Totally Killer director Nahnatchka Khan has quietly become one of the preeminent comedic voices in town.
As the creator of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and Fresh Off the Boat, Khan took her sensibilities to feature films in 2019, helming the well-received Netflix romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe. The rom-com, which starred Khan’s frequent collaborators Ali Wong and Randall Park, was embraced by 89 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and managed to make an impact in an overcrowded streaming market. Keanu Reeves’ role as a version of himself and his subsequent kiss-blowing meme certainly factored into Always Be My Maybe’s success, and it’s become one of the go-to examples of how Netflix has kept the rom-com alive in an era where the major studios no longer prioritize the genre.
Khan is now back with her second feature, Totally Killer, which lends her comedic instincts to the genre mashup of a time-travel slasher film. The Amazon Prime Video release centers on Jamie — who’s portrayed by Khan’s Don’t Trust the B guest star Kiernan Shipka — as the teenager travels back in time to stop the serial killer who not only killed her mother (Julie Bowen) in 2023, but also murdered her mother’s high school friends in 1987.
Time-travel movies have always been a welcomed subgenre, as everyone has regrets that they wish they could set right. And besides that form of wish fulfillment, Khan also chalks it up to control at a time when the world feels particularly out of control.
“It’s the idea of having that control,” Khan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s anything that makes you feel like you have some sense of control in a world that is normally outside of your control. Things are happening and you have no say in them, so to have that control is really appealing in a narrative sense.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Khan also discusses the ubiquitous Keanu meme, her desire to reunite with her Don’t Trust the B star Krysten Ritter and some Totally Killer spoilers.
So your feature debut, Always Be My Maybe, was well received, and it managed to stand out, which isn’t the case for a lot of streaming releases. It even spawned a meme or two. How difficult was it to figure out what your follow-up was going to be?
Honestly, because I was so satisfied with the experience of Always Be My Maybe, I knew that I didn’t want to jump right into another rom-com right after that. I just felt really good about what we had accomplished, so I knew that I wanted to branch out and do something different. Everything I do will always have humor in it. It’ll be something-comedy, and it was just a matter of finding the exact right thing that felt fresh and that I could sink my teeth into and make interesting.
Kiernan Shipka’s character time-travels to 1987 to prevent her mother’s (Julie Bowen) murder in 2023. Since you tend to rehire a lot of your former collaborators, was your Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 guest star (Shipka) in mind fairly early?
I was so thrilled [when we cast her], but I wasn’t sure if she would remember. She was 11 or 12 when she came onto Don’t Trust the B, and I was like, “I don’t know if you remember …” And Kieran, because she’s such an amazing actor and professional, was like, “Oh, of course [I remember]. I loved this, I loved this …” She started calling out all these things from the script in 2012, and so it was amazing to work with her again. The reunion was so much fun, but we have to get James Van Der Beek for the true reunion.
I’ve thought a lot about why we’re so drawn to time-travel movies, and I think it’s mostly because we all have regrets that we wish we could remedy. Yes, Jamie (Shipka) is trying to prevent her mother’s murder, but underneath it all, she truly regrets the way she treated her. Did you come up with your own reasoning for why we find time travel movies so appealing?
I think you’ve hit it exactly on the head. It’s the idea that you could go back and change decisions that you’ve made or somehow affect things that have happened even outside of you. In a way it’s quite narcissistic. You feel like these things that you have done have affected all these people, and sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong. So it’s the idea of having that control. Back in the day, when Choose Your Own Adventure first came out, those [gamebooks] were so huge because it was the idea of controlling the narrative as the reader or as anybody, really. With video games, you can decide to go down the corridor or open the door. Game shows: what’s behind door number one or door number three? So it’s anything that makes you feel like you have some sense of control in a world that is normally outside of your control. Things are happening and you have no say in them, so to have that control is really appealing in a narrative sense.
For slasher movies, a memorable mask is everything. How many concepts did you go through until you landed on your Gary Busey meets Zack Morris concoction?
Amazing description. We went through a ton because, as you said, it’s everything. It’s got to feel unique, but it’s got to feel scary and that there’s a thinking behind it. And the thing that I loved was the idea of just a handsome man being terrifying. That’s the thing that I kept coming back to, and if we could land on what that looks like, it would not only feel scary in the way that we wanted but also feel a little relevant to today. Even though most of the movie takes place in the ‘80s, there’s just something sinister about it in 2023 as well. So I wanted something that didn’t just feel like it lived in the ‘80s. In this town where these murders happened, it’s the lore of the town and people dress up like the killer, and so I wanted that to feel current but also timeless. So we pulled a bunch of ‘80s heartthrob references, and Tony Gardner and his team at Alterian put together many different versions until we landed on him.
Was it a daunting exercise to cast two different actors for the same character 36 years apart?
It was! It wasn’t easy, but we had a great casting department: Terri [Taylor] at Blumhouse and Tiffany Mak for our Canadian casting. It was a challenge in a fun way. When you’re not just blue-skying it and you’ve got a target that you’re trying to hit, it frees you in a lot of ways. You’re like, “Alright, who’s going to look like an older Olivia Holt? Who’s going to look like a younger Julie Bowen? How are we going to navigate this?” Yellowjackets casts two versions of the same character amazingly well.
Liana Liberato must’ve gone straight from your set to Scream VI. Given the genre overlap between the two films, did she ever spill the beans about who she was playing?
She sure didn’t! I was like, “Hey, just between us, what’s going on?” But she was very professional about it and kept it tight.
Some filmmakers have good luck charms. Sam Raimi has Bruce Campbell; Chris Nolan has Michael Caine. Is Randall Park your Bruce Campbell and Michael Caine?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I tell Randall all the time that I would work with him for the rest of my life if he’ll allow it. I just think he’s so talented. He’s such an amazing actor, person and collaborator, and I want to have him in every single thing I do.
This is a fun movie that likely plays well amongst a crowd, and I have to imagine it tested well. Did anyone try to twist Jason Blum’s arm to make a push for theatrical?
You’d first have to catch him in his Blumhouse van before you can twist his arm, and I don’t know if anybody was able to run down that van. But seriously, I don’t know. Yes, I am so happy with the response that it’s gotten and that it is a good crowd-pleasing movie, but I have no idea what goes into the decisions of what goes to streaming and what goes in theaters. I’m just thrilled that Amazon is behind it so strongly, and hopefully, everybody can watch it. It’s a fun group watch, for sure. And so if it can’t be in the theater, it would be so fun for people to gather friends and family to watch it together on Amazon at the start of spooky season.
The toilet plunger hall pass. Did someone in your props department have firsthand experience with one of those in real life?
I sure did. In my middle school, I think the teachers tried to think of the most embarrassing things for some reason. The plunger was one, a deflated basketball was another. It was really just whatever the most cumbersome, annoying thing that they could attach to that bathroom pass we had to carry.
My favorite running gag is the lack of security in 1987. Jamie is so used to the red tape of 2023 that she’s taken aback by how lax everything was then.
I quite enjoyed that, and it’s so true. People now poke holes in movies that came out pre-Internet. Midnight Run or whatever couldn’t happen today because you have your phone. People are no longer trying to get to a specific place to receive a phone call. So the difference in technology and the way society functions was really fun for us.
When it’s all said and done and your legacy is decided, will you be perfectly content if you’re known as the filmmaker who gifted the world the meme of Keanu blowing a kiss?
(Laughs.) I would be so content. That still from the movie might even be the image on my tombstone. What a legacy.
Did you have a contingency plan in the event that he said no?
Ali [Wong], Randall and I were just like, “Alright, that’s who they wanted. That was who was in the script.” And so when we sent it to [Keanu], we were like, “Here we go!” And then the more professional studio people were like, “Okay, but now let’s start our real list. Who could we possibly go to?” They were always very careful to say “if he says no” instead of when. So we were just wrapping our heads around making a backup list, and then we heard back from his agents that he read it and enjoyed it and wanted to sit down and talk about it. So we didn’t really have to go through with any backups, thankfully.
You mentioned Ali Wong, who’s your other good luck charm. You worked together on Always Be My Maybe, as well as her last stand-up special and Fresh Off the Boat. Were you the least bit surprised by her dramatic role in Beef earlier this year? Did you know she could do that?
I was truly not shocked. I just know what she’s capable of, and when she signs on to something, nobody works harder and is more dedicated than Ali. She told me about it, and I was like, “This makes so much sense. I know you’re going to crush it.” And then seeing the finished product, I was blown away, even while expecting her to be great at something that was completely different from anything we’d seen her do. It was masterful. I thought she just really crushed it.
When the industry gets back on its feet, will your third feature be your top priority, or will it be your next series?
Tough question, but I’m so looking forward to having that champagne problem. It’s been so crazy out here during this summer of strikes, and it’s just going to depend on what thing emerges first. But I truly enjoy going back and forth between the two mediums, and everything is so blended now anyway. It’s just about the best storytelling venue for each story.
In 2020, it was reported that you and Krysten Ritter were reuniting for a dark comedy/serial killer series. Are the two of you still hoping to pull something off?
We sure are. I love Krysten, and she and I have been talking about that and other projects, pre-strike. She’s another person that’s just so much fun to work with, and she’s so surprising as a performer and as an artist. For a while, we’ve been like, “It would be fun to do a Don’t Trust the B reunion, somehow, and get everybody back together.” I don’t know if it’d be for a Christmas special or something like that, but there’ll definitely be something with Krysten, for sure.
We’re currently talking during the WGA strike. Is there a particular issue that’s most important to you?
Personally, getting rid of the idea of the mini room is important to me. My friends and I know the experience and value of having enough time and capacity to really do justice to a season of television. Every show is different. Six episodes to 24 episodes can constitute one season, but not squeezing the creative process is very important for the longevity of the business and writing television.
[Writer’s Note: We are now entering into spoiler territory for Totally Killer.]
So I guessed the present-day killer pretty early, but I did not identify the past killer. I thought it was going to be Pam’s mother in 1987. The idea was that she killed her daughter’s friends because she blamed them for turning her daughter into a bit of a jerk and straining their relationship. That would’ve also explained why she’s an estranged grandmother in 2023.
I love that. You’re only the second person who’s had that as a theory, but that was the reason why we kept those references in that one little moment where [Pam’s mother] comes down into the basement in the ‘80s. It was just to thread that through as a possibility, so that is an amazing guess. So you guessed the present-day killer early on, but when the killer in the ‘80s was unmasked as Doug, were you like, “Oh shit, I was wrong”? And then when Chris came back later, were you like, “No, I was right!”?
Exactly! Chris was not a very respected podcaster, and so I figured that the legacy of his Pulitzer-winning father would likely have a negative effect on him.
Yeah, for sure. I was like, “Well, if people think it’s Chris, they’ll be like, ‘Oh shit, I was wrong,’ when Doug is unmasked.” So even if you were sure of who it was, there’s a surprise until it ultimately winds up with Chris. But Pam’s mom is a cool guess.
When Jamie seeks out her friend’s mom [Troy L. Johnson’s Lauren] in the past, I liked that Lauren instantly believed that she was from the future. The movie didn’t go for that trope of having her retell some obscure story like Marty McFly had to do with Doc Brown. In 1955, Doc didn’t believe Marty was from the future until Marty said that he came up with the flux capacitor after hitting his head on a sink.
I know, I liked that, too. I like when characters just buy in, and obviously, not everyone can do that because then everybody would feel crazy. But that character felt really appropriate because she’s been working on time travel and believes it’s possible. She has a line in the movie where she’s like, “You have to account that something like this could possibly happen.” So it’s that scientific brain that says, “Listen, if I believe that the science is sound, then this has to be a possibility.”
You pretty much had the time-travel mechanics of Back to the Future, minus the vanishing acts. When you signed on, did you have to tweak any of those rules?
Jen D’Angelo is an amazing writer, and when she came on to do a pass of the script, we added the element of essentially cutting back to 2023 during the movie. In Back to the Future, you’re stuck with Marty the whole time, and for us, it was interesting to add this [back-and-forth] element. It keeps [Adult] Chris alive. It also keeps the connection between Lauren and [her daughter] Amelia alive, and allows us to see what Jamie’s actions are changing in present day. [Adult] Chris is this podcaster who’s obsessed with this case and knows every single detail, and now things are changing in real time because of Jamie. So the movie goes into a sort of Mandela Effect. It’s the idea that you think something happened, but did it really happen? And what does that mean? So that was an element that we added, and it was a cool kind of wrinkle to see the present-day effects in real time.
Totally Killer is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. This interview was edited for length and clarity.