James Wong: Death is Coming
As one of the surprise horror hits, “Final Destination” emerged from the seemingly roster of uninspired teenage slasher flicks, to present us a contemporary story of a very gruesome nature. “Death is coming” was the tagline New Line Cinema attached to the film and it hits the nail right in the head. In agony we watch how a group of young students is narrowly escaping an airplane disaster and certain death, only to find that the Grim Reaper is right on their heels to collect the souls he had missed the first time around. Director James Wong brought this story to the big screen masterfully with atmospheric images, great characters and a strong cast. Quite impressive for one of the producers behind the X-Files television series in his feature film debut, and one more reason to sit down and talk to the talented filmmaker.
Guido Henkel: Traditionally, your background is in TV production and “Final Destination” was the first feature film you directed. How does TV differ from Hollywood movies from your perspective?
James Wong: The main difference is the time and the money that is involved and that you are allowed to spend. (Laughs) Feature films are more polished and to make a production superior to a TV production, usually the production value is increased. That’s the basic difference. A great story is a great story, no matter whether it’s told on television or in a movie. The action component of a movie is so much more emphasized however, and you have the ability to make it incredible. In television productions you have to generally shoot the whole thing in something around 8 days, whereas Final Destination took 60 days of principal photography.
Guido Henkel: How did this jump come about? After all, you directed only one X-Files episode, “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” and then seven years later you suddenly helm a $20 million feature film.
James Wong: The lucky thing about “The X-Files” was that it was nominated for an Emmy Award for exactly the episode that I directed. In a way the recognition that came out of that gave my agent the schutzpa to find me the engagement. When we started up “Final Destination,” New Line Cinema actually wanted us [James Wong and fellow X-Files producer Glen Morgan] to write the entire script for the movie. They also offered to give us all the help we needed and gave us the opportunity to take a risk. They were able to see what I have done under the dress of television and it encouraged them to let me do some more. The real reason, I guess, is that I was just lucky! (Laughs)
Guido Henkel: Unlike recent teenage films like Scream and countless others, I found “Final Destination” much more universally appealing to different ages. Is it something you did deliberately, and if so, how?
James Wong: When we started the project with New Line, the treatment they gave us was written by Jeffrey Reddick. At that point it was basically a simple slasher movie with a masked guy who personified death. We talked to New Line and told them that we’re not interested in that sort of film. When they heard that, they asked if we’d be more excited to do something were Death is not personified, and that finally got us interested. I mean, there are so many great stalking movies out there that it is pointless to do another one, and I thought that our approach would be fun and new.
Guido Henkel: In the first twenty minutes of “Final Destination,” there are so many subtle things happening in the background that foreshadow the remainder of the film—most being things that go by far too quickly for the casual viewer to notice. Do you think that it’s worth it to go through all of that trouble?
James Wong: I definitely think so, especially for DVD audiences, you know, the people who like the movie and view it over and over again. In the first week of the release of “Final Destination,” there were people who had watched it four times in the first weekend and for those people it really works. They get something new with each subsequent viewing. Every time, they got another fun layer. I think that is fun and it something you can talk about. I always liked that as a kid! I also remember that when we had just released the movie, there was a website that listed all the foreshadows in the movie with images from the film. They had everything there, from the baggage handler driving under the plane, the 666, and all those really little things. I don’t remember who put up that website, and I have no idea where they got the images from the movie from, because back then it only ran in theaters.
Guido Henkel: Where did the idea for “Final Destination” come from?
James Wong: The initial idea for the story itself came from Jeffrey Reddick. As I said before, back then it was a straight slasher thing that we changed. I imagine that the basic idea came from the thinking, what happens, if? The terrible tragedy that happened on Flight 800 in New York was clearly a trigger for the idea. That’s where the inkling came from, and from there, it was just a matter of “what ifs.” [Editor: Much of the news footage seen in the film is actual news footage covering the 1996 Flight 800 disaster.]
Guido Henkel: On the DVD supplements, there’s a great deal of coverage given to the fact that the ending of “Final Destination” was changed. It’s hard to tell from your demeanor in the footage whether or not you were happy with the new ending. Do you like it, or do you see this as a totally “corporate” move?
James Wong: That’s a good question. I think at first I was very resistant to the idea, especially when they came up with the idea of changing the ending. The movie was testing well, and to me the ending had such a nice theme to it. When we decided to make changes, in the very beginning I suggested, let’s make the romance work better, or take out the real clunky part of it. I always wanted to keep the basic theme however. We re-cut the film and had another test screening and the numbers improved by only one point. Now that’s not much of an improvement for me to agree to keeping it. But after that second test screening, I thought maybe we should try a new ending. New Line’s Bob Shaye said, that he’d be willing to invest some extra money to see if a new ending would work better. With that insurance we went back to work. But the question was, what to do with the ending, how would we do it? We came up with the final version and when we tested it again, the score was so much higher and the reaction so overwhelming that we decided to keep it.
Guido Henkel: But are you happy with the ending?
James Wong: I still think thematically it is very hard to say. On a personal level I don’t really have a preference. I can see both endings. I can see the other ending very easily. You can have an audience watch the film and have a much more thoughtful reaction when you go home by the end of the day. It is a valid ending to me. Whether it’s commercially valid, is a different decision and question.
Guido Henkel: In recent years, home theater equipment is becoming both more sophisticated and affordable, and ever since the introduction of DVD, high-end video quality is within reach for everyone. I was talking to a few filmmakers recently who all seemed to agree that as a result of this development, people become more selective about what they want to see in theaters. Is that a thought you would share?
James Wong: I agree with that. Even now, I think people say “that’s a video movie, I’ll wait for that one.” Some are caught up by the phenomenon, and you just have to see it in theaters or it’s such a spectacle that you have to see it on a big screen. I think it is absolutely true. People will be more selective in the future about the films they will see in theaters and those they will watch at home. What’s so great about it is that DVD allows you to have a great experience at home. It’s not diminished as all previous home video formats were.
Guido Henkel: Do you think it will also affect the movie landscape in terms of what sort of movies will be made in the future?
James Wong: Oh yes, I do. We’ve already seen that a lot less personal movies are made these days than ever before. The studios are somewhat relegating the middle-size movies to the ghetto. Today, its either a big budget effects movie that people will pay to see, or it is a really cheap film. The thinking man’s film, the medium size movies, they’re very hard to develop these days. Making a film like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest today for example would be a very hard undertaking and I’m not sure if the film would ever see the light of day.
Guido Henkel: How big was your involvement in the DVD?
James Wong: I have been involved on some level and supervised some of the material on the DVD.
Guido Henkel: Did you supervise the video transfer of the film?
James Wong: Yes, I supervised the video transfer of the movie for the DVD and I went to the sound guys for the remix. For the DVD, the movie was remixed for near field listening. It was pretty unique experience, actually. For theater presentations, movies are mixed with these big rooms in mind, but for home presentations, you need to make some adjustments for the best quality. The remix of “Final Destination” was actually done in somebody’s apartment. Seriously! There was a whole recording studio in this apartment and you are sitting there in someone’s living room to do the remix. It was very interesting. It was quite an educational experience, because someone was actually living there. It was somebody’s house!
Guido Henkel: You also appear in the featurette that is included on the DVD.
James Wong: Yes, I gave an interview for the featurette, but I was involved only as a participant in that project. The actual featurette was done by a different filmmaker.
Guido Henkel: DVD has changed the way many filmmakers approach their craft these days. Is DVD something you have in mind when you are on the set doing your principal photography? Do you actively archive or even create material in foresight of a DVD Special Edition?
James Wong: No, with “Final Destination” I didn’t really think about these opportunities while we were shooting the film. The first time I thought about that particular aspect was during the editing stage. When I cut out scenes from the film, I thought to myself that there might be an added venue for these scenes on the DVD, which made me feel very good. I felt that at least our hard work wouldn’t be in vain and people still get he opportunity to enjoy it. I feel good about that. In many instances, it is the supplements on a DVD that makes me want to go out and buy a DVD. Many times, I want to hear what the director has to say, like on “The Matrix.”
Guido Henkel: So you are a DVD collector?
James Wong: I love DVD and the supplements. Especially for the movies that I really love. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” is such an example. The Roy Hill commentary on that release was really precious to me. For me it was the first time I had the chance to listen to this person that I have admired for so long.
Guido Henkel: It was a very detailed and informative commentary.
James Wong: Absolutely. It was like going to film school. You have a seminar on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and what’s the best thing about it is, that you have it with Roy Hill himself. How often do you get that chance? That’s a great opportunity! Even if you’re not a filmmaker, it creates a new experience. If you’re into movies at all, these things are fun and incredibly valuable.
Guido Henkel: Are there any plans for a sequel of Final Destination that you are aware of?
James Wong: Yes, there are plans, but we’re not involved. We thought about it but felt like we don’t really know what else to do with the story, and I didn’t want to tread on similar ground. New Line asked us to take a look at the script when it’s done. So let’s wait and see. Hopefully it will be a fresh idea that I would have never thought of, and maybe then I may want to return to direct it.
Guido Henkel: So what are you working on right now? What new projects can we expect from James Wong?
James Wong: Currently I am preparing “The One.” It is a movie that I will produce and direct for Revolution Studios.
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