When “It Follows” first premiered at Cannes last year, many were surprised. After all, it’s hard to think of a genre piece — particularly a horror flick — making waves at the renowned film festival. But it did.
“It Follows” follows Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman who finds herself being followed (and hunted) by a creature shortly after a sexual encounter. We soon learn that the creature, which takes on different human forms, is transmitted through sex and can only be passed on in such a way.
Indiewire spoke to David Robert Mitchell about his second feature (his first, “Myth of the American Sleepover” was well-received), which is being called the “STD Horror Film,” and his influences, love for the genre and how difficult it is to generate terror. “It Follows” opens in select theaters on Friday.
Your first film was a coming of age feature. This one also has a lot to do with teenagers. What about them as a subject interests you?
Growing up I really loved coming of age films. Many of them were very important to me. So when I started thinking about wanting to make films, I wanted to try and do my own version of those kind of stories. Also, as a writer it’s easy for me to look back a little bit—or it has been for a while. At this point I have a ton of stories about many different points in life and ages, but it just happens to be that my first two have been about being a teenager.
I wanted to make a horror film. I’m a huge horror film buff and I’ve always wanted to make one. I had this idea in my head for a long time so I sat down and wrote it. I had the script and I had intended to make it my third film, but another project wasn’t happening so I moved [“It Follows”] up. I felt like I would have probably have an easier time putting a horror film together in terms of getting money and being able to make the thing happen. I definitely wanted to make the movie and was planning to, but why it happened as quickly as it did is for that reason. But it comes from me having a love of the genre. My dad loves horror movies and would always ask me, “When are you going to make a horror film?” And I told him I’d do one.
Do you have specific taste for horror films. Old vs. new?
I love classic horror. Not to say that there aren’t modern horror films that I like, but favorites would probably be considered the classics.
In horror films there has always been an interesting relationship between the genre and sex and sexuality and how those films approach it. Yours seems to subvert the common approach to sex and sex shaming. It’s not a “don’t have sex” movie.
I hope people don’t see the film as anti-sex or puritanical. That’s not my intention. In the film, the characters open themselves up to the dangers of sex, but it’s also the thing that can at least temporarily free them. So it’s not so simple as it often or is or at least as it is interrupted. I don’t necessarily think that’s the read some of those classic filmmakers intended it to be. Some of it I think is an academic interpretation of the material, which is valid. I think it’s completely fair to go and to judge those films that have different reads of them, but it may not be in the intention.
Did you have a specific intention making this?
Many. I definitely don’t have a message. For me there are very levels of subtext. I’m sort of resistant to say one thing that it actually means. I had several things in my head when I was writing it. Even after the fact, when I look at it, there are things that maybe could even come from a subconscious level, which I think are interesting. Even I can look at it and still find things in it. Some of them are very specific and conscious and some are not.
On the conscious level, did this come from anything? A childhood fear of being followed?
The basic idea came from a recurring nightmare that I had when I was a kid in which I was followed by a monster that looked like different people. And only I could see it. And it was very slow and it was always walking toward me. In the dream I could get away from it easily or sort of easily. I could come into a room, climb out of a window, run down an alley or go into the street. It wasn’t about it being able to overtake me, it was the feeling of dread and anxiety knowing that something is always coming for you.
I don’t want to label this the “STD Horror Film” because I feel like that can be reductive, but it’s obviously one of the more obvious comparisons.
I certainly was aware of that. It’s one of them. This is certainly a read on the film and I think this is something we are playing into, but it’s not the only one or necessarily the primary one. Although I think it’s the one that will be interpreted most. I don’t have a problem with it. Like I said, I’m totally aware of constructing it, but I like to think that there’s more.
One of the greatest elements of the film is the music. How did you decide to score this?
Years ago when I was starting to think about putting this together, I knew I wanted an electronic score. For sure. And I heard Disasterpeace’s music a few years playing an indie game called FEZ. But he did the music for that and I was floored by it. So I reached out to him and said, “I’m thinking about doing this horror film.” And I sent him my first film and the script for “It Follows” and asked him if he would be interested in doing it. Luckily, he came onboard. We had a bunch of interesting conversations in terms of the approach we wanted to take with the movie. It was a balance between beautiful melodies and something that is more of an assault, controlled noise. These are some of the conversations we had. There are some other musical references that we had.
What did you look to as references?
We talked about Carpenter, Penderecki, John Cage, Vangelis.
“It Follows” premiered at Cannes. That’s a strange choice for Cannes and a lot of people pointed that out. What was that experience like?
I wanted to play there. I didn’t know whether they would want the film or how people would react to it. But I thought it was a fun, cool idea. I guess it didn’t seem that strange to me. I don’t know why. But I know once it played people were saying that this kind of film doesn’t usually play here that often. I don’t really think of horror films as any different than any other genre. I think they can be really strong and artistic or not. It just depends. Again, I like all kinds. It didn’t seem strange to me, but I can understand why people would say it as a little odd. But when it played there people connected to it and it felt very normal.
What were some of the more challenging aspects making a horror film for you?
It’s hard. I’m more worried about building the dread, being able to layer that in such a way that it starts to affect the audience. It’s tricky in production because you feel it in the writing stage and it’s very difficult to feel that on a shot by shot basis through production. At a certain point it is mechanical. It’s about trying to actually achieve your production days and trying to get your shots and get what you need. And always trying to remember how those things fit within the larger thing. It’s very difficult to feel that fear or dread in person. You have to have faith that your plan will work. Then it is about taking those pieces and putting them together in such a way that they do, in post. But, I think horror films are very difficult. I hadn’t made one before and even as we were working our way up to shoot and into production, I realized that this is a challenging thing to try and pull off. The kinds of feelings that you want to create in the audience can be difficult.
Did you have a fear of falling into a place where you rely on cheap thrills and repeated horror tropes?
I tried to just avoid that in the script. So I knew we weren’t going to have a million jump scares. That was all part of it. Anytime there was a suggestion of that kind of thing, I tried to limit it. I might put one or two or a couple of those things. Here and there it can be fun, but if that’s all you’e relying on, that’s not very interesting. I’m not interested in going to a movie and being startled over and over. I don’t mind being startled once or twice, but to me there’s a difference in being startled and being afraid. I wanted, if not people to have fear, but to at least feel anxiety with the movie.
And were there certain films that influenced “It Follows?”
I mean tons.
What are some of your favorites?
A lot of Carpenter, Cronenberg, Romero. I love the classics. “Creature from the Black Lagoon” is a favorite. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the original Kaufman version. Carpenter’s “The Thing.” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Island of Terror.” There’s tons. I’m probably forgetting a bunch.
Going back to how the genre is seen today and it was seen as a lot stronger back in the day, do you have any criticisms of the way horror operates today?
We have a tend to criticize what other people are doing. I can say what I like. I sort of prefer a classically composed images and a controlled aesthetic. But there are found footage movies and those things a I really like and they can be really cool and fun and it can work really well. So I don’t think that’s bad. I think it’s when it is relied on or overused then that can feel kind of cheap. But I think these things move in cycles. All I can say is that for me I like the amount of craft that went into some of those classics. That’s what we were trying to do with this, to put as much thought and preparation as we could into every aspect of the film. From the production design to the cinematography and the sound. Just to be very controlled and precise.