Ahead of the Film4 Summer Screen presentation of The Final Girls, director Todd Strauss-Schulson reflects on the making of 2015′s heartfelt horror homage…
The Final Girls came into my life when I most needed it. I had just finished my first movie, turned 30, and my father died, all within four weeks of each other. To say the least, it was an intense year.
The Final Girls arrived in my inbox as I was editing that movie. Josh and Mark who wrote it were friends from college and sent it to me randomly to get some friendly notes. I read it in one sitting and could feel it in my bones. I knew I had to make this movie.
First up, I love movies. When I was a kid I’d watch 3 movies a day every single day. I lived and breathed movies. I remember being 13 and raiding the video store next to my apartment and just having my mind blown by films like Delicatessen, Army of Darkness, Hudsucker Proxy, All That Jazz, Lair Of The White Worm, Tommy, Kentucky Fried Movie, El Topo and Amazon Women On The Moon…
The thing I loved more than any other thing in my life… more than baked ziti or knishes or getting my allowance… was sitting in a theatre full of strangers and laughing and screaming and sometimes even crying. It felt so healthy. To be with my community feeling the same thing at the same time. That’s the magic of movies. Not all of them, but the ones I loved. The ones that made me want to make movies. The magic of movies is they can puncture the armour of daily life and cut right to the heart of what it feels like to be human. And it can happen in public.
I thought The Final Girls could be one of those movies. I loved Josh and Mark’s concept. I thought it was so smart. There was the big concept: a movie about being sucked into a movie, that the movie itself could become an antagonist, that the tropes and cinematic techniques of a movie could become the biosphere of the story. All that fun meta stuff was a delight to play with as a kid who grew up obsessed with movies.
But most importantly, I loved it because it was about my Dad. In the aftermath of my father dying I was dreaming about him almost every night. They weren’t nightmares or anything, they were just simple dreams… us walking around New York eating pizza together etc… it felt like my father was visiting me in my dreams.
And to me, that’s what The Final Girls is about. It was deeply personal filmmaking cloaked in genre filmmaking. It was a story about a girl who gets a second chance to see her dead mom in a dream. And that’s all movies really are. Collective dreams.
It took almost four years to pull together the funding for the movie. And in that time Josh and Mark and I continued to work on the script, adding comedy, action and things like the 3D credits and the flashbacks and slow motion. All that fun meta stuff I felt I had never seen in a movie before.
Finally, some wonderful benefactors took a chance on this movie and gave us a tiny budget to go off and make it.
We shot it in 26 days at a summer camp in Baton Rouge. Our crew and cast were all 35 years old and under and we basically had no adult supervision. It felt like a bunch of kids let loose at camp getting away with something.
Because of that intoxicating vibe, we all broke our backs trying to pull off what was a crazy ambitious shoot. 50 set ups a day every day, explosions, car crashes, wire rigs, complicated camera rigs, for almost no money. It was not easy — every day was a marathon. The final fight sequence in the field was shot with two lights in a single night. It was madness. And by the end of the shoot, when we shot the ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ goodbye scene in the field with Malin Akerman and Taissa Farmiga, we all cried together… the whole crew, the producers, the production designer, all of us.
It was a pure filmmaking experience.
On our last night of shooting at camp we did the big stunt where Billy comes jumping out of the cabin on fire. It was a stressful night, lots to do, two units shooting at the same time, the time crunch of getting it all shot before the sun came up, and additionally, the emotional toll of it being our last night at this camp that became home.
Before the stunt happened, I looked behind my monitor and saw the entire cast and crew. Everyone came out to watch the stunt, they were wrapped in blankets, drinking beer and eating popcorn. It was almost like they were watching a movie.
When the stunt happened there was a roar of applause. It was the experience I was chasing, the experience I was trying to give to an audience, like I had when I was a kid.
That was my wish for this movie. And every step of the process, from writing, to designing, to shooting, through editing and music, was all done with a painstaking focus on whipping up and conducting an audience through a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Laughter, terror, beauty, and heart. The full range of human emotion in a fun badass package. It was a movie conceived and made to be experienced as a loud, rowdy, crowd-pleaser.
But in this age of streaming and bingeing superhero civil wars, the theatrical life of Final Girls came and went and made me sad. We were released as a Day-and-Date VOD release which meant many theatres wouldn’t show the movie. It didn’t even come out theatrically in Europe at all.
And so, our movie was released with a passionate whisper, not a roar of applause.
But, what’s so cool is that this movie seems to be having an afterlife at Midnight Screenings across the country, and with this amazing Film4 screening, the world. In the weeks and months after our release, fans and local movie theatres started to throw screenings of the movie. To experience it the way it was meant to be experienced.
Cult status is in many ways so much more meaningful than a big box office weekend: it means people really love the movie, and they tell their friends, and it lives on for much longer. I feel so much gratitude for the fans who are adopting this movie, talking about it and passing it around – finding it in the same way I found something like El Mariachi when I was a kid and someone handed me a VHS promising it would blow my mind. In some circuitous and completely accidental way, we ended up making a movie that can hang with the movies that made me want to make movies in the beginning – the movies that I never even realized were “cult” movies – but were.