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Making a romantic, yuletide, "Capracorn" slasher: An interview with It's a Wonderful Knife screenwriter Michael Kennedy

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Photo courtesy of RLJE Films / Shudder
Photo courtesy of RLJE Films / Shudder

It's a Wonderful Knife is not so shockingly inspired by the 1946 Frank Capra holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life — only with a modern-day, very Queer-friendly, romantic slasher-horror-film twist. It follows Angel Falls high school senior Winnie Carruthers (Jane Widdop), who, on Christmas Eve (the one-year anniversary of her killing of a knife-wielding murderer dressed up like an avenging archangel in all white), states that the world would have been better off had she never been born.

Wrong. Suddenly she's whisked into an alternate reality where the killer lives, some of her most treasured loved ones are dead, and no one in town knows who the heck she is. Teaming up with Angel Falls outcast Bernie Simon (Jess McLeod), Winnie must figure out a way to set things right before she's stranded in this new reality for good. Along the way, she also rediscovers her holiday spirit and maybe even falls in love. It's all a great deal of gorily amusing fun.

Screenwriter Michael Kennedy follow-up to 2020's Freaky is another inventive, crowd-pleasing gem that horror audiences are almost certain to adore. I sat down with Kennedy to talk about the film, and he had plenty to say. Here are the edited, semi-spoiler-y highlights from our wide-ranging conversation:

Sara Michelle Fetters: I get the idea of making a horror film out of Freaky Friday. That makes sense to me. But where does one get the idea to do the same with It's a Wonderful Life?

Michael Kennedy — Courtesy photo  

Michael Kennedy: There's a couple of reasons, but the biggest one: it was my dad's favorite movie. I thought it was a cool way to kind of play with something he loved. He died five years ago, so it was a nice way to kind of connect with him...

I also love It's a Wonderful Life. I think it's so fun, but I also think that it's really fucked-up and dark. I was just like, "It already is kind of a horror movie, so let's make it a slasher movie?"

For me, [in] these mashups, I respect those movies so much. I hope people don't think we're making fun of them or I'm making fun of them, because, for me, it's out of love... I would never just do this kind of thing to some random movie that I do not love.

SMF: That's the big thing. With Freaky and with It's a Wonderful Knife, you can really feel the reverence and respect for the source material. But how do you strike a balance? How do you make it fun and fresh and silly and scary, but at the same time pay homage to and treat the source material with respect?

MK: You just said it. You do it by treating your material with respect.

Chris Landon and I had a lot of conversations before making Freaky. I had a lot of conversations on this movie as a solo writer with the producers. With the former, we knew from the start we were not making fun of Freaky Friday. Here, we are not making fun of It's a Wonderful Life. We're respecting them, because we're respecting ourselves and we're respecting our characters.

Sure, there's some parody, and there's a little bit of satire going on, but it's also true that the emotional current is the most important part of both movies. This goes a long way in the tone and the feel and the look, and all that different stuff we're trying to do. It starts by respecting our own material and respecting what influenced us. I think that's why things feel balanced. We're not making fun of anything. We're not making fun of the situation the characters are in.

SMF: I love that you bring up the emotional respect aspect, because, I think why I am head over heels for this movie is the relationship between Winnie and Bernie. I can relate to both of them, and I wanted their connection to manifest. How difficult was it to get that on the page? At the same time, how much this was due to Jane and Jess bringing these characters to life?

MK: A lot of it is on the page. I always tell people — and I think some people get it when they see the movie — that I'm kind of sneakily writing a movie where it looks like Winnie's the main character, but in some ways it's actually Bernie. I think act two of the movie is Bernie's story, once she starts getting involved and you start learning more about the pain she's feeling, what makes her tick, and what actually is keeping her — quite frankly — alive.

So, the relationship was on the page. I always described it as they are falling in love, whether it's romantically or platonically.

But Jane and Jess brought the rest. They really brought the flirtation. They brought the chemistry. They brought the butterflies. I love the subtleness in some of the scenes, that you just see a look on Jess's face or that slight smile she has when Jane puts their head on Jess's shoulder and they hold hands, that kind of stuff. That stuff you just can't buy. You can't write that. It's never going to feel on the page the way they made it feel on the screen.

SMF: I'm going to tear up, and it's kind of a spoiler, so I don't want to talk about it too much, but: "I wasn't Clarence; you were." My God! That wrecks me just thinking about it again.

MK: Love it! Thank you. That was my favorite part of the movie. It's what I pitched to the producers. I mean, I ended up producing the movie, too, but I pitched it to [Seth Caplan] and kind of played that up a little bit about how it's Bernie's story. But I didn't give him that line, because I wanted him to read it in the script the first time. He called me when he read it. He goes, "That line's the movie."

For me, that was always the most important thing. I always knew writing this movie that Winnie was going to think Bernie was her angel, but it was really the other way around.

Photo courtesy of RLJE Films / Shudder  

SMF: I'd be remiss if we don't talk a little bit about Justin Long. Who in the heck came up with Justin Long channeling Dorothy Michaels?

MK: Justin. [laughs] That was all Justin. It's 100% Justin Long.

It's scripted really with "kill you with kindness" type of shit, unfettered capitalism, and stuff like that. But the look, the performance, that's Justin. When we were talking to him about doing the movie, he was... I don't want to say he was apprehensive, but he was a little like, "I want to do this, but I want to do it in this way." He pitched us and — I will be honest — all of us were like, what the fuck?

But then when we heard more and we thought about it — he was literally pitching the physical look — it really clicked for everyone, especially for me, when he said, "Joel Osteen is my template here." Suddenly I got it. I totally knew what he was doing.

No other actor could have made it work. I remember someone at the studio was like, "Is he trying to tank the movie?" My response was, "He's going to do this the way it needs to be done." And that's exactly what he did.

SMF: It's one of the best villain performances of the year.

MK: He's so great. He's really the villain king. People call him a scream king. I'm like, "I think he's the villain king." And I love that the trailer gives away that he's the killer, because we do it 20 minutes into the movie. I'm like, "Why hide that?" I love him, and I think it's drawing people to the movie because it's Justin in this role.

SMF: As a writer, and as the person who created all these characters, when you see actors like Joel McHale and Katharine Isabelle inhabit these people that you've put on the page, or someone like Vince Vaughn in Freaky play so fully against type, how does that make you feel, watching them rise to the challenge?

MK: It feels great. It just makes me go, "Maybe I know what I'm doing?" Thinking that people like my work — that feels great.

Vince Vaughn doing Freaky: never in a million years! I text my friends from back in college, because we were like a little movie club, and when Vince got cast in Freaky, ... they were like, "Are you kidding? You're full of shit." [laughs] And I got to be, no, Vince Vaughn is doing my first movie. That was quite the moment.

Then I got to text them, "Justin Long's doing my second. Joel McHale's doing my second. Katharine Isabelle is doing my second." It's pretty crazy.

For Freaky, Vince and Kathryn Newton especially, it is extremely crazy, because we wrote the movie with Kathryn in mind. Later, Chris revealed to me when we got done writing the script that he always had Vince in mind for the Blissfield Butcher. I remember him saying to me, "We'll probably get neither of them, but I'll be happy if we get one." The fact that we got both? So crazy!

So, stuff like this, actors as great as Justin, Joel, and Katherine in this, and Vince and Kathryn in Freaky, it feels really great that they want to tackle these roles. It's rewarding and it makes you feel like you know what you're doing.

SMF: How much do you fantasize in the back your mind about making an Avengers-style mashup of Happy Death Day, Freaky, and It's a Wonderful Knife? In my head, I fully believe all of these films take place in the same universe.

MK: And Totally Killer, too! Don't forget about that one.

I was on another interview earlier, and I said that the way this kind of subgenre is forming now is because of what Chris did with Happy Death Day. Then he and I did Freaky together, and then I did this. This world's getting a little bit bigger all the time, like with Totally Killer.

The leads in these, they're all blonde, too, which is really funny. It all just turned out that way. It was never planned. It was all an accident. Here, Jane was our favorite person for the role, and they said yes when we offered it to them. It was that simple.

But I would love to see the Blonde Avengers, the Blonde Slasher Avengers. That would be so fun. It'd be amazing.

SMF: I know with Freaky, COVID pretty much torpedoed that release. I know it wasn't what you wanted or hoped for. But I would imagine that the reception of that film, and now the early reception for this one still has to be really rewarding for you, seeing the love and affection that these films have generated, not just from horror fans but from a wide swath of critics and viewers.

MK: It's been really great. The pandemic did kind of kill Freaky's release, but the plus side of it was hearing people go, "That was the movie I needed at the time." Just hearing from Queer people, too, especially with Freaky — and I'm starting to hear it on this a little bit already — "Oh my God, a movie for us? This was made for us?" That's so cool.

Also, with Freaky, I remember Chris telling me the week it came out, [when] we started getting all these really good reviews..., "I know it's your first movie, and there's got to be a disappointment with the fact that we don't get to do the red carpet and we don't get to have a premiere at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre and all these other things, but this critical success we're getting right now? You can't buy that. That's more important than anything else this movie could do."

And he was right. Both of us were kind of blown away, because, for us, it was kind of unexpected. We always thought, "People were going to love it or hate it." We were sure we'd get mixed reviews.

It ended up being this critical success, the industry really loved it, and the doors just opened. It's a Wonderful Knife never would [have been] made if it wasn't for that reaction to Freaky.

SMF: What do you hope audiences take away from this film? Not just in theaters but when it's out on Shudder later on?

MK: I just hope people feel good. It's a Wonderful Life and It's a Wonderful Knife both don't shy away from the fact that Christmas can be a really hard time for people. I remember the first Christmas after my mom died: it was traumatic, and being able to go and watch Christmas Vacation was so great, because it was like 90 minutes of just laughing and feeling good about life. I hope people take away the joy that I feel like we brought in this movie, and I hope people just walk out or turn it off and go, "That was fun. I had a good time."

I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel. I want people to have a good time. But I also know the movies, as I say, [are] littered with Queer people everywhere. To me, that's also really important. I've already had messages like, "There's Lesbians in the movie. And they're the heroes? I love it. I needed it. Thank you." That alone is just the greatest.

So I do hope there's more of that. I hope people feel good about themselves after they've watched it.