CREEPED OUT: INTERVIEW WITH ROB BUTLER

Would you be Creeped Out if an old-timey Punch and Judy show pops up on a sandy sea-side beach.

You approach, drawn in by the sinister designs of its unusual puppets; puppets filled with aching familiarity.

Only as you reach the small audience of children, sat crossed legged and obedient in front, do you realize that those puppets look remarkably like your parents.

A figure watches from the distance, his face expressionless to the curious events unfolding.

He appears to be observing you with great intent, as though he knows something that you don’t; that you can’t.

It’s only now you see that it’s not a face at all.

It’s a mask, featureless and haunting.

He is “The Curious”. And he has come to take your tale…

Creeped Out is a horror anthology show produced by the CBBC and Canadian companyCreeped Out DHX MEDIA, which first aired in 2017.

Bookended by a mysterious stranger, known only as “The Curious”, the show delivered twelve weird tales that ran the full gamut of genre shows from weird sci-fi to spooky horror.

It was a huge hit for the children’s channel, proving to be a well written and well-acted show with production design giving it the appearance of a show with twice its budget.

Following in the footsteps as such classics of yesteryear as Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark, Creeped Out is a show that appeals to horror fans young and old with its killer twists, intriguing characters and unsettling endings.

As the show gears up for its second series, I caught up with one of its co-creators, Rob Butler to find out where the inspiration for the show came from and what we can expect when it returns to our screens.

Thanks for sparing us some time to talk about series two of Creeped Out. Cards on the table, my daughter and I binge watched season one last week and thought it was fantastic.

Aw that’s brilliant, always nice to hear that. How old is your daughter?

She’s twelve.

That’s a great age to catch it.

She’s as excited for season two as I am.

That’s brilliant.

Could you tell us a little bit about how the show originally came about?

Me and Bede Blake had been friends for a long time. We met when we were both writing for Hollyoaks, funnily enough.

We had similar tastes in films, we both loved horrors and the eighties. Bede had worked on a CBBC show, about six years ago we first discussed it.

We had a night out in Pizza Express and we tried to come up with some ideas to pitch to CBBC, and all the ideas felt a little fake and forced.

The Curious Mayfield AvenueBut the one that we both enjoyed and locked onto was doing a sort of kids-version of The Twilight Zone.

We sent over a one-liner to Anna Davies at CBBC, saying we were up for doing a kid’s anthology. I don’t think it was even originally a horror show, our inspirations were more The Twilight Zone or Amazing Stories.

They had wanted to do an anthology show for a while, a sort of Are You Afraid of the Dark? or a Goosebumps, so the timing aligned quite nicely.

They commissioned us to do two episodes and they ended up being ‘Spaceman’ and the circus episode, ‘Side Show’. DHX got involved from Canada and offered co-production.

It was quite smooth sailing from when we pitched it to when we got the series going, and we ended up filming eight episodes here and five in Canada.

What challenges were there in having the production split between the UK and Canada?

It was a tricky one to be honest, mainly because no one had done it before in terms of having a show half filmed in one country and half in another.

Sometimes it was disguised as one country or pretended to be another. We had episodes very much set in Canada and very much set in England.

In the end it turned out very cool, because the pros outweighed the cons overall. When we went to Canada the facilities and the people were incredible.

It gives the episodes a unique style, not just in terms of the tone or genre, but in terms of being able to set each tale in such diverse places.

SlapstickYeah, that’s brilliant that you can see that.

We wanted each episode to be a mini-movie in a way and feel like a completely different world. To make everyone in the world feel scared!

There’s no escape from horror whether you’re in rainy Toronto or 70s Mississippi or Salford! Everyone deserves to be scared.

I saw that Bruce McDonald (director of Pontypool) was involved in directing the Canadian block of episodes.

Yeah, good old Bruce.

I am a huge Pontypool fan.

Me too! I’m meeting him in a few weeks, I’ll pass that along.

Basically, Bruce did all the Canadian episodes in series one, and he is back to do all the episodes in series two as well, which is fantastic.

We became friends with him; it’s very hard not to become friends with Bruce McDonald – he is a living legend.

In Canada, when we first went out with him, he had people coming up to him, shaking his hand; he’s a bit of an icon over there.

He got involved as DHX had wanted to work with him for a long time. He mainly does films but has done a few horror shows like Bitten, but they always wanted him to do these kids shows.

Very luckily, they sent him our scripts for Creeped Out and he enjoyed them and agreed to come on board.

I kept thinking that they must have the wrong Bruce McDonald, that there was no way the director of Pontypool wants to go near my stuff.

He’s a true artist, one of those guys with a twisted genius mind and a wicked sense of humour. He’s always looking to test himself and push it.

We kind of shared our vision with him and he totally got on board with that, so a lot of the cool images in those episodes come from his brain.

We had an episode called ‘Shed No Fear’ which wasn’t originally set in the 70s. But he suggested we set it in 70s Mississippi with a predominantly black cast, which really gives it its own identity and raises it up from being a ‘shed-monster’ episode to this cool-looking Stranger Things vibe.

The show aired on CBBC over here. How did the BBC deal with the content of the show? Some of the episodes end on something of a grim note…

Yeah, most of them do!

I thought it was quite a brave thing to do in a children’s show, it really doesn’t pull any punches.

We were quite surprised too.

Anna Davies was great. Bede and I were surprised that they were pushing for darker endings.

I remember we delivered a draft where we’d gone with a nicer ending and Anna, to her credit, felt that we were holding back and told us that she didn’t think the ending we had was strong enough.

We told her what we originally wanted to happen, and you could see how excited she was. So yeah, they were all for it.

As things progressed, we had a tricky episode called ‘Kindlesticks’, and that one was cut in England, but the full version was show on Netflix and in Canada.

Kindlesticks

We had quite a tricky dance around what is suitable and what is not, but overall, we were very pleased, and they were very brave.

At the end of the day we never want to disturb any kids, more to give them the rollercoaster fun house scare. A bit of a jolt and scare, but one you enjoy.

You mentioned some of your inspirations earlier, like Twilight Zone and Amazing Stories; anthology shows are making a comeback right now, why do you think that is?

I think largely it’s down to Black Mirror and stuff like that.

It’s about telling good stories and having self-contained moments.

My attention span has become terrible recently, and as much as I want to binge an hour of TV, I find that I’m looking at my phone after 20 minutes.

Having a 25-30 minute story that is self-contained and ends, there’s something exciting about that.

When we pitched the show, it was tricky to get off the ground. It was about six or seven years ago, and Black Mirror had only just come out, Inside Number 9 had just begun, and we had trouble getting a pure anthology off the ground.

They were worried people wouldn’t tune in every week if there wasn’t a continuing element to it. And we ended up having a different bookend to “The Curious” that we have now. It was like The Goonies meets The Breakfast Club meets The NeverEnding Story, and we liked that.

But the more we developed it, the more we felt we had to develop those characters, and Bede and I got a little nervous about taking time away from the main story.

Fortunately, when Canada came on board, they didn’t really get the bookend stuff, and that’s where ‘The Curious’ was born.

Yeah, the UK seems to have been leading the way. Black Mirror started off as a UK production before moving on to Netflix, and Inside No. 9 really is doing astounding things.

Yeah, there’s even a Tales of the Unexpected revival!

As soon as I heard about it, I was begging my agent to get me involved! It’s an exciting time.

For me, Inside No. 9 is really another level of genius; you can’t get near those guys.

One of the things I noticed was just how cross generational the show is, in that it really appeals to adults as much kids. Why do you think that is?
First off, thank you for saying that; it was always our intention to have a joint viewing experience.

I think one of the reasons it appeals to both adults and kids is that we very much wrote them for ourselves in a way.

I think if you write stories as stories, they just happen to be cool horror stories through the eyes of a kid.

We always wanted to approach it that way, we never wanted to patronise kids or pretend we could speak their language. We wanted to tell stories, it just so happened that it was through their eyes.

Bravery Badge

We took a lot of inspiration from films like E.T., which is a very grown up story about divorce and a family going through that, and a kid who learns not to be selfish through caring for the alien.

And it always struck us that the film never pandered to kids, almost as though you were peering in on an adult movie that was still perfectly suitable for you.

We wanted to tell stories that were universal and appreciated be people of any age and appeal to a broader audience.

Much like E.T., your stories treat their subject matter very seriously, and although have moments of humour, they don’t undercut or lessen the peril. I think that helps adult audiences buy into it.

I think that’s right. We had an episode called ‘Marti’, about a phone falling in love with its owner, and that, on paper, was a one liner about an evil phone.

And that could have been the most stupid half hour of TV ever made!

But we thought “What actually would happen? How would that end up?”. And that ended up being one of our darker, more powerful episodes.

It became a story about addiction, and almost a sort of abusive relationship. It has the friend looking out for the signs and helping her, but in the end, she is drawn back into that world, and that came from just treating it very seriously.

Something that always frustrated me about kids shows growing up, where it didn’t feel that the writer or creator was taking the kids seriously, and that would just make me turn off.

In terms of Season two, do you have plans to return to any of the stories from season one or do you feel that you want to leave them behind and move on to new tales?

We aren’t picking up any of them directly, but we do have a lot of connections to other stories, some characters are mentioned.

There is a sort of sequel to ‘Marti’, it takes place in the same world and the company who made the phone are back with a new product.

Are you doing anymore two-part episodes?

Not this year.

The reason we had one in season one was that was our spec script. It was everyone’s favourite, and we didn’t want to trim it down, so we just extended it.

It’s a slightly shorter run this year with only ten episodes, so we really wanted to focus on ten different stories.

I appreciate that this is a very difficult question that you might not be able to answer, but so far what has been your favourite episode?

I think it’s probably ‘Kindlesticks’ to be honest.

That one felt like a mini-horror that pushed it to the limits.

I think Bruce and Jason (cinematographer) did such a wonderful job on that and all the actors were great. Everything was fun on that one and a bit scary.

Joe Kramer did the score on season one, and he’s a big Hollywood composer, he did Rogue Nation and Jack Reacher. He did well in that one too!

I’m also a fan of ‘Slapstick’, the punch and Judy one set by the seaside.

I think Mr Blackteeth might be one of those characters that in fifteen years adults will look back on with a fond shiver.

If that’s the case that would be incredible. I’m fond of them all but those two I think are my favourites.

You and Bede write all the episodes bar one in season one, is that something that you are going to continue in season two?

This time around we got a couple of new voices in.

We spent a lot of time developing ideas with new writers, while Bede and I kind of went away and wrote our own.

So, we have some new voices, but only in the Canadian episodes.

We have one episode that Bruce decided to film almost cinema verité style, which looks incredible. Season two is going to look very cinematic.

We have a few new directors coming on, we have Gareth Tunley who did ‘The Ghoul’, he’s doing two episodes in England. We have Simon Hynd who has just done ‘There She Goes’ with David Tennant, who was brilliant.

What horror films or tv shows from your childhood have really stuck with you and perhaps influenced the show?

I loved all the Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark episodes.

I loved Amazing Stories, and only really remember watching it on VHS at my Nan’s house!

I ended up watching horror movies a lot younger than I should’ve done, it was mainly things like Poltergeist, and I remember my cousin showing me A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was about eight.

It was the thrill of horror that instantly bit me growing up, and it wasn’t even things that were horribly disturbing it was things like Are You Afraid of the Dark.

There was something about that world that really excited me, and it felt like you were sort of part of this little club you could sneak in and out of, get a bit of a scare and feel more grown up having come through the other side of it.

That’s what we wanted to do with this show, give them something scary they aren’t going to get in other shows but that they aren’t going to go away and watch IT or some Netflix show.

We wanted it to be a gateway to horror, that you are going to get a bit of a scare, but you aren’t going to see blood or naked people!

We did a workshop with some kids and we went around the circle and asked what they watched and what scared them, and they were all watching Netflix or IT; things that were completely unsuitable for them.

That worried me a little, and that’s why we hoped that Creeped Out would be the sort of show that they could get that same thrill but not get disturbed by it.

Yeh, I remember growing up with Are You Afraid of the Dark on Nickelodeon, and that was very much my way into horror, and this show has that similar vibe; happy to leave you off kilter with unsettling endings. I think that stays with you as a kid a lot more than blood and guts.

Yeh, that’s true. The very fact that you said your daughter was thinking about ‘Kindlesticks’ afterwards pleases me so much because that exactly the feeling I would get from these shows. Anything that stirs your creativity, you know, that next generation of horror people, that would get them into it.

Because like yourself, these are my entry points into horror, and I’d like to give back what I’ve taken from it.

The last question comes from my daughter, she insisted that I asked you; She really wanted to know if you were planning on doing an episode investigating The Curious itself, if we would have an episode based around it? The Curious was one of the things that hooked her into the show, she found the featureless mask quite unnerving.

“The Curious” is probably the thing that hit hardest really, some people love him and are obsessed with him.

So, for that very reason, Bede and I are very, very, very reluctant to explain anything about him. The minute we do, half the people are going to go “Oh well that’s not what I expected, that’s shit!” and we didn’t want to do any explaining with him (or her, or it), we were cautious to keep that going.

We obviously have the real backstory in our heads – but we’ll never reveal it.The Curious

We shot a slightly extended ending where we explain a little bit about why he is collecting items, which may or may not make the cut for season two.

But in terms of explaining where he’s from we are not going to be explicit, but we will give little hints.

We give “The Curious” a few layers in this series, I think we have some shots where he’s looking a bit scared and we see him (or her) a bit more playful.

“The Curious” is played by five different people, and this year we have our first female “Curious”, and we are quite excited by that.

We even had a stunt “Curious” for climbing on the roof and doing some other crazy stuff.

But in answer to your question; you won’t get anything concrete, but you will get a few more bits that will open more questions.

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today, it’s been great to get a little bit of insight into the show, and we are very much looking forward to watching series two from April.

Thank you very much.

Rob Butler can be found on twitter spreading his love for horror – @RobTheButler

Disclaimer: The films discussed as inspirations may not be suitable for younger viewers.

By Hugh McStay

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