SXSW 2015 Interview: THE FINAL GIRLS, Director Todd Strauss-Schulson Talks About His Killer New Film

SXSW really kicked ass this year. We're still rolling out a lot more coverage and lucky for us (and you, I think), most of the films we are writing about we loved and believe you will too.This brings me to Todd Strauss-Schulson. He's a man who makes movies (I checked. Online. Twice.) and his latest played at SXSW.

 

Strauss-Schulson (the guy who made the only good Harold and Kumar movie, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas) teamed up with 80s child star Joshua John Miller (After Dark) to make the epic send-up horror comedy of epic send-up horror comedies called The Final Girls

 

Taissa Farmiga (The Bling Ring) stars as a young girl whose mother (Malin Akerman) was an 80s slasher scream queen. While watching the cult hit movie inside of a movie at a repertory arthouse with a group of her dreamy friends (Nina Dobrev, Alexander Ludwig, Alia Shawkat), they magically get sucked into the slasher flick her mom starred in and must figure out how to get the fuck out of the movie before the Jason Voorhees-like killer cuts them up to pieces. It's meta, it's clever, at times it's heartfelt, and it's awesome. 

 

I saw it on opening night and after leaving the theater, my first reaction was, "This is one hell of a film. Godspeed to the rest of the movies here to try and top this firecracker." 

 

I really hate to use this term but shut up this is my article and I'm going to do it anyway -- The Final Girls is a crowd-pleaser. It's is the most fun I've ever had at a festival screening and I want to see it again and again. It was so hard to hear the dialogue at times from everyone laughed so loud, so hard. This is movie is pop madness. 

 

That said, I met up with him after the screening so we could talk about the movie. I'm pretty sure we could have talked for 13 hours, but we ran out of time. Thankfully for you and me, Todd was kind enough to meet up with me again so we could bang out more questions and answers. This young, indie filmmaker knows what the hell he's doing and his endless knowledge of film left me slack-jawed.

 

Chase Whale: What I really like about this movie: Everything that Tarantino and Rodriguez wanted to do with GRINDHOUSE but failed is what you nailed with THE FINAL GIRLS. 

Todd Strauss-Schulson: Whoa, that's a big compliment!

You nailed it, dude. One of the (many) things that came to my mind while watching the film is what GRINDHOUSE failed and how this achieved what they were trying to do. THE FINAL GIRLS is super clever and one of the reasons why GRINDHOUSE failed is because it thought it was too clever and it's not. 

I really liked Grindhouse. I saw it opening night when it was all together, before it was split into two... 

Yeah I did too! I like DEATH PROOF, but Rodriguez's PLANET TERROR is a travesty. 

I don't know, Rodriguez had a real effect on me when I was in high school. I read Rebel Without a Crew like maybe five times a year and bought a vest with lots of pockets just like he said! He's so full of imagination and ideas and confidence building aphorisms... he's got a special place in my heart. He was like my first film professor. 

I love Rodriguez as well, DESPERADO and FROM DUSK TILL DAWN are still two of my favorite films, he's just gone soft and weird over the last decade. No matter how much I have tried, PLANET TERROR just doesn't do it for me. 

Let's talk about THE FINAL GIRLS. So the film blends and bends genres the brakes every rule known to film which gives the film an advantage and the upper hand that no matter what happens in the movie you have to go with it. So the question is what was the process of finding the right balance of parody and homage without going too overboard and just like beating it in the audience's head?

I really try to avoid parody. We never wanted to make a spoof or parody. I mean, I always sort of modeled it on stuff like Back to the Future, or Purple Rose of Cairo, or Pleasantville... even Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr.  Mark, Josh and I, the people that were creating it, were thinking in those terms... I was really trying to tell a mother daughter story... a story about grief and letting go. Which was personal to me... I thought it was a really smart idea to tell a story about the significance of a death and its ripple effects, in the midst of a genre that trivializes death, where the bigger the death count the more fun it is. 

The whole high concept of getting trapped in your mom's most famous movie and that being the way to see her again... I just thought that was a great fun movie idea, but inside of it is all this tender personal stuff I was trying to exorcise. 

Did you not look at it as a horror movie then?

I remember just feeling when I read it that this is Back to the Future. How Back to the Future is a sci-fi movie... Final Girls is a horror movie. What Back to the Future does so great is that it plays this game with the audience. Repeated lines, repeating scenes, repeated camera movements, it builds this biosphere and internal language so well that you can start to dismantle and monkey with it-- It's very clever, but in the most sincere heartfelt and earnest way. 

So I wanted that. It wasn't so much about which horror movies there were to parody (even though we're obviously paying homage to Friday the 13th and The Burning), it's more of how much of that clever stuff should there be before it becomes too irreverent. Because for me, it was important that people cry at the end. That was a big part. I just wanted to make sure that that emotional story was really functioning. I felt that the comedy and all the fun clever stuff would actually serve that. If I could make you laugh for an hour you would open your heart enough to let me make you cry in the end...that was sort of the plan. 

You found the healthy balance. Because to me, a lot of movies like this get to where it is draining: "Alright, we get it, we know what you're doing." This has the perfect balance.

I look for movies where the telling of the story is as integral as the story itself. People have been saying to me for years that Final Girls has a tough tone to pull of... but I just never saw it that way... I think if you're doing your job, and telling your story, and telling it in your own voice, you can kinda go anywhere and do anything. The movies that I love the most are the ones that are tonally all over the place. And that's true to life... 

The best stories a friend can tell are the ones that start off where a happy thing happened, and then a horrible thing happened; then this person saw someone get their purse stolen, but then you ate a delicious scone at a new coffee shop and saw an old family friend out of the blue who is really beautiful... but then they told you their cat has diabetes...and then you wonder if dating them is gonna be too intense cause you're gonna have to deal with that cat all the time so you get anxiety... It's what any random day in your life is like, it's tonally and emotionally all over the place. Its funny, its sad, its scary, its beautiful, its lonely... 

I remember being a kid and my mom took me to see Spaulding Grey do a live monologue at Lincoln Center, and he talked for three hours. Just sat and talked on an empty stage and it was as riveting as any movie. He did the craziest tonal shifts, I felt every emotion, I went with it, I was connected, because he was so assured, he was so sure and steady about what he was saying and how he was saying it, he would go fast, then slow, he would go on a weird tangent that seemed to meander, then race back to the point...it all held together. One of the reasons why Final Girls is so flamboyantly visually stylish, the colors, the set design...

Oh it's beautiful..

...and what the camera is doing... it's not subtle,  But a lot of that is in service to hold these disparate tones together, the horror, comedy, heart, magic, weirdness... To feel that strong hand of a storyteller, to have the specific cadence to the storytelling, of me telling the story and pushing you ahead. It's what my favorite movies do: What Kill Bill does, what Magnolia does, what After HoursHudsucker Proxy, and Obsession do...

MAGNOLIA is the most important movie of my life. You just opened the floodgates with me by mentioning this film.

It was at New Beverly last week and on I saw it on the big screen for the first time in a decade.

I'm so fucking jealous.

It blew me away. It's so bold. it's like Paul Thomas Anderson was 29 when he made it and at his most confident and really kind of flexing, showing off a bit, grieving his father, you're watching a filmmaker really, really, really going for something and that's so exciting. Those are my kind of movies.

And one day we should have a two hour talk about that movie.

I know everything about that Magnolia.

The movie really hit me because, growing older, I've learned about regret and forgiving yourself for the mistakes that you can't... yada yada yada. So second question: there are a lot of brilliant jokes about the future when they're stuck in the 80s slasher that work because the audience understands it but of course the characters don't. What was the process of selecting the jokes  and narrowing it down to which ones would work best.

The jokes are definitely something I tried to get into the script in a more significant way. When I first read it it wasn't nearly this fun or funny. But the concept of the movie felt like it lent itself to lots of comedy, this movie plays a game, its fun, its funny, the idea of modern kids stuck with Reagan era sex bomb idiot counselors was just too funny to not plum... 

There was a lot of work done, I had a gaggle of comedy writers helping me. I was going through it myself or with a bunch of others just trying write jokes, and then also, punching dialogue for all the real-world kids. The people in my life are very funny people. My family, my friends, it's hard for me to watch drama's where no one is funny... people are actually FUNNIEST when things are most dramatic... its just not reflective of what my real life looks like. 

So I wanted to make sure the characters in Final Girls were funny. Not cracking schticky one liners that felt crammed in... but just were funny, charming people... 

Alia [Shawkat] and Thomas [Middleditch] as a bickering brother and sister, who clearly love each other but get on each others nerves is a delightful. There was a lot of conversation about how funny it should be. There were some adults around me who were trying to make it less funny. They thought too many jokes would undermine the heart I think... and I thought the exact opposite. The laughing is the key to unlocking the heart. 

Have you ever seen Ghost? Whoopi Goldberg is straight up doing hard jokes in that movie and you die crying at the end of that film... crying so so so so so so so much! Don't forget, a Zucker (Airplane!) made Ghost... and in terms of what is funny, I think it's personal preference. 

But I tried to fill the movie with really funny comedy people. Having Thomas and Adam [Devine] and Alia and Angela [Trimbur] and Malin [Ackerman] on set, and giving them freedom to bring their own sensibilities and taste to it was wonderful to sit back and watch. I created a format for where the jokes would happen and what they would be about, and the cast would often times beat whatever it was that was written, and that's what's in the movie. 

 

It's such a diverse cast and every actor is absolutely perfect for their role. And to me, Adam (WORKAHOLICS) stole the movie. I was dying every scene he's in. 

He's the best.

So tell me about bringing him on board and all of that. Because I think that it's interesting. And usually I hate asking that type of question because it's so generic, but I think this cast is so great, the whole ensemble, so I'm really curious how me they all got on board. Because they come from different backgrounds, some of them.

It was about putting together a group of young and talented actors who could all be friends. Who I wanted to go to camp with. and they would be campers and I was head counselor. And they all ended up almost perfectly falling into their dynamics as we were shooting, we became a family out there. 

As we were working on the script, Adam was a no brainer. I knew we were writing for Adam. He and I had met previously for something else I was working on and I thought he was great. He was so funny, and such a nice guy, and he just got it. It was always him. There was no back up. And when he read it he was like... yeah, I know this guy, give me a crop top and the tightest jeans you can find and ill see you at camp. And then Thomas, we had done that short together called All's Fair.

So we were friends. I just sent him the script and I said, "Who do you wanna be? Anyone? Who do you pick?" He said, "Duncan." And that was the end of that. Angela I was also friends with, I knew her, her dance videos, her personality, Tina started off like a blond bimbo, but I just thought, that's so obvious and lame, I've seen that a million times, let's cast Angela and let her make it her own. She'll kill that dance, it'll be a tour de force, and she'll turn it into something great and specific--and she did. 

Alia was another person I always knew should be in this movie, there is something so unique and weird and cool about her, so grounded and charming and funny--from the start I was saying "Gotta be Alia. Gotta be Alia." I ended up finding her email address and reaching out directly and just telling her why I loved her and how cool this movie was going to be and she took a chance and said yes! 

I didn't know Nina [Dobrev] and Alexander [Ludwig] personally but they both read it and got it, so many actors had read the script over the years and didn't get it... they thought it was a slasher film or something... so it was always refreshing when young actors would read it and see what I saw. And Nina and Alexander did. And they are great in the movie. 

For Malin and Taissa [Vermiga] it took a long time trying to find who those two women were going to be. It took forever. Taissa, we met really late in the game. We had a different actress attached for a while that dropped out last minute. Then we met Taissa and she was so great because... Taissa is not a comedian. But she's an amazing actress, she's so fragile, and so ethereal--and when I met her it just clicked. 

Here is what the movie is, you can feel the tone in the casting. Because you have this big funny stuff but then you have this real fragile, young, grounded, sweet girl in the middle of it. and that's the movie. Her and Malin.

Malin is the M.V.P. here, she arguably has the toughest role in the movie, she's two characters, she's gotta be funny, and sweet, a fictional who slowly becomes aware of her mortality, that was a very hard thing to do and she made it seem effortless... she's such a great actor... have you seenHappythankyoumoreplease... she's heartbreaking in it!

Absolutely. It's funny because you don't see them that much together as the mother and the daughter but it feels really authentic. And it got me. I am a man not afraid to admit when I cry in a movie.

(Laughs.)

So here's something that I'm jazzed to get your answer on. You've already briefed on it but I want to go a little deeper. So the film is very smart and strategic at cutting away at the right moments for the death scenes. It's smart about toning down the bloodshed and the gore. Was that pre-planned?

It was mandated, actually. It wasn't how it was originally conceived. It was originally conceived to be more of what people are used to: really gory, like Dead Alive. More early Peter Jackson. That was really the first idea. But we were told it had to be PG-13. And I got really upset and I fought for a while.

That's what I was afraid of.

But I have to say ultimately once we started shooting it, I didn't mind. I didn't mind because if you saw a bunch of breasts, like when Angela was dancing. If you saw breasts and it was really aggressively racy, if you saw someone's spine get ripped out, and had a splatter fest with this mercenary violence and hyper sexuality. It would have broken the tone. It would have hurt the stuff about the movie that is really sweet and funny. 

Because I want it to be sweet, and I want it to be sentimental. And I want it to feel like a Douglas Sirk movie sometimes. I like that. I think the truth is, that even if we shot all the blood and guts and sex, in editing I would have taken most of it out. Restraining that stuff in service of the heart of the movie is what I would have ended up doing... I think I just didn't like being told what to do. 

Well and in the film's defense too, it could play off that it's a homage, and if you have to fight it you can say that was on purpose because you're avoiding tropes.

I think it would've been really hard to be emotionally invested in those two if you're coming out of a scene that is basking in the glory of how disgusting it is in terms of gore. And trust me, I love gore; I used to want to be a make up FX guy when I was a kid, I had correspondences with Dick Smith and my closets were full of fake blood and liquid latex, I had a Bad Taste poster on my bedroom wall for years! I thought that shit was the best. But I think that it would've made it so you didn't cry at the end. Or you would've been getting the wrong kind of lift out of the audience. That hyper violence is fun and everything but it takes you in a different direction, it pushes different buttons, it...

It takes you out of the movie?

It just shuts you down instead of opens you up.

Cool, so. The film is co-written by Josh Miller who, when I looked him up, my mind was blown. He starred in AFTER DARK, RIVER'S EDGE, DEATH WARRANT (one of my favorite movies), and of course the classic TEEN WITCH. How did you pair up with him and Mark?

I went to Emerson College with Mark. And we became fast friends. And he and Josh are a couple and we all end up in Los Angeles together and were friends! We would hang out and I was always trying to come up with movies to write, and we would just bullshit around pitching things back and forth, and nearly seven years ago, Mark pitched me this idea: Kids get sucked into Friday the 13th and the girls dead mom is the star of the movie. And I was like, well, that's a great idea. And then I didn't hear anything else from them for a long long time. Then I went off and I made Harold and Kumar Christmas.

Which is the best one in the franchise.

Thank you very much! My father passed away a few weeks before I booked HK3... so that whole experience was very hard. He was my best friend and so supportive of my filmmaking... and for him to pass away just inches before I got my first opportunity... it was hard, he just missed it. While I was editing HK3, Mark and Josh sent me the script... and it touched me. 

Yes it was cool, and I loved what I could do with the meta stuff, and for a cinephile like me it was so fun to tell a story where kids get sucked into a movie. BUT... it was the mother daughter story that just touched my heart, I understood it, that feeling of wishing you could spend one more day with a dead parent. That they could see where you were now--so I got involved. 

This was really tremendously personal for them too. Josh's father played the priest in The Exorcist, he was this amazing actor in horror movies; and when his father passed away it was really tough for him. His relationship with his father for years was through watching his father's movies. So that's how the germ of the idea was seeded with them. 

And then I came in and I had my own personal attachment to the story. And for us, it's hilarious and stylish; but it was paramount that the story between the mother and daughter be central. It was a bunch of sad broken boys making a movie about missing their fathers. 

That would be a great pull quote.

There were a lot of broken boys making this movie.

It's sad and heartbreaking, but I really like that Miller got to know his father in films.

I think for him it was that he spent all of these years watching his dad on screen and mourning a bit. And then for me when I read the script, I still to this day have dreams about my father a few times a week. They're not sad dreams, they're just like we're having a slice of pizza and walking around. He visits me while I'm sleeping. It's nice like he's still alive in my dreams. 

It's a little bit of the impulse of this movie. She's in this sort of weird dream world; that's the wish of the movie is that she gets to hang out with her mom one more time. You know we both had our different ways into it. We both tried to exercise some of the same grief. That's what makes it a little different than The Cabin in the Woods. That's what makes it different than those other meta movies.

It will be compared to THE CABIN IN THE WOODS as the reviews come out but that's a huge compliment.

Yeah, that movie is awesome!  I love it...but I also wanted Final Girls to be ethereal, I wanted there to be some poetry in it. some beauty, some mystery, I wanted it to feel like a dream in some parts...

Just know that when you see that, know that it is a major compliment.

I wish it was compared to All That Jazz. It's a personal story about grief told with a lot of pizazz!

God bless Roy Schneider. So obviously you know a lot of horror films influenced or inspired this, FRIDAY THE 13TH being the most prominent. But I noticed some nods, to me they felt like nods, to other genres of film. One, in my heart, was to the great THE LAST ACTION HERO. How they got inside the theatre.

You know what else that's from? How they got inside of the movie. That's from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, the Renny Harlin one. How she gets sucked through the screen.

That's right!

That was hugely influential on me. That's my favorite Nightmare. The Nightmares, for me were the best, better than Fridays

Yeah, same here.

I didn't even watch the Fridays. I couldn't even take it! The Nightmares, I loved those. Three, four and five. So so so full of visual imagination. 

Yeah, DREAM WARRIORS is the third, right?

 

Yeah!

I think I've just seen THE LAT ACTION HERO way too much and am still going to tell myself it's a nod to that, even though the director in front of me telling me it's inspired from another movie.

Haha, I used to have a poster of that movie on the wall too, the golden ticket one. 

It's out of print on Blu-ray so I had to have a bidding war on E-Bay. I had to pay like $50 for it. I had to have this movie. I fucking love THE LAST ACTION HERO. It is a tragedy that it was so underseen and kind of brushed under the rug. C'est la vie, I guess. But what are some movies outside of the horror genre that had some inspiration on this movie. If there were any. What were the inspirations?

I really wanted it to feel like the films I saw when I was 13, wandering around West Coast Video and finding Delicatessen or Army of Darkness, or One From the Heart, or El Mariachi, or Holy Mountain... just one of those films I saw and was like WHAT IS THIS! WHO MADE THIS! HOW DOES THIS EXIST!

I always wanted to a be a director, from when I was 4 years old... I loved movies and thats what I wanted to be, and so I gravitated towards the movies where you could feel a director in it. So many of those older movies had this joy of cinema. Max Ophuls, Powell/Pressburger, Hitchcock, Busby Berkeley... The movies where you could feel the love of making movies. 

And there is a deficit of that, I think now. It's all pretty homogenous... something like Whiplash or Birdman kicks your ass cause its doing what I'm talking about. I like really expressive personal filmmaking that is also super entertaining. But so many movies now feel very neutral in terms of their cinematic and tonal ambition. 

But that's always the kind of stuff I wanted to make and so this story, Final Girls really allowed and lent itself to that kind of filmmaking. Because it's a movie about movies. It's a love letter to movies. What's a better idea for a person that loves movies to make a movie about someone that gets sucked into a movie?

There is one sequence in the movie that blew me away... that boobytrap scene--how did you do that!?

I'm always looking for unprocessed imagery... Herzog talks about it a lot... things you've never seen on screen. Original images are hard to find  Booby trap is a three minute set piece made up essentially of four long takes where the camera is simulating the experience of the whirlwind panic the characters are feeling. 

We shot it with a motion control camera... so the camera could barrel roll and push and pull and do all kinds of calisthenics a human operator would never be able to do. So much happens in these long complex takes, the camera flies up to a second story, then comes down, reveals a knife, shoots up, spins as a guy gets stabbed, flies across the room, pans back, booms down, spins above someone, then down again... etc... it feels like you're on a rollercoaster, and I had never seen anything like that before in a movie and wanted to throw my hat in the ring. 

 

 

I want you to talk about the credits. Because in HAROLD AND KUMAR, didn't you do something similarly clever? You're really clever with credits and all of that. And clever is the only word I know how to use a lot, currently. 

Haha, the opening credits are like a big pot smoke ring in 3D. A lot of my shorts are playful in that way... I really like when the filmmaking can get laughs, I always feel like, when you watch a stand up, the delivery of the joke is as important as the material... if you have a great joke and get up there and can't deliver it... it wont get the laughs... and I think of myself... using the grammar and language of film... to be the delivery mechanism of the jokes... so I always like when a shot, or something like the credits, can get a laugh... you go back and watch Jacques Tati movies... and he's the master of it. 

I don't really have a question, but I want you to talk about using the text, whenever they step over in the credits.

I mean those are old idea's of mine. I made a music video my junior year in college for a thesis film that was called "Subtitles" and it was a guy walking down the street and the lyrics of the song were subtitled below him and they were 3D and he would step over them. It's a really old idea. There are a lot of things in Final Girls that if you have known me or my work for over a decade, you would know that I am just ripping myself off. 

Hey, whatever works. To finish off the interview, I have one question for ya. This was an independent movie so I'm assuming you didn't have a lot of resources and a small budget but it looks and feels like a giant move. How did you pull that off? 

First of all it was amazing to shoot it, and I wish i were back there with everyone doing it all over again. The cast, the crew, we were all like under 35, let loose at camp, trying to get away with something... the DP, the production designer, the art dept, the editor, the composer, the camera dept... that said, every day was a marathon. 

This movie was kinda edited in my head before we started shooting. Every camera move, every shot, every cut was shot listed... some we even did pre viz on...There was no other way to do it with so little time. Everyone had to know exactly what we were doing cause we were just fighting time every day. 

So we would show up and have to get 51 shots in a day. That's what this sequence, as designed, will require for the cut to come together the way I have it in my mind... That's an insane amount of set ups. And we'd know it. Most movies do like 20-25 a day... we were a smaller crew and trying to double those numbers... We gotta race in order to get all the shots. All the cuts. The sequences. Everyday was a race. By lunch we'd have 18 shots..  

After lunch we gotta make up the deficit. Everyday was like that. A race for time. And we never dropped anything. It was insane... We'd drop shots and punt them to our last day. 

Our last day was a 19 hour day. They tried to shut me down over and over. I had to fight. No. We're getting all the shots I need to tell this story! We wrapped and drove right to the airport... that's how down to the wire and ambitious we all were... 

Well, job well done, dude. Great work. 

Thanks Chase, glad you liked it!

Loved.