Last girl standing

Tyler Shields on shooting Final Girl.

by Jennie Kermode

Looking for trouble? Abigail Breslin and Logan Huffman in Final Girl.
Looking for trouble? Abigail Breslin and Logan Huffman in Final Girl.

If you go down to the woods tonight and you see a group of smartly attired young men sitting around on leather couches laughing, you might want to get out of there. These men have a hobby: they get their kicks from hunting young women through the trees. But one day they mess with the wrong girl.

That’s the premise of Final Girl, part of this year’s Frightfest selection. It’s the directorial debut of accomplished photographer Tyler Shields, who works with longstanding friend Abigail Breslin as his star. We asked him how it came about and he told us that being a filmmaker is what he’s really wanted ever since he was a child. “Photography kind of just happened. Making movies was always my dream.”

Meeting the boys
Meeting the boys

The way this particular film developed would have been many a director’s dream. It wasn’t so much the subject matter that attracted Tyler to it as the unusually generous attitude of the producers. “I said, can I do whatever I want? And they said yes. I said, I want to have these guys in tuxedos and I want to have this furniture in the woods, and they just agreed to everything.”

Working as a director was easier than the work he’s used to as a photographer, he says. A lot of the shots in the film look very much like photographic ideas that have been expanded on and set in motion. He tells me that he and his crew began with an idea of how the hunt would progress and then worked out how to shoot it from there.

“I think the most exciting thing was having everyone really in the places that you see. We were really doing the things that you see,” he says. “The other day I put a photo on my Instagram and somebody wrote and said, can you settle a bet I have with my friend who thinks that you green-screened everything? They thought there was no way we were really there. It’s amazing that that’s what people assume now, but it was all real.”

This, of course, posed some serious challenges.

“It was a nightmare lighting in that environment. And because we were really out in the woods, we had raccoons and bears and all kinds of shit out there. People would say, don’t go beyond that tree there because there’s animals. We didn’t know what might happen.”

Like being on a real hunt, I suggest, and he laughs. When it came to the actors, though, the situation had its advantages.

Veronica with her trainer
Veronica with her trainer

“I think that if you want to try to tell an actor that they’re going to be cold and miserable in this scene and you want them to act that, you’re doing them a disservice. Just make them cold and miserable. They put up with that,” he assures me.

It may have helped that he was fully in control of casting from the outset.

“Abigail is a very dear friend of mine. She’s such a sweet girl, so incredible to work with! I’m really excited for her now that she’s doing so well and doing Scream Queens which she’s actually in with a very old friend of mine, Emma Roberts. Logan [Huffman] I had worked with a bunch of times and I knew he’d be perfect. Alexander [Ludwig] I shot when he was 16. Wes [Bentley] I was a big fan of. Everybody else just came together.

“Female driven movies are hard to get made and they’re somewhat rare in fact, so I was really pleased that this was able to get made and that it’s been supported so many people. If people want to have more female driven movies then they have to support the ones that exist.”

The young male characters, he tells me, are “based off of serial killers. They’re like 60% serial killer and 40% entertainer, so Danny [Huffman’s character], for instance, is based off of an axe murder and Fred Astaire. Nelson [played by Reece Thompson], the one who’s in love with his mom, I based on Ted Bundy. They all had different ones, some famous, some not famous at all.”

The gang all together
The gang all together

In some ways the most sinister male character in the film is the heroine’s mentor, who has been training her since early childhood for a purpose which is never quite clear. Is he her saviour or is he exploiting her for her own ends? It’s never quite clear where the boundaries of their relationship lie and Tyler likes that obscurity. “To me it’s all about leaving it as a question for people to wonder about,” he says. “I think that something no-one likes is when a movie tries to over-tell you what they think you’re supposed to know. I wanted to leave questions for you to think about and make you wonder.”

Characters aside, what really stands out about the film is its visual style. Tyler tells me that he was thinking of Norman Rockwell paintings and Fifties style classic American culture. In fact, it’s very hard to determine what time period it’s supposed to be set in, which adds to its dream-like quality. “What was funny is that when we were on set the crew joked that we were making a movie set in Tyler time, my own time that I invented.”

So now that he’s had a taste of living his dream, is he still going to keep up his photography work?

“Definitely,” he says – and, after a little prompting, “I have a new photography book coming out next year. It’s called Provocateur and it comes out in August 2016.”

He has a couple of new films that he’s working on too, but he’s been sworn to secrecy where those are concerned, so we turn to my final question – how does he feel about his film having made it to Frightfest?

“It’s great!” he says. “I heard about it a while ago. I do galleries in London once or twice a year so I think that’s where I first heard about it and then when we made the movie one of the producers said, wouldn’t it be great if it gets shown at Frightfest when it comes out? But that was two years ago and none of us thought it would happen.”

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