"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" writer-producer Guillermo… (Andrew H. Walker / Getty…)
Big breaks rarely happen quite this way: Comic book artist and aspiring director Troy Nixey submitted his short "Latchkey's Lament" to Oscar-nominated filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, looking for guidance and feedback. What he received instead was a shot to direct his first feature, Friday's "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark."
An update of the 1973 TV movie of the same name, the film follows a young girl (Bailee Madison) sent to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) while they remodel an old mansion with some terrifying basement dwellers.
Del Toro initially intended to direct the script in the late 1990s for Miramax, but when the opportunity to make "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" finally arrived in 2008, he felt it was too thematically similar to his 2006 twisted fairy tale "Pan's Labyrinth." Sufficiently impressed by "Latchkey's Lament" — the story of two house keys attempting to escape from a clockwork villain — Del Toro proposed that Nixey take up the project, with the Mexico-born filmmaker serving as a producer and co-writer with Matthew Robbins.
FilmDistrict, which released the popular fright flick "Insidious" earlier this year, took over the $25-million film's distribution after Disney disbanded and sold its Miramax unit. The independent FilmDistrict is hinging its marketing plan on Del Toro's reputation, not altogether surprising as stars Holmes and Pearce are hardly bankable names.
"Guillermo is the way to get people in. To me, he's the star of the film," distribution chief Bob Berney said. "Even though he didn't direct it, fans will see that his hands are all over it."
Audience tracking surveys show that women — particularly young girls — are quite interested in the film. Opening widely opposite the new revenge thriller "Colombiana" and the Sundance Film Festival comedy "Our Idiot Brother," "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," which is attracting good but not great reviews, could gross as much as $14 million in its debut.
That might not be enough to eclipse "The Help," which is becoming one of late summer's bigger breakouts with ticket sales to date in excess of $75 million since premiering Aug. 10.
Del Toro is hopeful that young teen ticket buyers also will check out "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." He pointed out that he saw the 1973 original when he was 9 or 10 years old. "It's not at all bloody or gory," Del Toro said. "It's a new take on a very classic format. We designed it to be a movie that would be seen by a younger audience."
The ratings board at the Motion Picture Assn. of America didn't quite see it the same way, giving the movie an R rating for "violence and terror."
Nixey had long been an admirer of Del Toro's work. "He was my favorite working director," Nixey, 39, said. "I thought his movies were incredible and really talked to me on a creative level, an emotional level.... To go from finishing the short and hoping to have him look at it, to him actually offering me the opportunity to direct 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark' … my jaw dropped."
Growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada, Nixey always dreamed of attending film school but couldn't quite manage to pay for a pricey education. Led by his love of art and storytelling, he opted to pursue a career as a comic book artist, working on titles for DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics and Oni Press, among other publishers. But he never forgot about film.
He largely self-financed his short, hoping to use it as a steppingstone toward a Hollywood career.
"You can't really show people you can direct until you show them that you can direct," Nixey said.
Although Nixey was not familiar with the original "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," he worked closely with Del Toro on a new vision for the thriller, with the veteran serving as a sounding board for various ideas and supervising the film's shooting and post-production.
"He always sort of said, 'I'm here when you need me, and I'm not when you don't,'" Nixey said. "To have that out there, if you had a question about something, why wouldn't you want to go to Guillermo, who's this massive creative mind, and say, 'How about this?'"
The film was shot in and around Melbourne, Australia, in the summer of 2009, with the majority of the production centered inside the elaborate mansion that houses the vicious, hungry creatures stalking Madison's Sally.
As you watch "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," it's virtually impossible to ignore the presence of certain Del Toro motifs. The movie's tale of a plucky female protagonist encountering otherworldly creatures unquestionably recalls "Pan's Labyrinth," as does the film's sumptuous production design.
Nixey, though, has no trouble accounting for any perceived similarities between his film and his mentor's earlier work.