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Exclusive Interview: “TRUTH OR DARE” director Jeff Wadlow on games of death, PG-13 horror and more

Monday, April 9, 2018 | Exclusive, Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

In 2005, director Jeff Wadlow made his feature debut with CRY_WOLF, about a campus game gone murderously awry. Now, under the auspices of Blumhouse, he’s back making TRUTH OR DARE deadly for another group of college students. He tells us about going back to scare school in this exclusive chat.

In TRUTH OR DARE, opening this Friday the 13th, Olivia (Lucy Hale) and her friends take a spring-break trip to Mexico and return to their university cursed. A supernatural force compels them to play the titular game, revealing their darkest and most upsetting secrets and performing increasingly dangerous tasks, with death as the consequence of refusing. Also starring Tyler Posey (TEEN WOLF), Violett Beane, Hayden Szeto, Landon Liboiron, Sophia Ali and Nolan Gerard Funk, TRUTH OR DARE marks Wadlow’s first time helming a big-screen chiller since CRY_WOLF (his credits in between include NEVER BACK DOWN and KICK-ASS 2), though he served as a writer/producer on TV’s BATES MOTEL and THE STRAIN in the interim.

Both this film and CRY_WOLF are about games gone horrifically awry for college kids; what is it about that idea that appeals to you?

It’s funny, I’ve done a bunch of interviews on this film, and you’re the first person to make that connection! I think what attracts me to the notion of a game gone awry is this aspect of the genre that embraces a “Be careful what you wish for” mentality, where if you want to play a game, watch out, the game’s gonna play with you. It’s just a fun conceit for a thriller. Also, I tend to gravitate toward stories about characters reaching a point in their lives where they need to decide what kind of people they want to be, and by and large that happens to younger people. It’s an interesting moment to focus on, because that’s when the most change presents itself over the shortest period of time, and great stories are usually about change.

I took a lot of the lessons that I learned from CRY_WOLF and applied them to TRUTH OR DARE, so in many ways it’s a very similar film, and in other ways it’s very different. I was able to do things differently because I’ve learned a lot and matured in the last 13 years.

How did you come to explore that concept again in TRUTH OR DARE?

Basically, Jason Blum pitched me the idea. He said he had nothing, just the title, and I actually pitched him the opening scene on the spot. I just made that up when we first started talking about it, and he loved it. He was like, “What happens next?” and I said, “I don’t know, I’m still figuring it out!”

Carlton Cuse, the executive producer of LOST, was a mentor of mine, and I’ve worked with him on BATES MOTEL and the final season of THE STRAIN. I decided I wanted to run [TRUTH OR DARE’s script development] sort of like a Carlton Cuse writers’ room. I went to my friend Chris Roach, who had written NON-STOP [on which Wadlow was an executive producer], and his wife, Jillian Jacobs, and said, “Why don’t the three of us get together and write this movie sort of the same way BATES MOTEL was written?” Because that was just me, Carlton and Kerry Ehrin.

The three of us started pitching ideas and writing them down on note cards, and coming up with different truths and dares, and slowly we figured out the film’s structure. Then we split up the scenes and each took a stab at them and passed them back and forth, I did a final pass on the script and gave it to Jason, and he greenlighted it.

Can you talk a little more about the process of coming up with truths and dares for the characters, and the death scenes tying in with them?

Well, we actually did it the opposite way. We thought of interesting secrets and fears that could be revealed, and then we reverse-engineered the characters to make those secrets and fears the dares were based on part of their DNA, if you will. Another thing we did, which made it kind of tricky, was that we knew the truths and the dares had to happen in a certain order, and we wanted them to unfold in the same order in which they play the first game. So as we came up with these secrets and fear-based dares, we assigned them values from 1 to 10—1 being the least intense, 10 being the most intense. We made sure we sequenced them in that order, then started to assign them characters, and developed the characters based on those secrets and fears. So even though the sequences were character-based, they were very much orchestrated to escalate in intensity over the course of the film.

When we talked about a sequence, we would say, “Well, it would be interesting if someone was forced to tell the truth at a really high-stakes moment in their lives, like a medical-school interview, or if they had to talk about their lifestyle to their parents, and they had never revealed that before.” We obviously realized that the latter was a much more intense moment than the former, so we made sure that would happen later in the film. We always tried to make sure that each sequence was a part of the character’s intrinsic makeup. Even though I like the FINAL DESTINATION movies, some of the later sequels started to feel like you were just waiting for the characters to die in interesting ways, and I did not want to do that with TRUTH OR DARE.

Were you required to make TRUTH OR DARE PG-13, and did that present any challenges?

You know, I always conceived it as a PG-13 film. I believe if you’re going to make an R movie, it’s got to be a hard R, and if you’re going to make a PG-13 movie, it’s got to be a hard PG-13. And even the hardest version of this film you can imagine is not really an R. At its core, it’s about friendship and betrayal, and even though there are a couple of gruesome moments, I felt they would be more effective if they were implied than if they were explicit. It’s really more of a thriller than a gory, in-your-face horror movie. Once I had a cut, we submitted it to the MPAA, and there were a few moments they balked at and that I had to pull back on, but only because I was pushing to make a hard PG-13, not trying to make an R.

It’s funny, because there were moments in BATES MOTEL and THE STRAIN that would have pushed that envelope, and those were done for television.

That makes no sense to me, don’t you agree? It’s totally bananas and backwards. Why is it that feature films are so much more restricted than TV, when TV comes into our homes without permission, and you actually have to make a choice to go to a theater? The rules are just different in TV; you can do things that you can’t do in a feature—certainly when you’re trying to do a PG-13 feature. I don’t understand it, I think it’s totally byzantine and backwards, and I hope they fix it soon.

Do you have plans to do more horror films with Blumhouse?

Yeah, I actually have a few things in development with them. I can’t talk about them, because if I did, I’m sure Jason Blum would have me drawn and quartered!

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.