Christopher Landon wants to show you that he’s more than just the maestro behind two beloved comedic slasher properties, Happy Death Day and Freaky. His new supernatural family dramedy, We Have a Ghost, is not only a jump to a new subgenre, but it’s also a leap to bigger-budget filming, as his three recent Blumhouse films cost less than $20 million combined. Landon’s pivot has both personal and professional motivations attached to it, in that he wanted to be able to share his work with his oldest child and not repeat himself at the same time.
“I just didn’t want to get pigeonholed. I don’t want to have to make the same movie over and over again, and if you want something to change in your career, you have to kind of figure it out yourself,” Landon tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Now that he’s ventured into the family film space, Landon would still love to return to the worlds of Happy Death Day and Freaky, as both happen to take place in the same universe. And while he’s open to a Freaky Death Day crossover starring Kathryn Newton and Jessica Rothe, Happy Death Day 3 is the more pressing title at the moment, assuming Universal and Landon can find an agreeable budget.
“I have [Happy Death Day 3] in my head, and I know exactly what I want. It’s actually a bigger movie than the previous two films, and that’s part of the issue, ultimately,” Landon admits. “This third movie needs a bigger budget, but since the second movie didn’t perform as well as the first, it’s a tall order. But I’m still holding out hope that Universal will give me a chance because it would be a really fun conclusion.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Landon also discusses last year’s impassioned rant against day-and-date releases and why he doesn’t ultimately fault the studios for trying to find their way during the pandemic.
Well, I was just talking about you with a person named Kat Newton.
Oh my God! Kat! K-Dawg! (Laughs.)
We’ll return to her shortly since there’s a lot to talk about on that front. So, We Have a Ghost. Was this one of the projects you wrote in between Happy Death Day 2U and Freaky?
Yeah, this is one of those. I just didn’t think I was actually going to get to make it. (Laughs.)
We Have a Ghost has some genre flourishes that are reminiscent of your past work, but you’ve pivoted to more of a supernatural family dramedy, I suppose. What pulled you in this direction?
Well, I was very taken by the short story [Ernest by Geoff Manaugh]. I thought it was a really fresh take on a ghost story and something that I hadn’t really seen before. I’ve always had a sort of Amblin movie in me, and I’ve played a little bit in the space, even though it’s within the confines of horror. Happy Death Day had some of this kind of stuff, and even Freaky, even though it was really violent. So I really wanted to make a film that showed all the facets of me, and I think [We Have a Ghost] does that. Plus, it’s the first movie I’ve ever made that I can probably show at least my oldest kid. (Laughs.)
After three fun slashers in row, you’d become known for a subgenre I like to call pop-horror. Did part of you not want to be identified for just that?
Yeah, I just didn’t want to get pigeonholed. I don’t want to have to make the same movie over and over again, and if you want something to change in your career, you have to kind of figure it out yourself. So I very consciously wrote my way out of horror for a moment just because I really wanted to prove that I could make a bigger movie like this. It was something I really wanted to prove not only to myself, but also to audiences as well.
We Have a Ghost is definitely a family film, but it’s also got some dark elements, too. I actually liken it to what Robert Zemeckis did with characters like Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Old Biff in Back to the Future Part II, respectively. So, besides Ghost (1990), were those valid comps for you?
Absolutely. I love those movies, and they’re very influential. I referenced some of films in the movie, but I reached back to Beetlejuice and E.T., too. So there’s a lot of influences creeping around this movie.
Have you had any paranormal experiences? That would certainly explain most of your work.
(Laughs.) The Paranormal Activity of it all was a detour in my life. It was an unexpected detour, but yeah, I really have [had paranormal experiences]. I do believe in ghosts. I lived in a haunted apartment in Hollywood for a while. It was genuinely haunted.
Haunted apartments are a dime a dozen in Hollywood.
Exactly! It was a nice benevolent spirit, so I was lucky. But I do believe in this stuff, and I think that helps.
How did you convince an in-demand actor like David Harbour to accept a dialogue-free role as a ghost?
Tons of money! (Laughs.) No, I’m kidding. During the first meeting I had with David, he told me that he was scared shitless of this role, but he’s a very courageous actor who really wants to challenge himself. So I think that’s what really drew him to the role. He really liked the script. He liked the characters, and he was very excited by the challenge of digging into this character and having to convey him without dialogue. And he’s one of the few actors that can actually pull it off. It’s a really tough role, but because of his huge theater background, he really understood how to do something like this.
When you say he was “scared shitless,” was he mostly afraid of the combover?
(Laughs.) Actually, he was all for the combover. It was always in the script, and I was like, “ So we’re going to have to shave your head every single day. It’s going to be a whole thing.” But he really embraced it. He’s one of those actors that really likes to disappear into a role, and having that sort of physicality really helps him do that.
Did it take a while to find the perfect Force ghost effect?
Yeah, we did a lot of R&D. I didn’t want the ghost to just look like some sort of floating glowing orb, and knowing the technology that we have today, I really felt like there was a way to ground him and make him feel really special and also play with this idea that we’re all made of energy and matter that way. But yeah, it was a big to-do, and it was really hard to execute as well. It was very daunting, and every time we shot David Harbour, we had to shoot his angle four different ways. So it felt like I was making four movies, and as you know, time is always the biggest issue on any film. So that was the grind, but I’m really happy with how it turned out.
Did he have to wear a capture suit or markers?
Neither! That’s what’s so cool about it. We would shoot David in a scene with the other actors, and then we would shoot David alone without the other actors. Then we would put the other actors in and pull him out. And then we would have to shoot just a clean plate, basically so that we could just roto him. We would take him out, process him and then use pieces of the other takes to stitch him back together. So, hats off to the hundreds of people on this movie’s visual effects side because they did a really amazing job.
You also cast Anthony Mackie shortly after he officially became Captain America. Was he a tough get?
I probably will never know. I get shielded from a lot of that kind of stuff. What I do know is he really responded to the script. It’s a different kind of movie for him, and I think it’s a really good movie for Anthony because he’s such a versatile actor. He’s really funny, and I don’t think people really get to see that side of him very often. So he was critical for me. I desperately needed Anthony because the character of Frank, especially in the short story, is a real dick. He’s not a likable guy. And I thought, “If anyone can make this character work and make him likable, it’s Anthony.” So that was really important to me, and I was beyond thrilled that he agreed to do this.
It’s always been a good time to be in the Jennifer Coolidge business, but it’s an especially good time right now. An actor told me recently that she had a tough time figuring out where Jennifer’s character ends and actual Jennifer begins. Did you have a similar experience?
Honestly, no. What I was struck by is that Jen is so sharp and so clear about what she’s doing. After so many years of seeing her as Stifler’s mom [in the American Pie franchise] and all her Christopher Guest stuff, you start to get this image in your head that she’s going to be this spacey, ditzy person in real life, but when you meet her, she is just laser focused. And one of the first things she said to me was, “This Judy Romano, she’s a big phony, isn’t she?” And I said, “Yeah, absolutely. She’s a charlatan.” And she’s like, “I love playing phonies.” So she’s in on the joke at every moment, and working with her was great. She gives you this thing on camera, but then when we stop rolling, you have a completely different conversation. So I had a very different experience, but it was an amazing experience. She’s a blast. She’s fearless, funny and generous. So I just was lucky to have her and even luckier now that she’s a giant star. She’s always been a star to me because I’m a gay and the gays have always loved her.
Was the big car chase the biggest set piece you’ve ever done?
By a mile. I’ve been in the relatively low-budget world for a long time, and so I was really excited about getting to make a movie with a much bigger budget. I could actually do this sort of stuff and flex those muscles. It wasn’t just the fact that it was a big car chase with crashes, et cetera; it was the fact that there is a ghost in it, too. And what I described earlier about having to shoot everything four times, well, that went for all the stunt work, too. So it was a lot, but it was fun.
Did the social media montage include some personal cameos?
Yeah, I have personal cameos in there. I have some friends and a little bit of family in there. We also had some really fun influencers that I handpicked to be in there, such as the Cheeky Boyos. They just do ridiculous stuff. They will read a question from a follower and then do whatever that thing is in real life, But I really enjoyed making that sequence just because it was my playful little way of poking fun at social media and how we all react to things online.
So, as promised, we’ve got to talk about some October photos you and Jason Blum each took with Jessica Rothe and Kathryn Newton. When I saw them, I did a victory dance of sorts, thinking Freaky Death Day was a done deal. But then I talked to Jason at Christmastime, and he basically told me not to get my hopes up. However, things took another turn recently when Kat sounded very surprised by what Jason had told me, as if she was under a different impression. So what’s going on with Freaky Death Day?
Look, Jason Blum is the puppet master. He’s pulling all the strings. So if anybody knows, it’s him. (Laughs.) I know that Jessica, Kathryn and I would love to get together and make something absolutely ridiculous. So it’s possible, but we really haven’t had an actual creative conversation about doing something like that. I just know that I would do anything to work with both of those people again.
I know that you’ve spent some time writing the threequel, Happy Death Day To Us, already, but did you go as far as writing a treatment for Freaky Death Day?
No, I didn’t write anything for it. It was more that we were all just hanging out together and I was like, “This would be fun.”
It’s truly the perfect crossover because Jessica’s Tree is the ultimate survivor and Kathryn’s Blissfield Butcher is the ultimate killer.
Yeah, they do belong together, somehow. I just have to take a moment and try to figure that out.
If money was no object and the release was purely theatrical, which one would you green light tomorrow?
It would definitely be Happy Death Day 3. I have that movie in my head, and I know exactly what I want. It’s actually a bigger movie than the previous two films, and that’s part of the issue, ultimately. This third movie needs a bigger budget, but since the second movie didn’t perform as well as the first, it’s a tall order. But I’m still holding out hope that Universal will give me a chance because it would be a really fun conclusion.
I still don’t understand the issue with Happy Death 2U’s box office. It made seven times its production budget ($64.6 million on a $9 million budget). In what world is that not good enough? Most Marvel movies don’t end up with that margin.
I know, I know. I don’t even know if they actually look at what they made at the box office. I think they look at it like, “Well, the first one did this and the second one did this, therefore the third one will do even less.” There’s just a certain kind of math that they do that makes them go, “Eh.” And they also spend really big on marketing. So I understand the economics of it, but I also think they’re missing the fact that we’ve gained an audience over the years. People finally found their way to the second movie and realized that it was really fun. So, if we did make a third one, I think we’d have a bigger audience than they expect. Or we could do it for Peacock. I don’t know. (Laughs.) It doesn’t have to be theatrical. I’d prefer it, but it doesn’t have to be.
Yeah, I also heard Jason say that there was talk of a streaming release for Happy Death Day 3 at some point.
It was discussed. I threw it out there, but it’s funny how sometimes these things just disappear.
It’s less that the second movie underperformed and more that the first film overperformed, creating unrealistic expectations on the second film.
I totally agree.
Shortly after those photos with the potential stars of Freaky Death Day, you posted an incredible Twitter rant against day-and-date releases. Did that ruffle anyone’s feathers at the studio?
I don’t think it made anyone very happy, but that’s twofold. I’m an opinionated guy, but I never expected anyone to give a shit about my opinion. I was still smarting from having gone through a really difficult and trying situation on Freaky, where the movie was released during Covid and being used as the first movie to test out a new model. [Writer’s Note: Freaky had a shortened theatrical window of 21 days before its PVOD release.] But look, I get it. Covid was a really scary and confusing time for everyone, and I think the studios were trying to figure out the situation. And ultimately, I was trying to say that these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We can still have our moment in the sun in a movie theater, and then something can move on to streaming.
I’m very passionate about the theatrical experience, and a lot of filmmakers have really had a tough time lately. They thought they were getting a theatrical release, and then it would suddenly pivot and change, which changes a lot for people. But I can’t fault the studios for trying to figure stuff out, and that’s ultimately what I think everyone’s been doing. But we are now coming out on the other side of it, and we’re still seeing that theatrical works. And it can work very, very well if you just put your trust and your faith in it. Look at a movie like Smile, which had the opposite situation. It was supposed to go to streaming, but then it was released theatrically and it absolutely annihilated. So I’m just very happy that these movies are coming out and proving that there’s still a lot of value in a theatrical run before letting streaming take over.
We Have a Ghost premieres on Netflix on Feb. 24. This interview was edited for length and clarity.