When it comes to the current world of horror cinema, there are few filmmakers as beloved as writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard. These are the guys who supplied screams via the first two “V/H/S” movies and made a minor breakthrough last year with the action/horror hybrid “You’re Next.” But all of that seems like a blip compared to “The Guest,” their new thriller that goes wide this weekend. A tightly coiled, neon-lined suspense piece about a disturbed vet (played by “Downton Abbey” star Dan Stevens) who visits the family of a fallen comrade, the movie is at turns silly, scary, and cringe-worthy. In short: it’s pure Barrett/Wingard. We got to talk to the two about what genres they’d want to tackle, the inspiration behind “The Guest,” and what the plot for their aborted “You’re Next 2” would have been.
Talking to Barrett and Wingard, you get the sensation that they are two halves of the same brain, answering questions almost in tandem. They are also, for men who spend their lives dabbling in the seedier sides of life, totally wonderful fellows. It should also be noted that it was during our interview that the news broke that they were attached to the remake of “I Saw the Devil,” so sorry, no details on that project here.
Where did “The Guest” come from? Was any of it left over from the Warner Bros. project?
Wingard: No. The real leftovers come from our initial idea following “You’re Next,” which was to shoot an action film in South Korea. There was a lot of neon, and there were these major dance club sequences. With that one, visually I was really excited about doing something really colorful and different in that sense. That definitely bled into “The Guest” in a very literal way. As the movie evolved, I kept trying to get more of those colors in there. So even though this is a movie that takes place in a small, quaint desert town, somehow we managed to fit in all that South Korean neon flair.
Barrett: I just realized the other night that the mirror maze is even a bit of a cannibalization from the Korean script. There was a shootout that goes into an amusement park in the Korean script, and we kept a fragment of that in the Halloween maze.
What happened with that?
Barrett: It’s really hard to make movies in Korea.
Wingard: We really never cracked the code on that. For one, when we went to Korea… This is why you don’t just spin the globe and say, “this place looks cool, let’s shoot there.” We went there and realized that there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of American movies shot in South Korea, which is that they just make movies completely different than we do.
Barrett: We wanted to make a movie in Korea because we like Korean movies.
Wingard: Right. We like the aesthetic of it, like “I Saw the Devil” and “Oldboy” and all that stuff.
Barrett: But that doesn’t necessarily translate to people like us who don’t speak Korean and don’t understand Korean culture. But even beyond that, the script had a lot of good action, but the overall story was never that solid. The experiment was to do something that was an endless, relentless action set piece. And unlike something like “Gravity,” which had come out after we had abandoned this [project], I never really found a reason to keep that action constantly going. If characters were talking in the script, they were always going to be in motion.
Wingard: The reason it worked in “Gravity,” just the stylization of having characters floating through space, from the get-go meant that you were always going to be astonished on something visually.
Barrett: We realized that the script was going to take a year to shoot in Korea.
Wingard: And eat up a lot more resources than we had. The thing about Simon’s script was that it had one of the best car chases ever. It was between 30 and 50 pages of the script. It was a pure car chase. Simon did some crazy stuff. But it worked out really well because we found out on “The Guest” [that] we have one car crash and it took us three tries to do.
Barrett: Which were filmed weeks apart because we had to wait to fix the cars.
Wingard: There was a certain point when we got bogged down in this process: we thought, “we are the only people on the planet who cannot wreck two cars into each other on purpose.” As these cars are missing each other, there are hundreds of cars slamming into each other on accident right now.
Can you talk about the eighties aesthetic that “The Guest” has?
Wingard: When I read Simon’s script for the first time, it spoke to me in that way. It had that same sensibility to it. It was always how far down the road do you want to go with that eighties look. Because there’s a lot of interpretations about what that means. For me it was less about trying to do the “Grindhouse” thing where you’re trying to authentically replicate it to a T down to the scratches in the film. To me, it was about representing the idealized version of what eighties movies look like, which is a lot of color but always shot in 2.35:1 with a lot of camera movement and things of that nature. But it wasn’t something where we were trying to imitate it but we wanted the essence of it. A lot of that stylization comes from the music more than anything else.
Can you talk about the music? John Carpenter obviously seemed like a huge influence.
Wingard: Well the first conversations I had with Steve Moore, the composer for the film, was about two soundtracks: the original “Terminator” soundtrack by Brad Fidel and the other was “Halloween III” by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, which was one of the few John Carpenter scores for a movie he didn’t direct himself. I was attracted to Steve in the first place because he only uses vintage equipment. He doesn’t use anything made past 1990. He’s not using programs. He’s not using samplers. There’s an inner soul within these old synthesizers.
Whenever I had those first conversations with Steve and I mentioned “Halloween III,” he said he had some edition of the soundtrack that in the linear notes it listed all of the synthesizers that Carpenter used and Steve had tracked down a lot of that equipment, and he owned a lot of it. That ended up being the kind of approach to the film —that we weren’t imitating the eighties sound, so Steve was free to make a modern take on that stuff without having to figure out how to replicate those sounds because they were already there. We wanted to fill the movie with that vibe.
Is the score eventually coming out by itself?
Wingard: Eventually, yeah. I’ve talked with Steve, and he’s planning to do extended versions of the tracks in the film. If you took the music he did for the film now, it’d probably be 25-30 minutes. So he’ll do extended versions. And if you listen to Steve Moore’s music, all those tracks are 10 minutes long. Because whenever we first started working together with Steve, I had him composing music before we started shooting, so it inspired us and we could go ahead and get a head start.
Was that stuff in the script or when Adam started talking to you about this were you like, Where’d you come up with that?
Barrett: Well it’s funny, because the initial germ of the idea was a script I had started back in 2007 that was a much more serious thriller —the PTSD metaphor was way more front-and-center. And then Adam came to me and said, “so we’re not making this Korean action movie, so let’s look at the films that inspired us to be filmmakers in the first place.” He was talking about “The Terminator” and “Halloween.” When he started talking, I realized that sensibility applied to that idea I had had years and years ago, which I always thought was a good idea, it’s just that the writing wasn’t good so I started working on something else. But I realized that that ’80s sense of fun would reinvigorate that initial idea and give it the scope to be a full film. We weren’t interested in making a pastiche film, but it was organic to the inception of the screenplay.
The movies that you were referencing, though, they don’t make anymore. Did you find it hard to pull off?
Wingard: Well, there were times when we were making it when I thought, are people just thinking we’re just being self-indulgent? Because for me, it was very important that even though we were riffing on this very specific subgenre, I was really afraid it wouldn’t translate to your average viewer. To me, it was important that you didn’t have to have all of these reference points, to just enjoy it as a film. So a lot of it was finding that point and not crossing over.
Barrett: It was difficult to make technically though. But I feel like every film should be difficult. Because if it’s not, then maybe you aren’t pushing yourself to be better filmmakers
Wingard: I’m always skeptical when I’m talking to my filmmaker friends and I go, “how was the shoot?” And they say, “it was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.” Then I think, this movie is not going to be very good. Because you didn’t have to work for it. I’m sure there are exceptions to that rule, I think [Joe] Swanberg might be one of those exceptions, because he creates his movies in an environment of fun. He’s really smart about creating a style that allows for that atmosphere.
Barrett: Quentin Tarantino seems to have fun on his movies, but he shoots for 200 days and is never afraid somebody is going to pull the plug on him.
You came very close to doing a studio movie. Is that still something you want to try and do?
Barrett: Yes, for sure. We came on to that project after it had already been developed a bit and we got it a little further along. But we decided that we would rather do “The Guest.” So we parted amicably.
Wingard: Yeah my last conversation with them was… because that project was moving very slow in the studio system and “The Guest” was at that point when the producers were ready to make it and the money was there and some of the actors were signed up… I called WB up and said, “This thing is ready to go, so I’m going to go do it.”
Barrett: There’s a studio project that we’re working on right now, where I’ve delivered a couple of drafts and the studio is very happy with it. But it hasn’t been announced yet so we can’t talk about it. But we’re very open to that and I think we want to do some movies on the largest possible palette. But it has to be the right project.
What are the genres you’re looking to explore?
Barrett: We don’t want to repeat ourselves. We’ve talked about various eras of history like a war film, which is really exciting to us.
Wingard: But you can’t skip steps. “The Guest” was great, because instead of jumping into a straightforward action film, it acknowledges where we’ve come from as horror filmmakers and it is a horror film, it’s a thriller and it has a lot of these action elements we had never approached before. Even the approach to comedy is part of an evolution. It’s always about not skipping the wrong steps and just continuing to better yourself. That’s always an interesting process because sometimes you get excited about an idea. More than anything I want to do a war film. That’s my #1 goal as a filmmaker, doing these big epics. But I have to acknowledge the fact that I have a lot to learn as a director.
Barrett: We have a romantic comedy idea we want to do. I started writing that film when we were in pre-production for “You’re Next.” And the pages just weren’t as good as I wanted to be. But maybe after “The Guest” and the next movie, maybe you’ll get to see what our romantic comedy is.
Wingard: It’s also about finding inspiration. Because before “You’re Next,” our projects had to be based on financial considerations. We always had to pick projects that had to be done on a very low budget and could be pitched to producers and financiers that were an obvious safe bet. We could have never done “The Guest,” which is a hybridization of all of these things. It’s clearly got our stamp on it. But before that we didn’t have a stamp. After “You’re Next,” when we had a little taste of success and we could choose our projects differently, we actually went through a long period where we were just trying to figure out what that next thing was. It took a while.
You can’t talk about “The Guest” without talking about Dan Stevens. Where did the idea to cast him come from?
Wingard: Before I knew who Dan was, I was visiting my family for Thanksgiving and my dad and stepmom were totally obsessed with “Downton Abbey.” They insisted that I watch the first season with them, which I did and I really enjoyed it. He really made an impression, even within a huge ensemble cast. So when it came to casting, his name was always on the list and we were immediately intrigued. It was the style of casting we want —something that is not expected. And just with a couple of conversations, we knew that he was the guy.
While watching him work did you realize, “we are making this guy into a movie star?”
Wingard: Yes, it was very clear. There’s not a bad angle on him. I always forget when I see Dan in real life. It’s been a couple of months since I’ve seen him and I always forget that in the film he carries himself completely differently. Not just the obvious stuff, like the way he speaks, but he walks entirely different as this character. That’s what he brought to it.
Barrett: I didn’t realize until very recently that in England, Dan had this “next Hugh Grant” thing going on. And that this was a complete 180 degree turn to him. To us, he was this incredibly likable actor who really got the script. So it didn’t feel as unexpected to me. To me it made perfect sense. He’s clearly an actor capable of great range.
What do you guys think of the state of horror movies these days? Horror seems to have a little bit of a bad reputation.
Barrett: I don’t think it has a bad rap necessarily.
Wingard: Well, no worse than usual.
Barrett: Horror has always been this ill-respected genre. And 99% of the horror movies I see are terrible, so I can’t really argue that horror isn’t being taken seriously enough when every horror movie I see is extremely poor in quality. But I don’t know where the genre is right now. We got asked that question a lot more when “You’re Next” was coming out, and then it felt a little easier because it felt like the “found footage” genre was winding down and the extreme horror that was kicked off by “Saw” and “Hostel” had also run its course. For us, we thought horror was going to be much more like what we were doing with “You’re Next,” less post-modern but more self-aware and fun.
But it seems like “The Conjuring” is the best example of where things are headed. I don’t think that Hollywood studios missed the fact that they gave James Wan a real budget and some real actors and he made the most successful R-rated horror film since “The Exorcist.” For the last few years, horror films have been incredibly low budget and that’s limited the degree to which they could be successful. With “The Conjuring,” it was modestly budgeted and a massive summer blockbuster. I hope that will result in more horror movies with artistry and production values. Of course that could just be James Wan and nobody else will do that. I don’t know where the genre is headed. The horror genre is always responding to our anxieties, and that’s why the home invasion genre got very hot when the banks were taking away people’s homes. But as a fan I’m excited to see where things are going.
Now that “You’re Next” is said and done, what was that whole experience like?
Wingard: Funnily enough, we didn’t really get to have the full experience of our first wide release movie because we were in the middle of shooting “The Guest.” The very last day of shooting was the day that “You’re Next” came out. So we missed the press tour and all that. It kind of just did its thing and came out.
Lionsgate at the time was very hot about sequels.
Wingard: They would’ve have done sequels if it made “Conjuring” money.
Barrett: And that was our attitude as well. “You’re Next” was never conceived as a franchise. In fact, it definitely was not.
Wingard: The original script ended with Sharni getting shot in the head. And we actually shot that.
Barrett: Which is insane in retrospect. But we’ve never had the success to create this bad habit. But if we had success, we’d never spend another year and a half patting ourselves on the back like, “yeah, we did it!” We’re always immediately back to work. So when “You’re Next” came out, it was like, oh okay that’s a modest success. But not enough that we had to worry about a sequel.
Can you give us a taste of the “You’re Next” sequel?
Barrett: I’ll give you the starting point: in the end credits of “You’re Next,” it’s implied that Sharni might be a suspect.
Wingard: The end credits are supposed to be a police dossier breakdown, with a whole schematic over all of the actors’ photos. And all of their photos are over where they died in the film. So when Sharni’s name came up, it says “suspect?” If we ever had a sequel, that’s where we’d go.
Barrett: Yeah, it was a hint. So the idea would be that it opens in a prison van and she’s handcuffed to a bunch of other female prisoners, en route. We’d see that she was railroaded —even though her trial isn’t for another year, no one will take her seriously.
Wingard: She gets blamed for all the murders…
Barrett: Because it’s just her and a bunch of corpses. Then the prison van would get attacked by Lamb Mask and his associates, because he would survive the stab to the head.
Wingard: With Lamb Mask, it was going to be that because of the stabbing, now he couldn’t feel pain.
Barrett: Yeah, because of the damage to his frontal lobe, he couldn’t feel pain. And is basically “Darkman.” And it would be about her in the woods getting chased down while handcuffed to these other women, some of whom are her friends, others are her enemies. And then they’d take refuge at a certain point. It would get more complicated than that, but it was basically her, in the woods, handcuffed to a few other prisoners. At a certain point, they wouldn’t be handcuffed anymore. We had a really concrete idea and if anything it would have been more action oriented.
Wingard: What about the house where they end up?
Barrett: I was going to have them take refuge in a meth lab and it was going to be booby-trapped.
Wingard: So the idea would be that instead of her setting all the traps, the place where they’re hiding would already have the traps set. Which they’re trying to set off and there would be all these guys in the animal traps.
Barrett: Yeah there’d be all of these insane nail cannons and stuff that the meth lab guys would set off. And the meth lab guys would be a part of the movie too.
“The Guest” is out now in limited release and expands nationwide on October 10th.