Horror fans have been familiar with actor Chris Sarandon and his various accomplishments within the genre for decades, having starred in classics like The Sentinel, Fright Night, and Child's Play. As the years pass, it's possible that a family-friendly film with a hint of the macabre could become the actor's most well-known project, as it grows in popularity every single year. While audiences might not have caught a glimpse of Sarandon in the film, he is the actor who brought Jack Skellington to life for The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Halloween mascot who became obsessed with Christmas and its traditions, convincing his fellow residents of Halloween Town to try their hand at celebrating a new holiday.
The animated adventure, from the mind of Tim Burton, might not have immediately become a major success, with each passing year building its legacy even further. Nearly a decade after the film debuted, Disney Parks began to embrace the film, turning their Haunted Mansion attraction into Haunted Mansion Holiday and incorporating iconic elements from the film. With the Disney-owned Freeform broadcasting the movie regularly throughout both the Halloween and Christmas seasons, new viewers are constantly introduced to the whimsical adventure.
ComicBook.com: You have previously explained how you had a rough experience on one of your first horror films, The Sentinel, and it was almost a decade later before you did Fright Night. What convinced you to come back to the world of horror?
Chris Sarandon: The history of me getting back into that genre was that I did Dog Day Afternoon, which was a Sidney Lumet, Al Pacino movie, that had nothing to do with horror, per se. Then, I did Lipstick, which was more of an exploitation film. It was about the exploitation of young women as sex objects in the advertising and modeling business. And I thought that had its philosophical underpinnings, that I thought were great and I agreed with.
And then The Sentinel came along, and basically it was because it was like I was moving up the star chain in Hollywood and it was a starring role in major, famous novel. The novel was like a major, number one bestselling novel. And that was just a terrible experience.
After that, I worked in television for a while. I did a bunch of Hallmark Hall of Fame specials. I did an adaptation of Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again, that book. And then I did A Tale of Two Cities for Hallmark Hall of Fame. I got to play both the protagonists in that one. That was amazing.
Then I got the script for Fright Night, and was at the time working in the theater, I think, in New York. I looked at the script and I thought, "Jeez, I can't do a movie called 'Fright Night.' I'm an important actor. I just played Jesus. I just played Sydney Carton in Tale of Two Cities." As soon as I read that script I thought, "I've got to meet this director," because, if you're familiar with the movie, it's a brilliant script, and I was just completely captivated by it. I thought, "This is really well done. I've got to meet this guy."
They flew me out to California to sit down with Tom Holland and Herb Jaffe, the producer. After the pleasantries, I said, "Can you tell me your point of view of the movie and how you plan to shoot it?" He sat down and he did a shot-by-shot presentation of the movie for me, where, literally, he described each and every shot and cut. "Now I'm going to cut to this, and now I've got a crane shot going over to here, and then this is going to happen."
When he was done, I said, "Jesus Christ, man, let's work together. Let's do this." And that turned out to be just a wonderful experience. That was just one of the great times in my life, because I felt like I was a collaborator. Everybody did. Tom's a real actor's director, so he had us all create character biographies. Ideas that we had, he incorporated into the movie. And the cast, we had a great time together. It was a terrific experience.
The film itself is definitely more representative of its time, as it has genuine laughs and genuine scares, while current movies who attempt to tell the story of a kid who discovers his neighbor is a vampire would have more of a camp element to it.
Exactly. You could tell from reading the script that he had a great reverence for the genre. When I talked to him, he said, "Look, we're in a period of time where all these great movies that I loved, the original Dracula movies, Nosferatu, the great, great vampire movies of all time, now they're being made fun of." He said, "I don't want to make fun of this. I want to have fun with it, with the tropes of the genre, but I will not make fun of it."
There were lots of little tweaks of the true cross being an anathema for the vampire, and Jerry Dandrige turning around saying, "You have to have faith for that to work." And the humor in the movie. There's lots of humor in the movie, but none of it makes fun of the genre. It always just has fun with it, which is exactly what you were saying.
And the 2011 remake of it is one of the few horror remakes that might not surpass the original, but comes close to being as effective and serves as more than a cash-in on a recognizable title.
The reason was because they had great reverence for the original, or at least one of the reasons. The director's a smart guy, Craig Gillespie. He had Collin [Farrell], who loved the original. When I met him on the set, I was doing that little cameo that I did it. He came into my trailer and he was just like, "I hope we don't fuck this up. I watched this movie 50 times with my sister and I would watch it whenever we could, and we just want to do it justice." I thought they did.
You had a small role in the Fright Night remake, was that something they offered you and you just happened to be free or did you actively want to appear, almost as a way to give the film your seal of approval?
Actually, it was a combination. They sent me the script and said, "Find something in the script that you want to do." Obviously, all the big parts were already cast. I just thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting if there were almost a passing of the torch in the movie, by having the contemporary Jerry Dandrige consume the old Jerry Dandrige?" So I said, "Let me play this guy, that he assaults on the highway and devours." They said, "Great," so that's what we did. And I had a nice time actually. It was really lovely.
You worked with Holland again on Child's Play and, earlier this year, there was a Child's Play remake, which you didn't appear in. Was that something that you were never approached for or you just had no interest in it?
No, I was never approached. I don't think Tom was approached. Tom may have been approached, in terms of the rights of the film, but other than that, no. Nobody said a word to me. But when it comes to that, because there had been so many follow-ups to the original, that had little or nothing to do with Tom's original conception, but used the characters, or at least some of the characters, there was no reason to do it. Nobody said anything to me about it, and if they had, I wouldn't have been interested.
Because you already had a number of horror projects under your belt, were you specifically approached to voice Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas to add a layer to its horror pedigree?
No, this is an audition, it's as simple as that. To my knowledge, I believe they had already done all of Danny Elfman's songs, that is, recorded them. Then I believe they had animated most, if not all of them. They were looking for a voice that could give them a reasonable approximation of Danny's voice, and I just happened to hit the lottery, quite frankly.
When I went to the audition, they played Danny's recording and they showed me clips from the movie, of stuff that had already been animated. But that was basically what I had as my template for the audition, and I just went with it. I found out a few days later, as I recall, that they had cast me. I was thrilled, actually. Got a chance to be in a Tim Burton movie. Obviously, Tim didn't direct it. It was completely his conception, his story. It's called "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas," and it is truly his, but [director] Henry [Selick] was the day-to-day guy.
Since the vocal inflections of the songs already existed and since some of the animations already existed, how much freedom did you have in how Jack was represented on screen?
Well, there's such a difference between the singing and speaking, in terms of expression. Because when you're singing, you can interpret the song. Danny brilliantly interpreted the songs, his own songs, by the way. But you're circumscribed by the notes and the arrangement. Whereas when you're doing the speaking voice, nothing had been animated. I wasn't looking at a picture of Jack going through the motions of the dialogue. I was the originator of the animation, in a way. That is, my voice was. Because once I'd go into the studio with Henry, which is the way they work, I'd go into the studio with Henry and I would, over a period of a day, they'd fly me up from Los Angeles and I would record for probably four, five, six hours. And then I'd jump back on a plane and go home, and they'd spend the next three months animating those three scenes. That was basically the process.
Within that construct, I was given pretty much free reign. As is very much the case with animation, they have a very good idea of what they want from the scene, what sort of emotional content they want from it, what sort of highs and lows they're playing with, in terms of what happens just before the scene that you're doing and what happens right after, as well as what happens within the scene itself.
They're orchestrating along the way and you get very specific ideas from the director, as to what they're looking for. And along the way, Henry would say, "Try hitting this word," or, "Try, 'No, Sally,' instead of 'No Sally.'" But, generally, I was given a lot of free reign to just go with it. There'd be takes where Henry would say, "Okay, now do three totally different ones," and I would do three in a row of different readings, with the general dramatic context in mind. Then they'd choose among the ones that I'd recorded and put them together. After they put them together, then they do the stop-motion animation.
Fans of Tim Burton might have known what to expect from the film, but what makes it so memorable is its embrace of dark subject matter and whimsical nature. Do you remember your first reaction to seeing the finished product?
I didn't see it on the big screen first. I was sent, at the time, this was '91, I guess, a VHS of a black-and-white version of the movie with the time signature running across the bottom. It was very rough. Because Tim was coming to town and wanted to know if there was anything I wanted to work on post-production, because there were a few that he wanted to work on and they wanted to get me in this ADR studio, and so I put it in the VHS machine.
I had a VHS machine and my kids were with me, and, at the time, they were very young. I put the VHS in the machine and I sat down with my notepad, ready to take notes. And as it's playing, the kids start drifting into the room, and then they stayed. And this black-and-white, this really ugly copy, with editing stripes going across it and stuff, they were completely captivated by it. I had never seen it and I had to smack myself a couple of times to say, "Take a note or two. I'm just sitting and watching it." Because it was so extraordinarily different from anything I'd ever seen in my life.
Then, when I went back in the studio with Tim, to do just some punch up on some of the dialogue, I got to see snippets of it in color. When you're doing ADR, you really just see five or six seconds at a time. And I was just even more bowled over. When I saw the premiere, I think it was at the Chinese theater or the Egyptian. No, it was at the Egyptian, I think. I was really back against my seat, just going, "Whoa, what is this? This is just something that's just completely, totally unique."
The film might not have been a huge success at the time, but its popularity continues to grow, what with his inclusion at the Haunted Mansion and being played on TV regularly.
I'm still doing the character. We still get calls from Disney, going, "Come down. We're doing the Halloween show this year. It's a live-action show and we need you to do Jack."
I walk in and I sit down in the studio, and suddenly, "There he is. He really cares." I have no idea why or how, but it just happens, and it's always a wonderful surprise on the one hand. And on the other hand, I'm constantly feeling a humility and a gratefulness for being a part of it.
Considering that you're still doing the character, it sounds like, if Disney approached you about a follow-up film, you'd be happy to return?
I'd crawl on my hands and knees, from the east coast to the west coast, in the spring or the fall, to do it again. Of course I would. I love that character and I love that I'm part of a legacy of that character as well.
Do you have any other projects that you're currently working on?
I'm writing a book. It's a memoir, that will cover not only my life, but my life in the movies and television, et cetera, and some of the crazy shit that's happened along the way.0comments
Stay tuned for details on Sarandon's upcoming memoir.