We are fans of screenwriter Michael Kennedy around here, particularly his creative work in the horror genre. He wrote 2020's wildly original body-swap comedy Freaky. He's returned with another mashup in the form of It's A Wonderful Knife, a slasher take on the holiday classic you're definitely thinking of right now.
The film sees a young protagonist (Jane Widdop) take down a serial killer on Christmas. But a year later, she hasn't been able to move on from the trauma, so she wishes she had never been born. So of course she gets to see what the town would be like if she hadn't been there to intervene...
We chatted with Kennedy via Zoom ahead of the film's release (it's in theaters now) to learn about writing horror comedy, what it was like for him to produce for the first time, and more!
It's A Wonderful Knife Official Trailer | HD | RLJE Films | Ft. Justin Long, Joel McHalewww.youtube.com
Editor's note: the following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I imagine that there were some unique challenges in developing a story like this. Can you walk us through how you developed the story and any snags you hit as you were breaking the story?
Michael Kennedy: I thought about how I wanted to write a Christmas movie, and then I started thinking about how I really loved the time and experience on Freaky, so I quickly was like, I want to do the same thing, but with Christmas.
I immediately thought of It's A Wonderful Life and watched that movie a couple of times to be sure that I felt that there was a way to actually do it as a slasher movie. And there was. I was immediately sparked to just the idea of taking George Bailey, and what would it look like if he were a teenage girl running from a serial killer.
When I broke the story and was writing the screenplay, the only real snag for me was—there were always little snags. It's like, how is the scene going to finish? That kind of stuff. But the biggest snag for me was when I got done with the first draft—and I didn't notice it until I wrote the first draft. I didn't notice it during the outline phase. Initially, I didn't have the aurora [borealis].
'It's A Wonderful Life'Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder
So when Winnie makes the "wish," it kind of just happens. I wrote it as the wind gusting and that kind of stuff, but there was no "thing." There was no element, added layer that was the, I don't want to say the cause but was the bookend, the catalyst, and the way to get back and stuff. It kind of just happened both ways.
I had a friend actually read the script and he was like, "What if you did an aurora?" I was like, "Oh, that's actually a really good idea." So I started researching auroras, weirdly enough, instead of just doing an aurora, and I found that there's actually a bunch of different countries and just locations in the United States and that kind of stuff that have their own aurora borealis lore, surprisingly.
The one I use in the movie is actually one I found. It was actually a [Indigenous] group in Alaska, that essentially, thinks the northern lights are the spirits of people. I added the "die violently" part and stuff.
There was a snag in the sense that there wasn't that texture, that thing that makes the wish come true. And so when I was researching that and found that, I started realizing that it really gave the movie an extra layer of just drama, and then I was able to add a ticking clock element by what happens if the aurora disappears and stuff. The biggest snag was that the movie just didn't have the thing that I think it needed.
Justin Long as “Henry Waters” in the horror film, 'It's A Wonderful Knife'Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder
NFS: This was your first foray out as a producer. What do you think is the most important thing that you should know going on as a producer?
Kennedy: A couple of things. It's hard. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of work. It's really hard. The thing I was most surprised by, and looking back on it, I don't know why, I think it was just ignorance, was how much you're looked to for answers and suggestions and ideas of how to fix things or that kind of stuff. But the biggest thing I loved about it and the biggest advice I'd give is really fostering collaboration.
It's easy when you're the writer and producer because you're two hats and you're two hats under one person, so it gives you more of a voice as a writer in the process, to be honest with you. But as a producer, the collaboration part was key. It was really making sure the director was taken care of and had their voice heard and that their vision was being seen. Seth, one of my producer partners on the movie, was a little bit more of the money guy and a little bit more of the day-to-day stuff, so I got to really live in the creative as far as a producer went.
For me, it was really important to make sure the actors knew that their ideas were heard and used when they were really good and that it doesn't matter whose idea it is when something needs to be done. It's like the best idea wins, I don't care who it comes from.
The other advice I'd give, too, is that collaboration also fosters a really positive set, which actually makes the movie process a lot better. And it shows on camera. If you're having fun making the movie, it's going to show.
Jane Widdop as “Winnie Carruthers” in the horror film, 'It's A Wonderful Knife'Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder
NFS: What's your advice for melding genres? As I started it was like, "This feels very Hallmark to me and I love it," but then it's also a slasher. So how do you find that balance?
Kennedy: On this, it was really about just really knowing what you're doing. Really knowing what you're going for will inform your tone. And for us, and for me when I was writing it, I knew I wanted that sugary sweet vibe in the beginning and the end of the movie. But the biggest thing for me in melding any tone, whether it's holiday, Hallmark, comedy, horror, or all that, is really none of it'll work if you don't have an emotion and a character drive.
If you have that, you can meld anything together. If you have a really strong emotional current and a strong beating heart to your movie and your script, everything else will fall into place with it, and then it'll also be really glaring when something isn't working.
The other big thing when you meld comedy with any other genre is just making sure you don't sacrifice the other genre for a joke. Be funny in the right moments, and sometimes being funny in the right moments means not being funny at all in moments. So that to me is the way to meld it all together.
Jess McLeod as “Bernie Simon” and Jane Widdop as “Winne Carruthers” in the horror film, 'It's A Wonderful Knife'Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder
NFS: I do love that these two movies are these young women in fantastical situations, and I also love that they're both pretty gay in their own way. I'm interested in why you love working in that space specifically, and what draws you to those stories?
Kennedy: I'm queer, so I love it. It's me. When Chris Landon and I were writing Freaky, we knew there was going to be a strong queer aspect to it, and we also really knew early on when a girl and a man are body swapping. There's a gender discussion already happening naturally, so we decided to lean into it and really celebrate it. That was just a simple decision in the script. We never stopped calling the people there, like Millie was always Millie whether she was in Vince's body or Kathryn's body.
Here, I think Christmas is super gay just as a holiday, so I really leaned into that. I was like, how do I make this really gay by making everybody gay?
I also had a really great support system. The studio, the producers, the cast, and Tyler [MacIntyre], the director, were all super supportive of what I was doing. But I also had a straight white man go, "Can you make it a little gayer? Why don't you make Gale gay?" Gale wasn't gay in the first draft. We made Gale gay. So for me, it was like, "Oh, people want me to lean into this even more? Let's do it."
I also have come to realize as a producer on this, too, the little changes we want to happen in the industry aren't going to happen unless you just fucking do them. I know not everybody has that ability, but whether they're newer, they're green, or they're working with a dickhead or something. But I knew I was in a space where I was, for lack of a better word, one of the bosses.
So at the end of the day, I was like, I'm going to do this my way and then surround myself with people who would honor them. So I was really thankful for that because Tyler immediately was like, "I totally get what you're going for here. Let's do it."
NFS: Is there anything that you wanted to mention I didn't ask?
Kennedy: I think I just really hope queer people see themselves in this movie because it's for them.