How Michael Dougherty Took ‘Trick ‘r Treat’s Sam from Short to Film to Sequel


The Big Picture

  • Michael Dougherty joined Perri Nemiroff for a Trick ‘r Treat post-screening Q&A as part of Scary Perri’s Horror Series with Landmark Theatres.
  • Dougherty revisited how challenging it was to get the project a green light, revealed some details regarding Sam’s backstory, and emphasized the importance of storyboards while making the movie.
  • On top of that, Dougherty offered an update on Trick ‘r Treat 2 and even teased his idea for a Krampus sequel.

As though getting the opportunity to curate my own horror screening series wasn’t mind-blowing enough, then I got the chance to add one of my favorite movies of all-time to that line-up — Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat.

The film had an especially long road to the big screen. Not only was the project turned down time and time again while seeking a green light, but even once it was made it was denied a traditional big screen release. The film first premiered in 2007 and did the festival circuit, but then Warner Bros. shelved it until 2009. And even then, it was only given a direct-to-DVD release.

However, when a movie is this special, it’s bound to catch on and Trick ‘r Treat proved as much. Not only did the movie go on to become a cult classic, but also a Halloween staple. The film returns to the big screen every spooky season and Sam sits right beside Freddy, Jason, Michael and Leatherface in Halloween pop-up stores.

I’ve been following Dougherty’s career ever since catching Trick ‘r Treat for the first time and have had the pleasure of chatting with him about later releases, like Krampus, but we’ve actually never had a Trick ‘r Treat-focused conversation so having him at the Landmark Westwood for a post-screening Q&A was a true dream come true. We covered the broad strokes of the film’s journey from animated short to Halloween classic, and Dougherty was also kind enough to indulge my lengthy list of hyper-specific questions and my pleas for Trick ‘r Treat sequel updates.

You can catch the full chat, including the audience Q&A portion of the conversation, in the video at the top of this article, or you can read my interview with Dougherty in transcript form below.

PERRI NEMIROFF: I know you’re obsessed with Halloween. Do you remember the very first thing that signaled that to you – your first Halloween core memory?

MICHAEL DOUGHERTY: One of my first memories was carving a jack-o’-lantern with my dad, which was the inspiration for the story with Charlie and the severed head. Mine didn’t go like that, unfortunately. But yeah, I grew up in Ohio and [I have a] very clear memory of carving a pumpkin, putting it in the window, stepping back, and looking at it from the street, and it was all downhill from there.

Was it a scary face?

DOUGHERTY: It was a scary face.

That’s exactly what I would expect from you.

Again, you’re obsessed with Halloween. I’m sure you follow the majority of the rules, but let’s say Sam got you for breaking one rule, what would that rule likely be?

DOUGHERTY: It wouldn’t happen. It just wouldn’t happen.

I believe that.

DOUGHERTY: I mean, my Halloween decorations, my yard haunt, went up like the end of September. My house has become that house in the neighborhood where parents will walk by with their kids – I had one woman tell me that her kids wouldn’t even walk past my house outside of Halloween. And then I hand out candy, my friends and I, we dress up and we terrify the trick-or-treaters. Tears streaming down their faces while their parents are laughing at them. So really helping develop some core memories for children. But yeah, we make kids earn the candy.

I feel like I needed to trick-or-treat at your house as a kid. That’s a core memory that I would appreciate.

Let’s go back to the very beginning of this script. What would you say is the biggest difference between draft one of this screenplay and what we now love in the final film?

DOUGHERTY: Oh, good question. Well, the original draft, the stories were completely self-contained. The original, original draft, I don’t even think there were that many overlapping, intertwining moments because what I had done is I took four short stories that I had written in college and I sort of just mashed them up. When I first got to LA, like everybody, I wanted to become a screenwriter, a filmmaker, but then you go to Starbucks and you see that everybody wants to become a screenwriter or a filmmaker, and so it’s really daunting. So I thought, well, what if I kind of cheated, and I took some short stories that I had written previously that all happened to be set on Halloween, and I take this character that I had done for my animated short …

So Sam started as an animated short, all hand-drawn, old-school cell animation. No computers were involved. It was nine months of drawing every single frame. And so then I thought, well, I could take that character from my animated short, and I’ll sort of sprinkle him in between like the Cryptkeeper. So the original draft was much more of a traditional anthology.

Trick 'r Treat: Seasons Greetings
Image via Michael Dougherty

Did you always know that this was the assortment of stories you’d go with or did you ever hit a point where you were mixing and matching, weighing whether to include one, etc.?

DOUGHERTY: It was all the same stories. The one variation was that the rock quarry story initially just took place in a cemetery, and the kids were playing Ghost in the Graveyard or something like that. The original ending was that you found out that the group of kids lured the one girl to the cemetery to play Ghost in the Graveyard only to find out that they lured her there because she was actually dead and she forgot that she was dead. It’s not a terrible twist, but this is coming on the heels of The Sixth Sense and The Others, and so I realized the twist of, “Surprise! You’re really dead,” was sort of a trope at that point.

One version sounds like a much easier production feat than the other – sending a bus over the edge into a quarry.

DOUGHERTY: I know! But you’ve never seen a short bus go over a cliff before. You know? And I don’t think you’re gonna see it again either. [Laughs] Who doesn’t want to see that? The wishful film of a short bus going over a cliff.

And then the other variation was that the werewolf pack wasn’t originally all female. Originally it was a co-ed pack. It was male and female, but I thought it would be way more interesting because you never see female werewolves, hardly ever, outside of Ginger Snaps. Female werewolves are just an anomaly.

It’s true. I love that segment. “School Bus Massacre” is still my number one though.

I know originally you weren’t planning on directing this. There were four other people involved – Stan Winston, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, and George Romero, which is kind of wild to me.

DOUGHERTY: Yeah. The first producer who optioned the script and said he wanted to make it was Stan Winston. When I showed up to LA, he was the first person to say, “I know you’re doing animation, but you should really make movies.” He became my first mentor in the business. And so I went off and I wrote the first draft, gave it to Stan, and he goes, “I love this. This reminds me of Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt. Let me try and gather some other horror filmmakers and get them attached to it, and we’ll take it out and shop it.” And then he called me up and he’s like, “Alright, I got Tobe Hooper, George Romero. I’m working on Carpenter. I’ll do a segment,” and he goes, “You might need to go meet with John Carpenter to convince him to do it.” And I was like, “What the fuck are you talking about? You want me to convince John Carpenter to direct a segment of this?”

I’ll never forget, I had to go to The Egyptian, and he was doing a screening of The Thing. We had the same agent and the agent said, “Okay, well, you have to go meet with Carpenter while the movie’s running and talk to him about your script.” And I’m trembling. I’m just terrified because it’s like, “Go meet with God and convince him to work with you.” So, he’s out there smoking and I had to very humbly approach him and ask him if he’d be interested. At the end of it he was like, “Yeah, alright. I’ll do it.” Then we went out with the script, and I’ve got the Avengers of horror directors, and nobody in town wanted to buy it. Every studio passed on it. Not every studio, but I remember one key note we got was, “Nobody wants to see vampires, werewolves or zombies because they’re too old-fashioned.”

For the life of me, I cannot even begin to wrap my head around why anybody would pass on that package. But also, I’m deeply grateful that they did because we wouldn’t have gotten what this movie is otherwise.

DOUGHERTY: This movie has become a lesson in patience, persistence. I’ve gotten really good at turning lemons into lemonade. I have an amazing lemonade stand, you guys, if you ever need some. Everything that I thought was a setback turned out to work in its advantage in the long run. So the fact that all the studios passed twice, because not only did they pass on the script, once the movie was done and it was sitting in limbo for years at Warner Bros., Warner Bros. did give us permission to shop it. So we were able to screen it for other distributors and studios in the event that one of these other studios or distributors wanted to then buy it from Warner Bros. So we screened it for all the studios, and everybody passed again.

Have you ever reconnected with anyone who passed on it?

DOUGHERTY: Oh, I have. Absolutely.

What do they say now?

DOUGHERTY: They’re just like, “Eh, you know, win some, lose some.”

It’s one thing to make a movie that builds a following, but you’ve created a Halloween staple. The reason why so many people are here is because nobody can let Halloween come and go without watching your movie. Sam is all over every Halloween store next to the most iconic slashers of all time.

DOUGHERTY: It’s a good feeling. I just got back from Salem, Massachusetts for the first time. I’d never been there before. It’s like Disneyland for Halloween and horror. You have to go. I’m walking around, and I’m talking to somebody on the phone, and I turn around and I see Michael Myers and Sam get out of a car together and then hold hands and walk down the street together. I almost cried.

I would have cried. I get that.

Trick 'r Treat's Sam
Image via Legendary

Let’s talk about Sam a little bit now. I’ll actually ask a similar type of question. What is the biggest difference between how you pictured the movie version of Sam looking compared to what he turned out to be in the final film?

DOUGHERTY: Pretty much spot on. Yeah, he didn’t change too much. If you’ve seen the animated short, he’s very, very similar. Same color pattern, a little bit of a difference in the mask, but other than that, it’s almost identical.

When you did the animated short, did you know what he looked like underneath?

DOUGHERTY: I didn’t. I honestly didn’t. It was a mystery even to me.

How did you come to the conclusion that that was what he needed to look like?

DOUGHERTY: I just started sketching. I come from an animation background and illustration background, so when we were trying to get the movie made initially, I started doing my own concept art and sketches and then including what Sam looked like underneath the mask. The whole idea is that it sort of looked like a mash-up between a pumpkin and a baby skull. Baby skulls are so cute. They are! They have big eye sockets, and they’re adorable.

That just sounds right coming from you.

I know you don’t like talking about Sam’s origin story, but I have three questions that maybe you can answer. First, I just want to know, is there any person on this planet that you’ve revealed Sam’s full origin to?


So literally no one knows?


It only exists in your head?


I’m gonna try for two other little details right now. One, is Sam immortal? Can anything kill Sam?

DOUGHERTY: I’m not gonna answer that question either.

I had a feeling. I had to try.

DOUGHERTY: Leaning towards immortal.

I’ll take that!

DOUGHERTY: Yeah, because if he dies – actually, one thing I’ll give you is that I like to think that – because we have done a short that sort of establishes this. Fearnet used to run the movie for 24 hours on Halloween, and so they commissioned me to create a series of short films to help promote it. And so one short we showed, we called it November 1st, and it showed the aftermath of a Halloween party. You go into a backyard, you see decorations, costumes everywhere, and then you see Sam’s dead body. You see this wilted, withered corpse of what was Sam in his pajamas, and you see the pumpkin seeds and guts laying in the dirt, and then you see one seed sort of giggle and implant itself into the dirt. So, in my mind, he dies every November 1st, but with the help of certain others, certain seeds or guts are retained, and then he grows back every October.

I’ll follow that up with one other question. Does that mean multiple Sams could grow?



DOUGHERTY: I’ll give you that rule.

Anna Paquin and Dylan Baker in Trick 'r Treat
Image via Legendary

Let’s go to another creature design because you already brought up the werewolf segment, and a werewolf transformation is one of the most difficult things to pull off on screen. It either works or it doesn’t. There’s no middle ground with something like that. When you were tackling the design of all of that, did you abide by any dos and don’ts for nailing a werewolf transformation?

DOUGHERTY: I would say don’t solely rely on CG because it’ll look like crap. If you can, you should use a mix of practical animatronic makeup effects enhanced with CG, sweetened a little bit, which is what we did. But other than that, nothing really beats just good old-fashioned foam latex.

I will very much agree with that.

One of the things that I love about this movie is how well it holds up. It looks just as good today as it did the first day that I saw it. The industry is a bit obsessed with modern technology and finding new fancy tools to make movies. Can you give us an example of a technique you used to create this movie that you still find useful today? Perhaps something that you wish more filmmakers would use instead of leaning on big budgets, fancy tools, and all those kinds of things?

DOUGHERTY: Shooting on film. That’s one. [Laughs] There’s still a warmth to actual film that is so hard to find with digital. That’s a really good question. I’m trying to think of what else. Help me out a little bit.

I like any practical creature element. And did I hear something in another interview about using a miniature for the bus going over?

DOUGHERTY: Oh yeah, that was a miniature.

That stuff is great.

DOUGHERTY: Well, it’s a mix of two things. So we did throw an actual short bus over a cliff. The shot from behind where you see it zoom away from camera and go over, that’s a real bus, and then the camera pushed and tilted and looked down an actual cliff. But we then, for the sinking where it disappears in the water, that’s a miniature. So it looks like one shot, but the shot once it goes and peers into the rock quarry, that’s where it became the miniature that was then blended in with VFX.

And that miniature is on display at The Mystic Museum in Burbank if you want to see it. They have the miniature school bus, they have Charlie’s severed head on a platter, and I think they’ve got some candy, maybe the suckers, some other stuff. But they have a whole amazing giant Sam you can get a picture of.

That is where you can all find me tomorrow …

Trick 'r Treat - 2007

There’s also the way you shoot and edit a lot of the movie, because a lot of those reveals only work because of the way you cut it. In particular, you bring up his head on a platter, that works really well because of the framing that you used and when you cut to the reveal. Everything is perfect, and it’s simple.

DOUGHERTY: Well, I have to give credit to my storyboard artist, a very talented gentleman named Simeon Wilkins. We worked a long time boarding all of it together. I love using storyboards. Some filmmakers just like to shoot on the fly, and that’s great too, but it was really essential for getting the movie green-lit because, remember, this is my first movie, and so there was some skepticism and doubt. So I just started bombarding the studio executives with concept art and storyboards, and then, on the day when we’re shooting, just had them printed up and we just crossed off each one.

Of all the segments in the movie, going into production, which did you think would be most challenging to pull off, and then ultimately, was that indeed the toughest of the bunch or did a different one catch you by surprise?

DOUGHERTY: Another good question. I would say the rock quarry was daunting because it was so many kids, it was multiple locations. In some ways, the scale of that one is the biggest, you know, because the Sam versus Brian Cox stuff, that’s just one house with two characters. And that was the rule for a lot of it. One rule that we had at film school was that for your short film, keep it to two characters, one location, right? Those creative constraints sort of, in a way, force you to be more creative, to create something intriguing with a smaller scale and smaller cast. But the rock quarry story, it’s like, okay, well, we’re on the streets, the kids are trick-or-treating, so it was just daunting because just the scale, multiple locations, multiple characters, and the flashback contained within it. So that one’s the most sprawling one.

Can you pinpoint a day on set when things weren’t going to plan, you had to find a way to pivot, and you wound up finding unexpected magic that made a scene better than what you had originally planned?

DOUGHERTY: Oh, jeez. I mean, just as an example, we shot this in Vancouver starting in early November to early January. I don’t know if you guys have ever been to Vancouver, but it rains nonstop, literally 24/7 pretty much from October until spring. I was beside myself because I was like, how am I gonna shoot a Halloween movie when it’s pouring rain? That’s not part of the script. And we got to the point where we had to shoot the school bus flashback and it was just torrential, right? And it was meant to be very sunny and golden hour throughout like we had in the film, and I was convinced that we’d have to pull the plug. And I swear to god, it was the weirdest thing, out of the blue the skies cleared, the sun came out and we got to shoot everything. Then, I called cut, and then it started raining again. [Laughs]

It was meant to be.

DOUGHERTY: Yeah! I sacrificed a goat the night before, but yeah.

Oh, okay. That makes sense. Again, I would believe it.

Brian Cox as Mr. Kreeg in horror movie, Trick ‘r Treat.

When you finished filming the movie, of all the segments, which one was your favorite? And now, all these years later, is that still your favorite, or has one grown on you more than you ever expected it to?

DOUGHERTY: That’s like asking to pick your favorite child.

Oh, I’m gonna ask you to pick your favorite child a couple of times.

DOUGHERTY: Sam versus Kreeg a little bit because it’s Sam. I love working with the guy and Brian Cox because he’s also fun to work with. But that’s the whole thing, shooting it was a wonderful experience. It’s just hard to pick.

That’s fair. I get it. Clearly, I know my answer, but they’re all wonderful.

Here’s my other favorite child question; do you have a single favorite frame of this movie?

DOUGHERTY: Oh god, I can’t think of one. Honestly.

There are many good ones. I am obsessed with one of the “School Bus Massacre” shots. It’s right after the story goes from past to present and you have all five of them right on the edge of the quarry, and then it cuts to a side view of them. I just love that.

DOUGHERTY: Oh, interesting.

Something about that to me is just chilling coming out of that story and then seeing them there and knowing what lies ahead for them.

Trick 'r Treat School Bus Massacre
Image via Legendary

You brought up Brian Cox, so I’ll go there next. What was his first reaction when you pitched him that role?

DOUGHERTY: He goes, “I have one request. I wanna look like John Carpenter.” “Okay, Brian, whatever you want.”

Did he tell you why that was his one request?

DOUGHERTY: I mean, because he saw it, you know, rightfully as sort of in the tradition of Halloween. He knew that there would be no Trick ‘r Treat if it wasn’t for John Carpenter and Halloween. So I think he wanted to pay tribute to the master so he went off and worked with a makeup artist to come up with the sort of hooked nose and the scar and the scraggly hair and all of that. But then he learned to regret it because it took hours to apply all that stuff. And so then, when we finally wrapped him, he literally reached up and started ripping the fake skin off of his face, saying, “Never again! Never again!”

I have a million follow-up questions.

Brian Cox in Trick 'r Treat
Image via Legendary

Another thing about Brian Cox’s performance in this that I love is his scare scene reactions. His screams are so spot-on and perfect. Do you have any memories from set where he went so big and you realized he could hit Scream Queen levels?

DOUGHERTY: [Laughs] He’s one of my favorite actors to work with because he’s so easygoing, but he’s kind of cranky a little bit. He’s kind of a curmudgeon in real life, but you love him.

Did he tell you to fuck off?

DOUGHERTY: He came close, but no, he’s a blast to work with, and he’s been hugely supportive of the movie from the very beginning. He was down to go to Comic-Con and screen it there and do Q&As. I think Brian Cox is the best. He’s the original Hannibal Lecter. I don’t know if you guys know that.

To touch on more of the cast, can you give us an example of a time on set when someone went above and beyond with the material and did something that you didn’t anticipate?

DOUGHERTY: Quinn Lord, all the time. He really got into character to the point that his parents were worried. If I remember correctly, they came to set one day like, “Yeah, he’s staying in character when we take him home. We’re a little concerned. He’s hiding under beds,” you know? [Laughs]

I kind of appreciate that, though.

DOUGHERTY: Yeah, absolutely.

I want to go back to “School Bus Massacre” for one other question because I heard you say once that the Buddha mask was a gift from someone in your family. I have a lot of questions about this, actually. Why was that a gift? Was it a gift specifically for the movie, or do they just know that you like masks?

DOUGHERTY: Half my family is Vietnamese, so that was part of a New Year’s celebration. I think one of my cousins made it out of papier-mâché and sent it to me in a box. That’s all I remember. And I thought, “Well, this is kind of creepy. I’m gonna put this in the movie.”

That’s awesome that it’s in the movie now.

DOUGHERTY: Well, that’s a replica of the one that they sent me.

Trick 'r Treat School Bus Massacre
Image via Legendary

What about the other ones? Can you tell us some of the creative inspiration behind why you chose those particular looks for the other masks?

DOUGHERTY: I just tried to come up with masks that felt like children actually made. I’m a huge fan of the history and lore of Halloween, and before we had, like, Don Post or Spirit Halloween masks, if you go back and you look at Halloween as it was celebrated in the ‘20s through the ‘40s, it’s a lot of papier-mâché and just bags and glue and random stuff just sort of thrown together, and it’s just eerie. Way creepier than what we have now. I just thought, what would have happened if a group of disturbed children were given some basic materials to make their own masks and costumes with?

Is it safe to assume you’ve kept stuff from set?

DOUGHERTY: I was gifted some things. I never stole anything. Yes, I have some key items for sure.

Can you not tell us what they are? Because now I’m even more curious!

DOUGHERTY: No, I’m not gonna say. You guys are apparently putting this on YouTube.

I already said an F-bomb. No one’s gonna be able to watch it now. [Laughs]

DOUGHERTY: I’ve got some treasures.

Sam in Trick 'r Treat
Image via Legendary

Alright. It’s time. Do you want the question you know I’m gonna ask?

DOUGHERTY: Here it comes. Is it the new Halloween tradition?

I can’t help it.

DOUGHERTY: We have to. It’s the elephant in the room. Just go for it.

Is there any update on the sequel? Has there been any forward momentum at all?

DOUGHERTY: I know. This is the new Halloween tradition, drag Mike Dougherty out of the Halloween decorations box, “What’s going on with the sequel?” And then I had to be all evasive, and then there’s articles. I mean, this is going back since the beginning of the movie coming out. And I’m not trying to sound evasive.

I will say this, because we said it last year at the Beyond Fest screening, the sequel is in active development with Legendary. I’ll go so far as to say that we have several drafts of a script. I brought back the same storyboard artist I mentioned before, Simeon Wilkins, so we have a stack of storyboards and a good fat stack of concept art done by Breehn Burns as well. So it’s inching along. I’m hoping to talk to Legendary. They’ve been wonderful, like great collaborators. But so much of it is timing, and as you know, we just got out of a strike, so the next step, fingers crossed, would be looking at budget, of course, schedule, and all the rest. But we have a really, really great script for a sequel. And I brought in my co-writer from Krampus to do it with me. So Zach Shields and Todd Casey who do Krampus with me also helped me write Trick ‘r Treat Part 2.

Is that what you’re gonna call it, Trick ‘r Treat Part 2?

DOUGHERTY: Well, we don’t know yet. It’s just the working title.

The working title is Trick ‘r Treat 2, and we came up with a proper nemesis for Sam that would give Brian Cox a run for his money.

Oh, I have so many questions. This is so hard. I’ll ask you one sequel question that I think you can talk about. Why did it take so long, other than things like the strike and those kinds of setbacks? Because, again, look at this crowd. Look at how many people are obsessed with your movie. Sam’s in every single store. Why wasn’t this expedited and made a top priority?

DOUGHERTY: Because I don’t want it to be crap.

Good answer.

DOUGHERTY: I mean, I love all of our favorite horror franchise characters as much as any of us, but not all of them are great. And I know we’ve grown to love even the lesser chapters of our favorite horror series. There’s always a cheese value to them, but if I’m gonna do a sequel, I want it to be as good if not better than the original, and good things take time. The last thing I would want is to see Trick ‘r Treat Part 9: Sam Goes to Space, you know? Although that does have potential, I will say. [Laughs]

I would watch that. Alright, here’s the question you can’t answer, but it’s crossed my mind – is there any chance Billy could come back for a Trick ‘r Treat sequel?

DOUGHERTY: Anything is possible, but I definitely prefer leaning into the idea that every sequel would stand alone. That would bring a new cast of characters with Sam being sort of the consistent one among them all.

Michael Dougherty Making Krampus
Image via Universal Pictures

I’ll throw in one other question because you brought up Krampus, and I’m also obsessed with Krampus. Did you ever think about making a sequel to that? I would love to see how another family behaved during an encounter with Krampus.

DOUGHERTY: We have an idea for a sequel on that one, too. It doesn’t necessarily center around a family as much as it might be about a group of strangers who are trapped somewhere.

Can we just keep you in holiday horror forever?

DOUGHERTY: Coming soon, Mike Dougherty’s Passover.

I would watch that, too.

DOUGHERTY: [Laughs] I know, the angel of death is terrifying!

Trick r Treat Film Poster

Trick ‘r Treat
Release Date
November 27, 2015

Michael Dougherty

Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, Rochelle Aytes


Main Genre



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