A universal legend that instills fear in both children and adults, the Boogeyman has been around for centuries. But The Boogeyman began its feature film development in impressionistic young minds gleefully terrorized by Stephen King. Everyone from the writers and creative department heads to the producers and director cite the major influence King’s short story had on them growing up.
“We are all familiar with King’s short stories, but this one, ‘The Boogeyman,’ stuck with us for years and years,” says screenwriter Scott Beck who, along with his childhood friend and writing partner, Bryan Woods, came up with the idea for and co-wrote the initial screenplay.
The duo, who also wrote “A Quiet Place,” initially struggled over the story’s central storyline. How do you make a feature-length cinematic tale about two people sitting in a room talking? It continued to haunt them; they kept coming back to it. Finally, it dawned on them that perhaps Lester Billings didn’t need to be the main character, and King’s short story could be a scene within a larger narrative, the launchpad into another account with greater scope.
“When we realized it didn’t necessarily have to be centered on Lester, we thought, what if the story that Lester’s telling this doctor starts to manifest in the doctor’s life, and he starts to see all the same weird things that were happening to Lester are now starting to happen to his daughters,” Woods says.
“That’s the inciting incident, the stain that is left on this house and this family’s life,” adds Beck. “Once we figured out that inception point, it was a little easier.”
Beck and Woods laid out the roadmap for the story and wrote the earliest drafts, but by the time the movie got a green light, they were in pre-production on “65,” which they were also directing.
Mark Heyman (“Black Swan”) came on board to further finesse the script, working closely with Savage to expand the storyline and create additional characters.
“When the script came to me, Scott and Bryan had created a set of circumstances that fills out the short story into a film,” Heyman says. “My way into it was to dive deeper, starting from the psychological reality of what these characters are dealing with and ultimately what the horror represents beyond just a scary monster. Building out this mythological and supernatural creature led to the monster as this embodiment of grief, an incarnate foe that takes the pain of that experience and metastasizes it. It’s a thing that can rot your entire house and destroy your whole life. I liked the metaphor of that.”
According to Cohen, “The original was an eight-page short story where you never leave the therapist’s office, and you learn at the end that the therapist is the Boogeyman, and Mark came in with a unique point of view that really opened the story up.”
Heyman was used to working closely with directors in the writing process, and Savage had many points of reference for the kind of story he wanted to tell. The director’s favorite genre films include “Don’t Look Now,” “The Innocents,” “Ring,” “The Haunting,” and “Evil Dead 2,” among numerous others. “I don’t think you can make horror movies unless you love horror movies and really understand the psychology of horror movies, the language of horror movies,” he says.
Of key importance to the filmmakers was ensuring the story was well-grounded in the human experience and the veracity of real-world horror, on top of which supernatural horror would come into play, further exacerbating what the characters are living through. So, they hammered out a detailed outline, and Heyman went to work on the new draft.
A key addition to the narrative was developing the character of Sadie Harper as the main protagonist. Up to that point, Will Harper had been the center of the story, but Savage’s desire to explore the supernatural terror of the Boogeyman as parasitical to the dysfunction born out of extreme grief made Sadie a more appealing focus.
“Sadie was the most interesting character because she was pressed between the world of childhood and the world of adulthood,” Savage explains, “and the Boogeyman exists in both of those realms – as childhood dread and parental skepticism. Sadie is right in the middle of that, a broker between these two worlds.”
Sadie is frustrated at not being taken seriously as an adult but still has one foot in childhood. She is receptive to Sawyer’s claims when she starts to see the Boogeyman but is torn between rationalizing it and believing her kid sister. As a result, there were more dramatic possibilities inherent in Sadie’s character.
Actress Sophie Thatcher was drawn to the project by the veracity of the story, the multi-layered script that weaves together the pain of loss with the frustration of dealing with a father who can’t or won’t listen, the changing relationship between siblings, and the true horror of high school. And being a fan of horror movies, of course, despite forgetting the physical and psychological demands of the genre, didn’t hurt. “Horror works best when you can create empathy for a character,” Thatcher says, “It takes a lot of time to build the characters and create an arc rather than just go straight into the jump scares. I think that sets ‘The Boogeyman’ apart as being not just another horror movie.”
The most appealing thing about the script for Vivien Lyra Blair, who plays Sawyer Harper, was the strength of her character. “I liked how Sawyer evolves throughout the movie, from being just the girl who’s scared of her closet to doing something about it,” Blair says. “That drew me to her, how she’s not just waiting for her older sister to save her. She goes out and fights with Sadie. I really look up to Sawyer for that.”
Sixteen-year-old Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) and her 10-year-old sister, Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), are reeling from their mother’s recent tragic death. Their father, Will Harper (Chris Messina), is trying to do his best for his daughters but is stumbling miserably at connecting with them on an emotional and psychological level. A therapist with a successful home practice, his inability to open up to them and talk about the devastating loss of their mother is tearing at the seams of their already fractured family. When a mysterious new patient, Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian), unexpectedly shows up at their home desperate to unload his grief over the deaths of his children, he leaves behind an evil presence that dwells in the shadows and feeds on the suffering of its victims. Sadie and Sawyer are subjected to a series of terrifying events as a result of the supernatural entity’s manifestation in their home and Will’s inability to believe the girls threaten to destroy the family once and for all.
“The Boogeyman” was first published in Cavalier Magazine in 1973
It was then included in King’s book of short stories, Night Shift, which was published in 1978. His interpretation of the creature hiding in the closet became a template for the genre moving forward.
“I was one of those kids who loved to scare themselves,” producer Dan Levine admits. “My parents had a copy of Night Shift on their shelves, and I read it way too young. ‘The Boogeyman’ was one of the most impactful, traumatic reads of my life. It made me scared of closets, not for a couple of days afterward or weeks, but for years.”
“We love doing all kinds of storytelling, and we love it when there can be a big idea paired with human stakes and dimension,” says producer Shawn Levy. “And this story, from the master himself, is such a rich story in terms of both event and theme. And that was juicy to us.”
Director Rob Savage, who directed the award-winning short films “Salt” and “Dawn of the Deaf” in addition to the breakout lockdown feature “Host,” remembers reading King’s novels as a child and keeping himself up at night. “His short stories always wound their way into my brain,” he says. “The scariest King stories are based on an insidious idea that just rattles around your head in the early hours. ‘The Boogeyman’ is one of those. There’s something about it that taps into this kind of existential dread where even the person who is there to help you could turn on you. That kind of unspoken darkness that’s right beneath the surface really resonated with me.”
“A lot of great horror movies are based around grief,” Savage says, “but the Boogeyman, within our story, represents the unspoken. All these family members living under the same roof are their own separate islands. They’re processing their individual grief alone, not speaking to each other, not validating each other’s experiences which creates this thing that grows and feeds on their separate turmoil. The only way they can push through it is by sharing how they’re feeling with each other. I think that’s the only way that any of us can push through grief.”
For Savage, the ultimate touchstone of a disquieting breakdown of family communication and grief came from Robert Redford’s 1980 masterpiece, “Ordinary People.” There is virtually no other film in modern cinema that so expertly captures the heart-wrenching disintegration of an American family, whose inability to talk about their grief rends them apart so ardently it is painful to watch, but with such veracity, it is impossible to look away.
“The scenes in ‘Ordinary People’ are never doing just one thing,” Savage says. “What I love about ‘Ordinary People’ is the layers of complexity and nuance beneath every line and gesture. It’s a movie about three people not communicating, and it is the most devastating thing to watch. It feels like a punch in the gut.”
“By letting things fester in the darkness, Will’s allowing them to tear apart the family,” Levine acknowledges. “If we took the Boogeyman out, and if we’ve done our job with the script, the performances, the directing, this could be a drama. This could be ‘Ordinary People.’”
Adds Levy, “The audience isn’t sure if it’s a monster story or an allegory for confronting grief, but that’s the beauty of Stephen King. You have these stories that are pulpy, escapist, and fantastical, but they’re always anchored in humanist themes. And we wanted to make a movie that did just that.”
“Growth is forced upon the Harpers in order to survive,” Cohen adds. “If the Boogeyman never showed up, this family might have completely dissolved, but because it did, they have to work together, and they have to address what’s going on.”
“Had the Boogeyman not come,” Levine agrees, “this family would have been worse off.”
ROB SAVAGE (Director) is an award-winning writer/director who lives and breathes horror movies. He began his career at age 17 with his micro-budget feature film Strings, which he wrote/directed/shot/produced/edited. The film went on to be shortlisted by BAFTA and won a BIFA award. Savage followed that success with work in commercials, television projects for SKY, FX, AMC, and a string of short films that won awards at Sundance, Toronto International Film Festival and London Film Festival.
At the start of the pandemic, he wrote and directed the feature film Host, which is regarded by many as the best horror film of 2020. The film currently sits atop Rotten Tomatoes with a 99% Certified Fresh rating. Savage quickly followed it up with “Dashcam,” which he co-wrote and directed. The film was produced by Blumhouse and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2021 before being released theatrically and VOD.
He currently has numerous projects in development, including horror projects with Sam Raimi and 20th Century Studios.
SCOTT BECK & BRYAN WOODS (Co-Screenwriters/Executive Producers) first met as sixth graders in their hometown of Bettendorf, Iowa. After discovering a shared interest in cinema, the duo began collaborating on stop-motion movies with their “Star Wars” action figures. This collaboration continued into high school, where they directed numerous shorts and their first feature films.
Beck & Woods burst onto the Hollywood scene with Paramount Pictures’ A Quiet Place, based on their original screenplay. The critically acclaimed box-office smash was released on April 6, 2018, and stars Emily Blunt alongside John Krasinski, who also directed. Certified Fresh with a score of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film earned over $340 million at the worldwide box office and was No. 1 at the domestic box office for two weeks. Beck & Woods serve as executive producers on the film, in addition to co-writing the screenplay with Krasinski.
In 2018 Beck & Woods were named one of the 10 screenwriters to watch by Variety. For “A Quiet Place,” they were nominated for best original screenplay at the 2019 Critics Choice Awards and the Writers Guild of America Awards. They won best film screenplay at the Saturn Awards. The film won best horror film release at the Saturn Awards and the Critics’ Choice Award for best sci-fi or horror movie.
Their most recent work is Sony Pictures’ sci-fi thriller 65, an original screenplay written by the duo, which they directed and produced. For the project, they reunited with Sam Raimi, who also produced.
Beck & Woods wrote and directed an episode of the horror anthology series, “50 States of Fright,” executive produced by Sam Raimi. Streaming on Quibi, their episode, entitled “Almost There,” is about Iowa’s frightening folklore and stars Taissa Farmiga and Ron Livingston.
Beck & Woods also co-wrote the sci-fi drama “Sovereign” for Oscar®-winning actor Mahershala Ali and director Marc Munden, based on the original draft of the script by Greg Weidman and Geoff Tock. The film will be produced by 21 Laps.
Other credits for the duo include 2019’s well-reviewed thriller Haunt, which they wrote and directed for producer Eli Roth, Sierra/Affinity, Broken Road Productions, and Nickel City Pictures. The film had its world premiere as the opening night film at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival, then its international premiere at FrightFest in London. Momentum Pictures released “Haunt” in theaters on Friday, September 13, 2019. The film was the No. 1 most watched movie premiere on Shudder.
In 2015 Beck & Woods wrote and directed Nightlight, a supernatural thriller released by Lionsgate Entertainment. The film was produced by Herrick Entertainment and Oscar®-nominated producer Michael London (“Sideways”). Beck & Woods subsequently developed another feature for Lionsgate, written by Mark Heyman (“Black Swan”) and produced by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky.
As teenagers Beck & Woods were shortlisted as two of the top 50 directors (out of 2,000 applicants) for Ben Affleck & Matt Damon’s “Project Greenlight” series on Bravo. While still in college, Beck & Woods’ work caught the eye of MTV Films, which offered the pair a feature film development deal. The duo went on to write and direct an original scripted pilot for MTV and executive producer David Gale (“Election”) and were later listed among the Top 100 Writers on the Verge by Tracking-Board.com.
Beck & Woods are members of the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America.
MARK HEYMAN (Screenwriter) is a writer and producer living in New York. After attending NYU’s graduate film program, Heyman worked as director of development for Protozoa Pictures, the production company of filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. Heyman was a co-producer on Aronofsky’s film “Wrestler,” and writer on “Black Swan,” for which he received BAFTA, WGA, and Critics Choice Award nominations for best original screenplay. Outside of his work for Protozoa, Heyman was a co-writer on “The Skeleton Twins,” winner of the 2014 Waldo Salt Screenwriting award at the Sundance Film Festival. He was also the creator and executive producer of the Paramount+ television series “Strange Angel,” executive produced by Ridley Scott, which ran for two seasons. He is working on the upcoming Apple TV+ limited series “The White Darkness,” based on the article by David Grann and staring Tom Hiddleston, with Heyman serving as executive producer and co-showrunner alongside Soo Hugh.
Heyman was born and raised in New Mexico and received his undergraduate degree from Brown University.
STEPHEN KING (Short Story Author) was born in Portland, Maine in 1947, the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. He made his first professional short story sale in 1967 to Startling Mystery Stories. In the fall of 1971, he began teaching high school English classes at Hampden Academy, the public high school in Hampden, Maine. Writing in the evenings and on the weekends, he continued to produce short stories and to work on novels.
In the spring of 1973, Doubleday & Co., accepted the novel Carrie for publication, providing him the means to leave teaching and write full-time. He has since published over 50 books and has become one of the world’s most successful writers. King is the recipient of the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to the American Letters and the 2014 National Medal of Arts.
He lives in Maine and Florida with his wife, novelist Tabitha King. They are regular contributors to a number of charities, including many libraries, and have been honored locally for their philanthropic activities.