Paranormal Activity, Happy Death Day and Freaky writer-director Christopher Landon makes inventive horror movies, but now he's moved into a more family-friendly adventure with We Have A Ghost on Netflix, starring David Harbour, Anthony Mackie, Tig Notaro, Jennifer Coolidge and Jahi Di'Allo Winston.
Based on the short story "Ernest" by Geoff Manaugh, We Have A Ghost begins when the Presley family, which includes dad Frank (Mackie), mom Melanie (Erica Ash) and their sons Kevin (Winston) and Fulton (Niles Fitch). They move into a home in Chicago but there's something lurking in the attic. Kevin discovers a ghost, Ernest (Harbour). Documenting the interaction by taking a video on his phone, Kevin's video ends up in his father's hands who sees this as an opportunity to go viral, thrusting the family into the spotlight, and hopefully a fortune.
Ernest very rarely speaks and Kevin realizes the ghost can't remember much about his life, including how he died. So Kevin and his friend Joy (Isabella Russo) make it their mission to help jog Ernest's memories of his living life.
As more attention is put on Ernest and the Presley family, they get the attention of Dr. Leslie Monroe (Notaro), a paranormal scientist who wants to restart a previously abandoned program with the CIA to capture ghosts.
“It really was sort of exploring how this family is kind of suddenly thrust into the spotlight and how they're dealing with that,” Landon explained to Yahoo Canada. “Ultimately, it just felt like an opportunity to make a different kind of movie than what I'm known for.”
While much of the story touches on commentary around how we react to things on social media, a notable scene, a montage of reactions to the ghost, was almost cut from the movie.
“It's funny because I had written it into the script in the first draft and then at one point, I was asked to remove it for budgetary reasons,” Landon said. “Also, just because people thought, ‘Oh we don't really need it.’”
“After we did our first test screening, it became really clear that the audience was desperate to kind of get a sense that this family was really caught up in something that was much bigger than they were, and crowd shots were not enough. So I was able to slip it back in. … It was my opportunity to kind of poke fun at social media a little bit and sort of poke fun at myself, and have a laugh at how we all kind of react to things on social media in such an immediate and tribalist sort of way.”
David Harbour 'afraid' of taking on this ghost role
While the character of Ernest is quite different for David Harbour, Landon stressed that he was a "dream actor" to cast in the role.
“He's incredibly versatile, fearless, eager,” Landon said. “He relishes the challenge of something like this and he was really afraid of having to take on a role that had no dialogue."
"But he also understood why and how to pull it off. It’s a really tough role, but his emotions are so at the ready, and he can bring them to the surface so quickly, that it was the perfect fit.”
Landon also had a very clear vision of how he wanted Ernest to look, which he describes as a "kind of average, schlubby tax accountant."
“Just giving him a bowling shirt, a really bad comb over, which I also think is a product of a time gone by,” Landon said.
“Men now, today, are like no, you shave that sh-t. You don't hang on to it. But back then, men really didn't know that and they really clung to that last sort of a bit of hair youth. I thought it was such an endearing physical detail for him.”
Building a father-son bond
At the core of this story is also the father-son relationship between Kevin and Frank, and the dynamics within this family.
“Most families sort of are made up of different alliances and so I knew that I wanted Frank and Fulton to kind of be very similar, in lockstep, so that Kevin would feel kind of like a bit of an outsider in his own home,” Landon explained.
"Also, this was a great movie to really explore the complexities specifically between fathers and sons, and how often as kids we kind of look up to our parents and then as we start to get older, we start to kind of see that they're fallible, and they're human.”
One adjustment from the short story is that Landon made a point to not "vilify" the character of Frank, which allows you to be more empathetic to his decisions, where the intention is to succeed and provide for his family.
“I wanted him to have his own reasons and his own point of view for why he was doing what he was doing,” Landon said. “He was just a bit of a jerk in the short story and he was cruel to Ernest, and I really just didn't feel like that had a place in this particular movie, because I think most parents are trying to do the right thing.”
“They just sometimes aren't doing it the right way and that's very Frank. He's a little bit of a narcissist, a little ego driven, but he does have his family's interests at heart. … I've known Franks in my life and they were usually the most charming people I'd ever met because they have to be out of necessity.”
As Landon highlights, having Anthony Mackie on board was a critical component to achieving that balance for the character.
“He brings that to the table and immediately he is that guy that is so fun and so charming,” Landon said.
Tig Notaro, Jennifer Coolidge shine in star-studded cast
Like many comedies, as great as the lead cast can be, strong supporting characters are usually a welcome highlight. We Have A Ghost epitomizes that notion, including the addition of Tig Notaro as the antagonist in the story.
“Instead of just having an agency in pursuit, I liked that she was a person who was on the outside," Landon said. "Someone who had experienced something that people didn't believe and it made her doggedly determined to prove that she was legit.”
“Casting Tig was key because I think that Tig is very unique and counterculture. ... Her androgyny, her dryness, her life's experience, her openness, it kind of made for a more interesting bad guy. If you even call her the bad guy in the movie, because there's a vulnerability that I was really drawn to, that I thought worked really well for the character.”
Jennifer Coolidge plays an infamous medium who tries to connect with Ernest at the Presley home. She's not in the film for a long time but she makes a powerful, hysterical impact.
“She was a blast,” Landon said. “She was everything I hoped she would be.”
“She just goes for it. She's also another one of those people that's super fearless, really sharp, knows what she's doing, brings a lot of surprises to the table. She wants to give you a lot of different stuff, and she did. There's so many outtakes that I didn't even get to use, that were really, really funny."
Possible third 'Happy Death Day' movie: 'They haven't wanted it enough'
In terms of Landon's directing style, he understands that ever actor needs something different.
“Some actors want lots of rehearsal, some actors don't want any rehearsal, some actors want bios and tons of information about their characters, and some want to kind of figure that out for themselves,” Landon said. “So I really do approach it in a very kind of bespoke way, but for me I value having the opportunity to sit and read through the script with them.”
“I do try to make it very personal. I really make an effort, in pre-production, to have one-on-one meals with them, and then based on who they bond with in the story, to bring those people together. … For example, Jahi and David and I had a really nice long dinner together early in the process because I really wanted those two to get to know each other, because I wanted there to be that kind of friendship chemistry.”
When it comes to Landon's inventive, unique horror work, fans have been anticipating a possible third movie to his Happy Death Day films. The filmmaker revealed that he always saw the series as a trilogy.
“I really want to make another movie with Jessica Rothe. We had so much fun making them,” he said. “But there are challenges to the third movie. I think the biggest one being a matter of budget."
"The idea that I have for the third movie is a much bigger idea. Not prohibitively large but it had a dollar sign attached to it. It's very much dependent on Universal’s appetite for a third movie and if they feel like they want it. ... Jason Blum would love to do it. I would love to do it. Jessica wants to do it. We're all there and I have the whole movie in my head. But they have to want it and up to this point, they haven't wanted it enough.”
Now that Landon has expanded his filmmaking into a more family-friendly space, the writer-director stressed that his focus broadly is really on "character-driven" storytelling.
“I just really sort of remain committed to trying to tell character-driven genre stories,” Landon said. “Things that feel personal, and it doesn't matter what the budget size is or what the genre is, to be honest.”
“I would love to make a big fantasy adventure movie. ... I think it's just sort of what's exciting and what feels really fun and challenging.”