LOS ANGELES — Steve Quale knows plenty about big-time filmmaking — he was the second-unit director working with James Cameron on “Avatar” and “Titanic.” So it seems more than a tad surprising to see him making his feature-film directorial debut Friday with “Final Destination 5,” a horror flick starring Emma Bell, Nicholas D’Agosto, David Koechner and Miles Fisher. We recently caught up with him to find out more.
Q. As a moviegoer, what do you think when you see a movie title with a “5” in it?
A. Any time you see a five in a movie title, you worry. I had some concerns when I was first approached to do this film. So I did some research — I hadn’t seen the films when they came out originally, so I did a marathon session where I watched all four of them back to back and I learned very quickly what works and what doesn’t work in the films and what the fans react to and want. And then finally, as a filmmaker, I figured out what I would want to do and found the elements that attracted me to it.
When I came in to pitch my take on it, I basically said, “Look, I really liked what the original did as far as the suspense and the believability and the strength of the characters, and it’s paramount to me that we cast really good actors.” Second, I also liked some of the comedy in the second one, it was sort of organic, it wasn’t way over the top like the fourth one. I wanted a couple of funny actors in some of the supporting roles so we could amp up the humor in a believable and entertaining way that the fans would really appreciate. And third, I wanted the opening set piece to be really dynamic and visceral, a real spectacle. After all my years of working with Jim Cameron I knew the value of that. None of the other (“Final Destination” films) had anything like that. They had some cool stunt sequences but not something that is epic and spectacular like a suspension bridge collapse. I knew that could lend itself to really interesting visual dynamics.
Q. Making the fifth film in a series must have a particular set of challenges. What are some of them? And what’s different this time around?
A. There are certain things that you know need to be in a “Final Destination” movie. You know there will be this bunch of people who survive a horrible accident and then, one by one, they die in these freak, weird ways. That’s a given. But what do you do to change that up a little? To make it more interesting? We added a new rule: If (one of the disaster survivors) kills somebody, they can potentially get their life. So that made it more than just a self-fulfilling prophecy where everybody is going to die one by one; if you act in a proactive manner, you can change the outcome of the events. Then suddenly it’s not just man against nature — it’s man against man as well, and that changes the dramatic conflict. That gives us a whole other level that the other movies in the series didn’t have.
Q. Tell us one thing that you needed to avoid to have any chance of making a worthwhile film.
A. Really campy humor or just stupid things. For me, what works in these movies is the suspense. Just showing graphic horror things, that’s not going to really provoke what you want from the audience. But if you tease them and throw them in different directions then you’ve got them, they’re intrigued and engaged. For me what I needed to avoid was just making this a bloodbath like a “Saw” movie or something. That’s almost like torture. That’s not what I wanted. To me this has almost something of a “Twilight Zone” aspect to it.
Q. The bridge disaster sequence certainly seems to live up to that. It looks like a big-budget scene, too ...
A. I come from a filmmaking background doing second unit on some of the biggest movies ever made, so I’m familiar with the tools and the visual effects — but the one thing I didn’t get here was that unlimited budget that Jim Cameron has. ... The hardest part of a collapsing-bridge sequence is finding a bridge you can shoot on. ... Vancouver agreed to let us to close down one lane of their Lions Gate Bridge for two hours from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
So we got four cameras and I flew in a helicopter to get all the aerial and establishing shots we needed and we got the inside of the bus, all the things that ground the reality of this bridge. ... Then (at a flat gravel area in a nearby stretch of under-construction coastal highway) we built our mini-section of bridge with the railings and the structure of the road and we spent a week shooting the cars with a nearly 180-degree unobstructed view of the ocean that matched up almost perfectly. The combination of all that intercut with (a third, green-screen set) allowed a seamless integration. ... I showed it to Jim and he said, “I thought you said you didn’t have a lot of money for this sequence?”
Q. They added the word “the” to the fourth film’s title to suggest a sense of, well, finality. But now here we are again. Do you think we’ll see a sixth film called “The Last Final Destination” in a couple of years?
A. I can’t say. Never say never. It purely depends on the box office of this film. When they did “The Final Destination,” they had no intention of making a sequel, but it suddenly was the highest-grossing of any of the “Final Destination” movies.