Christopher Landon’s “Happy Death Day,” released without much fanfare back in October 2017, had an irresistible premise: college student Tree (Jessica Rothe) is murdered and keeps coming back to life. And she’s only able to break the cycle if she discovers who her killer is. It wound up being one of the very best horror movies of the past few years, and quickly inspired a sequel, out this week, called “Happy Death Day 2U.” What might be most surprising is that the sequel is every bit as clever, funny, and thrilling as the original, if not more so. (There’s a subplot with an alternate dimension. Just so you know what you’re getting into.)
We were lucky enough to talk to Rothe about when the idea for the sequel came about, what her favorite horror sequel is, and where she sees her character going in future installments.
Moviefone: Wanted to start off with some quick-fire questions: what is your favorite time travel movie?
Jessica Rothe: “Back to the Future,” for sure.
This movie has a very “Back to the Future, Part II” vibe to it. Did you go back and watch them beforehand?
We did! It’s funny because while we were in New Orleans, they were doing a live screening of “Back to the Future” on mute with live jazz improvisation happening over it. That’s all you could hear. So we all went. It was so fun and weird and kooky and such a New Orleans experience. But I watched it because I know Chris and I know he wove in so many Easter eggs and references and tiny little things. So I thought, I just want to know. I want to be aware of it. And get into the mood.
I noticed the Biff’s Tree-Trimming Company. Are there any Easter eggs that you particularly loved?
There are a couple that people should definitely look into. There are Easter eggs that are references to other films, too. In the first movie we had that lovely “Sixteen Candles” moment with the cupcake, when she thinks she’s solved everything. So we have a couple of moments like that. There are also Easter eggs in the sequel, but there are also things in the different and alternate time loops that are slightly different. Like the graphics on Tree’s shirt are a little bit different and our set and props managers did a really incredible job of hiding things for people to freeze-frame and find. I think it’s going to be a fun challenge for people.
Do you have a favorite horror sequel?
Oooo … that’s a really good question. See, the funny thing is that I’m such a chicken that usually when I go see horror films, I’m too afraid to see the sequel. Here’s one that I really love, which isn’t really a sequel, but I loved the new “Halloween.” I loved how bad ass Jamie Lee Curtis was, again. She’s so inspiring and a huge inspiration for me for this film.
I was going to ask if you looked to any previous horror movie heroines before doing this.
We talked a lot about the OG scream queens, especially in the first film, and different ways to be inspired by them and pay homage, for sure.
When you were making the first one did you have any idea that it was going to be as big a hit as it ended up being?
Oh absolutely not. I knew we were making something special because we really had a unique experience on set. The cast and crew became so close. We really bonded. Everybody was working so incredibly hard. Everyone believed in the movie. And a huge, huge part of it was Chris Landon, our writer-director. He was so kind and generous and collaborative. So insanely talented and darkly, darkly funny. He just made every day such an adventure but also so much fun and challenged everybody to do their best work and I think everybody wanted to raise the bar because he was.
And so when we all had such a good time … but I was supposed to die at the end of the first film. It’s on the DVD extras. There’s a scene, I die at the very end of the film, it’s very cheeky. But when we did test screenings, the audience flipped out because it was like, “You made us love this person and now you killed her. That’s so not cool!” I was very honored people felt that way and we reshot it and about a month before the first film was released, he called me and said, “I have a totally insane idea but hear me out...” And he pitched me a sequel. I said, “You’re insane but you’re also the only one who could pull this off. I’m game.” And the rest of history.
So he must have had an inkling that the first movie was going to connect?
I think he did. I was in for the sequel but of course if the movie had flopped, all our funding would have gone away. I think it was an unspoken agreement that the only way they’re going to make a sequel to something is if the first one does at least a little well.
This movie came together pretty quickly. Did you have that same kind of camaraderie with the cast and crew?
We really did. It felt like going to summer camp. The entire cast returned, we have a couple of new characters, but mostly familiar faces. And almost our entire crew returned as well. It was just a really, really fun experience. I’d never returned to a project. I’ve never been on a TV show that shot for a season and then went away and came back. So this was my first experience with that. It was fun but it was also terrifying because it was like, I’ve been away for a year-and-a-half, how will I know if this is what Tree would do? And, How do I insure that I’m being truthful to her story? But having Chris by my side, helping me figure it out, was such a relief and such a gift. I love Tree. It was like riding a bike, once I got going.
How close was the final film to what Chris initially pitched you?
It is pretty darn close. There were a couple of things, here and there, that were altered or not quite what I expected, but if anything, it’s more than I could have ever imagined.
You talked about the alternate ending from the first film. Was there any crazy deviation that didn’t make it into the final movie?
No. There were a couple of deaths we added -- we added the wood chipper and the skydiving. But the film that you saw is almost completely the script that we shot. Chris writes very tight, very intact scripts. We shoot them and every single piece is necessary. It’s such a cool way to work.
With the sequel about to come out, has he called you and said, “I have an idea for the third one?”
We had a conversation about it. He is amazing and a genius. He already has it in his head. But that being said, the tiny bit he’s told me about it, I can only expect that it’ll be bigger and crazier and in so many ways what I’d expect and in so many ways not at all [that]. But like with this film, I think he’ll just turn it on its head again, if we have the opportunity to make it.
What I think is so surprising about this movie is how sweet it is. Was that something that was important to you guys from the beginning?
Yes. It was. It was one of the main things that drew me to the sequel. Because I think both Chris and I agreed that we didn’t want to make the same movie twice. That’s really easy to do in a sequel anyway, much less a sequel about a movie that involves a time loop where everything is repetitive. If you didn’t think outside the box the way Chris did, you could have had an incredibly, incredibly repetitive film. The thing Chris kept coming back to, in the first film but especially in the second film, was the reason we’re making this movie isn’t the scares or the comedy but these characters and keeping them grounded and feeling real. So it was only natural for this emotional arc of Tree’s relationship with her mom to become the emotional center of the film. I’m so grateful because it’s a part of Tree we explored a bit in the first film but we get to spend some intimate time with in the second film. I feel so lucky and grateful that I got to go on that journey.
Where would you want Tree to go in future installments?
That’s a really good question and one that I don’t know if I have the perfect answer to. Chris has created such a complex, multidimensional, beautiful, flawed character that I have been lucky enough to breathe life into. But I feel like she could go anywhere. And I think that’s a rare thing to say about characters. Most of the time you watch a movie and at the end of the two hours you say, “Cool, I know who this person is, I don’t need to watch them deal with other issues.” But I feel like Tree is one of those characters that consistently surprises you. Her ability to be a total bad-ass and seize her life by the horns and charge into the unknown is something I love doing and something you don’t see often enough. So I’m excited to see where Tree goes, if there are more movies.
“Happy Death Day 2U” is everywhere Thursday and is just so, so good.