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How to Make a Heavy Topic Human and Accessible: Leah Fong Discusses 'The Midnight Club'

Leah Fong recently spoke with Script about the journey of developing 'The Midnight Club' and her general writing principles.
[L-R] Igby Rigney as Kevin, Adia as Cheri, Chris Sumpter as Spencer, Aya Furukawa as Natsuki, Iman Benson as Ilonka, Ruth Codd as Anya, Annarah Cymone as Sandra in episode 104 of The Midnight Club. Cr. Eike Schroter/Netflix © 2022

[L-R] Igby Rigney as Kevin, Adia as Cheri, Chris Sumpter as Spencer, Aya Furukawa as Natsuki, Iman Benson as Ilonka, Ruth Codd as Anya, Annarah Cymone as Sandra in episode 104 of The Midnight Club. Cr. Eike Schroter/Netflix © 2022

The Midnight Club, which dropped on Netflix on October 7, 2022, is a celebration of storytelling as a rite of passage. While some of the themes throughout the series are serious, there is also an undercurrent of joie de vivre. Life is reaffirmed by death. Based on the best-selling series of YA books by Christopher Pike, the anthology program was inspired by 90s Nickelodeon sensation Are You Afraid of the Dark? and has an ensemble cast that includes Heather Langenkamp, Iman Benson, Igby Rigney, Annarah Cymone, William Chris Sumpter, Adia, Aya Furukawa, Sauriyan Sapkota, and newcomer Ruth Codd. It’s an ode to campfire storytelling and connecting to others via shared experience.

At the helm of the spooky and thought-provoking show is writer/director Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass), a master of combining sentiment and horror. Co-creator of The Midnight Club is Leah Fong, who is no stranger to writing about the fantastic. The writer/producer has penned episodes of Amazing Stories, The Magicians and Once Upon a Time. She brings a discerning eye for YA characters, as well as a light touch and nuance for heavy scenes. She recently spoke with us about the journey of developing The Midnight Club and her general writing principles.

How did you get into writing horror and what attracts you to horror?

I've been a genre fan since I could walk basically...! So many movies influenced me. A big one that I really loved as a kid that I feel that has direct influence on The Midnight Club is Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. And then we got Heather, which was so amazing. I also really love the Gregory Peck version of The Omen.

Leah Fong. Photo credit Nic Murphy.

Leah Fong. Photo credit Nic Murphy.

What do you like about horror?

I like any story that you can use supernatural or heightened elements as a metaphor. I feel like horror is perfect for that. That's what I love about working with everyone in the Intrepid camp, they have the same ethos. I think sometimes horror can get away from that.

Were you familiar with Christopher Pike's novels prior to this project?

That's actually how this project came about. I was a fan and so was Mike. We realized that while working on Bly Manor. Mike had started to try to get this in the works and asked me if I wanted to work on it with him and my response was, ‘Hell yes!’

How many books do you use in this season?

Seven or eight, which includes The Midnight Club.

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Is there a significant difference in writing something geared toward young adults as opposed to adults?

I try not to do it any differently. I'm a huge reader of YA. I also love shows that feature kids and teenagers. I've worked on shows where the characters are technically older than these characters, but I also reach out to the same audience. I worked on Bly. We had a lot of teen fans on that one. I also worked on Once Upon a Time and The Magicians, which all feature older characters but I do think they speak to the young adult audience.

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Did you collaborate on all the episodes with Mike?

When he was prepping the first episode of Bly Manor, I went up to Vancouver and we broke the story together. It was a continuation of the writers' room, but just the two of us. TV writing is a very collaborative effort. Every one of us had a hand in every episode.

What's an average day in the writers' room like?

This one was different because it was the first Zoom room that I'd done or any of us had done. It was also the first one that Netflix got up and running. It's like The Midnight Club. We get together, shoot the sh*t, and talk about what's going on in our lives. A lot of times that will trickle into the stories themselves, which is exactly what it's like in the show.

I saw on one of your online interviews you said you guys would tell ghost stories during some of the meetings. Any that stood out for you?

There was a really great one...think it was in the Bly room. Someone had a story about a cursed object, and I love cursed object stories. This was a real one and I thought it was really, really scary. In the Bly room, we told ghost stories and love stories, which makes sense. In this room, we talked about ghost stories and coming-of-age stories. The question was, when did you realize 'I'm an adult now'? 

There was a teenage cancer survivor in our writer's room and she told us a lot of her stories. A lot of people have been touched by cancer. Both my parents had cancer and survived. As a parent now, I don't think there's anything worse than thinking of your kid dying.

How did you add levity to such a heavy topic?

I think a lot of us writers, and people in general, when they're dealing with something heavy, they laugh. They make a joke out of it. I think that's how we all cope. I think that's also why comedy and horror go so well together because in horror you have all this tension, and you need to release it. That's why I love Sam Raimi. Same thing goes for existential dread. You're feeling all of the emotions and need a tension release.

Annarah Cymone as Sandra in episode 109 of The Midnight Club. Cr. Eike Schroter/Netflix © 2022

Annarah Cymone as Sandra in episode 109 of The Midnight Club. Cr. Eike Schroter/Netflix © 2022

Do you have a favorite character in The Midnight Club?

They're all so great and they're all so different. Amesh stole my heart pretty quickly. He's that levity but also has a lot of heart. But I don't really have a favorite.

When did you first start writing?

In first grade, everyone had to write a short story and I wrote thirty pages. I went to film school at USC. I was a production major, not a screenwriting major. I didn't write a feature-length screenplay until after I got out of college. I was working for a producer, and I was reading a lot of scripts. I think the best way to learn is to read and watch a lot of stuff. I ended up selling the first pilot that I wrote. I wrote it on spec and took it around. It got it set up at Universal TV and through Uni I got my first staff job on one of their shows.

Did you have representation?

I did. Once I finished one script, I had a few contacts from having worked for a producer and I sent them my script and they thought it was amazing and asked me to write another one. The first one was the one I sold and the second one became my staffing sample.

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For your personal writing process, do you focus on character or story first?

Both. But it also depends on what the project is. Sometimes story will lead first, then very quickly the character takes over and vice versa.

What kind of challenges did you face with this project compared to The Haunting of Bly Manor?

Both are purposing the entire library of very loved authors. The anthology format is the one that's really tough. With Bly, we weren't telling separate stories. We were taking a bunch of stories and weaving them all into the same narrative.

What was the most emotional episode to write?

I think the first episode was really emotional because you're bringing everyone into this world and what happens to Ilonka is the inciting incident. Then I think seven and eight. The first one is dealing with having your life plans smashed. Then dealing with the death of a major character. And then eight, depression is addressed. These were all heavy but beautiful, fun episodes to write.

Did you have to do a lot of research?

Yes, we did...! About the period or medical stuff?

Did you have to do research on cults or the occult?

The cult stuff just formed naturally out of this because I feel like cults are formed around people grappling with mortality, usually in a negative way. That research is more fun because they're villains, you don't worry about the sensitive portrayal of a cult. Whereas you worry about the portrayal of actual medical conditions. We had a few consultants on the show, and they were a little bit more liberal than we were. They told us to take creative license.

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What lesson do you feel you learned working on this series that you'll take to the next project or the next part of this series?

Every time I work on a show, I make new family members. Having your people is so important. It makes the process both bearable at times and pleasurable at other times. Make sure you surround yourself with people you want to go through the long haul with. 

Watch Season One of The Midnight Club on Netflix.


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