SDCC 2017: A seventeen-year journey to the retelling of ‘The Watcher in the Woods.’
I remember watching the original Watcher in the Woods growing up. Bette Davis was intense and the funhouse scene gave me nightmares. I was intrigued to hear that Hartbreak Films was filming a new version of this cult classic set to air on Lifetime, October 21st. Today in a packed room at SDCC we got to see the first ten minutes of the highly anticipated The Watcher in the Woods remake. Director Melissa Joan Hart, executive producer Paula Hart, writer Scott Abbott and associate producer Andrew Gernhard were on hand to share their thoughts. Lucky for me, I also had a chance to interview the Hartbreak Films team later in the day.
The new version is definitely creepier. Scott Abbott explained that he wanted to “honor the original” and maintain a “gothic feel” with “suspense not splatter”. Remember “this is an audience that is much savvier” than they were in 1980. The story unfolds “in an organic and scary way.” Paula Hart refers to the movie as a “ghost story” that is “fresh and original.” Melissa stated, “We made a beautiful movie on a small budget.”
So what drew them to The Watcher in the Woods? For writer Scott Abbott it was the story of two strong, young, female protagonists that appealed to him as a father. Apparently, for Paula, the process started seventeen years ago when she first tried to buy the rights from Disney. Melissa was a huge fan of the movie–“I watched it over and over and over again.” Paula hoped that Melissa would star as Jan but as Melissa “aged out of the part” Paula continued to pursue the rights to the movie. Paula said it seemed “right” that Melissa direct the film all these years later.
The Hartbreak Film team knew what elements were important to them for this film, Anjelica Huston being one. Paula knew instantly that she wanted Anjelica from the start. Melissa admitted she was nervous about working with Anjelica but after their first phone conversation she felt at ease. “She is a doll. So easy to work with. An absolute pro.” They also knew what they did not want to include: cellphones. There will be no texting in this film.
Melissa and Andrew talked a bit about how the film was shot, including the use of Melissa’s iPhone for all the underwater scenes. I learned that they created three worlds in this movie: the past, the present and another world entirely. Melissa waited to re-watch the original until three days before they started filming to be sure she wasn’t influenced by the original. This new telling is creepier with moments in an actual Agatha Christie house attic. Dusty rocking chairs and other spooky elements were part of one of Melissa’s favorite scene. And yes, mirrors will play a big role in the foretelling of this tale. One change this film brings, according to Melissa, is they wanted to “make it clearer who the watcher is” and “use the camera as the watcher. That POV scares the crap out of you”.
The film was shot day for night using black magic lenses because according to Melissa “my producer wouldn’t let me shoot at night.” Paula clarified by saying she didn’t want cast members stumbling in the darkness. AiPT! asked Paula if she ever had to pull rank and play the Mom card to win an argument between Producer and director. Melissa laughs, “Are you kidding?” Paula’s response? “We make a really good team because she wants it to be the best she can do but we finance these movies ourselves so the bottom line is actually coming out of my pocket. So I want to make sure the money is spent the right way and she’ll make requests and sometimes I can honor them.” For example, when Melissa wanted a drone for four days, Paula approved two. Their biggest argument was over the number of grips. They had one grip for the film and Melissa wanted an additional one. “I asked her, do you want to do this cheaper or faster?” They eventually found common ground. You can tell by their dynamic they have a tight bond. Melissa went on to tell us how her mother has always been an incredible advocate for her on and off set. They reflected on when Nickelodeon nicknamed Paula the dragon lady because she would tell the Clarissa Explains It All team they were not plucking her fourteen year old daughter’s eyebrows. (Go Mom!)
This mother/daughter team has produced and directed a spooky film. Tune your television to Lifetime on October 21 for The Watcher in the Woods. I guarantee you will have chills.
Watch the trailer: