Using Comedy to Find Emotions with ‘The Final Girls’ Director Todd Strauss-Schulson

todd-finalgirlsWith The Final Girls (out now in theaters and VOD), director Todd Strauss-Schulson has made a movie that’s funny, emotional, scary, and original all at the same time. The movie offers a wry satire of the overacted slasher movies of the ‘80s. But, beneath the satire and camp, there’s an emotional core with a poignant take on grief and loss. Max (Taissa Farmiga) has just lost her mother (Malin Akerman), who was a struggling actress known for her role in the hilariously campy horror movie Camp Bloodbath. During an anniversary screening for the cult classic, the theater breaks out in flames. Max and her group of friends, which includes Thomas Middleditch, Alia Shawkat, Alexander Ludwig, and Nina Dobrev, scramble for an exit, but somehow end up on the other side of the screen, inside the world of the movie they were just watching. Max gets to see her mother once again, but it just so happens to be in the context of a horror movie with a Jason-like killer on the loose. In order to escape, the contemporary group of friends must work with the ‘80s characters to navigate the rules of the horror movie. The Final Girls is the sophomore feature from director Todd Strauss Schulson who first directed A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. I spoke with him about his personal connection to the movie, his directing style, and how comedy can help drive emotion. (Minor spoilers below.)

Why this project? What initially attracted you to the material?

When I read the script, I was really moved by it. I thought it was a really beautiful, humane idea about grief and losing a parent. That’s what got me. It was a really bad-ass, cool, funny, big movie concept but the thing that really hooked me was that emotional core. It was personal for me because my father had passed away four weeks before I started working on my first movie [A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas], which was really intense. As I was making that movie, I was dreaming about him all the time. When I read the script for Final Girls, I was like, ‘I know what this is. It’s a kid’s second chance to be with her parent in the middle of a dream.’

The tone of the movie is challenging. It’s funny and it’s cool and then it’s scary and then it’s really emotional. I think being able to hold all of those elements together has a lot to do with the voice of the filmmaker. I felt I knew how to tell this particular story in a way that maybe I don’t know how to tell other kinds of things like the Hungry Hungry Hippos movie.

It’s hard to distill the movie into one single genre. How do you balance the horror, comedy and emotional elements of the movie?

This tone might seem crazy because movies have become so binary these days. There’s the Liam Neeson action movie, the Argo-ish Oscar drama, and the superhero movie. But your life isn’t binary. If you’re able to pay attention to what your mind is doing and all the thoughts arising and abiding through your head, your day is pretty tonally incongruous. ‘I woke up from an erotic sex dream, but felt guilty about it. Then left the house and saw someone get their purse stolen, but then I ate a delicious scone at a new coffee shop and saw an old family friend out of the blue who is really beautiful. But then she told me her cat has diabetes. And then I worry if dating her is going to be too intense because I’m going to have to deal with that cat all the time, so I get anxiety.’ 

When I was a kid, my mom would take me to go see Spaulding Grey at Lincoln Center. That was one of the first times I ever felt the strength and velocity of a storyteller. With just his voice, cadence, and his rhythm, he could take me somewhere sad, happy, and crazy and then bring it down to something really sweet and then spike it with something political. I feel connected when there’s a strong voice telling you a story. I just felt that if my voice could be strong in the movie, the tones would hold together. I’m very much in this movie — that’s why the camera is doing what it’s doing. If I sat down at a table and told you the story of this movie, it would sound a lot like what the movie feels like.

I get very excited about filmmakers when you see them interviewed and you hear them talk, it sounds like their movies. When you watch Terry Gilliam be interviewed, you’re like, “Whoa, that’s a mad scientist genius.” And then you watch his movies and it makes sense. If you watch Richard Linklater get interviewed, you’re like “Oh my God, this guy is an American jock philosopher poet.” And then you watch his movies and it matches up. Wes Anderson is such a twee, well-dressed charming tenderhearted weirdo and also hilarious. Then you watch The Royal Tenenbaums and you’re like, “That’s that guy!” So, I very much like when you can feel a person in their work.

If you were going to describe your own work in the same way you did with Gilliam, Linklater and Anderson, what would you say?

I don’t know how I would describe it. I’m in the process of maturing. This movie, even more than Harold and Kumar, is starting to show who I am. The type of movies that I want to make are the ones that I like watching. I don’t go to the movies just to escape. There’s nothing that can cut through that sick veneer of ironic detachment or anxiety like a movie. I can go to a movie, and it just slices through me and touches the most tender part of me — the most human part of me. I go to the movies not to escape but to reconnect.

Some movies use humor to connect with an audience, others use drama, horror, sadness, sentimentality. Do you think one is more effective than the other?   

I think that even in the most dramatic of movies, there has to be some lightness. I think the harder life gets the more humor gets used as a survival mechanism. When my father was dying, being in the hospital room was obviously a very heavy, sad, difficult, destabilizing event. But all we did was make jokes. The nurses were busting his chops. He was making fun of the nurses. It’s a nice thing to make someone laugh when something terrible is happening. It’s one of the nicest things you can do!

I think that if you can get someone to laugh that’s the quickest way to disarm them. I think that’s really true. You can feel it on a date. You can feel it in a meeting. If someone makes you laugh or you make someone else laugh, it gets much easier. Some of the defenses come down. You like them. 

So in Final Girls you wanted the humor to help make the drama more potent?

Not the drama, but the emotion. For the first hour of this movie, I want you to be laughing. I want it to be this big, fun concept. But, hopefully you’re laughing for 60 minutes so that by the end of the movie, you’ll be more tender. It’ll tenderize you and you’ll really be able to open up and feel the emotion. Those are the types of movies that work for me. Annie Hall is a good example. That movie is hilarious, and those two characters are very funny together. By the end of the movie, you miss them and that’s why, for me at least, the sentiment comes flooding out of me. The humor is key.

The cast has a good mix of comedic and dramatic actors. Tell me about the casting process.

I felt it was super important to feel the tone of the movie in the cast. If you could see the cast, you could see the tone. The movie is swinging for some big comedy but also a modern kind of, progressive comedy. It’s not like frat-boy jokes. Having Adam [Devine] and Thomas [Middleditch] and Alia [Shawkat] and Angela [Trimbur] and Malin [Akerman], who is so great on Children’s Hospital, helped supply the jokes. But the movie also wants to feel grounded and show that real people are stuck in this movie. Alexander [Ludwig], Nina [Dobrev], and especially Taissa [Farmiga] are the lynchpins that hold it all together. Taissa is so fragile and ethereal and glassy-eyed. For me at least, I really feel for her. There’s something really natural about her performance and I love having that right next to Adam Devine as a Regan-era sex jock. It’s nice to see them all together in a room. It gave the movie a little bit of credibility so you would know it wasn’t some Tucker and Dale parody situation. We’re reaching for something a little richer here.

Do you have any projects lined up after Final Girls?

I wrote a television show about modern, sensitive men with my best friend Matt Fogel. It’s called Pussies. It’s about our crazy lives — the characters are named after us — as sensitive modern men. The kind of guys who we all hang out with but you never see on TV — guys who would rather talk about intimacy and feelings than fantasy football and premature ejaculation though we honor those fighting that fight. We’re shooting a pilot in November for TBS, and we’re super excited to do something you haven’t seen on your television or streaming media device.

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