Monsters are my favorite thing about horror. But not because they exist to scare you, it’s because of the humanity we see in them and the stories they can tell about empathy and acceptance. This is exactly the story that director Michael Giacchino is telling with Werewolf By Night, the 52-minute Halloween special streaming on Disney+, which features a teleplay from Peter Cameron and Heather Quinn. While adding new characters to the MCU was an important thing to think about, Giacchino took it all one step further by crafting a story that made the monsters matter and offered a moral tale on the differences we see in each other.
At Fantastic Fest 2022, I got the chance to talk with Michael Giacchino about empathy, monsters, and crafting something so extremely unique in the MCU, but on television right now entirely. We discussed monster, his love of classic horror, the importance of Gael García Bernal’s Jack being visibly connected to his Mexican identity, and more.
To start, I asked Giacchino about how balanced his story for the MCU, and how he crafted a world we hadn’t seen before. He explained, “The first thing we needed to do was to get the characters right. They needed to be characters you could understand and be on the side of, especially Jack. These are new people we’re bringing into the MCU and most people don’t even know who these characters who are. The superfans will know, but people at large most won’t know. For me, it was about getting the character right and if we did that, we could put them in any situation we wanted. And the situation I wanted them in was one that harkened back to all those movies I loved.”
To say Werewolf By Night is a love letter to the black-and-white past of horror is a fair assessment. But Giacchino’s love of those film goes beyond just their aesthetic, and this is brought over in how he told Jack’s story. “I loved all those old Universal monster movies, I love all old Hammer films, I love Japanese monster movies, all of those things. The one thing that the best of those had in common was that they were not about the monsters. They were about the person behind the monster. They were about the struggle the person behind the monster was having. They were abou t the problem that they were encountering and this idea that these are people who we help.
“They’re not things to be hunted and killed. And that’s unfortunately the way the world treats them. And in our world today, there are a number of people who are persecuted and feel like they’re being attacked because everything that’s seen as different in the world is viewed with this “disdain” and that really upsets me. So for this, I wanted to tell a story about that difference from the point of view of the monsters and what that feels like.”
And empathy for monsters is present throughout the 52-minute runtime, and most beautifully captured in Man-Thing and how Jack and Elsa Bloodstone relate to him. To do this, it all started in casting, which Giacchino dives into:
“It was one of those things that we all just had to trust was going to work. And what I feel is that when you have someone like Gael, he’s just an incredible presence. He carries such empathy and humanity with every word he speaks and I felt like he was going to be our sounding board for all of this. And Laura Doughnally was the same, she was able to project this beautiful presence to help make Man-Thing what he was. It was going to be up to them to help build up Man-Thing for us. So I knew if they were working than [Man-Thing] was going to work too.”
Giacchino had even more to say about his admiration of his lead, “Gael is like a modern-day Buster Keaton, he’s has this incredible ability to humorous, empathetic sympathetic, all of these things he does so well. I had worked with him on a film called Coco. prior to this, a few years back and I did get to know him through that. I just knew from day one that he was the only person I thought that could make Werewolf By Night work. If we were going to do this thing, to make a werewolf movie, I didn’t want to do one like I’ve seen before. I wanted someone with so much humanity and depth, and thank God he said yes.”
And it wasn’t just Garcia Bernal who was necessary for the project. He adds, “And Laura Donnelly was very similar, the very moment I met with her I knew she was Elsa Bloodstone. So, those two really grounded what we wanted to do with Man-Thing in a huge way.”
Keeping with a love of the classics, I asked Michael Giacchino how he was able to decide on when to use classic cutaways to see the reaction of a character watching something horrific (alá Cat People) and when to include full-on shots of some pretty brutal violence. I mean I don’t think we’ve seen severed arms and blades through skulls in the MCU yet. He explained, “I think the best horror movies, it’s what you don’t see that’s the most frightening. Because when you’re mind has to fill in what’s not there, you’re going to fill in the most horrible version of that. It’s a balance of when you go on and just show it and it’s a balance of when you pull back and just infer it. It was a constant back and forth between what would work.
“It’s always really about what the story moment is. It helps you decide how much to show, when to show, and how to do it. A lot of these decisions need to be made very fast. Like with Elsa’s sword fights, a lot of it was made up at the last second. The crew was always game to try new things because you never know when you’re going to get that idea but it’s always story related.”
But one of the most important moments for me in Werewolf By Night is a moment where Jack is asked about the face paint he wears. A delicate interpretation of a Dia de Muertos calaveras (sugar skull), the TV special doesn’t ignore the importance of the holiday for pure aesthetics. When asked, Jack responds that it connects him to his ancestors.
Michael Giacchino explains why it was so important to keep for the character: “He is a [Mexican werewolf] and I was adamant from day one that the make-up be a part of his character. We were doing explorations about what the werewolf would look like and we did versions of Gael when we were designing costumes and I wanted Day of the Dead make-up on him. And Ian Joyner, one of the artists said ‘well, if he’s wearing that make-up then when he turns into the werewolf he should still have it on.’ And I go ‘YES.'”
He elaborates, “[the face paint] is all he has, this tether to his family. You can imagine that he’s been alive for a long time, I don’t know, one hundred, three hundred years, four hundred years, and family is important to him because he doesn’t have a family right now. Man-Thing is his family, the people around him who he can, they’re his family and there are not a lot of those. So for me, it was very important to be able to say ‘I carry this with me, it’s a part of my strength,’ or ‘my family is my strength.’ To be able to say that is a big idea and I didn’t want to lose that. And then as the werewolf, it’s a part of his superpower, that connection he has to his past.”
Many, and I do mean many, non-Mexican directors and creatives use Dia de Muertos as nothing more than set dressing, especially in comics. Beautiful designs to make their characters or scenes more interesting. But that’s not what happens in Werewolf By Night and it’s exciting. By understanding the intimate connection between Mexicans and Dia de Muertos, Michael Giacchino and his team were able to showcase a whole life emotion in one moment, and it wasn’t lost on me.
On keeping it through the creative process, he noted “That was something that I held onto like a rabid dog because it felt emotional to me, very emotional. And that’s something that is very important to a story, something emotional like that.” To make things even better, the team also made sure it was designed by a Mexican artist. He adds, “The design of the make-up was done by an incredible Mexican artist named Rosanna Esparza Ahrens. She took great care in making sure that it was done in the right way.”
Emotion is at the center of Werewolf By Night, and it’s clear from start to finish. It’s present in how we see Man-Thing and Jack interact. It’s present when Jack talks about his connection to his ancestors. But most importantly, emotion and empathy is present in the special’s message. For Michael Giacchino, that message is clear.
When asked what he wanted audiences to take away from Werewolf By Night, he said, “I hope they feel a better understanding for someone that’s different from them. For me, if they walk away with that, it’s the best that can happen. That’s what [Werewolf By Night] is about. It’s about looking at somebody as they really are, as opposed to what they look like. And the more we can do that in this world, the better off we will be.”
Michael Giacchino ‘s Werewolf by Night is streaming now, exclusively on Disney+.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.