It’s A Wonderful Knife – Interview with Screenwriter Michael Kennedy

Interview "It's a Wonderful Knife"

Michael Kennedy is responsible for taking some tropes in iconic films and giving them a horror twist. This time around he takes the plot of It’s A Wonderful Life and turns it into a slasher film with his newest project, It’s A Wonderful Knife. He sat down recently with Borrowing Tape to discuss his process of writing the film and his inspiration behind penning the new Christmas horror hit.

Watch, listen or read the interview transcript below — edited and condensed for clarity:

Hello. This is Tyler Geis with I'm here with Michael Kennedy, writer, and producer of It's a Wonderful Life. Excuse me. It's a Wonderful Knife!

Hey, I get it. I've said it myself the wrong way a million times.

Literally, I was practicing that in my head when I was practicing questions. Don't say It's a Wonderful Life, but I do have some questions about the inspiration behind It's a Wonderful Knife. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me. I really appreciate it. Really enjoyed the film. Really enjoyed your past work, too. I'm a big fan of some other certain films, horror films you've written. Freaky is one of them, by the way.

Thank you.

Yeah. I don't know which one is better yet. I haven't made a decision, but great movies.

Freaky is a hard act to follow.

It really was. But we're not here to talk about Freaky, although I'd like to. Let me get started with It's a Wonderful Knife and with the million-dollar question here. As a writer, what gave you this concept? I mean, I think we know where you kind of pulled inspiration from. But in my head, I picture you about a year or two ago watching It's a Wonderful Life and thinking, could I turn that into a slasher? I mean, how did you decide to turn this on its head?

That's close. We were in lockdown in 2020, and. Freaky had been made and was like getting ready to be released and stuff. And I was kind of trying to figure out what I was going to do next. And I wanted to write a Christmas horror movie. I always wanted to write a Christmas horror movie. So I sat down, I'm going to write a Christmas horror movie. And so, I was trying to figure out what was that going to look like. Black Christmas is one of my favorite movies ever, the original. Not just horror movies, but movies in general. And I was just, okay, like, I don't want to go dark because that movie handles it perfectly. There's just no topping a movie like that. And then I also knew I didn't want a Santa Claus killer because that's been done a million times too. And then I started kind of weirdly, started reminiscing about Freaky, quite frankly.

I started thinking about how insane that whole thing came about and how fast and how much fun I had on that movie, writing that movie with Chris[topher] Landon when we decided to do it together, we had been friends for only about six months and we became really close making that movie. And it was one of those situations where Chris was like, "Come to set. come be part of this movie from beginning to end. And the whole experience was fantastic. He runs an amazing set, he makes amazing movies. The actors love him, the crew loves him. And I honestly was just sitting there going, "God, I missed that movie." I had so much fun on it. And it made me just kind of go, maybe I can kind of do something similar, kind of tap into that mashup of horror and comedy and of a classic movie.

And I immediately thought of It's a Wonderful Life. So then I was just kind of like, okay, would that work? What would that look like? Also, there was an emotional connection to it. It was my dad's favorite movie and he had passed away a few years earlier. So I was like, oh, this could be kind of fun to weirdly honor him. And it was a movie I knew really well. It was a family staple. Still is. I mean, I grew up in a time when that movie was on 55 times a day, cable television back in the day, or on your local station and you could change the channel ten times, and it would be on all ten channels. Thumbs up. And just did a thumbs up. You'd turn it and it would be at the end of the movie and the next station, it would be at the beginning of the movie, and it was just always around. So I watched it, and that's when I started really thinking about it. And I realized how dark that movie is. Pretty dark.


And it goes to some fucked up places, but it's also super sweet and fun and emotional. And I was like, I think I could do something here. And so I just kind of sat down and was like, what would that look like as a slasher movie where George Bailey is a 17-year-old girl? Kind of snowballed from there.

Perfect. Just to kind of talk craft for a second. As a writer, do you do outlines? Do you do index cards? Or do you just vomit draft a thing and then go back and rework it?

I'll tell you what. I used to vomit draft and go back and work it. But on Freaky, Chris and I did an outline, and I realized during that process how great an outline could be. So, yeah, like, now, like always outline. I outline so specifically, too, that when I'm done with my outline, the script is almost just me adding the dialogue. I find it really helpful. I get really specific in my outlines. In fact, sometimes I have producers be like, there's too much here. But I get so specific that it makes, to me, the hardest part is the story. Right? Once I can outline a story and go, okay, I have the story here. Everything else just kind of flows. Like Chris and I outlined — we outlined longer on Freaky than it took us to write the script because we had the outline so specific and we knew exactly what the movie was. So, yeah, I definitely outlined now, it's super beneficial.

I want to ask about the killer's suit in this, because the first time I saw it, when it popped up on screen, I was like, oh, my God, is that the Virgin Mary from whatever the religious little statues that they do around Christmas time?

Kind of, yeah.

I didn't know what it was at first. Then I thought it was so cool looking. Then it also kind of felt like something out of, like, an old Italian giallo movie.

Yeah, totally. Right?

What was it? Was it always that look on the page, or did something evolve over time?

I don't think I could ever describe that look to a tee because it's so specific. But like I said, I went in knowing it wasn't going to be Santa Claus. And then I started thinking about, what are some other iconic Christmas imagery? And everyone puts an angel on the top of their tree, and it also plays into the virgin birth because she was visited by an angel who's like, poof, you're pregnant. I thought that was interesting, and I just thought it was a really interesting spin. Plus, with snow and stuff, it could kind of blend into the background. But in the script, I described the killer's attire as wearing white, from head to toe. Like I said, white mask, white robe, white gloves, white boots, everything white. And then, I was a little bit more specific with the dagger itself. I described kind of what that looked like from tip to handle, but then they kind of ran with both. Tiana [P. Gordon], our production designer just learned this recently in a meeting. They were talking about the looks of both, and she sketched the dagger, and added those wings to it, which I thought was great because I thought that was the one thing missing from the angel. But we knew right away you couldn't put wings on this killer, it would just look weird and would be hard to maneuver and stuff. So she had the bright idea to put it on the dagger itself, and then the Tye [Lesuer] and Matea [Pasaric], our costume designer, and Tiana, the production designer, they then just sat down and kind of lobbied ideas back and forth on what their interpretation of my description looked like, and then once they kind of figured out that, they then did a bunch of screen tests of material and masks and all this different stuff. So it's crazy how much of a process that really was at the look, but I think the look is super cool.

Yeah, agreed. Agreed.

And that was the other thing I went in going, I want a slasher. We've kind of gotten away from costumes. It's few slashers I've seen. I love Totally Killer, but it's just a dude in a random mask with a hoodie. Been the template lately. So I was like, I want a look. I want a like a "look."

Yeah, you guys definitely accomplished that. It stood out to me. Plus, he's like all in white to her. Like a white silvery kind of look. I thought it did pop on screen really well.

Yeah, super cool.

I just want to ask because he is popping up. I mean, he got his start in the genre, really with films like Jeepers Creepers and whatnot 20 something years ago, but like Justin Long with Barbarian, and now he just popped up in the Goosebumps series on Disney+ and Hulu, I believe, which I thought that's a really good series too. Yeah, this cast is phenomenal. But I just wanted to specifically ask about working with Justin Long. I think he's great.

Yeah. Justin was only there a week. We had very limited time with him. The thing that is great about him from the get-go was, he read the script, he liked the script, but he also basically was like, "I want to do this, but I have an interpretation of it already." And he was just really honest with us and was like, I would love to do this if I make this movie. And so he pitched us that whole look. Like the whole look he has in the movie, he pitched, he was like, I want huge fucking veneers. I want this ugly blonde boyish kind of hair, but kind of sleazy looking, and he's like, and I want to wear blue contacts. I wanted to be spray-tanned and all this stuff. And for a minute, we were all kind of just like, what the fuck?! Like, so out there. But then when he was like, you know, I'm basing this on Joel Osteen. Are you familiar with Joel Osteen?

Oh, my God. My great-grandmother used to send him money.

My God, that's so funny. So when he said that, it clicked for everybody. We're like, oh, he's going with this smarmy, kill him with kindness, where he'll insult you to your face, and you don't even know it. It was very clear that the only actor that could get away with doing that is him. So we were like, okay, let's run with that. So then when he was on set, it was really funny because he would be in that whole costume between tapes, eating food and talking and stuff.

But he also has a really specific, the way he works. He jokes around between takes, but then he always has a few moments before he's going to do another take where he kind of gets back into character, and is just kind of making up conversations with himself of what this dude would sound like. That was really fascinating to watch because you'd be talking to him about the most random thing, and the next thing you know, he'd be over in the corner, and he'd be Henry Waters for a few minutes before he was back on set.

So, it was really interesting to watch. He's definitely an actor's actor, and he takes his work seriously, and for him, I know it's been really exciting to kind of play different, because he's always had this boyish kind of look. He's always been kind of the boyish kid or the nerd, and even in some of his older stuff. So I think he's relishing in his villain era. Play a little bit more, just different types of characters. I never imagined Henry Waters being the way he is. And now I can't imagine it any other way.

I dig it. I don't want to say it's like a renaissance in his career because he's always been around, but I dig the shift, I feel like he's kind of done in the last three to four years. It's been fun to watch.

Yeah. And like, Barbarian's so great. And after watching him work, I'm like, dying to talk to him now. Or like even Zach Cregger, who directed that, and be like, how much of that was Justin? And how much of that was you? So curious to know what he brought to that role. Because the other thing is he's not shy at all. So I can only imagine him taking that and pitching it, pitching all these great things on it and stuff. Some really funny lines in Barbarian that are so funny.

Yeah. In your film, there's like a phenomenal shift in aesthetic style and look of the movie. How I felt like the first 20 minutes my wife came in and kind of watched me watch it.

"You watching Hallmark movie?"

Exactly. She's like, what are you going to do? Are you reviewing a lifetime original? And I was just like, no, it's actually a horror movie, but I think that's the vibe they're going for. It's supposed to kind of look like a Hallmark movie.


And I thought that was going to be the whole film. And then it does that kind of dark shift when the whole it's a wonderful life thing happens. On the page, was it all there? And if it was, when you were shopping the script around, were you nervous about a shift in tone like that?

No. Yeah, it was there. There was like a wholesome. There's what Tyler [MacIntyre] calls the Hallmark book ends. For me, it was also like a way to satirize Hallmark films in and of itself because they're so sweet. They're almost too sweet and there's, like, a toxic positivity to them that I kind of wanted to nail. Put a nail in a little bit. But also with this tonal shift, it does happen in the script quite a bit with just the weirdness of the world and just it kind of being left of center, like off-kilter the whole time.

I kept thinking of like, Back to the Future, Back to Future Two when I was writing that part of the movie. But I know that, yes, the Hallmark aspect was definitely intentional. And I know for Tyler when he read the script, he said he immediately thought of reds and greens for the bookends and then just nothing but blue in the middle part of the movie.

So even little things are different, like the solo cups at the parties. In the first party, they're red, and [in] the second party they're blue. And even, the Letterman's jackets, they're red. In the first part of the movie, they're blue, in the second part of the movie. Even the exit signs at the movie theater go from red to blue. So there was definitely very much a tonal shift, even visually on purpose, to kind of just make everything feel dirty and icky. Even the snow you can see, in the other world was a little bit grey. But it was fun to have go from syrupy sweet to kids doing meth. Yeah, a lot of that was on the page. But Tyler did a really good visual interpretation of it, that you can't really write, you know? It never would have occurred to me to even be like, by the way, the exit signs now are blue.

Wow. In terms of just you in general. And we can kind of compare it to the film, who's your filmmaking inspirations? And did you utilize any of that while crafting the movie, and outside of It's a Wonderful Knife?

Yeah, for sure. I mean, Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven — Scream completely changed my life and its DNA is in me at this point, I feel like. So I feel like I'm always kind of going back to that movie whenever I'm trying to craft my own story. I read a lot of Kevin's old scripts when I'm writing to kind of just, how did he word this? How did he visually describe something? Weirdly, I've been able to become good friends with Kevin in the last few years too. So I have this inspirational friend that I can call, Kevin had several drafts of the script for me and gave me notes, which is fucking wild to think about that. I got notes from Kevin Williamson on a script of mine. And then another person is Chris[topher] Landon. Like, working with Chris on Freaky was like a film school in and of itself, and learned a lot about the writing process in there. And he's someone I still work with and look up to. And, yeah, I'm very fortunate that I have these people in my life now. I can just call on the phone and literally be like, "Hey Kevin, when you were making Scream 2, what were you thinking here?"

It's funny you mentioned Scream because of the way the killer kind of moves, he's very fast-paced. And I did get a Ghostface vibe.

Yeah. I mean, we call him reverse Ghostface on set a lot of the times with his look and stuff. Yeah. And I always knew I wanted, like a very fast, vicious killer. Yeah. I always laugh when it's scary watching the first Halloween because it's Michael's playing with his toys essentially in that movie. But then you watch some of the later ones and you're like, that girl should be a mile ahead of him by now.

Definitely. You mentioned a few Christmas horror movies at the top here. And obviously, It's a Wonderful Knife is going to go into that subgenre. And I think it's a pretty standout film in that subgenre. Do you think we should get more Christmas horror movies? Because I think it's an overlooked subgenre. I know I'm saying that a lot.

Tons of them. Give us as many as you can. Absolutely. There's never enough Christmas horror.

Yeah, agreed, agreed. There's a ton of Hallmark Christmas movies. But yeah.

I want to see a horror version of A Christmas Carol.

Yeah, I mean, I think the George C. Scott one, when Christmas Future kind of shows up, that's actually a horror movie in and of itself.

Know what I saw? You know what I saw on a Christmas horror movie list recently, though, which I thought was interesting, was Scrooged?

I can see it — when he's in the casket and it's on fire, that gives me nightmares as a kid. Yeah, that would be awesome. But to wrap things up here. Yes, sir. Just real quick, what do you want audiences to take away from this film?

I want them to just have fun more than anything. I think a lot of my work, whether it works or not, to people. I think there's an emotional current running through what I do. I want people to take away, just that. The feel-good nature of this one especially, there is a sweetness to it on purpose because it is a Christmas movie at the end of the day. Like you said, I want it to become a part of people's regular rotation.

And also I want queer audiences to really feel good because the reason this movie is completely gay and there's about 20 gay characters in it is because I'm a queer person and I wasn't afforded that when I was a kid. There's a lot of subtext in horror, but there's not a lot of text, and as a person who's able to make movies. I kind of am giving my teenage self, throwing my teenage self some bones, for lack of a better word. And I'm really excited for younger audiences to discover something. Like Chris and I did that in Freaky. We had such a queer current running through that movie because as queer teenagers, we didn't get that. So we're like, well, let's give it to them.

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