How Final Destination Went From Real-Life Premonition to Horror Phenomenon
Creator Jeffrey Reddick discusses the past, present and future of Final Destination and how it began as an X-Files spec script
The year 2000 was a scary one for horror films and not always in a good way.
While American Psycho and The Cell offered up visually striking nihilistic thrills to genre fans, the majority of horror movies released at the dawn of the new millennium were at best forgettable and, at worst, lamentable – yes, we’re looking at you, Leprechaun in the Hood.
This was the year of duff sequels like Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Urban Legends: Final Cut and, though it is painful to admit, Scream 3. Horror fans were screaming out for something different, something exciting. They found it with Final Destination.
Discarding the stalk-and-slash thrills that had enjoyed a revival in the years following the release of Scream, Final Destination centered on a group of high schoolers who end up avoiding a fatal plane crash thanks to a premonition, only to discover there is no escaping death’s plan as one by one they are offed in a variety of brilliantly inventive “accidents”.
Released in March of that year, Final Destination was a sleeper hit with word-of-mouth helping the film to clean up at the box office, earning $112 million off a $23 million budget with more than half of that coming internationally.
To date, it has spawned four sequels as well as a variety of novelisations and comic book spin-offs while a franchise reboot is also on the horizon.
Jeffrey Reddick has worked on several films during his career to date but he’s probably best known as the creator of Final Destination. It’s something he has come to terms with.
“It’s probably going to end up on my gravestone, it’s such an ironic title,” he tells Den of Geek.
“Sometimes I’ll be out and I will hear someone say ‘you just had a Final Destination moment’ and it will make me smile. The whole thing just took on a life of its own.”
A screenwriter and director, Reddick recalls how his neighbors in rural Jackson, Kentucky, would laugh when his six-year-old self would tell them about his plans to work in the movie business.
An avid writer and reader of Greek and Roman mythology, he recalls spending his formative years watching horror movies with his friends. His mother was only too happy to indulge his burgeoning interest too, knowing it kept him out of trouble elsewhere.
Reddick’s life began to change after he saw A Nightmare on Elm Street.
“That film cemented my love of horror. I was this 14-year-old hillbilly from Kentucky but I decided I was going to write a prequel. I went home, banged it out on my typewriter and sent it to Bob Shaye.”
The legendary head of New Line Cinema initially dismissed Reddick’s draft out of hand, returning it with a note explaining the studio did not “accept unsolicited material.”
Undaunted, Reddick sent the script back with a note telling him “Look mister, I spent three dollars on your movie and I think you could take five minutes on my story.”
Shaye was impressed and struck up a bond with the youngster that saw him sending everything from scripts to posters to Reddick during his teenage years.
When Reddick moved to New York to study acting, age 19, he was offered an internship with New Line, which would become a full-time role despite acting being his “main passion.”
“Diversity in casting was not a thing at that time,” he recalls.
“My agent was like ‘I don’t know what to do with you as an actor. We can’t put you up for gangsters or pimps and you don’t rap and you don’t play basketball.”
“So I figured, screw it, I will just write stuff and put myself in it.”
Reddick was present at New Line during their company’s early 90s creative heyday and credits the experience with helping him get Final Destination off the ground.
“I learned a lot about how to get a movie made. I knew that to make a movie that connected with an audience you had to tap into something that was universal. Death is the ultimate fear.”
As luck would have it, the idea actually came to Reddick while on a flight back to Kentucky.
“I read about a woman who was on vacation and her mother told her not to take the flight she was planning to take home as she had a bad feeling about it. The woman changed it and the plane she was supposed to be on crashed.”
At that point however the idea wasn’t Final Destination. It wasn’t a film either. It was an episode of The X Files.
The Truth Is Out There
“I was trying to get a TV agent at the time and they recommended I write a spec script for something already on the air. I was a huge fan of The X Files and thought about a scene where somebody has a premonition and gets off the plane and then it crashes and used that as the plot.”
“It was going to be Scully’s brother Charles who had the premonition. He gets off the plane with a few other people but they start dying and Charles blacks out every time there is a murder so people suspect he is doing it.
“The twist at the end was that the sheriff who had been investigating alongside Mulder and Scully the whole time had actually been shot and flatlined at the same time as the plane crash. Death brought him back to kill off all the survivors, including Charles.”
It would have made for a great episode except it was never submitted to The X Files. Reddick showed his spec script to some friends at New Line who were so impressed, they told him to develop it into a treatment for a feature, which was eventually purchased by the studio.
Producers Craig Perry and Warren Zide were brought onboard to develop the story and set about tweaking his idea.
“Originally the cast of survivors were adults because I wanted to explore more adult themes but Scream had come out and teenagers were hot again so New Line got me to change it”
In a twist of fate, two established writers from The X Files, James Wong and Glen Morgan, were brought onboard to rejig Reddick’s script.
“My version was definitely darker and more like A Nightmare on Elm Street,” he says.
“In my script, death would torment the kids about some kind of past sin they felt guilty about. They would then die in these accidents that ended up looking like suicides.”
For example, Todd’s death saw him chased into the family garage by an unseen specter where he accidentally ended up rigged in a noose triggered when his dad opens the automatic garage door.
Death is all around us
Ultimately that death scene and several others were ultimately scrapped in favour of what would prove to be the franchise’s calling card.
Reddick credits Wong and Morgan with coming up with the idea of having the film’s key death scenes kicked off by a Rube Goldberg machine-like chain-reaction that would see everyday things colliding to create a lethal scenario. It was nothing short of a masterstroke.
“It created this notion that death is all around us,” Reddick says.
“Death would use everyday things around us. It made it more universal and allowed us to set the deaths in places where people go all the time. The payoff would be fun but it was the build-up that had you on the edge of your seat.”
There was one major sticking point for the studio though: the presence of death, or rather the lack of.
“I fought really hard to make sure we never showed death because for me, if you didn’t show it, it could be something someone, no matter their belief system, could project onto our villain. That was a tough sell for the studio. They would be like ‘this doesn’t make any sense, you can’t see it and you can’t fight it’ but that’s the point, it’s death.”
“Luckily both James Wong and Glen Morgan were very insistent we never show it and tie it in to a specific belief system.”
Reddick credits the move with helping Final Destination become “an international phenomenon”.
“It struck a chord with people around the world. It broke out beyond the horror audience.”
When it came to casting, Reddick had a clear idea of who he wanted in the lead roles, even if the studio’s opinion differed drastically.
“I had a wish list with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst as my two leads but New Line was like ‘well…’”
He might not have got his first pick but Final Destination boasted an impressive cast of up-and-comers who had already made waves among teen audiences.
Devon Sawa had starred in Idle Hands, while Ali Larter was known for Varsity Blues and Kerr Smith was a regular on Dawson’s Creek. There was even room for Seann William Scott, fresh from his breakout turn in American Pie who was drafted in on the recommendation of producer Craig Perry, who told Reddick “you’ve got to get this kid, he’s going to be huge.”
Even so, Reddick was left a little unhappy.
“One of the conversations we had early on was like ‘Just remember this is set in New York, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world so let’s make sure we have some diversity in the cast’ and they were like ‘oh we will’ and then there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t white in it.”
New Line chief Bob Shaye did find a way to make amends on some level at least, casting Candyman horror icon Tony Todd in a cameo role as a mysteriously foreboding mortician.
“He called me up and said they had got Tony Todd and I flipped out. He is an icon. Such a talented, serious actor.”
As well as co-write the film, Wong took on directorial duties while each of the film’s death sequences would require careful planning, his first aim was to have the film start with a bang by creating as terrifyingly realistic a plane crash as possible.
“We want to do for planes and air travel what Jaws did for sharks and swimming,” he declared in one interview.
Yet the film would later garner criticism for its eerie similarities to the explosion and crash of TWA Flight 800 off East Moriches, Long Island, New York in 1996 where 16 students and five adults died.
“There was some criticism that the movie was written to exploit this real-life crash,” Reddick recalls.
“I even realised later they used footage from one real-life crash which I wasn’t particularly happy about.”
Indeed, much of the news footage shown in the film actually came from the 1996 crash.
That didn’t stop the film becoming a major hit and spawning a sequel within three years.
Final Destination meets Game of Thrones
Reddick returned to write the treatment for Final Destination 2, determined to move the franchise away from its teen Scream origins.
“We had tapped into that zeitgeist and didn’t have to do that again. I wanted to expand the universe and subvert it, so I had it open by following a bunch of teens who are then killed off.”
Once again, divine intervention led to divine inspiration for the opening set piece.
“Originally, I was going to have it open with some kids going to spring break and they stop off at this hotel and there is a fire but the producers were not sure. Writers always say you should go out and live life – life informs you and a lot of inspiration comes out when I go out for a walk.
“I was driving back to Kentucky to see my family and I got stuck behind a log truck and the idea just came to me. I pulled off the highway and called Craig and was flipping out with this idea for a log truck on a freeway.”
The resulting freeway pile-up that leads to multiple deaths is one Reddick ranks as his “favourite scene in the entire franchise.”
“The second film is my favourite. I wanted to create a sequel that didn’t feel like a remake of the first. It went in a more fun direction – but it’s still scary.”
That first sequel also represented the last of which Reddick was formally involved in, though he remained very much in the loop as the Godfather of the franchise, revealing that producers had been “looking at scripts before Covid hit.”
He also revealed that, at one point, things looked to be heading in an altogether different and thoroughly fascinating direction.
“There was talk about setting a Final Destination back in Medieval times. Like Game of Thrones in Final Destination. Craig Perry worked with a writer and they talked about the idea and put a teaser trailer together [which has leaked online].
“I would go and see that movie in a heartbeat but the studio said that the reason Final Destination was so popular was that element of deaths in normal, everyday situations.”
Reddick hasn’t given up on a return to the franchise though, hinting at a “unique” idea he has for a new film that is simply too good to reveal yet.
In the meantime, he has been busy writing and directing Don’t Look Back, a film that shares some surface similarities with Final Destination and is painfully relevant to society today.
“It’s a mystery thriller about a group of people who witness someone getting fatally assaulted in a park and don’t help the person and somebody films them and puts it online. The public turns on the witnesses and someone or something is coming after them.”
Eager to make more horror films and celebrate diversity in his work, Reddick remains immensely proud of Final Destination and the impact it has had on audiences.
“It’s cool. To have one movie that is going to be talked about after you die is a life goal. If that’s what I leave behind as a legacy that’s enough – but I still want more.”
Don’t Look Back is available on DVD & Digital from 14th June