Screenwriter Gary Dauberman was around 12-years-old when he first read Stephen King’s It, about the children-abducting, demonic clown Pennywise and the young friends who bravely band against him.
“It’s terrifying, but I was more in awe of the writing,” he says. “It was a coming-of-age story but then you had this terror happening within this town. It was just so brilliantly executed that, even at that young age, it was like, I’ve never encountered anything like this. It was just an awesome experience.”
More than three decades on, Dauberman is not only one of the folks responsible for writing director Andy Muschietti’s big screen version It (out Sept. 8) but has also received the thumbs-up from King himself, who back in March tweeted that the film “succeeds beyond my expectations.”
“After a year-and-half I felt like a could finally exhale,” says Dauberman of his reaction to the news. “His opinion is really the only one that matters to me. It’s a moment I won’t forget.”
When it comes to crafting scares, Dauberman really is Hollywood’s current It Boy. In addition to adapting King’s novel, he also wrote Conjuring spin-off movies Annabelle and this summer’s Annabelle: Creation. He has also penned a third film in the James Wan-overseen supernatural universe, The Nun, which director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) filmed in Romania and Transylvania earlier this year.
“It was a fantastic experience,” says Dauberman of the shoot. “Because of Dracula and all that, you’re like, ‘Well, I would love to go Transylvania, but I didn’t feel I would ever have the chance.’ Lo and behold, James has this idea: ‘Hey, I really think The Nun needs to be set in Romania.’ You’re like, ‘F—, alright!’ And you go there, and you realize, Oh, this is why he wants to set it in Romania. The production value, with the castles, and the mountains — it’s so beautiful and grand. And there’s not many people better to be with in Romania and Transylvania than Corin Hardy, who lives and breathes this stuff. He had endless ideas. It was another great working experience, within the Conjuring universe.”
Dauberman was raised outside of Philadelphia, which helped inspire his interest in the macabre. “I was around a lot of history,” he says. “Where I grew up, there seemed to be a lot of urban legends, there were a lot of great haunted hayrides. That helped feed my hunger for the darker stories, more spooky stuff. I remember watching Cujo with my Mom as a kid. Halloween, of course. There was Nightmare on Elm Street, the whole series. It was a whole host of these things that really seeped into my every day life and pointed me towards this direction. [But] Stephen King was probably a bigger influence on me than any other movie. You know, you have Christopher Pike, you have R.L. Stine, and then you graduate to Stephen King. He’s like the gateway drug in terms of the adult horror world.”
After studying film at Temple University, Dauberman headed to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a screenwriting only to face the reality of waiting tables to pay the rent. “I realized that I was just working to live and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do,” he says. “I was interning at places during the day, and then I would wait tables at night, and there wasn’t a whole lot of time for writing. So, I quit everything. [I thought] Okay, I have enough money for three months and in those three months I’m going to write a spec. So, I wrote a spec and that was my love letter to one of my favorite movies, which is Big Trouble in Little China, and that got me a lot of interest, and that got me my reps, and that got me in a lot of rooms.”
That ultimately led to Dauberman’s first real break, when SYFY recruited him to write the scripts for a clutch of low budget horror movies, including 2007’s Lance Henriksen-starring In the Spider’s Web and the same year’s Bloodmonkey.
“What I loved about working for SYFY was, everything’s happening so quickly,” he says. “They’d be like, ‘We have a title, we have a cast, we have a location — the thing we don’t have is a script. We need one in like a week. Can you give us one?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And I would write a script in a week, and send it over, and then they would shoot the movie. It honed my skills on how to write quickly and deliver on what was needed. It taught me a lot.”
Dauberman’s second break arrived when he was invited to an early screening of Wan’s original, New Line-produced 2013 supernatural shocker, The Conjuring.
“I had done some stuff for New Line,” says the writer. “I wrote some additional footage for some of their movies and I sold a pitch there. They knew I was a fan of James. They had an early cut that they were bringing some people in to see. It was one of the few times in my life where I’m watching a movie and you could feel like you’re watching a new classic. A lot of times when people bring you in for these early cuts you’re going like, ‘What’s the note that I’m going to use that’s going to make me sound smart?’ All I could [say] at the end, when I met James for the first time was, ‘There’s nothing I would suggest, other than please don’t f— it up!'”
Wan was soon tapping Dauberman to write Annabelle, which was released just over a year after The Conjuring hit theaters.
“It was very much like going back to the days when I worked for SYFY,” says Dauberman. “‘We have a release date, we need a script rather quickly, do you think you could do it?’ So, those days working at SYFY paid off when I worked on Annabelle.”
Wan’s decision to hire Dauberman also paid off. Annabelle earned $84 million at the domestic box office, and inspired a prequel, Annabelle: Creation, for which Dauberman again wrote the script, with input with Wan. “James always comes into the room with a point of view,” says the writer. “There’s never a question of, ‘Yeah, I don’t really know…’ He’s always like, ‘Here’s what I do know, I want it to be this, I want it to be this, and that’s what I have right now.’ He gives you that to chew over, and you come back, and [say] ‘James I took your ideas and now I’m thinking of doing this this and that.’ And, with his blessing, you go off, and write a script. Fortunately, [on Annabelle: Creation] we also got David Sandberg (the film’s director) into the process early enough, so he could leave his impression on the script, or have some of his ideas incorporated into the script. It’s just a really easy working environment in terms of, no one’s precious with the ideas, no one’s super sensitive about criticisms, and I think it shows in the way these moves turn out.”
Dauberman’s history with It began a couple of years back, when New Line asked him to work on the script for the film, which had been written by Chase Palmer and the movie’s original director Cary Fukunaga, the latter of whom left the project over creative disagreements with the studio.
“They knew how much of a fan I am of Stephen King,” he says. “I always knew they were doing It, and I always kept tabs on the project just as a fan, so when the opportunity came up to work on it, they reached out to me. we talked about ideas, I sat in a room with Andy Muschietti (who replaced Fukanaga on the project), and we seemed to be on the same page with ideas, and the direction it needs to go, so it was another kind of easy fit, where we were just off and running. I don’t know too much about what happened before I came into it, but I did work off a script that was there, that Chase Palmer and Cary Fukunaga wrote. Obviously, they used the book as their foundation for the script. So, it was not like, ‘Let’s throw that out and start over.’ It was like, ‘Okay, let’s pick up the ball and try to run it into the end zone.'”
Dauberman is more tight-lipped about The Nun, which isn’t released until July 13, 2018, but doesn’t take a complete vow of silence about Hardy’s film, on which he is an executive producer.
“When James and I sat down, and we talked story, we wanted [it] to be a little bit more of a mission-based movie,” he says. “We wanted to give a little bit of an action-adventure flavor to it, rather than just someone moving into a house and something creepy happens.” Also? “We wanted something very atmospheric, very moody — and setting it in Romania certainly accomplishes that.”
So, is Dauberman happy to continue scaring audiences for the foreseeable? Or does he have some Nancy Meyers-esque romantic-comedy script in his back pocket he is dying to get made?
“No, no, no,” he laughs. “I love those movies, but I’m not itching to write any yet. This is what I set out to do. I always wanted to be within this world. I’m living out what I dreamed, back when I was reading It. I couldn’t be happier.”
Watch the trailer for It, above.