Todd Strauss-Schulson, Nina Dobrev, and Malin Akerman on ‘The Final Girls’

Posted in Festival Coverage, Interviews, Movies, TIFF 2015 by - October 08, 2015
Todd Strauss-Schulson, Nina Dobrev, and Malin Akerman on ‘The Final Girls’

It was a cloudy morning on Saturday, September 19th, as I made my way to the Hilton Hotel. Fall was just starting to creep into the air, while TIFF 2015 was wrapping up. It was the last weekend of the festival, and that night Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls would be making its International Premiere as the closing night film of the Midnight Madness programme.

Schulson and Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries) were getting ready for a full day of interviews for the film, before its midnight premiere, and I was their first of the morning. Coffee was poured, seats taken, and it was straight down to business.

A collaborative piece by former College classmates Schulson, Mark Fortin, and Joshua John Miller, the film is a love letter to the horror genre, with a beautifully poignant story about grief and loss. On the third anniversary of her mother’s death, Max (Taissa Farmiga) is reluctantly participating in a screening of her mother’s legacy; B-movie cult sensation Camp Bloodbath. You see Max’s mom (Amanda, played by Malin Akerman) was a Scream Queen icon in her younger days. Now these films are the only way Max can see her, and feel connected. On this particular night, however, something goes wrong, and Max and her friends find themselves trapped in the film. They have to go through the plot in order to make it out alive, outwitting the Jason Voorhees-esque killer along the way.

“A story about grief in the middle of a movie that doesn’t really take death too seriously,” Schulson said of The Final Girls. “[T]he movie was always that to us.” After graduating College with Fortin and Miller, co-writers on the project, the three headed for Los Angeles together. They found themselves frequently coming up with projects they’d love to do, whether together or apart, eventually. “[O]ne day, like seven years ago, they pitched me this idea,” Schulson continued. “What if a girl got sucked into a [movie], but her mom was dead, and that seemed like a cool idea. And then they never brought it up again for six years. I went and made my first film, and right before I made that, my father passed away. [W]hile I was editing that movie, they sent me the script. I read it and thought this was really great, and so cool, and I wanted to get involved. So I got involved, and then for the next three years we worked on the script together.”

The nature of grief, and Schulson’s particular attachment to connecting to your lost parents through film, was something that firmly resonated with both writers on the project. However, that sensation was possibly most profound for Miller. Joshua John Miller’s father is the late Jason Miller, better known to most as the iconic Father Karras from The Exorcist (1973). “He would get to see his dad on the screen all the time,” Schulson continued, “so it was incredibly personal for [him], and then it was also very personal for me. It was almost like it was these very sad men making a movie about losing their dads, which just morphed into a sort of mother-daughter story.

The-Final-Girls-Trailer‘[I]t was always so important that the feeling of the movie was huge,” Schulson added, “and that it was really about letting go, and how cleansing a sadness can be. But we never wanted it to be schmaltzy. We just liked that it was contained by the gigantic huge crazy movie idea.”

Much of the slasher influence on the film came from Miller and Fortin. Miller has acted in a great many classics, such as Near Dark, and comes from horror royalty. Meanwhile, Fortin has, as Schulson describes, a kind of encyclopedic knowledge of slasher films, and horror in general. Both of their influence really educated the referential depth of The Final Girls, while Schulson’s pure love of cinema as a whole educated the tone.

“When I was a kid, I loved movies,” Schulson continued. “I watched three movies a day, I didn’t do any homework. I lived next to a video store, and I tried to rent all the movies, ALL the movies. That was my goal, from when I was thirteen to seventeen. I wanted to see every movie. And so I saw everything, and I did I love these kinds of movies. I love Dead Alive, and I love Army of Darkness. I loved the A Nightmare on Elm Street movies.”

“But I loved all kinds of movies,” he went on, “so it was more exciting for me than making a slasher [specific] genre homage. What I really gravitated towards was that kids got sucked into a movie. I loved the idea of deconstructing a movie and playing with all [of its] tropes. And then the fact that it was a horror movie was just a brilliant cinematic conceit. To tell a story about the aftermath of death, the reverbs of grief, in the middle of a movie where the higher the body count the more fun the movie is, that just is a very smart movie idea.”

Of course, no discussion of ones love of horror would be complete without the admittedly cliché question: what’s your favourite scary movie? Dobrev’s answer was delightfully apropos, as her first real experience with horror, and first love of the genre, was Kevin Williamson’s Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. “Kevin’s movies influenced me growing up,” Dobrev added, “and then I got to be on a TV show that he created so that was pretty cool.”

“It was’t my favourite genre,” Dobrev admitted, “I mean I don’t like being terrified.” This sentiment seemed to permeate most of the cast of The Final Girls, as Schulson went on to add that he was terrified of horror. “I didn’t like them,” he said. “I was a little pussy. Can I say pussy? I’m in Canada, right? You guys are so progressive.”

After a hearty chuckle, and my sincerely reassuring him it was ok to say “pussy” and, yes, we Cannucks are indeed progressive, he continued. “I was very afraid of horror movies. I remember I caught some of Misery on television and couldn’t sleep for a month. I saw Fright Night when I was like 9 years old, and that was a mess for me. I just couldn’t handle it, it was so scary. And then when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen I saw Dead Alive, that Peter Jackson movie which is so over the top and so gory and there’s so much cool makeup.”

“I kind of got into the effects of it,” he continued. “It wasn’t so scary because it was just so impressive! It was just so over the top, and flamboyant, and having fun with how gross it was. And that was kind of the way I got into that stuff. And then I watched Bad Taste, and I got into all those, then A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child I love, because they’re just full of imagination. It wasn’t even scary. What’s fun about the horror genre a little bit is that there’s these defined rules, and you can just be really inventive with how you’re monkeying with stuff.”

As the interview progressed, Malin Akerman (The Watchmen, 27 Dresses) arrived for her slew of interviews, and snuck into our discussion to add to the collective fear of horror that permeated the set of The Final Girls.

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“I […] cannot watch horror movies,” Akerman admitted. “After I watched The Shining – one of my favourite films ever – I was done! I tried again, but I really haven’t watched a lot of horror films. I have watched Carrie, of course. Which I would totally be down for [playing] her. I think I’d be great in a horror movie, like a real horror movie, because I’d freak myself out. […] I’m a wuss!”

“Even in the beginning,” Schulson interjected “we were meeting, and I went to Malin and I’m like ‘do you want to be in this movie and everything?’ And she’s like ‘I don’t really want to be in a horror movie.’ And I’m like ‘Good news! We’re not making one!’ It’s a different movie, just kind of cloaked in a horror movie.”

“And that’s why I loved it,” Akerman added. “[I]t has all these other elements to it. It’s really smart, very original. It’s something that, when I was reading it, it was taking me on a journey that I didn’t expect to be taken on.”

The film also embraced the artistic sensibilities of classics such as The Wizard of Oz. Like Dorothy crashing down into the Technicolor world of Oz, so Max and her friends find themselves in the beautifully vibrant world of Camp Blue Finch, the summer camp in the fictional Camp Bloodbath. The creative team, Schulson, Miller, and Fortin included, absolutely didn’t want being inside of a slasher flick to look like a slasher flick. “Is it going to look like Friday the 13th or The Burning?” Schulson added. “I didn’t really want to do that, because they don’t really look great. They’re cheap looking. I don’t really want to live in that [style] for 80 minutes. So it just tilted more into they get sucked into a movie. Not a horror movie, just a movie. [T]hen it can feel like Oz. And it was really consciously done. All those flowers, we put them there, and the tree scene. We did all that, we tried to make it feel like a dream.”

“But a lot of people didn’t really see it,” Schulson mentions, in relation to trying to get the film made, and to its reception thus far. A lot of people involved in the production aspect, he explains, didn’t really grasp what they were trying to do, and so they dismissed the film as schlock or trite camp. “Some actors didn’t see it, money people didn’t see it, even some critics didn’t see it. They watch it and don’t see it.”

“It’s like All That Jazz, you know what I mean?” he boldly adds, thematically comparing The Final Girls. “It’s a musical, but it’s really kind of not. The musical [aspect] is really driving home this sober autobiography about mortality. So it’s like All That Jazz. Put that on the poster!”

The Final Girls will see a limited release in Toronto at the Carlton Cinema as of Friday, October 9th, so be sure to go out and support this intelligent, entertaining, and original film!

 

 

This post was written by

Ariel Fisher calls Toronto home – a city bustling with an ever-expanding food and film culture. A fan of subversive cinema, she contributes to Rue Morgue Magazine, as well as websites Row Three and Sound on Sight where she was Assistant Editor. She has been a guest on various podcasts including MAMO, Time Bandits, The Dew Over, and the Matinee Cast. She has also written for such websites as Gotham News, Xavier Pop and Movie Marker. She’s passionate – and loud – about film, and loves friendly yet challenging discussions. She has her own website at arielfisher.com and you can find her on Twitter and Instagram @afis8.