True horror fans are always looking for a breath of fresh air in a genre which is often oversaturated with run-of-the-mill schlock or over the top gore that often more often than not lacks satisfying storytelling. Enter Todd Strauss-Schulson. His new film,“The Final Girls,” is an unconventional comedy about Max, a high school senior, who is mysteriously transported with her friends into a 1980s horror film that starred Max’s mother, a celebrated scream queen. Trapped inside the movie, Max finds herself reunited with her mom, who she lost in real life. Together with Max’s friends, they must fend off the camp counselors’ raging hormones, battle a deranged machete-wielding killer and find a way to escape the movie and make it back home. “The Final Girls” is a film genre fans have been looking for; seamlessly blending horror, comedy and emotional storytelling. The film serves as a signpost for the big things to come from the director in his blossoming career. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Todd Strauss-Schulson to discuss his love of film, the challenges of bringing “The Final Girls” from script to screen, the lessons learned along the way and more.
What drew you to the world of filmmaking early on and ultimately made you pursue it as a career?
That is a good question. I grew up in Queens and I always wanted to make movies. I don’t know what was wrong with me! I just loved, loved, loved movies. My mom has a story about me when I was around 2 years old. I would freak out on Friday mornings until she would put me in a stroller and bring me down Queens Boulevard. There was a movie theater down the block called the Midway. I just knew, at 2 years old, when they were changing the words on the marquee and the pictures on the posters, that I need to see that stuff! There was something in me that gravitated toward film. I loved it! As I was growing up, I tried to watch every movie. I grew up next to a video store. Literally every day after school, I would try to rent three movies a day to try and get through all the movies in the store, which was very difficult to do. I was also making films every day. From the time I was from 13 to 17, every day after school with my babysitter, my little sister and me. That was what I was doing! I was trying to teach myself how to do it because I went to a school that didn’t have any arts programs. I was teaching myself how to do it and it was getting in my brain. It is unclear exactly what it was I loved about movies but I think there was something about the feeling and emotion of it. I just got so wrapped up in it. I remember seeing “The Muppets Take Manhattan” and crying for days! I also remember seeing “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” when I was 8 years old and freaking out! There was just too much feeling but I liked it!
I found myself gravitating toward the films where you could really feel the filmmaker. I wanted to be a director and it was helpful to see movies where I could see a director. I went crazy about “All That Jazz.” I thought that was one of the greatest films I had ever seen. The same goes for “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “El Mariachi,” “Barton Fink,” “Army of Darkness,” “Boogie Nights,” “JFK,” “Dead Ringers,” “One From The Heart” or “Holy Mountain.” There were so many movies that I thought were amazing! I can go for more. Do you want me to go for more? [laughs] “The Red Shoes” and “Before Sunrise.” I just loved those kinds of films where I could feel someone and that is what I wanted to do. That is my background!
It is so cool to hear that background because I really found myself drawn in by the feeling this film emotes. How did you get involved with ‘The Final Girls’ originally?
Actually, I went to school with the writers. I went to school with Mark Fortin and Josh Miller. About eight years ago, we were hanging out after we had graduated college and Mark soft-pitched me this idea. He was like, “How about a movie where the girl and friends get sucked into this bad ‘80s horror movie but her dead mom is in the movie?” I said, “That is a good idea.” I never heard about it again. That was the end of that and I went off and made my first film. I was 29 years old and I made this big studio movie, which was my first movie. About a month before I did that movie, my father passed away. I was very sad and it was very difficult because he was my best friend. He had been very supportive of my filmmaking throughout my entire life and he passed away right before I got my first movie. I went off to make that movie and it was a very intense emotional experience, as you could imagine. It was right into the lion’s den! What was happening when I was making that movie was that I was dreaming about him all of the time. He would visit me in my dreams almost every night. As I was editing the film, Mark and Josh sent me this script. I read it and I was like, “Oh my God! I get this!” This is a great idea for sure and I always knew that but now I had this really strong emotional pull to the material. When I read it, to me it was the story of a girl who loses her mom and gets a second chance to see her movie in what is almost like a dream, a crazy cinematic universe. That was really compelling! I felt it and I got what it was. It was also incredibly exciting as a kid who grew up loving movies to make a film about movies, being sucked into a movie and to be able to deconstruct the movie and have it be the antagonist. All those fun visual ideas seemed very innovative and were things I hadn’t seen in a movie before. There seemed to be a tremendous amount of ambition I could bring to this story emotionally, comedically and visually. On top of all that, I felt it was a really interesting personal story told in a way that was very visually expressive. That is the stuff I like the most from being a kid and why I wanted to make this movie. After I got involved, it was about three-and-a-half years of working on the script, looking for money and casting it before we actually got a chance to shoot it.
I think you hit the ball out of the park when it came to casting “The Final Girls.” How difficult was it to find the right mix of people to embody these characters?
It was hard. It was fun though because it is a really young cast. A couple of them I was friends with already. For example, I had worked with Tom [Middleditch] before and knew him a little bit. Angela [Trimbur] I knew as well. It was exciting to put together a young ensemble of cool people that I wanted to go to camp with, ya know? That is what it felt like! We were all going to camp and I was the head counselor. The crew was all about the same age as well. It was like we were a bunch of kids getting away with something! We were making something ambitious, special and weird. We couldn’t believe someone had given us money to make this thing! I also thought it was really important to feel the tone of the movie in the cast. The tone of the movie is challenging and people didn’t understand what this movie was. To me, it felt very simple. I was going to tell the story, in my voice and in the way it made sense to me, which was to have it be funny, sad and weird. That didn’t seem difficult because that is what I am like and when I tell a story that is what it sounds like. People didn’t get it and I thought it was really important to feel the tone in the casting. The movie is going to be really funny and at some points really broad, so you bring in Adam Devine, Thomas Middleditch, Angela Trimbur and they can bring that style of comedy. It is a very cool and modern but very silly comedy. At the same time, the movie wants to feel like it has real people and is kind of grounded, so you cast Alexander Ludwig, Nina Dobrev and Alia Shawkat to give these soulful, grounded, natural performances where they are like real kids. Then the movie wants to be really sweet, sad and pull at your heartstrings. Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman really deliver that. Taissa especially, who is this fragile, ethereal, super-emotive young girl and every scene she is in, you can just feel the heart of the movie in her eyes.
Was there anything you really wanted to accomplish with your sophomore outing as a director?
My first movie was a pretty difficult experience. It was my first movie, an expensive movie, we shot it in 3D and I was working with adults who surrounded me and made it very difficult for me to shoot things the way I wanted. I come at things from a pretty visual place first. I am highly designed in the movement of the camera and finding ways to push a story or emotion forward visually by doing things I haven’t seen before. Every time I tried to do that on my first movie, people were trying to stop me and it was exhausting. With my second movie, I just wanted to flex. I wanted to come out with guns blazing. There is the booby-trap sequence where the camera is flying around, doing these camera calisthenics and all that sort of stuff. I wanted to go for it! I wanted to shoot a movie and make it feel tonally and aesthetically like me as possible because I was a little bit reigned in on my first one.
What was the biggest challenge you faced with the feature overall?
Every day was a marathon. It was really difficult. We shot this movie in 26 days, which is short. Like I said, I had designed the entire film before we shot anything. The edit of the movie was kind of preordained by me, meaning I could feel and see sequences in my mind. So, we knew what we had to do and when we got to set we would be like, “OK. We have to do 50 shots today! 50 setups in order to get the sequence.” That is a tremendous amount of setups. Most movies are doing 20 or 25 with twice or three times the budget. It was grueling and exhausting but we had an amazing crew of people. Everyone was really young, hungry and ambitious. I think everyone was really excited to make something or be in something they hadn’t seen before. There was a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm on set but we were killing ourselves every day! We knew we would have 50 setups in a day and by lunch we would have 18. Uh oh! I guess we somehow have to make up the deficit! [laughs] We shot so fast but we also had to make room to get comedy and performance and things like that. There were no easy days and each day was a race against time in a really severe way! It wasn’t like we were figuring it out when we got there. We had a shopping list! When we got there we knew exactly how daunting the task was and we had to muscle through it and get it all because all of us wanted this to come out in a very specific way with a very specific vibe and very specific look.
What is the biggest lesson you learned through the creative process on this film?
That is a good question, as well. I am just so proud of this film. It took a lot of fighting and muscling my agenda through, ya know? It took a lot of being ambitious and pushing people. People ask, “Why is it going to take 50 shots to do this?” Just because it is! I don’t know! That’s just what it is going to take! [laughs] That is what I want and what I think will be good! Having the enthusiasm for the project was a really helpful key to getting everyone on your team. Another thing I learned, which was a really pleasant part of the experience, I knew I could score with this movie. I knew there were a lot of things visually, tonally, comedically and emotionally that were personal to me and I thought I could do well with and show who I was through them. I also love doing that for other people, so I love that Nina has a moment on the dock to score. She plays a two-dimensional mean girl who at some point explains why she is mean. She sort of says, “I’m sorry,” and asks for an apology. She says she was mean because she was hurt and jealous. To me, that was an amazing scene for her and she really scored there. I love giving Thomas and Adam all the room to improvise because I know they can score in those characters and with those points of view. I loved giving my DP, production designer and composer opportunities to score. I gave them challenges that were really hard but I knew they were so fucking talented that I could give them the opportunity to score and kill it. They absolutely did! That was an absolutely enjoyable atmosphere to have throughout the making of this movie!
With all that said, where do you see yourself headed next as a filmmaker?
I want to keep doing this! I want to keep doing visually innovative and ambitious movies that are tender hearted and very funny. They don’t make a lot of those movies anymore! They don’t make “The Fisher King” anymore and I love a movie like that, so I am writing something for myself that is about a guy who invents a machine that can record his dreams. There are also other bigger movie things brewing that I probably shouldn’t talk about but I am also making a television show. I wrote the show with my best friend and it is about modern sensitive men and it is called “Pussies.” That is true! It is a real, true thing that is happening. [laughs] So, get ready!
That is awesome to hear! My last question for you is simple. A lot of people can look to you for inspiration. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
That is nice of you to say! You know, I didn’t make my first movie until I was 29 years old and before that I was making about 100 short films a year. I was making so much stuff! There are a lot of 22-year-old kids who will e-mail me and say, “I’m ready to make a movie!” I think you need to earn that confidence with some experience. The experience is what carves out your point of view. You get that point of view with the more things you make. You have to learn to be confident and not just be arrogant, if you know what I mean. The more you do it, the more you learn how you do it, how you see things, how you want to work with actors and what your tone is. I think the lesson is that the more stuff you make that teaches you who you are, the better.
Very well said. Thank you so much for your time today, Todd. I appreciate it and I love “The Final Girls.” Can’t wait to see what you do next!
Thank you very much, Jason! It’s been a pleasure!