The Big Picture
- For night 3 of the Scary Perri Horror Series at Landmark Theatres we screened a horror-comedy gem that deserves an even bigger fanbase, 2015’s The Final Girls.
- Director Todd Strauss-Schulson joined Perri for a post screening Q&A to discuss the evolution of the screenplay, the most challenging scenes to film, and why he came to appreciate the mandate to make the film rated PG-13.
- On top of that, Strauss-Schulson also revealed his sequel idea.
The Final Girls certainly amassed a passionate fanbase over the years, but that fanbase should be even bigger by now. The Final Girls is top-tier horror and deserves to be treated as such, so when I was tasked with whipping up a Halloween screening series to celebrate the genre at Landmark Theatres, you can bet one of the very first films that came to mind was Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls.
The movie rocks a genius core concept; a group of friends walks into an 80s horror movie and must survive the film. The meta elements of the story are genius, but what takes The Final Girls to that next level is its heart. The movie stars Taissa Farmiga as Max, the daughter of Amanda Cartwright (Malin Åkerman), one of the stars of the 80s classic, Camp Bloodbath. Three years after Amanda is killed in a car accident, Max reluctantly agrees to make an appearance at a Camp Bloodbath screening. When the theater is suddenly set ablaze mid-movie, Max and her friends race to the only way out — through the movie screen. Little do they know, by choosing that route, they’ve stepped right into the movie.
In an effort to continue celebrating The Final Girls, spread my enthusiasm for the film, and possibly manifest a sequel, I asked Strauss-Schulson to join me for a post screening Q&A and he was kind enough to attend the event at Landmark Theatres’ Sunset location. During our chat, he walked the crowd through the evolution of the script and the most challenging scenes to film, explained why he finally became convinced that a PG-13 rating was best for the story, and loads more.
You can hear it all straight from Strauss-Schulson in the video interview at the top of this article, or you can read the conversation in transcript form below.
The Final Girls is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital.
PERRI NEMIROFF: I wanna go back to the very beginning of your directing journey. When you first started, did you ever imagine yourself working in the horror genre?
TODD STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Yeah, I did. I grew up in Queens. I wanted to make movies my whole life, and my thing was that I grew up in an apartment building next to a video store. I thought, “My job in high school is gonna be to watch every movie in this store in a row.” I started from left to right, and I thought I would just do that. But then every four months they changed the store around and it fucked me up, so suddenly fantasy is where horror was. Anyways, I watched every movie and I loved horror movies. I was really scared of horror movies at first and then I realized that people were making them, and so all the blood and gore, that was Tom Savini and all these guys. I wrote away, I had a correspondence with Dick Smith when I was, like, 13 and 14, and I was doing liquid latex. I thought I would be a makeup effects artist. That’s what I thought I would be first. Then I realized, “No, I just love these movies. I love Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and 4 …” So yeah, I loved horror movies, and I loved blood and shit.
I have two follow-up questions. What was the first horror movie that scared you? But then I also want to know the first horror movie that you saw that scared you, but also made you appreciate that thrill and made you say, “I wanna make things like that and give people those feelings.”
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: The best thing about Q&A’s is I know all the A’s! I know them. I know the answers to those questions. [Laughs] I was such a wimpy, sensitive boy. You ever see Fright Night? Fright Night’s not scary, but to me it was so scary.
Is that why you included the poster in the movie?
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: That’s one of the reasons, but also we had a choice of six posters that were legal to use. But that one really scared me and watching it now as an adult, it’s not a scary movie, but that really got me. House and House 2 got me so scared. And then I think it was Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and 4 where I was like, “These are just delightful.” They’re a little silly, but they’re so full of imagination, visually they’re bananas, and music video directors made those movies. And then I was like, “Okay, I can check this out and just enjoy what this is,” and, “How did they do that?” And it was all so technical, and that was exciting.
I want to go back to A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas briefly. That movie came out in 2011 and I feel like immediately after, it was announced that you were directing this movie, but then this movie didn’t go into production until 2014. What took so long, and can you give us a little insight into how difficult it can be to get a feature a green light?
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Yeah! It took that long?
I mean, if the internet is correct, and the internet is always correct, right?
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Okay, a long answer to a short question. It is true. I made A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas first. Three months before I made that movie, my father died, and so then I went immediately into making a movie, which was my dream from when I was five years old. So that was obviously a very intense thing to have happen in your life. Then, when I was editing Harold & Kumar, Mark [Fortin] and Josh [Miller], who wrote this movie – Mark, I went to college with, they were a couple, I was friends with them all through getting out of college in the 10 years before I made a movie – they pitched me Final Girls like eight years before we made it, just as an idea. “What if kids got stuck in a bad horror movie?” That was sort of basically the idea. Then I never heard anything else about that. Then my father and then I make this movie, and then they send me the first draft while I’m editing, and I read it. It was different, but the idea was the idea. Kids are in a movie, and also there’s a dead parent and a chance to be with a dead parent. I read it and I was like, “I get this movie,” like, “It’s not just a comedy and it’s not a horror movie. It’s about another chance. One more day with a parent. Saving a parent from death.”
Josh, who wrote the movie, his father played Father Karras in The Exorcist, and he died. Josh’s experience and why he wanted to write this was because the only way that he could re-experience his dad was by watching The Exorcist and watching his dad get murdered over and over, which was a pretty morbid way to remember your dad. So that’s where the movie came from. So I read it afterwards. I was like, “I gotta do this,” and I got involved. And then we redid the script, we wrote it together and it took forever to get the money. This is pre-Stranger Things and this is before Happy Death Day. Those movies didn’t exist yet, so doing something in this genre was scary to financiers, and the meta part didn’t help. Also, we were going around pitching it as Terms of Endearment meets Friday the 13th, and people were like, “What? We don’t know what that is.” So we had to stop doing that and it took a while, but eventually, we muscled our way into someone giving us $5 million to do it. We had 26 days to do it.
Was there anything specific you changed in that pitch that you noticed financiers sparked to?
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: No, I think we had maybe two people that wanted to do it and neither were great. The PG-13 question I know is coming, but one of the places said, “You gotta make it PG-13 and maybe they’re aliens and maybe they bleed blue and that’s how we can give you the money.” And I was like, “Well, certainly it’s not gonna be you giving us the money for this.” So we went with the other place and took a chance.
The PG-13 rating does work. I know you weren’t really into the idea when that demand was made, but this feels like the perfect example of a movie that can appeal to people who have loved this genre their entire lives, but can also serve as gateway horror for others.
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: I think it’s true. Did anyone wish that it was way gorier? You can be honest. [One person raises their hand.] I figured more. I will tell you that when they said, “We’ll give you the money and you can have freedom to do it, but it’s got to be PG-13,” all of us were pissed. We didn’t wanna do it. It was written to be disgusting. Movies like Dead Alive and Bad Taste, you know? Tina, there was a thing where her breasts got chopped up and they’re flying around. It was really disgusting. I mean, we were going hard at the gore and then they said, “Either do it PG-13 or you don’t have a movie to make.” And I said, “Well, it’s better to have one.”
But I will tell you that once we started making it and once we started to edit it, it became pretty clear that for a movie that is about grief and a movie where you wanna feel every kill and you wanna fall in love with all those characters, even the dumb movie characters – Adam Devine, you kind of like that guy – you really are telling a story about grief in a genre that doesn’t take death very seriously. So if the filmmakers were blood lusty and relishing in how disgusting, I think that it wouldn’t work. And I bet when we were editing it that we would have ended up making it like this anyway, even if they didn’t make us do it.
Let’s go back to the script briefly. What would you say is the biggest difference between that very first draft of it you read and the final film we all watch and love now?
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: There are a lot of differences. The first draft of the film had a lot more characters in it, and it wasn’t a comedy, and there wasn’t that much meta stuff in it, you know, getting stuck in the movie and looping and 92 minutes later – that stuff wasn’t really there. The idea that the movie would be an antagonist was not in there, and so those were ideas that I brought to it. I was like, “We’ll make it funny and meta.” The Back to the Future feeling of it, the Pleasantville feeling of it was kind of something I tried to bring. We did a lot of different drafts of the script and it went through many iterations. It was at New Line for a second. There were a million different versions of the script, which is probably what took so long.
There was a version that I thought, “This is the version,” and that version had a lot of meta stuff in it. There was shit in it that I thought was so good, and it was like at the end that the big final fight happened, like on the credits. So they were, like, hanging from letters and letters were falling and they were machete-ing as they were getting farther from the ground. I was like, “That would be a cool scene.”
You could do that with the budget you had, right? [Laughs]
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Definitely not. Also, there was an idea of in the middle when the final girl dies and the car blows up, there was an idea that everyone died and then the whole movie would begin again, and now our kids would be the counselors in the movie. And I was like, “That’s a fucking clever idea. This is cool.” We worked so hard on that draft and we turned it in, and everyone was like, “What happened to the heart? There’s no feeling in this anymore. It’s just so clever.” So there was this whole long process of figuring out the balance of all that, the comedy and the meta, but also making sure that you felt and there was a heart and that by the end, you would cry, which is what we all wanted, for sure.
Very, very successful. I’ve seen this movie more times than I can count, but the end of the movie – it’s not just tearing up, I’m sitting in a puddle of tears every single time I watch it.
Let’s move to the cast now. Of all the characters in this movie, which was the easiest to cast where it was like the right person just magically appeared?
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Easiest to cast was Adam and Thomas [Middleditch]. I was friends with Adam and Thomas in my life, and I gave Thomas the script and I said, “Who do you want to be?” And he said, “I’ll be that guy.” And I said, “That’s easy.” And then Adam I’d known also from something else and I thought obviously that seemed like the perfect role for Adam at the time, and he was like, “Absolutely.” So those were the two easiest to cast.
And then I need the opposite – the most difficult role to find the perfect fit for.
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: The mother and daughter. That was so hard and there were a million versions of it. Because it took so long to get the money, we were casting throughout, and so we had people in and they would fall out, and then we had to find combinations of people that made sense together. It just was this whole thing where the movie was together and then someone left, and then the other person didn’t work and all this stuff. But we landed on two where, obviously, the answer is that you couldn’t imagine it with anybody else. It was amazing, actually, because Taissa was so young and she hadn’t been in a lot of movies, and she is sort of the anchor of the whole movie, but she’s like cellophane-thin. She’s so sensitive and fragile in it, you know? For me at least, when I watch it, I’m like, “Jesus,” you can feel the grief just coming out of her. And so she, I think, anchors it.
And then Malin, she’s funny and she’s sweet, but in Malin’s real life, months before the movie, she had just had a child. She had an infant on set. She had just become a mother for the first time and her marriage imploded, so she was suddenly a single mother with an infant, and that is what she walked onto set with from her life, so she didn’t have to do so much. So when she’s saying goodbye to her daughter, when she’s in that blue room saying that, “I love you,” and, “I could be anything I wanna be,” all that hope and all that pain is real for her, for all of us. This movie was very special and unique. It’s crazy that it’s still being screened all this time later. But there was something that was alive I think about it, I have to. I talk about it all the time still! But there was something, I think, alive for everyone somehow and you could feel that when they’re together.
You feel it when you’re watching the movie, for sure.
I don’t want to leave the cast just yet. This is something I always love asking about because I love how every actor out there has a different approach to the work. Can you pinpoint two members of this ensemble with completely different approaches to their work where it demands something totally different from you as their actor’s director?
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Okay! I know the answer to that question. The tone of the movie was built into the casting. That kind of was the idea, so it’s part really funny and part sort of sweet and grounded, there’s a little bit of melodrama in there. So Nina [Dobrev] and Alexander [Ludwig] kind of bring a little bit of that soapy stuff and then obviously there’s all the comic actors, and then there’s Malin and Taissa. Thomas and Adam and Alia [Shawkat] were improving all the time. Most of that stuff is improvised. We had great jokes, and they did things, but so much of that – “gay dads” – many, many things you could probably feel were made up on the spot. When you have people like that together that just sort of happens.
Nina showed up thinking she was in a comedy, and she’d never done comedy so she super over-prepared a comedy performance. So on the first day she showed up, she had a binder of things that were highlighted with accents. I don’t know who taught her how to do that, but that was not helpful. It was like, “Action,” and then she said something like she was not from this country trying to do comedy. It all sounded pushed, and I was like, “What are you doing right now?” So she had to throw that book away and just be real. Like, “Throw everything away. Don’t try to sell a joke. That isn’t your job. And it’ll be much funnier if you don’t.” So that would maybe be an example of that.
And she’s so good in the final film, and I just saw her do another comedy with Adam.
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Yeah, she’s funny now!
The Out-Laws. It’s fun!
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: She’s funny! She’s good! [Laughs]
Alright, let’s go to Billy now. The mask in a slasher movie is of the utmost importance. What was it like pinpointing the right look? Is this what you had in mind from the start or did that evolve?
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: It was hard coming up with a mask that you hadn’t seen in a horror movie. The Burning, obviously, and Friday were movies that we were like, “That’s pretty iconic. What can we do that feels like that but isn’t that?” And we thought totem, you know, sort of something from totem poles would make sense and wood and that kind of thing. We had an amazing production designer and an amazing art team, and they were tasked with doing it, but they were not horror people, and the mask was very silly for a very long time. It was hard to get it to be scary. It was like the eyes had to be dead and it had to have not that many features. That’s kind of what’s good about Jason. But, it had the totem thing. And they would do show and tells, and there was the funniest fucking – they had worked so hard on it, but the thing had big eyebrows and it looked like Eugene Levy. They showed it to me and I was like, “That’s Eugene Levy. This can’t be right.” But it was a process of simplifying the mask and trying not to light it too brightly and to make it scary.
Is that version of the mask in the movie? Isn’t there one alt version that is actually in a shot here?
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Oh man. [Laughs] How do you know that?
I have obsessed over your movie since 2015.
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: I think that I didn’t know that until you just said that.
I think I actually know the specific shot, too.
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: It’s in the window.
It’s in the window.
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Because we had to shoot that before they fixed the mask. [Laughs] That’s the Eugene Levy version. That’s so funny. That’s why he’s behind those curtains.
So now you gotta watch the movie again so you can overanalyze it like I did.
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: It’s out of focus and behind the curtain because you’re like, “We can’t put this in the movie.”
Broader question now. Of all of the epic set pieces in this movie, going into filming, which did you think would be the most difficult to pull off, and then ultimately, was that indeed the hardest or did another one catch you by surprise?
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Great question, Perri, and I have the answer. Believe it or not.
I’ve been waiting for you to say that to me since 2015. [Laughs]
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: [Laughs] Great question. You’re doing. Isn’t she doing great? She’s doing so good. She’s so good. She loves movies!
The operation booby trap sequence, which is the one where everyone’s dying and it feels like a panic attack in the cabin and the camera’s spinning all over. This movie cost such a little amount of money, we had to really be smart about how we were using the money, and that was a sequence where you’re like, “Well, the movie changes here. People are dying. We’re going into night, the crew is thinning out, and things are getting real.” So I wanted to make that a thing, and we shot it with a motion control camera and I had this idea of doing these long, crazy, impossible camera moves. That’s like a robot camera on tracks. So that was a whole thing and I had to get everyone on board to do it.
We built that cabin from scratch, and we built it to spec to fit to an inch, just as much room as we needed for the motion control camera. And I thought that that would be a really hard sequence. We’d pre-vised it, we had rehearsed it a lot of times. We had one night to do it. It was raining. We were in Baton Rouge, it was muggy and pouring rain, and so we all were stuck in the house together, and we shot that. And so I thought that was gonna be a really stressful and hard thing to do, and it was. Every day was stressful. We were defying gravity every day, obviously. We didn’t have any time or anything, but that sequence, I thought, was gonna be the hardest. It was not the hardest because we had been so planned about it. There was a pre-vis. They were like, “Just do that. You gotta be there at this moment and then be gone.” So, that went pretty good.
What surprised me was the fire sequence. That I was like, “Yeah, we have these crazy stunt guys, these Cajun stunt guys that seem to be afraid of nothing, and they’ll do anything I say.” That car blew up. That was like napalm. That was much bigger than we anticipated. And I thought that that would be an easier sequence. I just figured that’s a stunt and we’ll have three cameras going, and why not? That was the craziest fucking night. That was our last night at this, we were at an all-girls sleepaway summer camp in Baton Rouge. I think it was a Christian summer camp in Baton Rouge. We destroyed the camp. Our trucks were driving over pipes and septic tanks were leaking. We had fucked the whole place up. This was the last night we were at the camp and we had to do the fire, and the Cajun stunt guys forgot the shit that puts the guy out. They only had enough of that for two burns. I was like, “You forgot this stuff?” And they’re like, “Yeah.” I was like, “Well, can you go home and get the stuff?” And they’re like, “Home is like three hours away.” I was like, “You’ve been driving three hours every day to get to set?” So we can only do it twice. So one burn was him jumping out of the window, which we did with three cameras, and that was great. Then we had to do that whole running sequence with three cameras as the sun was coming up, and it was so stressful because if you don’t get it, I guess you don’t get it. What are we gonna do? And we had to leave the camp.
So it was the final night, the crew was together, people came out of the trucks, and the hair and makeup, and everyone set their chairs up and had popcorn and sodas. It was like four or five in the morning. It was like there was an audience of the movie watching us shoot the last shots of the movie, which felt great, obviously. And it was sad to leave the camp. We had been there. We all felt like campers. We had like two lights, and it was like, “And, action!” And they’re running, and everyone’s doing it – you know what a focus puller is? We’re in Los Angeles. Pulling focus on that long lens at night with four people and fire, and they’re running full speed, that is a fucking impossible task to nail that. We didn’t know if we were gonna get it. They did it and cut, and we did playback holding our breath, and we watched it, and the focus puller was like on the edge of his seat, and he fucking nailed it. We were like, “This is unbelievable.” You could use this shot top to bottom. The whole crew applauded for the focus puller. And the sun came up and four buses of seven-year-old girls showed up, and we had to go home, and that was how we ended the shooting of the movie.
I’m glad you shout out your focus puller. Focus pullers, ADs, they all need more credit than they ever get. Magicians.
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: They need more credit. He was a hero that night.
Here’s one I was eager to ask you. I always love an opportunity to demystify reshoots and additional photography because they have a negative connotation, and they shouldn’t. They’re an important part of the process. What is something you learned in early test screenings that you were able to address, and now we can see it in the finished cut, and it makes the movie better?
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Okay, we didn’t have a lot of money for many reshoots, and we only did one test. We learned in the test – it was helpful, actually – we learned in the test that people fell in love with that friend group. We only did one reshoot, which was the ending, and the original ending was that everyone really did die, and only Max and Alexander Ludwig survive. They’re in the hospital, and that whole thing with the sequel, that was all the same, but it was only the two of them, and they were gonna have to get stuck in the sequel together. And what we learned is, “Oh wait, so everyone really died? That’s so sad. We wanna see them back together again.” And also, we touch the mom one more time in the real world, and so that’s what we reshot. We reshot the friends in the hospital, and that was it.
Good choice. If anyone wants to see the original ending, you can buy the movie and it’s one of the deleted scenes.
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: That is true. The DVD is stacked full of stuff. And you can also buy a DVD player for $40. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I mean, you could buy it digitally and get access to the bonus features, too, if you prefer!
Speaking about that ending, has there ever been an actual conversation about making a sequel?
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Yeah, but believe it or not, the movie didn’t make enough money to warrant one. Though it somehow has this life of its own and every year it screened in houses like this. But we did. We had a good idea. They tried to do it as a TV show once. We had a good idea for a sequel, all the actors would love to do it, but, “What’s Final Girls?”
I like to take these Collider interview opportunities as a chance to maybe manifest something so, I would like a sequel. I also like the idea of it being meta and you making a sequel so many years later where you could tackle a different generation of horror movies and have new things to say.
STRAUSS-SCHULSON: Yeah, I mean, the vague idea that Josh and Mark had was that they would be out in the real world, and Billy, the actor who played Billy Murphy, was the dad. And so it would be about her and her dad in the real world, and all the other actors are now old and shitty, but real Billy’s in the real world, so real Billy and actor Billy have to duke it out in the real world, and all this fucking stuff. Then there would be horror conventions and you would be, yeah, that.
The Final Girls rocks a genius core concept; a group of friends walk into an 80s horror movie and must survive the film. The meta elements of the story are genius, but what takes The Final Girls to that next level is its heart. The movie stars Taissa Farmiga as Max, the daughter of Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman), one of the stars of the 80s classic, Camp Bloodbath. Three years after Amanda is killed in a car accident, Max reluctantly agrees to make an appearance at a Camp Bloodbath screening. When the theater is suddenly set ablaze mid-movie, Max and her friends race to the only way out — through the movie screen. Little do they know, by choosing that route, they’ve stepped right into the movie.
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