A Conversation with HorrOrigins Mentor & "Happy Death Day" Producer Angela Mancuso
HorrOrigins mentor Angela Mancuso, producer of the Happy Death Day films, has a long and impressive career working in the film and TV industry, a career that she calls “accidental.” She worked for HBO in its earliest days and was eventually the president of Universal Cable Entertainment, before leaving to begin producing. Her credits include the Emmy winning series Monk and Battlestar Galactica, among many others. Despite a wide and storied career in the industry, she will always be drawn to the horror genre for its ability to evoke vicarial emotions. Mancuso talked to us about those early days at HBO, producing Happy Death Day, and the importance of mentoring young script writers and filmmakers.
In terms of being in this business with horror, when I was at Universal, someone came to us with a Clive Barker short story that they wanted to make into a movie. Horror was not being done very much on television at that point. It was really fun. I enjoyed being able to scare people and do blood and guts, but not for real. Then I did a couple of speculative horror drama pieces. I did a Preston Sturges story as a television movie. At the time, we made so many television movies. They were fun to produce, and it was fun to figure out from the page to the translation of production how to make something scary.
What keeps you interested in the genre?
There is a huge, broad spectrum of horror. Happy Death Day, the movie that I made, was PG-13. Much like Scream. it made you laugh and jump at the same time. I love that. I love that horror has become more character-based. In certain ways, we’ve moved more towards Stephen King and having character-based horror. Character is always interesting to me, whether you hang it in horror or drama.
How did you get started in the industry?
Truly, by accident. One of the things I always tell people about this business is that there is no path. It’s not like becoming a doctor or lawyer. Everyone finds their own away. I thought I was going to go to law school. As my mother would tell you, I love a good argument. When I was in college, I started working in a law firm. I became a paralegal and started applying to law schools. I had a lot of exposure to parts of that profession that I didn’t like, so I decided not to go to law school. I sat there, and thought, okay, I’m graduating and I have no idea what to do with my life. At that time, for women, when you didn’t get that job, you went to a temp agency. I said, put me somewhere. I did a week at ABC, which was kind of boring with a big, corporate structure, even in those days. Then, the next week, they put me at this little company called HBO, which was one floor at the Time-Life Building in New York. Everybody there was under the age of 40. I remember the president’s 40th birthday and everyone gathering for a cake in a conference room with him. He was the old guy. There were tons of opportunities. No one knew what HBO was going to be. I found myself fascinated and interested, and anytime someone said, we need someone to do this, I raised my hand.
I started doing a lot of live television. I did sports and comedy shows. I learned live television in the most interesting way and then gradually, ended up with a couple of studio shows. I worked my way up and learned everything. I learned the creative end, the budgeting end, the talent end, and the script end. I basically had to do every job there was. I was even an associate producer on a semi-live Broadway show, Camelot with Richard Harris, which was part of Broadway Theater. I was 24 or 25 years old when I got to close Times Square and shoot the opening sequence. I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved it. No one knew what they were doing during that time at HBO, but we figured it out together. It was probably the best working environment that ever existed. It was the birth of paid television, the birth of cable, the birth of an industry. I was very lucky to be there at that moment. It was a great time to be given an opportunity to learn.
You made the leap from working in television to working in film as a producer. What was that transition like?
I made, in some capacity, over 350 movies for television. They ranged from big miniseries that were ridiculously expensive, to tiny movies, which I still make. The only difference between making any product is the budget that you’re given and the prerequisites of the buyer, if there is one, or, in the case of a feature film, the audience that you hope to bring in. I don’t think there’s a huge difference. I think storytelling is storytelling. Any kind of visual, scripted storytelling is not that different. It’s all about how you tell the best story with the tools that you have.
You produced both Happy Death Day movies. What was it like working with Jason Blum?
The story of Happy Death Day is that I was working with a writer who had had some success in the genre when Dimension made a lot of horror movies. We were working on a television project, and he told me he had an idea for a movie. He told me about the idea, and I asked him if he wrote anything. He said no, but he could. A week later in my inbox, an outline showed up. I gave him notes for the outline. He got so excited and started writing it. About a month later, I had a script. We went out with the script and sold it to Universal. At the time, they had a small genre division. We had it in development. Everyone decided that we needed a fresh set of eyes and a new writer. We brought in Christopher Landon, who, at the time, was not even really directing, just writing. Chris came in and did a great rewrite on the script. Then, the genre division at Universal folded. We went from pre-production to nothing.
Cut to about 10 years later. Chris and I became very good friends. He started directing by then, and he was doing a lot of stuff for Blum. We were talking, and I said, you should direct Happy Death Day. He said that he didn’t know. A few months went by, and Chris called me to say that Jason asked him what he wanted to direct next. I said, you should do Happy Death Day. About five days later, we had a green light from Blumhouse, which was easy because Universal owned the underlying material. Jason’s deal is with Universal. Everybody just said yes. The next thing I knew, we were in pre-production with Chris directing. Jason was really supportive. Everyone was great.
What's your dream project?
I have many dream projects. I always say that I love all my children, and it’s always sad to me when I don’t get to see all of them grow up because a lot of them don’t. They don’t get beyond development. Happy Death Day was always something I believed in. Look what happened. It took long, but it happened. You try to never give up.
One of my dream projects is something that I have in development right now. I hope we make a pilot of it this year, Coronavirus aside. It’s with HBO and a piece of speculative science fiction called Who Fears Death? That’s a series. The writer is a Nigerian-American woman. Her name is Nnedi Okorafor. I found her about four or five years ago and spent a lot of time talking about her interest in licensing her work to television. I went with this book to HBO. We set it up very quickly, and we’re now near the end of the pilot script phrase. I am hoping we’re going to get this green lit to pilot this year. In a very simple way, I call it Star Wars in post-apocalyptic Africa, but that’s a really simplified idea of what it is. It’s on the younger end of adult, but not YA. It definitely has magical realism and science fiction elements to it. I’m really excited about it.
In your own words, why are mentorship programs, like the one HorrOrigins offers, so important?
First of all, I believe in karma. I believe that you sew what you reap. It makes my life better to be able to help people that are struggling to get somewhere in their career. I had an accidental career. I was really lucky to be at the right place at the right time. I knew nobody in this business. I had no business even being in this business. Mentorship makes my life richer. I’ve formed relationships with people in that up-and-coming generation that I treasure. I feel lucky that I know these people and that I’ve helped these young filmmakers. I’ve helped some writers who are now staffed on shows. I believe there are so many talented people out there, and helping them get to the next level and watching them do great things is fantastic.
What general advice would you give to younger producers, writers, and/or directors?
Don’t give up. You will find a way into this business. Again, there’s never a clear path. If you’re a writer, maybe at some literary agency, you can read scripts and learn what sells and what doesn’t sell. Also, don’t be close-minded. There is no right or wrong way. Someone like Damon Lindelof [showrunner and co-creator of Lost] was not born Damon Lindelof. They work at their craft. They listen and try new things. Everything you write is not gold in the first, second, or even third pass. Don’t give up. Keep your mind open. My Italian grandmother used to say, every time a door closes, another one opens. You have to just keep walking through doors and keep knocking on doors.
For example, Jason Blum didn’t have a gigantic business overnight. He kept working at it. He kept stepping through doors and kept making relationships. He found his moment. Everyone has different levels of success. I would not compare myself to Jason or many of the other talented people I know, but even my success was based on just continuing to believe in the people I was working with and the projects I was working on. There’s no magic to it. It’s hard work.
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