Ep21 – Writing the Script for Final Destination with Jeffrey Reddick


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Intro: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.

Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we have on a very special guest today. We have on the writer of Final Destination, Jeffrey Reddick. Thank you for being on with us today.

Jeffrey: Thank you for having me, other Geoffrey.

Geoffrey: I spell mine weird, so you’re totally normal.

Jeffrey: No, you spell yours cool!

Geoffrey: It’s very writerly, I’ll tell you that much. I wanted to reach out today because I love to bring on professionals and experts, like yourself, and peel the veil back on the writing process and how you design what you’re doing. Final Destination is one of my favorite movies and it spawned so many sequels. Even my wife is into it, and she hates scary movies, so if that tells you anything.

Jeffrey: That’s awesome!

Geoffrey: Before we dive into it, I want to get your origin story on how you started writing, how you broke into the industry, and what led you to that big break.

Jeffrey: My origin story is a little unique, as I think all origin stories are. I’ve always been a big horror movie fan. When I was fourteen, I saw the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie, which I fell madly in love with. It’s still my favorite movie of all time for creative and personal reasons. When I saw that film; me being this 14-year-old hillbilly in Kentucky who doesn’t know anything about the movie business; I found out the studio that made the movie, Bob Shaye, got his address, typed up a prequel idea, and I mailed it to him.

Geoffrey: Oh wow.

Jeffrey: Yeah, the balls of a 14-year-old hillbilly. He sent it back to me because it was unsolicited, and I had to look up what that meant because I was fourteen. I sent it back to him and I wrote, “Look sir, I spent $3 on your movie so I think you can take five minutes to read my story.” And he read it and got back to me. From the age of fourteen to nineteen, when I ended up eventually going to New York, him and his assistant Joy Mann; who is unfortunately no longer with us; they took me under their wing. They would send me movie scripts, posters, tchotchkes, read my stuff, and just be very encouraging. My dream at the time was to be an actor, so when I was nineteen, I went to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. While I was there, Joy and Bob offered me an internship for the summer at New Line. The acting looked like it was going to take off, but this was back in the day when non-traditional casting wasn’t a thing. My agent told my I was an ethnic Michael J. Fox type, which was awesome because everybody loved Michael J. Fox, and they still do. But she said, “They don’t write roles for that. If you rapped or played basketball, we could cast you.”

Geoffrey: Oh my goodness.

Jeffrey: She was being honest. She didn’t know what to do with me. Luckily, instead of letting that crush me; English was me best subject in school, and writing was my second passion; I decided if they’re aren’t any roles for people like me out there, then I’ll just write them, which I didn’t end up doing for myself. I stayed on at New Line, they created a special position for me to fill in for all the executive assistants for the tops of all the departments. I got to learn about all the different divisions at New Line. I worked there for eleven years, and they ended up picking up Final Destination. People always say it must’ve been great having an in because I worked at the studio, and it certainly was fine, but I had so many projects that were either encouraged but never went further or projects that didn’t get covered. I learned how the business operated, which was good creatively because I didn’t take all the rejection personally. When I setup Final Destination, I wrote it as a treatment. This was back in the day when you could sell treatments to studios and they would pay you to develop scripts. I took [my treatment] to two producers, Craig Perry and Warren Zide, who had a deal with New Line, because I knew New Line would take it more seriously if I came to them with producers attached. We still had a hard time setting it up because they couldn’t get their minds around Death being the killer. “You can’t see it, you can’t fight it, it doesn’t make sense.” Finally, we said, “We’re going to take it to Miramax if you pass on it,” so they bought it.

Geoffrey: Let’s unpack that, I love this origin story. The hubris of a 14-year-old, my son is fourteen and I can see that brazen wit of, “I’m just going to do this.” I love how you said, “I spent three bucks on your movie, the least you could do is read it.” You took that leap and look where it led you. Did you get coverage on the treatment for Final Destination, or did you just write it and have people read it?

Jeffrey: I didn’t get coverage on the treatment. Originally, to get a TV agent, I used the concept of Final Destination as an X-Files spec. It got me an agent, but my friends at New Line said, “Don’t send this in for The X-Files, this is a feature idea.”

Geoffrey: Where did you come up with the idea of Death as an antagonist? Original concepts like that really grab people. Obviously, it had never been done before, so was there something that influenced it? Was it The X-Files or was it something else?

Jeffrey: The kernel of the idea came to me when I was flying home to visit my family in Kentucky. I read an article about a woman who was on vacation when her mother called her and said, “Don’t take the flight you’re on tomorrow, I have a bad feeling about it.” She switched flights, and her [original] plane crashed. I read this on a plane, and I just filed that away. It was an interesting idea, but I didn’t know what the story was. When I needed to come up with a spec script, I thought about what would make a good opening scene for an X-Files episode. I thought about the premonition for Dana Scully’s brother, Charles, who we never really saw in the series. I thought if he missed his time to die, he had cheated Death, and that’s where that core idea came from. When I expanded it to a feature, I took it in a different direction because the spec was just about Scully’s brother, specifically. That’s where the idea percolated, then I developed it more fully with Craig Perry, Warren Zide, and Chris Bender at their company.

Geoffrey: Yeah, that’s where that iconic airplane scene comes from. It’s been a minute since I’ve seen the movie, but the opening is the airplane scene where the kids cheat death. The faceless enemy is brilliant because it keeps the tension on. The way you designed that story, and the writers that came on to craft it, it keeps you on the edge of your seat because you don’t see the enemy. That’s where fear lies in a good thriller/horror movie, is not being able to see the enemy. As soon as you finally see Freddy, he’s scary but he’s not as scary as claws on the wall or the creepy face coming through the wall. That’s where the fear is. Your concept, itself, totally embraces that and I think it’s absolutely brilliant. When it came time to designing and developing these death scenes, you must’ve gone through dozens trying to figure this out.

Jeffrey: It’s interesting because I wrote the first draft of the script based on my treatment. With Nightmare on Elm Street being a big influence on me, in my original script, the characters met similar deaths. In my version, since Death messed up the first time and couldn’t just come back and kill them, mine effed with them until they committed suicide, which is pretty grim. It was a lot more Nightmare on Elm Street vibe to it, in my original script. What James Wong and Glen Morgan did, which was brilliant, they added the rube Goldberg aspect of it, which grounded it more in reality. That allowed it to expand more beyond the horror crowd to reach a wider audience.

Geoffrey: It ups the intensity. The other thing I want to mention is … Nightmare on Elm Street holds up to this day. Sure, the outfits and hairstyles have changed, but it’s still creepy, and I think Final Destination is the same way as that. The first one still holds up to this day. Scares are scares, and you wrote characters that you can get behind because they’re empathetic and sympathetic. Ali Larter’s character, Clear, she’s innocent and sweet and you could get behind her, and she makes it. But then in the second one, SPOILER ALERT, Death gets her, eventually. That’s where you realize you thought you could cheat Death, but you can’t, it’s inevitable. Were you designing this to be franchise-able as you were writing this?

Jeffrey: Yeah, growing up at a studio, you definitely know that’s what they want. Even just growing up on horror films, most horror films have sequels, so you have that in your DNA. I don’t like movies where they end on a bad opening.

Geoffrey: Like a somber note?

Jeffrey: Yeah, like where the survivor escapes the killer and then the killer jumps out and kills them. I hate those movies. I believed the concept, and I know James Wong and Glen Morgan did, too. The studio believed in it but they were still a little nervous about it. It was actually a sleeper hit because it opened at Number 3, then it started going up every weekend until it got to Number 1. It was definitely a word-of-mouth hit. I always wrote it to have a sequel/franchise.

Geoffrey: The concept can be one of those timeless concepts that carries on. Final Destination has been going on for twenty years and there’s been five movies.

Jeffrey: There’s only four sequels.

Geoffrey: Only four?

Jeffrey: I only say this as a horror fan. If you look at [franchises] like Friday the 13thand Halloween, they all have 20 sequels/remakes.

Geoffrey: I love how that’s your bar. Sir, I will take four sequels of anything I’ve written.

Jeffrey: I’m so grateful, but just as a horror fan, and I know the fans want more, the studio has just been very finnicky about making more of them.

Geoffrey: That’s anything now. Everything is getting tighter, budgets are dropping, and COVID doesn’t help.

Jeffrey: Our budgets were never small. The first couple were around [$20 million], then once it got to 3D, the budget jumped up to [$40 million].

Geoffrey: What you and I are talking about, I thought this was going to go in the direction of writing towards horror, but I think we’re discussing how to create something original that can really have legs to it. What are your recommendations, other than being in an airplane and reading about a lady who escaped death on an airplane? If that was me, I would’ve been freaking out that whole flight. I’m glad you decided to just put it in your back pocket, I’d be freaking nervous.

Jeffrey: I wasn’t that nervous. The thing is, you can always write for a franchise, but it really depends on the execution. What I try to do with my concepts, I’m very interested in the human condition and things that scare everybody. That’s why Final Destination has such legs because we didn’t give a face to Death. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not, or what your cultural background is, you can’t reject Death. You can relate to that movie and you don’t have the barriers up of having it be specific. With my movie Tamara, it was about bullying, and it was also my update on Carrie. I love Carrie, I just don’t like that you have to wait till the last fifteen minutes for her to kill everybody.

Geoffrey: It is a bit of a slow burn, isn’t it?

Jeffrey: I love the movie, but I wanted to take that concept and make something we can all relate to.

Geoffrey: I actually mention this in my book, you’re talking about writing towards a universal human condition. By writing about Death, it transcends religion and everything, and it’s coming for us all. It’s like how Nightmare on Elm Street hits you because everybody dreams. It’s another one of those universal concepts. With Jason, I’d say the big appeal for him is, for me, he’s always represented that unstoppable terror we all feel could be coming for us. I think that’s why the [Friday the 13th movies] work, other than the fact that you can get into debauchery. Developing a concept, using that universal human condition as a good way to give a script legs. You did this in Tamara, was it the same process, or did you sit down and design something?

Jeffrey: I designed it. A lot of Tamara came from a place where people kept telling me, “Bring us something like Final Destination.”

Geoffrey: That’s gotta be tough.

Jeffrey: Yeah, it’s like I have a whole drawer full of them that I was just saving. Then I would come up with ideas and they would say, “That’s too much like Final Destination, or it’s not like Final Destination enough.” Finally, I realized I can’t keep chasing that dragon. It’s hard enough to get a movie made, but if a movie becomes a hit, it’s like lightening in a bottle. It has to happen at the right time and place; there’s a lot of pieces that go into making a hit. So I thought, “why don’t I just write something fun?” I’d been bullied growing up, because I’m a person of color and I’m gay, so I definitely understand bullying. I like the idea of Carrie where the bully [dies]. That’s one thing that attracts people to horror, the final girl/guy is never the most popular kid in school.

Geoffrey: No, and neither are horror fans. You go to a horror convention and they’re all normal people or super geeks like me. You’re never going to a horror convention and seeing the quarterback of the football team.

Jeffrey: But quarterbacks and prom queens like [those movies] too, that’s what’s so funny. I decided, let me just write a fun movie that has everything in it that I would want to see. I knew I had the universal concept of bullying, and Carrie has proven people love that type of story. It’s been told a lot of different times in a lot of different ways, and I wanted to put my own spin on it. I made the character of Tamara as someone who was into witchcraft, then these kids bully her, and she dies during a prank. They bury her in the woods, which is obviously the smart thing to do, and then she walks into class on Monday. Before, she was this meek shy girl, and now she’s really empowered and sexy. She starts going after the bullies based on their “sins”. They can’t go to the police and say, “We killed her this weekend and now she’s after us!” so they’re stuck. Of all my films, Tamara is still my favorite. It was going to be done by a studio with a big budget, and we ended up doing it independently for not a big budget. We ended up having to cut down on a lot of stuff. Some of the producers were a little prudish, so they cut out some of the sexual stuff I explored and toned down some of the violence, but it was still fun.

Geoffrey: You were trying to open up the market to it, probably.

Jeffrey: Yeah, but it still has that really fun edge to it.

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Geoffrey: What else do you think about creating original concepts? Do you look at character as a way to reinforce the draw to your script?

Jeffrey: I think that’s important. They’ll always tell you there are no original ideas left, which by this point, there aren’t. I’ve had people tell me about this Twilight Zone episode about somebody who had a nightmare about a number, and when they went to the airport, they didn’t take their flight because it had the same number. So everyone thinks I took [Final Destination] from that. There’s never an original idea, but I think what makes an idea original is what each writer brings to it.

Geoffrey: That makes sense.

Jeffrey: Whenever I speak to writers, I tell them they shouldn’t try to make what’s already popular because then you’re trying to be something else.

Geoffrey: That’s a good point.

Jeffrey: With each of our life experiences, what we’ve been through, love, hate, and fear; nobody else is like us. Our individual world view and experiences are what is going to make our scripts stand out, as opposed to trying to fit into a box of what we think is popular.

Geoffrey: I think what I’m hearing you say is, find your voice as a writer.

Jeffrey: Yes.

Geoffrey: I’ve had students that will write, then you’ll read their script, and it’s like Shane Black wrote it; it’s staccato. That’s great, but that’s his voice, what’s your voice? They think by reading his scripts and emulating his style, that works. That’s not how it works, you have to find your voice. Now if you’re inspired by that, you can put it in your toolbox, but bring in other things to find your own voice.

Jeffrey: When I was finding my voice, too, I read a lot of horror scripts and there were these things I would like that I would put in my toolbox. I didn’t copy a screenwriter’s style. I’d say, “This gets across what I like to get across,” so you start building your toolbox with your own creativity. You take those tools, and you’ll find your voice within that mashup.

Geoffrey: Absolutely, I think screenwriters are the best thieves in the world. We steal from other writers, everybody around us; if you piss us off at the grocery store, we’ll take that and put it in a script; it’s just the way it is. What else do you have going on? Have you been working on some new stuff?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I directed my first film, Don’t Look Back, which was a great fun experience, especially as a writer. As a writer, you’re used to writing your script for the reader. Often times, you’ll have to reiterate certain things just to make sure the reader doesn’t forget what you said 10 pages ago. When you’re making the movie, you might realize you have four scenes where a person says the same thing. You learn how visual the movie medium is and how it differs from the audience you’re trying to reach with your screenplays. I’ve also been working in animation since COVID hit, which has been wonderful. I get to kill people in a fairytale, but in a very child-friendly way.

Geoffrey: I gotta see this. Is that out yet? Can we see the cartoon?

Jeffrey: The one cartoon, we haven’t announced yet, but it’s going to be coming out Halloween of 2021. The other cartoon is a spin-off the Usagi Yojimbo comic book, that one’s really fun.

Geoffrey: I bet that’s intense, too.

Jeffrey: It’s intense but it’s fun because it’s a spin-off, so it’s for a younger audience. We have the creator’s blessing and he’s overseeing stuff, but it’s not like a hard-R adaptation of the comic books. It’s really fun to work on. Animation, it’s obviously similar to screenwriting, but it’s a lot more compact, especially when you’re doing half-hour animations. You have to cram a lot of stuff [into that time window].

Geoffrey: You’re working in animation, but you come from a horror background. I always tell my students, and even in my book, if you are a horror writer, I always recommend you work outside your favorite genre to help finesse your own toolkit. Have you found that to be accurate?

Jeffrey: I definitely do, especially working on these two particular shows, because one is very much about finding humor because the stories can be inherently darker. The other one is about finding heart in your characters. Because we’re cramming so much of it into so little, the pacing has made me [a stronger writer]. I haven’t started working on a new feature script yet, because I still have a stack of other ones I’m trying to finish. When I start rewriting some of my older stuff, I’m able to go through it and see if that heart is there. Just realizing how much you can put into a little, it’s amazing.

Geoffrey: You’re sharpening your sword. That’s absolutely amazing. To see it from the guy who wrote Final Destination, where you’re writing in this new genre and finding ways to improve. It says how we are all still students at this craft. There is no end goal.

Jeffrey: There’s no peak. It was good for me to learn not to attach my personal values to what other people say about my work. I also learned to take constructive criticism; I’ve learned how to sift through it. There is a lot of criticism, but I’ve learned how to distil what is constructive and what is someone’s opinion. There’s [critics] that just like to tear people down.

Geoffrey: You’re absolutely right. It’s the note behind the note. You don’t know if this dude just woke up and didn’t get his coffee, yet. It’s like, “Is this guy in the doghouse? Why is he coming at me so hard?” That’s just something that comes with time. You have to take a few hits to the face before you realize you should step back and see what makes the work better.

Jeffrey: I think as long as you’re doing that and continue to grow, [you’re on the right path]. I do see a lot of younger writers, and I was probably the same way, where you think your first script is the best script that’s ever been written. Trying to talk to some other writers, with that mindset, it’s like beating your head against a brick wall. You’re not going to grow. With any artist/ craftsperson, you obviously get better the more you do something. That’s just a fact of life.

Geoffrey: You’re warming my heart, Jeffrey. You’re a craftsman as much as you’re an artist. I tend to be more of a craftsman, but I still bring the art in. I have the mindset of a craftsman, except with a bit of art. But if you just have the mindset of an artist, you’re not going to grow in the craft because you can’t accept criticism. You think anything you touch is divinely inspired art, which is great, but I can’t sell it.

Jeffrey: You have to learn to meld the two. You have to learn to be a craftsman without [letting your ego get in the way]. You can be an artist and a craftsman at the same time, they’re not mutually exclusive, and some people think they are.

Geoffrey: Dave Trottier was on here the other day, and even said that it’s both. I agree with you, you must be able to do both. You have to step back and say, “How do I get better at this? How do I be a student? How do I work with other people to provide a product that they want? I gotta thank you for coming on this show.

Jeffrey: Thank you for having me! I like your Yoda [figurine], can I have that?

Geoffrey: You know who gave me that Yoda? My dentist, the coolest guy in the world.

Jeffrey: You must be a great patient, or he must be a great dentist if he gave you the Yoda.

Geoffrey: Dr. Schalm gave me it and it was amazing! I knew exactly where to put it.

Geoffrey: Thanks for listening, if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share in your social media, where you can tag us @thesuccessfulscreenwriter.



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