Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett are sitting on top of the world at the moment. Following on from the critical and commercial success of genre mash-up You’re Next, their latest film, The Guest – a wonderful homage to 80′s B-movies featuring an incredibly brilliant performance from Dan Stevens – has just premiered at Sundance to widespread acclaim.
Amidst the furor, I was fortunate enough to have an exclusive sit down with the new-age kings of indie horror. During the interview, we discussed their newest film, Joe Swanberg, boring Roman Polanski movies, the casting of Dan Stevens and much more.
Check it out below and enjoy!
Dan Stevens was absolutely brilliant in the film, did he take to the role naturally?
Adam Wingard: Yeah, I mean going through the casting I always try to cast people that I feel already embody a certain amount of the character without even having to try, and one of the most important parts of this character is that he has to be trustworthy enough for this family to let him into their lives and be an endearing factor.
So, I knew that it had to be somebody who was naturally charming and likable and you know. Also, there’s the element that his character has to have, a very calm and cool quality to him. Dan just already naturally has those things. The funny thing though is (his Downton Abbey character) is the British version of that, where this is a Southern character. That was the only question going into it, could Dan realistically be a Southern guy? The first Skype meeting I had during the casting, the first discussion I had – it was immediate. He was the character and I could just tell. He seemed like the right kind of guy, very opinionated about accents and stuff, so I was never really worried about that.
Simon Barrett: Adam’s from Alabama and I’m from Missouri and we both have a very specific pet peeve when we hear bad Southern accents in movies, like when someone’s doing a Texan accent when they’re meant to be from Mississippi.
Adam Wingard: So many people give it the whole “I do declare” thing, nobody talks like that (both laugh).
Simon Barrett: But Dan is a master at accents and I also would say that one interesting thing that I learned – Adam mainly worked with Dan and I just got to hang out with him on set – but Dan’s sensibility is really kind of strange and fun. When I went to Toronto this year just to hang out, and he was there with The Fifth Estate, he ended up coming to a bunch of the Midnight Madness movies with me and really enjoyed them. And it’s like, this guy who made his career doing these historical TV dramas had a really mainstream sensibility. I took him to the premiere of Gravity and he had no idea what it was and was completely bewildered when they handed him 3D glasses and then was as happy as I’ve ever seen him. He loved it. So I think Dan himself is figuring out what he wants to do, and it’s really cool watching him.
Yes, when I saw the film it was like watching a genuine movie star.
Adam Wingard: That’s what I felt whenever we were shooting, every step of the way I was like “this guy, you can’t film him wrong.” And I mean, he’s always entertaining and he was always willing to go in whatever direction felt right in the moment. If the scene was going too dark all I had to do was just say something very simple to him and he was very excited to try something else. He’s never fully satisfied with the scene but he’s not going to complain about it. He’ll just always do more takes and he loves getting more and more involved and that’s the type of actor I really like working with.
So were there any other names that you guys had lined up? Or was it just Dan Stevens straight off the bat?
Adam Wingard: It was a very expedited schedule in terms of the casting, so there were never really any other serious contenders. It was pretty much only Dan or bust.
Simon Barrett: I remember one of our very first casting meeting, when we were listing our dream names, he was in our top 5. He was one of those names that came up right away and we were like “Oh, that would be amazing if the myriad of weird factors that has to happen before we can cast someone actually fell into place.” And it did. He just got the script and he and Adam clicked right away.
He reminded somewhat of Matthew Goode’s character in Stoker.
Adam Wingard: Stoker was actually a good starting point in some ways and I actually encouraged Dan to watch that character mainly because I actually didn’t like Stoker, and I didn’t like Matthew Goode’s character in Stoker – mainly because he wasn’t a real human being to me. And I actually suggested it – I don’t think Dan ever actually ended up watching it – but that was one of those things where I was like “You should maybe consider watching Stoker just to see what I don’t want,” because I didn’t feel like that character was ever making decisions as a character. I felt like he was making decisions based on a screenplay that was telling him to say weird stuff. I never got a fully-rounded feeling for him and that was something that was a danger for the character he’s playing in our film, which is even more fantastical than that. That’s why I wanted it to be grounded in something real. I felt that casting someone like Dan had that. Not to say that Matthew Goode’s not a good actor…
Simon Barrett: He’s great.
Adam Wingard: I think it’s just that whole film in general that I didn’t really get into, but there are similarities. We were already in the process of getting this movie going when it came out, and I actually watched it kinda nervously the first time.
Simon Barrett: Like “Are they doing the same thing as us?”
Adam Wingard: But (Stoker) has way more in common with Shadow of A Doubt. Almost a lot in common with that.Next
You guys love playing with genres. Do you feel like modern horror needs to be shaken up? Is it a bit bland?
Adam Wingard: At the end of the day, when was it ever really that great? Good horror have always just kind of come and gone.
Simon Barrett: All cinema always needs to be shaken up. Horror movies are generally made with a cynical attitude towards their audience, which is to say that people kind of tend to underestimate the intelligence of horror fans, which I find problematic as a horror fan who, you know, can read and write. But to me, we are always trying to do something innovative and original and cinema’s always going to trying to make safe decisions for financial reasons, and we would like to make slightly less safe decisions, but still make money.
Your films feel like they’re made with a lot of heart. We were talking about how a lot of horror films feel like they’re made by committee. Do you feel like that heart is the key to a successful horror film?
Adam Wingard: Well in some ways we are a committee, it’s me, Simon and our two producers: Keith Calder and Jessica Wu. We work very closely as a creative team, we all have our own things that we do. I direct, Simon writes and I edit and then we all come and bash our heads against the table trying to figure it out: what can be cut out? What is necessary? What self-indulgent decisions have been made and all across the board what’s working and what’s not?
I think the main thing is, we have been working long enough where we have sculpted a certain personality to our work and I think that’s the difference between, you know, a crime film and Pulp Fiction. There’s plenty of other movies that are kind of similar but there’s only one Pulp Fiction, and it’s the creators of the movie who define the work. A lot of our stuff isn’t based around amazing conceptual ideas, we come up with interesting stories and it’s all in the execution and the writing and the directing and the acting. It’s more about the execution for us.
Simon Barrett: I think in general, working with a committee can make you grow as an artist. It makes you make better work if you’re all pushing each other and all have the right idea in mind, which is making the best possible film. The problem is in Hollywood a lot of committees are…
By the numbers?
Simon Barrett: Yeah, they aren’t good and aren’t motivated by the same things, but I think a lot of the great filmmakers who have continued to grow as artists and make great films for decades – as opposed to just for a few years and then stagnating – it’s because they had people in their creative circle who challenged them. Whether that was an editor or a producer, or for Stanley Kubrick it was his spouse.
Adam Wingard: Speaking to that, the number one draw that our producers have is that they aren’t making their creative decisions on the film based on their own ideas. They obviously have their own taste but they’re not trying to force their own ideas onto us. It’s not an ego-based decision. Everything that they’re doing is supporting our strengths as artists and sometimes that does mean bringing ideas to the table, it’s based on what we do. If you can find creative producers and financial producers that can bring that sensibility to it, you’ve just gotta stick with them – and that’s key to our success with The Guest and with You’re Next, because we make about 75% of the right decisions, and then they come in and they have to hold our hand and say “Don’t fuck that up, you guys are being indulgent here, here and here” and then they guide us in the right direction.
You were talking about having a personality to your work, and you do brilliant homages: You’re Next was an homage to home invasion films and it feels like there’s a great love for exploitation flicks in The Guest. Could you guys – off the top of your head – both name your favourite exploitation film?
Simon Barrett: Weirdly, off the top of my head I just thought of The Candy Snatchers, which was such a weird, sinister and twisty movie that’s just cynical and nihilistic to its core. I am gonna wander away from this though. I don’t know why I mentioned that film as opposed to any other, it might just have been the word “exploitation” because that is such an exploitation film, but it also is pretty smart in its storytelling and in doing a lot of fun things. A lot of films that I love as exploitation films, like The Exterminator, it’s like, I’m not really sure quite on what level I appreciate it. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, you know. Good filmmaking is good filmmaking.
Adam Wingard: As far as exploitation films go, it’s such a broad term, but I feel like I go through different phases. You know, sometimes I get into a real Italian movie kick and Fulci’s probably my favourite of that group, not because I think he’s the best Italian director, but I usually get the most enjoyment out of watching his movies. I’ve gone through phases where I’ll only watch Japanese trash cinema for a little while, it’s really hard to narrow anything down to a point.
Simon Barrett: I’m going add two more to that: Cuthroat’s Nine, an exploitation Western that’s one of my favourites of all time, and… Bitter Moon, a British exploitation kind of home invasion film.
Adam Wingard: As far as Fulci movies, the first of I think of is Contraband.
You guys are acting in a movie together, 24 Exposures, how was acting alongside each other rather than working behind the camera?
Adam Wingard: It was fun, we did that right after the premiere of You’re Next in 2011. Joe Swanberg flew us out and that was kinda the culmination of our relationship with Swanberg before he moved on and started doing more, I guess you could say mainstream stuff. That was his last “I’m going to go off and make a movie with a couple of my friends” and it was cool that he featured us in that last round.
Simon Barrett: Yeah, it was fun… I just wanna say really quickly I didn’t mean Bitter Moon, that’s the boring Roman Polanski film. I meant Killer’s Moon!
So what’s next?
Adam Wingard: We’ve got two projects lined up right now, and it’s kind of funny because they’re both pretty much ready to go, but they’re both also climate contingent. So it depends on the time of year. We’re trying to figure out how it’s going to work out and which one’s going to come first.
Simon Barrett: One way or another we’re going to make a movie this year, and it’s probably going to be one of those two.
That concludes our interview but we’d like to thank Adam and Simon for their time. Be sure to check out our review of The Guest if you haven’t already.Previous