With just under $17 million in international grosses, Jason X is one of the worst-performing installments in the Friday The 13th series, and its Rotten Tomatoes score hovers around 19 percent fresh. But in a rarified category of horror sequels that catapult their earthbound monsters into previously unprecedented science-fiction settings (among them Critters 4, Hellraiser: Bloodline, and Leprechaun In Space), Jim Isaacs’ film—which turned 20 at the end of April—is arguably the best, as it combines the red meat thrills of one of cinema’s most iconic slasher franchises and the rhythms of bona fide classics like Aliens (with a knowing wink). There’s even an appearance by none other than David Cronenberg as an evil scientist.
To commemorate the film’s 20th anniversary, screenwriter Todd Farmer (Drive Angry) sat down for a no-holds-barred conversation about the making of Jason X. In addition to discussing the bigger and better sci-fi adventures he admits he stole from to create a futuristic Friday the 13th film that would not compete with the then-forthcoming Freddy Vs. Jason, the self-deprecating screenwriter talked about how he got connected with director and Jason Voorhees rights holder Sean Cunningham, the surprising lessons he learned about creating scenarios that the production’s modest $10 million budget couldn’t bring to fruition, and the legacy of both his career and the franchise.
The A.V. Club: How did Jason X come about, and what made “Jason goes to space” the right idea?
Todd Farmer: Sean Cunningham was frustrated because Freddy vs. Jason had been in development for freaking ages, and it didn’t look like it was going to get any better. He was like, “we’re just going to make our own Jason movie.” And so he called [director Jim Isaac] in, who he’d known from working with Jimmy for years in special effects. And so Jimmy came in and we tossed around ideas.
We actually had the idea, and I don’t know how legitimate it was, but we certainly laughed about it, that Jason would break out of hell, but he would have the help of Gilbert Gottfried, who was also in hell—playing Gilbert Gottfried. And it would just be this sort of weird ass sidekick team breaking out of hell, and Gilbert trying to keep him calm when he’s killing everybody. And we thought, after the ninth movie, why not? But my concern was always with Freddy Vs. Jason. I didn’t want to do something that then their movie has to either ignore or deal with us. And so I said, “Let’s set this thing in the future like four or five hundred years, and let’s do something kind of sci-fi with it because that’s never been done.” And originally it was sort of a Blade Runner world, so the world has advanced and somebody finds Jason cryogenically. And then they were like, “We can’t afford to create what you’re talking about,” which was true [laughs]. And I was like, “What about Alien? I mean, that’s just a warehouse that’s designed to look like a cargo ship.” And so that’s where it came from. It was, you just take out the aliens and put in Jason. So we didn’t have truckers in space, we had a school bus in space—at least that was the original concept.
AVC: What put you in the position to be pitching this in the first place?
TF: I had gone to Freed-Hardeman Christian College, and I met a guy who had gone to school with Dean Lorey, who had written Jason Goes To Hell. Another friend that Dean had gone to school with was my best friend’s girlfriend, and she was doing Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. She made the introduction with Dean Lorey, who said, “If you really want to do this thing, you’re going to have to move out here.” So I moved to L.A., and he introduced me to Sean. We originally went in with this movie that Dean was going to direct called Lycanthrope, and it was a comedy about werewolves. We ended up not going any further with that, but that’s how Sean ended up paying me for three years.
AVC: What status was the franchise in when you came in and started pitching this?
TF: To my understanding we could do whatever we wanted. Sean had the rights when Freddy Vs. Jason started, so we started working on our take. Now, I knew going in that [Mike] DeLuca didn’t like the idea of lightning bringing Jason back and he hated Camp Crystal Lake. So I structured this so it had nothing to do with with that. Jason comes back because two teenagers are fucking. DeLuca liked all that, and I thought that we got a green light because I was really brilliant, and I had come up with all these wonderful things. But I think at the end of the day, it’s because Sean went to them and said, “If you don’t make this movie, I’m taking Jason away from Freddy Vs. Jason.” I’m almost certain that’s what actually went down. And good on him! That’s a way to make it happen. But it certainly was a wake up call for me—wait, so I’m not brilliant? Turns out I was not, no.
AVC: Not only does the movie start in hell, but the opening credits are a POV from inside Jason’s head. How much of that was in the script?
TF: The first time I saw that concept, I was sitting in a theater. That was all Jimmy. It wasn’t in the script. I’m glad he did it. And all of that wet gooeyness is because Jim Isaac was David Cronenberg’s special effects guy and Cronenberg was known for moist gore. And so that opening, the combination of Hell and the gore, I didn’t come up with that. That’s Jimmy’s brilliance.
AVC: I assume that it was Jim who brought in Cronenberg for his small role in the film.
TF: Jimmy wanted us to use Cronenberg’s effects team, which was Jimmy’s effects team. And so he’d gone to David out of respect and said, “Do you mind if I use the guys on this?” And Cronenberg said, “I don’t mind at all, but you have to cast me.” What kind of confidence does it take for Cronenberg to say, “Yeah, I want to be in the tenth installment of the Friday the 13th franchise.” I remember I was I was stuck in a hotel room with Dean Lorey. We were doing a late in the draft polish, and somebody had reached out and said, “Cronenberg’s rewriting all of your lines,” and they were saying it in a way as if I would be offended. “I just wanted to let you know. Don’t be upset, but David’s kind of making some changes.” And I was like, “That’s great! I’m going to get credit for that.” And when he says, “I don’t want him frozen, I want him soft,” that’s not me. That’s Cronenberg.
AVC: What were some of the exciting moments of watching your screenplay come to life on set?
TF: I’d given all of these Marine-type grunts these earpieces so they could talk to each other, and I remember walking on set and somebody had made those. We were going to have to have these molds put in our ears because I was playing one of the characters, and I just remember thinking, man, be careful what you write, because that was just sort of a throwaway thing that I never thought about and now somebody’s actually physically making these things that we put in our ears.
AVC: The film opens with a scene of Jason chained up in an abattoir—and then he escapes. How important was your fandom or knowledge of Friday the 13th minutia in developing this installment?
TF: You know the term “the convention of theater?” I believe there is a convention of horror as well. And one example of that is that you would run and run and run, and Jason and Michael [Myers] were both right behind you, but they were walking. And there’s this suspension of belief in that they can do that. And it was the same thing for Jason being chained up. He was literally waiting for a reason to escape. And what you don’t see is there was a scene where the guard has his girlfriend come in, and she’s hanging all over Jason while the kid is taking pictures of her—and she grabs Kane’s crotch. And it’s shortly after that Kane gets out. So that was the reason for the escape, but then that ended up getting cut.
But I did want Jason to have a reason why he heals, and that is for whatever reason, he regenerates. He’s like Wolverine. And at the same time, when he wants to get out of chains, for the most part, he can. He can’t unfreeze himself. But fate does that for him.
AVC: How did your ideas change when the film went into production?
TF: I always saw Aliens, this dark, gritty world. And when I started seeing the sets being built and the lighting, to me it was very Star Trek, very colorful. The same thing with the design of what we ended up calling Uber Jason. I think actually Sean gave him the name Uber, but that was much, much cleaner and much more RoboCop, which is understandable considering the guy who designed him designed RoboCop. But I had foreseen something that was metal and flesh meshed together. There was a whole sequence when they break Jason out of this facility in the beginning, where these robotic spiders drop out of the ceiling and shoot at them because they’re countermeasures to protect Jason from ever getting loose. And I remember DeLuca saying, “Yeah, we just did Lost In Space. That whole spider thing really doesn’t work.” So, no spiders.
AVC: It sounds like a trial by fire of learning how executives foist demands onto filmmakers. Were there any other things you were forced to add or adjust?
TF: I had Aliens stuck in my head. I didn’t have the humor that [the success of] Scream brought to the horror world. But I realized that if I didn’t do it, it was just going to be written into it. So I ended up writing in this self-aware humor. When a character falls on a big screw, I added the dialog, “He’s screwed.” Now I look back on it and it’s funny, but at the time, I was precious. In retrospect, it’s probably for the better because it was the tenth movie and I was taking it seriously and no one else in the world was going to. But there were a lot of things along the way, like a lot of people reference the face freeze as being a very good kill, the liquid nitrogen scene. And it wasn’t my idea. Sean’s son Noel called me up one day and was rambling on about liquid nitrogen, and you should use that and somebody gets frozen and they get broken apart. So always from the beginning, again going back to Dean Reisner, he would say, “Good writers write. Great writers steal.” And so when somebody gives you a great idea, you shouldn’t be precious about it. And the dialog, “Would you want to smoke pot and have premarital sex?” That again was Noel’s line. But I was smart enough to recognize that is a damn good line and put it into the script.
AVC: Watching the movie, there are obvious and deliberate references to Alien and other films. Were there other references that went into the script or that you were drawing upon?
TF: If you break down the futuristic portion of Jason X and break down Aliens, you’ll have the same beats, which is you get there and you discover that there is a threat and so you send the grunts in to take action. There’s a scene where, “We’ll get to the shuttle and we will escape and then we’ll nuke it from the from orbit.” And so I absolutely ripped off Aliens in a structural sense. But again, I was trying to recreate that feeling, and I never saw that as a problem. If anything, I was a huge Cameron fan, and still am.
AVC: What responsibility were you given in terms of ratcheting up that death count?
TF: No one ever said, “Go kill a bunch of people.” I mean, I was introducing all of these “red shirts” as marines, and I was going to have a school, so I was going to have all these extra characters that I could kill off. And then because we were in space, I always had this idea that there would be an opportunity to be saved by going to a space station—and then they just plow right through the space station because of something Jason does. And I always loved that. I mean, it looks kind of hokey, but at the same time, I always liked the idea of here’s this guy who has been hacking up young virgins since the ’80s and when given the opportunity to drive a ship through a city and make it explode, he does that [laughs]. And I remember there was about maybe 15 minutes of pure terror after 9/11, and I don’t think anyone ever said anything about it, but certainly there were some people who were concerned that that was going to be an issue. But the movie had been shelved for so long at that point, I don’t think it mattered.
AVC: You mentioned the idea of Jason being resurrected because people have sex, which plays with the tropes of the franchise. Was that something that you were thinking very deliberately about to make the links between sex and death more Friday the 13th-esque?
TF: I specifically remember writing it so that it was intercutting back and forth. So he kisses her navel and Jason’s frozen finger moves, and then he’s slowly disrobing her in some way and Jason’s ankle twitches. And then penetration has just taken place and Jason sits straight bolt upright. I mean, it was always the intention. That was Betsy’s big argument, that “[the Crystal Lake counselors] were all doing drugs, having sex and drinking, and my kid died.” And I always felt like Jason, wherever he was, he heard mom making this monologue. And that was always in my head back in the day, before I even knew I was going to move out here to make movies.
AVC: For the Friday the 13thfranchise, the nudity in this film was fairly tame.
TF: That’s my fault, because I always hated gratuitous nudity. I hated the idea that we were making women take their clothes off for the for the pure reason of making women take their clothes off. And I hated it in horror movies. But in the 11th hour, Sean came to me and said, “We have to have nudity.” And so I wrote the sequence with the campers and the VR where they take their tops off—and they purely make fun of it, which is what I wanted to do. And then Noel came up with lines. And so all of that worked out perfectly. And then if you look later into my silly, floundering career, I do nudity in the movies because if I’m going to ask Betsy [Rue] to take her clothes off [in My Bloody Valentine 3D], if I’m going to ask Christa [Campbell] to take her clothes off [in Drive Angry], then I’m gonna take my clothes off, too. Because it’s only fair. If men are going to make women take their clothes off, then men have to take their clothes off too. That’s how it goes.
AVC: Be it from Sean Cunningham or other people who have worked on the franchise for years, were there rules you were given to adhere to regarding the Friday the 13th mythology?
TF: Yes, there are definitely rules. The first one was in the original VR sequence, when the kids are trying to figure out how to be rescued. The guy doing it discovers Jason’s mother so he recreates Jason’s mother and has her drowning out in the water. And so Jason goes out to his mother. And in the first draft, he goes out to his mother and he dunks her and he drowns her. And Sean and Jimmy both lost their shit. They were like, “You cannot do that! There is only one consistent in Jason, and that is he loves his mother.” So Jimmy suggested that I rewrite it so that he saves his mom, but when he pulls her out of the water she’s not fully rendered from the waist down, and so it’s like this wire mesh of rendering and that breaks the spell. And that’s what we put in there, and then they couldn’t make a financial agreement with Betsy Palmer, so it didn’t happen. But yes, that is definitely a rule.
And then Kane let us know that there is one more rule that we didn’t even know existed—and that is, you never see Jason get up. You can knock him down three or four times, but you never see him get up. He was like, “Don’t do that. Because it’s awkward, and you never want to see Jason be that human.” And I was like, that’s fucking brilliant! So I didn’t have a problem with that. Kane had been protecting that character for freaking ages. It had been like nine or ten years since there had been a Jason movie, and Kane had kept the franchise alive, going to convention after convention. So he had a right to make that call, I think.
AVC: Is there a kill that you’re especially proud of?
TF: I’m still proud of the the cryo-kill because it wasn’t my idea, but I certainly staged the kill. But I’m proud of it because of the effects team. Because a lot of times when I talk about the movie that kill will come up, and it comes up not because of the idea, but because of how the effects team pulled it off. It’s a fascinating special effect, considering that there’s no CGI. It is a physical effect that they created. But there are other kills that I hated. Like I remember, someone showed me a production drawing of what looked like a golf cart, but it had a massive drill bit on the front of it. And the moment you saw it, you’re like, “I guess that’s gonna be a thing we’re going to build, and somebody is going to fall on it.” And it’s just the hokeyest thing ever.
But my two favorite kills are Doug, the character that I’m in the VR scene with in the beginning of the movie. Doug gets picked up, Jason breaks Doug’s back, and then throws Doug to the floor—and that’s a stunt lady. He throws her to the cement floor, and when she hits that floor, there is no life in that body. And to this day, I see that and I cringe. It just stuns me. And then my death is literally Kane just shoving my head into a wall, and they had cut a hole in the wall, and it’s covered in this black fabric. And Kane wouldn’t let me do the stunt. I was like, “What are you talking about?” I don’t know if you remember the beginning of X-Men, but there’s this big bald dude who’s fighting Wolverine in a cage. Well, that big bald dude is the guy who comes in and doubles for me in the faraway shot. And so when Kane’s leading him up to the wall, he misses the hole and he completely shattered his nose on a two by four. So those weren’t really the best kills, but they were the most dangerous. People walked away bruised after those.
AVC: One of the things I really like is the Empire Strikes Back ending of this movie. Was that another reference that you wrote, or did that just kind of come together organically?
TF: You’re actually the first person who’s ever said that. But I had always thought those two characters would be two of the characters in the next movie, and they would join forces with the survivors from this movie. The ending of Empire Strikes Back, I’d never seen anything like it. The story wasn’t over, how can you end like this? And so I always felt the same way about Jason X. He’s landed on Earth, and here are these two kids saying, “Let’s go check it out.” You want to see what happens next!
AVC: What was your immediate response to the finished film?
TF: I was still distracted by what I wanted the movie to be. And then there was the fact that this whole concept of Uber Jason was developed as a surprise—and the poster comes out first and he’s on the poster. I’m like, he doesn’t show up until like 80 minutes into the movie! That’s supposed to be a big surprise—and then they put it in the trailer. So I just didn’t understand, and the movie opens to $3 million. Nobody goes to see it. So I was distracted by a lot of that stuff when the movie came out. But it is far and beyond what I deserved for it to be. Certainly there are a lot of people who are like, it’s horrible, it’s the worst of the franchise, and they can think that—but they’re wrong. I mean, people who say that clearly haven’t seen Jason Takes Manhattan.
AVC: With Freddy Vs. Jason on deck, did you feel like your time with Friday the 13th or Jason was done? Or did this inspire any other ideas going forward?
TF: Well, I’d heard the rumor that Kevin had three movies designed when he did Scream, which as a marketing ploy was brilliant. But I didn’t know it wasn’t true, and so I came up with the concept for two more movies to follow Jason X, because I expected Jason X would do well. And it didn’t, so those obviously never, ever came to fruition and never will. But at the same time, the franchise will move on hopefully one day if Sean and Victor can get their acts together.
AVC: Is there a scene or a kill or an idea that you have since taken from those sequel ideas that you put into another one of your movies?
TF: I introduced during all of this that teleportation is, like, weeks away from being invented, and time travel could happen. And so once you have Uber Jason on your planet, you’re going to try to get rid of him, so they’re going to send him through through a wormhole—but they accidentally send him through a time machine. And so Uber Jason comes back, probably at the beginning of Friday the 13th Part 2, so that he faces off with Jason in a burlap sack. And this part came later once I became friends with Derek Mears [who played Jason in Friday the 13th2009], but you’d take Kane and Derek Mears and let them fight it out in the third movie. But I don’t think I’ve used any of those ideas for anything else.
AVC: What has the legacy of this film been or meant for you?
TF: Well, it’s your baby, it’s your first movie. I wish I could go back and appreciate it more than I did at the time. But certainly everything that I know today was spawned out of that experience. Sean and I butted heads all the time, especially creatively, but he did pull me under his wing. He paid me for three years. I didn’t get rich off of it. I made a thousand bucks a week and I got a little bit of a raise every year. And then I think when Jason came out, I got a $15,000 bonus or something. But I got paid to learn how to be a screenwriter. So I don’t know that I have a legacy, but I certainly have an appreciation for being allowed into this special little playground.