Though audiences have already seen slasher movie icons like Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Leatherface revived in recent years, it was still surprising to many horror fans when WWE Studios and Lionsgate announced in 2012 that they were tag-teaming on a reboot of the 1993 horror comedy Leprechaun. The Leprechaun franchise – which starred Return of the Jedi and Willow actor Warwick Davis – has had a small cult following but might be most famous for the original launching Jennifer Aniston’s acting career (in fact, only the first two films had theatrical releases). But in a genre dominated by physically imposing slashers, the diminutive monster of Leprechaun mostly has stood out because of the series’ campy humor.
However, promotional material for the reboot, which is titled Leprechaun: Origins, has surprised horror fans by its much darker take on a murderous Irish fairy. Rather than a cackling, wisecracking pixie, Leprechaun: Origins depicts the leprechaun as a malevolent force of nature of ancient legend in a “cabin in the woods” horror film. Much of that approach can be credited to Leprechaun: Origins screenwriter Harris Wilkinson, who spoke with us about pitching film and television, making leprechauns scary, and working with WWE Studios.
You have a background in developing shows for television. How did you get involved in that?
I was raised by academics, so I actually grew up watching very few films but I read a lot. After college I started working in advertising in Chicago, which was honestly all I wanted to do. I had no interest in film or television. What happened was the director of an advertising campaign I worked with suggested I should write something long form. So I dashed off a script that was really raw because I didn’t really know what I was doing – I didn’t know anything about structure because I hadn’t read any books about it – and that script actually sold.
I think there was something pure about it in a way. I wouldn’t say it was completely accidental, but I came about it in a much different way than most people.
How did you get involved with Leprechaun: Origins?
I’ve sold pitches and scripts and done some rewrites, and also a few drama pilots, but to date nothing had been produced. I really wanted something that went from page to screen. My agent called me and said that they’re bringing this franchise back, and I had worked with WWE Studios before when I did an uncredited structural rewrite on See No Evil (2006). With See No Evil WWE superstar Kane was involved, and when I rewrote it we removed a lot of his dialogue because we wanted to keep him enigmatic—a lot of times the more the heavy speaks, the less terrifying it is.
Though I had heard of Leprechaun, I never actually saw the movie. I had a preliminary call with the executive producer, Richard Lowell from WWE, and I said I hadn’t seen the movies. He said that was okay because they wanted to go in a very different direction. So what I initially pitched to WWE Studios and Lionsgate was a very different take. I was interested in going back to the classic, early forms of a fairy, which have been romanticized. Particularly in America with St. Patrick’s Day, leprechauns have been turned into garden gnomes. I did some reading and discovered there are legends about these creatures being mischievous, creepy, and very vicious, especially if tormented in any way. Of course the pitch evolved and changed in the draft because of a lot of considerations, including budget and timing. Then the director, Zach Lipovsky got involved, and he did an amazing job.
The general thought was to go back to a creature. The Warwick Davis films really are their own thing, but this exists in a very different world and explores an alternate take. In the Warwick Davis movies there always was an inherent level of camp. Campy films have their own shelf life and their own time, and we felt this had to go to a very different place. In the script I think the word ‘leprechaun’ may have been used once and that part is used in the trailer. The characters would instead refer to it by its ancient name. But in the exposition I always referred to it as ‘The Creature’ because I wanted to shift the mindset.
It’s probably because of the size — it’s not this massive monster, it’s not Godzilla. If you’ve ever camped in the woods when something is moving around in the dark it doesn’t need to be large to be terrifying. The advantage is to whatever is native since it is its home turf. That’s where you get into primal fear.
The approach is pretty traditional, but they produce a lot of work and move at a fast pace. That is a challenge, but in a way it’s refreshing because you can have scripts languishing in development for an extraordinarily long time. With Leprechaun: Origins, Dylan “Hornswoggle” Postl (read our interview with Postl here) was involved and while there was a question of what the film ultimately would be, they had every intention of making the film. Since they were going with practical special effects and because it is Leprechaun I think there was a point that the thought was that he would take on Warwick Davis’ costume and build from there.
I think Zach shot it in fifteen, sixteen days, which is insanely fast. They’re very efficient, but they see the sweet spot. You need enough time to get something right so you can’t do it too quickly, but it’s better sometimes not to belabor it because that’s when the wind comes out of the sails. I’ve seen a lot of projects languish, and that’s not the case here. That’s not how they operate and that’s really refreshing. You could speak with a lot of writers in Hollywood who will tell you by the end of their fifth draft the project is demonstrably worse [Laughs]. It’s a good model for them and they’re turning out some good material and working with some interesting up-and-coming filmmakers, which is great for them because they have a budget to work with.
An advantage is that your leads are athletes first and foremost. They’re used to putting in long days to get the films done on time. Another difference between working with WWE Studios and other studios is that they have a marketing machine in place under the WWE umbrella and they have all these other avenues where they can advertise before they even bring these films to the general market.
Are there any horror films that influence your writing?
I think Halloween was the first horror movie I saw. I saw it on TV with my older sister and her friends, and it actually scared the hell out of me. Of course, the other one is The Shining. That film is still terrifying and I know it front to back. But because I spent so much time reading when I was younger, I was probably more influenced by Edgar Alan Poe or Lovecraft. They were masters of slow, creeping dread—and of course modern films mix these elements with jarring frights that are, in a weird way, cathartic. People just love to be scared.
I saw Blair Witch at a sneak screening in Westwood and people still weren’t sure if it was real or not. When Leprechaun: Origins went into production the chatter about it online was just enormous. Even for a small film there is a fanbase can be very vocal. It’s very hard to preserve the element of surprise. They were very careful with the marketing and waited a long time to reveal the creature. The first trailer didn’t show the creature at all, and that was very deliberate. I wouldn’t necessarily reference Hitchcock in terms of horror, but one of his key rules for thrillers is that you hold off on things as long as you can. I think marketing did a very good job with not revealing the creature. There are things that have come out since because people were demanding it, so they said, ‘Okay, we’ll show you a little bit.’”
With television, if you go out pitching shows you have to remember it’s not a matter of just pitching a pilot. It’s a matter of pitching a pilot with a formula that could potentially run a hundred episodes and a story that could go forever. When you look at the narrative on a show like Breaking Bad, it starts really small and the world expands, but at the end it collapses back down. It’s astonishing and brilliant and obviously people are completely drawn in. You have the luxury of time and development that you never have with a film. But there’s something nice about a feature that clicks on and ninety minutes later you have a satisfying end of the story and you have a complete digestible piece. With serial television the canvas is enormous and a lot of shows take unexpected turns that the creator doesn’t anticipate week in and week out.
Being that the original Leprechaun spawned five sequels and that WWE Studios is releasing See No Evil 2 later this year, have you thought about writing a sequel to Leprechaun: Origins?
Particularly with horror movies you want to leave a small window open for additional storylines. More than anything you’re creating a strong mythology, and if you have a strong mythology then you have the potential to go into other stories because you’ve laid the groundwork. That’s definitely something we tried to do with Leprechaun: Origins. If you create a plausible environment for this thing, you always have the option to go back and tell more stories. For some characters the end is obviously the end, but look, they’re rebooting Friday the 13th again, and who wouldn’t want to create a world that would keep living, changing, and evolving? Now Leprechaun is different than what it was before, and you hope fans will view it as a fresh take on something they grew up with and it will obviously find new fans as well.
I think the biggest challenge with any film is to make sure that you deliver. As long as people go into it and have a fun ride, then you delivered, and for a horror movie it has to also be scary, especially for a summer monster movie like this. It has to be breezy, fast, and thoroughly entertaining.
After a particularly strong response to Leprechaun: Origins at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, WWE Studios and Lionsgate announced that the film would receive a limited theatrical release on August 22. How exciting was that for you?
I think it really speaks to the quality of the team, who did a huge amount of work to bring it to life. The test screenings, including one last week, went very well and the audience had a fantastic reaction. I think the movie absolutely deserves it. With Leprechaun, people initially asked, ‘Oh, is it going to be camp?’ and there was kind of a chuckle reaction to the concept. When I started on the script I remembering talking about it with other people in the business, and the thing I kept saying is, ‘It’s not what you think it is. It’s not what you expect.’ The real goal was to usurp expectations, and that really is how it turned out. There are so many factors and so many ways that things can go wrong, that it’s great when the planets align. For the writer you’re in a lot of ways very removed from the execution and the end result, so you have to have a a lot of faith in the producers, the director, and crew who are bringing it to life. With Leprechaun: Origins, they really delivered.