A scene from Todd Strauss-Schulson's "The Final Girls"

Interview: Todd Strauss-Schulson on Killin’ It with “The Final Girls”

On the last day Todd Strauss-Schulson had the keys to Camp Marydale, a 400-acre property just north of Baton Rouge, to shoot “The Final Girls,” he decided he was going out with a blaze of glory.

“We did a chase where a guy’s on fire,” Strauss-Schulson recalls. “We shot that until the sun came up on and we destroyed their camp. We ruined all the lawns. We broke a septic tank. It was crazy and right when I said ‘cut’ and [our crew] extinguished the guy, like 40 7-year-old girls showed up and they had no idea what we had just been spending a month doing. There was a man literally on fire five feet away.”

With a cast full of sparkling comedic talent including Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, Alia Shawkat, Thomas Middleditch, Adam DeVine, Nina Dobrev and Angela Trimbur (who nearly steals the film as the sex-crazed camp counselor Tina), Strauss-Schulson hardly needed any extra pyrotechnics, but “The Final Girls” doesn’t do things in half-measure. A smart subversion on the slasher films of the 1980s, the wicked satire penned by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller takes the formula and twists it as effectively as Jason or Michael Myers ever did after plunging a knife into one of their kills, taking the star of one such film (Akerman) and following her into real-life where a decade later she can’t shake the tag of starring in “Camp Bloodbath.” However, it isn’t long after we meet her when she is faced with real horror, dying in a terrible accident that leaves her daughter Max (Farmiga) searching for a way forward, unexpectedly finding a potential path when her friends attend a celebratory screening of “Bloodbath” and finds herself thrust into the screen, armed with the ability to save her mom from the masked killer in the movie, even if she’s unlikely to resurrect her in real life.

You’ll notice below I couldn’t resist repeating the word “fun” when asking Strauss-Schulson about “The Final Girls” during a recent interview in Los Angeles since there have been few big screen experiences I’ve enjoyed more. After blowing the roof of the Paramount Theater in Austin when it debuted earlier this year at SXSW, the film is built for big crowds with its elaborately-staged setpieces and stinging punchlines that let the laughs obscure the next few lines of dialogue.

Yet for Strauss-Schulson, who was able to connect to the story via his own grieving process, it is also something quite personal, revealing a beating heart underneath all its well-constructed mayhem. The filmmaker who made the most of his directorial debut, the third installment of the “Harold & Kumar” franchise that was even more dimensional than its 3D release would suggest, shows a visual dynamism and command of the camera that allows “The Final Girls” to pull you into it just as Max is immersed in “Camp Bloodbath” and on the eve of the film’s release, Strauss-Schulson spoke about how he came up with the film’s distinctive visual style, its crazy shooting schedule and the satisfaction of seeing it with an audience.

Malin Akerman in "The Final Girls"How did this come about for you?

I went to Emerson College with Mark, who wrote the script with his partner Josh, and when I moved out to L.A., and I was just like “We can hang out and be crazy,” so we would have dinners and talk about movies, and maybe about seven years ago, Mark pitched the beginning of this idea of a girl whose mom passed away and she gets sucked into her mom’s most famous horror movie. I thought, “Well, that’s a good idea,”‎ but then I never heard anything else about it.

I went off and made my first film and my father passed away about four weeks before I got that, which was intense. He was my best friend and very supportive of my filmmaking, so as I was making that movie, I was dreaming about him all the time. When I was editing it, [Mark and Josh] sent me a draft of the script and I thought, “Oh my God. There’s something so great in here.” ‎[I could see] this is about a girl who has a second chance to be with her dead parent in a dream. I know I could feel that and the other thing was that I was a kid who grew up loving movies. I watched five movies a day and I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was like four, so I really get sucked into movies.

It was such a great fun premise and it allowed for a lot of comedy and the idea of deconstructing a movie, which leads itself to a lot of really ambitious visual and innovative filmmaking. So the emotional part and visual concept part hooked me and then I said I want to be a part of it. For three years, we worked on the script and it took a long time to get the cast and the money together, so we shot it last year.

Groundswell, the production company behind this, is more known for films like “Milk” and “Sideways,” though obviously they have a taste for smart material. Was it interest to develop a genre film like this with them?

Josh and Mark had set it up with Groundswell prior to me [coming on], but like you say, Josh and Mark are really smart writers and I think that’s what Groundswell liked about the film. You could feel a really emotional, true human story about grief and the reverberation of a loss like that in the middle of a genre that does not take death seriously. The heart was always in the script, and in a lot of ways, this felt almost like a Douglas Sirk melodrama cloaked in a horror movie to us, and Groundswell makes a lot of family dramas, so they were involved when I got into it and it was a pretty great experience. Everyone loved the story. I got engaged because of the mother/daughter [story] and that was really the movie we were making.

Nina Dobrev and Thomas Middleditch in "The Final Girls"You definitely keep that focus, but as impressively, the film has a number of different storylines to juggle and pays off all of them. Was it difficult to accommodate such a big ensemble as this?

The writing process was where all that came out of. In an early draft of the script, there were 11 characters and the rules were very obtuse. It was just too much and part of what I tried to do was really make it clear. When I read the script, the references weren’t “Cabin in the Woods” or “Scream” – I never even thought about them. What I was feeling was I was “Back to the Future” and “Pleasantville” [where] there are clear thematic ideas, a really clear central relationship and a really big, fun idea. I really wanted to make something moving, fun, funny and play a game with the audience. Those movies are fun, but they’re also tender-hearted and smart and I thought the way to pull all the tones together would be to have] a really strong voice of the filmmaker. You see “All That Jazz,” and it’s sad, then happy and it’s romantic and melancholy and there’s singing and dancing and it’s like what the fuck’s this movie but you can feel that one voice just holding it all together, so I thought that would be really important for this. That’s why it looks the way it looks – to contain so many disparate ideas.

The camera moves are quite distinctive, always roving around. Was that something that came immediately?

That’s just me. When I was a kid, the movies I really gravitated towards the most were those movies where you can feel the filmmaker. I’m 35 years old, so I was the right age for “Ghostbusters,” but the movies that really like blew my mind were like “Hudsucker Proxy,” “Delicatessen,” “Fisher King”…”After Hours” is amazing. Those kinds of films from ambitious filmmakers were so inspiring because I wanted to be one. I wanted to see what that job was and this story in particular actually lent itself to that kind of filmmaking because it’s a movie about movies – movie geeks are in a movie – so I think some of the joy of making movies is allowed to be in it. It’s okay to show off a little bit in a movie like this and those are the movies that I like the most.

It’s so boring to watch a movie where it just like photographs of just like people standing and talking to each other. That’s not a movie, s‎o that’s what I was trying to put into this film. It’s just really exciting in movies where you can watch how the film tells the story, like how do you give the emotional information or the mood visually? ‎That’s the stuff that I really like and will continue to do.

Nina Dobrev and Alia Shawkat in "The Final Girls"The ‎way this film visualizes its flashbacks is one of the most clever uses of visual effects I’ve seen. How did they come into the mix?

One of the fun exercises that we all had when we were working on this script was taking some of the tropes of [genre] movies and then putting them into a three-dimensional real world. What would that look like? I love when the images of the ideas can get laughs just as much as the improv of the genius comedians [in our cast]‎. For the flashbacks, one of the tropes of those movies are water transitions. It’s in “Friday the 13th” and so many other of those movies, so if we’re going to do one, [we thought] what would it feel like if there was a big water dissolve happening all around you in life? It’s probably feel like the room was melting, like stalactites were coming off the ceiling and enveloping you, almost like “Terminator 2” but made of a crystalline water that’s glassy. The credits were another fun one to think of what those movies did and then bring them into a real space.

In a way, it’s video game logic in a movie. You can explore a world you’ve been to a million times, go around it and take it apart. If you can come up with what the movie’s able to do, then you can start to use what it can do.

The sound design also must’ve been fun to figure out since you play on a bunch of traditional horror elements.

Yes, we cut the movie in New York and we had a great guy there – Lou Goldstein. We didn’t have a lot of time. That was one of the real challenges of the whole movie – we shot it in 26 days and edited it real fast. It was a marathon and we were trying something really ambitious. But the sound design was real fun – these sessions [where we’d just want it to be] louder, louder. It was very dense [because] if you just watch on the computer, you can’t really tell. The Jason [sound] was fun – you couldn’t use three because then it’d be illegal, but you could definitely use two and that would be okay and [in terms of what] the flashbacks would sound like, we wanted it to feel really big, like it’s a smaller indie movie, but it had aspirations to be $100 million crowdpleaser. We wanted it to feel really sexy, really big, really high end, and real loud.

When you see it in a big theater, the tech part of it really comes through – the music’s all surround sound and [you feel the]‎ swirl around you with the cameras, [which came out of the]‎ need to figure out more ways to involve and integrate an audience into your little biosphere.

A scene from Todd Strauss-Schulson's "The Final Girls"Was the actual shoot fun? I imagine if you took over a real camp site, it had that tight-knit quality to it for the cast and crew.

Yes, the experience of making it was both exhausting but incredibly fun. We’re all around the same age, so it was almost like we were friends in advance. I had done a bunch of short films with the crew [before], so it really felt like a bunch of kids at camp trying to get away with something. This movie is crazy. What we were trying to do with this movie is nuts and we didn’t really have any adult supervision. The adults we had were pretty much down with the cause and if they weren’t, they didn’t have much choice because there were 30 of us that just would not listen to anything they had to say. It felt like these were my campers and the feeling we were getting away with something and doing something special was really intoxicating. You don’t see a lot of movies like this anymore and if I was in high school and this movie came out, it would be my favorite movie ever, so I think we all felt that or parts of it and there was a crazy energy on set. But we had to shoot it in 26 days, so it was very, very fast and we were doing 45-50 [camera] set-ups a day. Most movies you’re doing 20-21, so it was relentless and physically exhausting, but there was something about that exhaustion that brought everyone together. No one was leaving, going to their trailers. We’re still all friends and everyone’s really proud of how it came out.

Taissa Farmiga and Alexander Ludwig in "The Final Girls"With a film that’s so considerate of the audience, has it been fun to take to festivals?

Yeah, it’s the best. I never really had the experience of taking a feature to a film festival. My first movie was a much bigger studio movie, so it’s really nice to have made a smaller, more personal movie that’s trying to do something different but it’s also a fun movie to watch – it has the emotion but it’s a confection. So it’s a fun movie to see with a crowd and taking it to South By was one of the greatest [experiences] ever. I had a posse with me – my mom and my sister, my dad [was there in spirit]. It was really cathartic and emotional, but also so satisfying to watch people. The movie comes alive when it’s in front of a crowd like that. It’s also really exciting to show it to people who really get what it is — movie lovers. Film festivals are full of those kinds of people.

“The Final Girls” opens in limited release on October 9th. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It is also currently available on iTunes.

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