“The Final Girls” actually hit theaters and VOD last Friday, but consider this my second-weekend push for a very funny, occasionally moving film that is, at heart, a mother-daughter weeper disguised as a horror-comedy. It's a combination that brings to mind Edgar Wright's masterful “Shaun of the Dead,” a meta-zombie flick that hit us with moments of real emotion in the midst of a riotous, bloody parody.
Recently I chatted with director Todd Strauss-Schulson to talk about the film, which stars “American Horror Story's” Taissa Farmiga as the daughter of a deceased movie “scream queen” (an excellent Malin Akerman) who is magically transported into one of her mother's cult '80s slasher films. One of the things he touched on was the idea of comedy as a vehicle for poignant expressions of emotion, and how laughs can actually heighten the pathos.
“The design of the humor [in 'The Final Girls'] was that my experience of watching movies is that the movies that move me the most, that make me cry in the end — and I love sitting in a movie and crying, I think it's really healthy for people to sit in the room together and tap into that part of themselves — I think that comedy is really the key to getting someone's guard down,” he said.
“I think that's true in life, I think it's true in movies. …And so the design of the comedy was really if I can make you laugh for an hour, and make you fall in love with these characters — and to me, humor is sort of the fastest way to fall in love with someone — that then in the end, when the emotional tidal wave comes and hits you, maybe you'll be tenderized enough…maybe it'll actually move you if you have fallen in love with the people and a movie that charms you with its humor, with its sensibility. So I think — for me, [Michael Haneke's] 'Amour' is a very intense, beautifully made movie, but I don't cry at the end of it. You know? I don't. But hopefully this one you will.”
Below you can check out a few more highlights from my interview with Strauss-Schulson, in which he told me which slasher films served as an inspiration, why “Bette Davis Eyes” is a perfect '80s single and why he has no real desire to make a traditional horror film.
In addition to 'Friday the 13th' Parts 2 and 4, his main slasher-movie reference was a lesser-known cult film from 1981.
“[Tony Maylam's] 'The Burning' was also a really good pull for us in terms of some production design and the design of the bad guy, and the music — the score in 'The Burning,' John Wakeman's score in 'The Burning,' is particularly insane.”
He sparked to the idea of making real, deeply felt human loss a factor in a genre that traditionally treats its victims like cattle.
“I just thought what was so clever about the conceit of the movie is that it really is the story of a mother and a daughter, a second chance, and the reverbs of a loss like that in the middle of a genre that doesn't take that very seriously. I thought that was a really fucking smart idea. So almost in a way — and I would never compare myself to him ever in a million years — but almost in a way in the same way that Tarantino uses genre to like move along a different agenda, we're sort of doing the same thing. We're cloaking a story in horror to push the emotional story along.”
Star Angela Trimbur's late-film striptease was completely improvised.
“Angela Trimbur's dance, striptease, is fully improvised. I mean we knew we were doing that, but there was no choreographer, I didn't see that beforehand. She just went for it. And so that's always…the fun of [being] a filmmaker is you get to sit back and just be inspired by someone else, and just direct them. You know, whatever makes you laugh, do more of it, what doesn't make you laugh, do less of it. But it's so fun to watch them perform almost just for you, you know?”
Kim Carne's 1981 hit “Bette Davis Eyes” plays a key emotional role in the story, but it wasn't the original song choice.
“In the script, [screenwriters] Mark [Fortin] and Josh [John Miller] had written in [Nena's] '99 Lufballons.' I think they almost were writing it in as a joke…the least emotional song to play over the most emotional scene. And that seemed like intellectually a very funny idea, but actually it doesn't really work in a movie, you know? And so we tried to get that song, and it ended up being cost-prohibitive. And so I just sort of started digging into a bunch of…'80s tracks, that are not maybe the obvious ones you would hear at a bar mitzvah or whatever. …I was looking at Cyndi Lauper, and some of the producers were really pushing [Pat Benatar's] 'We Belong,' was something that was being pushed at me pretty hard, which I thought was sort of the wrong vibe.
“It was really all about vibe. It's kinda gotta be a melancholy but beautiful song, and I just love 'Bette Davis Eyes.' I love that it's about an actress. And I don't know, there's something so nostalgic about that song for some reason to me. And I really pushed hard to get that piece of music, and we got it. And I find it actually very, very moving for some reason. There's just something so mysterious about that song. And I think [during] the striptease in the end it really works as sort of a sad song. And I think in the car at the beginning it really works as a fun song. Cause it's a pop song. And I think finding a piece of music that could do both things was challenging. But yeah, Kim Carnes is a genius, and she gave us that piece of music and I think it works really well.”
The film is cinematic in a way those '80s summer camp slashers weren't.
“It's a little bit 'Wizard of Oz,' it's a little bit dreamy…it's supposed to be sort of like hyper-real and hyper-color and hyper-cinematic and the skies get to look like 'Gone with the Wind,' you know? And the camera gets to do whatever it wants. There's a real joy of movies in this movie. It's a movie about movies and movie lovers who are stuck in a movie, the movie is the bad guy. It's a love letter to horror movies, of course. But also in a way all movies. And so I wanted sort of the joy of filmmaking to also be in the movie. We didn't want to be so orthodox with like the look of those '70s and '80s summer camp movies. Even though the outfits they wear are very much taken from those films, and the bad guy, the music, I mean we're referencing all that stuff. But the look of the film is a bit different.”
He has no real desire to make a straight-up horror movie…or does he?
“I don't think that I have the stomach for it. No, I think I just like people too much in a weird way. I don't mean that to sound condescending to horror directors, but I don't know. It's too mercenary to me in a way. I wanna go off and make 'The Fisher King,' that's what I wanna make. Things like that. But I'll tell you, it is real satisfying in this movie to have a couple of those big scares and watch a crowd leap and jump and grab on to each other. It's like one of the more satisfying experiences as a filmmaker to have an audience like physically and verbally respond to your movie while it's playing, you know? It is great, so you know, maybe.”
He really wants to make a sequel, but he knows it isn't up to him.
“I think that we all have ideas about what a sequel could be, and we all wanna make one. The cast and crew and I [are] friends, we're all sort of the same age. We were sort of just like at camp together, they were campers, I was head counselor, we're all still pretty close. And I think they'd all love to go back and do it. It was really a blast on set. It sort of felt like a bunch of kids getting away with something. But I don't know, it really is up to you guys, you know what I mean? It's really kind of up to you guys to share it with your audience, get your followers and your listeners and your readers to show up first weekend, second weekend, and convince a bunch of accountants in Culver City that there should be a second one.”