‘We Have a Ghost’ Filmmaker Christopher Landon on His Father Michael

After writing five “Paranormal Activity” movies, directing one (2014’s “The Marked Ones”), and creating inventive new mythologies with “Happy Death Day” and “Freaky,” “We Have a Ghost” is a decidedly different kind of horror project from filmmaker Christopher Landon: you know, for kids. To be more accurate, it’s for families — the kind of story that’s not just scary, but funny, and heartfelt as well, like “E.T the Extra-Terrestrial” and other Amblin movies of the 1980s. “They showed kids in peril and that the world is a dark place, but that you come out on the other side of it,” Landon tells Variety.

“We Have a Ghost,” which premieres Feb. 24 on Netflix, was also made for Landon’s own family — not simply his two boys, who are slowly advancing to the age where they can start watching his more terrifying creations, but his late father, actor Michael Landon, who passed away in 1991 at age 54. Now 47, Landon talks about his latest project in the context of his relationship both as a son and as a father himself, and as his pedigree as a horror storyteller deepens, reflects on the kinds of projects he hopes to put out into the world.

“We Have a Ghost” seems to exemplify a more personal approach to horror storytelling than “Paranormal Activity,” Freaky” or some other things you did in the past.

Absolutely. What I was most drawn to, starting with the short story, was this opportunity to explore the relationships between fathers and sons and how complicated those relationships can be. And I lost my dad when I was 16, so I didn’t get to have any of those man-to-man conversations with him. And for me, this was an opportunity to really look under the hood and talk about how sometimes parenthood can be complicated and disappointing and frustrating, and that dads are just people at the end of the day.

That’s really what we look at here, especially when Kevin really just starts to see that his dad is just a bit of a fuck-up. It wasn’t necessarily there in the short story, but it was something that I really wanted to look at, while also still making a fun family friendly movie as well, which was another thing that was top of mind — because I have kids of my own now, and I do start to think about what kinds of things I want to put out into the world.

Was there a relationship, whether it was yours with your father from when you were an adolescent, that you you drew upon?

I definitely drew from some personal stuff. I think like the Anthony Mackie character, my dad [Michael Landon] was very charming and outgoing and could be in his own way, a little manipulative, and did make huge mistakes. And as a kid I deified him — he was larger than life, like I think most kids look at their parents and especially their fathers. But I didn’t get my realization that he was a fallible human being until after he died. And that really didn’t pull focus until I became a father. And I started to see things that I was doing and going, “Oh God, no.” And that’s what I really drew from to shape and mold the Frank character. In the short story, he’s very much the focus of the short story, but he is kind of a dick. But I didn’t want him to be a bad guy. I wanted him to be a person who was trying to do the right thing, but going about it the wrong way and always trying take the shortcut. And I’ve known other Franks in my life, and no one ever thinks they’re the bad guy. And that was something else that I really drew a lot from.

Are there any of Frank’s foibles in the movie that you specifically chose in order to put under a magnifying glass for yourself to exorcise it from your own behaviors?

There isn’t anything too specific, but I think the slippery slope is when you trick yourself into believing that what you’re doing is for them and not for you. And I think that’s a really easy thing to do. As a director, I really sometimes struggle with the fact that my job requires me to leave my family for extended periods of time. I have two little boys. And it’s tough because it disrupts their lives, and I don’t get to see them as much as I want to. And I often think, would I be better off just being a writer and staying home and being more present in their lives that way? And then I tell myself, “But I’m doing it for them.” But then I stop and I go, but “Wait, I’m doing it for me because I love this and I want this so badly.” There’s a little bit of that in there, but hopefully, not to the degree that Frank takes it, which is clearly, he’s very, very, very selfish and ego driven.

You have this significant pedigree in telling horror or horror themed stories. What are things you learned about the mechanics of horror storytelling that you were able to pivot or manipulate here in a funnier, more family-themed way?

In the first 10 minutes of the film, I’m wearing my horror tropes on my sleeve, and I lean into almost the cliche idea of a haunted house. A family buys a house they shouldn’t be able to afford, but of course it’s a steal because nobody else wants it, and there’s a history… and you do all the things. I have the classic “Changeling” moment with the red ball rolling between Kevin’s feet, et cetera. And I really did want to mislead the audience to not just go, oh, we’re watching a horror movie, but also we’re watching a terribly familiar one, so that they’re rolling their eyes, until we have Ernest [the ghost] pop out — and he’s not very good at scaring people. He’s done this for so long and it worked before, because these were families that lived in a pre-“Conjuring,” pre-COVID, pre-all of it, and that for me is the moment that the needle scratches the record, and then I finally get to announce to the audience, this is actually the movie that you’re going to see. And I was able to draw on an old bag of tricks and a lot of horror experience. And it was fun to be able to do that and still play with other things as we go along throughout the film too. There’s some other set pieces where I get to fold in some of that old horror stuff, but it’s really obviously in the service of having fun.

There are some interesting parallels in the film between the living relationships and the dead-undead ones, which remind viewers there’s an element of tragedy and sadness to stories about ghosts. Since here you want to explore a fun or more upbeat version of these tropes, how did you navigate that balance?

At the end of the day, I knew that I wanted the movie to be about serious things like connection and loss and trauma, and ultimately reconciliation. And the Kevin character was great because he is an old soul who feels like he’s living in the wrong time. He’s not your average teenager. He’s not phone obsessed and TikTok obsessed, and he loves old music and vintage clothes and just is a different person, but he is also a kid that is very unseen by his father, by his brother, by his peers. And he’s very much a ghost in his own way — so of course, he connects with this broken spirit that he shares a kinship with. And it’s a counterbalance to the Frank and Fulton relationship because those two are so in lockstep and so similar, which makes Kevin feel even more like an outsider in his own home. And that was where I wanted to play with things.

But ultimately, and I have done this with “Freaky” and “Happy Death Day,” especially “Happy Death Day 2U” where I Trojan horse, these heavy, dramatic themes into movies that are built to be fun. Because I do think it’s a really powerful way to suck the audience in, engage them, make them fall in love with the characters, and then you bring out the other stuff that’s going to make them feel. That’s something that I’ve really tried to hone and focus on with my work is that I don’t want it to just be brainless, disposable stuff. And I’m also really tired of what I see is a pretty pervasive cynicism in cinema now. I think people are afraid to take that armor off and be a little bit vulnerable and emotional. And I grew up on movies that weren’t afraid to do it — I talk a lot about “E.T.” as an example, and I don’t think that there are enough movies that aim at this particular demographic that do that. It’s something that I really wanted for the movie, and it’s why I go to those emotional places, and I try to get to them later so they feel earned.

This movie really embraces the social media era where something can become memeified and generate a little bit of a tempest in a teacup of attention. That feels like a bit of a risk for filmmakers now, because it’s so of the moment that you run the risk of dating your film before it even comes out.

I wasn’t worried about any of that, because if you’re going to tell a story about a family that finds a ghost in their house, then you’re obligated to tell the story about the character who picks up their phone and records it and posts it — because that is the reality. That is where we are, and that’s probably where we’re going to be for some time. And then of course, once you do that, you are telling the story of a family that is becoming overnight famous, because that is also what happens. These things were just dominoes that naturally fell, narratively speaking. But in terms of the social media montage in the movie, that’s obviously doing the heavy lifting of the quick and easy, heavy lifting of, “Okay, now they’re famous.” But also, it was an opportunity to both lampoon and also credibly show what I think would probably happen in a situation like this. And I guess the sad part is that the lampooning is easy because it’s baked into it.

The escalation of this story builds to a literal life and death chase where there are some genuinely violent elements. How challenging was it to make sure that that it built realistically to something that was meaningful, even after taking the air out of a lot of horror conventions, and what was it like working with Netflix as you’re juggling a lot of ambitious ideas?

The balance is always really one of tone, because I’m moving through a lot of different genre spaces as I go through the film. I really rely on the main character and their journey to get us through all this stuff, and I always feel like if the audience is really locked into that person and they want to go along with them, they’ll go anywhere. And Netflix was super supportive of the big swings that the movie takes with this third act finale that gets pretty dark and not terribly family friendly in that way. But again, the movies that I grew up on also did that — they still showed kids in peril and that the world is a dark place, but that you come out on the other side of it. This movie was set up with Legendary at first, and at a certain point they came to me and said, “We really love the script, and we think you’ve gotten it to a great place. We just don’t think we can get it made.” And I was so grateful that Netflix was willing to take a chance on it, and that they do look for stuff that is a little bit left of center, because I think this kind of movie would never have gotten made probably at a traditional studio.

You started your career with a lot of LGBT-themed stories. How much does that continue to be a priority for you, given the success that you’ve had in telling stories that do not focus on that subject, directly or indirectly?

It’s very case by case dependent in what the movie is and what the project is. On “Freaky,” my co-writer Michael Kennedy and I both were very set on having a queer character as one of the main characters, in that he was out and unafraid — and that he ultimately would sidestep a lot of “bury your gays” tropes and that he would be instrumental in actually saving the lead character. That was a movie that we really wanted that for. And he and I also have been working on another project together that is very, very queer forward, but it’s just because it was the right right kind of project. So I always want to try and tell my story and to really focus on that when I can, but it’s really more about if am I drawn to something in particular and what do I have to say about it.

Whether or not this film was a deliberately therapeutic act to reconcile whatever history or feelings you may have had about your father, how cathartic has it ended up being?

It’s been very cathartic. I really did spend a lot of time, excuse me, thinking about that relationship, but it’s also been a lot of things for me too. This movie as an undertaking was a much, much bigger movie than anything I’ve ever made before. And it also was an opportunity for me to flex a certain way and prove to myself that I could do it. I could make a movie this big and still keep it personal. And I think that, for me was the goal. And if I walk away from it, feeling proud, it’s because I was able to put a big piece of myself into something that I think is designed to be a big piece of entertainment. And that’s all I can ask for and hope for career wise. I want to be able to continue to do that. I just want to make movies that are as personal as possible, because I think that’s what ultimately translates through them, I hope.

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