By Steve Newton
Back in 2000 a Vancouver-shot horror flick called Final Destination was released which depicted young people, having escaped death in an exploding plane, being hunted down by a determined Grim Reaper and offed in various violent ways.
The film made money, so it became a franchise, where the big D would go on to slaughter survivors of highway pileups, roller-coaster crashes, racetrack wipeouts, and–in the latest installment–the collapse of Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge.
On assignment for Fangoria magazine, I was there at the start, interviewing the filmmakers in Burnaby in 1999 when the first entry was still being shot as Flight 180.
Here’s my scoop, in case anybody’s interested.
Glen Morgan and James Wong are well-known for their work as producers, writers, and directors on some of the best-loved episodes of The X-Files and Millennium, but before that the long-time partners in dark fantasy cowrote a mostly overlooked 1984 film called The Boys Next Door. Directed by Penelope Spheeris, who would later find fame with the hit comedy Wayne’s World, it concerns two troubled teens (Charlie Sheen and Maxwell Caulfield) who embark on a testosterone-fuelled rampage of beatings and murder in L.A.
It’s a realistic and disturbing shocker, with Caulfield particularly compelling as the hate-filled and violence-prone Bo. At the time, Playboy movie critic Bruce Williamson called it “taut, hypnotic, and chilling”, words that would be repeated often regarding Morgan and Wong’s efforts for the small screen.
Sixteen years later, Morgan (as producer-writer) and Wong (as writer-director) are about to see their second feature-film collaboration, Final Destination, hit North American theatres. (It opens here on Friday [March 17].) The movie stars Vancouver’s Devon Sawa (Idle Hands), and is about a group of high-school students who narrowly escape death on a doomed airliner, only to find that the Grim Reaper doesn’t take kindly to getting burned. He goes after the surviving passengers one by one.
The film started off as a 12-page treatment by New York screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick, who also wrote a first draft of the script before Morgan and Wong took the reins. “I was working at Millennium when we got this job,” explained Morgan on Final Destination’s Burnaby set last year, “and thinkin’, ‘Okay, where do you go with this idea?’ I was in Vancouver Airport, and over the PA they were playing John Denver—he had just died in a plane crash—and I go, ‘Clearly, I should not get on the plane.’
“And then when we started writing it, the scene where Alex [Sawa] is packing his bags, I picked up a Paris guidebook and just flipped the pages like this, and it just happened to stop on a picture of a guillotine from the Reign of Terror. And I go, ‘Whoa!’ Then you, like, look through it and there’s Jim Morrison’s grave. So you start building on all that.”
Although Morgan and Wong’s work for TV has seen them deal with plenty of pronounced supernatural happenings, in Final Destination the otherworldly elements are a little more subtle. “Jim and I looked at a lot of the Val Luten horror movies from the ’40s,” Morgan said. “In fact, that’s why Ms. Lewton [a schoolteacher character played by Kristen Cloke, Morgan’s wife] is Ms. Lewton. And there’s a [character named] Murnau and there’s a Schreck.
“And with all those old horror films, Cat People and stuff, it was all shadows, because they didn’t have the money to afford monsters. So we’re trying to be sort of subtle and creepy like that, but definitely suggesting that death is a force that can, you know, hunt you down.
“They are mostly Rube Goldberg–esque things that could happen,” Wong interjected, “but probably wouldn’t if there wasn’t a force sort of guiding it. So for instance in Ms. Lewton’s death, she decides that she didn’t want her tea because she sees the high-school logo on the mug, throws that out, dumps ice in it, throws freezing vodka in it, and unbeknownst to her the mug cracks and leaks little drips of alcohol that run down into her computer monitor.
“The spark happens—’cause it’s just turned on—and the monitor explodes from the inside, causing a shard to enter her throat. So it’s supernatural in the way that it probably wouldn’t happen, but it could. It could easily.”
Wong said that the directorial approach he was taking for Final Destination wasn’t much different from the one he used on his X-Files episodes, which include the Morgan-scripted, Emmy-nominated “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”. Wong figures that the biggest difference between shooting for TV and directing for the big screen is knowing that in feature work, he has the time and resources to get what he really wants.
“In television you only have eight days to shoot an episode,” he noted, “and sometimes you have to edit yourself a lot more in TV. You have to kinda say, ‘Well, that’d be nice to get, but I won’t get it.’ You pick one or the other, or you pick one of three things in a situation like that, whereas in the movie I can give myself more choices later in the editing room because I have more time to get it right.”
Despite the limitations of TV, Wong helped earn two Golden Globe awards and three Emmy nominations for The X-Files, and he says that he truly enjoyed working with head honcho Chris Carter and the rest of the Vancouver-based gang. “When we started, it really was a tight group of guys,” he said, “and we enjoyed each other’s company.
“It was cool, one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had, because at that time Fox thought Brisco County Jr. was gonna be a hit, so they didn’t pay us any attention, they just let us do what we wanted. We had no expectations, really, but maybe 10 shows into it we knew that there was this cult following, and it’s fun to be that kind of show.”
Morgan and Wong both graduated from Loyola Marymount University with bachelor-of-arts degrees in 1983, a year before The Boys Next Door was released. They began their careers in TV as story editors on 1988’s Knightwatch, moving on to executive story-editor positions the next year on two Vancouver-shot series, Booker and 21 Jump Street, and then serving as supervising producers on another locally made show, Wiseguy, in 1990. From ’91 to ’93 they were supervising producers on yet another series lensed here, The Commish.
Although their partnership has resulted in some memorable achievements, it has also had its down times. After executive-producing The X-Files in 1993-94 the two left to produce their own show, the sci-fi cult series Space: Above and Beyond, which—despite a rabid fan base—lasted only one season.
As well as the loss of Space: Above and Beyond, Morgan and Wong have had to deal with a network decision not to pick up The Notorious Seven, a unique series—a conglomeration of looks from gangster and James Bond movies—for which they produced a pilot in 1997. The year before that, they had returned to The X-Files to act as consulting producers and to write and direct four episodes for the show’s fourth season.
“It was funny,” Wong recalled, “because when we first came back I had a feeling like, ‘Oh, we’re coming home again,’ but it wasn’t like that. Not that we weren’t welcome, but we just weren’t part of the group anymore. We were just out of it.”
“It changes like any memory that you would have,” said Morgan of his own X-Files recollection. “Sometimes you think of high school and you go, ‘Oh god, that was horrible,’ and other times it’s a good memory. We sort of left a little bit irritated, but yesterday one of the cast wanted to see the ‘Cancer Man’ episode Jim directed, and I hadn’t watched it in years, and I was lookin’ at it in the trailer, and I was goin’, ‘Well, that was great.’”