Death Is Not the End: An Oral History of Final Destination

on March 17, 2020, 12:00am
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Final Destination Oral History

Amanda Detmer, photo courtesy of Lisa Love

The iconic opening scene sets the violent tone of the film. In set design, entire sections of a plane were constructed and set atop a three-ton gimbal, which could be controlled with a joystick far below. Once the plane explodes, the set could be pitched right and left at 45 degree angles to mimic a real life explosion.

LISA LOVE (HEAD OF MAKEUP DEPARTMENT): I was in the back of the plane for one of those takes. I remember feeling like the plane was literally going down. It was really scary. There were so many stunt people on that plane, because if you remember, the bins would open up and all the suitcases would fly out. So, most of those people were stunt people. It really did feel like we were doing something special. The makeup and hair team were really great and fun to come in everyday.

Final Destination Oral History

Devon Sawa, photo courtesy of Lisa Love

I remember when the explosion happened. There was a stunt guy sitting on the side of the plane that got exploded and the one girl got sucked out right away 一 he got “burned.” So, I did fire burn on him because he did actually end up staying in the plane with the seat belt on. But the whole side of his face is charred.

Final Destination Oral History

Makeup test, photo courtesy of Amanda Detmer

RACHEL GRIFFIN (MAKEUP ARTIST): There was a day on set Lisa hired a dozen or so other makeup artists to do up as many people as we could in severe burn makeup. The director wanted to see some aftermath makeup for after when the huge fireball engulfed the plane.

Sadly, the scene didn’t make it into the film. The makeup I did was a very crispy burn makeup. I used a bald cap and set of false teeth glued to the actors lips and a lot of oatmeal and latex to simulate the ears and lips being burnt away.

The movie really pushed the limits of what could be done on set, and with the later films, we learned the best way to use visual FX to augment the bloody gags done on set. I feel having as much done on set in camera is the best way to sell FX. Making it look as real as it could be for doing some of the crazy and outlandish deaths I was evolved with. It seemed each new script for the sequels got wilder and wilder, increasing the skills and techniques needed to pull off the FX.

Final Destination Oral History

Burn makeup, photo courtesy of Rachel Griffin

MYLREA: JJ and I were to make sure all the action sequences were done safely and what the director wanted. We hired all the stunt doubles and did many rehearsals. We had several production meetings, location surveys, and action breakdown sequences. We met with the special effects people and rehearsed. There was probably a little storyboarding done, which I like. There was a lot of preparation that went into behind any of those sequences. It depended on the sequence to determine preparation and how much time it took.

Final Destination Oral History

Plane Set, photo courtesy of Amanda Detmer

PERRY: The camera was sometimes attached to a bungee cord that we’d fix to the roof of the plane. Then, the operator could react to the movements of the plane, but the camera would be static. The bungee was like a shock absorber.

We had a techno crane, too. The end of the airplane could be removed. You could shoot and put the camera down the center of the aisle. We had to devise a bunch of different ways that we could capture the violence without making it so nauseating that you couldn’t watch it.

Final Destination Oral History

Plane set, photo courtesy of Craig Perry

The gimbal worked great. Everybody was happy. Then, when we broke the movie down, somebody bought it … because like what the hell are you going to do with a gimbal? Years later, we’re going to shoot Final Destination 5. For the bridge sequence, we needed a gimbal. We found a guy who actually had a gimbal. It was a totally different production team. They went and bought it.

As they were operating it, someone who had worked on both movies said, “Wait a second….” It was the same gimbal we’d used 15 years earlier! Serendipitously, we had bought the same iron gimbal. Now, the difference was it had computer controls. Everyone is saying, “Oh, how cool!” In the back of my mind, I’m going, “No, we’re all fucked!” [laughs] “It’s a sign, you stupid idiots! It’s a sign!”

SMITH: I remember specifically that the first time we did the scene, the gimbal broke. The whole thing was tilting to the one side. We had to wait probably a day, and they put a huge counter-weight on the back. Then, we re-did it. I think that might have played into some people’s fears.

Final Destination Oral History

Plane set, photo courtesy of Craig Perry

Perhaps the most iconic death comes when Amanda Detmer’s character, Terri Chaney, tells her boyfriend Carter Horton to “Drop fucking dead!” before stepping out into traffic and getting plowed over by an oncoming city bus.

AMANDA DETMER (ACTRESS): My niece told me recently, “Oh, you have a meme!” I was like, “There’s no memes on me.” She said, “Oh, there’s more than a few.” That one exists — the drop fucking dead one. For a relatively small role, it really did have an arc. She had a journey, and she has this epic death. No one knew how epic that death was going to be until they got the footage back.

It had never been done that way before. They did what is called a lock down on the camera. I stood for eight hours one day and made a full body cast, head to toe. They made two dummies. I like to say the dummies got paid more than I did because they cost more than I did. [laughs]

What they did was, instead of yelling cut and then editing the shot together, they locked down the camera. They stopped the camera from rolling — by the way, this is still film — and then they took very particular measurements. So, I said, “Drop fucking dead!” and stepped into the street and froze. Then, they came and measured me and took me out of the shot. They put the dummy in my place. They unlocked the camera and the bus came and hit me.

fd meme Death Is Not the End: An Oral History of Final Destination

When they did Meet Joe Black, they used the same technology for Brad Pitt’s death. Something about the way they did it in Final Destination maintained its impact 20 years later. They sort of invented a new technique, and everyone’s tried to get better on that. The fact is I think they came up with something that is always going to work.

When they got the footage back, they took me to the crew trailer where all the grips and everybody hung out. They sat me down and said, “You have to see this.” And I watched myself die. Every time anybody watched it, even when we were shooting, which was often, because they were so proud of it, people just went nuts.

Years later, I was doing an independent film. This girl came on to do some special effects, and she would not stop staring at me. She was really close to my face when she thought I wasn’t looking. Finally, I said, “Do we know each other?” She said, “Oh my god, you will not believe this. I just got out of school. Your death and your dummy is an entire semester of study.” [Laughs.] “I looked at you everyday for like three months.”

Final Destination Oral History

Amanda Detmer, photo courtesy of Amanda Detmer

SMITH: People, often times in the theatre, laugh at that moment. They don’t know what to think. In those moments sometimes, you’re really scared, and you don’t know what to do. So, you laugh. I think that scene was in Richmond, outside of Vancouver. We had roughly 300 people watching the scene from across the street from where we were doing it.

Devon, Seann, and I were standing there watching her get run over by the bus. We were like, “Okay, let’s each do a completely different reaction to this.” You’ve got a props guy underneath you and taking a paint brush, dipping it into a bucket of fake blood, and spraying it up onto our faces. My job was to not react at all. We did the scene so many times.

PERRY: We were going to do a digi-double morph for her. It was this $50,000 visual effect to try and get this thing right. Oddly enough, the editor [James Coblentz] was on set that day. He looked at the bus passing by and it hitting her. He goes, “Huh, ok, don’t shoot anything. Give me 15 minutes.” He ran over to where he was editing, and he cut the scene together. What he realized is it wasn’t a snub-nosed bus. It was a flat-nosed bus. The editor put a very tiny, fuzzy wipe, and he timed it so the front of the bus pushed the wipe across the screen. He could literally time it so she was still moving until one frame before the bus actually hit her. There was no need to do any kind of digital transition. It was simple old-school editorial tricks.

REDKNAP: We basically built a live-sized GI Joe doll. That made it a heck of a lot harder than having a predetermined pose. Then, we worked with the effects department. When the bus hit the dummy, they wanted blood and guts to come flying out of it. Normally, you do things like squibs and a little blood bag that would pop, and you’d get a spray of blood. That just wasn’t going to read. We had two-gallons of blood in ziplock bags inside the torso.

We did a test where someone bolted a sheet of plywood to the front end of a pickup truck and used that to simulate a bus hitting the dummy. They nail-gunned the dummy’s feet to the ground, and the effects guys put a foot and a half of det cord in the torso. When the truck hit the dummy, and they set off the pyro, it did a few things that it wasn’t supposed to. The pyro was a bit overkill, so it pretty much disintegrated the middle of the dummy. All the legs and arms, which were connected through a series of bungee cords, imploded. Because the feet were nail-gunned to the ground, they stayed attached to the ground. It ripped off at the knees.

It was one of those screw-ups that was a little frustrating. We built this one dummy for this one moment. The test pretty much destroyed it. We had to rebuild a lot of it and put it together again — and figure out a better way to do it on the day of shooting. I seem to recall we did have two dummies ready for the day of shooting, but only used one of them. They got what they wanted on the first take, so we didn’t need the second one. I think the dummy is onscreen for about three frames. That’s a fraction of a second, really.

Final Destination Oral History

Sean William Scott and Amanda Detmer, photo courtesy of Amanda Detmer

Redknap, whose more recent credits include Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Terminator: Dark Fate, then breaks down the approach in making the dummy.

REDKNAP: There are a few ways to go about it. You can take body impressions of the actor from head-to-toe and create a perfect replica of them. Often what happens, because most dummies are matching actors that are wearing clothes, you usually cast their head, hands, sometimes their teeth, sometimes their feet, and then you create perfect replicas of those body parts. You attach it to an existing dummy. It depends on what the dummy has to do.

In this case, it was a lot more elaborate because it was articulated at all the joints. A lot of dummies are just going to have armature wire in the joints. It’s a heavy aluminum wire that you can bend, and it’ll hold the position. Here, it needed to be pose-able and hold its position, and it needed to be standing.

I worked with a sculptor named Jim Bridge whose main job was working in the construction department. He would build sets and use a lot of styrofoam. He’d carve these giant blocks into whatever detail fixture they needed. He had this idea it would be quickest if we just carved the dummy out of styrofoam. Once we had a form, we broke it down into the individual pieces, like the hands, forearm, upper arm, torso. We created joints.

The shoulder was a ball joint. It was very much like early action figures. The connection for most of the joints was a piece of bungee cord that was anchored in the middle and at the end of the limb. Our solution to making her pose-able and that she would hold her pose was that most of the body parts were created with fiberglass. In the joints, we added sand to the fiberglass. The ball and socket shoulder joints had a gritty surface. When you moved it, it would grind against the other side. When you would let it go, it would hold. It was like pushing two pieces of sandpaper together.

In the film’s most ambitious set piece, that of Valerie Lewton’s demise, Wong constructs a Rube Goldberg sequence in which various smaller details culminate in bloody carnage and ultimately a house explosion.

REDKNAP: I helped kill the teacher. Mike Fields and I put a prosthetic on her for a blood rig and the shard of glass in her throat. Then, when she ends upon on the ground and the knife block tips over and a knife falls into her, that was a slant-board effect, where it was a fake body that attaches to her at the neck. Kristen was hidden in the floor. It’s basically a board on a slant that would support her body while her head is resting on the floor of the set. That allowed us to get a knife stabbed into the fake body. I believe Mike and I were puppeteering her limbs on the fake body, moving them around while she squirmed and reacted to the scene.

LOVE: She had so much blood on her. I remember when they called cut, it was just… I basically stayed with her when she was getting that blood off in the shower in her room just to make sure she was OK. She was very, very, very sticky. That scene was so upsetting. I remember when I did finally watch it, my heart was just pouring out for her.

PERRY: We built the exterior of the house and blew it up, but the entirety of the kill sequence itself was all on a stage. More than any other sequence, it is so intricately wound. Everything you set up pays off in a way that you don’t expect. Even in the production design, when you look at the stained glass, there’s a knife. There are a lot of things like that laddled all the way through the design of that movie. For the casual viewer, it just works, but for a viewer that’s a fan of the franchise, or who has been swept up in it, they’re going to find those intricacies, and it makes it even more fun to watch.

All the pieces of this scene were always there in the script. The way Glen and James write, they write pretty long, and they call every shot. It’s much like how Hitchcock wrote his movies in the ‘40s and ‘50s where every single shot is written out in the script. The camera identifies elements and sets them up, and the audience participates by tracking those things. They did a great job in their draft of identifying those moments. It made for a very cool read.

Carter has one of the film’s most interesting character arcs. Leading into Alex’s revelation that saving someone forces death to skip to the next person, Carter nearly gets killed from an oncoming freight train.

SMITH: We did that scene in a little town between Vancouver and Whistler called Squamish. We scheduled two freight trains to come through — obviously at very specific times. You’re on a time schedule, so there’s no screwing around. You have to get it in one take or you’re done. The first train comes through, and I believe that was the one when we did the actual scene.

They constructed some kind of safety box about 10 feet off the track. I have to be honest with you, that was close enough for me to a train going by at 40-50 mph. It had a series of mirrors on the set that made it look like we were on the tracks, but we were 10 feet off of it. That wouldn’t give us much safety at all. Then, we played the whole scene out.

We had a couple muscle cars. I think we had three: a stunt car, a regular car, and then a car that they gutted. They sawed it in half and put it back together. When the second train came through, it would just split the car right in half. I think we spent a week in Squamish working from like 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.. It was my first time doing a night shoot like that and of that length.

We get off the tracks, and there’s that big scene of trying to figure out what’s going on and Alex’s theory. Of course, then there’s the reveal that I pissed my pants. That was originally in the script. They took it out. I said, “No, man, we gotta do this and put this back in. It shows that vulnerability of this guy, where he is just absolutely scared.” We ended up doing it. It’s a great little scene.

Final Destination Oral History

Final Destination (New Line Cinema)

Moments later, Seann William Scott’s character Billy meets his fate when a piece of scrap metal whizzes by and decapitates him.

REDKNAP: I was definitely there when we rolled his head across the ground — that was a separate day. I remember that because that’s your standard rolling a severed head into shot moment where it takes 15 takes before it lands the way they want it to. That fake head was one of the best looking fake heads I’d ever seen up to that point. The guy that built it, his name is Andre Gaul, and that was his main build on the film. He made this absolutely wonderful fake head.

When we brought it to set to do the closer shot of it on the ground and rolling, we’d roll it and it would always land face down or facing away or the wrong way up. They wanted it to land on top of its head so the gory bottom was visible. We kept rolling and rolling. It’s like rolling a ball. It’s totally random how it ends up. The take they were finally happy with was great. But it rolled right across the face in the sand, so when it stopped, the face was completely covered. You have this amazing fake head and you want to see it.

Early test screenings came back, and the responses were overwhelmingly negative on the third act and the original ending. The studio soon launched into reshoots.

PERRY: After the first preview, the test scores back, and they almost tore their seats out of the theatre. They hated it so much. I wound up having dinner next to the then-president of production, and it felt like the Last Supper. Let’s put it that way. To everyone’s credit, and especially the New Line execs, they knew the bulk of the movie was working. They had enough empirical evidence by people’s reactions to the set pieces that they felt, “OK, this is something we can fix.”

We obviously had to have Alex live. Several shots from the whole beat with him getting electrocuted at the car was shot at an empty mall near the “Paris” street. We built half the garage with lighting and sound effects. That’s a truly cobbled together moment. We couldn’t go back to the original location.

Clear getting pregnant was an interesting idea. It’s an intellectual notion: Oh, she’s alive and there’s new life. But it just was fraught with other real-world issues that it didn’t ring true or satisfying. It was reaching for something the movie, based on the tone of it, couldn’t support or sustain.

SMITH: I got a call about six months after we finished production. They said, “Hey, we have to reshoot the ending of this thing.” I assumed it didn’t test very well. I think they wanted to see Carter, the asshole of the film, get his own. In the original ending, he lives, which would have been nice for sequels. But hey, gotta kill him, right? We came back, and they flew us to Victoria, this little island south of Vancouver. We made it look like Paris. I think the final ending is appropriate.

Final Destination Oral History

Amanda Detmer and Ali Larter, photo courtesy of Amanda Detmer

In the ensuing years, a sub-genre of horror called “torture porn” emerged.

REDDICK: Final Destination tapped into [gore] in a fun way. I don’t think it was malicious. I love the first Saw and actually enjoyed Hostel. It’s different if it feels gratuitous.

I know a lot of people like the tanning bed scene in Final Destination 3, but I think it’s the worst of the stereotypical horror films. You have the super long, gratuitous nudity, and then the girls slowly get fried to death. That death scene is the one in the franchise I would consider the most torture porn-y.

What makes Final Destination work is the anticipation. With torture porn movies, there is relishing in the actual death itself. You see someone strapped up to something, and you cut them to ribbons or slowly kill them for three minutes.

A year and a half after the film’s release, the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred and sent the world into shock. Many speculate the film could never have been released post-9/11.

DETMER: With a line like this [“The plane’s going to explode,” said by Alex], would this have turned into some kind of terrorist film? Would the message become about something else? Maybe in the context it was made, and for the reasons it was so fun and enjoyable, it would not work. You would obviously have to change some things. People’s minds would immediately go down a different path. It’s not the unexplainable anymore. We’ve had to watch it actually happen. It’s a different kind of terror.

SMITH: I have direct experience because of that. Everything back then, people were shying away from those kinds of films and stories. Right after Final Destination, I did a movie that was called Ground Zero [title later changed to Critical Assembly]. It was a TV movie for NBC. It was about myself as a college student putting together a group of individuals, not as terrorists, but as a group that was able to put together a nuclear weapon.

It was to prove a point that it could be done, and the safety measures aren’t there. In the process, it gets stolen and almost blows up San Francisco. The release of the film was late September 2001. They shelved the movie. It sat on a shelf for two years. If it were a year and a half later, Final Destination could not have been released. New Line would have released it, but they would have definitely waited a few years.

Final Destination Oral History

Final Destination (New Line Cinema)

Not surprisingly, the franchise is hardly dead. Last year, it was reported that New Line tapped Saw writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan to reboot the franchise, and it would appear the past will inform the present — at least, spiritually.

PERRY: You have to take in advances in technology. It is what it is. That’s okay. Ultimately, the movies still operate in the same way. Let’s just say: In the current draft of Final Destination 6, you’ll never go through a revolving door the same way again … ever. I challenge you, the next time you go through a revolving door, to run right through. You don’t. Everybody stops and goes one, two, three, and then steps in. It’s human nature. You’re a smart guy. You can figure out all the fun we had with a revolving door.

The further you try to push the series from its core idea because you want to “refresh” or “renew” it, something gets lost in the translation. We tried as much as we could to really push it out there. Some of the ideas were super cool, but they didn’t feel like a Final Destination movie. They felt like something else. As someone who has been, for better or worse, curating this franchise, you want it to feel like it lives together in the same universe. You don’t want it to feel like a complete outlier. At that point, you’ve done a disservice to the people who’ve gotten you there. The challenge is to make it just similar enough so that you feel you’re watching something that’d work as a triple-bill down at the local cinema, but it builds out from the central idea.

We wrote a 30-page dossier that completely breaks down every kill and every scenario in the franchise from beginning to end. That way, when we’re hiring writers for the sixth one, you can say, “Here, just read this. This is all you need to know.” Every rule and everything we tried that failed was in there. My involvement in the franchise is on an intellectual analysis basis to figure out what made things work or didn’t work and how do we avoid mistakes and build off past successes.

In that sense, he’s become Alex.

Final Destination Oral History

Cast of Final Destination photo courtesy of Lisa Love

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