Totally Killer: An interview with editor Jeremy Cohen

Jeremy Cohen - Courtesy Impact24 PR
Jeremy Cohen - Courtesy Impact24 PR /

Totally Killer is a spooky season hit on Prime Video. The film has a fierce and charismatic final girl in Jamie Hughes, played by Kiernan Shipka, best known for her role as Sabrina in Netflix’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch reboot. Jamie goes back in time to 1987 to stop the infamous Sweet Sixteen Killer. Totally Killer does a good job balancing an 80s timeline with the present, mixing in some rad needle drops, too. We spoke with editor Jeremy Cohen about the film, including the challenges of balancing the two timelines, the music playlist, and other slashers that served as inspiration.

1428 Elm: Tell me how you got involved with this project. A lot of the work you’ve done has been in TV and comedy as well. Why horror now?

Jeremy: I’ve been a horror fan for a while. I’ve been working a lot in comedy, and I’ve worked a lot with Nahnatchka, the director. We’ve worked on several shows together, like Fresh Off the Boat and Young Rock. We had certain scenes and moments that were a little bit horror spoofy that we had fun working on. So, I think she flagged that I had a certain affinity there. Then, basically, this project was rolling around, and I put my hat in the ring with her. I told her if she needed an editor on the project that I’m around. She then sent me the script. I loved it. I talked to the producers, and we went from there.

1428 Elm: From an editing standpoint, how did you balance both the comedic and horror elements of Totally Killer? It’s difficult to merge the genres and get it right, but with this, the balance works.

Jeremy: There’s two parts to that. The comedy parts are the comedy parts, and the horror parts are the horror parts. There aren’t a ton of laughs when the killer is chasing someone with a knife. We worked on the pace of it, so when you’re watching a scene, you don’t know if a joke will pop out next or the killer. It involved figuring out ways to play with the cutting patterns and tension so you don’t know what’s going to come next. When things arrive, they come at unexpected moments, whether it’s a laugh or a death.

For instance, in the beginning of the film, we had a few more jokes and some scare misleads before the first actual killer encounter. We ended up streamlining all of that because we wanted to keep it moving and have some laughs, but keep it grounded within the family, so when things take a darker turn, it’s serious. We weren’t scared to go a little more brutal than you might expect from a comedy.

Totally Killer
Totally Killer – Courtesy Blumhouse / Amazon Prime /

1428 Elm: Tell me about some of the songs chosen for Totally Killer, especially the ones from the 80s. Is it true that you shared your own 80s playlist?

Jeremy: I’m a music addict. I listen to tons of stuff. Nahnatchka and I have worked together on several projects. She loves to get some source music in there. Even back on Fresh Off the Boat, she’d say, “Oh, we need a hip-hop song.” I’d say, “Let’s put a Tribe Called Quest in there.” When it came to this project, she had a playlist that she had started working on, and then she threw it to me. I added a bunch of stuff and so did the music supervisor. When I’m putting my cut together, I’ll put in a bunch of songs, and we’ll figure it out later, if we like the song, if we want to pay for it. Sometimes, we may switch a song out, and then we’ll discuss.

Let the Music Play was one of Nahnatchka’s suggestions. It plays really well and brings out creepy undertones in that song. I had Lady in Red in my first cut of that scene. I wanted to flip this and take it from a romantic song to a dark, twisted thing. It was really fun to take these songs and flip them on their heads a bit.

1428 Elm: I loved the use of Killing Moon by Echo & the Bunneymen in Totally Killer. It’s also a cool callback to Donnie Darko. That was one of my favorite tracks.

Jeremy: I know it’s been used, but I love the song. I just dropped it to see how it played. Everybody loved it. Our composer is Mike Andrews, who did Donnie Darko.

1428 Elm: What were some of the challenges of balancing the 80s timeline with the present day? I’d imagine that can be tricky from a storytelling and editing standpoint.

Jeremy: We wanted transitions to help you know where you were. There’s a bit in there, where we cut from the fresh 80s Billy the Beaver to a dilapidated beaver. There aren’t that many scenes in 2023, and they’re straight forward. With the present timeline, we kept it grounded more in comedy and the family life. When you go back in the 80s, it gets a little bit bigger in terms of the volleyball game, the 80s mom who hasn’t tried the cocaine, and all that kind of stuff. Our DP and production designers did a really cool job distinguishing visually between the two as well.

1428 Elm: What’s one of your favorite sequences from the film in terms of editing?

Jeremy: What I guess is the first kill or fight sequence was really fun to put together. The actress, who will remain nameless, unless we have a spoiler alert, did a lot of her own stunts. It was really fun to get to use the footage of her doing these stunts and just to work on selling the intensity and brutality of that scene. There’s a lot of little editing tricks, like speed ups and cutting a frame here and there. It’s interesting because some small little frame difference can make a difference between whether or not a hit or stab sells or if people think it looks weird.

The finale of the movie, which I guess I can say is on The Gravitron since photos have been released, that was a really fun sequence just to work on building the tension. One of the issues that we kept coming against is that you have a machine spinning, but you’re inside of it. It gets faster and faster. How do you sell that editorially when you’re just seeing people inside? We had to gradually add elements, like an exterior of The Gravitron. We started adding more electricity. We added some shake and shutter of the image as it went faster. Then, our sound team did a really great job. You heard the elevation of the speed of the thing. You hear metal creaking. You can hear the stress it’s under.

Totally Killer
Totally Killer – Courtesy Blumhouse / Amazon Prime /

1428 Elm: That whole sequence is one of my favorites, probably that and the opening!

Jeremy: Oh, so you’re choosing the same scenes. [Laughs].

1428 Elm: Were there any specific slashers you turned to as inspiration for this project? I know that Scream, Halloween, and a few other films are mentioned in Totally Killer.

Jeremy: I rewatched Scream and I watched Halloween again and again. There’s a fair number of references to Halloween in here. There are a couple shots of her [Jamie] on the sidewalk, with the wind blowing. She turns. Those are pretty explicit references to Halloween. Even the opening shot, with everyone trick or treating and crossing the street. There’s also a pull-out from the house, which is somewhat of an homage to Halloween. There’s even a part where the killer stabs someone and does a Michael Myers head nod. This is a bit of a spoiler, but there’s the part where he comes out of the closet. It parallels Halloween and Scream, that beat where the person thinks the killer is the man they’re about to hook up with.

I referenced all of those and Freaky and Happy Death Day and Back to the Future. I used a lot of temp score from Halloween when putting this together and John Carpenter throughout. We also reference some of the music from X, which has that sing-songy soundtrack by Chelsea Wolfe.

1428 Elm: What’s next for you, and anything else you want to add?

Jeremy: Right now, I’m hoping the actors can reach a resolution with the AMPTP. They’re still in negotiations right now. They’re not able to do interviews or talk about the film. They’re not able to bask in the righteous glory that they should be receiving. They all did such a great job on the film. I do want to say how amazing the whole cast was, especially Kiernan and Olivia who just knocked it out of the park.

I’m in a little bit in a holding pattern until the strike is revolved. I support the actors and all for them getting what they need from their contract before any of us go back to work.

1428 Elm: Thanks so much for chatting with us, Jeremy!

Totally Killer is streaming on Prime Video.

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