[This story contains spoilers for Five Nights at Freddy’s.]
Five Nights at Freddy’s filmmaker Emma Tammi has now set the opening weekend record of $80 million for a Blumhouse film, and she’s keenly aware that her journey to this point was an unlikely one.
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Tammi started out as a documentary filmmaker, tackling such subjects as endurance running in Fair Chase (2014) and the 2016 Presidential Election in the Jason Blum-produced Election Day: Lens Across America (2017). From there, the producers of Fair Chase approached her about the supernatural horror film, The Wind (2018), after seeing the way she and co-director Alex Cullen captured New Mexico in their doc. They wanted Tammi to bring those same instincts to The Wind’s own New Mexico backdrop amidst the Old West.
The Wind ended up being well received, which signaled to Blum that Tammi could also be a viable genre director. He eventually thought of her for the long-in-development Five Nights at Freddy’s video game adaptation, and her pitch soon won over franchise creator Scott Cawthon, who’d lost a bit of faith after the project struggled mightily to get off the ground since its inception at Warners in 2015.
“By the time I spoke with Scott, I’m not sure if he was confident that this movie was ever going to get made. They had some false starts,” Tammi tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So I think he was not only feeling the pressure from the fan base to get this film up and running, but he was also feeling very steadfast in knowing that he did not want this adaptation to be made unless it was done correctly.”
The key to Tammi’s pitch was deepening the characters that Cawthon established in his own script, and with the help of co-writer Seth Cuddeback, they collectively cracked the story that had been in the works for nearly a decade.
With an $80 million opening weekend and a new Blumhouse record that tops Halloween’s (2018) $76.2 million, Tammi was never fazed by the added amount her film could’ve made had it not been a day-and-date release with Peacock. Naturally, she’s also open to returning for a sequel, as there are some unresolved story points she’d like to address. One of those is the presumed death of Mary Stuart Masterson’s Aunt Jane in the home of Mike (Josh Hutcherson) and his younger sister Abby (Piper Rubio), which would certainly raise some eyebrows given that she was challenging for custody of Abby.
“We’re all, including myself, very excited to keep making movies in this universe if we’re lucky enough to do so and this first one does well,” Tammi says. “We have some loose ends that I think are going to have to come back in a sequel to be tied up.”
Below, during a conversation with THR on the morning of her film’s release, Tammi also discusses Matthew Lillard’s performance that has shades of his breakout role as Stu Macher in Scream (1996).
So how did a documentarian wind up in the genre space en route to Five Nights at Freddy’s?
That’s a great question that I’m asking myself this morning as well. Documentary filmmaking allowed me to wear a lot of different hats because it tends to be quite low budget with small teams. So I was able to start producing and camera operating and editing and directing, and that really helped prepare me well for stepping into my first feature called The Wind. And ironically, I got linked up with the producers and financiers of that film because they had helped me out on a documentary film [Fair Chase] that I had shot in New Mexico. They were reminded of the landscapes that we’d captured in that documentary, and The Wind took place in the West at the turn of the century. So that was one of the things that made them think that I might be a good candidate to chat with the writer and step into the role of directing that film.
So that was really my first entry into fictional film and TV, and it’s been amazing. I fell in love with it and haven’t wanted to stop since. Along the way, I got to work with Blumhouse on both a documentary [Election Day: Lens Across America] and some narrative episodes for an anthology series [Into the Dark] that they produced, and I developed my relationship with them more and more. Cut to Jason Blum giving me a ring when they were looking for a director on Five Nights at Freddy’s, and he allowed me to throw my hat in the ring and read the existing script and talk to Scott Cawthon about my vision to help bring the adaptation to life. So it was a winding journey.
Before you came on, the film was in development for quite a while. Other companies tried and failed. If you had to guess, what was the key to your pitch? What did Scott Cawthon, Jason Blum and Blumhouse seem to respond to the most?
By the time I spoke with Scott, I’m not sure if he was confident that this movie was ever going to get made. They had some false starts. So I think he was not only feeling the pressure from the fan base to get this film up and running, but he was also feeling very steadfast in knowing that he did not want this adaptation to be made unless it was done correctly. And by correctly, I mean in line with what he thought the fan base would really love.
So when I came on, I was so drawn to the characters that he had laid out in the version of the script that I got to read, and I talked to him about how we could make those characters even deeper and really hone in on the scares and amp up the humor and all the elements that he knew were important cornerstones of this adaptation. We were on the same page of what still needed to happen, and in the end, he was like, “Let’s do a pass on the script and we’ll see if it works out.” So it wasn’t until Seth Cuddeback and I finished a rewrite on the script that Scott really felt confident that we were on the right track, and then we were able to move forward into prep and eventually production.
The animatronics and puppets are quite special. Did you write to what the technology was capable of as far as emotion? Or did you tell Jim Henson’s Creature Shop what you needed in each sequence so they could calibrate ahead of time as best they could?
We did not write to the capability of the animatronics. Henson’s company, along with the original designs from the first Five Nights at Freddy’s, designed and created and built the animatronics with this current script in mind, knowing that Bonnie needed to do X and Foxy needed to do Y. So those elements were in the mix in terms of thinking about how they were going to function and operate, but we also needed to pivot to what they were actually able to do and what the limitations were, and incorporate whatever new things that we weren’t expecting. So it was just a real collaboration through and through, not only in the design and build phase, but certainly in the rehearsal period.
On the day, there were a bunch of performers and puppeteers that made these animatronics come to life. We also had a bunch of different versions of the animatronics. In some versions, there were incredibly talented performers inside the suit, in addition to puppeteers, offscreen, who would operate the eyes or the eyebrows or the ears and arms, with remote controls. So it was a real big team effort and collaboration, and each of those people had a specific thing that they had control over.
So you really can give them notes on the day like “faster, more intense”?
You can. There were limitations of how fast or slow something could go, but we were really able to dial in what we were looking for on the day in terms of tone and emotion, or lack thereof, and really get it precise. But it was an ongoing collaboration throughout filming and certainly not something that stopped after the designs were completed.
What makes these old-school pizzerias of the ‘80s so creepy? I watched some old Showbiz Pizza commercials last night and they really are disturbing.
Big time. I think the animatronics are at the heart of what makes these spaces the most creepy. As a kid, I remember sitting very close to a stage before the curtains opened and one of the performances played. And I think I walked away more fearful of them than excited in that particular instance. There’s just a feeling that animatronics give you, and it’s so complicated. It’s terrifying underneath it all, but it’s also kind of wonderful and brilliant and magical. So the combination of all those things is so unique, and when these animatronics haven’t been cared for after many years, I feel a little bit of sadness in the imagery. There’s a part of me that wants to go tend to them. I don’t know how an inanimate object can evoke so many feelings and emotions, but man, animatronics certainly do.
There are a lot of children’s drawings in the film. Did you recruit a bunch of kids from your neighborhood to go to town with a box of crayons?
Ding-ding! We definitely recruited a bunch of kids to do drawings, and that included [Abby actor] Piper Rubio. She did quite a bit. Some of the other kids that were in the movie, and some of the kids of the people who worked on the film, also did some drawings. So we did collect as many authentic kid drawings as possible, and then our art department stepped in, too. So it was a big collaboration, and there were a lot of drawings.
With the box office tracking increasing by the day, people keep commenting on how much Freddy’s could have made if it was a theatrical exclusive. I know that decision is beyond your control, but are you going to lose any sleep over what the film could’ve made without a streaming option?
I am just feeling so appreciative that people want to go to the theaters to see this movie, and what makes me so excited about that is that it’s the best way to view it. Of course, I would say that about any film in terms of being in a dark room with optimal visual and sound conditions, but whether you’re a fan or you know nothing about Freddy’s, to watch this one communally with fans, their energy and reaction to the film brings a whole other dimension to the movie-going experience. I also think it’s probably best enjoyed with some popcorn and soda. So I’m really, really hoping people go out to the theaters, and it seems like a lot of people are into that. In terms of streaming alongside it, we have that as an option as well for people who aren’t able to get to the theaters, and I hope it expands the access for people who have been waiting for it for so long.
And because the box office is looking quite healthy, are you open to coming back for Six Nights at Freddy’s?
(Laughs.) We’re all, including myself, very excited to keep making movies in this universe if we’re lucky enough to do so and this first one does well.
Decades from now, when your loved ones ask you about the making of Five Nights at Freddy’s, what day will you tell them about first?
At the very, very end of the shoot, we turned our aged, derelict pizzeria back into its pristine, heyday state for a flashback scene that we were filming. So we filled the whole set with a bunch of kids, and a lot of the kids belonged to the crew members and the puppeteers or someone involved in the production. It was incredible because I saw a bunch of miniature people who were the offspring of people that I was now very close with and fond of and so appreciative of for their work on this film. So it just felt like this big, bring-your-kid-to-work day, in addition to a bunch of amazing extras, and some of our crew got dressed up as extras in the scene as well.
So that was a really joyful end to what had been a really amazing shoot, and we were going out on such an exuberant and bold note by seeing the pizzeria come to life in a whole other way. So that energetic transformation from the abandoned ghost house was wild, and it really felt like a huge throwback to the ‘80s. Everything was nostalgic and fun, and that was the core of those types of family-themed restaurants. The arcade machines were working, the kids were in the ball pit, so that was definitely a highlight of the shoot, for sure.
[The rest of the interview contains spoilers for Five Nights at Freddy’s.]
Matthew Lillard’s character recognizes Mike’s (Josh Hutcherson) last name without saying it, and he then becomes a lot more helpful in finding him employment. Well, now we know why, as he was the real owner of Freddy’s and he was purposefully employing the older brother of one of his victims, Garrett. Did he just want the twisted trophy of killing both brothers?
Ooh, to be honest, I think this is something that’s best left for fan speculation, because there’s a lot of room for interpretation with this one. That’s much more interesting than whatever my answer is going to be.
Before and after the reveal, I did catch some Stu Macher/Scream vibes from Matthew. I recognized that familiar live wire that he plays so well. Did you encourage that? Or did he just know instinctively that this guy warranted a bit of the same crazed energy that Stu had?
Gosh, it feels like catching lightning in a bottle with Matthew because he just brings so much to the set and in the moment. And on that day in particular, we were just trying a bunch of different things for a bunch of different takes, and he was really coming alive in that [Yellow Rabbit] suit for the first time. Of course, we’d done some rehearsals with that suit, but it was a whole other deal once the camera was actually rolling in the properly lit pizzeria. So he was just going for it on every take and doing something different and really exploring in the moment. We just needed to make sure that we were there to capture it all. So, yes, there was definitely a back and forth between the two of us in terms of trying different things and really maximizing his menacing movement in that suit. But at the end of the day, he was just bringing all of his brilliance and improvisation to the table, and we were so lucky to be rolling on it.
When Lillard’s career counselor character stops short of saying Mike’s last name, I then noticed that Mike never said his last name the rest of the movie either. He would just say Mike. Is there a reason for that? Could you not clear the name?
Well, it is actually said at the end of the movie. Mike doesn’t say it, but the Yellow Rabbit [Lillard] does [out of frame]. So it is a little buried in there, but Mike’s name is eventually said in full.
Did the aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson) actually die? That would obviously be a big problem for Mike and Abby if the person challenging for custody of Abby wound up dead in their house. If she survived, it would still be a problem, although maybe she’d be so traumatized by what happened that she’d drop her claim and deceitful plan altogether.
We have some loose ends that I think are going to have to come back in a sequel to be tied up.
Garrett’s ghost/body wasn’t in any of the animatronics, right? I suppose you would’ve had a moment between him and Mike if he was.
I feel like that could also be a nice thing for the fan base to mull over. I’d love to not shut down anyone’s theories.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is now playing in movie theaters and streaming on Peacock. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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