There's no denying that the makers of Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) had a challenge on their hands. Urban Legend proved to be a big moneymaker for Phoenix Pictures as well as one of Sony Pictures' top five releases for 1998. A sequel was definitely in order, but Phoenix Pictures was determined not to create just a "more of" Urban Legends. As executive producer Brad Luff notes, "We used a lot of the great urban legends in the first picture. How could we top that?"
Producer Gina Matthews was also considering the same question. "How can we make a movie that is unique in its own right a film that will not only attract the audience from the first movie but lure a new audience because this new version is special, different and not a rehash?"
It was Mike Medavoy, chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures, who thought that this sequel to Urban Legend should be set in a film school. The producers were ecstatic; they felt a film school setting would give ample opportunity for a capable screenwriter to twist the plot together with the illusion of moviemaking.
After producers Matthews and Luff heard numerous pitches, it was the concept of writing team of Scott Derrickson & Paul Harris Boardman that stuck. "I had probably heard close to 30 different takes from writers," says Luff. "Then these guys came in, and that was it. They had come up with a great take that was highly original."
Both writers had attended the film school program at the University of Southern California, which allowed them to draw on personal experiences to build the characters and create plenty of humorous situations.
"It has a feeling of being a movie within a movie," explains Gina Matthews. "There is a fun trick in the beginning when you wonder, is this a set or the actual movie? There's fun to be had here with the jokes, the pranks, the fake deaths and the fake scares. It's going to keep kids guessing through the whole film," she adds.
Luff explains it a step further. "We wanted everything to be happening around Amy, our heroine but like in a paranoid thriller, no one believes her. Slowly but surely the question emerges is she imagining these things? Is she overreacting?"
"Audiences in general who come to see these movies are conditioned to try to figure out who the killer is," adds Matthews. "A smart thriller will send you down roads where you are absolutely sure who the killer is, but then you are taken for a ride. The trick for the filmmakers is to keep that ride going."
Having previously worked with Phoenix Pictures as a composer on Lake Placid and as a composer, editor and producer on Apt Pupil, it made sense that John Ottman would make his directorial debut with Phoenix. For producer Michael McDonnell, he was an obvious choice. McDonnell had hired Ottman to be the composer and editor on the Academy Award®-winning film The Usual Suspects.
Explains McDonnell, "As an editor, you look at every single frame of film and piece those frames together like a puzzle. You're stringing together all these different narrative threads. As an editor, John takes the tiniest little pieces and builds this enormous mosaic that becomes the film. As a composer, one looks at a finished piece of film a story that has already been told from entirely the opposite view. You look at a piece of film and go, 'this has no soul.' So what the music has to provide is soul.
"John works the craft of filmmaking from two opposite poles," continues McDonnell, "and he's equally adept at both."
This combination of skills is unusual in the film industry and now, with adding the credit of director to his resume, Ottman joins the ranks of one Mr. Charles Chaplin. "John Ottman is completely unique as a filmmaker. He's an editor, he's a director, and he's a composer. He's like a triathlete," laughs McDonnell. "He cuts, he shoots, he scores!"
With his unique background, producer Richard Luke Rothschild also believes that Ottman has what it takes to give this old genre a new twist. "I think that John really brings something to this film that is very different from the original."
For Ottman's part, it was the high level of suspense and humor that sold him on Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) "What attracted me to it was that it was original. This is obviously a film for a certain target audience, but it's one that won't pander to it.
"This film has a lot of humor," adds Ottman. "People are either going to completely embrace that, or they're going to be shocked by it."
Though Ottman won't give away any secrets, he does admit to loving the challenge of weaving together humor with horror. "We're telling people, look, we're not taking ourselves too seriously. But at the same time, just when you are having a laugh, we're going to scare you and make you realize that this film is actually going somewhere where you might be pretty horrified."
Having an original story, Ottman also wanted to have a non-traditional setting for Alpine University. With production designer Mark Zuelzke, Ottman "searched for a campus that did not have the typical gothic style that we're so used to in these movies," he says. Zuelzke understood Ottman's concerns.
"It was apparent to me that to have a clear distinction between the first film and the second, we needed a fresh environment," states Zuelzke. "Alpine University is a contemporary film school, which to me speaks contemporary style.
Gothic architecture speaks of more traditional education law, medicine, etcetera," adds Zuelzke.
It was Trent University, located in Ontario, Canada, which was cast to play Alpine University. Built in the early '60s, the University was created by Ron Thom, who was a devotee of Frank Lloyd Wright. With its distinct texture, stark design and modern '60s style, it was perfect for creating an eerie, ominous atmosphere.
Distinct is also a word that could be used to describe the unique characters in the script for Urban Legends: Final Cut. The right cast was crucial, because the film "doesn't have the 'cookie cutter' characters that you often see in this type of genre," says Matthews. "The majority of our characters are a little off-center and different, and the cast that brings these characters to life is so unique and interesting that they will completely capture the audience."
Rothschild could not agree more. "I think the great thing about this group is that they're very cohesive, and they bring a unique freshness to the movie because they are all newcomers," he says."They are all completely perfect for their roles," adds Ottman.
Casting Amy Mayfield, the down-to-earth documentary film student whose change in her thesis film's genre causes crew members to croak, was one of the filmmakers' most challenging jobs. "We wanted our lead heroine to be somebody whom our audience could identify with right away a character very much in the everyman or, in this case, everywoman mode of traditional Hitchcockian movies," states Luff.
"The right actor to play Amy was very hard to find," says John Ottman. "I knew it had to be someone who was going to have to support the entire film as well as have an endearing quality to her. Hands down, Jennifer Morrison had the best look, feel and talent for Amy."
Jennifer Morrison had previously played a ghost in Stir Of Echoes (1999)
and liked the idea of playing a character on the other end of the scream. She was also attracted to the layering and intertwining of reality and illusion in the script.
"It's an incredible script in terms of how it escalates the terror," says Morrison. "When people are dying or disappearing it is always around Amy and based on, or involved with, the urban legend that she's filming. It's a bizarre urban legend inside of an urban legend, inside of an urban legend while you're filming an urban legend," she laughs.
The screenplay also offered a believable motive for the murders in this case, Alpine University's prestigious Hitchcock Award. "I think the premise is very realistic," says Morrison. "You see people in competitive situations in life, and it makes you realize that it can bring out some scary sides of people."
Ottman agrees, drawing on his film school experience. "There is a camaraderie in film school, but I think it's part of human nature to want a rival not to succeed... at least not as well as you have. That sentiment is behind a lot of what's going on in this film."
Morrison felt fortunate as a young actress to be cast as a character which is so realistic and even-keeled. "It's really an incredible part for a woman to play," comments Morrison. "Amy is so together, grounded and smart but at the same time very kind, gentle and caring."
Another challenge was casting the difficult role of the twin brothers: Travis, the intense, artistic film student who takes his own life, and Trevor, the outsider that secretly arrives at Alpine to investigate his brother's death. The part required an actor who could embody both qualities attractive to Amy and the marks of a killer.
"We needed an actor that was able to be vulnerable, likable and believable, but he also had to be threatening," says Matthews. "Trevor's motives and morals are questionable. He is a suspect."
After auditioning numerous actors, it was newcomer Matthew Davis that caught Ottman's and the producers' eye and convinced them that, even with no film or television experience, he could be both Travis and Trevor Stark. John Ottman was amazed at Davis' ability and on-screen charisma. "I saw Matt as an actor who could play the guy-next-door you embrace and find comfort in and then in one look from his eyes, you think he may be the killer," he says.
Davis was not only thrilled by the opportunity but also impressed by how realistic the story was. "The reason I really enjoyed this script is that it's not in the realm of the unbelievable. There's something about the film and the characters that carries enough reality to make you really wonder if it could happen," comments Davis.
Like Morrison, Davis was also struck with how the script twisted reality. "You don't know when something is real. You don't know who the killer is, and there are so many suspects and so many motives you don't know what's really happening. I think that builds the suspense and, for the audience, they don't know how long they're going to have solid footing before the carpet is ripped out from underneath them," explains Davis.
Well known for his roles on the hit television shows "Blossom" and "Gimme A Break," Joseph Lawrence stars as Graham Manning, the son of a Hollywood mogul, who has much bigger plans then attending film school.
"I think people are going to be really surprised by Joseph's portrayal of Graham," says Matthews. "Graham has his designer clothes; he's on the cell phone all the time, and he's hilarious, completely vindictive and evil."
For Ottman, Lawrence is a director's dream. "Everything just rolls off his tongue. There's never any second takes, never any screw-ups. Everything's right on the money."
Lawrence liked the original story idea and the fact that the characters were not similar to the characters in Urban Legend.
"I read a bunch of scripts in this genre, and the thing that most attracted me to Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) was that it was set at a film school, with 20-year-olds making their thesis films," says Lawrence. "When I was reading it for the first time, I didn't even know whether it was the movie, or whether it was a movie within the movie. It'll keep audiences on the edge of their seat," he adds.
Playing Graham was also quite a character change for Lawrence. "He's a very intense, dark character who is in a totally different place than everybody else in the movie. He doesn't like to be turned down. Very quickly he can turn from very calm to very on edge and uneasy. This causes people to be uneasy around him, and there are times throughout the movie when the audience is going to think that he's the one who did it... and who knows, maybe he did," says Lawrence.
After 20 years in television, Lawrence has recently been focusing his talents on feature films. "I think film is more rewarding creatively. Because I've worked in television for so many years, it became a little stagnant for me," he says.
In Urban Legend, Loretta Devine knocked the audience's socks off as Reese, the strong, sassy head of Pendleton campus security who is also a Foxy Brown fanatic.
"Everybody loved her," comments Luff. "We thought the best way to have a link from the first film to this one was to bring Reese back."
For Devine, re-igniting the role of Reese was a delight. "What's interesting about Reese is that she existed before John Ottman came to the project," says Devine. "Because I was in the first film, my character was established. But because of what has happened to her, John wanted her to have a little more bite than in the first one. I like what he's done," she says.
Having performed in such Broadway musicals as 'Dreamgirls,' Devine enjoyed the fact that Ottman comes from a music background. "Because he is the 'music man,' I expect great things with the score to this movie," she says. "The score is a lot of what makes a thriller a thriller."
A prime example of some of the other unusual characters that inhabit Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) are sound guys Stan and Dirk. These sophomore film students live in a world of their own filled with special effects and practical jokes. "Dirk and Stan are probably the most geeky, weird, hilarious pairing on the planet," laughs Matthews. "They definitely demanded creative casting."
Ottman and the producers were convinced that only Anthony Anderson and Michael Bacall could pull Stan and Dirk off. "They both came in and read, and we just fell in love with them," remembers Luff. "They nailed their readings, and their chemistry onscreen was great. We couldn't have asked for a better pairing."
Anderson and Bacall enjoyed the opportunity to play characters that supply a hefty dose of comic relief. "Stan and Dirk are special effects geeks. I think that is their official title," comments Bacall. "These are guys who subscribe to Fangoria and Cinefantastique and all the horror magazines. They do all the slasher effects for the student films mix up all the blood, create all the severed heads so it's been a real fun part to play."
Being sophomores, Stan and Dirk are not caught up in the seniors' frenzy of competing for the Hitchcock Award. They remain oblivious to what's going on around them until it's too late. "Their world revolves around special effects. If it doesn't have anything to do with that, they don't even acknowledge it," comments Anderson. "They basically live in their own little special effects bubble."
Rounding out this stellar cast is Anson Mount, Jessica Cauffiel, Eva Mendes, Marco Hofscheinder and Hart Bochner. For John Ottman, working with these immensely talented and enthusiastic actors was a joy. "I couldn't be blessed with a better group of people for my cast. They're so smart and have so much insight," says Ottman.
For producer Michael McDonnell, "there are three basic tenets of a successful contemporary horror movie. You have to really scare them; you want to make them laugh; and you want to keep them guessing all the time."
Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) has all of the above. With its multi-talented director and its hip, horror-loving cast, Urban Legends: Final Cut serves up a sublime mixture of suspense, humor and horror that will have the audience clutching their seats, their sides and, likely, their dates.