Credit: Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate

Imaginary director Jeff Wadlow joins us ahead of his latest Blumhouse and Lionsgate release to discuss how much he’d love to make a horror movie with Bradley Cooper, the unexpected influences Hellraiser and A Nightmare On Elm Street had on Imaginary, the power of practical effects and that Truth or Dare unmade sequel story that blew up everywhere.


In the movie, there’s an important summoning ritual, if you will. If we wanted to summon you, what would the Jeff Wadlow summoning ritual entail? What would we need to gather to make that happen?

I love that question. Certainly if you got together a bunch of my favorite actors, and a cool script, and the budget to make a movie, you couldn’t stop me from showing up.

Who are some of the actors that we maybe would have in this?

Oh, well, obviously, a lot of the actors I’ve worked with in the past I love. But if we were to have a little fun with this game and say I couldn’t use anyone I’ve already used, very high on my list would be Bradley Cooper. I would do just about anything to work with that guy, I think he is a genius.

If he was willing to be in a movie that he wasn’t directing, I would be overjoyed. But obviously, there’s a long list. I’m a fan of actors, I love actors, I was an actor for a split second, realized I did not have enough talent to even be in a commercial, and have since then just developed a fond appreciation for brilliant actors, and just love, love, love working with them.

Let’s say you’re writing a role, crafting it specifically for Bradley Cooper in a horror movie. What does that look like?

Well, now I’m giving away the good stuff, I got to hold onto this.

Honestly, probably what I would say to him is, “What do you want to do that you’ve never done before? What’s the most bonkers idea you’ve ever had?” And then I would run with it, and I would make it a horror movie. I’d find that horror movie angle.

Honestly, that is what I do. If you really look at my career, a lot of my projects have been the result of someone challenging me with an idea, or a title, or a piece of material, and saying, “We can’t figure this out, we don’t know what to do with this. Can you do it?” And that’s how I would approach working with Mr. Cooper. I’d say, “Challenge me. What’s something that you’ve always wanted to explore on screen? And let’s do it together.”

IMAGINARY Director Jeff Wadlow and star Pyper Braun Behind the scenes. Credit: Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate

IMAGINARY Director Jeff Wadlow and star Pyper Braun. Credit: Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate.

Chauncey’s imaginary world was a very cool, fun moment. It reminded me of things that I watched as a kid. You get elements of Escher’s Relativity, which I did not know when I was a kid, Alice in Wonderland, and Labyrinth. Was any of that in the conversation when you were creating this look?

Absolutely. I mean, how could we not look at the works of Escher and Lewis Carroll? We also talked a lot about Maurice Sendak. The film Labyrinth was a touchstone, but an even bigger touchstone was Pan’s Labyrinth. That kind of horror fantasy sub-genre was a big part of our process in the discussions we had about that world.

I feel like it’s sort of a sub-genre that’s underserved now. I think you get more horror sci-fi, or sort of straight-up horror, gothic horror, but horror fantasy, you don’t really see many of those anymore. Hellraiser honestly was another film series we talked about. I mean, I just love that space. I’m very much a child of the ’80s and the ’90s. So as you can imagine, I love all those movies.

To get the PG-13 rating, did you cut out the flayed skin and such?

Yeah, exactly. Can you imagine Hellraiser meets Chauncey, that would be a very specific film.

It’s a little bit of a spoiler, but I mean, I think people are going to think they’re walking into a movie in the haunted toy subgenre, and the truth is the movie is much more a part of the horror fantasy subgenre.

There’s a quicksand-ish scene, without getting into spoilery things. When I was a kid, I had a prevalent fear of quicksand, I have yet to encounter it in my real life. But was that a thing for you? Were you affected by this fear as a child?

I just feel when you’re making a horror fantasy, you want to look for ways to kind of bend reality in a manner that creates a very real but visceral, scary sequence. And saying that the floor is quicksand works. You get all that claustrophobia, that feeling of something pressing on your chest.

To authentically answer your question, no, I was never trapped in quicksand, so I can’t say it’s some personal trauma of mine. (VID) But what that scene does remind me of is another horror fantasy franchise that I should have mentioned as both an inspiration and one of my favorites: A Nightmare on Elm Street. I would describe that very much as a horror fantasy. It’s similar to our film in that it kind of masquerades as a slasher. But it’s really a horror fantasy franchise, especially in the later films. Once you get into Dream Warriors, it just goes nuts, and that was certainly a touchstone for us.

What’s your number one Nightmare on Elm Street film?

Dream Warriors. It’s so much fun, it’s basically a superhero movie. Anytime people get to get together, form a team, and fight back, I mean, yeah, I’m on board.

Which of the Dream Warrior powers would you want to have?

Ooh, I don’t know. I think I would just kind of come up with my own thing.

I think I would want to be able to read everyone’s minds. I know that’s a very subtle, less visceral power, but if you know what everyone’s thinking, you’ve got the upper hand. It’s like playing chess and knowing the next move before they make it. So yeah, I think I would go with mind reading.

Do you think that would stress you out? Or do you think you would be able to tune out when you didn’t want to be tuned into it?

I think you’d have to have the ability to turn it off. In Dead Zone, when Christopher Walken shook someone’s hand, he could kind of see their future. Maybe that’s how we should create this power together: I can read people’s minds when I touch them. I’m sure there’s some X-Men that has that version of that power.

IMAGINARY director Jeff Wadlow and star Taegen Burns on set.

IMAGINARY director Jeff Wadlow and star Taegen Burns on set. Credit: Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate.

In the spirit of teams joining together, I was talking with your two young stars last week, Pyer Braun and Taegan Burns about how could do a Blumhouse Universe with Imaginary, and we’ve got Mason Thames from The Black Phone, we’ve got the McGraw sisters. The youths of Blumhouse could come together in an Avengers-style thing and fight supernatural entities.

Yeah, sort of like a young Scream Queens kind of thing, I like that. Listen, I’m down. If there’s a way to do it, I’m down.

We’re going to get Bradley Cooper involved too.

Yes, he can be like our Professor X, for our X Scream Queens squad. I love those two actresses so much. I don’t even know where to begin with Pyper Braun and Taegen Burns. They are incredible talents, so sweet, lovely to be around, great instincts, hard workers. If they want to be in a movie, I don’t care what it’s about, I want to direct it.

Is there a horror sub-genre you haven’t really done yet that you would like to explore?

I’d love to do more of a hardcore horror action film, sort of like Evil Dead or something like that. Or Aliens. Where it’s got all those tropes of a really scary movie, but then when the shit hits the fan, we get to fight back.

I always wanted to do a Friday the 13th movie, where survivors from all the different movies come back and hunt Jason, you know what I mean? That kind of idea. Just something where you start the movie as a horror movie, but then it really turns into a full-on action movie.

If you were the final girl in a horror movie and licensing did not exist, what would your kill song be?

Wow. I really wanted to use this song in a movie fifteen years ago, but we couldn’t afford it, and I think it would be fun to have it be my kill song, especially since there is no budget. It would be “Bleed It Out” by Linkin Park.

What speaks to you about that one?

I don’t know. I just like the way it builds, and the tempo of it. And it’s just got a real like, “All right, here we go. Fuck around and find out.” Kind of energy.

IMAGINARY director Jeff Wadlow. Credit: Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate.

IMAGINARY director Jeff Wadlow. Credit: Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate.

How was your experience working with puppets, and creatures, and young actors with prosthetics? You were just throwing all of this stuff into the mix.

Yeah, I mean, we did it all. It was a little bit of a function of budget. When you’re making a lower-budget film, you want to lean more heavily on practical effects. But also, personally, I prefer practical effects.

I just made this $60 million movie for Netflix, which was not a Blumhouse film with that budget, and I still used a lot of practical creatures and effects in that film. Because practical elements just have a weight to them, a reality to them that an audience and the actors respond to. It’s a lot easier to create an authentic performance when an actor has something there to react to it, not just looking at a ping-pong ball on a stick.

Imaginary Chauncey Pyper Braun Credit: Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate

I wanted to be as practical as possible with this film, and we were able to do it. Ultimately, you always have to embrace a hybrid approach where you use the VFX to augment the practical element. So one of our big monsters is this seven-foot-tall guy [Dane DiLiegro] in a suit, but we augmented the suit with a few visual effects flourishes.

The tongue is CG because that would be too hard to do practically. But if you do just the right little things, if you have a real puppet but the puppeteer is in the shot, then you use CG to paint the puppeteer out; well, now you have a real thing that people are looking at. It still feels elevated and cinematic because you’re doing something you could not do in the real world.

There is something tangible about it, and it just feels different. Even the set, when you’re walking into that Chauncey’s world, you can tell so much of that is practical. Which I think is why it kind of reminded me so much of the stuff that I was a fan of when I was a kid, because all of that was practical.

Yeah, it’s kind of unfortunate that movies are made the way they’re made now. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I would love to make a movie that can afford the use of the Volume. But I just think Star Wars: A New Hope would’ve lost something if those scenes on Tatooine were shot in the Volume. There’s something about being out in the world with sand, and the wind, and the desert. What’s brilliant about that film is what they changed, they put the second sun in the sky. That’s what tells you you’re in a different place, but you still get to feel the reality of that place.

The dust and the grit and the sand. Tangible grittiness.

Yeah, and I say that fully just as a fan of film. If you were asking me where I’d rather shoot, what’s easier to shoot, it’s much easier to shoot on a soundstage in front of a green screen than it is to go to a real desert. But I just think the end product suffers.

I am sorry to hear that because your car is actually outside, you’re heading to the desert, and you have about 20 minutes to pack your stuff.

Listen, if Lucasfilm and Disney want me to head to the desert to make a Star Wars movie, I’ll end this interview right now.

Is there any chance of an Imaginary sequel in the works?

Well, I’ve been asked this question a couple of times. I’ll tell you this, anyone who plans a sequel can probably count on the fact that there won’t be a sequel. I’ve heard of all these filmmakers being like, “Well, I actually have a trilogy mapped out.” I’m like, “Good luck with that.”

Put all your good ideas into your film, and that’s what we have done here. I’ve put all the good ideas that we could come up with into this movie. That being said, if the movie resonates with an audience, if there’s a desire for a sequel, the movie is called Imaginary, it’s literally about the power of imagination. We would have to be totally creatively bankrupt and not be able to come up with a sequel about imagination.

What do you think that would look like?

I’m just shooting from the hip, so none of this means anything. But I do feel like we would have to sort of follow an Alien, Aliens kind of structure. Even though you could make the movie about different imaginary friends, characters, and parts of the world, I think DeWanda as Jessica is kind of our Ellen Ripley in this series.

I think we would want to spend more time with her, see how she’s grown and changed from the experience of this first film, and see what she does with those lessons and what that ultimately means for the imaginary world and Chauncey. Don’t forget… This is a bit of a spoiler…

Jessica’s creativity is special. It’s something more than just the normal amount of imagination that a person brings to an interaction with an imaginary friend. It’s almost like catnip for Chauncey. So I think we would have to explore that a little bit more.

It feels like there’s a lot more story there, so I’d be very curious to see how that might unfold if given the chance.

Yes, I agree. Listen, I would love to do it. I would love to make another movie with DeWanda, Jason Blum, and everyone who worked on this film. It was really probably the most positive experience I’ve had in Hollywood so far.

If you could do a sequel or another installment to any movie in your repertoire, what would you choose, aside from Imaginary?

Well, I got in a little bit of trouble for a similar question to this one earlier in the week when I talked about the sequel for Truth or Dare that never happened.

Truth or Dare (2018)

Did you get in trouble for that?

I was sort of talking out of school. I guess “trouble” is the wrong word, I got a lot of attention for it. I mentioned it to a reporter from Variety, and I think about 45 other outlets reprinted the story. So let’s take Truth or Dare off the table, too. If I were going to pick something else that I’ve worked on that I would want to make a sequel to, I mean, it’ll never happen, but I would love to make a sequel to Fantasy Island.

Again, this is another spoiler, but the way that movie ends is we sort of set up the classic dynamic from the show at the end of the movie. We have our Roarke, and we have our Tattoo standing on the dock, ready to welcome new guests. It’s sort of a weird kind of prequel in the end, and it would be fun to move that forward and kind of show how their dynamic evolved and just have fun with what other guests we could bring to the island.

I would jump at the chance to work with all those actors again, work with Jason again, and Shoot in Fiji again. That was an incredible experience. We made that movie for just over $7 million in Fiji. It was some actors and two cameras, and me standing on the beach. It was not what you think of when you think of a big Hollywood movie. It was very sort of indie, kind of throwback style of filmmaking. We didn’t have a crane. It was challenging, but I loved it.

Do you ever miss that style of making movies?

I’m kind of still doing it. I jump back and forth between bigger-budget stuff and Blumhouse stuff, and there are pros and cons to both types of filmmaking. I do love working at a lower budget because you’re given so much creative freedom, and also there’s just an energy and an adrenaline to it. You just have to make the day. There’s this sort of understanding that if you don’t make the day, the scene’s getting cut.

With that kind of pressure on, I think sometimes you do your best work. I teach a short film workshop back in my hometown called the Adrenaline Film Project, and one of the things I say to the filmmakers, because they have 72 hours to make a short film with me, I always say to them, “Look, when you’re in a box, the only way out is up.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Imaginary is in theaters March 8. Check out our full list of the most anticipated new horror movies releasing this year, and watch our interview with Imaginary director Jeff Wadlow below. For more, check out our interview with Imaginary star DeWanda Wise and on screen sister duo Taegen Burns and Pyper Braun.

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