Netflix - We have a ghost : A conversation with writer/director Christopher Landon

By Mulder, 21 february 2023

We Have a Ghost is an upcoming American horror comedy film written and directed by Christopher Landon. It stars Jennifer Coolidge, David Harbour, Anthony Mackie, Niles Fitch, and Isabella Russo. This is the new Christopher Landon’s movie after Burning Palms (2010), Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014), Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), Happy Death Day (2017), Happy Death Day 2U (2019) and Freaky (2020)

Q : What was your initial reaction when you read Geoff Manaugh’s original story? What appealed to you about it and inspired you to adapt it into a feature film ?

Christopher Landon : It was one of those true jolts, a shock of inspiration. The short story presented such a fresh take on a ghost story, and I felt like it took a lot of old tropes and inverted them, which is something I'm very fond of doing as a filmmaker and as a storyteller. It was an opportunity for me to make a film that was very much an homage and a love letter to my childhood, and to all things Amblin. That really was the primary inspiration. I really felt like there was thisE.T. kind of quality to the story that I loved. What Geoff did so well was render really interesting, complicated characters in such a short amount of time. It's a very economical short story, but it had a lot to offer. 

Q : The focus on social media and influencer culture is one of the ways in which this is not a typical supernatural story. What did that element add to the film ?

Christopher Landon : We obviously live in an age where nothing really happens unless it's recorded on your phone. We're all experiencing the world through our devices. And so it's only natural that if you did see something like this in your home, you would pick up your phone and film it. So it feels very organic and germane to the times. But what it really presented was the opportunity to, in a relatively docile way, skewer internet culture and the way that people react to things. There's a whole social media montage in the movie that is my way of absolutely poking fun at the way that people react to things on social media, and how divided we are all the time about everything. I love that Frank makes his family internet famous, what that means for them, and how it affects them. It provided such a cool opportunity to explore that through his character as well.

Q : What are some of the key differences between the original short story and the We have a ghost screenplay ?

Christopher Landon : Interestingly, the short story focuses more on Frank, at least for the first half. Then the second half of the short story finally begins to focus on Kevin. From the outset, I really wanted the movie to be about Kevin, his state of mind, where he fits into this family and how he feels a bit isolated, unseen, lost and like a bit of an outcast at school and at home, and how he forges this connection with this ghost who's very much like him. So that connects them and bonds them. Then what I needed that the short story didn't have was a mystery and a purpose for Ernest. He needed to be searching not only for his identity, but for his past and his memories. So I created this whole storyline where he is essentially trying to solve the mystery of his own death, and also the mystery of who he was. I also needed an external threat, which didn't exist in the short story either, so I brought in the CIA and Operation Wizard Clip, a clandestine program that had been shut down a long time ago that gets reinvigorated once people start to freak out over the ghost videos. It was about opening the movie up, letting it breathe become a little bit of a road trip movie in its own way. Those were all the things that I tried to bring to it so that it felt more cinematic and so there were more defined arcs to the characters. 

Q : What specific changes did you make to the characters ?

Christopher Landon : I wanted to soften Frank. I thought he was too much of a bully in the short story. And I don't believe that people ever are intentionally bad. With Frank, I think his intentions are actually good, but they're just woefully misguided. He's a bit of a narcissist, and I think that is just the way it is for some kids’ parents. Their parents are a little bit self-centered, but redeemable. I wanted that redemption for all the characters in the film.

Q : As you crafted those arcs and began fleshing out your characters, were you writing with any specific actors in mind ?

Christopher Landon : As a rule, I never do. I never, ever do. I just want the character to be their own person. I create a real person in my mind and put them on the page. And then my job is to try and get the actor and that character to meet each other and become one person. That's the way that I like to write. But once I'm in the casting phase, which is my favorite part of making a movie, I'm very specific. I know exactly who I'm looking for, I know the qualities that I'm looking for, and I'd certainly keep a sort of list in my head of people who I think fit the role.

Q : The film balances many themes: responsibility, fitting in, fathers and sons, good versus evil, truth and fiction. How do you go about weaving those themes into a thrill-packed, fun supernatural adventure film ?

Christopher Landon : It's not necessarily something that I belabor. For me, writing and filmmaking is very instinctual, sort of heart-driven. I just like to explore different things through the characters. And I love that I get to play in these kinds of fantastical worlds and spaces with characters who are still struggling with real life issues. For me, I came from a divorced home, I lost my dad when I was 16. Later in life, I lost my mom. I've had close friends die. There has been a lot of stuff that has touched, shaped, and molded my worldview, and also the things that I am interested in talking about and exploring in film. And I think it's all very present in this movie, probably more than anything I've ever made.

Q : Walk through the casting process. What did each actor bring to their respective role, starting with David Harbour as Ernest ?

Christopher Landon : I love David Harbour. I'm a big fan of his. I followed his work for a long time. And what I've always appreciated is that he's an incredibly versatile actor. He has an extensive theater background, which I knew would come in handy for a role like this because it's such an expressive role without any dialogue. David is a person who has every conceivable emotion, with great depth, very much at the ready at any given moment. So he was the perfect person to play Ernest. I was thrilled that he responded to the script, that he was willing to do it. We had our first meeting when I was in prep, and he told me that the role scared the shit out of him. And I loved that. I knew he was right for the part when he said that, just because any actor should be afraid of a part like this. But I also loved his gusto and his willingness to step outside of his comfort zone and tackle it, because I think that's what great actors do.

Q : Let's back up to the Presley family, beginning with Jahi Winston as Kevin. His specific, stuck-out-of-time musical taste and talent is a very prominent part of who he is. What did it take to find an actor who could authentically portray those aspects of the character ?

Christopher Landon : I wanted Kevin to be very, very good at something, something that is such a god-given natural talent that his dad would envy it, and also appreciate it and love it at the same time. That sets things up for a bit of a complicated relationship. Because when an adult feels like they weren't really gifted anything, to see something like that occur naturally in their child, it's a weird feeling to have jealousy for your own child, but it was something that I thought was an interesting texture for the characters. There’s more to it, because we're also talking about a Black family and how Frank weaponizes their own culture against his son, like “Why do you like white artists?” There was a lot of stuff there to mine that I just think adds to the realness and the texture of the movie and the relationships in the film, too. Because that makes Kevin feel even more like an outsider.  So I knew exactly what kind of a person I was looking for Kevin, but I didn't know if they existed. That was the role I was most afraid of casting because it felt like I was looking for a unicorn. And then our casting director, Ronna Kress, mentioned Jahi to me and rattled off a couple movies he had been in. And then I randomly ended up on a flight and was able to catch his movieCharm City Kings. It felt like kismet. I watched the movie and he blew me away. I called Netflix as soon as we landed and I said, “I have to build the movie around this kid.” And that was it. I'm so grateful that they supported that decision because Jahiis the character in many ways. He's an old soul. He's unbelievably gifted in so many ways. He's a great actor. He has a beautiful voice. He's very soulful. He's kind. He's all the things that Kevin is. I got very, very, very lucky finding him. Once I had him, it was a huge sigh of relief. I felt like I could really start casting the movie in earnest, pun intended.

Q : Why was Anthony Mackie right for the role of Kevin’s father, Frank Presley? He’s a foil to Kevin in so many ways.

Christopher Landon : What really made Anthony an imperative for me to cast is that he's undeniably charming and likable — and Frank had to have those qualities because if he didn't, he couldn’t manipulate his wife, his kids, or us, the audience. I needed him to be winning and likable and sort of be the opposite of what he was in the short story, because otherwise, the audience would just turn against him from the word go and hate him. And you can't hate Anthony Mackie. It's literally impossible to hate the guy. He is the kindest, warmest, friendliest, funniest, most lovable person I've ever met. I needed that for Frank so that when he does bad things, you can go along with it. You can forgive him a little because he's so likable. So that was a big thing for me. And he really brings it. He's another actor with such incredible range. 

Q : Erica Ash plays Melanie Presley. Her most memorable moment in the film is probably her scream, which goes viral. There's so much more, obviously, but nailing that moment had to be part and parcel of the job.

Christopher Landon : Exactly. Finding Erica was a dream come true. I wasn't as familiar with her work, if I'm being honest. And I knew she was a good actor. I was able to see materials and really get a sense of her in front of the camera. But when I met with her, she and I really connected on a personal level. In my gut, it felt right. What we discovered very quickly on set is that Erica is a comedian. She's super funny, and she's not afraid to screw up her face and be crazy and do all those things. And so, that moment lands as well as it does because she's completely unafraid to go there. She’s also the emotional anchor and conscience of the film in so many ways. It was an important role and she’s amazing in it. 

Q : Rounding out the Presley family, we have Niles Fitch as Fulton. Some of the funniest lines come out of his mouth.

Christopher Landon : What's so funny about Niles is that he’s the opposite of his character. Niles is humble, on the quiet side and very cerebral. So it was so fun to watch him play Fulton because he could easily veer into “what a dick” territory — but he's never a dick. He's likable. I would jokingly call him my Chet fromWeird Science, in that there was just a likable dickish quality to the role and to Nile's performance in it. And I think he represents a generation of kids who have grown up with phones and are easily enamored with fame and attention. So he's definitely that guy, but underneath it all, there's a heart, which I really like about him too.

Q : One of the first characters we meet outside of the Presley family is the next-door neighbor, Joy Yoshino, played by Isabella Russo. What did this character bring to the film and what did Isabella bring to the role ?

Christopher Landon : Joy didn't exist in the short story. I created the character because I needed someone who was really going to drive the investigation, which felt a little outside of Kevin's character. He needed someone to work with bounce ideas off of. I knew that I wanted her to be pushy and a bit spunky and fun and the opposite of Kevin: very outgoing. I think we're always attracted to our opposites in a lot of ways. We need to find those people that can help balance us out and bring things out of us. I think that's what Joy is for Kevin. It was nice to have just a nice, thin romantic spine placed in the movie because there's a coming-of-age aspect to the film, and I think the Joy-Kevin relationship provides that. When Isabella read for the part, I knew she was perfect. I was like, "We're done. We're good. Stop looking." And then she passed when we offered her the part! I found out she was going to take another role, and I had an absolute panic attack. I remember sitting in a parking lot in New Orleans in my car at 6:00 PM on a Friday and calling her to give her the ultimateJerry Maguire pitch for the movie, why she needed to do it, why it was meant for her, the whole thing. By the end of that conversation, I somehow changed her mind. She was the other unicorn for me because without her I felt like the Joy character could slide into cliché, zany neighbor territory. And I didn't want that; she needed to have more depth. That's what Isa provides. She’s truly gifted and I’m super lucky that I got her.

Q : What did Tig Notaro bring to the role of Dr. Leslie Monroe? She has an interesting arc in the film alongside the CIA storyline.

Christopher Landon : Tig was another person who immediately sprang to mind when we began casting. I love her dryness. I think her standup is brilliant, and I was very drawn to her whole demeanor. There's no other Tig out there — there’s the androgyny, the sarcasm, but also Tig is a really kind person. She's a loving mother, so there's something kind of sneaky and hidden that's maternal and warm about her — she kind of keeps it a little bit behind the curtain, but it's there and you can kind of feel it. I needed that because Leslie is a character who has just experienced an enormous amount of trauma in her life and has really spent the better part of her life and career being denied, ignored, marginalized and made fun of. She's a character who, once she finally is back in the driver's seat, really sort of takes the advantage of that and exploits it until she realizes that she's turned into a bit of a monster without even realizing it. She was so driven to prove something that when she finally had it, she realized it was not the thing she needed or wanted. So it's a tricky role and Tig is great in it.

Q : Dr. Monroe’s counterpart in the film, in a lot of ways, is Deputy Director Arnold Schipley, played by Steve Coulter. He’s your classic G-Man, but he also brings a dry snark to the performance.

Christopher Landon : It's funny. Steve is a little bit that guy. Not snarky, but he's got funny quips, he's super sharp and a wonderful guy, lovely to work with. There's an authority to him. He just commands a room. I wanted Shipley to have a little bit of that classic shadowy CIA-career dude. But he brings a little bit of humor and it's self-knowing. I feel like he's mocking this a little bit too. 

Q  Jennifer Coolidge plays Judy Romano, a cable TV medium. Was the current “Jenaissance” she’s enjoying in full swing when you cast her ?

Christopher Landon : It's funny, when we were trying to figure this role out, I think the first season ofThe White Lotus had just aired. I don't even think it was done, but clearly people were taking notice. But weirdly, I don't think it would've remotely changed my position on casting her. I've always been a Jennifer Coolidge fan. I’ve probably seenBest in Show 1,000 times. She's one of the funniest actors out there. And I mean, I'm a gay, so we've been loving Jennifer Coolidge for a long time. So it's sort of like we're just letting everybody else wake up to how great she is. I was beyond thrilled that she was willing to play this part because it's an absurd role. And playing a sort of fringy cable TV medium is ridiculous. So yeah, Jennifer's great. She was really fun to work with. We are very fortunate that she's blown up the way that she has. But it's funny, I care less about it for the movie. I'm just more excited as a fan and a friend now, that she's getting what she deserves.

Q : Ernest Scheller, played by Tom Bower, has quite the arc. You needed somebody special to pull off the unassuming elderly neighbor with something to hide. Why was Tom the right actor for this journey ?

Christopher Landon : Tom is that guy that everyone has grown up with. We've all seen him in a hundred movies. He's a classic character actor, and I was very drawn to how he's been a very bad guy in some films and he's been a good guy in a lot of films. It was that nice balance of knowing that he can toe both lines. Meeting him in person and spending time with him, it was also critical that I felt like he had a kind of spry energy to him because I mean, he's an older guy, but he is fit and he can move. So Tom could beat me up, no problem. He's a strong dude, both mentally and physically, and that really comes across in the film. And we put him through the paces. I mean, he's doing stunts, he's doing all kinds of stuff in this movie and he pulled it off like a pro. So he's great. And he was also just a really nice man and I really enjoyed working with him.

Q  Getting into the filmmaking process, Ernest has a distinct look. How did you and visual effects supervisor Robert Stadd work to create such a unique take on a ghost ?

Christopher Landon : I knew going into this that I did not want Ernest to look like any other movie ghost that I've seen before. And it was very challenging because what I have seen in the past is always a very kind of monochromatic, white-ish, transparent, floating thing. That's the typical ghost. And it always felt very either CG-ish or just blown out without any texture or detail. And so when Robert and I started working together, I told him, "I really want us to create a ghost that people haven't seen before, but not something that's so distracting that you start to take away from the performance." I had to protect David's performance as much as possible, too. So it was really just about finding that balance. Giving him this kind of really interesting soft gold hue, giving him dimension and texture. But the most important thing was the way that Ernest interacts with light. When he steps through a pool of light, the way that it changes him, the way that he looks outside versus inside. The way he looks against a wall versus in the middle of a room. We talked constantly about all those things. It was really a labor of love. It was really hard to pull it off, but I'm really pleased with the end result. I think he looks really, really special. And I think he looks like a ghost — at least the ghost that I hope to run into.

Q : Do any scenes stand out as particularly memorable, enjoyable, or challenging to film ?

Christopher Landon : I would say the car chase was very daunting, really hard to pull off. Especially because it wasn't just that it's a big car chase, it's that you're doing a big car chase that incorporates a ghost. And the way that we created David as a ghost was very laborious, because every shot of David required us to shoot the same setup four different ways. And then when you add a car chase sequence to all of that where you have rigging on cars and you have crazy stuff going on around you, it just makes everything really complicated. So that was by far the most challenging piece of the movie, for sure. I was fortunate that I had an amazing partner in Hank Amos, who is just the best stunt coordinator. He did incredible work on the film, so I owe a huge debt to him. And we pulled it off. It’s funny, though, the biggest challenge of this movie wasn't necessarily the action, it was the environment, having to really battle the elements. We shot the movie in the dead ass of summer in New Orleans, which anyone will tell you is crazy. You have actors you’re trying to keep dry who are standing outside, perspiring like crazy, their makeup is running — David’s crazy hairpiece is sliding off his head. And there's lightning shutdowns that last for hours every day that eat away at your schedule. There was a hurricane that shut us down for a month. That kind of stuff. And yet you persevere and you push through it. What made it all bearable and kept me sane was the fact that I worked with great people, cast and crew. There wasn't one bad egg in the whole carton. So it made my job a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable that everyone was excited and happy to go to work.

Q : What do you hope audiences will take away from the film ?

Christopher Landon : I hope that people can walk away from the film kind of holding their loved ones a little closer. What really shines through the movie is that you don't know the kinds of turns that your life may take. And you may not know the people you might lose along the way. But also just appreciating the people you do have around you. I think that that's something that the Presleys lose a little bit of sight of at the beginning of the movie. They've all kind of retreated to their corners, even though they all live under the same roof. And by the end of the movie you really get a sense that they're a unit again. So I hope people have a good time, laugh, get really invested in the characters and get a little scared at times. I want them to feel like they’re going on a ride. I want everyone who watches the movie to feel like they’re on a journey, a really big journey.

Synopsis :
Finding a ghost named Ernest haunting their new home turns Kevin's family into overnight social media sensations. But when Kevin and Ernest go rogue to investigate the mystery of Ernest's past, they become a target of the CIA.

We Have a Ghost
Written and Directed by Christopher Landon
Story by Geoff Manaugh
Produced by Marty Bowen, Dan Halsted
Starring  Jennifer Coolidge, David Harbour, Anthony Mackie, Niles Fitch, Isabella Russo
Cinematography : Marc Spicer
Edited by Ben Baudhuin
Production companies : Legendary Entertainment, Temple Hill Entertainment
Distributed by Netflix
Release date : February 24, 2023 (United States)
Running time : 126 minutes

Photos : Copyright Netflix