As a kid, Melissa Joan Hart was more than a little obsessed with the 1980 horror movie The Watcher in the Woods. "My family and I watched it over and over and over again," Hart said, and she dreamed of one day starring in a remake. She and her mother tried to secure the rights for seventeen years before they finally succeeded. After so many years of waiting, Hart had to make a slight adjustment to her childhood dream. "I was too old to play the teenage role, too young to play the older witch part," she said, "and I decided to take on the role of director."
For Hart's adaptation of The Watcher in the Woods, which premieres October 21st on Lifetime, she worked completely behind the camera. Starring Anjelica Huston, the film follows an American family who moves to the woods of England and finds themselves haunted by a supernatural presence. Hart has also enjoyed the opportunity to introduce her childhood favorite to her own kids. Before filming began, "I sat down with my then-10-year-old and said, 'Let's watch this movie together.'" She worried the horror wouldn't hold up, but the film "freaked him out so much that I was like, 'This still works!'"
Supernatural projects are nothing new for Hart, who spent seven seasons playing Sabrina on the NBC sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch after getting her big break on Nickelodeon's Clarissa Explains It All. Hart told host Ophira Eisenberg about how Sabrina unexpectedly led her down a new career path. She became a director as a matter of practicality: the show's "weird hybrid between a true sitcom and a single-camera show" was difficult for new directors to learn, so Hart and some of the Sabrina staff decided to "just do this ourselves."
In addition to her childhood affection for Watcher in the Woods, Hart is also a lifelong fan of a much less menacing cultural icon: child actor and singer Shirley Temple. Hart has a collection of Shirley Temple dolls and lots of signed memorabilia, and once produced a TV movie about her life. We tested her knowledge of Temple's life and career in a trivia game about missing teeth and "The Good Ship Lollipop."
On being both an actor and a director
You have to be in hair and makeup, you have to learn your lines, you have to do your shot lists, you have to, you know, answer every question from the crew about, like, what should the duffel bag look like? What color should it be?
On her approach to directing
They say that there's different kinds of directors and I consider myself an actor's director, which is more like: trust the actors to do their thing, but guide them as far as the story goes.
JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton, here with puzzle guru Greg Pliska. Now here's your host Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. She starred in "Clarissa Explains It All" and "Sabrina, The Teenage Witch." She's also a director, and her new project is a Lifetime film "The Watcher In The Woods." Please welcome Melissa Joan Hart.
MELISSA JOAN HART: Hi.
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
HART: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.
EISENBERG: So many of our listeners, of course, have fond memories of watching you on the sitcom "Sabrina The Teenage Witch." And I know...
HART: Thank you.
EISENBERG: I know you've been asked all kinds of questions about Sabrina - her storyline, her love interest, her magical powers - all throughout the years. But how many times were you asked, does Salem the cat really talk?
HART: Really talk - oh, my gosh, so much so that my sister started saying I should carry around a black sock in my back pocket so I could take it out, put my hand in it and be like, oh, look, he's right here and, like, freak people out and make them leave me alone (laughter).
EISENBERG: That's amazing that they actually thought that was possible. How many cats were there on set just so...
HART: There were, gosh, around 10, 15. I mean, we had animatronics. We had stuffed ones. And then we had the live ones. But the thing is, like, cats are really difficult to train.
HART: So, you know, if you've ever tried herding cats, you - you know, you have to put food all over the set and try to get them. And once they're full, they don't care. They're not doing any - it's not like dogs where they want to make you happy. They're like, I am full. I do not need to be doing this anymore. I am going to go curl up in a corner and purr.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) So you had to keep a long line of hungry cats?
HART: We had a lot of cats, yes. But we also had, like, ones that had different talents. So you'd have like the older cat that you would, like, hold that was like the one that wouldn't attack you. Then you had, like, the kittens that would, like, literally attack stuff. Like, if you needed them to attack a ball of yarn or, you know, Salem was getting a little frisky, you'd, like, have that, you know, be like more of a kitten. And then you had the one that would sit still, the one that, like, really didn't like to move too much, you know? So you had lots of different personalities.
EISENBERG: So, obviously, Sabrina was a pretty family-friendly show. But the CW recently announced that there's plans for a reboot...
HART: A reboot, which everybody's been asking me about for years now.
EISENBERG: Of course.
HART: And I had no answer because I don't own the property anymore. It sounds to me like it's going a little bit more like "Buffy" than it is like "Sabrina."
EISENBERG: Yeah it's called "The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina." Like, are you going to have to defend the...
HART: Nope. I'm just going to step back and let them have some fun (laughter). I got nothing to do with it.
EISENBERG: Very good. But "Sabrina The Teenage Witch" is also, not only - obviously, that was a huge fun acting role for you, but it started your interest to be practically directing.
HART: Yeah. On "Sabrina," it was a really difficult show. It was one of the first, like, hybrid shows where it was film and it was shot like a single camera. However, we had three film cameras on set at all times, even though we didn't have an audience. So it was this weird hybrid between a true sitcom and a single-camera show.
And it was very difficult for even really experienced directors to step in and figure out what we were doing. So just out of convenience after, like, season two or three, we were finally all on set, like, we're just going to take over the reins. Instead of people coming and going, now how do I do this, how do I - and explaining it to them and having it take hours, me and another actress and DP and one of the producers were like, let's just do this ourselves. So we started just directing ourselves (laughter).
EISENBERG: I mean, so you were directing yourself?
HART: I was directing myself until "Watcher In The Woods," the movie I just finished last year. I had always directed myself, which is very difficult to do because, you know, you have to be in hair and makeup. You have to learn your lines. You have to do your shot lists.
You have to - you know, you're answering every question from the crew about, like, what should the duffel bag look like? What color should it be? How long should the strap be? Should it have wheels? Should it be heavy? Should we put it with - you know, you're answering all these little questions that all lead to the bigger story. Plus, you're also trying to be a part of the story.
HART: So it's complicated.
EISENBERG: Would you have a scene with one of your cast members and stop mid scene and go, you know, I really think that you should change your motivation?
HART: (Laughter) No, no. Luckily, you know, I'm actually - you know, they say that there's different kinds of directors. And I consider myself an actor's director, which is more like trust the actors to do their thing but guide them as far as the story goes. So as long as you're still telling the same story - part of the job is the casting. So if you hire the right people, they should be able to do the job with very little direction, you know? So I - that's my feeling, anyway.
HART: I mean, I think some people think differently. That's how I feel.
EISENBERG: Yeah. That's good, right. No, that makes perfect sense. Like, you already got the job...
HART: You got the job. Do your thing.
EISENBERG: ...So just do it.
HART: So Anjelica Huston stars in "Watcher From The Woods." I'm not going to direct Anjelica Huston (laughter). That's just ridiculous. Like, what? So, you know, you let her be Anjelica Huston. But if there's a story - you know, if there's a story points where I'd be like, oh, no, we have to do it this way because we need you to get here. And, you know, it's that reminder of where the story is going as opposed to like, hey, can you, you know - I mean, with her, you know, she turns on the tears. She knows when to be spooky. She - you know, like all that. There's no directing necessary with her.
EISENBERG: Right. You're not going to take her inside and be - aside and be like, I feel like you're ambivalence...
HART: Listen, what is your backstory here? I just - I'm not getting it. You know, I'm not going - I'm going to say that.
EISENBERG: So let's talk about this suspense movie that you are directing and that is about to come out. It's from the 1980s. So this is a remake.
HART: Yeah, 1981, I believe, was the original with Bette Davis.
HART: It's - a lot of people think it's their first entry into the horror genre or whatever. So - and so I always wanted to play the teenage girl. So my mom, when we were doing "Sabrina" - my mom was my producing partner. Hartbreak Films is our company. And she was always looking for projects for me to do. So 17 years ago, she started the search for the rights. And she couldn't get the rights. Disney had them locked up, literally, like in a file cabinet in Simi Valley or something like that.
So finally, someone said, OK, I'll send someone out there to find the rights. So they got us the rights. And now here we are 17 years later. But I was too old to play the teenage role, too young to play the older witch part. And I decided to take on the role of director.
EISENBERG: That's fantastic. And so just what the story is, if you don't know, it's about an American family who moves into a house next to a forest - always a problem, by the way.
HART: Always a problem, yes. You don't want to be isolated in the woods of England.
EISENBERG: That's right. And the forest is haunted by a supernatural presence of some sort. So you watched this a lot as a kid?
HART: I did. My family and I watched it over and over and over again so much so that I didn't watch it again before I directed the movie. We had a wonderful writer, Scott Abbott, write this reimagining of it. And we decided the one thing that was confusing about the first one was there was a scifi element.
Actually, with the original movie, they had to pull it out of the theaters two weeks after they released it because the audiences were not liking the ending. And they redid the ending, I think, three times. And so with ours, we just decided to drop the sci-fi element because it was a little confusing. And we just made it a true ghost story, which was cool.
But then when I was doing the movie, I didn't watch the - I went through all the prep. You know, we wrote the script, and everything was done. And I was getting ready to film. And like two days before we filmed, I sat down with my then 10-year-old and said let's watch this movie together. And I watched what his reaction was and what things made him scared.
And the thing that's scariest about the original that my son pointed out to me, again, which I remembered and we used very carefully - the thing about the original was it had this, like, these steady cam moments where the camera is its own character. You know, whatever it is haunting the woods, you see through its eyes. And so we kept the steady cam.
Like, you'll see the camera movements are very much - they're very static. And they're very deliberate, unless it's the watcher. When it's the watcher, it's a drone or it's the steady cam, which I think, you know, people like - you know, in "Jaws," like Spielberg did so well, you know? When you're the shark, you know, they use that device. And I wasn't sure that it would hold up anymore because that's a device that's been used a lot since then. Back then it wasn't used a lot.
Like, watching it back with my son, he's like, who - who are we? What are we supposed to be? What are we - why are we watching - what are we going to do to them? And that freaked him out so much that I was like, this still works. This still works. We're staying with this. And luckily, I had already planned it that way. So that's what we did (laughter).
EISENBERG: That's hilarious. I like that your son is freaking out, and you're taking notes - very good, yes, checkmark.
HART: I'm like, OK, check, check.
EISENBERG: So, by the way, this is not your first time on a game show.
HART: No. I always lose game shows, though (laughter). Well, actually, wait, I just won "Family Feud" last year. So I have to say that was a huge moment for me.
EISENBERG: Yeah, you won. You were a fan of "Family Feud" growing up.
HART: Yes, loved it.
EISENBERG: Sure. And then you got to appear on "Celebrity Family Feud" hosted by Steve Harvey.
HART: I only get to appear on the celebrity ones. I don't get to appear on other ones.
EISENBERG: Well, (laughter) that's OK because you're a celebrity. So do you have any memories of, like, your key moments of victory?
HART: Well, there was this weird moment at the end of - at the end of the episode when there was a question about what would someone be holding on the side of the street that you wouldn't let a hitchhiker in your car if they had this? - or something like that.
HART: And my sister - my brother-in-law said something about a stick with a bag on it. You know, like - so, like...
HART: And they're like, OK, we're going with stick. And that was up there, which was weird.
HART: And then I said something - but I was leaving whatever the obvious answer was for my sister next. So I took something else. And then she said something about, well, an arm or a body part - and a severed limb. And it was up there - severed limb. And we won.
HART: Based on - it was, like, the most - if you watch our reactions at the end, it's the funniest thing because we were like, what?
HART: That worked? So it was funny.
EISENBERG: Well, I'm glad you won. That was...
HART: I know. That was really exciting. But I lost all the others - "Double Dare" and all those games I played when I was a kid - "Nick Arcade" and "Jeopardy."
EISENBERG: Well, are you ready to play an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
HART: I'm ready. Yes.
EISENBERG: All right.
EISENBERG: So before we get to your challenge, I understand that you are a huge fan of Shirley Temple.
HART: I am. I have been since I was a little girl. I was at, like, a farmer's market. My grandma saw a pin. And she made me watch all the movies. I collect - I used to do the payments for the Danbury Mint porcelain dolls.
HART: So, like, I'd pay $10 a month. I was obsessed with her biography or autobiography. I got the opportunity to meet her, and I made her movie. She allowed me and my family to make her movie.
EISENBERG: Right. You made a television movie based on her autobiography.
HART: Yup - called "Child Star." Yup.
EISENBERG: We have written a quiz for you called Shirley Temple University.
HART: I'm a little nervous. OK. OK. All right.
EISENBERG: If you do well enough, Steph McGillivary (ph) from Enfield, Connecticut will win and ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
EISENBERG: Oh, great.
EISENBERG: So here we go. Shirley Temple is known for her adorable songs. What movie is this song from?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE GOOD SHIP LOLLIPOP")
SHIRLEY TEMPLE: (Singing) On the Good Ship Lollipop.
HART: "Bright Eyes." Is it "Bright Eyes?"
EISENBERG: I have a multiple choice. But I did not need them. "Bright Eyes" is correct.
HART: I have the sheet music signed by her.
EISENBERG: You do?
HART: Is that crazy?
EISENBERG: OK. So at age 7, Shirley Temple put her handprints in cement outside the famous Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Later, she said that she took off her shoes and put her feet in the cement to distract people from her face. Why?
HART: Because she'd just lost a tooth.
EISENBERG: That is correct.
EISENBERG: At age 7, Shirley Temple starred in the 1935 film "The Little Colonel" with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. How was that movie groundbreaking?
HART: Because it was the first time a black person and a white person held hands.
EISENBERG: That's right. Yeah - and danced.
HART: And danced.
HART: But she insisted - they weren't supposed to hold hands, and she insisted - we put a big thing in the movie about that because it was a big moment and how she grabbed his hand. And he was uncomfortable with it, at first, because it had never happened before, like, in a movie. So it wasn't supposed to happen, and she did it.
HART: They were friends. They were good friends.
EISENBERG: They were friends.
EISENBERG: All right. How about this? Later in life, Shirley Temple became heavily involved with politics. In fact, President Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush both appointed her as an ambassador. Can you name the countries she was U.S. ambassador to?
HART: At the time, Czechoslovakia - and I believe she's still the only female - and Ghana.
COULTON: Wowzers (ph).
EISENBERG: That's right. Well done. Ghana from 1974 to '76, Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992. I think you kind of killed in that game.
HART: Did I answer it all?
EISENBERG: Yeah, you did amazing.
EISENBERG: You did fantastic.
EISENBERG: Puzzle guru Greg Pliska, how did our special guest do?
GREG PLISKA: Well, Melissa, you've proven you're a Shirley Temple expert. And you and listener Steph McGillivary will each get an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
HART: So I've got this and "Family Feud" under my belt now.
EISENBERG: Two wins for Melissa Joan Hart. And "The Watcher In The Woods" premieres on October 21 on Lifetime. Let's hear it one more time for Melissa Joan Hart.
HART: Thank you. Thank you.
EISENBERG: Want our next special guest to play for you? Follow ASK ME ANOTHER on Facebook and Twitter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.