We know it’s a bad idea for teens to play with Ouija boards, install friending apps, or say Bloody Mary in front of a mirror. And they definitely should not play truth or dare! I mean, haven’t we all seen this movie? “A seemingly harmless game of truth or dare turns deadly when someone — or something — begins to punish those who tell a lie or refuse a dare.”
Yeah, it’s not the most original plotline. But it’s what’s done with that simple idea, and how it’s pushed to the limit, that really counts. Fortunately, director Jeff Wadlow (Kick-Ass 2, Cry Wolf, and my personal favorite: Never Back Down) didn’t take Truth or Dare on as just another humdrum horror flick – he put a lot of creativity and thought into how to twist a tried and true tale into something truly suspenseful and entertaining.
We got the chance to sit down with Wadlow at the L.A. press junket, where he told us some truths about the making of Blumhouse’s latest thriller.
Truth or Dare will scare theaters this Friday, April 13.
Dread Central: You’re better-known for directing action movies (with the exception of Cry Wolf) so, how’d you come onto Truth or Dare?
Jeff Wadlow: The way I got involved in the movie was I had a general meeting with Jason Blum and he said to me, ‘Would you be interested in making a movie called Truth or Dare?’ I said ‘Sure, do you have a script?’ and he said ‘No!’ I said ‘Do you have a story or a book or anything?’ and he said ‘No! Just a title.’ I said ‘well, what if this is the opening scene’ – and I pitched him almost verbatim, the opening scene of our movie which is the gas station scene of Giselle and she sets the woman on fire. He said ‘That’s amazing, what happens next?’ and I said ‘I don’t know, I just made that up!’ And he engaged me to work on it, so I called up my friend Chris Roach who wrote Non-Stop – the Liam Neeson airplane movie for me, that I produced – he was writing with his wife Jill Jacobs, so the three of us got together and I decided to approach it the same way Carlton Cuse, the executive producer of “Lost” approaches a TV show. I worked with him recently on “Bates Motel” and final season of “The Strain” and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to write a movie that way.’ Sort of a writer’s room approach. And so the three of us broke it down and pitched different ideas and wrote scenes on little cards and worked up a light board until we had a solid grasp on the movie and started writing scenes and passing them back and forth and then I did a final polish on the script and I handed it in and Jason green lighted it.
DC: I can see that. Each character actually has a lot of backstory that’s revealed little by little.
JW: Even when we were working on the script, I had this strong feeling I did not want to make a movie where the characters were place holders for death sequences – created just to see them die. And so we wanted to make sure on the page that the characters were multi-dimensional and that they had past and histories and different kinds of relationships with people in the film. We wanted them to be like real people you wanted to spend time with. And fortunately, when we cast the film, we only heightened that notion by getting great actors that were able to realize what was on the page and then add a whole other level, add more layers to the character. We really took our time casting the movie. Lucy Hale got involved quite early, but she loved the script so much she wanted to come in and audition and she did and she just blew us out of the room. Then we spent months looking for other actors and really just took our time and made sure we found the right people for each part. And actually, initially, Tyler Posey wasn’t even available, but I took so long to cast the movie, that as we were getting to the end of the process, he became available. And I met with him and thought he was great. He epitomized what I wanted from Lucas which was a young man who was strong but also vulnerable and he was perfect for the part.
DC: Truth or Dare is PG-13. But you do push the boundaries pretty far. Not with gore so much, but there’s a lot of drinking and sex. Teens are likely the main audience for the movie, so… how did you manage to toe the line or staying PG13 and yet making it edgy and enticing to horror fans?
JW: As a film fan, on a gut level I know what an R rated and PG13 movie is. I always conceived this as a PG13 movie because when it comes to scary films I prefer the implied to the explicit. I’m much more a fan of a Hichcockian horror film than a sort of in your face, torture porn horror film. I guess you would almost say they’re more suspense or thriller films really at their core. I think that’s certainly true of Cry Wolf, my first horror film and I think you could also say that’s true when you look at Truth or Dare. So, I just knew this was going to be a PG13 movie. In Kick Ass 2, one of the points of that movie, you may think it’s fun to fight crime but it’s actually really intense, scary and violence is not fun, it’s gory and overwhelming, so we need to show it. Whereas Truth or Dare is fun. It’s a party game. So, I didn’t want to show a lot of gore. It didn’t feel like the right choice for the film. I always intended it to be PG13, that being said, this is show business, and I know as a person who makes movies for large audiences, who want to buy tickets to see his films, to push it. If I’m going to make a rated R movie, it needs to be a hard R. If I make a PG13 movie, to be a hard PG13, otherwise people are going to be somehow cheated. So I designed the movie to be intense and there are a couple of details that the MPAA bristled at and I made sure I had backup plans. I shot the scene in a way where I could cut away or show you a different angle, imply it somehow off camera and make sure I got that PG13. That being said, what’s been great working with Jason and Universal, when they came back and said can you do a different version of this film where you use some more of that material, that didn’t make the final cut, for a video release, and I actually just finished that.
DC: You’re better-known for your action films. But Truth or Dare is a mix of action and then there’s a fair amount of dialogue, and quiet moments of fear. Do you have a preference for the types of scenes to get in there and direct?
JW: I love it all, I love it all for different reasons. I like directing a dialogue scene with really clever lines and great actors and really getting into it and talking about the subtext, where you mean this line and how it could mean something else. I would say that’s inherently more collaborative. But I also love directing action sequences and suspense sequences and jump scares because that really allows me to flex my muscles as a visual story teller and it’s much more about what do I want to do and what I want to see. It’s still collaborative, I work with my DP and stunt co-ordinator but it’s much more about my vision for the scene, whereas when I work on a dialogue heavy scene, I like to really let the actors own it and be a part of it. I don’t like to do line readings and tell an actor how to play a scene. I like to tell them what my intention is, what the result might be them going for but I like to allow them some freedom in the scene. So, I love both.
DC: Your DP [Jacques Jouffret] did a great job on making the audience feel like a part of the action sometimes, yet there are also some really nicely-composed cinematic passages as well. What was the collaboration process with him?
JW: I have worked with him before. He was my A camera operator on Never Back Down. But honestly, what you just described, it perfectly defines how I shoot scenes, how I approach them. I don’t storyboard entire scenes unless it’s a really complicated sequence like the roof, I did storyboard that. By and large, I don’t really storyboard too much of my film. What I like to do though, is I like to have kind of an iconic image – sort of just a moment or an idea for a composition and I make sure I get that, but then I build the rest of the scene outwards, organically. I let the actors do what feels natural and I try to cover it in a way that gives it an immediacy that you feel that you’re just there witnessing it. I don’t want to feel too much artifice. I don’t want to feel the puppet strings. That being said, I don’t want to do it just like a documentary. I often will have a key composition in mind that I’m trying to hit. A perfect example of that, in the bar scene when the girl that Ronnie is talking to, turns away from him and walks toward the camera, that was a moment I knew I was going to get. Her face big in the screen, I wanted us to see the smile come across her face and Ronnie not to see it. For him to be in the background continuing to talk and I knew that was the hero composition for that scene but I just allowed the rest of it to evolve organically.
DC: That sinister smile seen throughout the film is pretty disconcerting. How’d that come about?
JW: It was sort of a confluence of several things. I knew that I wasn’t going to have a Freddy or a Jason, that there was going to be a singular antagonist in this movie that ultimately the antagonists were going to be the friends, because that’s what happens in the real game truth or dare. We were going to do this possession thing. And what is the possession going to look like – evolved from the milky eye, evolved from the black eye, what can I do that’s different. Well, the game is inherently mischievous, [so] let’s make sure the look has some mischief to it. Then I started thinking about Snapchat filters. I find them really disturbing – they kind of freak me out and I don’t like it, it’s unsettling – so I thought, ‘Okay, I should use something like that.’ And then, I would draw this evil smile – I doodle all the time and that’s one thing, I’ve been drawing since high school – and so I thought maybe I could use this. And I started thinking about that Sound Garden video from the 90s Black Hole Sun where the face is distorted and it all sort of came together. I guess the final thing I would say about this, is after we finished the movie, I showed it to an audience for the first time, they liked it, and I was in the lobby and I was talking to Jason Blum about it and I was happy and I was smiling and a woman who had seen the movie walks by me and she pointed and said, ‘Oh my god there’s the smile, it’s your smile, it’s your smile!’ So I guess it’s maybe a kind of, I don’t know, self-portrait going on as well.