SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” currently in theaters and streaming on Peacock.
Have you ever been enjoying an afternoon at Chuck E. Cheese and thought, “What if these singing animatronics were operated by the spirits of dead children? And what if, when they’re finished strumming fake guitars, they locked the doors to the building and tried to murder me?”
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That’s (basically) the idea behind “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” Hollywood’s latest video game adaptation that’s set to be the sleeper horror hit of the fall.
Directed by Emma Tammi, who co-wrote the script with Seth Cuddeback and franchise creator Scott Cawthon, “FNAF” stars Josh Hutcherson as Mike, a security guard working the graveyard shift at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, an abandoned arcade restaurant. Mike, whose younger brother was abducted as a kid, soon learns that the pizzeria’s cuddly mascots are actually murderous robots controlled by “ghost children,” and he must save his younger sister Abby before she becomes the next victim.
Tammi spoke to Variety ahead of the film’s release about incorporating lore from the video game series into the movie, explained why PG-13 is the perfect rating and teased plans for sequels.
The “FNAF” franchise has so much lore across 13 video games and over two dozen books. How do you balance catering to both diehard fans and those who have never before heard of the franchise?
When I first read the existing script and started envisioning what this film could look and feel like, I was referencing the game and started to familiarize myself with the lore. But I was also having a first-time reaction as someone who was less familiar with it. The world of “Freddy” still felt immediately nostalgic and still felt like a no-brainer in terms of something I would want to see. There were a lot of specifics in terms of the lore and easter eggs that we were so excited to include for the fan base. I was personally leaning on Scott [Cawthon] to help inform us in terms of what he felt was the right balance and what was going to land with the fan base. Throughout the process of making this film, the department heads and I were pitching new ideas to him as well — he knows the fan base so intimately and really tracks their conversations and listens to them. Of course, he created the game and the franchise, so he was a huge resource to have throughout making this film.
What were the pieces of lore that had to be represented in the film?
The biggest one is the backstory of the animatronics. We knew we needed to get the designs and the build and the depiction of them absolutely right. But in terms of the lore that surrounds them, the ghost children from previously abducted kids, we were inheriting all of that backstory through the lore and that’s a huge part of the “FNAF” DNA.
Was Scott on set at all?
He did come to New Orleans while we were filming. He produced the film as well, so he was very involved. We were all looking to him for fact-checking and authenticity as we were making the film. He’s super invested in it on a creative level. He had eyes on it throughout the whole process and that was really helpful because he was available to answer questions for all of us.
The film got a day-and-date release on Peacock but is still expected to have a huge opening weekend at the box office. As a director, what are your thoughts on the day-and-date release strategy, and how important is it to you that people go out to theaters to see the movie?
Certainly while we were making this film, the hope and the intention was that as many people as possible would be able to see it in theaters. I think the big screen experience, in a dark room with amazing sound and among other audience and peers, is really bar none for this movie in particular. It’s going to thrive most as a communal experience. That being said, maybe it’ll end up being a communal experience for people watching it on Peacock as well, having little watch parties or kids watching it during sleepovers. Look, it’s always great to get a film out there in as many ways as possible, but for me, I’m most excited about the theatrical experience.
You mentioned kids watching the film during sleepovers, as there was chatter about the film’s PG-13 rating versus an R rating. What are the director tricks for making a horror movie that’s scary but not scar-children-for-life scary?
What’s so interesting about the games is that the jump scares are not gory. Taking a tonal cue from that is already a pretty adaptable thing for a PG-13 rating. We didn’t need to deviate that much from what the first game was doing in terms of jump scares. So, I actually feel like PG-13 is a very appropriate rating for the film adaptation. And, certainly, it was really important for us to include the younger audiences in this movie as well.
What was it like to have Blumhouse on board? Do you think they provide a certain credibility when it comes to advertising a horror movie?
Oh, for sure. There’s no doubt that if you’re making a horror film, having Blumhouse in your corner is a huge asset. What was particularly successful and smart of Blumhouse and Jason [Blum] in particular was letting “FNAF” be its own wild, unique thing that they knew wasn’t going to quite fit into any other genre box. Yes, it is a horror film, but it really is a genre blend. And trusting in me and trusting in Scott to make something that is going to resonate with the fan base was so smart of them versus saying, “This is what has been successful in the past for other films and it needs to be more this way or that way.” They really supported the artistic vision for this, and they do that on all of their films. They’re so filmmaker-centered, and it was a fantastic experience.
The film features cameos from a couple of recognizable gaming influencers who were early champions of “FNAF.” Perhaps the YouTube creator most instrumental in helping grow the game into a phenomenon is Mark Fischbach, aka Markiplier, who said he wasn’t able to cameo in the film due to scheduling conflicts. Does that mean you approached him for a part in the film, and would you want him to appear in a sequel?
Absolutely, Mark is a part of this franchise through and through. We reached out and we all hoped to make it work. Unfortunately we were filming at the same time Markiplier was filming his film, and the scheduling didn’t work out for this one. But we would love to include him moving forward.
Let’s get spoilery. I think audiences will have a strong reaction to the character of Vanessa [Elizabeth Lail] because she hides a lot of information from Mike and is a dirty cop. She has also protected her father, William Afton, who abducted and killed Mike’s younger brother along with plenty of other children. At the end of the film, it seems like Mike is willing to continue being friends with her if she survives her wounds. Why?
We meet both Mike and Vanessa at really lonely points in their lives. They’ve both had to bury really significant childhood trauma deep down within themselves in order to get through their day-to-day lives. In Mike’s case that’s taking care of his younger sister, and in Vanessa’s case it’s putting on this front as a cop while still trying to be protective of someone very close to her. There’s something that those two characters see in each other, both said and unsaid, that is a recognition of trauma and a unique experience they both underwent in different ways. There’s been a shared path that they’re able to connect on in a way that is very unlike them being able to connect with anyone else. That yearning for companionship and a shared understanding of each other’s past is the main thing that draws them together.
Matthew Lillard confirmed that he signed a three-film contract for “FNAF,” so clearly there are plans for sequels. Where do you go from here, and how closely would you want to follow the games?
We’ll see how things go this weekend. We’re definitely excited to keep making more movies in this world, should we be lucky enough to do that. This one was tied into the first game, and we would probably focus on tying the second one into the second game, and so on and so forth. But anything could happen. We’ll have to see.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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