A young orphan is sent to live in an unfamiliar place and finds himself and discovers what makes him unique.
For some time, producers Bradley J. Fischer and James Vanderbilt of Mythology Entertainment were eager to partner with screenwriter and producer Eric Kripke on one of the projects about which he was most passionate about, and sourced material that inspired a young Kripke as a boy—the inaugural book from John Bellairs’ timeless 12-book series: “The House with a Clock in Its Walls.”
Like many children of the ’70s—and those who continue to devour Bellairs’ books today—Kripke was fascinated by the manner in which the author spoke to kids, as well as the page-turning, Gothic drawings of Edward Gorey—equal parts droll and spooky.
“Brad and Jamie asked: ‘if I could make any movie I wanted, what would I pick?’” explains Kripke. “For me, it was no question—this book. It’s been my lifelong obsession to bring this book to the screen. It was my all-time favorite book as a kid. I devoured everything John Bellairs wrote; he inspired my career in a large part. I wrote a letter to him, the only fan letter I ever wrote. He wrote me back, and to this day, I keep that letter in my desk.”
Based on the first volume in the beloved children’s series of books written by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is directed by master frightener Eli Roth and written by Eric Kripke (creator of TV’s Supernatural).
The magical adventure tells the spine-tingling tale of 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro of Daddy’s Home, Mother’s Day) who goes to live with his eccentric uncle (Jack Black – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Goosebumps) in a creaky old house with a mysterious tick-tocking heart. But his new town’s sleepy façade jolts to life with a secret world of warlocks and witches when Lewis accidentally awakens the dead. Lewis is not sure which is more astonishing: the wondrous, sprawling house…or his oddball Uncle Johnathan and Jonathan’s best friend, verbal sparring partner and neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett).
In the first novel in Bellairs’ canon, we meet Lewis Barnavelt, a precocious young orphan living in the 1950s who initially doesn’t fit in with his peers or his adoptive family. Mourning the loss of parents who suddenly die, the introverted, delightfully nerdy boy is whisked into a world of witches and wizards just as suddenly as his parents were taken from him. Now residing with his Uncle Jonathan, a mystic of dubiously helpful and/or bizarre gifts, he finds himself an apprentice to the world of the mystical arts.
“The first story was published in the early ’70s, and there’s 12 in all. The last book was published about 10 years ago. What we love about ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’ is that it’s a classic story. There’s a young orphan sent to live in an unfamiliar place, and he feels like an outsider. Over the course of the series, he finds himself and discovers what makes him unique,” says Executive producer Tracey Nyberg.
What spoke to producer Fischer (Shutter Island, Zodiac, Suspiria) about Lewis’ arc was the relatability of a boy who finds himself a stranger in a strange land.
Fischer has long found that the most interesting stories are the ones in which the protagonist is suddenly dropped into a new world and must grapple with some very grown-up decisions.
Sums Fischer: “Owen ends up finding a family where he least expected them.”
Similarly, what pulled readers into Bellairs’ stories of owning your truth was the manner in which he so passionately wrote about celebrating where you’re from…and where your destiny is taking you. The story’s setting is the fictional city of New Zebedee—based on Marshall, Michigan—a quaint city replete with tree-lined streets and a wondrous collection of mysterious-looking houses. It appears to be the idyllic world in which to grow up, but the town’s secrets and mysteries hidden just behind a simple façade reveal themselves in a shocking manner.
Where the Inspiration Began
As a young writer, Bellairs would walk past the large, looming houses, and there his inspiration for the books began. “John cherished his memories of his hometown,” Says Brad Strickland, who has written the Bellairs books since “The Ghost in the Mirror.”
While the setting is 1950s America, the characters in The House with a Clock in Its Walls reside and embody a time all to themselves. Jonathan is obsessed with his magic, and his house is a shrine to an era gone by. Dressed in clothing that is more-than-slightly anachronistic—donning his festive fez and magician robes—he relishes being the oddest duck in the neighborhood.
His neighbor and closest friend, Florence Zimmerman, also remains trapped in a time when she was happiest—an idyllic life before she suffers a terrible tragedy that left her heartbroken and her magic scattershot. To assuage the pain, she surrounds herself in a world of color…complete with purple décor and aubergine clothing; everything is thematic.
Assembling Production Partners
For Fischer, it was important to assemble production partners and a director who could do justice to the delightfully weird—but oh-so-accessible—stories of Bellairs.
They would be none other than legendary Amblin Entertainment and director Eli Roth, who knows a thing or two about scaring audiences.
“Amblin brings this story to life in a way no one else could, by branding it under the same banner as those classic Amblin films like The Goonies, Gremlins, and E.T., which—as a kid growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s—is what inspired me to make movies. And Eli was a natural choice to direct,” Fischer gives. “I always wanted to reach back into the Amblin canon and find a way to tell that kind of story again on the big screen. Eli had exactly the same impulse and childhood references, and from the second he came aboard, we quickly found that we were finishing each other’s sentences.”
Roth, who has built a career based on much darker scares, was drawn to this PG story for myriad reasons. It wasn’t just a chance to make the type of movie he had always dreamed of making, it was the shot to partner with Amblin, whose films had arguably some of the biggest influence on him as a child and burgeoning filmmaker.
“There are certain things that give this story an Amblin feel, and I wanted to come out and make the next great Amblin movie.,” says Eli Roth. “I want The House with a Clock in Its Walls to be side-by-side with Gremlins and Back to the Future.” He’s not worried about making younger audiences nervous about the things that go bump in the night. “I wanted this movie to be very scary, and I think that you can have funny and scary at the same time. Gremlins showed that, and E.T. did as well.”
The Mythology team was interested in bringing on a director who wasn’t a safe, workman choice, but a risk-taker. “Eli is well known for his horror background, and the majority of his movies have been solidly in that genre,” notes Nyberg. “His love for the genre is clear. What a lot of people don’t know is that he is bringing to Clock his love of cinema—top to bottom. He knows all of the classics and movie references, obscure and popular.”
“Eli and I have known each other for many years,” explains Fischer. “And I knew it would raise eyebrows to hire someone to direct a family film whose body of work is filled with such terrifying genre fare. But I also knew that Eli grew up on and was inspired by the Amblin movies of the ’80’s like E.T., The Goonies and Gremlins. And recapturing classic Amblin for a new generation is something that we have both strived our whole careers to find a way to achieve.
“For me, there were two primary qualities that defined classic Amblin: The first was how scary they were—not in a jump-scare kind of way, but in a way that stays with you because of the jeopardy and stakes that these kids you could really relate to ended up facing when they stepped outside of their otherwise normal, everyday lives to answer a call to adventure,” Fischer continues. “And the second was that they unfolded squarely from the point of view of regular kids who discovered something about their world that would take them on an extraordinary journey and change their lives forever. There was no doubt in my mind that Eli could tap into both of those elements in a profoundly personal way. In a way, House with a Clock is the kind of movie he was destined to make.”
For the director, his lifelong interest is in exploring the best and the worst of humanity…as well as the manner in which we handle crisis. Do we rise to the occasion, or do we crumble? For him, Lewis’ story of heartbreak and healing allows that. “How do you deal with and process tragedy?” Roth asks. “This is a story about terrible things happening, and some want to deal with it by moving forward while others want to turn back time so it never can happen.”
Roth shares that his affinity toward the series, and ultimately the film he’d direct, began with Bellairs’ cover art. “I have a strange connection to the books in that I collect Edward Gorey artwork. I had an original cover for a John Bellairs’ story written by Brad Strickland: ‘The Hand of the Necromancer.’ I read this script and couldn’t believe there was a book that I had missed with Gorey art in it”
The filmmaker has long had a desire to shoot “a scary kids movie.” He reflects: “I wanted to do something that felt like Gremlins, E.T. or Time Bandits—something fantastic and Halloween-themed. This story had pumpkins; it had automatons. There were so many ingredients and elements in the book and script that I connected to. Especially Lewis, this misfit kid. I did not grow up an orphan, but I certainly grew up an outcast and an outsider.”
Roth shares that perhaps some of the best direction he’s ever received was from the head of Amblin himself, a man who knows a thing or two about genre blending. “I told Spielberg what a seminal experience Poltergeist was for me as a kid, and I wanted to give a new generation of kids those same thrills. “He gave me amazing advice. He said: ‘Don’t design it so much that people can’t get into the story. And most important, make it scary. Kids love to be scared.’”
For the role of Jonathan Barnavelt, it was important to Roth and his producers to find someone who would serve as the initially frightening relative to live with…then the really fun uncle to join you on an adventure. “Jack just encapsulates all of it,” says Roth. “It’s hard for me to think of anyone else in the role other than him. I’d seen him perform live in Tenacious D; I’ve seen all of his movies. You think of Jack, and you just laugh; he has so much personality, so much charm, and he’s so funny. But he also has such heart. In his films like School of Rock or Bernie, he’s an incredible dramatic actor. He has such humor, life, and such a soulful quality to him. It’s a dream come true to watch him create this role.”
Black has long thought of himself as a kid at heart, and like his collaborators, he appreciated the fact that Kripke’s script brought the spirit of Bellairs. Despite its dark themes of loss and tragedy, the story offers lessons, excitement and pure joy. “This is a movie that kids of all ages can enjoy,” reflects Black, “but we want to give them a thrill. Sometimes you have to go dark to give them that.” He particularly appreciates the secret at the story’s core: “They’re living in a house that has a living clock of doom, and they have to disengage the clock to save the world.”
Blanchett agrees with her collaborators when she discusses her appreciation of the themes and humor in Clock, ones that speak to the entire family. “In the best possible way, it’s a family film,” she gives. “It is genuinely scary. It’s a privilege to sit there as a parent and hold your child’s hand and say, ‘We’re going on this rollercoaster together.’ I’m always disappointed when I go and see a children’s film and feel the jokes are for me. This film is a sophisticated, dark, heart-rending, hilarious, surprising journey, and that goes back to the heart of the novel.”
To play the irrepressible Lewis Barnavelt, the production would search high and low for a boy capable of mixing humor and pathos. For Roth, one of the inspirations for this character was from one of his Amblin favorite films: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. “I heard an interview where Steven Spielberg talks about Henry Thomas when he walked in the room and he had him in tears,” the director recalls.
Roth knew he wouldn’t settle on Lewis until he had that experience with a young performer. “Spielberg knew that was Elliott, and we wanted to find a kid like that for Lewis. We wanted to find someone who had the sensitivity, who was vulnerable, fun, and an outcast you could root for and love.” They discovered that in young actor Owen Vaccaro, who had made a name for himself in both Daddy’s Home and Mother’s Day. “Owen walked in the room, and he was the kid. He is Lewis, and his performance is so strong dramatically. He is so funny, and he has such great natural timing.”
Production wrapped, Roth reflects that he has accomplished the mission to make a “proper” Amblin movie.
“This is a true scary horror film and for younger kids and families,” he concludes. “They get the scares, thrills and laughs, but something in them makes them say, ‘I can’t wait to see the next one.’ He is excited for fans to see this magical, fun adventure of this labor of love: “A haunted house, a psycho with an axe chopping at the walls, a little kid looking around with a flashlight, and creepy automatons. I never wanted it to end.”