Stine’s Goosebumps sent shivers down the spines of young readers - Jack Black tells Gemma Dunn he hopes the movie will do the same
Jack Black has worked with American film director Rob Letterman twice before, on 2004’s Shark Tale and 2010’s Gulliver’s Travels - but it’s a case of ‘third time lucky’ with their latest collaboration, Goosebumps, which Black says is “by far the best yet”.
With more than 400 million copies in print, R.L. Stine’s scary kids’ books series is one of the biggest book franchises of all time, capturing the imaginations of readers all around the world. This is the first time any of the Nineties literary phenomenon has been adapted for the big screen though, combining dozens of Stine’s most famous creations into one hilariously spine-tingling movie.
At the centre of the film is Jack Black, as the author. On creating his unique character, the playful actor explains: “I read the script a few times and I felt like the character needed to look and sound different than me - it couldn’t be like the dude from School Of Rock is now the writer R.L. Stine.
“It needed to be a character that I haven’t played before, someone with a little more gravitas; a respected writer. So I worked on his voice, and I decided to give him a little bit of an Orson Welles-ian accent. Refined. I wanted him to be someone with a taste for the finer things.”
Making his mark as one of the most versatile talents in Hollywood, Black’s scruffy-yet-loveable persona has seen him portray everything from a comedian-actor drug addict in Tropic Thunder to Kate Winslet’s unlikely love interest in romantic-comedy The Holiday.
“I like to play characters, to get behind the facade. When I get into an accent or a character that’s different from me, it frees me up to do things I wouldn’t normally do,” he explains.
But the 46-year-old, who lives with his wife Tanya and two sons in LA, admits he was pleased to receive Stine’s approval prior to filming.
“Stine loved the script from the beginning; he’s a funny guy with a dry wit and he understood that I wasn’t going to be doing an imitation of him. It was going to be a more sinister version for dramatic reasons, and he was fine with that. He said, ‘Do whatever you want’.”
The most important pointer, Black recalls, was the author’s insistence that it “should be scary but it shouldn’t be terrifying, so as to not traumatise children”.
So would he class it as a film for all the family?
“It’s not as scary as The Shining; it’s like thrilling scary - and funny scary, like Ghostbusters,” insists Black.
“I should say that my kids are seven and nine years old and they loved it, but maybe don’t bring the little tiny ones. And if you do, when you see the poodle, cover their eyes because the poodle is scary, weirdly,” he teases, thrusting his head back in laughter.
Confessing to having a low scare threshold, the actor, who also forms one half of American rock duo Tenacious D, puts Slappy - Stine’s ventriloquist dummy - down as the most terrifying of all.
“I was thinking about this. There’s something about dolls, or doll parts, when you see them out of context...”
The film-makers created many of Stine’s creatures out of make-up and special effects - in some cases using CGI.
Leading the way as the chief villain is the aforementioned Slappy, who in the film passes as Stine’s alter ego and the mastermind behind the evil plot. Joining the dummy, among others, are The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, The Blob from The Blob That Ate Everyone, and Vampire Poodle from Please Don’t Feed the Vampire!
Which is Black’s favourite? “Slappy, of course,” he retorts. “And the bug-eyed aliens or the bog monster. The bog monster is a swamp thing, but from the right angle, it looks just like a butt. Can we call it the butt monster?”
In addition to the creatures, teaming up with Black is a trio of young up-and-coming actors: Dylan Minnette as Zach, Odeya Rush as Hannah, and Ryan Lee as Champ.
The plot sees teenager Zach, upset about moving from a big city to the small, fictional town of Madison, find a silver lining when he meets Hannah and makes a quick friend in Champ. But every silver lining has a cloud, and he soon learns that Hannah’s mysterious dad is in fact R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series.
Zach discovers that Stine holds a dangerous secret: the creatures that his stories made famous are real, and he protects his readers by keeping them locked up in their books. When the creations are unintentionally released, it’s up to the foursome to team up and save the town.
“We auditioned hundreds of kids, and they were by far the best,” Black says of the young recruits. “While we were shooting, it was great, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie that I got a little lump in my throat from the emotion at the end. I had to hold back a couple of man tears.”
Owning up to never having read the book series - “I was a little too old, because they were popular in the Nineties and by then, I was in college and all about Nirvana” - the California-born star welcomed the opportunity to do something a little more sinister.
“I love these kinds of movies and characters; it’s a part I was born to play but have never had the chance to.”
While he’s thrilled to have explored new ground, however, don’t expect Black to hang up his comedy hat any time soon (“It doesn’t feel right if there’s no comedy; it feels like I’m in the wrong movie”).
Soon to be keeping him busy is a TV project with the creator of US kids’ TV show You Gabba Gabba!
“I produced an episode of the show and then kept a relationship with the creator. He’s silly in the same way as me, so we’re starting a new show that’s for slightly older kids. A bit like Johnny Carson but for kids. It’s a funny concept - a combination of music and comedy. That’s my thing,” says Black.
March will see him reprise his role as the voice of Po in DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 3 - but this in-demand talent has more pressing jobs in the pipeline...
“My nine-year-old is into directing right now,” Black explains. “He has an idea for a movie he wants to direct, and he has a part he wants me to play. I have to say yes.”
:: Goosebumps is released on Friday, February 5