‘Totally Killer’ Director Nahnatchka Khan Reveals the Keys to a Great Slasher Movie

Fantastic Fest 2023: The “Always Be My Maybe” filmmaker takes a turn into darkness

Totally Killer
Prime Video

Your new favorite slasher movie is here. And its name is “Totally Killer.”

After a rapturous reception at its world premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin and ahead of a screening as part of Los Angeles’ Beyond Fest, “Totally Killer” will be available on Prime Video this Friday.

The movie tells the story of Jamie (Kiernan Shipka), a plucky teenager who uses a time machine to travel back to 1987 in an attempt to save her mother (who was killed in the present) and several of her mother’s friends (killed in 1987) – all at the hands of a masked murderer known as the Sweet Sixteen Killer. While in the 1980s she befriends the younger version of her mother (played in the past by Olivia Holt and in the present by Julie Bowen) and alters the timeline in some surprising ways.

Even more surprising – that “Totally Killer,” which is equal parts funny and scary, was directed by Nahnatchka Khan, who has created more hit television series than you have fingers and who last helmed “Always Be My Maybe,” the hit Netflix rom-com (Randall Park pops up in “Totally Killer” too).

TheWrap caught up with Khan on the eve of her big Fantastic Fest premiere, where she revealed the ingredients to making a truly great slasher movie.

Make Sure the Tone Is Right

“Totally Killer” is a combination slasher movie and time-travel movie; it’s also a horror movie and a full-on comedy. That’s a lot for one movie. And Khan said that striking the right balance was “the most important thing.”

“It’s such a delicate tightrope that you’re walking and you’re like, what’s too far? Is this too scary? Is this not scary enough? Is this not funny? Is this a comedy moment? Is it not?” Khan said. Before she started shooting she identified moments that could be calibrated one way or the other and, during the shoot, gave herself options, so that they could calibrate those sequences more finely in the edit and they would always have enough material.

“In theory, we all think, let’s say that there’s a joke here at the end of this scene, there’s a comedy blow or something, but when we put it all together, we might hate that. It might steal everything from us,” Khan said. The fact that they had options meant “if we don’t want to joke here, we could play it straight, basically play it for scare.” She found that approach really helpful. “We can really dial up and dial down and we’re not stuck,” Khan said. In an alternate world, perhaps due to some unruly time travel, they would have been struck. “That would’ve been the worst, where you’re just like, We have nothing,” Khan said.

Casting is Everything

One of the joys of the film is the performance by Shipka, who is constantly agog at what was going on in the 1980s (there’s a running joke about how people openly smoked around children). It’s a tricky role – she’s trying to solve a mystery but also bonding with her mother (their relationship serves as the emotional bedrock for the movie) and also offer up a running, modern commentary for everything going on. And Kiernan, a nimble, underrated performer, does it all. Without her, the movie – and its sky-high concept – would not have worked.

Khan said that she knew from the first meeting that Shipka was the one. “I was just like, This is Jamie,” Khan said. “Because Kiernan is such an amazing actor that she can pull off all of the things. You believe the emotion, she could do the comedy, but in a grounded way. Khan said she navigated the “heighted concept” without missing a beat – “there’s time travel, there’s eighties, there’s slasher, there’s comedy.”

“If the character of Jamie felt untethered, I think the whole movie would’ve felt like it was coming apart at the seams. She really was the glue,” Khan said. Also incredible – the fact that Khan had worked with Shipka before. It was on the first TV she had created, “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23.” She had a guest spot. It was in 2012. “She was shadowing James Van Der Beek and he was shadowing her, for some sort of body swap movie,” Khan said.

It’s not exactly time travel. But it’s close.

Have an Iconic Mask

The Sweet Sixteen Killer sports a very distinctive mask. And Khan said this was key.

“I think that mask is really crucial for a good slasher movie, especially for this one because I wanted it to feel original, but it had to feel of the time, like something that could exist back then. But also, I didn’t want the whole movie to feel retro and nostalgic because Jamie is from this present, she’s from the future, so you have this sort of Gen Z energy going into this John Hughes world,” Khan said.

Khan said that they “spent a lot of time crafting what that could look like.” They wanted to stay away from anything that had come before but also make sure that “it’s got to feel familiar and then it’s got to be scary on top of that.” They finally hit on “the idea of a handsome man being scary,” which felt “different” enough for Khan.

They then turned to Tony Gardner, an insanely talented make-up and effects man who, among other things, currently works on Chucky and helped Daft Punk design their helmets (yes really) and his team at Alterian Inc. to design the mask. “It took a long time to figure out what this could be,” Khan said. They wanted to make sure it had “just the right amount of camp.”

“I wanted a little sprinkle, it can’t be over-the-top because it’s got to be like ‘Lost Boys,’” she said, referring to Joel Schumacher’s 1987 vampire classic and the blond head vampire played by Kiefer Sutherland. (The mask even has a dangling earring.) They also pulled from Dolph Lundgren “and all these ‘80s heartthrobs.”

“Once we landed on that, it was getting the full look,” Khan said. “When the killer appears, you’re either nervous that he’s about to appear or when he’s on-screen, you’re just tense. I think the look of the killer to me was a big piece of everything.”

The Kills Have to Count

While “Totally Killer” is funny – like laugh-out-loud funny – Khan new that the horror had to hit just as hard as the jokes did. And the kills really are worthy of any of the slasher movies of 1980s, with buckets of blood and shot through with a shocking intensity.

“To get in this space and do a mashup and then check your swing a little bit on the horror part, I feel like that would’ve been a disservice,” Khan said. “That’s the fun of doing something like this. It’s the idea of keeping the audience off balance with the comedy so you don’t know like, Oh, is this a comedic scene or is this person actually going to get killed?” She points to a sequence with a waterbed as being the epitome of this idea (the details of which we won’t give away here, don’t worry). When you see it, you’ll know it.

“It was important to lean into that and do it justice because we’re in this space, we’re in this world, and we’re in the eighties too,” Khan said. She wanted to have “Totally Killer” be able to stand side-by-side with any of those classic 1980s slasher movies. “I think it’s like, Let’s do it. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it,” Khan said. “I mean, we’re out here.” Yes they are. And they’re covered in fake blood.

Leave It Open for a Sequel

Of course, another element of the slasher glut of the 1980’s was endless sequels – “Friday the 13th” had a new movie out almost every year for more than a decade; same with “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” More recently, we’ve rounded the corner on the sixth “Scream” movie (with a seventh already announced). Surely “Totally Killer” could have a follow-up?

As it turns out, they’ve already thought about it. Although this definitely counts as a spoiler, so you might want to turn back now until you’ve seen the movie. You’re back? Watched the movie? Okay good.

Khan said that the movie’s director of photography, Judd Overton, started bugging them immediate (“from day four of shooting”). “Every day he would say, ‘There is a time machine that still left in the ‘80s at the end of this, just so you guys know,’” Khan said. And we were like ‘Got you, got you.’” Overton would then put the remark on the call sheet at the end of the shoot. Surely hearing that enough must have wedged something in her brain?

“Listen, when you’re working with time travel, anything is possible and Judd is right, there is a machine that is still left in the eighties,” Khan said. Where might the machine send Jamie this time? And what new mystery will she uncover? Only time will tell…

“Totally Killer” is available to stream Friday on Prime Video.


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