Producer Craig Perry is best-known for his work on teen-centric film franchises like American Pie and Final Destination — he's been doing movies like these for over a decade, but he's tireless when it comes to giving each fresh crop of fans their due, as well as pleasing those who want the tried and true.
On the set of Final Destination 5 (in 3D, just like its predecessor) in Vancouver B.C., Perry gives the press a tour of the huge soundstage which houses the main set piece of the film: a giant bridge built on a gimble that's made to break apart and collapse in many different places. It was impressive to see, but best of all was to hear how Death himself, personified by Tony Todd, will be factoring in this time around.
CRAIG PERRY: Hi. Welcome, guys. Craig Perry. Producer, the FINAL DESTINATION franchise. God help me.
QUESTION: After you say it’s THE FINAL DESTINATION, fans know it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. However, the rest of the moviegoing public is going to go, “hey, wait a minute, I thought it was the final destination.” So how do you brand Number 5 after that?
PERRY: It’s a great question and something we would have to talk to Warners marketing about that, because in some ways, it’s a problem they’re going to have to solve. Given, what we were able to accomplish with the last movie, which afforded us the opportunity to do this movie and take all the lessons we’ve learned from all the four previous films and apply it to this movie, I think there is a way that FINAL DESTINATION as a brand, and this sounds over the top, people kind of know what it is. They don’t ever think of, “do you remember FD3 or THE FINAL DESTINATION. They just think of FINAL DESTINATION as the whole thing. My guess is that it’s going to become the brand. Whatever title that would be associated with that, and hopefully it won’t have roman numerals and it won’t have colons and a whole long addendum, it has become it’s own sort of thing. It becomes, “oh, it’s a FINAL DESTINATION moment.” I’m very gratified that’s how it’s entered the popular lexicon. I think that’s where the title might spring from.
So it’s not going to be FINAL DESTINATION 5?
PERRY: I can’t speak to it. It certainly is working for us now. I acronym the heck out of these. FD5, FD4. Everything is a shorthand. We’ll have to see marketing and where everything lands in the next four or five months.
This is the anti-SAW franchise, because in those films, if you didn’t see the last six of them, it doesn’t make sense.
PERRY: They’re impenetrable.
This, you can watch them in any order, and there’s a formula you guys have going that repeats from film to film. Is there a point where, “this is working, and I don’t care” or do you ever say, “can we shake [the formula] up for the next one?”
PERRY: I think the formula is very comforting to people, but I do believe it puts the onus on us to come up with a couple of things that might shake it a little bit. We’ve done that on two levels -- I will not describe either one. I do feel we’ve taken that lesson, you say to heart. You can’t just can’t keep churning out Doritos every single time. So we have two interesting dynamics, one of which I think feeds much more into the group of actors you’re about to meet and what they’re able to bring to the party. We all agree that the previous films had sort of suffered from, at the end, you have someone going, “I’m going to fight … an invisible force called Death.” However, we’ve actually come up with a clever twist on one of the rules that allows for a little more dramatic interaction amongst the characters which is not only going to make it play better and have more actual narrative thrust to it, but really puts a spin on the entire dynamic for the third act, which is always, I think, you’ll agree, the challenges we face with the franchise.
Is Tony Todd part of this [one?] …
PERRY: Tony Todd is not necessarily part of that dynamic, but Tony Todd has more in this movie, than any of the other movies combined. He has more to do in this movie, which is kind of great, because it’s Tony Todd, and he’s awesome and we were very glad to get him back and to integrate him as successfully as we had in this version.
What are the boxes for [pointing to the boxes on set].
PERRY: Stunts. After 100 years, we have cardboard boxes stacked high, and they fall into them. It’s the most cost-effective thing and it’s the safest thing. They're not falling very high. When you get any higher, you get the air bags. This, stack them twice, put some pads on top of them, you’re fine. Yesterday, this gimbal pitches and moves and collapses on cue, it’s all computerized. It was doing its schtick. One of the actors was doing a running gag, and the thing dipped and he realized he wasn’t going to stop. The actor just leapt off the edge. He wasn’t supposed to. The two stunt people who were spotting, “holy shit,” he came in and landed. That instance, he realized if he tried to stop, he would probably hurt himself more than if he just jumped. He said, “that was the most terrifying things that ever happened to me.” He had no idea. He never did it. He had no training.
PERRY: We’ll see if he ever tells it. Everyone got very quiet up there. “What just happened?” It was two stunt girls. He’s like, “I fell into the arms of two beautiful women.” It’s amazingly safe, given the amount of movement that these things capable of.
Another story, the knuckle - that gimble. That big piece of machinery. You can make them, they’re not cheap. Turned out a guy was going to throw his out. It was in a storage warehouse for 11 years, we bought it and one of the guys in special effects working on this said, “I know that, I built that for the first movie,” It’s the plane gimbal from FD1 that had been lost for ten years sitting in the guys [warehouse], and it’s now here on this movie. Creepy.
Is this PG-13?
Also, a paragraph synopsis, a one-liner.
PERRY: It’s very simple – a group of colleagues, who work together in an office, have to go on a corporate retreat and find themselves amidst a terrible suspension bridge collapse. One of the people in the office has a premonition of this collapse, gets several of his friends off, and there begins the formula, with several twists thrown in and the loving return of Tony Todd.
Bringing Tony Todd back and making him work in the new storyline – can you talk about it?
PERRY: It was actually incredibly easy. We had wanted him. He couldn’t be in 3, because of scheduling things. We were able to get him in for ADR. In 4, it was totally scheduling. The homeless guy at the end of FD4 was going to be Tony Todd. Out of the blue, you have this guy. You recognize him. There was no place to put him in voiceover, so it was one of those missed opportunities on our part. Tony has been a huge fan of this franchise. “I can't go grocery shopping without people recognizing me. I love this franchise.” Getting him back was one of the easiest things to do in this movie, because he has a real affinity for it. We were not only able to integrate him easily into it, but I think also keep exactly who he is [in relation] to Death a mystery. He knows, but he won’t tell you. He won’t even tell me. It really fuels what makes his presence great in this franchise and in general. He’s huge, you shake hands with him [garbled]. He’s this big guy. Great.
Are you surprised by the longevity of this series?
PERRY: When you call a movie FINAL DESTINATION, yes, I’m surprised it went beyond there, but I think we were also surprised and pleased by it. Bob Shaye, founder of New Line, was really the only one, even when we were shooting, [who thought] there was maybe a franchise potential in this. To his credit, he was right, [because] here we are twelve years doing this crazy stuff. Did I know? No. Am I happy? Yes.
I’m curious, with the last one, everyone thinks it’s the last film, at what point, was ut opening weekend or was it two weeks later, did you get the call, “hey, maybe a fifth one?”
PERRY: That’s a good question. There was this sense of “no more, the last hurrah” and the movie opened very well, in no small part to Warner's marketing. They did a great job positioning the movie and having the courage to go head-to-head with HALLOWEEN 2 and winning. They really believed in the movie and believed they had a better audience experience on their hands. For me, it was the Monday afterwards, I started thinking, “I want to be prepared if this question comes up.” It didn’t come, actually for awhile. Everyone was like “oh, wow, it did great. That’s great. Whew!” And then it kind of percolated, and then the international numbers started coming in. That’s what tipped the balance. The international numbers were staggering. It made $208 million worldwide. A massive, massive hit.
Is that more than the other movies?
PERRY: By almost $85 million. It was a huge, huge increase. I can’t just attribute it to the 3-D. I think it has to do with the skills and size of Warner Bros. International distribution and their marketing machine. I think it also has to do with other territories opening up to more theaters. More theaters in Russia, India and a bunch of different places. So, it became that sort of thing, “wait a second, this is not just a domestic thing, we can have a worldwide brand,” and the last movie introduced people to that brand. So that’s when I go, “maybe we should quietly come up with another story.”
Thankfully, I had come up with a bunch of different things and we were able to put them into an outline and get another writer involved. We were working away, trying to get that draft. We didn’t publicize we were writing one, and you don’t want to plant a flag in something like that, you want to see if it actually works and get it right. The writer was about sixty five pages into the draft and Warners announced a release date and a start date. Be careful what you wish for. We were like, “yeah, Oh shit.” We followed through, got the draft done, and it was a really fast process because there are distribution windows and you see a date that makes sense, you plant a date as fast as you can and you go back from there.
Our director Steve Quale was literally hired on a Monday like noon and by three, he had already met with a D.P., by Thursday we had hired the D.P., production designer, visual effects supervisor. Normally that takes three or four weeks of careful consideration. It was a rushed judgment so we could make this release date and have enough time to prep. You will see, it’s a pretty spectacular, complicated movie.
Some people who worked on this movie worked on past movies; did that help?
PERRY: It was one of those things where obviously economics dictates where you’re going to shoot at this point. We talked about New Orleans and we talked about here [Vancouver]. The sheer amount of technical prowess needed to execute this kind of stuff, we would have to fly all those people into New Orleans. So the numbers in terms of exchange rate – it all started to equal out in the end. There were so many people who had worked on two of the four movies up here, anybody who has had that kind of experience, knows the gauntlet they’re about to run into. These are hard movies to pull off. This is a great benefit to have a number of department heads before, and they could apply that skill set to what we’re doing now. It was not a global consideration. The amount of money we were going to spend is the consideration, but it was a huge boon and asset value added to be able to go to people, who knew what they were doing.
Has the expectations of today’s horror audience impacted the tone of the film at all. There is a generation out there thinking horror as SAW and HOSTEL and something more brutal than FINAL DESTINATION.
PERRY: I’d like to think we’re a little bit wider. We found that a lot more women respond to these movies than not. The gore in these films are the punctuation. It makes these films not only play to the audience, but you see these on the USA network all the time and TNT runs them ad nauseum, because the fun of the movie is the lead-up to that punctuation. You kind of squirm – you’re not sure. It plays to a wider audience than the SAW movies did. It goes beyond that core gore audience. One of the things we learn, even on the last one. When [the woman] is getting the pedicure, scraping … nothing happens, but [audiences] were like “oh my god.” It was the cheapest trick to do. If you can strategically make sure you deliver those moments, along with that nice splatter people want to see and gore fans want, I think you have a movie that plays in a broader spectrum.
I think the hard core fans will appreciate some of the stuff we’re doing, because it’s deliciously dirty and hateful, but it’s not going to put off people just going into the movie and knowing the franchise and maybe seeing just one of the previous ones – it won’t put them off.
In these films, it seems the gore stuff is the punchline to the build-up. How do you balance the tones, so it doesn’t turn into just slapstick and comedy.
PERRY: I don’t think we’ve ever successfully, to now, gotten the right balance of tone. Some of them are too funny, some of them are too serious. The premise edges on preposterous. You have to be sort of willing to buy into it. One of the things we did to mitigate this potential for it to become [garbled] when there’s a lot of people dying is to hire comedic actors for dramatic roles. They’re going to bring an energy to it that’s comedic, but we ask them to be dramatic actors, which not only challenges them but gratifies them. “Really, I get to play a real character,” “yes you do.” I think it helps make the dynamics work better, we were able to figure out the tone more easily than we had in some of the other movies, that sometimes go too campy. Anybody saying some of these lines and the rules, nobody can say them really well. It’s very challenging to sell this stuff. These guys [in FD5] not only sold it, but they’ve done so in such a way, you really do feel and care for them.
In terms of the gore and how it relates to that. The studio is very mindful of how much gore to do. We have endless debates. We do a variety of different takes, with different levels of gore. Interestingly enough, the audience in FD2, the [test] audience rejected the movie because of too much gore. We had to cut back, not because the MPAA wanted to, it was the audience, “yeah, it’s too much.” I thought that was really interesting and it was a real lesson as to why these movies work. “Yeah, that’s awesome, we’re going to splatter … etc.” No, the audience wasn’t responding to that. They wanted something else that was present. That’s part of that large mixing board of how this franchise operates and learning how to set those levels. I think we’ve finally had enough times at bat and gotten the balance right.
We heard that Death is more personal this time.
PERRY: I think it’s more personal, because we strove this time around that the characters had wishes, wants and desires of their own – actual storylines of their own that is impacted by this set piece here. It’s not just people endlessly talking about “oh, we’re going to die.” It’s how did, the fact I intercepted with this event, impact the goals I had as the movie began. I think the actors responded to that. I think this gave us a chance to have this movie play out with real people, not just archetypes of swimming through the pond of FD. That’s what we were trying to do, giving them all individual storylines and relationships that were impacted from this event and everybody reacts differently to this event because of those relationships.
Many 3-D movies shouldn’t be in 3-D, and certainly THE FINAL DESINTATION is one of the best 3-D movies, because it used the medium, not just trying to be an immersive experience, but to be a 3-D movie.
PERRY: Most of them convert, which is a bastardization.
Setting the bar high with the last movie and other movies that worked since there, how do you take it to the next level with this, so it does have those pay-offs. I think people are getting tired of 3-D.
PERRY: I think they’re getting tired of 3-D. Filmmakers are just using it as a cattle prod, making sure the cows go through the proper channels and then the conversion which is just a bastardization of everything. I’m just happy we’re doing this in real 3-D. One of the things we did, to answer your question, is to hire Steve Quale who literally for 20 years, he was the guy on the Russian ship putting all the 20 plugs in the original models of the cameras from the very beginning [NOTE – not sure what he’s referring to in previous sentence]
He knows 3-D left right and center and having worked on AVATAR and having shot movies in 3-D. It’s second nature to him and he has a very good barometer of how to push things and he very much understands how to use the set and use the design of things to block the characters. You feel like you’re present. It’s that immersive quality you’re talking about, but he also doesn’t shy away from the good moments that the audience is hoping are going to be there, and when they’re used sparingly and strategically, they have much more impact. Some of these movies, twenty minutes in [you’re like] “okay, I guess they’re going to throw some other shit in my face. Great.”
And they’re not even doing that anymore …
PERRY: They think they’re making a movie in 3-D, but if it doesn’t capitalize on it, yes, you’re right. This franchise, given how half of the movie is told in the B-story, little bits and pieces that move around, you can really take advantage of that 3-D dynamic. That to me, this franchise lends itself to 3-D more than others but also we strategically chose a director who … even our stereographer [????], he’s been doing it for 18 years. He was working on theme parks for fifteen years, doing all the 3-D rides there until features became a big enough business so he could make another transfer into that. We have a huge wealth of experience to make the 3-D good and even better than that.
You had similar budgets on the previous films, plus or minus a few million. When it made $200 million on the last one, did you get more money to do this one?
PERRY: No, we have less time and less money than the last one, but that’s how it works. That’s why you don’t bring back actors. That’s why you are strategic in how you do it. You design the film, where you have these great opening set pieces and book end it with great end set pieces and in between you have a heartbeat of thrills and dynamics that play off some of the smaller beats that are equally as effective like the toe nail gag and other things.
It’s about moderating with the audience how you scare them. Part of it is how you apply your money. To make an $85 million FD movie, you’re an idiot. That’s dumb. To do be able to pull off what we pull off here, I’m speaking for myself, this sequence when you see it, it feels like a $150 million summer movie. It’s ridiculous what we’ve been able to pull off. It’s astonishing. That’s a 75,000 pound gimbal that wasn’t there two weeks ago. It wasn’t there. So, last week, every single corner of this stage was humming with activity. We had five sets working. It was ridonkulous. As with all productions, as you get to the end, now we’re all focused on getting this done. It’s a remarkable testimony to the crews up here, to the strategies. Heck our line producer did a great job of herding the cash, to make sure it all [garbled] out appropriately.
When you’re coming up with ideas [for other FD movies], I’m sure there are some ideas you couldn’t use …?
PERRY: There’s a space shuttle one. Have you ever been on a space shuttle? Exactly. How can identity with what that is. You’ve immediately built a barrier between what I think is the fun about these movies which is the take-home factor. After FD2, people were driving the highway, they see a logging truck and they’re like, “hmmm.” You’re never going to have that on a space shuttle.
These movies are relatable.
PERRY: Absolutely … you say, “oh a suspension bridge is not going to collapse.” You know what, you go to take a walk on the Lions Gate Bridge [in Vancouver]. When you’re up there and you’re walking across and cars pass, you feel it move beneath your feet. There’s no eight-foot suicide railings. You’re right there. There’s a series of bridges in Florida I believe, where they have somebody who stands there by the bridge and if you’re afraid to cross the bridge, they’ll drive you across. There are people who are afraid to go over those expanses.
Even in L.A. when you’re going on the Orange Crush [interchange] and huge ramps that go around, you’re going 60 in your car [thinking] “I shouldn’t be this high. This is ridiculous. What am I doing up here.” If you got stuck in traffic at that angle, you would start looking down and start wondering what happened. It’s that fear that makes this sequence work for a lot of people. We’re playing it out to the max. There are some great shots, once all the CG is put in place, you’re getting that watery knee feeling and having seen some of the comps they’re putting together now, I’m very happy. It really does play at that fear of heights which is something we’ve never quite done. Even the roller coaster was speed and being trapped, but this is just about the fear of heights. There are some shots where you can feel the whole audience going, “Oh, I don’t feel so good.”
In a weird way, the best version of this movie, people only see half of it. The other half are looking away because they can’t bear to look at it. Not that it’s disgusting. I want to make it clear. If it’s just disgusting, people are going to be turned off. If they can’t stand the suspense of watching it and being there - that’s everything [garbled] …
How do the characters interact in this film?
CRAIG PERRY: They’re all colleagues at work, which is one of those identifiable things. One of the hard things is justifying why these people are together. Everybody at some point has worked at a restaurant or office. They all have had jobs where they find themselves with a group of people. “Are these people your friends?” Kind of. Some of them are your friends, some of them are your colleagues. Some of them you can’t stand and you’re thrust into a situation you have to be with them. Taking that microcosm, imagine if all you guys had to go on a retreat, a stupid human resource forced corporate retreats where you play stupid games and you lose a weekend. You want to kill yourself. You’re on that bus, with all these people, some you like, some you don’t and you’re thrust into a circumstance where Death intersects with that. That, is a very relatable thing. Even in college. You have no choice who your roommate is going to be. That is how they get together. They’re just colleagues slash friends. Some are closer some are not. One couple is secretly dating, which happens. We tried to look at all those office dynamics. We jokingly kind of said, “imagine if THE OFFICE went on a corporate retreat and bad things happened.” It helped us really understand the tone. You always have the one guy who is the cut up and is always making fun. A lot of dynamics.
David Koechner – how did he get involved?
PERRY: Koechner was cast specifically. The role, as originally written, wasn’t overtly funny. It was more that he was a guy who was blindly oblivious to the fact that his empire which, he is so proud of, isn’t really quite an empire. His fiefdom. He thinks he’s literally running Russia. Koechner was able to find a great deal of comedy in that, but it came from a character who was just oblivious and sort of … when we cast him. We didn’t cast a comedian. We cast someone as an actor we knew could find moments that were incredible and real in that persona. We’ve all had bosses who think they’re the biggest things ever. “No. You run a Dennys.”
How did FD4 do on home video?
PERRY: It did fine on home video with the anaglyph. Even now. Netflix, two weeks ago, is changing the prices for you DVD and lowering your price for streaming plans. It’s all going in that direction. There is going to be a gap, where the ancillary revenues from these movies in 3-D is not going to happen. We’re in that transition period. There is no great way to take advantage of it, which is why these movies play in 2-D just as well as 3-D and we’re not making it where the story points are all about 3-D so you can’t even play it in 2-D. A lot of the world is just watching it in 2-D anywhere. We make a movie, that happens to be in 3-D that can play both ways.
Another benefit about having a movie where people don’t recur every movie, is that you never know which character is your lead character. It keeps it open to be more suspenseful.
PERRY: It’s not only cost-effective, but you’re also able to start over with a blank slate every time and have characters doing different jobs. You have different way into it. If you have somebody show up, and you’ve had them all the way through it, there’s nothing new you can reveal about that character five movies in. Really. Unless they’re James Bond, or he’s just … you just want him to be him and do what he does. It’s oddly liberating. That sounds oddly specious, but it’s true. It’s a liberating thing, to not have to worry about it.
Death is the star. He has no agent, no trailer and he doesn’t bitch about stuff. The idea is the star. It’s a rare thing where you can find an idea that can service a lot of things. I think one of the reasons it played so well internationally is that ultimately the idea is about mortality, fate, destiny, death - things that every culture brings their own sort of angles towards, which is why I think the movie can play anywhere. Every culture is going to be able to sit down and be able to talk about it in relation to their own world view, but look at it exercised on screen with those characters. That’s why it’s been getting bigger and bigger foreign, more audiences are willing to take a chance and this last one I think we really [garbled] was very successful.
Can you talk about the audience pushback on FD2?
PERRY: Test audiences. The test audiences were clear it was too violent. Too much. I was surprised the MPAA didn’t have an issue whatsoever with the liberal dismemberment. The good news is, which is the best thing you can get out of any preview, they were very specific of what repelled them, so you were able to make some choices that would get right to the line. They don’t want us to be vanilla. They want us to be just up to that point, to the edge that they’re okay. I love the kills in FD2. I think they’re great. I had a great time.
Do you think the MPAA goes easier on you because the tone of the films aren’t mean-spirited, it’s lighter?
PERRY: It’s a hard question to answer. I don’t know what goes on in those queried star chambers at the MPAA, but I would think that we clearly strive to deliver fun. These are not meant to be taken too seriously. They’re like the most violent ACME cartoons you’ve ever seen in your life. You walk out feeling you had a really fun ride. You shouldn’t walk out feeling you’ve been dipped in something filthy. It’s part of the tone issue we were describing earlier. I think this movie we’ve captured that tone. It’s scary, it is occasionally very funny. It’s very entertaining. There’s great spectacle both large and small, but it doesn’t make you feel you’ve been pummeled, you just feel like you’ve been on a very fun ride. Whether the MPAA responds differently to that kind of experience, perhaps a SAW movie, which is legitimately gritty, dark and brutal, you have to speak to them. I have to think, this is a different experience.