To go from the naturalistic teenage tale “The Myth Of The American Sleepover,” to the distinct, carefully calibrated horror “It Follows,” is a feat few filmmakers could pull off (read our review). But David Robert Mitchell is one of them. The director’s latest turned heads all last year on the festival circuit and has made him an unlikely new voice in the genre. But the victory laps are over and now we all get to see it with the picture opening this weekend, and we got a chance to talk to Mitchell about his approach to the film.
The conversation took place last fall during AFI Fest, and Mitchell shared the exacting nature of getting the tone right for his film. He also discussed what it means to have back-to-back movies that have been well received, and the status of the gestating “Ella Walks The Beach,” and more.
Your premise is a simple yet fresh twist on the horror genre. How did it spring up, and did you find some resistance to the idea at first?
My basic idea was of a horror film where the fear came from something that is so slow, that you can somehow escape from, but the fact that it’s relentless and eternal — the fear would come from that. It takes something as simple as looking at “Night of the Living Dead” to realize something slow can be terrifying, but this was different than that. And yeah, there was a bit of a question mark for some people, in terms of how it would feel. I just had to have some faith that what was in my head and on the page would work.
How did you go about building that specific visual scheme and tension?
It was tricky. Part of what we’re trying to do with the film is develop dread, basically. I’m thinking of sequences in the film where the characters are not experiencing fear at a high level or at all, where they feel like regular everyday moments. For those you kind of just have to remember the purpose that it has, and where it falls on the scale of dread. Just remembering that and how it fits can be tricky, because what you feel in context will feel incredibly different to what you’re doing on set.
You also accomplish some standout 360 and 720-degree shots where you’re picking certain things out of the frame — were those written into the script?
Some of those things were in the script and some of those things my DP and I figured out together.
Moments like those lend the film much more of an authorial vibe than “Myth of the American Sleepover,” which the horror genre easily allows. Was that a deliberate shift up from naturalism?
Well, it’s there with ‘Myth’ but it’s a very soft touch. With that one it wasn’t about drawing attention to those choices. It was about letting you fall into that world. It’s more traditionally covered, for sure, though. We also had really limited resources. The goal with “It Follows” was to be very deliberate — make specific choices, and really try to craft everything from the camerawork to the editing, the sound design, the music. It was about being specific.
And also most of the actors in ‘Myth’ were either first-time or non-actors, right?
The majority of the cast on “Myth” were first time actors, yeah — high school and college kids that we found through our open casting calls. There were a few people in there who were actors, at the time — Brett [Jacobson] had tons of experience, same with the twins [Nikita and Jade Ramsey]. But for the majority of them it was the first movie they’d ever been in. Difficult in some ways but they were all really talented.
With “It Follows”, it was different. These were way more experienced actors, but the process only changed slightly. I have a sense of what I want, and it’s a combination of communicating that on the page, verbally, and also being a presence in that environment and there’s a million ways that that happens.
Speaking of knowing what you want, were there any moments that you were thrilled to finally realize?
There’s a shot where Jay runs to the car, gets in, starts the car and takes off with people in the background, and we covered it in one shot. It was pretty hard to do but that was pretty fun. We didn’t have much time to do it — I don’t know if it feels tricky or elaborate, but it was, in the car, just crammed in a corner with Mike operating.
At the AFI Fest screening you talked about creating a “mood lookbook” for the film. What influences stood out in that document?
I did a few documents, actually. There was an early lookbook before we even started putting the film together, when we were trying to get financing. I’ll also do inspiration books that have a lot of photographs and paintings that could be about suggesting tone, pop culture, composition, feelings. I haven’t looked at it in a year, though. Usually it’s from all the movies that I loved, things that enter without me fully realizing it. I never sit down working on a script thinking, “In this moment I’m doing this.” I mean, in some of the pool stuff at the end — that’s specifically “Cat People.” That’s complete homage, the loneliness and isolation of being in a pool. So certainly moments of homage, but a lot of it comes out because I just love those specific movies.
When a movie hits at festivals like “It Follows,” there’s always immediate talk of the follow-up project and increased exposure that comes with it. Being in the eye of the storm, how has it been getting projects going? Are films like “Ella Walks The Beach” being prepped next?
We spent a good amount of time trying to get ‘Ella’ going, and we had problems getting money for it, to be direct about it. So many people loved that script and project, but it was just hard at that specific time. I don’t know when I’ll do it. At a certain point I had to set it aside and wrote “It Follows,” and I felt like I’d have a better chance of putting that together. I had actually intended “It Follows” to be my third film, but I felt I should move that up so I could make a film.
I’ll tell you honestly, I haven’t made it yet. There’s a lot of projects that I’m still pushing to do. I’m not gonna say it’s going to be easier, but let’s say I’m hopeful that the next one comes within a reasonable amount of time.
Have you gained anything specifically — confidence, a certain filmmaking approach — after this film, outside of the exposure?
It’s more about other people having more confidence. If you make one film and people like it they’re unsure if you can do it again, but two films helps. I’ve spent my life trying to make movies, and it takes a lot of time to get to the point where you can do it and do it well. Then there’s the idea of getting people to actually pay attention. Again, it’s a tricky thing.
“It Follows” opens on Friday, March 13th.