Arriving in theaters today is Happy Death Day, the latest from filmmaker Christopher Landon that follows a young woman (Jessica Rothe) who must live out her own demise again and again in hopes of unlocking the puzzle to her untimely death. Landon, who has been at the helm of some great genre films like Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, delivers yet another unique cinematic experience with his latest effort.
Daily Dead spoke with Landon at the recent press day for Happy Death Day, where he discussed bringing this project to Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions and collaborating with them on the horror comedy. Landon also chatted about the challenges they faced during production, as well as his thoughts on working closely with Rothe on her unusual character.
Great to speak with you, Chris. Let’s start off by discussing this script and what you saw in it originally.
Christopher Landon: The original script was written by another guy named Scott Lobdell, who's a comic book writer, and I was hired a long time ago to rewrite the script for another director. I fell in love with the concept. I loved this notion of a girl who's stuck in a time loop and has to solve her own murder. I loved that it was a murder mystery; that was really fun and unique, because you don't see a lot of that for this particular age group.
But the bigger opportunity that I saw was in this character. I loved that Tree [Rothe] has this really cool journey and this arc where, at the beginning of the movie, she's a really selfish, unlikable person. The first rule in most movies, and especially in horror movies, is, "No, the heroine has to be likable! She's got to be sweet. She's got to be innocent." And I love that we threw that out and said, "No, she's going to be selfish and a total bitch." And then we get to watch her evolve, and become empowered, and face her past, and start to figure out that it matters how you treat other people.
I was very drawn to the message of the movie. And it sounds kind of trite, but I really think that it's an important message, especially for kids today, who I think with social media, and the anonymity of social media, it can be so easy to abuse other people. I like that this movie is telling them, "No. It matters. You should be kind, and your actions have consequences."
So I think it was all of those things that really drew me to all of it. I was so bummed that the movie didn't get made way back then, because I worked really hard on the script, and then this opportunity just randomly popped up. It presented itself. I was having lunch with Angela Mancuso, who's another producer on the movie, and she said, "Whatever happened to Half to Death?” That was the original title. And that's when the light bulb went off.
I picked up the phone, and I called Jason Blum, and I said, "I have something. I have it." Because he had wanted to do something with me. So I sent him the script over the weekend, and by that Monday, it was green lit. And so it went from obscurity, sitting on a shelf, collecting dust, to "We're making it tomorrow."
With this concept of the film, and having the replay of the same time over and over again, it seems like, on paper, it could be one of the easiest movies to make, because you're just repeating yourself over and over again. But I actually think it's harder because there's so much continuity to keep track of and things like that. What were the biggest challenges you guys faced?
Christopher Landon: This film was super hard. The continuity was definitely a big challenge. Keeping track of not only the minutiae of blocking, like, "How does a character move through a room? What are they doing? What are they saying?" But also their mental state, like, "How are they feeling? And how does that relate to the characters around them?"
It also affected how we executed the movie, especially how we shot the movie. Because what people probably think is, "Oh, well, they put the camera up and pointed it in one direction and ran through every day, and then moved." And that is what you can do, and it can be an effective way to save time. But Toby Oliver, who's the director of photography on the movie, he and I had a lot of conversations about, "How can we make this time loop movie different from the others?" One of the ways that we thought we could to it was by really telling the story from Tree's point of view in a stylistic way.
So we literally had a whole graph, where we charted each day, and how the lighting was going to change. How it starts out bright and crisp, and starts to get darker, and then starts to turn kind of a greenish hue as she delves deeper into this nightmare. We also started to change the camera work, too, where we had very smooth, steady camera work at the beginning of the movie, to establish the day, and then also, even for the second day, but with little things that were starting to change and become a little bit off. And then beyond that point, we wanted the camera to really reflect her hysteria, and so the camera becomes very handheld and crazy, and there's a lot of different rigs that we used to convey that.
So we didn't get to just shoot the scenes out, because every new day was a new way that we were shooting. So it was really, really complicated, and really tough.
How was it working with Jessica on her role?
Christopher Landon: Well, first of all, she's just an immense talent, and I got so lucky with her. When Jess and I started talking about the role, she brought so many ideas to the table, and she really understood the character. Jess is really close to her mom, and I think that really helped her understand how it could change a person to lose this person in your life. Because that's really what this movie is about: Tree's really just running away from her past, and running away from the pain of losing her mom. So that was something that she emotionally connected to.
But also, we both were very excited to do the homework, and we did a ton of rehearsals, as much as we could on a movie like this, where you don't have a ton of time. We were both very excited to dig in and rehearse the movie as much as possible and really find all those little moments and utilize them.
Generally, I try to encourage actors to improv, too, but it's tricky in this movie, because you can't improv too much, because it changes the day. And so it was Jess’ ability to make subtle shifts and adjustments and changes within a scene that really heightened everything about what her character was going through.
You mentioned Jason, and I know you guys worked on Paranormal Activity before over the course of a few years. How was it collaborating with him on this project? Was it a different experience now versus then?
Christopher Landon: This was totally different for us, because Jason and I, when we worked on the Paranormal movies, and we did four of those together, that was for Paramount, and so there was a studio presence that was hanging over that movie, which meant there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen. But Jason kept saying, "Come and make a movie with me, and you're going to have a completely different experience. You get to have final cut. You get to do whatever you want to do, as long as you stay in your budget." And we spent some time trying to find something, and then this script happened.
And he really made good on his promises, too. The cool thing about Blumhouse is that they don't try and jam notes down your throat. They present them as an option. They have input, and they say, "Here are our ideas. These are the things that we think maybe you should consider changing." But if you don't agree with it, you don't have to. It's amazing how much more receptive you are, as a filmmaker, to notes when you don't have the burden of having to execute them, feeling like you have a gun to your head. You're more eager to make the changes, because all of that ego and all of that pressure is taken out of the process.
So I think when people look to Jason, and go, "How is he pulling this off? How is he making all these really cool, unique, and really successful movies?" I think the answer is because he trusts the filmmakers that he works with. He believes in them. And it seems obvious, but there are so many places that don't do that.
In case you missed it, check here to read our previous coverage of Happy Death Day.