Talking Practical Monsters of Krampus with Director Mike Dougherty

By  · Published on December 4th, 2015

We don’t see enough practical effects in movies nowadays. In horror movies, especially, obvious CG is made more glaring. If a character is running from a monster, if it was created in a computer, usually all you see is somebody running from computer-generated imagery, not some vicious beast. That’s not always the case, as there’s plenty of fantastic CG creations, but a film like Krampus benefits from its use of practical effects. The creatures are tangible, which means so is the fear we see the characters experience.

Co-writer/director Mike Dougherty’s wanted to make an old school horror-comedy. Dougherty hasn’t directed since 2008’s long-delayed Trick ‘ Treat ‐ a wonderful movie not only to watch around Halloween but really anytime of year. With his sophomore effort, the director is raising hell on Christmas, not Halloween. A family’s holiday gets worse and worse at the start of Krampus, but they end up having to stop fighting each other once the evil spirit of Christmas makes an appearance.

Krampus is a massive practical effect, but he’s not the only monster in the film. Here’s what Mike Dougherty had to say about the other holiday-themed creatures, building a mythology, and more:

It’s refreshing to see how many practical effects there are in the film.

Yeah. I miss practical effects. They move in a way that just feels right.

Was there no question of having these monsters be practical effects?

I told Legendary from the beginning: “No, these are all going to be puppets and physical effects.” They did Trick ‘r Treat, so they said, “Yeah, great.” Legendary gets that. It also helps to somewhat control costs. For me, it’s the hybrid approach: get as much as you can in-camera, and then use your computes when necessary. We still used a lot of digital tools to erase rods, wires, and puppeteers from shots. Some of the creatures were digital, like our little gingerbread men [Laughs]. They are digital, but I told them to make it feel like stop-motion. The animated [backstory] sequence, for example, is meant to look like some old-fashioned animator did it, but it’s CG. I love both, but I always practical as first priority.

How did going practical help control costs? Is that usually the case?

Well, it’s tough. I’m afraid to even say that, because it seems like it’s cheaper, but then you end up spending more time. It’s a bit of a tradeoff, which all sort of balances out. It’s all about the end result, and the texture in the practical creatures, especially when it comes to that glistening slime quality, you just don’t get [from CG]. I think it also depends on what kind of creature you want to do. We’re talking about toys coming to life and attacking people, so it doesn’t make sense they’d be CG. If someone is fighting a doll in the light, they should be fighting a doll. With something like gingerbread men, CG makes more sense.

I imagine those puppets on set help the actors do their job do, too.

You know, I took a cue from what Ridley Scott did on the original Alien. During the chestburster scene, the actors didn’t know what the chestburster was going to look like. They knew it was going to happen, but they had no idea how intense or bloody it would be, or what it would look like, so their reactions are really authentic. On Krampus, I wouldn’t let the actors see the creatures as they were being built. The creatures were kept in their own special little tent, until they were needed on set. The actors wouldn’t see the creatures until we were rolling. When the clown shows up and does what it does, those reactions are legit [Laughs].

[Laughs] Was there a lot of back-and-forth about getting the design of Krampus right?

There wasn’t a lot of back-and-forth; it was a pretty streamlined process. I did the initial sketch when I was working with my writers, breaking the story. We would just go to this bar in Hollywood, kick ideas around, and I would doodle. I tend to use drawing and sketching as a way to deal with writers’ block. I actually still have the original sketch of Krampus. It’s sort of a loose sketch of a silhouette, but we kept doing more and more detailed sketches as we kept developing the script. After Legendary bought the script they gave us the money, and we went to this professional creature designer, who can draw much better than I can and even model it in 3D. It was a long process, but I always had a clear idea of what I wanted him to look like.

How time-consuming was getting Krampus to work on set?

That’s the thing: I love practical, but I understand why a lot of filmmakers have abandoned it and gone digital, because with practical, you move 10 times slower. I think the effect is worth it.

I don’t know much about the mythology of Krampus, but in the stories you’ve read, does he often use helpers?

That’s something we actually brought to it. Something I love about the Krampus myth is he evolves and changes, based on the culture or time period he’s in, so the Austrian version might be a little bit different from the Hungarian version. We decided this is largely the American interpretation of the myth, so he’s more tied to Christmas, whereas in Europe he’s mostly tied to St. Nicholas day, which is December 6th. We wanted to expand his reach and abilities, so the whole idea he rides in with an intense blizzard and the notion of minions is pretty new. We just looked at the Santa Claus myth and said, “Well, if Santa Claus has all these helpers, toys, reindeer, and elves, then Krampus would have the diabolical version of that.”

Gingerbread men and angels definitely come to mind when thinking of Christmas, but how did the monstrous jack-in-the-box come about?

That was tough. That was a fairly late addition in the script stage. We knew we wanted to see the family fight with these bizarre toys, so there was always a placeholder that said: “family fights toys.” We couldn’t find the centerpiece of it, though, so I just asked, “What’s the most horrifying image you can come up with? If you were a parent, what’s the worst image you could possibly confront if you went into a creepy, dark attic?” [Pause] And that was it [Laughs].

[Laughs] What about the angel?

I mean, I just love killer dolls [Laughs]. I didn’t do a killer doll in Trick ‘r Treat, so it just felt like a natural fit. The whole idea of Christmas toys coming to life is something that seems a part of Christmas folklore, and it’s always meant to be uplifting and magical, but, in reality, if you saw a teddy bear or a Christmas angel come to life, your Christmas would be shattered in a second.

Did you get a chance to take one of those puppets home?

Not yet, but I’m hoping to [Laughs]. I definitely claimed dibs on a few of them. We are actually going to create some of them as merchandise, so there’s going to ornaments and things like that.

For most of the monsters, did you have a lot of backup puppets on set?

For some of them, because some would break down every now and then, but WETA was really great at repairing stuff on the fly.

Are there any shots in particular that you couldn’t accomplish practically?

Yes, the snow beasts ‐ the one that tunnels around in the snow. I don’t know if you could tell, but that’s all CG. Another CG shot is Krampus running across the rooftops in the background, when he’s chasing Beth through the snow. That’s a shot where we’re sort of panning with her, where you see his silhouette jumping across the roofs, and on that shot I reluctantly said, “Go ahead. Make it digital,” mostly because we could obscure him with a lot of fog and snow. That was my rule: if it’s going to be CG, it has to feel practical. I still want the shot composed as if it was practical.

Krampus opens in theaters December 4th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.