Interview: Director Christopher Landon on his Freaky new film, the Happy Death Day franchise, and injecting humanity into the horror genre

(from left) Co-writer/director Christopher Landon and Kathryn Newton on the set of Freaky.

 

As the trailer for Christopher Landon‘s body-swap horror-comedy Freaky premieres across the globe, The AU Review’s Peter Gray was fortunate enough to chat with the director, touching on the casting of Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton, his love of the horror genre, and if we can expect a third Happy Death Day.

After seeing the trailer, Freaky is very much the gory, batshit crazy movie you described it as.  How did this one come about for you?

Batshit is definitely the right description.  My writing partner, Michael Kennedy, approached me with the idea and I clicked with it immediately.  I liked the idea of taking something familiar and turning it upside down.

Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton look like quite the pair, they seem to play off each other – and play each other – really well.  Were they always the two you had in mind?

They were, actually.  It was that rare case where the two people I wanted ended up being in the movie.  Vince is so physically imposing, you know he’s a big guy, and I needed someone who was convincingly scary but also had the comedic chops.  The last few years he’s really played some intense characters, so I really felt that he was going to be the only guy that could pull this off.  And Kathryn, she’s someone who’s so professional and so focused.  She can be that shy, vulnerable girl, but she’s a competitive athlete so she can bring that intensity to her work.  It’s a big two-hander for the both of them.

Your career as a writer and director has been quite rooted in horror.  Where did your love of the genre start?

I grew up watching horror films, probably at an inappropriately young age, and I just fell in love with the genre.  It was always what I wanted to do.  I made these ridiculous little short films when I was a kid and when I was a teenager, and they were always horror.  So it’s always been my dream.

And you’ve blended comedy into the horror without resorting to spoofing the genre.  Was that an intentional move?

I don’t know if it ever was something directly by design…I think I just found my way into it.  Even when I was writing the Paranormal Activity films (Landon wrote the second, third and fourth films, as well as the spin-off The Marked Ones), comedy was important for me.  And it was important that the characters were relatable and funny, I think it’s very disarming.  I think people are drawn to that…if you can make the audience laugh, it’s that much easier to set them up for a scare.  I’ve always come from a place of character, I think that’s how you pull off the horror and the comedy.  If you present your audience with a likeable lead character that they feel comfortable spending an hour-and-a-half, 2 hours with, you can kinda throw anything at them.

Going off that, the character of Tree in Happy Death Day (played by Jessica Rothe) isn’t what would be described as a likeable character, at least initially, so you obviously know how to write characters in a manner that brings them around to an audience.

That was the joy in making that film, in seeing the character of Tree start out as this wretched, terrible person and evolve into someone who’s kind and thoughtful and has empathy, all those things that are sorely lacking in our culture.  And Jessica Rothe is such a pro, she makes those things look easy, and in Freaky, Kathryn Newton does such a fantastic job priming her character, making her someone that we really root for.  And then when she’s in Vince’s body, he takes over from there and goes even further, so that by the time we get to the end of the movie you want her to win so badly.

Did Kathryn and Vince spend a lot of time together to get the mimicking of each other down?  Did you have a lot of input, or were they left to their own devices?

I was deeply involved in that.  I wanted them to have as much of an advantage as they could there, so we started with video diaries of them in character, so they had something to study.  It was important to me that it went beyond mimicry.  And then when we were in pre-production on the film, that’s when we could rehearse in person and really dig into some stuff.  What helped it so much was that Kathryn and Vince really connected, really respected each other and enjoyed each other’s company.  They got to know each other on a personal level, and I think that shines through in the movie, that personal admiration and respect for one another.

On a personal note, the emotion that you weaved into a film like Happy Death Day felt very organic, and as someone who lost a parent at a young age, and being a gay man myself, it’s quite rare to see that acknowledged in the genre.  Do you find that coming from a place of truth helps ground these sort of films?

Absolutely.  For me, when I’m making movies I’m always working out my own personal shit (laughs).  With Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2…I had lost my father and was really trying to figure some stuff out, and my take away from it was that grief is very much a part of you.  In Freaky one of the things I deal with is bullying, especially in high school, and some of these characters are people that get bullied a lot, and that was me tapping into a lot of that stuff of being gay, being in high school, being singled out by people for being different…and there’s a certain type of revenge aspect in the film because a lot of those bullies get their comeuppance.  One of the things I’m really proud about Freaky is that we have a gay lead character in Joshua, and he’s not coming out, he’s not figuring out who he is, he’s out and proud.  It was really important to myself and the other writer (Michael Kennedy), who’s also gay, that we had a character who owns who he is.

As a fan of the Happy Death Day movies I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask if a third film is any close to fruition?

Oh God, I wish!  Disappointingly it’s not, but I’m still holding out hope.  I know that Jason Blum (the producer) wants to make it, I know Jessica Rothe still wants to be involved, and I think we all see the promise of the third idea because it’s also batshit and shifts genres too.  We’ll see what happens, but I know our fan-base continues to grow, so maybe that could help us out.  It’s a weird situation because the film was still financially successful, even though it didn’t make as much as the first film, but it’s a little strange that the studio hasn’t gotten behind it.

Jason Blum is obviously someone who has faith in the genre and knows how to make the most of limited budgets, so it must be nice to have someone like that support you and allow you off the reins a bit…

Oh yeah! That’s the whole thrill of being able to make the movie you want to make, and not have a million other opinions coming at you, bombarding you.  People have asked me why I don’t want to make a giant tentpole picture and I think there’s just too much pressure – too many cooks in the kitchen – and it’s that freedom that keeps me coming back (to Blumhouse).

Freaky is releasing in Australian cinemas soon

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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