If you’re a fan of horror movies, you’ve probably heard the name Gary Dauberman a lot over the past five years. He has written four of the eight movies in the Conjuring universe, including Annabelle Comes Home, his directorial debut. He also penned both chapters of It, is currently writing an adaptation of Salem’s Lot, and is attached to the American remake of the internationally acclaimed Train to Busan. (Dauberman was tapped to write the script for the feature-film version of Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, but he recently parted ways with the team). In a short period of time, he’s solidified himself as the go-to screenwriter for an entire film genre.
However, the longtime Comic-Con attendee was in San Diego this year not to promote a movie, but to discuss his first-ever print project, a new comic book called Mall, co-written by Dauberman and Michael Moreci (working with artist Zak Hartong, colorist Addison Duke, and letterer Jim Campbell). Published by Vault, Mall follows Andre Reed, a man living in the last bastion of human civilization — a huge shopping center — several generations after an unexplained apocalyptic event. The mall population has split itself into warring factions, and none of them are on Andre’s side, so he’s on the run in a facility with limited hiding spots. Moreci describes it as Escape From New York crossed with The Warriors — “a post-apocalyptic, anti-capitalism adventure ride.”
“The world has ended and there’s still people in a stupid mall, like, fighting for nothing!” says Moreci, with Dauberman adding, “The world is ended and yet you’re still bitching over space!”
With June’s Annabelle Comes Home marking another hit for New Line’s Conjuring universe and It: Chapter Two on the way this fall, Vulture sat down with Dauberman and Moreci in the Vault Comics booth at SDCC to talk passion projects, populism, and what Dauberman considers the “Holy Grail” of movie scenes.
Gary, you’ve been handed the keys to a couple of huge horror properties with The Conjuring and It, which means you’ve had a hand in shaping the mainstream genre conversation for a few years now. Was co-writing a comic a way for you to find a different outlet beyond these big studio machines?
Gary Dauberman: When I was little I wanted to be a Disney animator, and then I wanted to be [comic book creators] Neal Adams and James O’Barr and Todd McFarlane. So, my first love was always comic books, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but just like with the movies I work on it’s about finding the right people. Over the years I’ve found that is just as important as what the material is. Because I’ve done it where it’s like, “Oh my God, I love this so much!” Then you’re just kind of like, “Ugh, I’ve got to work with these people?” I’ve known the Vault guys for a while because I’ve just been a fan of their books. When I initially had this idea for Mall, they were the first guys I talked to.
Did getting into the director’s chair for Annabelle Comes Home affect your writing approach at all, now that you’ve been the one responsible for steering a script all the way through?
GD: I’m sure it did subconsciously, somehow, but I can’t tell. I can say when I was writing Annabelle Comes Home, and knowing I was directing it, I could get ahead of some problems that, when I’m just writing, I’m going, Well, I don’t need to worry about this, cause that’s gonna be someone else’s issue! But I don’t know how it’s affected me subconsciously. I’m working on something now and I’ve got to say, I’m just approaching it as a writer first. Like with Salem’s Lot, I’m not thinking about the director or anything coming after.
You’re working on Salem’s Lot now?
GD: I was writing it this morning! I’m really copy and pasting it from the book at this point, just doing some formatting.
By now, is Stephen King this voice in your head that you have to shake off to write something else? Or, after writing three Annabelle movies, did you accidentally put her in It?
GD: [Laughs] No. When I’m working on one thing, I’m really focused on that one thing, and I don’t have a great memory. It’s kind of like a goldfish. “Oh! There’s a fucking castle in here!” I go around again, “Oh my God! There’s a castle in here!” So, once I’m in whatever I’m writing, I’m pretty in that world.
You have a close partnership with James Wan at this point, and New Line too, which puts out It and is developing both your Salem’s Lot and Train To Busan adaptations, so it seems like you’ve found those good working relationships you seek out. Now that you’re so established and have that kind of backing behind you, are there any big creative swings you want to take with a script? Or is that what Mall is for?
GD: I think the risks for me creatively are like stepping up to direct Annabelle Comes Home. It took me out, and I couldn’t do other things for however long I was working on that. [DC Universe’s] Swamp Thing for streaming was a whole new thing. So, those are kind of the risks I take. I have a very commercial, accessible sensibility, so it’s not like, “Well, now I get to do that biopic that only seven people are going to be interested in.” I still love to do the big movies, and things that I think audiences are really gonna respond to, as opposed to, “This one’s just for me.” I want it to be for everybody.
Working on comics is a whole different muscle that I’m still trying to strengthen.
And Michael, are you similarly a populist?
Michael Moreci: It’s the same as with Gary. When it comes down to picking projects, I don’t have a real capital-A artistic bone. It’s hard, though, because comics is so dominated by existing IP. Everything is under an umbrella of stuff that’s been around for a very, very long time. So you have to kind of navigate that. You know, I do write Star Wars because I love Star Wars, but generally I’m trying to always find stuff like Mall, where it is big and it’s accessible and it’s mainstream, but you’re still really carving stuff out because comics is Batman and Spider-Man.
Speaking of behemoths, when you’re working within the constraints of something like the large shared world of The Conjuring or iconic texts from Stephen King, how do you personalize the project while keeping its DNA?
GD: I think James and I work so well together because just like with me and Mike, we share a similar aesthetic. Specifically with Annabelle Comes Home, one of the things I want to do is change it up a little bit tonally. I wanted a little bit lighter, more playful, more fun. Not that the other movies aren’t, but I wanted some more humor than some of the other movies, just ’cause that’s just my personal taste. Like, I’m still searching for that perfect scene, where audiences are laughing and then boom! They go right into a scream! That to me is sort of the never-ending quest for the Holy Grail of what a perfect scene would be. You know, the [Conjuring] formula — whatever that is — seems to be working, so I didn’t want to change it too much, but when I thought about stepping behind the camera and was like, “What is going to be the new thing to make it feel like I can bring my voice more into it?” And that’s something I wanted.
MM: But that’s always the trick, right? When you’re doing stuff like Conjuring, that’s a preexisting thing. Or you write Batman — there’s always gonna be that person who’s going to be like, “I’m going to write my Batman.” No. You’re not. You have to always embrace the core of what the thing is, but also bring your own point of view to it. Finding that balance is tricky sometimes. It’s hard. That’s one of the biggest things that Vault and I really kind of gelled over. I think people want a different kind of story. Mall has a diverse cast and all that really, really important stuff, but also just on a story level, no one’s telling stories that grab people by the lapels and shake them — at least in the comic space. I want to do that with Mall. So many comics feel stale to me, or like really people are trying to make like their TV show in a comic. A TV show doesn’t work in a comic. Yes, there’s many wonderful adaptations, and they can work, but when you’re straight up being like, “Oh, file the serial number off of this total TV pilot to make the comic,” that doesn’t work. You get a stale thing that’s not a very good TV show, and it’s not a very good comic either. So, I wanted to make something that’s thoroughly a comic, and I think Mall is.
Just to backtrack for a second, I want to know what you consider an example of a perfect scene, Gary.
GD: I’m so terrible at this. I think it’s a strength and a weakness, not having that kind of memory.
It is an annoying, on-the-spot question, but you did bring it up.
GD: [Laughs] I don’t know if I have a specific thing for you. I’ll just say I go back to the movies I grew up on in the ’80s that felt like rides to me, one movie had different genres in it. One of my favorites of all time is Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was such a fun experience, and then his fucking face melts off at the end! And you’re like Holy shit! Seeing that when I was 4 or 5, I slept in my parents’ bed for a week after that. It’s like, What the fuck? I was enjoying myself and now I’m scared out of my mind! I would say something like that if I had to give a specific scene.
In terms of rides, too, I think that’s also something we brought to Mall. We talked about John Carpenter-esque references, The Warriors, movies where it feels like you’re getting a whole bunch of different types of stuff within a one story.
Honestly with all this talk of Escape From New York-style action and Warriors and Carpenter, it seems like you do have a passion project in you, and it’s coming from this Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live voice, crying out to tell a certain kind of story.
GD: [Laughs] Yeah. That’s an itch that Mall definitely scratches for sure. I just love that stuff, man! And I just haven’t felt that in a long time, which is why it was so great to work on this book. It’s like, if we aren’t getting it out there, let’s be the ones putting it out so other people can get it, and I think that’s really what we’ve accomplished.
Michael you said you made Mall as something that is thoroughly a comic book story, but Gary, given what you do, have you noodled this around as a screen adaptation?
GD: It does exist in my mind somewhere. I’d be lying a bit to say it didn’t. However, that’s not why I wanted to do this. There’s no reason I couldn’t have just pitched this as a series or as a movie or whatever. I just felt like this would be a fun story to tell for the medium, and it’d be a great way for me to get into the medium just because I love it so much. But you know, in the business I’m in, it’s hard not to go, “Well, could we make this something?” And the answers is yeah. I think it lends itself to a great series.