Let Us In stars Makenzie Moss (“The Unicorn,” Do You Believe?), Sadie Stanley (The Sleepover, “Dead To Me”), Mackenzie Ziegler (20.6 million TikTok followers, “Dance Moms”), Siena Agudong (Upside-Down Magic, Alex & Me), O’Neill Monahan (“The Middle.” “General Hospital”) and Tobin Bell (Saw franchise). The film was directed by Craig Moss (Bad Ass, Bad Ass 2) who co-wrote the film alongside Joe Callero, making his feature screenwriting debut.
A spirited twelve-year-old girl and her best friend start investigating the sudden disappearances of several missing teens in their small town. Realizing there might be something deeper happening, Emily and Christopher might be up against forces they can't even imagine.
I had the pleasure of speaking with director/co-writer Craig Moss about this screenwriting journey of making a living off of the spec market, his foray into directing parody films in changing genres, and landing on his new sci-fi/thriller film Let Us In.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Tell us about your filmmaking journey from your foray into directing parody films to this sci fi horror mashup.
Craig Moss: It's been an interesting journey, to say the least. I had a writing partner in the early days, where they did like movie of the week. We sold a treatment for a movie of the week to Viacom, and we thought, “Oh, we've made it. We're such big stars now.” And then nothing happened for years. And then we wrote a spec screenplay, a comedy that caught the eye of a manager. We were able to get representation at that point, which was like, “Oh, finally great. This is good.” And then I did a parody called Saving Ryan's Privates, that two gentlemen, Brett Goldberg and David Wagner wrote, and I directed, and that became kind of popular in Hollywood. And so from there, I had a screenplay that my writing partner and I wrote, and we ended up selling it to one of the studios. And then, because of the short film, I was lucky enough to be attached as a director to the film. It was one of those things where we're going to make the film, and then it goes into turnaround. We were lucky enough to sell it again. But, nothing happened.
From that point on my writing partner and I were able to sell specs. It was during the time that you could really sell a spec. And we sold it to a bunch of different places. And we were able to make a living doing that, but none of the movies were being made. It was a little bit frustrating. So, ultimately, 2008 pops up and you got the writer’s strike and the economy crash and all that great stuff. And we had a film at Fox that was supposed to go and because of all that stuff that was going on with the writer’s strike, they halted any movement on it. It was a very frustrating, depressing time. And I figured you know what, I got to go back to directing. And so at that point, another writing colleague of mine, Brad Kaaya and I were trying to pitch a comedy around town, and the executives would say to us, “Unless you're Judd Apatow, you're never gonna sell anything.” At that point, we knew like Judd Apatow was this genre. So, so we came up with this idea called The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It. And it was a parody of all of the Judd Apatow films, which is ridiculous. We're parodying a comedy. But you know, we figured ‘what the hell.’ [laughs]
We shot this little trailer, we didn’t have a screenplay. We shot the trailer over a weekend at Brad's house for like two dollars. And we went out with it and caught the eye of a producer who loved the idea. And he said, “Listen, if I get Fox on board, we'll make the movie. Give me a week.” We're like, “Yeah, sure we will never hear back from this guy. It's never gonna happen.” Sure enough, exactly one week later, he says “We're good. Let's do it. How quickly can you write a screenplay?” And so we literally wrote the screenplay in a couple of weeks, and then ended up going into pre-production the following month, and shooting the film. It was a little interesting coming from years of writing specs of movies that never got made, to ultimately not even having a screenplay that's being greenlit to shoot a movie. It was like $1.2 million, but it was amazing that we got to shoot a feature film and it was going straight to DVD through 20th Century Fox and so that sort of reinvigorated my career as far as directing again.
From there, I did a bunch of other parodies with long titles that you can check out on IMDB. I did a movie called Bad Ass with Danny Trejo and Danny Glover and we did three of those. It's like an action comedy film that was a lot of fun to make. And then was asked to direct some thrillers, which I love doing, which is a totally different genre and that then kind of led me down to where we are now with Let Us In.
Sadie: That is quite the journey, especially with that world of being able to make a living at the time writing specs and selling specs, and then also just never having anything ever made.
Craig: Right! It's an amazing, weird thing, because you're writing these screenplays and spending so much time and it's great that you can make money but then it's like, you know, you're telling people you write and they say, “Oh, really? What have you done?” [laughs]
Sadie: What was it about the black-eyed kids urban legend that piqued your interest?
Craig: When I read about it, it was just so cool. Just the whole idea of these kids who wear these hoodies and their eyes are completely black and they creep up on you and knock on your window and ask to be let in, it's just the whole thing was just so interesting to me. And so weird. I had chills when I was reading about it. It scared me and so I thought, ‘Okay, this will be a really cool concept. What kind of story can we tell with it?
I've always been a fan of these films like Goonies and other sort of adventure films, and I thought maybe we can do the sci-fi adventure with a female protagonist, who's 12 years old, and can save the day. Mackenzie, who plays Emily is actually my daughter, and she's been in a lot of films and she was on a series recently. We built this cast around that. I think it's a fun movie, especially for this this age group.
Sadie: It's like a Goonies meets Twilight Zone mash up.
Craig: Exactly, yeah. [laughs]
Sadie; What was the collaboration process like with your writing partner, Joe Callero?
Craig: It was great. We did a lot of detailed beat sheets that went hand in hand with writing the screenplay and made sure that we had everything in place. And then at that point, you know, we'd write pages and send them to each other and revise and get it to where it ultimately went when we shot the film. Once we started shooting the movie, the screenplay was there, we didn't have to worry about doing all these rewrites and figuring out how we were going to maneuver things or change things. There was a couple of things, we had to change locations where we had to tweak that a little bit, but besides that, it was pretty much all set and locked and ready to shoot.
Sadie: With your background in directing comedy films, and then getting into thrillers, what kind of skill sets do you think that you embrace when directing, especially in horror from performance to shot choices, do you think that carryover from the comedy world?
Craig: Yeah, I think there's a lot of timing things that are similar between comedy and for thrillers, and the slash horror. A lot of the beats, those scary moments, they're timed out like comedy. I think that translates really well. But what I do like about this genre, this sort of thriller, sci-fi genre, there's a lot of storytelling through camera, more so than comedy. And so just to build tension, and to do a lot of other things that you want to do with telling that story. There are those similarities that I referenced with timing, but yet also, it seems there’s just more opportunities with camera to engage the audience and create more of the suspense and heightened moments of fear.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. And for you, as a writer-director, when you're writing a screenplay that you know that you're going to direct, do you stick to traditional screenplay structure?
Craig: You know, I usually implement a lot of stuff, it's more visual for me. I will implement in line direction, how I'm going to shoot it in a lot of ways. Just because in that moment, I want to make sure that I remember when I'm boarding it out, like what I was thinking within that moment. So, I will include it a lot of times in the screenplay. But other than that, it's a traditional three act structure, and I try to lock things in as much as possible, especially with the amount of shooting days that we have on these movies. Shot wise, I like to keep things locked in because you only have so much time to shoot these things, and you have to move quickly. And so it's better to have those things sort of set in as much as possible.
Sadie: Any advice to multi-hyphenates like yourself who are interested in tackling a new genre?
Craig: Do it! I mean, if you if you're passionate about it, and you want to do it and you feel this is something you want to accomplish, then go for it. Because you'll never know until you try it. And, you know, the best thing to do is get inspired. Watch a lot of films that fit into this genre that will inspire you and also teach you. There's certain things that that you can learn and then make your own. It’s definitely worth trying and obviously putting your best effort into it. Give it the old college try. Give it a shot.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's great advice. Well, Craig, thank you so much for your time. Best of luck with everything else!
Craig: Thank you, Sadie. I appreciate it so much.
LET US IN is available On Demand and Digital July 2, 2021.