Radio Silence on Abigail and Making a Modern Universal Monsters Film

Universal Pictures’ latest horror release Abigail is now available to watch on-demand at home, for those who missed it in theaters or wanted to wait for a scary movie night in. The kidnapped vampire ballerina romp directed by Radio Silence filmmakers Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin is a bloody bonkers ride that doesn’t hold back, and is a must-add to watchlists.

The directors recently sat down with io9 to talk about reinventing Universal Monsters lore and working with their killer ensemble, including Alisha Weir (Matilda) as Abigail, the ballerina vampire, alongside a motley crew of heist thieves led by Melissa Barrera (Scream). The cast also features Dan Stevens (Godzilla x Kong), Kathryn Newton (Lisa Frankenstein), Giancarlo Esposito (The Mandalorian), Angus Cloud (Euphoria), William Catlett (Black Lightning), and Kevin Durand (Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes). We did get into some spoilers, but there’s a warning beforehand for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet.

Sabina Graves, io9: When you guys were announced as making an as-yet untitled Universal Monsters movie, I was like, “What is this going to be?” What was the process with Universal—do they have a Universal Monsters bible with all the classic mythology in their canon? Did you review different parts of the IP? And what made you settle on the threads of Dracula’s daughter to ultimately use as a jumping-off point to do your own thing?

Tyler Gillett: What we learned really early on with Universal was that for as much as they value and love those very specific monsters and those properties, they’re also really interested and excited to get a new approach or take on what those classic monsters might be. Even pre-dating Abigail, we went in to pitch a Creature From the Black Lagoon movie, and we were like, “Look, we love the original. We’re not really sure what a [different] version of it is that isn’t The Shape of Water. So we’re going to pitch you guys something that feels like it’s maybe inspired by [Creature].” We pitched this original movie that ended up having sort of adjacent ideas in it, but with a totally new creature. They were like, “Yes, we love that and love that monster.” So I sort of say that in a way of framing just how interested and excited they are by original ideas.

And so while we were in the writing of that, this script—called Abducting Abigail at the time—already existed at Universal. It really was at its core the idea of what we went out and made. It’s a heist movie that gets hijacked by a vampire movie. And it was just another example of the studio loves the world of these monsters, but they’re trying to find a new way into into that lore. The whole way along the process, Universal was great about just steering us into the most original and fun and interesting version of what the movie and that monster could be.

io9: Some of my favorite scenes involve the introduction the ensemble cast. They all worked really well. I loved how we got Melissa Barrera as Joey reading them in what felt like a very Hitchcockian way. Can you talk about the casting for the film and your ongoing collaboration with Melissa? 

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: So glad to hear you like that scene, because that for us was the first day of shooting. We had just gotten to meet everybody and get to know them, and they were getting to know each other. This was like a run and gun thing for us. We were on a plane a couple weeks after Scream 6 came out and we were casting as we were going—and Melissa was the first piece of that puzzle. Because one of the things that we loved about the script was that the characters are kind of unknown by design; every single actor brought a ton of ideas and a ton of contributions to what those characters ultimately become. We joked on-set a lot that it’s like we’re making Breakfast Club, but a horror movie. You fall in love with them even though they’re bad, and the first thing you see them do is kidnap a 12-year-old, you know? But they all have so much humanity that it comes through, even when they’re being complete assholes. I think there’s just something in that alchemy that we feel like we got really lucky with this cast.

Image: Universal Pictures

Gillett: Yeah. I think speaking specifically to that scene where Joey calls everyone out—we say all the time that that’s the scene in the movie when the movie kind of casts its spell on the audience. There’s real characters in this, and this is really about a dynamic between all of these amazing, weird, wacky people.

io9: For sure. And I think it kind of sets that tone, to kind of make the very, violent and humorous moments for these characters be all the more real and work.

Gillett: So thank you for saying that. I think it’s an easy thing to say, “Well, just get to the vampire shit,” and all of that doesn’t it doesn’t work if you don’t spend time falling in love with the people who are in peril. And even if you don’t, even if they are antiheroes and they’re all morally bankrupt—caring about them, and what happens to them, is why that part of the movie works.

Bettinelli-Olpin: That’s the thing we talked about a lot—Alien as a structure that we kind of followed. Tyler and I both, one of our favorite scenes in Alien, in any movie, is when they’re all sitting around the table talking and you’re getting to know these people. Being able to do anything that even, like, remotely emulates that idea of “let’s put the characters at the forefront of this movie” is something that was really attractive to us, and also something we were afraid of.

io9: Was there ever a point where you didn’t want to reveal that the monster was a vampire ballerina in the trailers? A lot of people were like, “Why did you give it away?” Obviously sometimes that’s not up to you—or did you see that reaction to a vampire ballerina as what lured people in?  

Gillett: I think it’s with every movie, there’s always sort of a sliding door moment where you go, “Man, what what would this version of the marketing have been and how would that have played out?” We knew going in that Alisha (Weir) in that costume covered with blood was going to be so iconic that there was just no way it wasn’t going to be used. There was no quicker way to advertise the tone and the crazy sort of absurdity of the movie than to use that image. It felt like it was pretty clear that it was like going to be the stickiest thing. And then I think ultimately what that meant is that it was our job to make all of the scenes that come before and after that twist—which isn’t necessarily a twist, if you’ve seen it and if you seen it in the trailer—really matter, and be interesting and essential to the story.

Image for article titled Radio Silence on Abigail and Making a Modern Universal Monsters Film

io9: Amazing. And just to touch on a big spoiler here. I’m definitely telling on myself, I thought Dan Stevens was going to be Dracula or the father character. And when Matthew Goode shows up as the dad at the end, it was hilarious to see him because of the Downton Abbey connection. Was that on purpose? But also what made Matthew Goode the perfect choice for that character, and can you confirm if it is Dracula or not?

Gillett:  We can confirm that he was Dracula in previous drafts of the script.

Bettinelli-Olpin: We ultimately decided that we didn’t want to put that fine a point on it, that it didn’t quite fit the story that we were telling. But we still wanted the father to come in and have a lot of a lot of grace, but a lot of gravitas. You had to pack a lot into a very small amount of time as a character that’s been built up as this mythical crime boss. And I think for us, Matthew just hit that target because he’s so elegant, he’s so classy, but he’s also scary and a little weird. And that all comes through in such a such a streamlined way, the way he enters the scene. He’s able to do so much in such a short period of time. And the fact that we have two Downton Abbey guys was an after thought; that was like, “Okay, that’s kind of funny.” How has Downton Abigail not been made? But Matthew came in, only shot for a day, but it was a real privilege to get to work with him because he was awesome.

Dan Stevens

Image: Universal Pictures

io9: Yes, and I was still happily fulfilled to see Dan as a vampire because he gave Near Dark Severen (Bill Paxton’s character) vibes.

Gillett: When we were shooting that scene, I mean, [Stevens’] reveal post Lambert [Giancarlo Esposito’s character]’s explosion, we were like, we just went full Near Dark with this unintentionally. But it’s one of those things where you’re like, “Oh, the influence is so in us” that we couldn’t help but pay homage in some way.

Bettinelli-Olpin: Once the blood turns his glasses into sunglasses, essentially, we were like, “Oh, here we are. Near Dark, we’ve arrived.”

Abigail is now available to own or rent on digital from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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