In the 2017 horror-com, Happy Death Day, sorority party girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) is trapped in a time loop a la Groundhog Day where she relives her murder in the hands of a serial killer over and over on — of all days — her birthday.
By the end of that Jason Blum-produced movie, she catches the perp, becomes a better person, and breaks out of the hellish cycle. Or so we thought. Tree’s return to normalcy is short-lived in the sequel Happy Death Day 2U where she’s caught in another circuitous warp. Actually, it’s the same one.
But Tree isn’t only the one entombed in this repetitious purgatory, so is the movie’s returning director, Christopher Landon. Even though Landon has worked on sequels before — he’d written four Paranormal Activity movies and directed one of them — Happy Death Day 2U is a different beast to tame.
“This movie was a little trickier than most sequels because it takes place on the same day with all the same characters and locations as in the original,” says Landon, 44, on the phone with 8 DAYS from LA. “We had to go to great lengths to recreate everything, so that was a big challenge for us.”
On many levels, it seems like Landon, who also did the zom-com Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, is remaking his own movie. Well, yes — and no. Yes, because it involves (mostly) the same bunch of characters doing the same paranormal activity. No, because he’s also expanding the movie’s mythology by drawing elements from Back to the Future Part II.
Is that his favourite chapter in the time-travel trilogy? “I do love the sequel,” says Landon. “It’s great because it’s crazy, but in terms of just clean, awesome storytelling, I would probably stick with the first one.” Here, Landon tells us more about how he tried to make a sequel that's same same but different.
8 DAYS: Netflix recently released Russian Doll, which like Happy Death Day 2U, revolves around a character who keeps reliving the same day she dies. What is it about the Groundhog Day concept that makes it so appealing to storytellers?
CHRISTOPHER LANDON: I think people are really into them because first, you kind of cheat death in a strange way. Furthermore, it’s interesting because [the premise] allows the characters to examine their lives.
There’s an element of self-examination where you start to see something from a different point of view, and so when a character relives the same day and encounters the same situations, they suddenly can develop a certain clarity that they didn’t have before.
I think that’s really fascinating to people, but then also at the same time, it terrifies them too. It feels like everyone’s worst nightmare.
In Happy Death Day, the time loop the heroine — Tree, played by Jessica Rothe — is stuck in, is a random anomaly. In the sequel, you explain what caused it. By doing that, aren’t you worried about ruining the mystery behind this aberration?
No, because for me, the important thing was, when I started out making the sequel, I didn’t want to make the same movie twice. So I needed to do something that would take it to a new direction.
For me, not only was it really fun to answer the question of 'why' and 'how' this would happen to her, but it also allowed me to ask new questions and present a new situation for Tree to tackle.
If you answer the question or remove the mystery in a film like this, you better have a really good reason for doing it.
I was really surprised by the tone of Happy Death Day. It’s a slasher movie, but it’s also very light. Same with the sequel. It's more fun than the first one, actually. Was the lightness in the script? Or something you found in the editing room?
The tone was always very much in the script. When we came up with the first movie, we always wanted this to be a horror-comedy and we would have those elements fused together.
I think what really came out even more so when we were filming it and ultimately also in the editing process, was there’s also a sense of a very gentle romantic comedy element to it. But when we did the second movie, we decided to do that even more, to have a little more fun by introducing sci-fi elements into the comedy as well.
We still wanted to bring some of the scary stuff back and keep the slasher idea alive, but again, if we had done the same thing again with a new character being chased by a killer and dying over and over again, that was going to end up monotonous and boring.
In a way, as the director, you’re also trapped in the time-loop as Tree. It must be just as frustrating for you to work on the same set repeatedly.
Especially in the first movie, I think we all felt like we were stuck in a time loop because we were on the same set doing the same things over and over again. But what we did to keep things fresh, and this is something I worked really hard on with my director of photography, Toby Oliver, was to make sure that we were letting the camera tell the story.
Once we’ve established a pattern with the angles, we started to really mix it up. We started to do more handheld [camera shots]; we started scenes from wide angles. We did a lot of fun things to keep it visually interesting and also help tell the story from Tree’s point of view. And that’s actually something we did again on the second movie.
Without giving anything away, the second movie has two distinct looks. The first 20 minutes of Happy Death Day 2U is kind of similar to the first movie. After that, we shift into a different look that’s a lot sharper and brighter.
You’ve worked with Jason Blum a few times. What filmmaking lessons did you learn from him?
First and foremost, he’s a great partner for a director. He makes good on his promise that he would let you make a movie that you want to make, and he truly supports filmmakers as long as you stay within your budget. And so I think he teaches everyone to be responsible and accountable.
He also, in an interesting way, really helps nurture the idea that you should trust your gut. And I think he’s very much a producer who’s driven by that principle of always trusting the gut. He doesn’t chase movie trends in Hollywood, and I think that’s why he’s been so successful.
I think with a lot of other producers and studios, when a movie is successful, they always try and copy it. Jason doesn’t do that. He’s always looking for whatever is different and whatever’s interesting to him. And, so for me, that’s a really important lesson for all filmmakers: to not worry about what’s popular and to pursue what you’re passionate about; what excites you.
Is there a movie you directed which taught you the most about directing?
A big part of my education is often having the pleasure of working with other directors. There are so many other people that I can credit for helping me, and I’ve learnt so much from them.
But I also think part of it is just diving in, making movies and learning as you go. With each film, you get a little bit better and you learn more about what you’re trying to say and what excites you.
So for me, it’s just experience, and that probably goes with so many other filmmakers. The more you make, the more comfortable you get with your style.
Before the Paranormal Activity movies, you were known more for writing the Larry Clark crime drama Another Day in Paradise and the Shia LaBeouf thriller Disturbia. Is there a recurring theme in your works?
If there’s a recurring theme that I grapple with a lot, then mortality is certainly a big one. I lost my father when I was 16 years old, and that had a huge impact on me. So I feel like I’m always wrestling with themes about death and loss, and that’s very prevalent in both Happy Death Day movies, especially in the sequel.
But I’m also just a big horror movie fan at heart. I grew up watching them and I’ve always loved them. So that particular genre has always drawn me. I’ve always enjoyed being scared, feeling scared, scaring other people… so it’s something I would turn to often.
Your father, Michael Landon, was the TV legend who starred in Little House in the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. Growing up, what did he teach you about showbiz?
I spent a lot of time on set with my dad. It was a place that we really enjoyed being with him. He was very kind and respectful to the people he worked with, especially his crew. And I saw how loyal and hardworking everyone was, and I think that was because they felt comfortable, safe and respected.
So for me, I try to create the same atmosphere on my sets. I want everybody to feel welcome, I want everybody to feel heard and I try to make it as fun as possible because the hours are so long and difficult. So that’s a big lesson for me.
But the other thing I learnt, too, is that my dad’s work was very emotionally-driven, and that’s something that I try to infuse in all of my work as well. I don’t want my movies to just be a scary slasher movie or just a ghost story. I want it to be about people that you recognise and people that you care about, so I really try to write relatable characters that people can really connect to.
You mentioned that you want to do more than just slasher movies. Jason Blum doesnt just make scary movies. He's also behind Get Out and BlacKkKlansman, Oscar-winning movies with strong social commentaries. Do you have plans to make similar movies with him?
Absolutely. I would love to. That’s actually something I can’t talk about right now. It’s a secret right now. But it’s very much that kind of a thing and Jason and I are very excited about it, and here’s hoping I get to make in the near future.
But I have to say that even in something as simple and light as Happy Death Day 2U, you still make sure that there is a message in the movie, and that's the idea that you have to face your grief [no matter what].
And so, again, I’m trying to always push things thematically in movies. I love that horror’s being respected now.
By the way, I have a title for the next chapter of Happy Death Day Happy Death Day — The Tree-sequel.
Yeah! That’s a fun thing I read online. If we do make a third one, I have an idea and I do have a title, but I’m keeping it a secret for now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Happy Death Day 2U (PG13) is now in cinemas. Happy Death Day, Get Out, BlacKkKlansman, and the Paranormal Activity movies are out on iTunes.
Photos: UIP, TPG News/Click Photos