Q&A: Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa on the New “TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN,” the “AMERICAN PSYCHO” Musical, etc.Fearful Features,Home,Movies/TV,News Michael Gingold
Multimedia scribe Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has become the go-to guy for new, sometimes unique takes on popular horror properties. In this exclusive FANGORIA chat from last weekend’s New York Comic-Con, he discusses his meta redux of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, the status of the AMERICAN PSYCHO musical, his darker revival of SABRINA for Archie Comics and more.
Once an intern at FANGORIA magazine, Aguirre-Sacasa segued from early theater work to TV with BIG LOVE and then GLEE, and got his first genre credit with the new film version of CARRIE. Opening this Thursday from Orion Pictures is THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, an updated reboot of Charles B. Pierce’s 1977 cult favorite concerning the real-life Phantom Killer, who claimed a series of victims in 1940s-era Texarkana, Texas and was never caught. Aguirre-Sacasa, whose rewrite is credited with helping save the troubled SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, also returned to the stage by penning the book for a musical version of AMERICAN PSYCHO that opened late last year at London’s West End (with DOCTOR WHO’s Matt Smith in the title role). The show was slated to open off-Broadway this fall before being dropped from the Second Stage Theater’s lineup at the last minute—but, he reveals, is still bound for New York.
Meanwhile, the writer is continuing to work on the comics series AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE, which confronts the ageless teens of Riverdale with zombies, and is also scripting SABRINA, an update of the sister title SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH. And if he wasn’t already busy enough, he’s also adapting NIGHT FILM, Marisha Pessl’s novel about a disgraced journalist investigating the disappearance of the daughter of a reclusive, possibly sinister cult horror moviemaker, for the big screen.
FANGORIA: How did you come to be involved with THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN? Did your work on CARRIE have anything to do with it?
ROBERTO AGUIRRE-SACASA: Yeah, and I also got that because [GLEE creator] Ryan Murphy was the producer with Jason Blum. They had a meeting at MGM and told them, “We want to remake TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN,” which was part of MGM’s library. The studio said, “Great, let’s do this,” and Ryan and Jason said, “We’ll find a writer.” I was working for Ryan on GLEE at the time and had just done CARRIE for MGM, and they said, “Well, what about Roberto?” Ryan called me while driving back from MGM on the way to the GLEE writers’ room and said, “Look at TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN if you don’t know it.” I kind of knew it, but I hadn’t seen all of it—I’d seen snippets on late-night cable—so I watched it and said, “I’m in!”
FANG: As a remake, CARRIE stuck very close to the source, whereas TOWN has a fresh, self-referential take on the material. Was that approach something the producers brought to the table, or did you come up with that element?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: You know, CARRIE wasn’t going to be quite as close to the novel as it ended up being; it was a little different in the first draft. But on TOWN, we knew we wanted to set it in the present, as opposed to the original movie, which came out in the ’70s and was set in the ’40s. So I did a bunch of research on Texarkana and the actual murders, and one of the articles I read said that every year on Halloween, they host a screening of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN there, and I thought, “That could be a cool way to introduce a kind of meta element.” SCREAM [which namechecks TOWN] had obviously done meta so well, so we didn’t want to do that kind of thing. But when I considered that the two most important events that have ever happened in Texarkana were the murders and then the movie that was made about them, I felt that if we incorporated both those historical subjects, we would have a way to comment on this town that was kind of defined by the film and its subject.
FANG: So the original TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is part of the universe of your TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN…
AGUIRRE-SACASA: Yeah; in the opening scene, all the high-school kids are at the drive-in watching THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, and two of them drive off because the girl doesn’t like those kinds of movies. They go parking in a lover’s lane and are attacked by a guy in a hood, just like the original Phantom Killer, and the boy is killed but the girl [Jami, played by Addison Timlin] survives. Then you experience the hysteria that sets in the town, and the investigation into who the murderer might be, from the girl’s point of view. So it’s about her coming of age, and kind of like ZODIAC in a very, very small town.
FANG: Did you feel any pressure to come up with a scene to top the trombone murder in the original?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: There is a very, very big homage to the trombone killing, but it’s got a unique spin. When you see it, you’ll understand.
FANG: How many drafts did you do, and how involved were the producers in shaping the film’s vision?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: I wrote till the bitter end; every line of dialogue in that movie is mine, I’m happy to say. I worked very closely with the director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who I knew from GLEE; he also directed episodes of AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The basic structure of the script didn’t change, though a few scenes did. Alfonso had met Charles B. Pierce’s son and wanted him to be a character, so I rewrote a scene that originally involved another townsperson. I worked very closely with everyone.
FANG: Does Pierce’s son play himself in the film?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: He doesn’t—Denis O’Hare plays him—but he does have a cameo.
FANG: Were you involved on set?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: I went down to it a few times, but I was still working on GLEE, so I wasn’t able to be there the whole time. I did go with Alfonso to Texarkana on a research trip, and then I went to the Shreveport location a few times.
FANG: Was there ever any talk about actually filming in Texarkana?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: We did shoot in Texarkana; we spent three days shooting there. Because of tax incentives, it was a lot easier to shoot [the bulk of the movie] in Louisiana.
FANG: How do you feel about having written remakes of two classic ’70s films, and are you interested in doing more?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: You know, I think I’ve hit my limit on remakes right now. The original CARRIE was such a defining movie for me, and with TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, I’ve always loved slasher movies and wanted to do something like that. I’m very proud of those movies, especially TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, because I feel like if you saw it and you know me a little bit, you would recognize my personality in there a little bit.
FANG: What’s your SABRINA comic all about?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: It’s the chilling adventures of Sabrina, and it’s very much a horror book. Unlike AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE, which is kind of an EVIL DEAD zombie romp, this is serious witchcraft; it’s like ROSEMARY’S BABY, it’s like THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE. It’s very psychological and more of a slow burn, and it’s a period piece, set in the ’60s. All of the elements are there, meaning she lives with her two spinster aunts, she has a talking cat named Salem, a cousin named Ambrose who’s also a witch, the same high-school boyfriend, Harvey, the same rival, Rosalind—but it’s much, much, much darker. Yet in the same way that AFTERLIFE is still an Archie book, this is still a Sabrina book.
FANG: Can you comment a bit about what’s happening with the AMERICAN PSYCHO musical?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: Just that the producers want to bring it to Broadway; that’s the plan, and that’s why the off-Broadway production was cancelled. I’m really, really proud of the show; it’s violent, it’s funny, it’s sexy. Duncan Sheik wrote an amazing score, and I hope it does make it to Broadway. The last I heard, we’re doing a big workshop in New York in January, with the hope being that it will premiere on Broadway at the end of the summer, like next September—so a little under a year from now.
FANG: What’s the casting status at this point?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: No one’s been cast. Benjamin Walker, who was Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, was in a bunch of the workshops and was going to do it off-Broadway, so he might potentially do it on Broadway, but who knows this far out?
FANG: What other horror projects are on your horizon?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: I’m finishing an adaptation of the crime/horror novel NIGHT FILM for 20th Century Fox, Rupert Wyatt, who directed RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES—he’s great—and producer Peter Chernin.
FANG: NIGHT FILM is a pretty dense book; has it been a challenge to whittle it down to a feature-length screenplay?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: Such a challenge! I think I’ve got a handle on it, but it has been a huge process. Every time I cut something, I think, “Oh, that’s OK,” and then four scenes later I’m like, “No, I need that scene!” I love it, though!