Trying to outsmart her own death can be an emotionally terrifying experience for most college sorority sisters. But the lead character in the new horror film, ‘Happy Death Day,’ ultimately proves to be a strong heroine who isn’t afraid to not only combat her killer, but also confront her previously selfish attitude, and become a more compassionate person. In the beginning of the mystery movie, the young protagonist is as an incredibly unlikeable and self-serving person. But as she enters, and has to fight her way out of a chilling timeloop that ends each day with her brutal death, she evolve into someone that the audience truly begins to care and root for.
After working together on several sequels in the acclaimed ‘Paranormal Activity‘ supernatural horror series, director Christopher Landon reunited with producer Jason Blum and his production company, Blumhouse Productions, for ‘Happy Death Day.’ Their latest collaboration, which was written by Scott Lobdell, is set to be released in theaters on Friday by Universal Pictures.
‘Happy Death Day’ follows college student and sorority member, Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), who becomes horrified to discover that she’s being forced to relive the day of her murder until she uncovers her killer’s identity. As Tree begins her time loop, she’s a blissfully self-centered co-ed, whose world revolves only around herself. But when she wakes up in a hung-over haze on the morning of her birthday in the bed of her classmate, Carter (Israel Broussard), she must figure out what caused her to end up repeating the day over and over again.
After leaving Carter’s dorm room, Tree returns to the expected judgment of her sorority sisters in their house. Her roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine), and their house president, Danielle (Rachel Matthews), question where she was the night before, and quickly dismiss her claims of reliving the same day over and over again. As Tree is then forced to try to reveal her killer’s true identity and motives, and stop them from ending her life again, she realizes that the only person she can trust is the person she least expected to seek help from, Carter. As she continuously repeats her death day, and finds herself getting closer to unmasking her killer, she learns how to shed her inhibitions, and become a person who’s worthy of having a second chance at life.
Modine and Matthews both generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘Happy Death Day’ during individual exclusive phone interviews. Among other things, the actresses discussed how they were initially drawn to, and enjoyed emphasizing and exploring, the diverse genres and stereotypes of sorority sisters in a comedy-driven horror film. The performers also expressed their appreciation that Landon and the movie’s producers at Blumhouse Productions offered them the creative freedom to closely work together as a unified cast to bring their visions of Lori, Danielle and the other characters to the screen.
The conversation with Modine began with her explaining what it was about the character of Lori, as well as the overall time loop-murder mystery element of the story, that convinced her to take on her role in ‘Happy Death Day.’ When she first heard about the thriller, “the script was very private. So they gave me a fake scene” to audition with. “After I went through the audition process, I received the official script. My favorite part of it, no exaggeration, was the first page, all the way to the end. It was so good and funny.”
The performer added that “I love that in such a chaotic script, Lori is so disciplined. Frat and sorority houses are infamously known for partying. In a house that’s full of partying, she knows what she wants. She’s on the right path, and isn’t going to be pushed away from that path,” Modine revealed. “I love this character so much, and am excited to make audiences fall in love with her.”
Matthews also started her conversation by explaining what it was about the character of Danielle, as well as the overall time loop-murder mystery story, that convinced her to take on her role in ‘Happy Death Day.’ “This is my first feature, which is super exciting! I’m always drawn to the more comedic roles, and I think this character of Danielle really stood out to me in that sense. I thought it’s also super fun to poke fun at the typical sorority president stereotype, as I find a lot of comedy in that,” the actress admitted.
While reading the script for ‘Happy Death Day,’ Matthews also thought that there were “amazing lines written for this character (of Danielle). So I immediately thought that I need to play this part. It was so much being able to play this type of role.”
The main actress Modine worked with on the horror movie was Rothe. Most of their scenes together take place in the beginning of each day that Tree repeats, as she tries to figure out how to make smarter decisions on how to catch her killer. Modine shared what her working relationship was like with Rothe, including how they approached bringing variations into each new reiteration of their main scene together, while keeping the same overall tone and message in each version.
Modine praised her co-star by sharing that “Jessica knows what she’s doing. To work alongside somebody you’re learning from is such a good experience. Our characters are so different. But every time the director, Chris, said cut, Jessica was there for me. We gave each other notes, and figured out ways to make something work better for us. So it was really great working with her.”
The praise for Rothe’s acting and collaboration as a co-star continued with Matthews, who called the comedy-drama’s lead star “such a rock for me. This is really her film, as she’s in every scene, so she really set the tone. She was really comforting, and helped me out. This is my first feature, like I said, so it was great to have her around, and be so supportive for me. Each scene was really fun, because Jess is spontaneous.”
Modine also admitted that the experience of infusing the slight variations into each new reinterpretation of their scene together “was a bit nerve racking. We had to be very on top of things, like where I was holding my pencil, and how I was holding my head, in the previous scenes. But we worked alongside people who we trusted, and we figured out how to make it work. So we made it work.”
Modine added that within each new version, “there were little things that did change, such as the lighting. Jessica’s character, Tree, obviously made the scene different every time, too. But in the begging of each scene, we were trying to figure out how to match the last one. Until you notice the Tree character change, you had to stay the same as the last scene.”
The performer admitted there were complications in trying to match the scenes. Those challenges included “having to match the way I would have to look in the mirror, and follow (Rothe) with my eye line. But overall, it was a fun experience.”
Matthews also noted that while working with Rothe on recreating each scene for each new day, “we would switch things up. There was a lot of spontaneity with improv, so it never felt like it was the same scene or day; with each day, it always felt new. Nothing ever felt like it dragged; every scene always felt fresh.”
The supporting actress also divulged that “Working with the rest of the cast was so much fun. Israel Broussard is such a charming gentleman, and I absolutely adore him, and Rachel’s so funny. The whole cast has remained in contact, and we’re having so much fun doing this publicity for the film together. It’s so great to get along with your cast so much. That way, you know you’re going to have a fun time doing everything that comes along with making a film.”
The main scene Modine shares with Rothe is primarily set in the sorority sisters’ shared bedroom. Acting in the same room for most of their scenes influenced the performer’s physicality. “Since the movie is a horror story, not only is the set really spooky, which puts everyone in a mischievous mood, I was also able to work with a stunt coordinator for the first time. Just learning that foot movement, and working with the stunt coordinator, was absolutely fun, and I’m looking forward to doing it again” on more projects, Modine revealed.
‘Happy Death Day’ is a unique horror movie in the fact that it successfully incorporates humor into its plotline, and genuinely relies on the humor to help build the conflict, storyline and characters. The performer also admitted that the humor was an important element to incorporate into this type of mystery thriller. “The mix of the horror and comedy goes back to the team that you’re on. You have to trust the people who you’re with, and embrace the fact that we don’t all know everything. I love learning new things from all the people I work with,” Modine disclosed.
“Making the movie funny was such a great of this experience. Rachel and I, especially, worked with each other in our hotel rooms, and tried to make dialogue funny, and our reactions scarier. So that was a really fun process all around,” the actress also shared.
Matthews also enjoyed the fact that the mystery thriller successfully incorporated improv and humor into its plotline. “Even in the audition room, I had to improvise an entire scene. So that set the tone immediately. I was able to talk to Chris and some of the producers about adding and improvising things” in certain scenes. The performer feels that the executives “set such an amazing tone for creativity.”
Dark comedy is also Matthews’ “favorite genre, but I also love horror. I think this film definitely falls into both the horror and comedy genres. It’s really dark, but also super funny. That’s my favorite kind of combination, because you uplift the audience for a bit. You can get them laughing, so they forget what they’re watching for a bit.”
The actress added that “You can then snap them back in with a really scary moment, or a moment of suspense. So that keeps them on the edge of their seat the entire time, because they’re feeling so many different emotions. I think that’s when a family really lands-when it can make you feel a little bit of everything.”
Matthews also revealed what the process of creating the physicality for the sorority president throughout the movie was like for her. “At the end of the day, Danielle is insecure and vulnerable, and just wants everyone to like her. So whenever she walks into a room, she carries herself like she’s a gift from God. We always joked that whenever she walked into a room, she should be carrying a long cigarette. So it was really fun to explore her physicality.”
The performer then noted that she wanted to emphasize that the aggressive and rude comments that Danielle makes throughout the movie “are rooted in a good place. She things she’s being a good friend, and is helping by making these types of comments. But at the end of the day, they just come off as being super offensive. But I wanted Danielle to also have a caring side, and show her insecurities.”
Modine also further discussed what her experience of working with ‘Happy Death Day’s director was like on the set. She described Landon as being “so great, and he’s such a funny director. It’s really encouraging to be on a set that’s generally so dark, but also allows you to hear your director chuckling after you finish shooting a sad scene. Then you know that he’s as excited about this film as you are, and the rest of your cast. So working with Christopher was so great.
“It’s also so nice to work with someone who’s so open to your ideas. I would ask him, ‘Do you mind if I do this take this way?’ He would be open to what I would want to try. So it was amazing to work with him,” the performer also revealed about Landon.
Matthews also praised the horror film’s helmer, and revealed that “All of us, as a cast, can’t stop talking about how lucky we feel that (Christopher) was our director. Not only did he really drive the entire production, but he also established such a trusting environment on the set between all of us. So if we had any ideas, he would give us the freedom to improvise after we got our first take. We were allowed to find the true essence of each character.” The actress then pointed out that having that freedom “is such a blessing.”
The performer added that Landon “really enjoyed bringing all of these characters to life, because they’re all so different. He was so invested with each one; it didn’t matter if he was focused on the lead, Tree, who was played by Jess, or the smallest speaking role. He was invested in each moment, which was crucial. So it was such a privilege to get to work with him.”
The conversation with Modine then delved into the fact that ‘Happy Death Day’ was produced in part by Blum through Blumhouse Productions. The company has proven success with its past genre projects, including the ‘Insidious’ and ‘Sinister’ series, so the actress became “excited when I found out that our movie is a Blumhouse production. I have a lot of industry friends who have already worked with the company,” so the actress appreciated the opportunity to also be in a Blumhouse-produced horror film.
“Jason Blum is so funny, and he was with us at Universal Horror Nights. He joined forced with the people who were scaring us, and jumped out and also starting screaming at us. So he was having just as much fun as all of us were,” Modine happily disclosed.
Working with Blumhouse Productions on ‘Happy Death Day’ was “a dream. I’m even smiling talking about it right now!,” Matthews also shared as she also delved into her experience of collaborating with the horror movie’s producers. “I’ve always loved and admired Blumhouse’s work. I think their entire production company, especially Jason Blum, are genius. They’re so supportive, and really look out for you,” the actress revealed.
Matthews added that she thinks the way the production company “releases their films is so clever and smart. So for my first big feature to be a Blumhouse production that’s being distributed by Universal is such a dream. I’m so excited for everyone to see it.”
Modine also followed up on her experience of reuniting with ‘Happy Death Day’s cast and crew to promote the mystery movie. “It’s been a fun, but also terrifying, experience. I was recently able to go to Universal Horror Nights for the first time, but I have been avoiding it for my entire life!” The actress added with a laugh that her co-stars “were having so much fun and laughing, but I was holding my heart and freaking out! But it was a great experience. We saw a screening of the film. We were so happy for one another. Israel said he was so proud of all of us.”
Matthews has also been able to see ‘Happy Death Day’ before its official theatrical release. The performer divulged that she went to a screening of the horror film “at Blumhouse. It was exciting to get to see everything come together. When you read the script, so much is happening, you forget all of the deaths and relationships amongst the key characters. I didn’t realize how much romance and emotional moments were in the story. That was exciting, because there were times that I forgot that I was watching a horror movie. I think that makes for a really fun movie. So to see all of that be brought to life was amazing.”