On paper The Final Girls is as ambitious as movies come. It starts as a teen drama—then pivots, as the characters get mysteriously transported into an Eighties slasher movie. From there, its got horror, comedy, action, suspense and a ton of emotion, all happening at the same time.

And yet, despite all of those moving parts, one of the biggest problems making the film was when the monster reminded the director of sodomizing a pastry.

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“There was a moment where [Billy, the film’s villain] looked like Eugene Levy,” said director Todd Strauss-Schulson. “Like from SCTV and American Pie. It was a disaster. [He] had these eye brows and [he] was frowning. It looked like he caught you fucking an apple pie. And it was a problem.”

It was a problem that, thankfully, got fixed. The Final Girls stars Taissa Farmiga as Max, a young girl whose mother, played by Malin Ackerman, was the star of an ultra popular ‘80s slasher film called Camp Bloodbath. The mother unexpectedly dies and some years later, Max and her friends (who include Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch, Vampire Diaries’ Nina Dobrev and Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat) all get sucked into the movie. That gives Max a rare opportunity to reconnect with her deceased mother. But it also means she has to explain and subvert horror tropes, to avoid death at the hands a Jason Voorhees-influenced killer named Billy, who wears a totem-pole mask—that at one point, looked like Eugene Levy.

From the very beginnings of the project, neither designing the villain or the film’s acute awareness of itself took away from the true core of the movie. What would it be like for a daughter to talk to the mother she tragically lost? It’s a question that resonated not just with Strauss-Schulson (below), but the film’s writers, Mark Fortin and Joshua John Miller.

Strauss-Schulson first heard the idea for the film about eight years ago, when he and Fortin, who went to college together, moved to Los Angeles. “Mark just soft pitched me the concept,” Strauss-Schulson said. “’What if a girl got stuck in her mom’s most famous horror movie?’ And I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ And then that was the end of it.”

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A few years later, just as Strauss-Schulson went to shoot his first movie, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, his father passed way. It was an incredibly difficult time—and that happened to be when The Final Girls once again came up.

“I was dreaming about my father almost every night I was making that movie,” the director said, noting that Miller also lost his father around that time. “And when I was editing, Mark and Josh sent me the first draft of their script. And when I read it, I was like, ‘Oh, FUCK! This is exactly my experience right now. This is a movie about a girl who gets a second chance to be with her mother.’”

For three and a half years after that, the trio worked hard on the script, adding ideas, cutting characters, backing themselves into narrative corners, and all the while never losing sight of what got them excited in the first place.

“It all had to serve that essential story, which is the mother and the daughter,” Strauss-Schulson said. “That story was the one that was closest to my heart. It’s really tender-hearted and charming, and you want it to be tearjerker. I want it consciously to be all the feelings. Everything that a movie can do.”

Admittedly, the idea of people going into a movie had been done a bunch of times (Last Action Hero, Pleasantville, Purple Rose of Cairo) but none of those movies were The Final Girls’ biggest influences. Instead, two very famous films that tangentially touch on that theme were the film’s primary visual and narrative influences.

[“Visually], we looked more into The Wizard of Oz than sort of anything else,” Strauss-Schulson said. “We wanted the movie to be hyper-cinematic. The skies are matte paintings, like Gone With The Wind and the cameras can do anything.”

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Which is quite noticeable. When the characters are in the movie within the movie, everything has a deep, vivid, trippy color palette. As for the story model, the director went to one of his favorite movies of all time.

“[Narratively] Back to the Future was maybe the biggest [influence] for us,” Strauss-Schulson said. “Even though it’s not exactly this concept, [it’s] warm and [it’s] funny, but [it’s] adventure. That movie has all the tropes of a scifi film but it is not a scifi film. At all. So that’s what I felt about Final Girls. It feels like it has all the stuff a horror movie has, but it’s not really a horror film.”

That may sound like an odd statement with a title like The Final Girls, but it’s true. Despite there being a masked killer, blood, and lots of horror tropes, The Final Girls is certainly not just a horror movie. In fact, they completely reshot the ending, to make it less of a bloodbath. (To be purposefully vague, the reshoots brought characters back to life, who originally didn’t make it through the movie.)

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“To have something that bad happen in the movie was almost too mercenary. The movie was just too tender-hearted,” Strauss-Schulson said.

There were other big changes along the way too. The original movie had almost double the characters, and two major scenes were jettisoned at different parts of the development.

“There used to be a scene where there was this montage that was happening and it was going to be like Thomas Crown Affair, with the wipes all over the place,” Strauss-Schulson said. “Kids were getting knocked around by the wipes, and they couldn’t communicate because the music was too loud and someone got killed in the middle of that montage. Which I thought was a really cool idea, but it was too clever. Too late in the movie, and too clever.”

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And while the movie is consistently clever, Strauss-Schulson never wanted that to take away from the bigger picture.

“I grew up as a kid who just really loved the movies,” he said. “I loved movies, and watched four movies a day, every day, for probably seventeen years of my life. I just loved them, and I wanted this movie to feel like there’s a joy of filmmaking in the movie. So it’s kind of a love letter, not just to movies, but to making movies.”

The Final Girls is now in select theaters and on demand.


Contact the author at germain@io9.com.