'Final Destination' director James Wong revisits killer franchise 20 years later: 'We always thought Death was a sadistic SOB'

It’s not easy to launch a successful new horror franchise — just ask the makers of such one-and-done efforts as Countdown, One Missed Call and World War Z. At the dawn of the 21st century, though, director James Wong played a key role in creating one of the defining scary movie series in recent history: Final Destination. Released on March 17, 2000, the inaugural installment scared up a worldwide gross of $113 million, and was followed by four sequels over the next 11 years. (A revival is currently in the works at New Line.) “It was my first feature,” Wong tells Yahoo Entertainment now. “Everything was brand new, and I was so excited. I really love that franchise.” (Watch our video interview above.)

Born in Hong Kong before emigrating to California as a child, Wong’s big Hollywood break came when he and his writing partner, Glen Morgan, landed gigs on the first season of a fledgling Fox TV series called The X-Files. After helming multiple episodes as a director, he started looking around for feature film opportunities, and that’s when Jeffrey Reddick’s script for Final Destination landed on his desk. Funnily enough, the screenplay — which followed a group of teenagers who successfully cheat Death, only to have Death come after them with extreme prejudice — started its life as a pitch for an X-Files episode, although Wong didn’t learn that until much later. “I don't know how you transport Mulder and Scully in there — I mean like, do they die?” he says, laughing.

In collaboration with Morgan, who shares a screenwriting credit on the film, Wong reworked Reddick’s script, adding one major innovation: instead of a corporeal Grim Reaper, Death would be an invisible force, subtly maneuvering its victims into Rube Goldberg-esque traps that would slice, dice and otherwise destroy them. “Early on, we said to each other, ‘There are too many Freddys and Jasons,’” Wong remembers. “We thought, ‘If you think of Death as sort of this sadistic force, what can he do to mess with you? Maybe there’s a chance you can escape it, but probably not.”

Ali Larter, Devon Sawa and Kerr Smith in the original 'Final Destination' (Photo: New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Ali Larter, Devon Sawa and Kerr Smith in the original 'Final Destination' (Photo: New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection)

The duo also brought some of the dark humor that defined The X-Files into the Final Destination universe, as typified by the use of John Denver music as a running gag throughout the first movie. “We always thought that Death was a sadistic SOB,” Wong says, with a chuckle. “So we just wanted to have fun with it. I’m still shocked that they allowed us the rights for John Denver’s songs!”

Final Destination’s mixture of wicked humor and elaborate death traps became defining elements of the franchise going forward, and each successive director worked hard to top the hilariously over-the-top executions that had come before. That includes Wong, who returned for for the third chapter and ready and raring to bring the pain. “By the third one, you go, ‘OK, this is what this is what this movie is about. This movie is about fun deaths. You want to have characters that people care about, but you also understand what the audience is looking for.” While producers tried to tempt Wong back to direct 2011’s fifth installment, he considers Final Destination 3 his… uh, final word on the franchise he launched. “I think I’ve just done enough of it, you know? I’d love to see what other people come up with.”

In honor of the franchise’s 20th anniversary, Wong — who is currently collaborating with Saw and The Conjuring mastermind James Wan on a TV adaptation of the popular Dead Space video game series — looked back at the six key sequences from Final Destination and Final Destination 3, including the discarded ending from the original film and the death trap that still gives him the creeps.

It all started with a plane crash

Reddick’s original script was called Flight 180 and, funnily enough, the New Line studio executive who gave the movie the green light read it for the first time on… Flight 180 from L.A. to New York. “He was really scared!” Wong says. The director made sure to bring the same level of fear to the plane crash that opens Final Destination. In the film, Devon Sawa’s Alex Browning has a terrifying premonition of his Paris-bound flight blowing up soon after takeoff, and flees the plane with several of his classmates in tow. The ensuing explosion is the inciting incident that the rest of the franchise is based on, as Death takes notice of the kids who escaped its grasp and proceeds to try to run up the body count.

“The one thing we knew is that we couldn’t fake physics,” Wong says of his approach to the crash, which involved building the body of an airplane cabin and putting it on a gimbal. “We lifted it as high as it would go, and had stunt performers that would fly through it,” he remembers. “My approach was to do the stunts in physical space and in real life, because you can’t replicate that with a computer, particularly at that time.” Of course, practical effects come with their own complications, such as, say, a gimbal that has a bad habit of breaking down. “The first rehearsal was incredible! And then our [stunt] guy goes, ‘We can’t movie this thing for 45 minutes.’ It was not especially a great start: we had to get the giant ladders put up to the set so the actors could climb out.”

Final Destination was fortunate to arrive in theaters the year before the September 11 terrorist attacks, which banished plane crashes from movie screens for an extended period of time. But Wong thinks that the opening still works. “The reason it crashed wasn’t anything that had to do with terrorism — it was a mechanical failure. So I think you could still do it.” Interestingly, he later included a photo of the 9/11 attacks in 2006’s Final Destination 3. “At that time, there were all these pictures of the devil in the clouds and things like that. So that was our way of saying, ‘Maybe Death is all around us.’ We weren’t trying to be too political, but we wanted to touch a bit on what a lot of people were thinking.”

The wheels on the bus

It’s the death scene that launched a thousand imitators — and internet memes. Moments after stepping off the curb, Alex’s fellow survivor Terry (Amanda Detmer) is immediately hit by a speeding bus. The short, sharp shock of her demise never failed to thrill audiences. “I remember going to the theater after the movie was already out to watch for reactions, and we would see all these ushers walking down the aisles to the front. They were waiting to see the audience reaction to the bus! Popcorn would go flying. It was a great reaction, and ushers knew the timing of the bus hit, and wanted to see people jump.”

Wong couldn’t have predicted that kind of reaction when he originally shot the scene. “We had Amanda step into the spot, and then we froze everything and put her dummy, which was filled with blood and stuff, in her place. Then they ran the bus into it, and I remembering feeling that the bus wasn’t going fast enough, so I didn’t know whether it was working or not.” Enter the movie’s editor, James Coblentz, who showed Wong just how effective it was. “He put the scene together the next day without any visual effects, and we all jumped. It’s just perfectly timed: you see the bus, you have a moment to register it and then it hits. It’s not fast enough that you don’t know what the hell happened, and it’s not so slow that you anticipate it. I’m happy to take credit for it, I guess!”

Seann William Scott loses his head

Watched today, Final Destination is a marvelous time capsule that preserves the fashions, music tastes and famous faces that defined the early 2000s. Besides Sawa, the film’s cast included such breakout young stars as Dawson’s Creek’s Kerr Smith, Varsity Blues’s Ali Larter and, of course, Seann William Scott, who had just achieved scene-stealer status thanks to his role in the 1999 hit American Pie. One of that movie’s producers, Craig Perry, was also involved with Final Destination and encouraged Wong to cast Scott as the hapless Billy, who was light years removed from the swaggering Stifler. “Billy was written as this kind of dorky guy, so it took a little bit of convincing,” the director says. “But when we met [Seann], he does have a goofy quality even though he has these leading man looks. So we went with him, and it worked out great because he was so popular from American Pie.”

Wong awarded Scott one of the movie’s more memorable executions — a decapitation caused by a flying piece of metal launched by a speeding train. “I didn’t want it to be that kind of straight across the neck decapitation. I wanted it to be kind of crazy and skewed. We made a fake head and did multiple takes going, ‘OK, that was too long. OK, that wasn’t long enough.’ The movie was so fun to make, because we were all just playing around.”

The original ending was much darker

Interestingly, Reddick wasn’t playing around when it came to the original ending for Final Destination. As initially scripted and shot, Larter’s character, Clear Rivers, was revealed to be pregnant with Alex’s child, and gives birth to the baby in the film’s final moments, staving off Death. “The original ending was much more philosophical,” Wong says. “You know, ‘The only way to beat Death is for this new life.’” But preview audiences weren’t much interested in philosophy, and gave the finale failing marks. So Wong reconvened Sawa, Larter and Smith and shot a new finale that saw their characters on vacation in Paris (actually Vancouver’s Victoria Island) where Death springs one final trap involving an oversized sign.

“The criticism of the movie was that the most action-packing thing happened in the very first scene,” he explains. “So that’s why I came back to the producers with this whole giant [sequence], to give the audience a cathartic moment. It had to be big.” The new ending also satisfied the audience’s desire to see Smith’s bully character, Carter Horton, get his just desserts. “Carter was the dick that people want to see die,” Wong laughs. “When you did previews back then, they had all these cards saying ‘Which character did you like? Which character didn’t you like?’ And everyone hated him. So it was like, ‘He’s gotta die!’”

On the other hand, Wong was careful to leave both Alex and Clear alive for a sequel, although only Larter ended up returning for Final Destination 2, while Sawa dies off-screen between movies. “I don’t know what happened with the second one,” Wong says, adding that he enjoyed his experience working with Sawa. “Devon’s very instinctual and doesn’t want to do a lot of takes. He would always say, ‘It’s getting stale.’ We always went into a scene with that feeling in mind.”

Space Mountain this ain’t

How do you top a plane crash? With a roller coaster crash, of course. Just as Rollercoaster followed Airport back in the ’70s disaster movie days, Wong kicked off Final Destination 3 with an amusement park ride that’s literally killer. “The roller coaster idea actually came from [New Line executive] Richard Brener,” he says. “We went throughout the United States asking amusement parks to use their roller coasters, but nobody wanted to be associated with us!”

Luckily, Canada once again came to Wong’s rescue, with a Vancouver amusement park granted the production access to one of their smaller coasters. For some of the bigger stunts, Wong relied on movie magic, building pieces of track on a green-screen-equipped soundstage. “That was for all the crazy stuff where people were about to fall off the coaster,” he says. “It was really elaborate, and since nobody would let us use their real roller coasters, we had to create pieces of it on a stage.”

Getting your tan on

Chelan Simmons in 'Final Destination 3' experiencing one of the franchise's most gruesome demises. (Photo: New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Chelan Simmons in 'Final Destination 3' experiencing one of the franchise's most gruesome demises. (Photo: New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Perhaps suspecting it would be his final Final Destination movie, Wong pulled out all the stops in the third installment, pushing the R-rated bloodletting to the max. “By that time, I was like, ‘Let’s go for everything,’” he says, laughing. “At the end of movie, we basically killed everybody.” But the film’s most grisly execution comes midway through, when two teenage girls (Chelan Simmons and Crystal Lowe) are burned to a crisp in their tanning beds. “It was creepy to be shooting that to be honest with you,” Wong reveals. “You could feel how your skin would feel, you know? We had burn boxes and stuff like that to replicate the actors’ skin sizzling and burning. It put people on edge.”

As Wong notes, the characters’ utter vulnerability — exemplified by the fact that both actresses were nude — is the key to that scene’s effectiveness. “When you’re naked, or pretty much naked, you feel the most vulnerable in every way. It made the audience go, “‘Oh my god, how would feel if your skin was burning and you can’t do anything to cover yourself?’” To help put Simmons and Lowe at ease, Wong made sure the set was closed to everyone but essential crew and had strict safety protocols in place. “Obviously, they weren’t actually [burning], but when we put the makeup and scares on them, it was creepy.”

Final Destination and Final Destination 3 are available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Vudu.


Read more from Yahoo Entertainment