When it comes to telling tales of suburban terror there is one name horror fans immediately think of, the legendary John Carpenter who traumatized generations of babysitters and trick-or-treaters alike with his classic 1978 film, Halloween. That is why when producer/showrunner Jordan Roberts has the opportunity to work with Carpenter to tell more suburban nightmares for Peacock’s John Carpenter’s Suburban Screams, it was a no-brainer.
Unlike Halloween, each episode of the creepy, six-part anthology series’ stories originate on true horror stories told through reenactments, interviews with witnesses, archive footage, newspaper clippings, photos and more. Roberts spoke to Awards Radar about working with Carpenter, choosing which scary tale to tell, his favorite horror films and more.
Awards Radar: Thank you for taking the time today to do this.
Jordan Roberts: Happy to be here.
AR: It is the perfect time of year for this to come out. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, with the Friday the 13th premiere date.
Jordan Roberts: Actually, it’s a complete coincidence. (laughs)
AR: (laughs) Yeah, isn’t that weird how that works out sometimes. I had the chance to watch almost all of the series and what stood out for me is as an anthology, it’s not like others I’ve seen. What is it that makes it unique?
Jordan Roberts: To be approached and to work with John Carpenter was like the first kind of amazing thing that I wanted to be involved with. I’ve studied his films and working in a genre where we could kind of have no boundaries in terms of documentary and horror film is what makes it unique. So, I studied John’s films and talked with John and kind of spread his DNA across this whole thing with him along with the other directors, Michelle Latimer, Jan Pavlacky, to create an experience where the truth enhances the scary. It’s a fun sandbox to work in with.
AR: It has a real feel of the classic urban legends because these are the stories that have been passed on. It’s not only the stories, but also the way they’re told through the reenactments and interviews with the people involved with each terrifying tale. Where did you find these stories?
Jordan Roberts: It’s a good question. There’s a big research phase where I have a team – we’re digging through newspapers and searching the web and putting out posts and searching for people that have experienced suburban horror stories – we’ve got our directive there.
We did this worldwide search to find people that have experienced terror that people can relate to in their own neighborhoods. What happened in neighborhoods around America and even Canada.
AR: That’s one of the things about the series, unlike other anthologies and horror stories out there, it is that based-in-reality feel. When you watch the stories and see what goes on it’s often pure evil, which you’d usually expect to be left for fiction. If any of these were happening to me with my kids, my wife, my friends, I’d be terrified. It really conveys that horror really well.
Jordan Roberts: I’m glad you got that out of it.
AR: What was your selection process? How did you lock down the stories that you decided on? The creepier the better, or was there more to your selection process since every chapter is different?
Jordan Roberts: We went into true crime areas. The episode that I’m credited as directing is called ‘A Killer Comes Home,’ which is an amazing story about… I mean, it’s horrific.
It’s about this guy, Alan Legere, who gets put in prison for murder and comes back to terrorize his hometown neighborhood, which is exactly, you know, the premise of Halloween. I was like, ‘Wow!,’ it was mind blowing when we came across that – a lesser known serial killer story.
So then it was, ‘Okay, how do we not glamorize him? How do we give the audience an experience that’s scary and entertaining, but also respectful of real people that lost their lives in this thing.’ The entry point of the small town newspaper, which is the two interview subjects. It was just this really kind of unique blend and perspective to tell a story of a psychopath serial killer in suburbia.
AR: Yeah, there’s definitely that Laurie / Michael Myers vibe in your episode, with the music and the way it’s shot. It totally feels like fiction in the best way. The series really does a great job conveying that true terror, that true human evil that is terrifying, similar to what Carpenter did with Halloween.
Jordan Roberts: It’s all about emotion, you know? Any entry point, be it fiction or nonfiction, it’s about human emotion and what people go through under extreme circumstances?
AR: Was there any story that you had to pass on?
Jordan Roberts: Oh, sure. Tons of stories we passed on. I mean, hundreds of stories we passed on. There had to be an entry point of fact, of believability, right? So it’s you make a ghost story and you take someone’s word for it, that’s one thing.
But does it have some sort of something real that is corroborated by other people or in the news or something like that. There’s always a degree of realness to it. So we were pretty hard on that.
It’s interesting to make a series that has both some ghost stories in it and some actual crime stories in it, but all kind of fitting in that same narrative. So yeah, we passed on anything where it wasn’t believable, if It felt made up or couldn’t be corroborated.
AR: Each episode must require you to do a great deal of research because these are real people and real events. I’m curious, what did the process entail?
Jordan Roberts: The process is a lot of, as you said, research. I put together these big vision decks which break down all the cinematic traits of it for the overarching series. So that’s kind of my job as showrunner, right? And working with John and also the other directors and my story teams to convey feeling – we’re all achieving something on the same page.
So it’s a lot of reference images, a lot of written descriptions of what we’re trying to achieve and spreading that across a big team of people. And then we interview. I interview everyone and then that goes into an edit and we sculpt a story out of these initial interviews, which we call a radio cut. So it’s just storytelling bites.
So I interviewed everyone for five hours at a time, a long time, to really get into everything. It’s very important to me to understand everything about these people, whether it fits into the narrative of the episode or not. And then we cut those down and then we look at those radio cuts in edit and then create a write basically out a production plan to go shoot and we shoot in Czech Republic and that’s where the cinematic stuff happens very much you shoot a movie.
And then we execute that and then all the pieces come together with a team of very talented editors to create the final product. And what was the reaction, excuse me, what has the reaction been from those you’ve interviewed? Have they seen any of it yet?
We share a little bit along the way. I’m very, very transparent. They all have my personal phone number. We kind of liberties we take and I try to include them along the ride as much as possible because everyone’s experienced some sense of trauma really when you get down to it. So there’s definitely a handholding process on it. We’ll see when it airs but I do keep in touch with them and see how they’re feeling and also warn them, people are gonna hate on them too – this is a modern world. So be ready for that. That process starts before we turn on the camera and it continues through the air.
AR: You’re not only a showrunner, you’ve also directed an episode. How do you get your mind in that mode to create these worlds? It’s very dark. Not everybody dive in that kind of energy. Were you a fan of horror?
Jordan Roberts: I’m a fan of filmmaking. I am a fan of horror. I’m a fan of creative filmmaking. So I’m a storyteller. I’m constantly interested, I guess. So really what’s interesting about this, whether you’re doing fiction or documentary. I started in documentary and I have a long history of that, but, when there’s a fascinating story I do skew the darkness for some reason.
The human condition is fascinating to me. The human condition under pressure is fascinating to me. And then what’s interesting about the horror genre is you can really get creative and create emotions within it.
Because fear is such a primal, I guess, emotion. I’m able to look at that, understand the people’s real life conditions, and then take that to a creative level that hopefully can tap into people’s reaction within the genre watching it and scare them, but also create hopefully a sense of profoundness of what is life when things, supernatural things, or scary things are happening to you.
And there’s a profoundness to it that you can bring to the table that definitely stimulates me. I like it. It feels good.
AR: Did you have favorite horror films or directors that you grew up watching?
Jordan Roberts: Sure. I mean, I gotta start with Halloween because this is John Carpenter’s Suburban Screams, The Shining, and I think scariest movie of all time is probably The Exorcist, the original.
AR: Yeah, I think you named most of the Mount Rushmore of horror on that list. In regards to John Carpenter, it must be a real treat to work with a living legend. What was your collaboration like on developing the series and all the way through the process?
Jordan Roberts: I mean, he’s John Carpenter, right? He’s kind of punk rock and he’s what you want him to be. We collaborated, I met him and he was like, ‘What you got?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, look at this.’ He’d go, ‘Okay, fine. I don’t like this, I don’t like that.’ When he talks, he’s heard.
And, I have a very strong vocabulary of his films because I grew up with them and then I re-watched them and re-studied them and I went to film school. I’m able to interpret what he’s doing cinematically to achieve the emotions that he achieves to a degree. No one can do it like John, but I can at least understand it.
We worked together in the initial phases of this development with the vision deck, the stories. He looked at them and some he gravitated to. You asked if we passed on some, if they were killed by John, they were killed by John. If they were killed by me, that all happens.
So there was always that relationship. John was set to direct an episode and he chose the “Phone Stalker” episode, which resonated with him. I did the interviewing, which he attended because, he hasn’t done interviews, right? But we set the look together. He was very intense.
I don’t get rattled very much, but it was like, I got John Carpenter over my shoulder. It’s like, ‘Holy shit. Better get this right.’
We did a lot of tweaking with him there. I did my best on the interview. As I said, I go five hours at a time on each person. He’s like, ‘Why the hell are you doing it so long?’ I’m said ‘Well, this is the process.’ He rolled with it.
He liked the look of it. Then we set forth planning the shoot. Also worked with Sandy King, his partner through this process, so there’s a lot of that collaboration. He worked with his team. He worked with the actors. He worked with everyone. I stood back, I watched and learned and supported him through that episode.
AR: That’s actually what I was gonna ask next, You’re an experienced filmmaker, but did you take anything away? Did you learn anything from John?
Jordan Roberts: Oh God, yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. It was like a blast to just watch him direct. How zoned in he is on the process of working with actors. It’s just so much like prep time on that, but it’s a real casual thing. He’s just constantly working with them up until the point.
Then on set he’s a decision maker. I got a million ideas, but sometimes you kind of bounce in between. It’s like, he’s got it. He moves on. I learned from watching him and I also learned from his films. I’m still processing the whole thing, but I think it came out pretty cool. Music was pretty good too.
AR: Let’s close with three words to describe Suburban Screams.
Jordan Roberts: Oh, I don’t know if it’s three words. The horror is real.
AR: That works for me. We’ll throw an apostrophe in there. Thank you so much for your time and best of luck with the series.
Jordan Roberts: Thank you. I appreciate your time as well and I’m glad you’re digging it.
All six episodes of John Carpenter’s Suburban Screams are now streaming on Peacock. You can watch the series trailer below.