EXCLUSIVE: Don Mancini and David Kirschner Talk Chucky in Child's Play
The writer and producer of the hit horror series talks about their creation's 20th Anniversary DVD
It was two decades ago that a little film about a serial killer being transferred into a child's doll called Child's Play was released, and the horror world hasn't been the same since. The film has spawned four sequels, a forthcoming remake and has become embedded in mainstream culture as well. I had the chance to talk to Don Mancini, who has written or co-written all the films in the Chucky franchise, and producer David Kirschner, who has produced all of the films as well. Here's what these two had to say about this classic film.
First of all, does it even seem like 20 years has gone by, because it sure doesn't to me?
David Kirschner: No, it doesn't to us. Don says it scares us because it does seem like a couple of years, but it certainly doesn't seem like two decades in the making.
Don Mancini: Saying it that way is scarier.
David Kirschner: But I think we both say it with a great deal of pride.
Don Mancini: Absolutely.
David Kirschner: That this is something that has been around that seems to mean something to people 20 years later. That's really fun and just to pick up a newspaper from around the world and see criminals that are referred to as "El Chucky" or on Letterman, for him to make his jokes and, what was the coaches name?
Don Mancini: John Gruden.
David Kirschner: Yeah, just that whole thing. On Will & Grace. It just seems to be everywhere.
Don Mancini: It's become a pandemic part of pop culture, definitely.
Just to go back to where it all started, David, you created the doll and it was rumored that you created Chucky based off the My Buddy dolls, but it was Cabbage Patch Kids. Is that correct?
David Kirschner: Actually, Don did that. Don's original concept was, which was so exciting to me all those years ago, 21, 22 years ago, whenever we started this. Whenever Don writes anything he does, it's always a reflection of the times that we live in. At that point, Cabbage Patch was at its height and people were hurting each other to buy a Cabbage Patch and he really wanted to make a commentary on the fact that who we were as a society, that Madison Avenue was programming dolls to be your child's best friend. That's where the concept came from. Mine was visual, based on what Don had created and I then did my drawings from that and just little designs on his clothing and all of that.
Don Mancini: Let me be your advocate here. David actually is an extremely talented artist and actually had a background in dolls. He had actually created an entire line of dolls before Child's Play ever happened, so this is very much in his wheelhouse. He was the perfect producer to make this happen.
David Kirschner: Don's father was an advertising executive and I think Don really grew up and all of that stayed in his head. Some of the really great slogans we came up with, over the years, the big advertising buzz-words that we had, Don created those. It's just kind of fun just thinking about what we both love about pop culture and applying it to this film and any others.
Can you talk a little about casting and how you came up with Brad Dourif and the rest of this cast?
David Kirschner: Yeah. (Director) Tom Holland deserves a lot of credit on that as well. I'm a big fan of Tom Holland's and it was a very difficult shot. There were a host of people who came in to audition for the role and someone had suggested to Tom, maybe the casting person whose name I don't remember. Don?
Don Mancini: Oh God. It will come to me. Keep talking.
David Kirschner: I must confess, I did not know the name when it was first said, but when I was told that it was Billy from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" I knew very well who it was. He came in and he was terrifying. There's an intensity to Brad Dourif, just as a person, he's just a very intense actor and he brought that intensity to the role. It was frightening, it really was. Don, maybe you want to tell the story of Tom Holland.
Don Mancini: Well, Tom Holland had actually worked with Brad on his previous film called Fatal Beauty, which starred Whoopi Goldberg. So, I guess that's where the original notion of bringing him in to read. Were you referring to the Jessica Walters story?
David Kirschner: Yes.
Don Mancini: There was a whole cut of the movie where Tom Holland decided to try a woman's voice for the voice of Chucky, proceeding from the logic that it worked with Mercedes McCambridge voicing the voice of Satan in "The Excorsist" so he thought he would give it a try. It didn't really work. Chucky just sounded kind of gay (Laughs). We brought that back in Seed of Chucky. (Laughs)
That's not quite what you want in a horror film.
Don Mancini: At this point, it's impossible to imagine anyone else in that role. I mean, he's just so great. Over the course of the five movies, he always just takes it so seriously, doesn't condescend to the material, whatsoever and just treats it as if he was playing Hamlet. I know that David and I have always been so appreciative that we have that attitude. There have been times that we've had arguments with Brad because he comes in with very strong ideas and, as in any working relationship, sometimes you're going to disagree, and he always goes to the mat and I've just always appreciated that attitude, that he takes it so seriously.
David Kirschner: In the first film, there's a scene in the elevator where a woman is just bringing food to a friend's home and they're in that cage elevator. She says, 'What an ugly doll,' and walks away. As the elevator begins to descend, Brad just decides he's going to drop this in and it was so simple but he just goes 'F*&k you,' and the audience went crazy. It was really a marker for us, and an evolution to understand what the potential of not just this killer, but this guy that obviously has some opinions as well. It really was a very important milestone in the world of Chucky because it opened a door to us for lots of other things that Don would write that the audience would repeat when walking through the lobby or kids were bonking each other on the heads in playgrounds and saying it. It really became an incredible moment.
Don Mancini: It just sort of suggested a very specific kind of impudence like this little-man syndrome. He has this Napoleon complex. He's a little guy with a lot of rage and that line that David is describing, really pointed us in the direction of exploiting that aspect of his character, which people always seem to enjoy.
That's what I was going to ask next, actually. Is that something you always strived for, with the Napoleon complex, that he's just this doll that has this inferiority complex. Is that something that was brought out naturally or was it something you were striving for?
Don Mancini: It was really that moment that Brad improvised in the first movie, where we saw the audiences reaction to that. In the sequels, it just sort of pushed us where inevitably we were going to deal with Chucky's character more and more, as the series went on, Brad's improvisation in the original movie helped point us in a certain direction, the direction of the little guy with the Napoleon complex who's not only going to kill you, he's going to tell you what he thinks of you, in his very irreverent way. For me, I came to see him as almost an Archie Bunker as well. He just has this rage about him and that's actually the word Brad actually uses to describe the character. He has this rage about being trapped and that's what's at the front of Brad's mind when he's shrieking and hurling expletives at people.
Can you talk a little bit about Brad's voice of Chucky. Was that a creation all his own or were you working with him on that, because it's a very distinct voice.
David Kirschner: It's Brad's voice and it always sounds a little bit like Jack Nicholson to me also. I hear a little bit of that in there, but it is Brad's voice and maybe tweaked a bit. Brad brought that, and I don't mean just his voice, but the attitude, the pauses, you can even hear his thinking in the way he pauses at times with a sound. He brought all of that to it.
Don Mancini: Brad would tell you himself that he was not intentionally trying to mimic Jack Nicholson in any way (Laughs). I think that actually bothers him a little bit. I just think maybe they have similar voices.
Now, you have the remake coming up. Was there ever a temptation to keep going on with the series or was it at a point where you should just start over and bring the character back and give this generation their own movie. Was that kind of how it came about?
David Kirschner: Actually, it was Universal. In our discussions of Don and my producing partner, we thought we would go on to the next film, but Universal said to us that they would love to be able to remake the first. I think all of us looked at each other and said, 'We just don't want to make a frame-for-frame exactly the same picture.' That's when Don went away and began to work and when Don began to lay out where he was going. I don't want to give away too much. I've known Don for 22 years. We're dear friends. I know his humor, I know his mind. I was so shocked with where he was taking us with expectations of the first film and pulling the rug out from under us. It was exciting and really frightening and exhilarating to hear, as opposed to just shooting a frame-for-frame, but really subverting audiences expectations.
Don Mancini: That's really our goal with this next movie, bottom-line, was to make it scary again. After having, I think, rather successfully mined the horror-comedy aspects of this concept over the course of Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky, the fans are really telling us that they want it to be scary again. Doing the remake just provides us with a really good opportunity to bring it home, so to speak.
Absolutely. It's been done with the Friday the 13th and a slew of other ones. It seemed like the horror-comedy was such a big deal for awhile and now people just want to be scared again.
Don Mancini: Right. Absolutely, but in regards to those other franchises that are being remade, we must take pains to mention that we're the only one where the original creators are actually making the movie. It's a special feel of quality, like a Good Housekeeping quality.
So you have Brad for the voice again, but is there anything else you can tell us? Is it going to be modernized or is there anything you can tell us about it at all?
Don Mancini: Well, it will definitely be modernized to the extent that it will take place in 2010, or whenever the movie comes out. That's what we're shooting for at this point. We're going to be using animatronic puppet effects again, not CGI.
David Kirschner: That seems to be a big question with everybody and we want to stay with the animatronics because it gives you such a wonderful feel of Chucky's movement. It feels like something that has been brought to life, as opposed to a smooth piece of animation.
Don Mancini: One thing I would like to do, as the director, I would really like to shoot the movie widescreen, 2.35:1, which we haven't done in any of the movies yet and I think that would really provide another opportunity for scares and suspense, particularly because since Chucky, our villain, is only two feet tall, it makes sense to define the space horizontally rather than vertically. I think that will take it to another level. It's just having that rectangular shape and when you think of great horror movies like Halloween and Jaws that just really exploit the space so well and I just think we would have so many more opportunities in creating suspense and shocks.
Will this remake usher in a whole new series, or how is this being planned? With Friday the 13th, they're talking about spawning a whole new series.
David Kirschner: I think that Universal's feeling is that they would love this to spawn a whole new series.
Don Mancini: But I don't think we would be specifically remaking "Child's Play 2" and "Child's Play 3". I imagine we'd be dreaming up whole new stories.
David Kirschner: They are hoping that this will spawn a whole new group of films. We'll see. We're concentrating on this one.
Was there ever a notion, since the inception of Chucky was he was turned into a doll, was there ever a temptation to bring Brad actually back into human form in one of the future films?
Don Mancini: Well, obviously, doing the remake allows us to do that. Part of the story of the origin of Chucky is the last of his human days as the serial killer Charles Lee Ray, so we will be depicting that again, but, as David was suggesting, we're going to be adding new stuff as well. That's one of the things we're most excited about, really, is just allowing this great, Oscar-nominated actor, giving him material to play in one of his signature roles.
What I meant was, because you said you were originally going to move forward with another film instead of doing the remake, if that was ever kind of an option, to bring him back?
Don Mancini: Oh, I see what you mean. Well, we would just let imagination wander and talk sometimes. For example, there are things we could do like let Brad Dourif play Charles Lee Ray's brother or father (Laughs), something like that, but I think any of those options would've been squarely in the horror-comedy realm. Yeah, we definitely like the idea of having his physical presence back in the movie.
For this new DVD set, what are some of the things to look for on this set?
Don Mancini: Well, along with some of the things you would expect, we have three different commentary tracks, one of which is just Brad Dourif voicing Chucky in character, which is hilarious. There are several documentaries chronicling the inception and production and reception of the film, but there's also something that I hadn't seen in a long time, and I don't think fans have ever had the opportunity to see, there are some odd footage of Brad Dourif and Catherine Hicks and David and Tom Holland making the movie. For me, that was one of the most fun things to see. To see them in rehearsals, you actually see, in a rehearsal hall, Brad Dourif playing Chucky, in that scene where he attacks Catherine when he's first brought to life and he grabs Catherine's leg and she falls down. It's really cool. It's hilarious but it's also kind of disturbing because you think, 'Oh my God. That must have been really scary for Catherine, being in this little rehearsal room with Brad Dourif going crazy.
Finally, with this 20th Anniversary coming out and the remake, when you first came up with this idea, did you have any idea that it would be so timeless?
Don Mancini: No, not at all. When I wrote that script, I was a student at UCLA, an undergraduate and my biggest aspiration for it was that I would get my foot in a door somewhere, that I would get an agent or something and it was just beyond my wildest dreams that this big-time producer, David Kirschner...
David Kirschner: (Laughs) This was my second film.
Don Mancini: Yeah, but the first was a huge success. "An American Tale" was this big Steven Spielberg movie and so I met with David in his office on the Disney lot and David is showing me around the Disney backlot. I think I had just seen "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and I had never been on a backlot before and it was just totally thrilling. I never expected that, 20 years later, it would be considered a classic, if I may invoke that term. A golden oldie anyway, something that people still care about 20 years later. It's great and, David, I'm sure you feel the same way.
David Kirschner: Absolutely. We look back on it with such pride. 20 years has gone by and this character seems to be relevant to audiences that care for films like this. As filmmakers, that's what you hope for. It was a film I was so excited to make and I was so excited to make this my second film and I just never believed it would happen. As we were making this, United Artists was, as it always is, falling apart and everybody was being fired. There weren't enough people to handle publicity. There was a secretary and a guy named Andy Fogleman, who's son, coincidentally, is now head of marketing at Universal. There was a picture on Andy's desk, a little seven-year-old without teeth, or a 10-year-old or whatever he was. He was a little kid and I still remember his picture on his dad's desk and it's ironic that he's heading up everything for Universal, who we'll be making this film for. It feels like yesterday, but it's been 20 years.
Well, that's about all I have for you guys. Thank you so much for your time and hopefully we'll get to chat again before the remake comes out.
Don Mancini: That would be great. Thank you so much for your time.
David Kirschner: Thank you.
You can pick up the 20th Anniversary DVD set of Child's Play when it hits the DVD shelves on September 9.