Released in 1987, The Stepfather is a disturbing little horror movie about a man (played by Terry O’Quinn of current “Lost” fame) in desperate search of the perfect family. He marries widows or divorcees with children, and if they don’t live up to his standards of the ideal family, well, the less said the better.
Now, just in time for Halloween, a remake of The Stepfather is making its way into theaters. The movie is told from the point of view of Michael (Penn Badgley, “Gossip Girl”), who returns home from military school to find his mother (Sela Ward) in love with a seemingly normal man named David (Dylan Walsh, “Nip/Tuck”). Yet, despite David’s benign demeanor, Michael finds David’s behavior odd and suspicious, and sets out to discover the true identity of his soon-to-be stepfather before it’s too late.
Just before the movie’s release on October 16, MM caught up with director Nelson McCormick to discuss his creepy re-imagining of The Stepfather.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): You’re a TV veteran. Having directed over 20 TV series (from “NYPD Blue” to “The Closer”), what lessons have you learned from the television world that have proven helpful when it comes to making feature films?
Nelson McCormick (NM): Two words: Rigid flexibility. Have a plan and be ready to toss that plan.
TV is a sprint. Eight days to prep. Eight days to shoot. Move, move, move. No time to second-guess. Without a plan, you’re dead. But you’d better be ready to deviate from that plan at any moment because as the saying goes, “S— happens.”
When an actor is sick, you keep shooting. When a location falls out, you keep shooting. When new pages come in the morning of the shoot, you keep shooting. When a stuntman accidentally damages the “hero” car on a rehearsal, you keep shooting. (By the way, I’ve had all those things happen to me on the same day.)
What I take from TV into the feature world is a confidence of knowing there’s always a solution. The budget on a movie is 10 times what I have in TV, and so is the pressure—which I simply won’t allow. I love directing too much. It’s the greatest job in the world. For me to do my best work, I have to enjoy myself.
MM: The Stepfather is your second movie in a row to be based on a 1980s horror cult classic (following 2008’s Prom Night). Was this intentional, or simply a coincidence?
NM: Actually, Prom Night is not a remake. It only shares the same title and venue as the 1980 film starring Leslie Nielsen and Jamie Lee Curtis. But even if Prom Night was a remake, it would have been a lucky coincidence and I’ll tell you why: Making Prom Night was good training for The Stepfather. They were both built with the architecture of suspense, but with two very different narrative structures. Prom Night is about one night as you follow three stories on a collision course. The Stepfather is a relationship-based thriller, allowing a more sustained, gradual escalation of tension.
The original Stepfather was disturbing, capturing the urban myth of the stepfather from hell. Now, we’ve become quite accustomed to the reality that families break up and strangers move in where parents once were. Living under the same roof with someone who could be a killer is a classic premise for a movie, from Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle back to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.
What was most attractive to me was the character of the stepfather. He’s a man on a mission to find happiness, to be loved. He has tricked himself into believing if he could just find the perfect family, his life would be perfect. Kind of a normal goal. To achieve his goal, he will justify any behavior necessary. A person with that mindset is capable of great deeds. Or tragic deeds in this case.
MM: In remaking The Stepfather, which elements did you decide to keep from the original? What were some of the changes you made?
NM: I have to credit screenwriter J.S. Cardone for deciding what to embrace from the original. He is a master in this genre and knew exactly what would work in a modern adaptation.
The original had many moments of genius, starting with the very first sequence in the movie—a normal-looking man goes about his morning routine as if he were going to work. But as he leaves, he steps over the bodies of a family he has just murdered. I love that opening because for the rest of the movie, there is tension under every scene. The audience knows it’s not a question of if he’ll snap, but when.
We kept other things from the original: How the stepfather had a problem with teens showing public affection, how he had a basement where he retreated, how he tried to pull off a job as a real estate agent. The classic line, “Who am I here?” was another must have. But the biggest difference, and to this you must give Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper the credit, was to cast the role of the person who uncovers the stepfather’s secret as a young man in the role originally played by a young female. This part, played by Penn Badgley, gives the film a slight “coming of age” flavor. We witness his transition to manhood as he fights to protect his family.
MM: Why did you decide to cast Dylan Walsh, with his seemingly harmless, all-American good looks, as the murderous stepfather? How does his interpretation of the character differ from Terry O’Quinn’s in the original?
NM: What’s great about Dylan is he doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. He’s so handsome and charming—which makes him the perfect Trojan horse to conceal evil. I’ve known Dylan for years, having directed him on “Nip/Tuck,” and I can tell you he has talent far beyond what most of us have seen.
I loved Terry O’Quinn’s performance in the original, he gave it a quirky “father knows best” spin and I actually found myself feeling sorry for his character at times because he was so out of touch with reality. You felt from the beginning of the film that he was doomed to succumb to his fatal flaw of not being able to compromise his priorities.
Dylan plays the character as a loving, good-natured fellow whose fatal flaw is being trapped in a 1950s definition of what a family should be. Dylan added obsessive quirks, like always wanting things neat and orderly. It’s an illusion of control. But his character is doomed to repeat a journey where things get out of control and when he snaps, it’s because things get messy and he doesn’t do messy. He then becomes a terminator, driven by a self-preservation and a need to erase the problem and start over. That’s where Dylan dominates the movie. Watching Dylan destroy humans with such purpose, as if they were insects or garbage to dispose of filled me with a mix of awe and fear—shocking verisimilitude, that’s what I was after with this movie.
MM: What’s next for you? Another horror remake, or something in a different genre?
NM: It would be hard to pass on another horror film if it was well written, and I wouldn’t necessarily discriminate if it were a remake or not. Not to mention, if it weren’t for remakes, we’d never have masterfully updated versions of films like Man on Fire, True Lies or The Italian Job.
What I do know is I’m drawn to big canvases. As a former combat cameraman, I’m always looking for a big story set against the backdrop of something epic. Action and sci-fi genres interest me. I love the Bourne movies and I saw District 9 recently and thought it was brilliant.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time on aircraft carriers, watching my dad pilot these megaton warships. That, to me, was like watching an epic movie. There was the radio chatter, feeling the power of the ship, hearing the sound of the tension in the lines tied to the tugs as he gently steered into port. He had one chance to get it right, kind of like making movies.