'The Final Girls' Director Explains Intense Personal Inspiration And 'The Wizard Of Oz' Influence

Today we saw the first trailer for The Final Girls, wild and very entertaining movie that successfully blends scares, comedy, and character stories to offer a great perspective on horror films and family relationships. I'd enjoyed the film at SXSW, where it premiered in March; today I spoke with director Todd Strauss-Schulson (A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas) about the Wizard of Oz influence on the movie, and the very personal experiences that make it more than a simple blend of horror and comedy concepts.

the-final-girls-01Can you explain the origin of the script for The Final Girls?Mark Fortin and Josh Miller wrote the script. I had gone to Emerson College with Mark; we're really good friends. We all came out to Los Agneles together, and would hang out like buddies, trying to figure out movies to make together or independently. Seven or eight years ago Mark pitched the idea that a bunch of kids get sucked into a terrible '80s campsite horror movie and have to survive, and that one of them is pulled into their mother's most famous movie.I thought that was a great idea. Then I went off to make Harold & Kumar, and my father passed away four weeks before I got that movie. My father and I were best fiends, and he was incredibly supportive of my filmmaking. That was an intense way to start my first film. As I was editing, they sent me this script, and it really resonated with me. The personal way into the movie for me wasn't the horror stuff. I was just having this experience making Harold & Kumar where I was dreaming about my dad all the time, and it was really nice because I kind of got to spend time with him that way, you know? It wasn't bad, it was really happy.When I read this script, that was really the impulse of the movie. That this girl, who is mourning the loss of her mother, gets a second chance to be with her. It just happens that it's in a weird, surreal, hilarious and even scary dream world.the-final-girls-02That's a background to the film I never would have expected.

The other thing we always talked about was the film conceit of being able to tell a story about grief and loss and mourning in the middle of a genre that treats those things very frivolously. It seemed like a really clever cinematic concept to treat it like those things have weight, and give a ripple effect in the middle of a genre where it's all fun and games.

And then as a film lover, as a kid who devoured everything from horror to Max Ophuls movies, it was real exciting to do a thing I haven't seen done in movies before, where we're using the elements of cinema to be an antagonist. The characters get stuck in these loops, and they can see the credits, all that is fun, playful stuff to do.

You achieve a lot visually, but I'm assuming this movie did not have a massive budget.

The movie did not cost so much, and it was made in 26 days with a really small, young crew of friends and family. Everyone was maybe 25 to 32 years old. We had no adult supervision! It was a very different experience from my first film, which is something I wanted; I wanted to make something this size next.

the-final-girls-04There are some really big, dramatic visual displays in the movie, especially towards the end. Where did those come from?

The one question I got asked over and over was "what is this movie going to look like?" Because the movies we're referencing, like Sleepaway Camp, The Burning, the Friday the 13th movies... they're not amazing-looking movies. They're not beautiful films, so there were questions about whether we'd be orthodox to that.

The idea was more like they just get sucked into a movie, not necessarily a horror movie. So it's more like The Wizard of Oz. They get sucked into a technicolor dream world where everything gets to be hyper-real. There's crazy color, the sky can look like Gone With the Wind, there can be crazy painted landscapes that can look very beautiful. Going back to the dream analogue, it did want to feel in some parts very ethereal. It was interesting to try to create that visual contrast where, in the middle of a huge action scene or a scary scene, there's something very beautiful.

The director of photography Elie Smolkin and I designed it so that, for the first ten minutes or so in the "real world," it's not so close to The Wizard of Oz that it's sepia. But we are trying to avoid greens and primary colors, keep it fairly washed out, kind of golden. When you get into the "movie" and they're in that park, we wanted the green to be just burning through your retinas.

the-final-girls-05How did you cast the film? There are a lot of ideas to consider.

It was really important that we be able to feel the tone of the movie in the cast. Which is to say that the movie is tonally all over the map, across a spectrum — there's comedy, emotional melodrama, action, and scares — and we wanted to feel that in casting. So having Adam DeVine or Thomas Middleditch or Anglea Trimbur, they're going to give you that comedy vibe.

Then Taissa Farmiga is such a grounded actor, and Malin Akerman is, too. Malin can do both, she's an amazing comedy actor and a great dramatic actress. Happythankyoumoreplease is something I really remember her from, it's a great performance. So having those two women being the grounding center and surrounded by all this ridiculous stuff was the tone of the movie.

On set they bonded, and were together all the time. They did pick up the mother/daughter dynamic. Malin just had a baby a couple months before the movie started, she had a real maternal sense, and this was Taissa's first major role in a film, and Malin looked out for her. So it was a pretty natural dynamic they created. It was great to watch. Some of the easiest things were the most emotional scenes between them, which came very naturally to them. It was great to watch.

the-final-girls-03How did you get all the weird stuff in this film in a tight shoot, with a young crew?

We shot the movie mostly in order, so as we got to the end we were left with two or three actors, half an ensemble, we were doing two weeks of night shoots, all losing our minds, and we were doing either action or high emotional drama. We thought back to the beginning of the movie where we're out during the day, all having a blast, we're making jokes, and by the end it's almost like we were making a whole different movie.


The Final Girls opens on October 9. Check out the trailer again here.