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Freaky Director Christopher Landon Talks Happy Death Day, Vince Vaughn, And Body-Swaps - Exclusive Interview

Christopher Landon knows how to deliver micro-budget horror on time and under budget. But more importantly, the veteran Blumhouse Productions filmmaker makes horror comedies loved by both fans and critics. Happy Death Day (2017) and its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U (2019)are both Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. His latest movie, the body-swap comedy and slasher horror mash-up Freaky, is his highest rated yet. 

Going into its Friday the 13th release in November 2020, the movie (co-written by Landon with Michael Kennedy) sat in the mid-80s on the Tomatometer. In this exclusive interview with Looper, Landon talked about the challenges of low-budget filmmaking (Freaky was shot over 30 days with a reported production budget of just $5 million), working with Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers) and Kathryn Newton (Big Little Lies); the body-swap canon of movies like Face/Off (1997) and Like Father, Like Son (1987); putting in the work to ensure the characters are strong and interesting in horror comedies; and the potential for a Freaky Death Day crossover. 

Freaky Death Day and the body-swap canon

You semi-recently tweeted that Freaky and Happy Death Day exist in the same shared universe. How would you envision a potential crossover?

I mean, I feel like, I don't know if I have a whole crossover movie in mind per se, but I definitely feel like Millie and Tree should really get together for a coffee and to talk about some s***, because they both have seen some pretty weird stuff. No, I mean, I think that, I say that in the sense of like I think it's very obvious to people that the tone and the spirit of these movies are very much sort of aligned and exist in the same universe. But yeah, I mean, it was really funny because Jason Blum — they called me, and they were like, "We've got to do Freaky Death Day."

They're like, "We already have the title! It writes itself."

I'm like, "Well let's not get carried away here, folks. Let's just see if anybody even gives a s*** about this movie first."

I am legitimately a fan of switch movies. It's a sub-genre of varying degrees of quality. What were some of the ones that you drew inspiration from in terms of what to do and also what not to do?

I'll be honest. I mean, I obviously was aware. I had seen some of the movies just sort of like over the course of my lifetime, as a kid, as a young adult. So I saw the original Freaky Friday. I saw the remake with Lindsay Lohan, but there were a lot of them that I have not seen. I've never seen The Hot Chick. I have not seen the Jumanji films. And so, there are a bunch of these movies that I have not seen. And when Michael and I set out to write this movie, I intentionally avoided them. As kind of a general rule, like when I did Happy Death Day, I didn't go back and watch other time loop movies, because I actually feel like it's almost intimidating. And it's almost sort of like, I didn't want to get in my own head about things and start worrying about like, "Oh, but they did that, and I can't do this." And so, I just don't go there, and I tend to sort of reach out to other kinds of movies for inspiration. So I can't say that the body swap canon helped me out here per se, but I always want to be able to add my voice to it. And for me, the best way to do that is to sort of not to sort of pollute my brain with what's come before.

Musicians will tell you they don't really listen to much in their genre, especially when they're writing a record, for that exact reason. Now that the movie is almost upon us, it might be a good time for you to watch the Kirk Cameron/Dudley Moore movie, and the Judge Reinhold/Fred Savage movie...

Oh, yes. There's a lot. I was trying to remember another one that popped into my head the other day, which was... I think it was Steve Martin. Was it All of Me? Was that a body swap film?

Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin! Not so much body swap; it was two people sharing one body.

Sharing a body. That's what it was. I couldn't remember it, but I remember really enjoying that movie when I was a kid.

You probably saw Face/Off.

I saw Face/Off. That, I definitely saw.

The hardest thing about making Freaky

What would you say was the most challenging part of the production of this movie in terms of the performances, or anything else that comes to mind, that was maybe the most difficult to do?

I mean, look, I think the challenge always when you're making a Blumhouse movie is it's a budgetary challenge, which equates to a schedule challenge. You just never have enough time. You always feel rushed, and there's a lot of stuff that you have to sacrifice in order to sort of bring it home, so that's always the biggest challenge. I think that in terms of performance, Vince and Kathryn and I, we put in the work. We did a lot of stuff before cameras were ever rolling, so that we could arrive on set and feel comfortable and confident and liberated. And I think that hopefully shows in the movie. 

So that part, I wouldn't say was a challenge. It was a joy. They're both incredibly fun people to work with. Some of my favorite memories of making this movie was stuff that was really behind the scenes, just sort of us hanging out, Vince, holding court in video village, because he is that guy. He's incredibly funny off camera. We just had a really good time in an otherwise kind of sometimes miserable situation. Because a lot of the stuff that we shot, it was a lot of nights, and it was freezing cold when we shot this movie. So physically, you were just sort of like crushed by the process, but we had a good time.

How Vince Vaughn got into character

Could you tell me a little bit more about that pre-production process, in terms of working out these characters and how they portray them? That sounds fun. What was that like?

It started with video diaries. So I followed Kathryn around with the camera, and I just had her sort of exist in the world as Millie. I was able to coach her a bit on a lot of Millie's mannerisms and her backstory. And then Kathryn kind of lived it on camera. And then I was able to give that to Vince, so that he had something to study. And then eventually, the three of us got together and just did a lot of rehearsals. And the rehearsals weren't just like, "Oh, let's rehearse the scene." It was also just about like, "Let's sit in a room and talk about these characters' histories and who they are and their life experience and what's Millie's relationship like with her mother and her sister. And like, how did she feel when her dad died and how has that sort of translated into her present day life?" I like to go very deep into that process, because I feel like especially in genre and especially in horror comedies, I think characters tend to become an afterthought. They take a back seat to gags and to set pieces and so forth. I didn't want that for the film. I really did want the audience to care about Millie and to sort of fight along with her. I think that added investment in the character work, the time ends up really sort of helping the film quite a bit.

A lot of comedic actors have sort of their persona. So how do you strike the balance then, having your actor doing this character versus doing like a Vince Vaughn impression? You know what I mean? I would imagine that was discussed or thought about at some point.

Yeah. I mean, I think that there's a certain challenge there when you are dealing with a person who's larger than life and has a way about him. But I also think that to Vince's credit, I think he committed to the role so strongly that anytime that he sort of felt kind of... I think any of the Vince mannerisms were generally felt much more like Millie things than Vince things, ultimately. And I think that there are moments in the film where I think he does what he does well, which is he can kind of riff a little bit. There's a little bit of improv that pops up sometimes in the movie, but I think it's forgiven, because it's all in the spirit of what this girl is going through. And so I never felt like I was having to coach him out of being himself. I think that we worked hard enough to make sure that he was truly committed to being Millie, that I think it kept Vince at bay a little bit.

Freaky is in theaters from November 13 and will be released via video-on-demand December 4, 2020.