The Makers of the ‘Bite Size Horror’ Ads Tell Us All About Their Wonderfully Spooky Creations

To begin with, they didn't know they would be Mars ads

"They gave us a little budget and turned us loose," says Christopher Leone, who directed the Starburst film.

Halloween advertising has been a treat this year, thanks to Fox and Mars candy brands, which teamed up for a wonderfully creepy series of two-minute “Bite Size Horror” films that have been airing on Fox TV networks.

The series has included four films— “Floor 9.5” for Skittles, “The Road” for M&Ms, “The Replacement” for Starburst, and “Live Bait” for Snickers. (The campaign was created by Fox Networks Group’s integrated agency All City. Tony Sella from All City is the executive producer of the campaign, and Arbi Pedrossian from Fox Digital Studio is the producer.)

In our earlier story about the films, we spoke to director Toby Meakins and writer Simon Allen, the makers of “Floor 9.5.” They told us how their film emerged from a single creepy idea—someone being followed from the front—and how the piece is also meant to be “a metaphor for modern working life.”

We’ve since caught up with the creators of the other three films. Interestingly, several of them said they didn’t know they were working on ads during the production process—they were simply asked by Fox for two-minute unbranded horror shorts. (Executives at Fox and Mars have not yet responded to our questions about the series.)

See below for more from the makers of the M&Ms, Starburst and Snickers films.

M&Ms – “The Road”

Written, Produced, Directed, and Edited by Jack Bishop & Justin Nijm
Starring Delaney Dillan, River Lundskog and Danilo Di Julio

Directors Jack Bishop and Justin Nijm, repped by production company Gifted Youth under the name Jack & Justin, said Fox Digital had seen some of their previous horror work and called them in to pitch ideas for a series of shorts they wanted to produce for Halloween.

“We pitched them six or seven different ideas,” Nijm says, “mostly just seeds of concepts that we’d been tossing around. The idea for ‘The Road’ was probably the most fleshed out, only because it’s based on a real event that happened to Jack’s girlfriend.”

Bishop explains: “Where I grew up in Arkansas, there’s an actual ‘haunted’ road called Woodson Lateral, and as a teenager, my girlfriend went out there with her dad and her best friend and they had a terrifying experience very similar to the one depicted in our short. We basically just told Fox her story, and they decided that was the idea they wanted us to do.”

They liked the idea, too, because it’s universal. “Every small town has a road with a creepy story that gets passed around like a campfire tale and eventually becomes a kind of thrill-seeker challenge for bored teenagers,” says Nijm. “Even for me, growing up in Chicago, there was one called Rainbow Road that I heard about all the time. I was too chicken to ever go out there, though.”

They scouted a few actual haunted roads in and around Los Angeles, hoping they might shoot at one of them. “We thought it’d be a good way to automatically set the mood on set, but none of them worked for what we were doing, unfortunately,” says Bishop.

“And I was too chicken,” adds Nijm.

Starburst – “The Replacement”

Director: Christopher Leone
Stars: Jack McGraw, Aidan McGraw, Amy K. Harmon

Christopher Leone has a long history with Fox Digital. His most recent project with the studio was a sci-fi film he wrote and directed called Parallels, which was released on Netflix in March 2015. (A TV pilot called The Building, adapted from Parallels, later went into development with Fox, with Neil Gaiman attached as executive producer.)

“When Fox Digital asked me if I was interested in doing a short for Halloween, I instantly said yes,” Leone says. “Fox was looking for two-minute shorts for Halloween. They could be funny or scary or both. I was free to make an extended three-minute version—which I did!—but I had to deliver at least the two-minute for broadcast.”

The idea for “The Replacement” came from Paul Workman, a friend of Leone’s who worked with him on the 2006 SyFy miniseries The Lost Room. “I think he first told me the story back then and it gave me the creeps,” Leone says. With Workman’s blessing, he pitched it to Fox Digital.

Leone says he had almost total creative freedom on the project.

“They gave us a little budget and turned us loose, pretty much,” he says. “I got some minor editorial notes from Fox and the client at the end, but that was about it. From my point of view, it was just about making a creepy, weird short film. I didn’t know it was going to be for Starburst until I saw it on TV. It was a smart approach—just let a bunch of filmmakers create some cool stuff and see what happens.”

Leone says the casting came together “weirdly easily.”

“Producer Josh Fruehling knew of two excellent young actors from a previous project—Jack and Aidan McGraw,” he says. “And I’d worked with Amy K. Harmon on a previous Fox Digital project called Suit Up. I knew she’d be awesome as a tough mom and deliver the devastating twist at the end.”

They shot in Castaic, Calif., an hour north of Los Angeles. “Originally I envisioned a more Northeast, deep-woods kind of feel,” says Leone. “But around Los Angeles we couldn’t find house and woods and budget that all worked together. This house had a lot of character, and sat at the top of a hill with spare surroundings.”

The shoot was a little tricky to schedule, he adds. “We were limited by the hours we could shoot with child actors, and I wanted the film to begin in daylight and end in darkness. And I wanted the boy to meet his replacement right as the sun was going down.”

Snickers – “Live Bait”

Director: Andrew Laurich
Writers: Gabriel Miller, Andrew Laurich
Star: Brian Donahue

Executives at Fox were fans of Gabriel Miller and Andrew Laurich‘s Sundance short film A Reasonable Request (which Adweek wrote about here) and have been in touch with them ever since.

“They approached us back in March saying they were putting together a family-friendly horror short anthology, and did we have any ideas?” says Miller. (You may remember Miller as the creator of the inscrutable ’60s adman Cornelius Trunchpole, but that’s a whole other story.)

The idea for the fisherman plot came to Miller while he was actually doing some fishing at his family’s beach house in Denmark.

“Out on the water, all alone, I started thinking about how unfair fishing is on the fish,” he says. “It’s a hobby that feels so inherently wholesome but in reality it’s quite violent and brutal. It got me thinking about if the tables were turned and the fish got some kind of revenge. Hopefully that comes across in the finished film.”

The budget was only around $25,000, “which is tiny for what turned out to be a two-minute brand film,” says Miller. “It meant our initial casting plans—Richard Dreyfuss—went out the window, but in the end that didn’t matter, as it’s a non-speaking role anyway.”

Miller believes Mars is one of the few brands that could pull off this kind of series, since it’s a beloved collection of brands that already has a natural association with Halloween. “As a writer both in advertising and film, it made a nice change having such freedom with literally zero input from the brand,” he adds. “Fox were great to work with, too, from a creative standpoint.”

We hope to hear from Fox and Mars soon, too—particularly on the issue of the other eight films that were shot for this Halloween series. (Only these four of the 12 have been running on TV, and none of them seem to have made to either Mars or Fox’s social channels.)

We are also hearing that Fox might be planning a similar series, possibly with a different brand, for Christmas.