on her to help clear her mind of stress. However, the minutes tick by and she has the most stressful night of her life, as the home is invaded by a killer. Think Home Alone if it were a serial killer movie.
I spoke to director Chris Peckover about the film during its well-received screening at Fantasia 2017.
ScreenAnarchy: How did BETTER WATCH OUT come about?
Chris Peckover: It started with my American producers Brion Hambel and Paul Jensen. They brought this script to me written by Zack Kahn. They asked if I was interested in directing it and I had ideas for shifting it. Zack and I worked on the script together and took it in a different direction.
What changed from the original script?
The twist was still the same, but it was about 60 pages after and I thought what came after the twist was way more interesting, so we kind of flipped things around. We also added the character Garrett, who wasn’t in the film originally. That brought a wonderful dynamic that wasn't there before. But from the very beginning, I thought the twist was a million dollar twist.
We finished the script and were contacted by Brett Thornquest, who’s based out of Sydney.
It just so happens that aside from being born in Montreal and being a Canadian citizen, I’m an Australian citizen because my mom is Australian. So he said “if you’re Australian, we can get this made for a much bigger budget here in Australia than what you’ll get in the US.” And he followed through.
Brett and his producing partner Shane Abbess had connections to huge people in Australia: my production designer was the supervising art director of Mad Max: Fury Road. He couldn't even make the wrap party because he had to leave to be the supervising art director on Thor: Ragnarok. His name is Richard Hobbs and he was one of many people on the film that I should not have access to as a low-budget horror movie filmmaker, but everyone loved the script.
What was it like having these titans on your crew?
Amazing; everyone kind of surrounded me. It was a great safety net to have all these incredible people around me. It's like when you meet your favorite actor and realize how much of just a regular person they are, especially in Australia, where nobody has a giant ego. Everybody takes the piss out of each other constantly.
I would love to move to Sydney sometime, because the people there are so humble and emotionally generous. It was the opposite of what I was used to. With the filmmakers there, it felt like a bunch of people lovingly crafting something from scratch and kind of figuring out how to do things. I made a lot of friends for life.
The film used to have the name SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD. Why the change?
It’s the most bizarre connection. My boyfriend Darwin was friends with someone he met at a music festival named Josh Olson. Darwin was posting stuff about my movies online and Josh, who happens to love horror movies, came to an early screening of the film.
He came over after the screening ended and introduced himself like this: “You don’t know who I am, but I'm about to make your life awesome, because I am currently winning awards for all my trailers that I made for Don't Breathe. I love your film and I know why you're having a hard time finding distribution right now. It’s because no one knows how to market your film.”
He took me out for beers and and for three hours, we talked. He took me through phase one, two, and three. And you know, now I'm best friends with him and we hang out all the time. He’s already changed the title for my next movie! I asked him to co-produce everything I do from now on, he’s brilliant. I’m going to send my shot list to him for the next film, because he wanted to know the top ten moments he should fight for when making the trailer. It’s like working for the Godfather.
Ha! Is he Italian by any chance?
No! (Answers in Marlon Brando’s Godfather voice:) “I do this for you. I only ask for one thing in return… I do this on the day of my daughter’s wedding.” I say, “My God, what do you want?” (Returns to Brando’s voice:) “Money, you idiot.”
Let’s talk about your actors, who are excellent. How did you find them and did you make the lead (Levi Miller who plays Luke) pass some sort of psychopath test?
So one of the things about the Australian government is that it pays back $0.40 for every dollar you spend but it means that every single person you cast just about has to be Australian. So I not only scoured Australia for the roles, I also scoured the US because we didn’t know who could handle the roles.
In hindsight, it was pretty stupid of me to write a project where it needed to be held together by teenagers. You forget this when you're watching the film that it's two 12-year-olds and a 17-year-old captivating your attention, because Levi and Ed and Olivia are the best teenage actors in Australia. I got really lucky because just happened to get all three of them.
Oh my God. And Levi came to US. He said: “I have not gotten to show off my range, and I want this role.” To his credit, he auditioned and I ended up using something he did in the audition; he pantomimed a gun with his finger and he brushed it across his lips. It gave me chills. But not to give too much away, the 12-year-old will have a gun at some point.
Olivia DeJonge, who plays Ashley, is so expressive without saying a word.
Gosh, Olivia is incredible. You’re going to hear a lot about Levi and Ed because they’re two 12-year-olds doing this crazy stuff, but she has a really tough role where she's got a twelve-year-old who's basically trying to hook up with her. So she's got to be a strong adult figure without coming off as mean or negative.
By the way, I'm sure your readers are going to be so irritated that we keep dancing around the plot. There are whole scenes where she doesn't get to say anything, but you know exactly what she’s thinking. I didn’t realize this when I was writing, but she has to basically emote with just the top half of her face.
You fall in love with the character so early on and you're so worried for her the whole time, but she doesn't seem like the victim of the situation. She's kind of pretty much one step ahead of them at any given moment. I love her. She’s going to be a giant star at any moment.
I imagine that stunts were complicated. Tell me about the stunt choreography you had to do.
You know, speaking of great crew members I got to work with, George Saliba who worked on The Matrix films and The Hobbit films ... You know, he’s so humble that would never say this, but he had to step in sometimes on The Hobbit films and coordinate wire stunts for hundreds of people.
There’s so many wire stunts in our film, but you would never know. Ed and Levi and Olivia did a lot of stunts. You know what the funny thing about actors and stunts is? George told them that they’d want to start acting when being in front of the camera doing stunts. He said: “Stunts first. Don’t act, because you're going to try to change it, and you’ll get hurt.”
Olivia was such a trooper. She got a nice big bang on the head at one point during a fight outside and she's such a tough cookie, she rubbed her forehead, shook it off, and said, “Let’s keep going. I’m going to do stunts first now, act second.” Everything looked great, thanks to George. Again, on a tiny budget with little rehearsal time, we pulled off a lot.
Without spoiling anything, I felt really sad when something unfortunate happens to the character Ricky. I wasn’t expecting that; there was a more emotional connection than I thought there was going to be.
I know, right? He has a good speech before that thing happens. Even though there are all these hints leading up to that event, it’s still shocking because you don’t expect a 12-year-old to do that.
Was there ever a version where Levi didn’t get away with all of those things? The film feels cynical because he just gets away with so many things.
There’s a fine line where you can beat down an audience, but only so much, and that’s what makes the payoff that much greater. There’s a catharsis where the audience doesn’t get what they think they want. And then they finally do, and it’s even better that way.
I was hoping you’d say something like that.
It’s a dangerous line to tow and you have be ON. You just want to punch him in the face!
Was there anything you cut for pacing?
No. I didn’t know this about myself, but I’m a brutal editor. The script was 95 minutes long and I cut it to 82 minutes. Universal asked us to add two minutes back in for TV deals to happen. Hopefully, people didn’t feel that two minutes [missing], but sometimes I do.
As a writer and director, you’d think I’d be very precious about that. Or test screenings. I LOVE doing test screenings. They can get used as manipulations when the producers and director disagree. But I love seeing how the film plays. I don’t think of myself as a brilliant auteur who needs to grace the screen. It’s science. I’m STILL learning things about the film.
What did you take away from last night’s screening?
The Fantasia crowd is so generous. I counted five ovations in the film, I think that’s a new record. I was moved. I wish that more people that had worked on the film could have been here. There was one dude in a giant Christmas stocking in the front row and dozens of people wearing Santa hats! Everyone got in the mood! I know they’re doing it for themselves, but they don’t know what that means to a filmmaker. I’m very thankful.
Well, your cast and crew will see the photos you took and maybe a recording of the Q&A. They could go on the DVD as extras.
Yeah. I had so much fun last night. As for extras, I was ruthless in the editing room, so there aren’t any deleted scenes. When you have really good actors, they can get across pages of a script with just one look.
You’d never be able to predict what’s needed, but it’s good to have it on the page just in case. Everyone was so good with their character that I got to cut stuff that made the pacing faster.
Like a lot of psychopaths, Luke was obsessed with his mother to a certain point. Was everything he did a means to an end in terms of earning her affection?
Whenever a teenage does something bad, people look for something to blame. Rock and roll. Video games. The mother. The teachers. I’m not going to say why he’s doing what he’s doing, but I’ll say that I wanted it to be any one of those things. In the end, we don’t know why people do what they do, but it sure is something fun to think about.
Tell me about your previous film.
On my first film, we only played Fantastic Fest in 2010 and we got distribution. It was a found footage movie that had a big twist in it. IFC picked it up. It’s called Undocumented, a faux documentary that everybody this year has told me it came out seven years too soon, because it’s about immigration.
It’s a very different film than Better Watch Out. It’s an emotionally brutal film. If you like going there, if you liked Requiem for a Dream, those kinds of films that are hard to sit through but good, you’ll like it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
It’s really hard to read about this movie, because we keep dancing around the plot. So far, everyone has been great about not giving the film away. If you’re going to see this movie, read as little about it as possible before seeing it. This movie is a dish best served cold.
I can’t talk much about my next project, but I can say that it’s my first time delving into the supernatural after so many horrors of the heart. I have some incredibly exciting people on it and I can’t wait to share the news when we can.