Dying is easy — so the saying goes — comedy is hard.
One person with plenty experience of both is Jessica Rothe, the star of 2017’s horror-comedy box office hit Happy Death Day and its upcoming sequel Happy Death Day 2U (out Feb. 13). Rothe plays college student Tree Gelbman who, in the first film, is murdered at the end of her birthday only to wake up and repeat the ill-fated day over and over again Groundhog Day-style until she finally identifies her killer. At the start of Happy Death Day 2U, the audience is led to believe that the movie’s protagonist will be Ryan (Phi Vu) the roommate of Tree’s boyfriend, Carter (Israel Broussard). But it is soon once again Tree who is repeatedly shuffling off this mortal coil.
“At the beginning of the film, we think we’re on a completely different ride.” says Rothe. “We think that Tree has passed the loop onto Ryan and he is now stuck in the loop. When Tree discovers this, she jumps in and tries to help, but then something happens which changes everything, and Tree has to save not only herself but her friends.”
So, what exactly makes a compelling movie demise? We asked Rothe and franchise director Christopher Landon to give us their Guide to Getting Killed Onscreen.
“Both movies were physically demanding,” says Rothe. “A lot of the deaths required quite a bit of stuntwork. We had an incredible stunt team on both films — and my stunt double Kelly [Phelan], who’s fearless, did a lot of the things that were a little too dangerous for me to do — but they also empowered me to do a lot of the physical work myself.”
“I have put that poor girl through so much,” says Landon of Rothe. “She’s always game. She just wants to do it and it’s scary from time to time. Even our stunt coordinator gets nervous because she’s like, ‘Harder! Do it! Come on!’ She really is fearless.”
Have a memorable killer
In both films, characters are stalked and slain by a mysterious figure wearing, unforgettably, a baby mask. That cutely ominous facial covering was designed by special effects legend Tony Gardner whose many credits include Army of Darkness, Darkman, Zombieland, and the Landon-directed Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse.
“The mask is upsetting,” says Rothe. “One of our stuntmen, Andy [Dylan], is the man who does the majority of the mask work, and he’s really brilliant at making it as creepy as humanly possible. Which is difficult, because it’s actually very difficult to see out of that mask, and I think it gets really hot in there, and it’s very unpleasant. But he was a real trooper and it helps. The mask was terrifying, and infuriating, and kind of funny, and totally messed-up. I’m amazed that Chris came up with such a unique killer for the movie. I don’t think it would be the same film with any other mask, I truly don’t.”
Change up the murder weapon
It turns out, variety is the spice of life and death. In the first movie alone, Tree is drowned, run over, beaten with a baseball bat, set on fire, poisoned, and stabbed with both a knife and a broken bong.
“On the second film, were trying to come up with a few more deaths for the montage,” says Rothe. “Chris would have everyone play the game, ‘How do you want to see Jessica die?’ at lunch, which got pretty hysterical, but pretty dark. But it was so much fun that, because of the science fiction nature of the sequel, and because of the heightened nature of the comedy, we could really delve into what are the wacky, totally out of-this-world, ways that we can play with this loop and play with these deaths.”
“The deaths are obviously one of the stars of these movies,” says Landon, who in addition to directing the sequel wrote its screenplay. “It’s challenging, because we’re a PG-13 movie, so they can’t be graphic, and they can’t be gory. It’s a very challenging line that we have to toe. But at the same time also a ton of fun.”
Make audiences care about your character
“Chris and I and had a lot of conversations about [Tree],” says Rothe. “The conversations focused on, Okay, so, we definitely want this character to be unlikable at the beginning, but we need to make sure she is someone we believe can change, and can grow over the course of this film. And not only that — I have an acting teacher who calls it the ‘car ride test.’ You can truly dislike someone, but if you would enjoy being in the car with them for two hours, if you would find it entertaining, then you’re going to want to spend time with them.”
“Tree is a total bitch at the beginning of the first movie,” says Landon. “She’s a very unlikable character. We needed someone who could sell there was more to her than just that, you know what I mean? Tree was more than just a Regina George kind of character. It was Jess’s charisma alone that I think helped hook people. They have this wonderful experience of watching her turn into this really good person and it’s a really fun arc for the character. But it took an enormous amount of personality and charisma on Jess’s part to draw people in and not hate her for the whole movie.”
And finally: HAVE A GREAT SCREAM!
“She has an amazing scream,” says Landon of his leading lady, with a chuckle. “I actually think that her jaw dislocates when she screams because her mouth gets so big. I would send her screen shots from the editing room of her mouth. I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, look at your face!'”
“I did know that I could do scream very well,” says Rothe. “When I was in high school, I got a very strange job one Halloween filming screams for a radio station. I would just go into a soundstage, and scream and scream and scream, and everybody would put on ear plugs, so I had an inkling.”
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Happy Death Day 2U