'Happy Death Day' Director Secretly Pitched Sequel While Editing First Film

Christopher Landon was sitting in post-production when he had an epiphany he shared with Jason Blum.
Michele K. Short/Universal Studios
'Happy Death Day 2U'

[This story contains light spoilers for Happy Death Day 2U]

Just 16 months ago, filmmaker Christopher Landon unveiled Happy Death Day, a slasher film that owed a creative debt to 1993 Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day. It starred Jessica Rothe as Tree, a college student who gets trapped living the same day over and over as she's stalked by a killer wearing a baby mask.

Happy Death Day went on to be the biggest hit of Landon's career, earning $125.4 million globally on a $4.8 million budget. Talk of a sequel swirled online in the wake of its success, but what nobody outside of Blumhouse knew was this: Landon already had a script for a sequel and had pitched it to producer Jason Blum even before the first film opened.

Happy Death Day 2U explores the scientific explanation for Tree's time loop, revealing that a side character Ryan (Phi Vu) and his classmates have created a science experiment responsible for Tree's predicament. When she gets stuck in a time loop once more, she must seek out Ryan's help to set things right and along the way learns that the loop could be a way for her to reunite with her deceased mother. It was a poignant theme for Landon, who is the son of the beloved late actor Michael Landon, who died when Landon was 16, and Marjorie Lynn Noe, who died in 2015.  

In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Landon discusses how Rothe's real-life relationship with her mother helped bring this film to life and reveals that yes, he has an idea for Happy Death Day 3.

You said during press for the first movie that you had an idea for a sequel. How soon afterward did you pen the script?

What I wasn't telling people was that I already had a script by that point. I came up with the idea for the sequel when I was in post. It was an epiphany and I pitched the idea to Jason Blum and he got really excited about it. He said, "Write it. Let's just cross our fingers and hope this movie does well and if it does we are kind of ready to go." We understood there was an urgency in the type of movie that I wanted to make. We couldn't wait a long time, because these movies are so interconnected that it felt like it would work against us to pause. When the first movie came out and when it was successful, we were ready and we pretty much jumped right in.

How many drafts of this script did you go through, and where were you writing it?

I am a total cliche, so I was probably in a coffee shop. I have a pseudo office, but it's really a coffee shop. The first draft I wrote really quickly and this is just one of those crazy things where I had the whole thing in my head, so it took me about two weeks to write the first draft. It was fast. I'm not saying it was good, but I'm just saying I wrote it. Then I in earnest wrote about five drafts. Once were in prep there were just constant tweaks, but a lot of that was based on changes that were happening along the way and locations falling out and having to fix stuff. But nothing seismic in the process. It pretty much stayed the same from the first draft.

There are two main threads in this movie to latch onto: the scientific explanation for the time loop, and the possibility that Tree could be reunited with her mother because of it. Which idea was the idea you initially were exploring?

It was actually the science aspect of it. I'm sitting in an editing room and watching this movie and over and over and over again, and I think all filmmakers at a certain point start to hate their own movie. "I'm so sick of watching this." I'm watching this Ryan character coming through the door every time ... Wouldn't it be funny if he was the reason this happened? It kind of clicked. He's at a university, they clearly have a science and engineering department, he could easily be a physics major or something. It took off from there and then the big "ah-ha" moment was for me when I was playing with the idea of interdimensional travel and the idea that Tree would be reunited with her mom. That was the biggest moment for me, when I really knew what I was writing, because everything ultimately in the movie became about that. It became having to accept her past in order to move forward and having this struggle between "do I stay or do I go?" That was the biggest epiphany for me, but it did start with the roommate.

Wanting to reunite with a lost loved one is something most people can relate to.

I lost my dad when I was 16 and my mom past away about three years ago, and I think everyone who has lost someone they love, especially in a sudden manner, they all have that wish that they could say how they felt about them or see them again. When you make that actually happen, I think it touches a nerve. That's a hope I think we all have.

What kinds of conversations did you and Jessica have about Tree's growth in this one?

One thing I learned when I was working with Jess on the first movie is she has an unbelievably close relationship with her mom. Her mom came to set twice on the first movie and spent a lot of time with us. The crew and I fell in love with her mom. She's amazing. I knew going into the second one that this was going to be very raw and I felt very strongly that she was going to tap into something good. Because it's so personal for her, too. Especially in the scene where she is saying goodbye to her mom, that was a really tough one for her, because she was getting very emotional when we were doing it, but I think it really pays off. It ends up being an unexpected and beautiful part of the movie. I think everyone frowns a little bit on genre stuff, but I'm proud of the fact that in both movies we have tried to approach some profound topics in an entertaining way.

The first movie made its budget back many times over. But this is Blumhouse, so I imagine they did not open the purse strings for a sequel?

No. There was a moment of fantasy, "I'm going to have so much more money!" And I was like wait a minute, who am I working for. (Laughs). So much of the second movie was dependent on elements returning. And using the same locations and so forth. So you go back to all these places. "Hey guys, we made a ton of money but our budget is super small." They kind of look at you, like, "Piss off!" So much for the "extra money". The first movie was about $5 million and this one was about $7.5 million … I was still faced with the same scenario of having an incredibly tight shooting schedule, having to cut my shot list daily to make my days. It was a super challenging movie.

I really was trying to add some scope and scale to this one. I did everything I could. Thank God I had amazing people around me. My line producer, Samson Mucke, my DP Toby Oliver. These were people who were so efficient and so smart, they really helped make the movie look bigger than a $7.5 million movie.

What were some of the specific challenges you faced on this one?

We had one scene with a lot of extras, which is unusual for us. We had the arena scene.  We had upwards of 800 people that day, and that's a big deal for us. Jason saw the movie, "Who are these people? Who paid for these?!"

The biggest challenge was the length we had to go to recreate stuff. There was the hospital location that we used in the first movie that we returned to. When we went back, they had gutted the hospital. We had to recreate the interiors of the hospital and make it match. That was a huge drain for us. Having to track down background people and make sure they were in the exact same clothes and the exact same place. It was that kind of stuff that was really difficult.

Back to the Future II is a touchstone for this. Do you already have a touchstone in mind for part three?

I have the third movie and I have already pitched it to Blumhouse. Everybody is ready to go again if this movie does well. I keep shifting the tone, genre a little bit. The third movie I know is going to be a little different. It's going to be really bonkers and really fun.