ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke to We Have a Ghost writer Christopher Landon about the comedy movie. The writer discussed balancing horror with comedy and the 2020 slasher comedy Freaky. We Have a Ghost is now available for streaming on Netflix.
“Finding a ghost named Ernest haunting their new home turns Kevin’s family into overnight social media sensations,” says the synopsis. “But when Kevin and Ernest go rogue to investigate the mystery of Ernest’s past, they become a target of the CIA.”
Tyler Treese: We Have a Ghost is a big departure from some of your previous films. You’re primarily known in the horror space. We see that background, especially later on in the movie. So how has that come about and what led to you doing a more family-focused movie here?
Christopher Landon: Honestly, just getting soft in my old age — not too soft! No, I think I’ve always had this kind of a movie in me and while I’m known for my genre work, and I love genre. I love horror films and I was raised on them, but I was also raised on Amblin and other kinds of films and I’ve always loved them. So this was something that I always wanted to do. Becoming a dad myself, I think, had a big influence on me jonesing to make something that my kids could probably see at a certain age. Although I would let them probably watch really inappropriate horror films at an early age too, if other people didn’t stop me.
But yeah, it’s the kind of movie that I’ve wanted to make for a long time. This short story presented the first opportunity to do it in a way that, I think, helped bridge my career, you know what I mean? Sort of like my past with my present and my future, you know?
How was balancing the different tones of the movie? In the later section, we really get to see some solid horror scenes and it gets very suspenseful.
Yeah, I think if there’s one thing that I do a lot, it’s blend genres. My North Star is always character-driven. Like if you present the audience with characters that they’re invested in, they will go anywhere with them. And I mean that in the sense that they will move through different genres with your characters as long as their journey is consistent. So that was something that I was able to do here. And I think what’s really fun is that the movie does a little bit of a trick, which is it lulls you in with some humor — some cute stuff — but the stakes become real and it slowly becomes this very emotional journey that has real jeopardy. So that’s something that I really wanted for the movie. I wanted this to be a ride.
I really loved David Harbour’s performance here. How was it, working with a silent main character? We get some groans out of him, but how was it seeing him put so much life into the character of Ernest while not speaking?
Yeah, it was magical. When David and I first spoke — right before he officially signed on to do the movie — one of the first things he said to me was that he was terrified of doing this because it had no dialogue. But he’s such an incredible actor and he’s the kind of person that doesn’t let his fears dictate his choices. He almost likes the challenge, you know? I think that was what really excited him about the role, ultimately, was that he wouldn’t get to rely on that at all and that he was going to have to really use his face and his heart to really convey what his character is going through. And he’s just someone who knows how to do that.
He’s a guy with an extensive theater background and I think that really came in handy here. And he understood the character. Again, he’s also an actor that just has this ability to make you fall in love with him. There’s something about him that’s kind of a broken toy that you want to fix and you want to see him get fixed. I think that’s one of the things that David really brings to the role.
I was curious just about filming with a silent actor. There’s only so much you can put into a script, so I imagine when the character’s not talking like that, a lot of that comes down to David’s performance. How was it working with him and seeing that character come to life?
I figured out very quickly in the process that David knew exactly what he was doing. So it was best to just, just get the camera in front of him and let him do his thing. We had a lot of conversations about it, leading up to filming. But the other thing that sort of goes unnoted but should be is that not only was he dealing with a character that doesn’t speak, he was also a ghost. So there was this whole other very complicated technical thing that he had to deal with while we were filming, too.
Every time I shot David, I had to shoot him four different ways to achieve the look that we have in the film. So that was very, very daunting. It would be daunting for any actor to have to go through that. So the fact that he brings so much emotional truth to the character and to the role, but also is dealing with this whole other aspect of it, is it’s very commendable.
It had to be fun writing that character, because you get to determine how Ernest can interact with the world — what he can do, what he can’t. How was it determining that and, during the writing process, did his skills or abilities change over time?
I definitely wanted to set up the rules as quickly as I could, but not belabor them, you know? I didn’t want it to become this like whole rule-y expositional slog. You just kind of lean into the idea that this is a guy that is made of energy. That energy can be harnessed and controlled and that it also can be something that’s way more malleable and fluid. But beyond that, look, there was a version of the script where he did speak, but he could only speak through an old Speak and Spell — one of those old toys.
But then I thought that voice would drive everyone crazy, and it also felt like a cheat. I felt like I was bringing this thing in and forcing him to talk because I was too afraid of the idea of him not talking. Then I finally arrived at a place where I was like, “You know what? Just do the version of the movie that you wanted to do, and don’t worry about that stuff. You’ll find the right guy who will do the thing that you’re looking for.” And of course, I found it in David. But everything else was just a lot of fun. Getting to make a ghost movie is really cool.
I loved Anthony Mackey’s character because he’s clearly a very well-meaning father that cares deeply for his kids. But he is at this point where we see some negative aspects of his personality coming out with the newfound fame that he has. Can you speak to working with Anthony and how he brought that charisma and warmth to the role of the father?
What was critical for me was that … in the short story that the film is based on, the character of Frank is a total dick. He’s so unlikable from start to finish. So that was something that I knew I did not want, because it’s a big part. So casting Anthony was key because he is so likable and he is so charismatic and the guy that you see onscreen is the guy that’s really offscreen. I mean, Anthony, as a human being, is one of the most charming, charismatic people I’ve ever met.
He’s the guy that hangs out after we wrap and is telling jokes and making the whole crew laugh and there’s a warmth to him that was vital. So I wanted the audience to like him, to understand him and know that, yeah, he’s trying to provide for his family and he’s trying to do the right thing, but he’s going about it in the wrong way. He’s one of those people that is always trying to find the shortcut, but you can’t take the shortcut in this kind of situation, you know? You have to put your family first and you can’t put your own needs and your narcissism in front of everyone else.
I really loved how this movie parodies social media throughout and some of those scenes are so hilarious. So where did you get the inspiration for some of those? Are you a doom scroller?
Oh totally! Who isn’t a doom scroller? We all live on these things, like we’re all on our phones and it’s like a slow motion car crash for all of us. Honestly, I think social media made it way too easy for me to skewer it. A lot of the stuff that we see and do is ridiculous. The way that we, the way that we immediately take something — something even as ridiculous as a ghost — and we immediately are polarized and we’re immediately fighting about it. You know what I mean? That is what social media is to me in so many ways.
Now it’s just the immediate, “I’m going to pick a topic and I’m going to grab my spear and stand in my corner and scream,” and that’s kind of what happens here. And it’s kind of sad and funny, I guess … that’s probably why it’s funny, because it’s sad.
I really love Freaky, which you wrote and directed and it got such a cool haunted house at Universal Halloween Horror Nights last year. Were you able to check that out?
I was able to check it out. I got to go on opening night and it was so fun. They did such a good job. I feel like they always do a great job, so I was not surprised or disappointed, but it was also nice because it was a movie, for me, that’s a little bittersweet. It kind of got lost in Covid and it didn’t feel like it ever really got its day in the sun. So just even having that maze was something that was really cool and really special to me.
There’s been talk of a third Happy Death Day movie. Is there any update on where that stands?
No, no updates there. Just zero movement all together. So I don’t know. It feels like it’s probably never going to happen, but I mean, look, you can never say never.
Yeah, fingers crossed that something more positive happens there. One of the first movie I saw that you wrote was Disturbia and that movie has really endured over time and is still so beloved. So looking back at that, how do you kind of view the legacy of that movie and how it’s been able to just keep on going all these years later?
It’s such a good film. I’m really proud of that film. I’m proud of everybody who worked on the film, from the director D.J. [Caruso] to Shia [LaBeouf] and everyone involved, and it’s really nice when a movie that you worked on is able to kind of endure and last and keep finding an audience. So it’s always fun for me. Look, it’s a classic story. It’s sort of Hitchcock by way of John Hughes, and that, for me, still feels like a formula that you can’t go wrong with. So I love it.