Set for a quickly-approaching release date of August 12, New Line’s Final Destination 5 3D continues the long-running franchise with a whole new cast of characters to be sliced, diced and generally mangled by that most merciless and relentless of horror-movie killers: Death itself.
Last November B-D was invited to visit the Vancouver set of the latest sequel to get a behind-the-scenes look at the production process, during which I was given the opportunity to witness the filming of one particularly bad-ass action sequence, chat it up with several members of the cast and crew – including first-time franchise director and James Cameron protégé Steven Quale – and marvel at the uncanny smoothness of ageless producer Craig Perry’s baby-soft skin. See inside for the full report.
Helped along by 3-D surcharges, 2009′s The Final Destination – the fourth installment in the long-running supernatural horror franchise – topped all other entries in the series when it raked in more than $180 million worldwide. Interestingly, it was also the worst reviewed of the films, coming in at a mere 29% average on Rotten Tomatoes and plagued by what most saw as a slump in quality compared with the previous efforts. New Line, of course, laughed all the way to the bank.
And here we are with yet another sequel on the way, again in 3-D but with renewed promises from the creative team that they learned from their mistakes on the previous entry and are poised to deliver something much better this time around. The first corrective they put into place was a change in directors, ditching David R. Ellis (who also helmed the second film) for James Cameron protégé Steven Quale, who previously had only two major directing credits under his belt: the 2002 made-for-TV disaster movie Superfire, and the IMAX underwater documentary Aliens of the Deep, a 3-D effort that he co-directed with Cameron. In addition, a return to the more character-centric, suspense-oriented dynamics of the first film have been trumpeted as an effort to bring the franchise back to its roots.
To make their case, last November the studio flew a coterie of entertainment journalists – including yours truly – up to a rainy and bone-chillingly cold Vancouver to visit the set, which at the time was located on a massive soundstage containing a giant partial reconstruction of Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge (officially the First Narrows Bridge), which serves as the location of this entry’s main disaster set piece.
This reconstruction, which looked stunningly true-to-life despite being set against a gigantic green-screen, was truly a sight to behold: set perhaps two stories off the ground, the bridge – set atop a massive hydraulic gimbal (the same one used for the airplane sequence in the first film, incidentally) was like a living, breathing metal-and-cement behemoth as it exploded into motion at Quale’s direction, the 3-D cameras – set on enormous cranes floating above the mayhem – capturing all the action as actors and stuntmen tumbled about, dodging barrels and cars and widening cracks as the bridge began to buckle and split apart at the seams, threatening to crumble to a pile of steaming debris before our very eyes. This, I thought to myself as I took in all the controlled havoc, is what shooting a ‘Final Destination’ movie is all about.
Despite what was obviously a busy day for him (to say the least), prior to the filming of this precisely-calculated action sequence Quale stopped by to give us a little context to all the carnage.
“What we’re setting up right now is a hydraulic ram system to have a car…smash into this tar kettle,” he told us. “Basically when you’re resurfacing a road, you have to put tar on it, incredibly hot tar that helps surface the cracks and so forth. The construction workers are working on that, the bridge collapses, and in that section the car rams into [the kettle], it happens to flip it over and [one of the characters who] is hanging on[to] the very edge [of the bridge] there…just happens to be right in the spot where this tar kettle hits, turns over and he’s going to get completely encased in steaming hot tar. So it’s a nasty way to die.”
“A nasty way to die” is a phrase that accurately sums up the core of the franchise’s continuing appeal, for in the Final Destination movies the threat, put into motion by an intangible orchestrator of chaos from a plane of existence beyond our own, can come from pretty much anywhere – giving the filmmakers an endless variety of inventive and exceedingly gruesome death scenarios to choose from.
Of course then the question becomes: why not just cut together a series of grisly Rube Goldberg-esque kills and release a half-hour gore reel rather than a 90-minute feature? Do these things really need to be actual movies anymore? The answer is yes, for obvious reasons; there’s money to made here, and most people aren’t going to pay to sit in a theater for half an hour and watch a series of blood-soaked kills (or will they?).
And yet one of the main complaints with the last film was that it essentially did function as a plot-deficient kill montage, as if the filmmakers couldn’t even be bothered to craft a compelling story or a relatable set of characters to snuff out. Luckily, nearly every member of the cast and crew we spoke with on set seemed both cognizant of that fact and dedicated to doing things differently this time around.
“I think that this particular movie is particularly interesting because they are trying to sort of reboot [the franchise], you know, get away maybe a little bit from some of the aspects of the later films and get back to the core of what makes ‘Final Destination’ a great story,” said actress Emma Bell (“Molly”), starring as the lead heroine in this installment who gets caught on the collapsing bridge along with the rest of her co-workers while traveling for a corporate retreat. “Not just action wise but storyline wise. So there’s a number of…really interesting character developments and relationships [in the film].”
Perched beside Bell was dreamboat actor Nicholas D’Agosto (“Sam”), whose character is involved in an office romance with Molly at the paper-manufacturing company where they both work. He also functions as the character – there being one in every Final Destination movie – who experiences a premonition of the oncoming disaster and later comes to realize that there’s no cheating your destiny. Fulfilling the role of foreboding messenger once again is franchise regular Tony Todd, absent from the last film but back again in a heightened role for the fifth installment.
“Tony himself says that this is the most fun he’s had shooting a film…because it helped him explore his character in a way that he’d never gotten to explore it before,” said D’Agosto of the genre favorite, who unfortunately was not on set when we visited. “Working with him was absolutely awesome, and he is just as terrifying as you want him to be when you’re standing opposite him in [a] scene.”
So will we finally learn the secret behind Todd’s mysterious William Bludworth character by the time the final credits role on outing #5? Don’t hold your breath.
“People have debated endlessly on websites such as your own whether Tony Todd is the personification of death,” said verbose, long-standing FD series producer Craig Perry (who has clearly been spending the boatloads of money he’s made from both this and the American Pie franchise on a magical de-aging serum that’s given him the complexion of a fresh-faced teen model) when he stopped by to speak with us earlier in the day. “[But] I’m not answering that! I will not answer that…cause I like the fact that there’s a debate back and forth as to what he does represent. I like the fact that we are having Tony Todd back for this one because I think it helps bring the franchise sort of full circle. We are really sort of coming back together. I also look at this as…it’s not about a reboot, but let’s look at the same premise from a slightly different perspective.”
Keeping the franchise fresh after over a decade certainly isn’t an easy task, but of course why fuck with a winning formula? Given the series’ impressive decade-long track record at the box-office (particularly when it comes to the international market), it’s not as if they’re going to risk reinventing the wheel here. When all is said and done (plot, yada yada, characterization, yada yada) the bread and butter of the franchise will always be the kills, which is why the special effects guys working behind the scenes are an integral component of the success or failure of the final product.
“Throughout the process [of production], we’ve gotten consistently gorier,” said special makeup effects designer Toby Lindala, who also worked on the third installment, speaking to us later in the day from his nearby base of operations. “We must be sitting around 15-20 gallons of blood right now, just to give you a scale, and we’ll probably make it past 30 by the time we’re done. We’re getting into a lot of the wetter stuff over this past week.”
As for the 3-D aspect, Lindala indicated that Quale’s previous experience with the cameras (in addition to co-helming Aliens of the Deep, he also served as second-unit director on Avatar) was making all the difference in allowing them to get the most bang for the buck out of the technology.
“Even with the 3D, the resolution that we’re seeing here is crazy,” he said. “It’s really, really neat. And it’s been a real pleasure working with Steve, because he’s getting these wonderful shots. It looks like we’re just going to be splattering the first ten rows of the theatre. …We’ve been really milking the 3D angle, not in a cheesy way, but really just using that effect, designing things in ways to really get the maximum effect out of that.”
But based on the grosses from several recent 3D films – particularly in the ratio of audience members opting for the non-3D version in theaters – the technology is something that appears to be waning in the eyes of the movie-going public. And yet given his previous experience working with the cameras, Quale at the very least knows how to exploit 3D more effectively than most directors – not to mention the fact that by being closely associated with James “King of the World” Cameron, he’s also afforded access to the very best visual effects craftsmen in the business.
“What’s great about this film is that we’ve been able to elevate the series by having the resources,” said Quale. “We have the same visual FX company that did some of the visual FX on ‘Avatar’, Prime Focus. They’re doing the whole bridge sequence, so we have amazingly talented individuals that will get first-rate stereo 3D visual FX that will integrate seamlessly with the live action. It’s fun to be in charge and be able to get your vision across and make it happen.”
So does the director have a favorite among the last four films?
“I like the original just because it was the original and it set up the franchise,” said Quale. “I like the humor of #2, and I thought #3 had some interesting elements with some of the characters, but I think overall, this film is more of a cross between some of the humor in 2, but more of the character-driven stuff that was in the original one where you cared about the characters and what their plight was and what they’re doing. We really focused a lot of energy on the characters, because to me, I’m saying that this is not just about death, it’s not just about horror. This is following an interesting group of people, what they’re doing, what their life’s ambition is, what their struggles are, and how they relate and deal with this force that is thrust upon them.”
To accomplish his goal of melding the sensibilities or parts 1 and 2 specifically, Quale made sure to cast both actors with dramatic gravitas (Bell, Todd, T.V. veteran Courtney B. Vance) as well as those with the comedic chops to bring out the kind of “gallows humor” that worked so well in the second film. In the latter category he managed to score both Apatow veteran David Koechner (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) and up-and-comer P.J. Byrne (Horrible Bosses, Dinner for Schmucks) to bring the funny.
“One of the things we’ve always tried to do is try to find the right tone between what is pretty morbid and make it entertaining, so one of the reasons we hired some actors who have comedic capabilities is to know that we can tap into that if we want to,” said Perry. “There are some sequences that are pretty brutal, pretty intense, and if you don’t have at least a little bit of humor it becomes almost overwhelming and a bit too unrelenting. There’s one scene in particular that if we didn’t have that as a valve, we’d have to cut it down…it was too much.”
Okay, so to sum up we’ve got a promising director with the James Cameron seal of approval, an overall cast that’s a notch or two above the caliber of the previous Final Destination entries, and the promise of some truly nasty and creative kills (as evidenced by the already-released trailer). Sounds like a recipe for success, right? Sure. But at the end of the day, just having all the right ingredients in your cupboard doesn’t necessarily guarantee a tasty meal – after all, it’s how those ingredients are put together that matters.
But let’s not kid ourselves; this movie is gonna make money. In other words, you can expect Final Destination 6 to hit theaters sometime in 2013. Now if I can just get my hands on some of that magical youth elixir Craig Perry’s been drinking…