Spirit Halloween is not only an interesting extension of the seasonal retail company that happens to star Rachael Leigh Cook and Christopher Lloyd, it also marks the feature film debut for writer Billie Bates. Hailing from Australia, earned a fellowship to the New York Women in Film & Television’s the Writers Lab. She also won in the family category at the 2018 Nashville Film Festival. Wanting to learn more about her background and the film Spirit Halloween, I was able to interview Bates for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some movies that you loved? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Billie Bates: I watched a lot of horror with my dad when I was way too young for it — I didn’t necessarily love it; I just knew he did and wanted to bond with him! Alligator, Jaws, Poltergeist, American Werewolf in London, and A Nightmare on Elm Street all left deep impressions (aka scars). The movies I truly loved were heartfelt family movies like ET, Goonies, and Stand By Me. I think the combination of these two genres became deeply ingrained in my creative DNA and certainly influenced my writing for Spirit Halloween.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in film? Was there a moment that this goal crystalized for you?
Bates: I stumbled on the screenwriting medium by accident. I had written a chic-lit novel set in the glamorous world of private aviation, but I probably only had one or two chic-lit novels in me, then when someone suggested I rewrite that story as a screenplay, it introduced me to a world of storytelling that gelled with me in a way I can’t describe. Screenwriting is a different skill set to novel writing, more than most people realize, and my brain was perfectly wired for it. I knew I’d never be able to stop obsessing over cinematic storytelling once I dove down that rabbit hole.
Yanes: Sadly, I don’t know much about Australian horror movies. Are there any you see as classics?
Bates: I’m not a horror pundit in any country, to be honest, but Babadook and Wolfcreek come to mind as well-known Aussie horror movies. Possible classics might be Razorback — our outback answer to Jaws — or Dead Calm, which was a psychological thriller. But I haven’t seen either one since I was a teen, so not sure how they’d play now!
Yanes: You are from Australia and now working in the United States. What are some of the everyday things in the United States that you find weird?
Bates: I’ve actually lived here 15 years now, but when I first arrived, the portion sizes at restaurants seemed insanely huge, everything tasted too sweet — even bread — and things were far more affordable. Well, until I got sick and got the medical bill — then I thought I’d rather pay twice as much for my consumerism if it meant not being too scared to leave the house and break!
Yanes: Your latest project is Spirit Halloween, a movie inspired by the real-world Halloween stores with the same name. What was the origin of this film?
Bates: I was sitting at traffic lights pondering advice I’d been given to write my next script with a bigger hook and fewer locations if I hoped to sell it. I looked over at the store I’d just left with my kids — a Spirit Halloween pop-up store — and the story came to me fully formed.
Yanes: On this note, how did the connection with the store occur? Did you pitch the story first, or did someone representing the company reach out to you?
Bates: The script was written and doing the contest circuit five years before the store came on board. In fact, most of the early feedback I received was to lose the branding and make it a generic Halloween superstore. I held onto the branding as long as I could, but once it was optioned, that was one of the first edits they had me do — take out the branding. It wasn’t until two years after the original option, when Particular Crowd partnered with Strikeback Studios and Hideout Pictures, that one of the new producers said he knew someone who knew someone type thing. We were shocked and excited when they partnered, which really helped the production value feel bigger for such a low-budget independent film — which is really what it is. Spirit Halloween re-stocked one of their stand-alone stores for us when the season was over and shipped in all the specific animatronics we’d chosen to work into the script. They were cautious and a little confused at times about the vision, but overall they were fantastic.
Yanes: As Spirit Halloween developed from idea to final script, what were some ideas and characters that took on a life of their own?
Bates: A lot of the original mythology and backstory was cut to simplify story and reduce budget. When Spirit Halloween came on board, and David Poag secured Christopher Lloyd, I was able to bring back a version of the orphanage origins — Christopher Lloyd’s role as a child-hating selfish land developer then went on to anchor the overarching drive for the spirit pursuing the kids.
Yanes: Reflecting on your success with Spirit Halloween, how do you think this story has helped you become a better creator?
Bates: Filmmaking is definitely collaborative, and embracing that as a screenwriter can truly make for a better story. Although I’ve learned if you don’t stand for a few core story elements to anchor the cacophony of notes thrown at you, then a good script can quickly go off the rails. I always try to incorporate a version of all the notes I’m given, but if they truly make the story worse because there’s no way to anchor it in one of the three core elements I adhere to (Theme, Character, Story Logic), then I’ll bring up my concerns in the next meeting. I don’t do well with randomness! But embracing the collaborative process is important as you move out of your writer’s cave and into the industry — I don’t know who said it, and I’ve heard it said different ways, but the idea that “if you want to be overly precious about your work, write a book,” has always stuck with me.
Yanes: When people finish watching Spirit Halloween, what do you hope viewers take away from the experience?
Bates: For 8 -12-year-olds — excitement, anticipation, jump scares, and an understanding that change is a natural part of growing up. For their parents — a nostalgic trip back to a simpler time, when the thought of growing up and growing apart from your friends could be just as scary as the monsters you need to battle. And it has to be said — David Poag — the director — did such an amazing job of bringing my vision to life. He absolutely nailed the tone, aesthetic, and mood — I couldn’t be happier with what he was able to do with the script in such a short turnaround (21- day shoot), micro pre-production, and super low budget. It’s insane, and I will be eternally grateful to him and his hardworking crew for pouring their hearts and souls into the project.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Bates: I’m working on a Spy Comedy with Particular Crowd that I think will be a lot of fun, as well as another family adventure film in the tone of Spirit Halloween, but set in the world of ‘glamor’ witches. I just partnered with Zero Gravity Management, though, and my most recent spec samples are for far bigger-budget blockbusters, so stay tuned for the next chapter.
Want to get into the Halloween Spirit early? Check out our list of classic horror movies.