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'Imaginary' horror movie director Jeff Wadlow explains why only using CGI doesn't feel 'real' enough

"I don't care how good you are, it just doesn't feel real," Wadlow said

DeWanda Wise as Jessica and Director Jeff Wadlow in Imaginary (Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate)
DeWanda Wise as Jessica and Director Jeff Wadlow in Imaginary (Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate)

Filmmaker Jeff Wadlow, who directed the 2018 Lucy Hale and Tyler Posey horror-thriller Truth or Dare, and The Curse of Bridge Hollow on Netflix, has stepped into the horror subgenres of sinister toys and creepy children with the Blumhouse film Imaginary (now in theatres and on VOD platform March 26).

As Wadlow explained, Imaginary started with three points of inspiration. Firstly, being tasked with coming up with a "classic Blumhouse movie"

"They had really gotten into ... very dark, reality-based stuff like The Purge and Halloween, and [Jason Blum] wanted to get back to supernatural, family moves into a house, bump in the night kind of film that really built the company," Wadlow told Yahoo. "Another point of inspiration was that I really was interested in making a movie about an imaginary friend, because as a director, I really like playing with subjectivity, ... and so you need a story that merits those kind of games, those visual games, and certainly a story about an imaginary friend does just that."

"And then the third point of inspiration were my co-writers, Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, who have had this amazing career writing family films, and I've known Greg for 20 years, we started out in Hollywood at the same time and lived in the same tiny little apartment complex ... in our early 20s. ... After I signed the deal with Jason, I started reaching out to writers who are friends to see if they wanted to collaborate, because I love collaborating with other writers, and they had this idea about an evil teddy bear named Chauncey."

'I don't care how good you are, it just doesn't feel real'

As technology for films and TV continues to advance, it begs the question: How much can a movie, specifically a horror film, rely on CGI, versus practical effects, to give the audience the visual effect payoff they desire? For Wadlow, it's about finding the right balance.

"The audience knows when something's pure CG, it's not really an uncanny valley, but you can just feel it, the light isn't right, the way it moves isn't right, I don't care how good you are, it just doesn't feel real," Wadlow said. "That being said, if you go completely old school and everything is practical, you'll quickly find yourself in a situation where you're making a movie about a guy in a rubber suit, and audiences are pretty savvy and they can sense that too. That doesn't feel very scary."

"So I always prefer a hybrid approach ... Do as much as you can practically. The audience will feel that it's real, and you've got real lighting reference, ... and more importantly, the actors will have something to respond to. So their performance has become a lot more authentic when there's something there on set for them to interact with. But then you just have to be clever about how you use CG to augment it. For me, it's often about taking away the things that they're not looking at."

Wadlow gave the example of the Bear Beast in Imaginary, which is a suit with animatronics, but the saliva in its mouth and the tongue is CGI.

"Hopefully that gets your audience to a point of suspension of disbelief," Wadlow said.

Jeff Wadlow and Pyper Braun on the set of Imaginary (Parrish Lewis/Lionsgate)
Jeff Wadlow and Pyper Braun on the set of Imaginary (Parrish Lewis/Lionsgate)

'If I don't feel that kind of excitement, I just can't get myself there'

While Wadlow has produced, written and directed several movies and TV show episodes throughout the years, fans keep coming back to a possible Truth or Dare sequel, after he told Variety earlier this year that a sequel was written, but the COVID-19 pandemic, and related health and safety measures that would have needed to be taken, led to the project being scrapped.

Interestingly, Wadlow has worked on a sequel film, directing Kick-Ass 2, but he wasn't involved in the first Kick-Ass movie.

At this point, Wadlow said he would just have to be "excited" about something to come back for a sequel of any of his previous projects.

"I'm a film fan, first and foremost, I believe the director is actually the first audience for the movie, so when I'm on set and there's a take and everything comes together, ... you're like, oh my god, that is in the movie, I can hear the music in my head, I think that kind of excitement has to be present in a project," Wadlow said. "And if I don't feel that kind of excitement, I just can't get myself there to devote the amount of time and attention, and energy, it takes to make a movie."

"I think Fantasy Island probably would be the most fun to tackle again, because there's just an infinite number of stories you could tell and that landscape, with those characters."

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 29: Jeff Wadlow attends
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 29: Jeff Wadlow attends "Imaginary" Los Angeles Premiere At The Grove on February 29, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for Lionsgate)

Jeff Wadlow on possible music-based movie

But while sequels aren't particularly Wadlow's priority at the moment, the filmmaker has his eye on making a music centred film in the future.

"I want to do a movie with a lot of music in it, not a full-on musical, but a movie with a lot of music," Wadlow said. "There's this interesting relationship between movies and music, the rhythm, the storytelling."

"You can listen to songs over and over and over again, and still enjoy them, and sometimes even enjoy them more. By and large, most movies once you've seen them, you're kind of done with it. But there is this tiny little fraction of films, like The Wizard of Oz, Jaws, Shawshank Redemption, ... those movies hit differently. People will watch them over and over and over again, like a great song. I've often asked, well, why is that? I don't have the answer, but I would love to explore the relationship between cinema and music, just see what I come up with, and what my take on that intersection might be."