We Have a Ghost
We Have a Ghost, featuring my latest score, recently debuted on Netflix as the number one film on the platform. The movie tells story of a teenage boy named Kevin who befriends a ghost named Ernest, before they become social media sensations and targets of the CIA. After Happy Death Day, Happy Death Day 2U, and Freaky, We Have a Ghost marks my fourth collaboration with writer / direction Christopher Landon.
With each of his films, Landon discovered uniquely personal ways to combine horror, comedy, and emotion. I was fortunate to sit down with Landon to discuss his approach to filmmaking, his influences, and how he uses music to help craft his unique genre-blending cinematic style.
BEAR McCREARY: You have a way of taking horror, comedy and emotion and blending them in a way that’s so skillful and so personal.Your movies all feel like a creation from your mind. Is this just a byproduct of who you are, or did you think about that from movie to movie?
CHRISTOPHER LANDON: I think it was an evolution, like as your personal life evolves. The big catalyst was marriage and fatherhood. I think those two those two things dragged me out of my dark place that I had existed in creatively for a long time.You know, I found the humor in other work, but there was a certain cynicism and an edge to a lot of the stuff that I did prior to Happy Death Day. It was just a big turning point for me. It was discovering a different capacity for love, wanting to share that feeling with other people, but do it in a vessel that felt safe and familiar to me, which has always been horror.
BM: Horror? How did that happen?
CL: It’s funny because horror started as my happy place as a kid, watching horror movies with my dad, that was our thing.My parents were divorced, so like Friday to Sunday, it was a steady diet of violence and craziness in movies. He knew he was not supposed to show me this stuff. He knew my mom would freak out, but he also kind of wanted to be the cool dad and also loved it because he was such a genre fan.It was a lot of Carpenter at first, like Halloween, and The Fog, which absolutely scared the shit out of me. And then it got more intense, we graduated to The Exorcist. But I’m six, right?
There was a code of conduct that I knew had to be maintained in order for me to be able to continue to watch these movies. And so I was essentially living a double life. I would spend the weekends with my dad, and then I would go home to like my born-again Christian mom’s house and then have to hide all this stuff. But, I would have horrible nightmares. And she didn’t really understand what was going on. And then she started to do room searches and find horror contraband. She caught on to it and tried to shut it down. But it was too late!
BM: Your fate was sealed! So, I see your path into horror. But, after you got married and became a father, it seems like your films took a more emotional turn. Where did that influence come from?
CL: Right, so there’s one very big missing ingredient here. At a young age, while I was secretly watching all those horror films with my dad, I would also secretly go into my mom’s room and steal her VHS tapes and watch, obsessively, over and over again, movies like Terms of Endearment, and The Color Purple.I would watch these movies and just soband sob. I was so drawn to them and didn’t understand why I liked to cry.
As I reflect on it now, I’m think it makes sense. All of these things were cathartic for me. There wasn’t a single filmmaker making what I would call, sort of, “emotional horror.” I had equally strong influences from Sam Raimi to James L. Brooks. They were so vastly separated that I think I was trying to figure out how to jam those together.
BM: So, how does one go about jamming those two influences together?
CL: I think Happy Death Day was sort of like a proof of concept for me. And when it succeeded, both at the box office but more importantly with fans, people really connected with this movie and this character. I was able to kind of deconstruct this final girl trope and have this character who starts out really messy and unpleasant and we watch her evolve into a better person, but also giving this character a tonof agency. This was all important to me because I had grown up on a steady diet of “girl gets chased running through the woods” horror films.
I doubled down again on Happy Death Day 2U, with you again, and I thought I’m really going to make this about grief, now because I touched on it in the first movie.But, now I’m going to just say, okay, here it is. This is how I feel about it.
BM: As challenging and satisfying as the first film was, in scoring Happy Death Day 2U, I was surprised at how lovingly we embraced even more emotion, more sadness, and simultaneously more comedy, and more adventure. It was a tightrope act!
CL: What I love about you and working with you is that you also understand all these influences, and how you push all these things together. You’re always the glue, if I’m being honest. I don’t think any of these movies succeed without you.
BM: It is true that my movie diet growing up was wildly diverse, like yours. I watched dramas, science fiction, horror, fantasy, and obsessed over all of it. I feel like I can switch gears quickly because I have a concrete understanding of what those composers did in those various genres.And one thing they all did was create something bold and memorable that the listener can really sink their teeth into.
CL: I remember when you first started scoring Happy Death Day, one of the things that struck me the most, and why I knew it was going to work, and why it was so perfect, was when you introduced your daughter’s voice into the score.And how you played with that. I was like, this is a guy who puts himself, literally like his own family, into the movie! That was awesome.
BM: Well, Sonatine was barely a toddler at that point, and she had this hushed little voice, and I couldn’t resist digitally manipulating her words to create something creepy.
CL: What inspired you to do that, though? I don’t even think I know.
BM: It’s so stupid! [laughs] So many of my best ideas are actually so simple they’re dumb. The idea to use a baby voice in the score came from the baby mask, Chris.The killer’s baby mask had this horrible little baby face. Also, the killer didn’t speak, so I thought the score could provide the voice. So, I literally used my own baby’s voice to speak on behalf of the baby-faced killer. Is that clever? Or just so obvious it’s stupid? Either way, I’m glad it worked!
CL: That’s so funny. Well, I think it’s iconic. For me, now it’s up there with *chh chh chh haa haa haa*.
BM: Well, Friday the 13th was absolutely the inspiration! I love using simple sonic signifiers in horror, as you hear in Carpenter’s Halloween, Spielberg’s Jaws, or in the inspired use of “Tubular Bells” in The Exorcist. I leaned on that influence again when I worked with you on Freaky, which in some ways is a traditional 1980’s slasher film at heart, just turned on its head with this really cool concept and surprisingly emotional characters.
CL: I did feel there was a confidence that I think was emerging in the work, confidence in blending these genres. Like, I have permission to do it now and now I can really go for it. With the Happy Death Day movies I had that PG-13 constraint, which works for those films. But, with Freaky, having a green light to go back to my gory childhood roots and really just be ridiculous and over-the-top violent, it was way too fun.
BM: When we were working on Freaky, I thought it was the most ambitious blend we had tackled yet. It was made even more complex by having to do the entire post-production remotely, as it was the start of the pandemic. These days, I think we’re all used to that process, but back then, it was a tough adjustment, especially for me. I’m so used to working closely with you, I felt isolated in my studio as I was trying to crack the code on this complex new movie. But, at the end of the experience, Freaky is one of the most fun movies I’ve ever worked on. I’m glad it’s finally found an audience, despite a rough launch during the pandemic at a time when nobody knew how to release a film into theaters. We came out in November of 2020, right?
CL: Freaky was a bit of a double-edged sword in that. On one hand, yes, I felt such excitement around the movie, the fan reaction was overwhelmingly positive. And the critical response to the movie was wildly popular, especially for this kind of a movie. But it was the release of it that was the major disappointment for me. Just because it was clearly a sacrificial lamb, you know? The studio was painfully aware that it was the worst possible time to release it. We were in the middle of our second COVID wave. And who the fuck was going to a movie theater?I mean, I went because it was my movie, but I mean, my God, sitting in a movie theater with two masks on, with people sitting at least ten seats apart from each other. I was like “how is this ever going to be considered a success?”
I was really bummed out because I had begged for them to push it and to kind of circle the wagons and wait, but that just wasn’t going to happen. And of course, we were the perfect movie for them to try this out with because we were inexpensive.And so that side of it was really painful and frustrating. But, it’s also been really nice because as the years have passed, I’ve seen more and more people find their way to the movie and love it.
BM: I’ve seen the same. The movie has this infectious joy beneath all the gore and the kills. I think it was the intense violence in Freaky that made me so surprised when I read your script to We Have a Ghost. Here, instead of looking to the horror classics of the late 1970’s, it seems like you made your most family friendly film to date. The film evokes a classic 1980’s Amblin sensibility. What inspired you to explore this tone?
CL: I read the short story (“Ernest,” by Geoff Manaugh) and it felt like it was clearly engineered in my brain to be a love letter to my childhood and to Amblin. I saw that so clearly. I was so taken by the complicated relationship presented in the short story between Kevin and his father, Frank. At that point in time, I had one kid and another on the way, and I really started to wrestle with my past and my future. I carried a lot of stuff around about my dad, most of it good, but some resentment as well.And as I became a father myself I realized this is a little bit harder than I expected, and realized that I had a lot more forgiveness in my heart for the mistakes that he made as a parent. I wanted to kind of tackle that in an entertaining way, which is how I always try to wrestle with my stuff.
BM: I became a father, myself, eight years ago, and so these themes really resonated with me as well.
CL: That is part of growing up.You start to see your parents not as these mythic creatures that you worship, but as flawed human beings. And I didn’t get to really have that resolution with my dad because he died when I was sixteen. So, he was still mostly mythic to me. And then his death made him even more of a mythic figure to me.And it was only in my adult life where I really started to examine and unpack a lot of stuff.
BM: Having just watched the film with my family, I can say that my daughter absolutely loved it, and yet I think I was more profoundly moved. There really is something for everyone in the film, and what I appreciate is how heartfelt the emotion is. It’s not cynical, like so many modern films tend to be. It doesn’t undercut every emotional beat with comedy.
CL: Yeah. It is also a bit of a generational thing: the earnestness of the movie, pun intended, wearing your heart on your sleeve. It’s something now I often find younger audiences struggle with because they’re just not used to it. They didn’t have those movies because of what you just described. There’s a certain kind of emotional armor that gets put on a lot of these movies today. And so I feel like a lot of these kids growing up haven’t really been given permission to feel those feels.
BM: Truly. The movies we grew up, particularly the Spielberg films, like E.T. and Jurassic Park, are celebrated for their spectacle, but the majority of their runtime is all character work. That emotional build up invests you in the characters and makes the spectacle better when it arrives.
CL: And I think their world today is more cynical.I think the world for younger audiences now has become so divided and so cynical that it’s hard for them to open up and lean into the heart of something. I think about movies like E.T., which was obviously a big influence for this movie, and how audiences would react today. I saw E.T. in the Cinerama Dome when I was a kid on opening weekend. And I remember standing in line outside waiting to get in and the theater doors opened and the previous audience came out and these kids were sobbing, openly weeping.And I thought, oh, my God, it’s like a fucking death chamber in there! What are they doing to those kids? I got scared!We went in and I remember watching the movie and literally not being able to breathe because I was crying so hard.
I think Spielberg was very much in touch with that inner child, you know? And I think I weirdly tried to stay in touch with mine because I was still trying to, like, heal him. And so I do it a lot in the work. I think that’s why I make this stuff as personal as I do.
BM: You can’t talk about how E.T. influenced without acknowledging what John Williams brought to the film. He was a massive influence on my life. How does music fit into your toolkit for crafting a movie?
CL: Every filmmaker I know uses music as the ultimate creative weapon, the ultimate tool. I don’t think there’s a bigger one in your arsenal. And so, for me, from the get go I build a playlist, start building my own soundtrack. A lot of it is score and a lot of it is just needle drop stuff that evokes a certain feeling. A lot of what I put in my playlists from the early part of the process ends up in the final movie. Sometimes I vacillate between some version of temp love where some temp music we tracked in works really well, but then I’m also just dropping shit in and having no fucking clue what I’m doing, weirdly. And what I love about you is then you come along and you’ll talk about the emotionality of a moment and then it just suddenly can pivot. And my brain understands it better. Sometimes I’m embarrassed because I’m like, oh fuck, I wrote it and then I directed it and I actually don’t know it as well as I thought I did until Bear comes along and says, “but this is actually what you’re trying to do.”
Like, remember in We Have A Ghost, we were struggling so hard for so long for that last little dreamy montage? And it was you that was finally like, “we’re just beating the shit out of this when you just want everything to get stripped back.” It was one of those epiphany moments.
BM: It’s interesting that you say that because one of the things that I love about working in film is that the film starts to become alive. It tells you what it wants. My mentor Elmer Bernstein used to say that all the time, but it took me a decade or two in the business to really understand how deep it goes.
CL: The film is a living, magical thing. Same with the script. That’s usually the most common piece of advice I give other writers. People always ask me what I do when I hit a roadblock. I always say it’s the story pushing back. I describe it like a living organism, and it’s pushing you away from whatever that thing is.It doesn’t want to go that way. So, you’ve got to figure your way out of it in another direction. There are many parallels between writing the music for the movie and writing the actual movie.
BM: It’s a very it’s a very humbling process, honestly. Sure, there are some ideas that come up quickly, like we mentioned me recording my daughter in Happy Death Day. Most of the time, though, a score is crafted through multiple drafts and exploration. Almost like sculpting, like you’re just chiseling away. Do you feel that way?
CL: I do feel that way. And I think that this movie in particular, We Have a Ghost, was a really interesting one. We were trying to find a theme for each character. Then we realized that Kevin and Ernest needed to share one theme, because they’re really the emotional core of the movie.
BM: And that was just the start! The score really needed to expand and evolve as we follow Kevin’s journey with Ernest. And we travel through a broad comedy, coming of age drama, gothic horror, CIA thriller, science fiction, and a road picture. Did you ever have any fears that the score wouldn’t be able to make all these genres gel?
CL: If an audience is on an emotional journey a character they relate to, you really can take them anywhere. And if you have a score that is reflecting that journey, if those two elements are together lockstep, I think anything is possible in terms of mashing up genres. Of course, everything matters. The costumes, the art direction, the cinematography. But, I have a very soft spot for the music. I think I have an overwhelming appreciation for music because I know what it’s doing. I know the work it’s doing. And I think it works harder than any other element in a film.
BM: I always love working with you because the music gets to go all these different directions. The challenge for me, though, is making sure the core of the score is a simple, elegant idea that the audience can latch on to. That what makes it so challenging.
CL: The Kevin / Ernest Theme you wrote was so beautiful and simple. I really didn’t understand the potential fullness of the theme until we got to the end of the movie. And then you played that for me that for the first time, and it was like my head, my heart, just blew up.
My proudest moments are when I let someone else on the team stretch. My favorite lines of dialog in the movie are always the ones that were improvised. My favorite thing about the work that we do is when you show up and just blow my mind. I listen to that theme a trillion times now because it’s so good and so moving. That is the magic of the process, the surprises that other people present.
BM: I feel the same way with the musicians I work with, with the people on my team. I always strive to surround myself with people that are so good at what they do that it makes me better at what I do.
CL: And that collaborative process is amazing. By the way, I could easily detour us now, geek out and talk about your collaboration with Fiona Apple…
BM: Oh, okay, I wasn’t planning on talking about The Lord of the Rings, but let’s do it!
CL: God, I’m so floored by that because she, in my mind, is the holy grail of artists. Someone who just doesn’t do shit unless she really wants to. When you released that song (“Where the Shadows Lie”) I was like “What the fuck? How did this happen?” I listened again and again and again. It’s haunting, moody and gorgeous. And her voice fit perfectly. It felt fated, like this had to happen.
BM: It was a dream come true on so many levels. If you could have told me in 2001, “hey man, in twenty years you’re going to work with Fiona Apple on The Lord of the Rings,” my head would’ve exploded!
CL: Our lives are so crazy. Do you get to slow down and appreciate those moments?
BM: Those moments are fleeting. Yeah, I value them, you’re always on to the next thing. Speaking of which, I know you’ve got to get back to the next thing. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this, man.
CL: This was so fun. I love getting to just even hang out and talk with you!
I want to thank Christopher Landon for not only taking the time to do this interview, but for the years of inspired collaboration. I have learned a lot about filmmaking from him and have had a delightful experience each time.
Crafting a score takes a village, and so I would love to take a moment to also thank just a few of the many individuals without whom the soundtrack to We Have a Ghost would never have made it to the finish line. I want to thank my entire support team at Sparks & Shadows, especially my cadre of brilliant composers who contributed additional music, Etienne Monsaingeon, Omer Ben-Zvi, Brian Claeys, Bailey Gordon, Sam Ewing, Jesse Hartov, Corey Wallace, and Alexandre Cote. I also would like to thank my brother, Brendan McCreary, who served as a guitar coach for Jahi Di’Allo Winston, and performed his guitar parts for the film. I also want to thank other S&S folks who made this possible, including Marisa Gunzenhauser, Kelsey Woods, Hannah Lustine, Pierre-André Rigoll, Dayna Ambrosio, Andrew Harris, and Jacob Moss. Thanks to Ryan Sanchez for the killer mix, orchestral conductors Péter Illényi and Márton Tóth, the orchestral musicians and singers in Budapest, music editor Michael Baber, picture editor Ben Baudhuin for all his musical ideas and support, my friends at Tutti Music Partners for music prep help, and to orchestrators Jamie Thierman, Sean Barrett, and Benjamin Hoff, with support from Jennifer Dirkes, Steven Rader, and Jacob Shrum. The soundtrack album came together thanks to Joe Augustine at Sparks & Shadows and our partners at Netflix, and I would like to thank everyone at Kraft Engel Management for their support.
Look for the soundtrack, available now, at your favorite streaming platform. We Have a Ghost is streaming on Netflix now.