“The Strangers: Prey at Night” Director Johannes Roberts on the Trick to Making a Sequel 10 Years After the First Film

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Johannes RobertsGetty Images

After ten long years, the sequel to The Strangers slashes its way into theaters this weekend courtesy of Aviron Pictures, the upstart company behind the Halle Berry thriller Kidnap. For director , The Strangers: Prey at Night is his follow-up to 47 Meters Down, the shark movie from last summer that was a surprise hit — just like The Strangers was back in 2008.

The scary sequel finds Roberts taking over for Bryan Bertino behind the camera, though Bertino returned to write the script with Ben Ketai. This time around, our old friends Dollface, Pin-Up Girl and Man in the Mask chase a family around an abandoned trailer park. On the murder menu are Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Martin Henderson (The Ring), as well as Bailee Madison and Lewis Pullman.

The Tracking Board spoke to Roberts at the grand opening of The Strangers Experience in Hollywood, where you, too, can run from masked psychos in a creepy trailer. We didn’t have time to ask Roberts about his upcoming projects such as the horror movie The Pool, about a rabid dog terrorizing a pool party; The Plague about a devastating outbreak that sweep across the planet; or the drama Hearts, based on the Stephen King novel Hearts in Atlantis, though we did grill him on his love for John Carpenter and ’80s pop songs. Enjoy!

What was the biggest challenge for you in reviving this franchise 10 years later, and doing so without its two main stars (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman)?

It was a tricky one. It’s always a minefield doing a sequel, and it’s been a long time, so you wonder, will people remember the first one? It’s kind of that middle ground where it’s not a reboot, but it’s been too long for it to be a direct sequel, so that was tricky. I was just such a big fan of the original movie that I think I overcame everything with my nerdiness. I just had fun playing around and referencing the original movie, and then bringing my own geeky, sort of John Carpenter feel to it. It was a cool, fun thing to do.

Is it frustrating not being allowed to explore the identities and motivations of these villains, or do you think that’s part of their allure? They’re the Strangers, so that’s why we don’t know anything about them.
I’m a massive John Carpenter fan and I love the way he directs and tells a story in that, if you look at Halloween or Christine and some of those other movies, they’re about the characters and how they deal with the situation they’re in, rather than backstory. I always found the Halloween movies and remakes that went into the backstory to be, like… that’s not what I’m interested in. So I really like the ambiguity of it, and it’ll be interesting to see, if the franchise continues, whether that develops in itself.

The truck in this movie is practically a character, and in the intro that you taped, you mentioned Christine as a major influence for you. Can you elaborate on that? When you read the script, did you see that opportunity on the page?
Absolutely. When the script across my desk, I saw Christine, and that was what made me go, ‘yeah, I want to do this.’ I just fell in love with that truck, and was having so much fun playing with the fog. When it came time to shoot the truck, I was like a kid. I was like, ‘yeah, we can do this, we can do that.’ We had the anamorphic lenses and the lights sort of going down the barrel. I was just acting like a kid with all these toys.

Strangers Prey at NightAviron Pictures

Can you take us behind the decision to populate the film with ’80s pop songs?
Yeah, you know, that wasn’t an initial thing. I knew that the pool sequence would have an ‘80s tune over it, and we designed a whole sequence to fit that. I was a big Jim Steinman fan, so I said to the editor, let’s try “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” the Bonnie Tyler song. So we used that and it was brilliant, but me and the editor were finding the movie at that point, and it was becoming more and more obvious that the car was a character in this movie. And obviously in Christine, the cars always play music — ’50s rock ‘n roll. We tried a few things like that, and then we were talking about how the whole movie is shot like an ‘80s movie with the zoom lenses and the split diopters, hell, let’s try these ‘80s tracks, and then it just became a whole different beast. I would spend every night just going through my old music collection and trying to hunt new songs as well. We got a beautiful email from Marilyn Martin, who performed the song “Night Moves,” just telling us ‘thank you for remembering me.’

I loved “Cambodia,” the Kim Wylde song.
Did you know that song before? I’d never heard of it! Isn’t it a great tune? That was a tricky sequence to put music over, because a lot of bands were like, ‘no, this is too much, we can’t do this.’ So we had a couple of bands actually drop out — quite big tracks — because it’s a really full-on sequence.

Can you name any names?
I don’t know. I’m gonna say REO Speedwagon. I’m not sure if I can name them, but I just did. Some great bands, they just didn’t feel comfortable, and that was fine. Then one night, I was just hunting for the track for it and we were getting closer and closer to deadline, and then I just saw that Kim Wylde had done a song called “Cambodia.” And I love Vietnam movies, and I was like, Kim Wylde has written a song about ‘Nam? And so I listened to it and I was like, ‘yeah, okay, this is the one.’

What did you learn making this sequel that you’ll apply to directing 48 Meters Down?
I don’t know. I think they’re very different movies. I had a really tough time on 47 Meters Down because it was just a tough movie to make, so I think the thing I learned on Strangers is that I want to have fun again. This was so much fun and I loved working with the cast. It was just a crazy, fun movie.

What did you like about the film’s abandoned trailer park setting?
We actually built the trailer park, and I love stuff like that. I love shooting nights and I love being outside in the real world. That’s why I got into this . So that was great fun. Nights are tricky, because you’re always shooting films in the summer and the sun comes up early, but it was good fun. There were a lot of ticks and crazy creatures, so it was a bit weird, but it was good fun to shoot.

And finally, in your video intro, you point out the absurdity of the Ghosts of Mars poster behind you, so explain its origins. Why do you have a framed Ghosts of Mars poster? I’m dying to know!
Like I said, I’m a huge John Carpenter fan, and the first place I ever had that was my own, it was a tiny little place in Southampton and I wanted to make it my own. Ghosts of Mars had just come out and I was such a big Carpenter fan that I asked the cinema if I could have their poster and I spent all the money that I had — and I didn’t have any money — framing it. I still have it, as you saw, and I take it with me everywhere. I have a soft spot for the movie. It’s maybe not his finest hour, but whatever.

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