Last weekend, the cast for the New Orleans-shot “Happy Death Day 2U” and the film’s director spent Groundhog Day doing publicity for their new movie.
It was perfect timing. “Groundhog Day,” the 1993 comedy-fantasy film starring Bill Murray as a TV weatherman trapped in a time loop, inspired the 2017 horror hit, “Happy Death Day.”
In the horror-mystery filmed on the Loyola University campus, college student Tree Gelbman seems doomed to perpetually relive the day she’s killed at her birthday party.
In the sequel, “Happy Death Day 2U” Loyola reprises its role as the fictional Bayfield University. The original film’s principal cast, extras and much of the original crew also return for the sequel, which opens Wednesday (Feb. 13).
For Jessica Rothe, who stars as Tree, and writer-director Christopher Landon (a horror sequel veteran whose films include “Paranormal Activity” 2, 3 and 4), making the “Happy Death Day” sequel was much like a class reunion.
“It was great to see so many familiar faces and be back there in New Orleans,” Landon said.
“We were on the Loyola campus again, our old stomping grounds,” Rothe said. “From the cast to the crew, every single person put their heart and soul into the first film. That created such wonderful camaraderie on the set. I couldn’t believe my luck when we got to make a second one.”
“Happy Death Day 2U” expands the original film’s storyline, adding a “Weird Science,” sci-fi element that explains why Tree is trapped in a deadly time loop. She also faces hard choices that add emotional scenes to what’s otherwise an action-slasher-comedy marathon.
Landon, the filmmaking son of Michael Landon, praised the range Rothe shows in her role as the seriously stressed yet fierce Tree.
“These movies would not be possible without her,” the director said. “She swings from drama to comedy. She’s vulnerable, strong and silly. And she makes it look easy. I can’t even tell you how difficult that is. On top of it, she’s fearless. She’ll do anything and she always surprises me.”
Rothe’s Tree is an action hero, detective, comedienne and half of a romantic duo with Israel Broussard’s Carter Davis. She also performs many of her own stunts.
“I have an incredible stunt double, Kelly (Phelan),” the actress said. “She is so badass. She did the terrifying, nine-story free-fall drop that they would not let me do. Kelly did the stunts that were too dangerous for me to do, but she also empowered me to do my own stunts. And she taught me how to make them look cool, like I know what I’m doing, and do them safely in a way that sold the stunt or fight sequence.”
Rothe always looks for roles that challenge and even frighten her. She found that in Tree.
“It’s rare, especially in genre films, for a part to be written for a young woman who juggles so many things and is so complicated,” she said. “So, I got to bring every part of me to the party. I did physical comedy. I drew on personal experience for the emotional scenes. Every day I was learning something new and challenging myself. That’s one of the reasons I love this job.”
Despite a degree of seamlessness made possible by the movie’s returning cast and crew and familiar locations, achieving the freneticism “Happy Death Day 2U” requires and continuity a sequel needs wasn’t easy. The production had to rebuild the film’s hospital interiors, for instance, because the former Veterans Medical Center was gutted after the first “Happy Death Day” wrapped.
“That was crazy and expensive for our modestly budgeted movie,” Landon said of the hospital set reconstruction. “Painstakingly recreating everything was a big challenge for us. And that included finding extras, people who were in the background, and making sure that they looked the same and wore the same clothes.”
But being back in New Orleans to shoot the sequel was always a pleasure.
“For the first film, I lived in the French Quarter, which was amazing in some ways and a really bad move in some other ways," the director said. "For the second movie, I lived in the upper Garden District. It’s so nice to spend a lot of time in a city so rich with history. And I love the people there. So many characters. I always come away with so many good stories. It’s one of my favorite places.”
Rothe has made five films in New Orleans, including her feature film debut, 2013’s “The Hot Flashes.”
“Every time I come back to the city, it is such a welcoming, warm, vibrant place,” the actress said. “The culture is incredible. The people are some of the most generous and hard-working, lovely humans I’ve ever met. And you can’t beat the food.”
“The second time around,” Landon said, “I brought my husband and my son to New Orleans. It’s really become a second home for us. We were all sad to leave and come back to L.A. So, maybe one day we’ll end up there in New Orleans.”