How Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Helped ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ Director Helm a Horror Film With a Kid Following

Director Emma Tammi was facing quite a lot when bringing Five Nights at Freddy’s to the big screen with writers like Scott Cawthon and Seth Cuddeback.

Not only did they have the challenge of delivering a fresh spin on a beloved IP already adapted in multiple other mediums, they are also facing down the dreaded video game adaptation curse and the film arriving amid a small but noticeable resurgence of “stranger danger” titles (think It, The Black Phone, Barbarian and Knock at the Cabin.)

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Yet, the biggest challenge for the Five Nights at Freddy’s director may have been the one thing that most horror franchises are thinking about in a completely opposite way than her film: kids. Hollywood has a long history of making scary things for little(r) audiences — think Fright Krewe, Goosebumps, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Coraline, Wendell & Wilde, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Scooby-Doo! and Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Rarely, though, has it taken something designed for adults — a point-and-click indie video game created by Cawthon in 2014 — and adapted it to embrace those viewers. Yet that’s exactly what the film Five Nights at Freddy‘s is offering the franchise’s massive following, which has long included children seemingly unbothered (or delightfully excited) by its creepy cast of animatronic killers.

A frightening take on the Showbiz Pizza and Chuck E. Cheese outings that defined countless childhoods, the games are set in the fictional family pizza restaurant franchise Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, known for mascot Freddy Fazbear. In most of the games, the player assumes the position of a night guard who must battle off the murderous robotic animals with only the aid of building basics like cameras, lights and doors.

In the film, that role is given to Josh Hutcherson, who portrays Mike Schmidt, a troubled man who — with the assistance of his career counselor Steve Raglan (Matthew Lillard) — takes on the overnight gig at an abandoned family entertainment center. Hutcherson is joined by Elizabeth Lail, who plays local police officer Vanessa, and the young Piper Rubio, who stars as Mike’s younger sister, Abby.

Ahead of the BlumFest New York Comic Con panel, Tammi spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how she used the Jim Henson Company’s creature expertise, a wickedly talented cast with backgrounds in horror and kids content, and the game’s point-and-click experience to create a horror film that will be loved by adults but can also be “a foundational film” in kids’ movie libraries.

Gateway horror has been creeping into the kids and family space, but this isn’t that. FNAF is a full-fledged horror film. How did you approach directing this as an adaptation and knowing you had a wider age demographic tuning in?

I think one of the one of the things that I was so excited about when we started working with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was that they have such a legacy of making incredible creatures that are really beloved by kids and adults alike. I certainly have my favorites that they created from my childhood, and continue to be such a fan of all things Henson. So I did feel like once we partnered with them in terms of bringing the animatronics to life, we had really the perfect relationship there to make sure we were not only making something of quality but had the attention to detail; that, alongside with myself and Scott Cawthon, we were really achieving the utmost accuracy in terms of the designs from the game, but that we were also creating something tactile and that had emotion and humanity, even though there are animatronics.

The Henson creatures tend to have such a soul, for lack of a better word. I felt like that would really draw the younger audience in as well as the adults. That was really an exciting part of it, I think, nailing something that would embody child wonderment as well as the scares and the creep factor. In terms of overall tone, we knew we were aiming for a PG-13 rating so that we could be inclusive of those younger audiences. A lot of that was just making sure that our scares and our kills were all executed in a way that was leaning into something that would still achieve that rating. So at times that’s seeing the silhouette instead of seeing the gore of an actual body. But for me, I really love that challenge because I think you get to, as a filmmaker, lean into creative new ways to show violence or insinuate it. There are such dark themes already in the game and the lore that this younger audience has digested and embraced. A lot of what we were including in the script is dark, but will actually already be familiar to a lot of the older and younger audiences alike. So much of the groundwork had already been done in all the online conversations about the lore. It was already embraced by and well known by the fan base.

Why do you think the FNAF narrative so enticing to younger viewers?

When I was a younger kid, my consumption of my favorite movies was on repeat, and I don’t think I’m unique in that sense. It is so fun to watch something over and over and over again as a kid. When I think back on those movies that I watched, they had so many different elements that I think I gravitated towards, and I really hope that with this movie what we’ve achieved is a multitude of things that will compel kids to want to watch this in a way that will really be like a foundational film in their library that they grow up watching. Part of that is the puppetry and the Jim Henson animatronics that are already so iconic in terms of the lore. These are already such beloved characters for a lot of these audiences coming in, but they’re taken to a whole other level in the movie. Then the human relationships that we are trying to build out in the film. There’s real human conflict, trauma and things that I think are very relatable.

I’m hoping that the movie takes the audience through this wild zany, amazing world with people that they’re also really invested in and connect with and want to share the journey with. There’s some spectacle in there, of course. The pizzeria in and of itself is a character. It’s so alive and vibrant in its heyday, then, in our present day timeline, it’s this haunted house. It’s a fun world to live in and immerse yourself in, both in the game and in the movie and I think there are details in every little corner of our set, and every frame of our film that I hope will be a feast, especially for the fans, to be able to keep watching and finding new things and really treasure it.

Jim Henson isn’t a company I would say is known for intentionally making horrific creatures, especially animatronics. Yet many people bring up Dark Crystal as an early film that terrified them. How did you work together in this new territory for your animatronics?

We were really focused on getting the accuracy of the designs from the game, but then there’s bringing it to life in a three-dimensional and practical way that had never been done before. So there was still a lot to figure out beyond trying to just nail the faithfulness of the game. That was really where a lot of the fun lied in terms choosing the exact color dyes, the fabric. How these things we’re going to move was a huge element that needed to be cracked, and it’s a combination of so many different types of puppeteering. We have different versions of each of the characters when we’re shooting. One is completely animatronic. Another will have arms or legs that are puppeteered by a person manually with rods. Sometimes we’ll have a stunt performer inside the suit to create even more movement ability. It was a real trial and error process in terms of the design and build phase.

But then once they were up and running, we really needed to get all of the movement dialed in by doing rehearsals and figuring out what felt like FNAF. Also, what felt terrifying at times, and quirky and humorous other times. They’re really multidimensional characters, and we’ve got a 10-year-old lead actress who really sees these characters as her best friends, completely through rose colored glasses for most of the movie. So we also wanted to make sure there were moments where we can see that tenderness and how she sees them, which is full of wonderment and awe. Of course, what’s really fun about FNAF is that these animatronics are old and derelict, so the aging process — making them feel a little decayed and appropriate and not quite at their peak of performance — added just like a whole other layer or character.

People know Josh from Hunger Games, which feels more like a horror movie with time. He also appeared when young in the slightly terrifying Zathura, the spiritual sequel to Jumanji. Matthew Lillard is no a stranger to franchises of the horror of family-friendly variety either, with Scream and Scooby-Doo. Did having actors with that birth of expeirence lend anything to the film?

It’s so funny because as you’re going through the casting process, you’re of course just trying to find the right person for that character that feels like they completely embody the essence of the person that you’re trying to not only depict, but then, even further, develop once the actor steps into those shoes. That was very much the process with both Josh and Matthew. I think, however, given all that history that you just mentioned — all of their previous filmography that’s so impressive and vast — it’s easy in hindsight to now also feel like wow, what a no-brainer.

I’ll just start with Matthew. What he’s able to bring in terms of a franchis is such a wide array of humor, joy, darkness, sinester — all the combinations that I think FNAF really requires and embodies. He’s able to go to dark places while still having a twinkle in his eye. That was really important for this film. The iconic status that he has in people’s hearts and minds going into this film is such an added bonus and he’s so excited to be a part of this franchise and has kids who are fans of the game and. There’s just really incredible synergy there.

In terms of Josh, his instinct for the character of Mike was so spot-on. It was so authentic and lived-in. One of our first conversations he just had the most insightful things to say about the character and also incredible questions. I knew he was going to be an incredible collaborator in terms of cracking this role, but also staying grounded throughout the journey of the film, which is incredibly hard to do when you’ve got an enormous animatronic stomping around you and, at some point, you wonder what movie you’re in. He was really able to always thread the needle and and find the real place that Mike was operating in, even when he was in the most extreme circumstances.

The point and click game experience can be somewhat intense in terms of scares. Did the game’s style influence how you filmed the scares for this movie?

We talked about that a lot. I was specifically focused on that with our cinematographer Lynn Moncrief. And then our production designer [Marc Fisichella] who helped sculpt this amazing monitor desk. We knew it was not only a set piece, but it was also the vehicle through which, as the player, you are experiencing Freddy, so it was so important. Even when we’re not looking at the movie through surveillance footage, it was constantly a motif to try to feel a sense of surveillance and being watched and monitored. I think it was a thematic that we held on to throughout scenes that weren’t even in the pizzeria. It was really important.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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