Nahnatchka Khan has made a name for herself as one of modern TV's most prolific and funny showrunners, working on shows like American Dad and Malcolm in the Middle before going on to create Fresh Off the Boat, Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, and Young Rock. She branched into feature directing with the young adult romcom, Always Be My Maybe, a beloved sleeper hit on Netflix.
Well, it's time for another branch—this time into horror comedy, with a brand-new movie on Prime Video, Totally Killer.
The film follows Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) a grumpy teen who doesn't want to hear any more about the serial killer who tormented her mom's clique in 1987. But one Halloween, Jamie is accidentally sent back in time (you know how that happens sometimes) and decides to stop the killings before they can begin.
NFS spoke with Khan via Zoom ahead of the film's streaming premiere. This is one you won't want to miss.
Totally Killer - Official Red Band Trailer | Prime Videowww.youtube.com
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I actually talked to your DP, Judd Overton, and we talked a lot about the technical side of striking that balance between horror and comedy. I would love to know from your perspective, as a director, what that process was like.
Nahnatchka Khan: I mean, I think it's always a challenge to actually, you've got it on the page, and then to actually get it in the can, I think, is for me really about having options.
Because I think it's one thing to be confident going in, but I know from experience I've had in the past that when you get into post and you're in the edit, really want to give yourself choices because something early on where you're like, "Oh, what a funny... " If you have a comedic blow to a scene that feels like it works in the moment, and then when you put the whole movie together, you're like, "You know what? That actually takes too much out of this moment. Let's let the adrenaline carry us into the next scene or whatever." So knowing that that could possibly be the case, give yourself some other alternatives and versions of scenes.
Conversely, if there's something that's not scripted you feel like, "You know what? We might want something here."
So trying to anticipate, I think, both elements at all times will, I think, allow you the freedom to get that tone just right and walk that tightrope. Because for us, we really leaned into the kills. The kills are not played for comedy. They're played straight. There's a serial killer on the loose and wanting that to feel like a big part of the movie, also giving yourself a little bit of leeway to come in and out of those moments, I think.
NFS: Another thing that he mentioned was that both of you coming from TV knew how to shoot really, really fast if you needed to, but you didn't want to do that. So I'm sure that time was also a big thing there.
Khan: Yeah, yeah, it's a very ambitious script. There's a lot of elements and there's period. You're in the '80s, you've got time track, you've got a lot of stuff, and then you've got all these big kill sequences, so it's time-consuming to really get all those pieces.
'Totally Killer'Courtesy of Prime Video
NFS: What was the most challenging sequence for you to direct?
Khan: I would say the two most challenging, I have a hard time choosing, would be the Gravitron sequence at the end and the quantum drop in the ride, just because we were in there for three days.
There were a lot of pieces. There are characters coming in and out. There's stunt work, so there are wires. There's the lighting rig that's on a stage, so it's not actually moving, so we'd have to move it manually. There's all those elements. We were there for three days and you feel like you're shooting in a coffin, just like everything is sealed. So that's one.
Then the cabin sequence, I would say, was the other, because we were all practical locations. Nothing was on a stage. So that was literally some cabin in the woods, and there's a lot of characters in that sequence, a lot of people come in and out, so making sure that that all played.
NFS: Yeah. How much time did you have there?
Khan: That was split up over the shoot because we had a COVID incident, so we had to stop down and then start back up. So I think we ultimately had three nights at the cabin to get everything, yeah, and one day, I think.
NFS: Judd also mentioned there being a ton of night shoots, which are extra, extra hard, so I can't even imagine.
Khan: You really feel like you're going crazy because you're up all night. We shot in Vancouver. You're racing against the daylight. You're racing against the sunrise because in the Vancouver summers, the sun starts to come up really early, so you already feel like you're behind.
As soon as it becomes true night, you're just racing, racing, racing. Then you get home at seven in the morning and you're sleeping all day and you're getting back up, so you just feel like you're definitely on that True Blood cycle or whatever, that vampire cycle.
'Totally Killer'Courtesy of Prime Video
NFS: What was your favorite sequence to shoot?
Khan: Favorite sequence to shoot? I mean, there was such fun comedy scenes. I really liked the scene in the basement when they were watching sci-fi movies. That was really fun because it was the first time Olivia and Kiernan got to play together, and I liked that dynamic.
I really liked the house party sequence. I know a lot of times house parties can also be a nightmare to shoot, but I like it. I like when there are a lot of people in one place and you can pick and choose. People are experiencing different things at the same time. That was really fun, yeah.
NFS: I know this is a very large question, but for up-and-coming directors, what advice would you give them?
Khan: I would say find, obviously, things that you're passionate about. Don't get in the way of the characters and the story, because that's your job as a director too, I think. You're in charge of the visuals. You have to make it look special and unique, but you also have to service these characters. You're kind of the steward of the story and respecting that. I think because I come from a writing background, I'll always feel like that's so, so important.
Then I would also say just make stuff. Make stuff, make more stuff. Don't ask for permission. Don't wait for somebody to give you a green light. Just go do it.
NFS: Is there anything else you wanted to mention that I didn't ask?
Khan: I love the name of your site. I think it's so great. I don't think you need film [school]. As somebody who went to film school, I feel like you don't need film school.
You just need a passion, you need a belief, and you need places like your guys' site that can help people find the access they need and get information and knowledge.
That's really all of us do. You know what I mean? We're all just trying to get knowledge and information, so I think it's really important what you guys are doing and I love it. Yeah, man, just keep doing it.