Way back in 2011, “You’re Next” became the toast of the Toronto International Film Festival‘s Midnight Madness series, was the focus of a frenzied bidding war and then… the kind of eerie stillness that you might expect from one of the horror movies “You’re Next” gleefully sends up. Now, almost two years after it originally debuted in Toronto, “You’re Next” is now in theaters, just as audiences have regained their composure after “The Conjuring” scared them witless. We finally got to see the movie at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this spring (you can read our review here) and got to talk to writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, about what it was like having to wait all that time for their big horror movie to make its debut, whether or not they’ve planned subsequent “You’re Next” sequels, their “V/H/S” franchise and what movies inspired this delightfully gory home invasion romp.
“You’re Next” starts simply enough, with a family dinner full of petty bickering, introductions to new romantic partners, and the cutting undercurrent of resentment and anger that almost always accompanies a family get together. Soon, though, a band of home invaders show up. They’re wearing super creepy masks that look like children’s book farm animals (and the characters are credited as such—The Lamb, etc.) and start slaughtering the family members one by one. It’s sort of like “The Strangers,” or this summer’s “The Purge,” except far livelier and funnier, and with a genuine breakout star in Sharni Vinson, a leggy former-stunt woman-turned-actress who flips the script on her would be attackers. The movie, like another recent horror movie that was saved from obscurity after years on the shelf, “Cabin in the Woods,” both celebrates and deconstructs the horror genre and, while not a complete game changer, is still a lot of fun.
What are your creative collaborations are like?
Simon Barrett: One thing that I think is unusual about the way Adam and I work together is that it’s a true creative partnership, in that we give each other a lot of space. We tend to come up with the initial concept of what we want to do and then I’ll go off and write it and come up with a story and characters.
Adam Wingard: By concept, it’s usually something very vague. Like in the instance of “You’re Next,” I said, “Hey Simon, I really think like the only type of movies that are scaring me are home invasion movies like ‘Them’ and ‘The Strangers.’” I just rewatched “Scream” and the first ten minutes of “Scream” are fucking stellar. And I said, “I think this is the subgenre we want to tackle.” And Simon took it from there.
SB: Even “A Horrible Way To Die” was just like “I want to do a serial killer movie.” And I was like, I’ll try to come up with something different there, but that’s really it. I tend to write in isolation and Adam tends to edit in isolation. So we get to approach each other’s work as fans of each other’s work. I would say also, what Adam and I try to do with hopefully fun genre films like “You’re Next” but also with kind of more artsy indie stuff like “A Horrible Way To Die,” we just try to do things that we haven’t seen. We try to be original and whether we succeed or not, obviously isn’t up for me to say, but that’s always the goal, is to try to do something different. And I think that really works because the germ of the idea comes from us. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do a movie that’s kind of like this.”
AW: And it’s not just about paying attention to those subgenres—about the things that we like about them—just as importantly it’s about what we don’t like about them. In particular, the home invasion thing, I think we were reacting to a lot of the fact that the home invasion movies by and large end up with people tied up to chairs, being tortured and that’s the kind of whole point about it. And I think people have seen that. And I think we’re coming out of the age of horror films where… I think people are tired of being punished by violence and so forth. While “You’re Next” is a super violent film, we approach it completely differently. It’s not about showing you the extremity of violence or how much it hurts or whatever. It’s about showing it from a different perspective and actually just trying to make a fun horror film.
You guys are certainly paying homage to certain things. What were some of your touchstones?
SB: It’s funny because I think one of the reasons Adam and I worked together is because we do have very different reference points and it ends up being a very interesting collaboration. I was a huge fan of the Agatha Christie novel “The Ten Little Indians” aka “And Then There Were None.” And that was a huge inspiration for this film in terms of like how you do a horror movie that hasn’t been done before. It’s like you give it a complex narrative within that and—
AW: You give the killers a motivation beyond randomness or thrill killing or any of that other stuff.
SB: Get a strong female protagonist is something that all these films don’t do right. So yeah, Agatha Christie novels were a big source of inspiration for me. Also, chamber mysteries and screwball comedies like “Bringing Up Baby” was a point, but then it just occurred to me the other day, and this is a slightly more obscure film I guess for most people, but someone I follow on Twitter was talking about “Twitch of the Death Nerve,” Mario Bava’s “Bay of Blood,” and I realized, like I hadn’t seen that movie in forever, but that actually probably was a reference point too. That’s kind of considered one of the first horror killer movies.
Where did the whole Australian element come from?
AW: During the casting phase, we were really trying to find somebody who wasn’t pretending to be a badass, but actually was a badass and personified what that character was and could show up and just be that and do it effortlessly. Sharni [Vinson] was the only one in the audition process that remotely met those qualifications and plus with her dancing background, she also met the physical qualifications of being able to look like she knows how to fight and so forth. Sharni just happens to be Australian.
And I think there’s also something about Australians in general, there’s a subconscious thing that we all know Australia’s a tough place to live. The bugs are bigger and more venomous and everything else. And so you just associate it with being a very tough culture. Whenever Sharni came to read for it, she was reading with an American accent and we just asked her to do it in Australian. I really liked how it brought out her more natural capabilities as an actress and so we actually were like this is perfect. And Simon retailored some of the scenes to fit her Australian-ness.
SB: Yes, the character was originally written as American and Sharni had prepared as an American. And then she came in and introduced herself and we were like, “Oh, the character of Erin is Australian.” We hadn’t realized that. It really was Sharni. She was so perfect for the role that we discovered things about the role that hadn’t existed.
So this was picked up by Lionsgate a couple years ago. What has this process been like? For better or worse, things sitting around sort of get this taint.
AW: We were in a unique position because almost within weeks that Lionsgate bought us up, they merged with Summit and that was a big deal because both of them had a shitload of movies on their slate and the ones that were already scheduled couldn’t be changed around and they couldn’t release a Lionsgate and Summit movie at the same time. So that meant that a lot of movies were being dropped and they didn’t know where things were going to go. And so, because of that, we ended up missing our slot in 2012 and for a while, we were actually a little nervous. Like, “Are we going to get dumped?”
But Jason Constantine over at Lionsgate, he was 100% assuring us the whole time that they strongly believed in the project. But they had to get everybody at Summit to see the film and make sure that everybody was still on the same page. It was a whole other process outside of the Lionsgate people seeing it and buying it. Then it became a process with the Summit people and I think it became for them, “When are we going to release it? When’s the most optimum date for the film?” And it wasn’t until “Possession” came out and they released it at the very, very end of the summer. I think they had a lot of success with that and they said that’s what we’re going to do. This is the good slot and this is going to give the movie the appropriate audience. They’ve totally held up their promises with everything.
When Lionsgate picked it up, there was a certain amount of speculation that it was going to be geared towards a franchise, given the success of “Saw.” Have they talked to you at all about that?
AW: Well, it’s all going to be contingent on how the movie plays theatrically. Simon and I internally with our producers, Keith Calder and Jess Wu, all have I think a very clear idea of where we would take a series. I think we even know how we would do a trilogy really. But we definitely know how we would do a sequel. But we don’t want to do a sequel unless there’s a demand for it. But we’re prepared for it even though it’s a film that doesn’t have an obvious sequel. But somehow it wasn’t that hard to realize what to do without repeating ourselves.
SB: Yeah, I think in some ideal world where we do end up making more “You’re Next” films, I think we would take it not in an obvious direction hopefully. I don’t think it would be what anyone’s necessarily expecting, but I think that’s also kind of the fun of “You’re Next” is that hopefully there are some surprises for even the most jaded horror viewer. It might be a less obvious film to make a sequel to that than a “Saw” or a “Paranormal Activity,” but we’re definitely open to that.
AW: There’s aspects of it that you can work with, but that’s the interesting thing about it. Like the “Saw” movies had definite sequels because you just throw in more traps. And “You’re Next” is a very complicated tonal piece in terms of it shifts from being a very creepy suspenseful thing to an action thing…
SB: The killers have motives that are specific to their victims in some way.
AW: And so it’s a matter of making that story make sense and also finding a version of that story in a sequel that would encapsulate the feel of the first film without doing the same thing at all and the most important thing I think about “You’re Next” is kind of being unpredictable and while at the same time feeling somewhat familiar in a way that gets you more involved and comfortable with what you’re seeing.
During the editing, was there a certain objective? This thing seems like it was cut done to all killer, no filler.
AW: Oh yeah. That’s what we wanted to do from the get go. We shot with two cameras and every time we were doing a scene, I mean I shoot a lot of coverage and I wanted to make sure going into this that this movie felt like a real movie. I sat down with my DP and we watched a lot of big-budget Hollywood movies. We watched movies like “Face/Off” and movies that we don’t really even like that much, like “Blood Diamond,” just movies that we knew were really expensive and it’s like, what makes this feel bigger? And a lot of it comes down to the tightness of it and really having no fat. It just turns out that like even beyond me and Simon, working with Keith Calder and Jess Wu, they’re great collaborators because they feel very story oriented and they want things to be tight. And likewise, I think we all came together at the exact right time where we said, “You know what we’re tired of? Doing movies with fat on them.” We wanted to do something that just moves by and it’s like there’s not a second to waste.
SB: Yeah, I think we’ve always said, just to each other, if there’s a scene that can be cut, or a moment that can be cut, then it should. Because if it’s not serving a purpose that’s essential, then just get rid of it. “You’re Next” may not be the shortest script I’ve ever written, but it’s definitely the tightest. We definitely took that as the challenge to really entertain people and Keith and Jess are perfect creative partners for that.
You guys were also involved in “V/H/S 2.” right? How did you end up coming back? Are there going to be more of those?
SB: We ended up doing “V/H/S 2” kind of just because we had a window in our schedules to do it. We know Gareth [Evans] and Timo [Tjahjanto] and everyone.
AW: For the sequels, we’ll still be on as a producing capacity. I’m sure they’re still going to do more sequels and stuff.
SB: We created that mythology, but I don’t think we’d want to keep creatively advising. But I don’t think we’d be able to be as involved because our schedules are filling up. Because we ended up doing a lot of the post-work on those movies. If there’s a third film, we’d probably just step back and executive produce.
Is there any possibility of the future movies being more international?
SB: We’d love to. There’s certain logistical challenges as you may or may not imagine. Just shipping drives back and forth so you could see high-res versions of the film becomes a challenge on a film that low-budget.
AW: Those “V/H/S” movies are not expensive movies, if you know what I mean. The challenge is actually trying to find directors who can work under those kind of constraints. So it’s not as easy as just saying, “Let’s get some great directors in here.” It’s also kind of like, “Let’s find some guys who can actually do this and we’ll do it.” … And that’s the thing about shooting a movie in Jakarta, where if everybody had the same budget, whereas in America that buys you three or four days, in Jakarta they can shoot for almost two weeks.
So what’s next for you guys?
SB: We have a film called “The Guest” that we’re again working with Keith Calder and Jess Wu on, that’s more of an action thriller and that’s another independent project. That’s hopefully going in a couple months. And then we also have a project set up by Warner Bros., we’re adapting the British spy novel, “Dead Spy Running.” McG and Kevin McCormack are producers on that. But that’s a big studio film, so the development process is something we’re kind of not used to.
AW: So in the meantime, we’re going to go and shoot another indie with our whole “You’re Next” crew. It’s definitely going to be much bigger budget then “You’re Next,” but…
SB: It’s still something we can put together.
“You’re Next” is in theaters now. Bring some plastic sheeting; it’s a bloody one!