When Nahnatchka Khan initiated a video call with Kiernan Shipka to discuss the lead role in her new slasher comedy Totally Killer, she assumed the actress wouldn’t remember her. Khan had directed Shipka in an early episode of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, one of a few sitcoms she has created, but Shipka was all of 11 years old at the time. Turns out she didn’t need any reminding. Khan gently mentioned their history, and Shipka immediately started ticking off specific memories about the pair’s collaboration.
That Khan thought she might be forgotten speaks to her unassuming nature. Despite a writing résumé that includes Malcolm in the Middle, American Dad!, Fresh Off the Boat (which she created), Young Rock (which she also created), and the popular Netflix romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe (which she directed), Khan has never hogged the spotlight, content to let her scripts do the talking. That’s rare in comedy, where big personalities tend to get ahead. Then again, Khan, who grew up in a small, relaxed Hawaiian town, is a rare breed herself: an Iranian American lesbian who has thrived in Hollywood, seemingly without fail, for the better part of three decades.
With Shipka on strike alongside the rest of the Screen Actors Guild, Khan is the sole promotional face of Totally Killer, which closed out Fantastic Fest in Austin last week and will debut on Prime Video this Friday. Usually she can take a back seat to the A-listers in her casts, people like Ali Wong, Randall Park, Constance Wu, Dwayne Johnson, and Krysten Ritter. Not this time. In an age when many showrunners are household names, it’s Khan’s moment to shine.
Totally Killer came to Nahn through the prolific horror producer Jason Blum, who requested a meeting with her after Always Be My Maybe came out in 2019. She brought in her friend Jen D’Angelo, an alumna of Young Rock and Workaholics, to help punch up an existing script Blum gave Khan about a small town as haunted by the so-called Sweet Sixteen Killer as Haddonfield is by Michael Myers. The assassin only struck once, murdering three 16-year-old girls more than three decades ago, but locals live in fear of more bloodshed. Every Halloween, trick-or-treaters wearing copycat masks stalk the streets.
The movie, naturally, is about the killer’s present-day return. Combining classic slasher tropes with Back to the Future-esque time travel, Totally Killer stars Shipka as Jamie, a hip 17-year-old who returns home on Halloween night to find her mother (Julie Bowen) slaughtered. With the help of her best friend (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before‘s Kelcey Mawema) and a little science fiction, she returns to 1987, which might let Jamie prevent Mr. Sweet Sixteen’s original rampage, saving her mom—and herself—from doom.
“You don’t feel the gearshift of the comedy and the horror in the movie,” Khan told The Daily Beast’s Obsessed over lunch in Austin on the afternoon of Totally Killer‘s Fantastic Fest premiere. “I want comedy to be grounded, but there are all these elements at play where anything can happen. When the time travel is introduced, I didn’t want the joke to be the ’80s. We’re not suddenly in a Duran Duran video.”
Khan’s graduate school, as she calls it, was the animated kids’ comedy Pepper Ann, her first job out of college. There, she learned two vital skills: how to make a half-hour show and how to talk to production executives. For the latter, her trick was to never finish a sentence. Someone would hand her a schedule, for example. She’d have no idea what any of it meant. “I would start to ask a question, interrupt myself, and just never finish it: ‘Why did you…? Oh, you know what, I see what you did there,’” Khan says. That way, she could seem like she knew what she was talking about without having to appropriate the industry jargon she didn’t yet understand.
Complementing a chill Hawaiian childhood spent watching Laverne & Shirley and other big-city sitcoms, Pepper Ann‘s sensibilities seeped into Khan. She got to write a quirky young protagonist with a strong will and a robust fantasy life, qualities that came in handy when she was developing what became her first series at the helm, Don’t Trust the B—–. Fox first bought the pilot script in 2009, only to nix it before it went into production. Khan found a savior in Paul Lee, a new ABC executive who wanted what she calls “women-behaving-badly” shows. (Fun fact: Khan initially wrote the James Van Der Beek role—a self-obsessed celebrity hell-bent on reviving his career—for Lance Bass.)
Don’t Trust the B—- was a modest success during its two-season run. It was Khan’s next show, Fresh Off the Boat, that elevated her to the upper leagues of broadcast comedy showrunners, occupied by the likes of Robert Carlock (30 Rock), Michael Schur (Parks & Recreation), and Kenya Barris (Black-ish). Fresh Off the Boat also led her to Randall Park, whom Khan cast opposite Wu as the agreeable patriarch of a Taiwanese American family who own a kitschy Orlando steakhouse. (He has a supporting part in Totally Killer.) Park introduced her to Wong, and Khan hired her as a writer on the show. Wong and Park then recruited Khan to direct Always Be My Maybe, her first film. Around that same time, she paired up with Johnson to develop Young Rock, an NBC sitcom based on the superstar actor’s young life.
When asked to reflect on the nonstop success Khan has experienced, she chalks it up to the relationships she has built. Khan knows what it’s like to submit a script to a superior who barely acknowledges it, and she never wants the writers in her employ to feel overlooked. She’s quick to credit not her own comedic talents but the people around her—and, of course, to “luck and timing,” the twin accelerators of any successful Hollywood career.
To prepare for the horror elements of Totally Killer, Khan’s wife—Julia Bicknell, a writer on Yellowjackets and The Haunting of Bly Manor—encouraged her to watch The Conjuring and other hits of the genre. In Khan’s typical way, she finds scary movies relaxing, largely because they’re so removed from what she normally writes. (Totally Killer is, admittedly, more funny than spooky.) Despite a sizable budget that required visual effects and a lot of night shoots, Khan was unflappable on the Vancouver set, where early sunrises posed lighting issues if things ran behind schedule. One night, torrential rain left her crew in hysterics.
“I was just like, ‘It’s gonna be fine. We’re going to get it. If we have to redo the audio, we have to redo the audio,’” she recalls. “We can’t control the rain. We can either stand here and panic or we can go over and start rolling. It’s just refusing to not get it done. And we got it done. On the call sheet one day, it said, ‘Beware of bugs, mud, and snow.’ But unless it’s part of the scene, you would never know.”
Maybe that’s the key to Khan’s success: a level head. The odds have been stacked against her since the day she set foot in Los Angeles, and yet here she is, humble and steadfast.
“I’m an optimist at heart,” she says. “You always feel like you’re struggling to put forward the projects that you care about, but you just keep grinding and hope that other people respond.”
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