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Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – Director Troy Nixey on his first film

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Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - Director Troy Nixey and Bailee Madison
Director Troy Nixey © 2011 Miramax

When filmmaker Guillermo del Toro decided to take on the role of producer and let somebody else helm the script he had written for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, it was a great opportunity to work with a promising first-time director. His choice was former comic book artist Troy Nixey, who caught del Toro’s attention with the short film, Latchkey’s Lament.

For Nixey, who had been looking to make the leap into long-form drama, the opportunity to collaborate with one of the industry’s great filmmakers- and a personal favorite as well- was too good to pass up. During a recent promotional visit to New York, he talked about the challenges of putting together his first feature, as well as sharing some of his own pre-production artwork from the film…

There seems to be a misconception that it’s relatively easy for comic book people to transition into features because they’re used to sequential storytelling, but not very of them have made that leap.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - A creature
One of Director Troy Nixey's illustrations of the creatures © 2011 Miramax

I think that’s one aspect of filmmaking where comics could definitely help. I was actually talking to somebody about this last night and I sort of work the other way.

I found comics very frustrating, because I do think in moving images not just one solid image, so for me, comics were always difficult, because what is that one solid freeze frame of the sequence that I’m going to use to represent this aspect of the story I want to tell?

With movies, which are my first love, there’s so much more to directing than just the sequential aspect of telling the story. A lot of comic artists can deal with the use of one page to represent everything, but movies are a collaborative effort.

You need to be a good communicator to get your ideas out and be able to trust the people that you’re working with to be able to execute them because you can’t do everything on your own.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - A creature
Another of Director Troy Nixey's illustrations of the creatures © 2011 Miramax

What I always felt comics helped me with was that it informed me with the kind of stories I wanted to tell, the worlds I wanted to create and the kinds of characters I wanted to put in them. When I made Latchkey’s Lament, I thought, ‘Okay, what’s popular right now? What are people looking for?’

I knew it going to be hard and cost me a lot of money, so I knew I had to be passionate about it. It had to represent me 100%, so when I handed somebody Latchkey’s Lament, I could say, ‘This is how my brain works; these are the stories I want to tell!’

I think that’s what Guillermo responded to, because he saw Latchkey’s and said, ‘I’ve seen his comic book work and I’ve seen his short; I know what’s in his head.’

It wasn’t hard for him to make the leap of faith and say, ‘Okay, I know he’s not lying to me, because this is what it is and this is what he does, so I can see what he can do with the creatures and the worlds he builds!

Was it helpful to shoot your first feature down in Australia without lots of studio executives looking over your shoulder?

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - A creature
A creature © 2011 Miramax

Yes and no. One thing about having Mark Johnson or Guillermo there was not that you needed a support system, but there was always a person who was championing your cause. Miramax came and visited once or twice, but yes, by Hollywood standards, you’re in the middle of nowhere.

You’re several time zones and a very long flight away, so I was definitely able to say, ‘Okay, let’s go to work and make this movie!’ That was great, but having Guillermo in New Zealand at the time and being able to pick his brain without having to worry about the time zone was a good thing too.

You were able to put together a great cast, but is it fair to say that everything came together when Bailee Madison came in to audition for the role of Sally?

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - Director Troy Nixey and Bailee Madison
Director Troy Nixey and Bailee Madison © 2011 Miramax

Absolutely. Bailee came in very late in the process, only because she had been working. I think I looked at every little girl from seven to eleven in North America at that point. There were hundreds anyway and we finally got down to a couple. I won’t tell you who the second one was, but doing very well for herself right now, as is Bailee.

It was actually a conversation producer Mark Johnson with Natalie Portman, because Bailee had worked with Natalie on Brothers. She said, ‘I just worked with this little girl who was absolutely amazing!’ and when Bailee walked into the room and said, ‘Hey, everybody!’ because that’s how she is and we read lines and she was incredible.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - Poster
Poster © 2011 Miramax

I had sort of dialed her in before everyone else had, but she did a read with Katie [Holmes] and there was so much chemistry between the two of them so in the end, it was a no-brainer.

Everybody said, ‘Bailee, Bailee, Bailee,’ and she’s so talented and savvy and intelligent. I call her a kid, because she’s 11 now, but she’s really an adult in a kid’s body. She had never done anything like this before, but really brought everything she could to it.

Is this a genre you want to continue working in?

It’s funny, I understand why they call this a horror movie, but I’m much more comfortable calling it a dark fantasy. It’s definitely in the same universe as Pan’s Labyrinth and I have more ideas like this, because like Guillermo, I absolutely love monsters.

I’ve already written a script, which is more of a PG-13 movie that I call my love letter to ET I grew up with all those Amblin movies so it has a very Amblin sort of feel to it. It’s not at all about an alien, but my ideas definitely live in the fantastical and I can’t imagine doing a straight-ahead drama, at least not right now. Maybe when I’m older!