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The Guest: Interview with Director Adam Wingard and Screenwriter Simon Barrett

The duo discuss their filmic influences, toying with audience expectation and the use of humor in horror.

The Guest

Director: Adam Wingard
Cast: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Lance Reddick
Studio: Picturehouse
US Release Date: 2014-09-17

In films like You’re Next, and their respective vignettes in V/H/S and its sequel, the filmmaking team of director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett have brought a refreshing quality to the horror genre: humor. They are completely aware that audience members love being scared but also find devilish pleasure in the process of getting there. The time it gets for them to make us jump from our seats is almost like foreplay, we are seduced, we know where they’re taking us and we love every second of it.

With the release of their new film The Guest they have also proved they are accomplished aesthetes who know exactly how they want their seduction to unfold. Starring former Downton Abbey heartthrob Dan Stevens as a charming, but dangerous soldier returning from war to deliver a message to a grieving family, the film riffs on the cinema of John Carpenter and Wes Craven, while highlighting the sensibilities of Wingard and Barrett, who are fully aware that referential cinema can only be great when done without cynicism.

We spoke to the duo in New York City and discussed their unique sense of humor and its genesis, geeked out on movie talk and conversed about the importance of character actors.

* * *

What do you guys think of as good film criticism?

Simon Barrett: There’s a lot of really wonderful critics out there, but I have to say I’m less interested in what’s a good review than what’s an interesting analysis of films. I’d rather read a critic write an intelligent opinion of something that I don’t agree with than read an opinion I agree with that’s average.

Adam Wingard: Nowadays reviews are more about whether people should go see the movie or not and you don’t get those analytical breakdowns until the movie has proven itself and stood the test of time.

SB: I guess in the years I’ve found out that the critics I like the most are those who align with my own sensibilities.

Are you guys ever worried that people won’t get your films?

AW: You know with this one in particular I thought that people were going to think that we had just lost our minds and did this self-indulgent retro, throwback thing. I was afraid that the sense of humor wasn’t gonna translate or that people were going to think it was a one note movie. More than any of our movies, I was worried about this one, because there’s no specific subgenre that was an obvious reference point for an audience, because the movie is a hybrid of all subgenres, except maybe musicals.

SB: This is more like us not trying to pigeonhole ourselves to get our movies financed.

I actually had a discussion with someone who felt the film wasn’t enough like Drive, because he felt that’s what the premise and style promised.

SB: Unless people are getting a ticket to Drive I don’t think that’s a valid criticism, if they did and got our movie instead, then by all means they should get a refund.

AW: I think that the comparison is really in the fact that we’re both influenced by 80’s electronic music and that maybe there’s a handsome lead. I love Drive, it’s easily my favorite movie of 2011, but at the same time it did push me in a new direction when I saw it, because it made me aware that audiences were ready for that kind of retro soundtrack. Even when I was picking the songs for this film, initially I’d started with a more goth rock kind of sound and as the movie evolved, I figured electronic was the way to go. I was very aware that I needed to stay away from the tone of the music in Drive, which has much darker music, much more tonally depressing, because the whole idea is that Ryan Gosling’s character drives around at night and feels sorry for himself, so he listens to emo 80’s electronic music, and that’s not what our movie’s about at all. I feel any movie nowadays with an electronic cool soundtrack and a sexy leading man will get compared to Drive.

SB: I feel if we’d made our movies more serious they’d be somber and unenjoyable, I think we just like to bring a humor to our movies. We might make films in the future that are more serious, or we might make straight up comedies, but I feel people are so used to having movies marketed in such a straightforward manner that they don’t really know how to respond to a movie that does a lot of different things at once.

How do you know if the humor in your films will work? Do you test it with other people or just with yourselves?

AW: That is a great part of our process because we work as a team, Simon, [producers] Keith and Jess Calder, in terms of trying to create as much objectivity as possible.

SB: We actually test our films before Adam locks picture, with the idea to see if the jokes are working and when they don’t sometimes between the four of us we’ll decide “you know what they’re still funny, we don’t care”. More times than not we pay attention.

AW: If a joke we like doesn’t work with audiences after several test screenings we take it off. As a matter of fact there was an entire four or five minute intro we cut off from the movie, that actually had all the best cinematography in the film, we had crane shots and helicopter shots, but ultimately the movie needed to just start right away. Because so much of film is based on the structure of time and how you balance that, it just constantly adds up and you enjoy other parts of the movie less because something else didn’t work and that rubs you wrong. You get like a viewer fatigue.

Are you including that in a director’s cut or something?

AW: Oh yeah, the Blu-ray has like five or six deleted scenes, and we’ve never done deleted scenes before.

SB: Which is something I kinda wish we’d done with You’re Next because it has some very good moments, but ultimately we were so rushed to deliver that movie that anything not related to the immediate release got put aside.

AW: There’s also something I put in the DVD which is an earlier version of a scene, and I put it side by side with the final cut, to show people what a difference all the elements we cut made to the timing.

SB: There’s also audio commentary, to explain what’s going on. It’s pretty cool DVD stuff.

I get a sense from your movies that they’re made to be seen in a theater with an audience…

SB and AW: Absolutely.

SB: We had a really good experience with Magnolia and VHS 2, but it was frustrating seeing people complain that they thought the movie wasn’t scary enough and then they’d post a screenshot of some streaming site on their iPad and I was like “come on man”. We’re super excited that The Guest is getting the theatrical release that it is, we like making movies that are about having an audience experience because that’s what we enjoy. I still hope our movies hold up if you watch them when they come out on video, but I think our whole thing about what we do is to make movies that reward the experience of leaving home and going to the theater and spending that money.

And also in terms of sound and production this one is bigger…

SB: We had a bigger budget than we’d ever had before and we wanted to use that in the right way.

AW: That also comes from having more experience too, we’ve made quite a few movies and each time you learn more and more about the art of sound and filmmaking in general. It’s also about solidifying your team, we’ve discovered our sound designers Jeff Pitt and Andy Hays, are our dream team. We were watching The Guest the other day and I had this epiphany that this was the first time I was watching one of our movies were I never for a moment thought “I wished we’d done something different with the sound mix”, it just sounded exactly the way it was supposed to sound and that was an absolutely fantastic feeling to have. Especially because when we first had the movie in Sundance, we were rushing to get the movie out the door and something went wrong with the sound and the movie was mixed too low. Up until SXSW we had to tell the projectionist to crank it up, but fortunately we were able to go back and fix it.

SB: We’re usually down to the wire in finishing these films for the festival premieres, because we put as much time as we can in our stuff. That’s a weird aspect of independent filmmaking that people don’t talk about much. I remember we were mixing The Guest while Gareth was finishing the visual effects for Raid 2 while also mixing it, and we were texting back and forth with him wherever he was and we were like “how are you gonna finish man?” and he ended up not finishing everything, and the version of Raid 2 that showed up in Sundance had some inconsistencies, but Gareth was open about it. And I bet that happens more times than people realize.

In terms of casting, you get the impression you’ve seen all these actors before even though they’re not big household names. And this is exactly what I remember about watching action movies and thrillers growing up…

AW: Yeah! All these character actors that keep showing up and you’re like “I don’t know the guy’s name but I know that I’ve seen him a million times”...

So obviously this was intentional right?

AW: Yeah, I think to some degree and in some ways that’s how we cast the film. When it came time to cast these actors, Sheila Kelley was definitely in that sense and Leland Orser was very much there, I’ve always been a huge fan of him but I never knew his name until we started casting, but even as a kid I remember I always recognized him immediately after he made Alien: Resurrection.

SB: He is one of those guys who is always good and always entertaining in everything. I feel like Faults which our producers did with him after The Guest is one of his first lead roles and he’s great in that too. It’s cool to work with actors like that because they tend to be really interesting people who just enjoy the fact that they’ve had a career playing such a wide variety of characters.

So were you worried at all that Dan might distract viewers?

AW: Not at all, we just wanted a performer that would bring the character to life and bring something interesting with it, because it’s a very tricky role, because we’re asking the audience to throw away the notion of hero or villain. We’re saying forget about the preconceptions and enjoy what he’s doing and to do that you need someone with a natural charm to them and that was the only thing we cared about.

Obviously we have all the John Carpenter and Wes Craven influences, but consciously or not, how influenced were you by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt?

AW: It’s funny because Simon and I talked about it recently and Simon realized he’s never seen it, he’s always had it confused with The Lodger.

SB: Because he did two versions of The Lodger but anyway....

AW: I think a lot of people will think I’m an idiot for saying this but I’ve never been much of a Hitchcock fan. I like a lot of his movies in general, I find his staging to be very artificial but my actual favorite of his films is Shadow of a Doubt, because I love the way that premise unfolds and that was before he was doing all that rear projection stuff, so the emphasis isn’t on his visual effects. Where Hitchcock’s concerned I guess my top would be Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho obviously…

SB: Rope is pretty good!

AW: Frenzy I really like. People always forget about that one but I like how dark it is.

SB: I’m not a big Hitchcock fan either, but I’ve seen at least ten of his movies.

AW: We’re part of a new generation and you look at De Palma and those guys and Hitchcock was cool when they were young, but for us it’s hard to relate to the filmmaking sensibilities of the 60s. I relate more to films starting in 1968, when I really think back I feel the 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby era is when films started shifting into the 70s aesthetic I started relating more to films.

SB: I’m a fan of a lot of pre-Hitchcock movies, I like silent movies and I’m into a lot of silent comedies, I’ve also said before that Bringing Up Baby was a huge influence on You’re Next. But I find Hitchcock as a character to be very clinical and all that prevents me from getting engaged with the characters, and everyone calls him “the Master of Suspense” but I don’t feel suspense watching his movies. For me true suspense is when I’m truly invested in the characters, on the edge of my seat hoping nothing bad is going to happen to them. He did a lot of brilliant innovations so I admire technically, but I’m never “in the mood to watch a Hitchcock film”.

AW: I’m much more of a de Palma fan, I like his sleaziness and I think he is the obvious evolution of where that stylization went. I’m sure a lot of people are going to read this interview and think we are complete idiots.

SB: I’m more of an Argento fan too, those Hitchcock influenced giallos, like Deep Red which I connect to more than Hitchcock movies.

AW: You definitely have to watch Shadow of a Doubt though.

SB: I’ll wait and see it properly in 35mm.

But I also meant because in Shadow of a Doubt there’s this sense of dread, like something happening in the middle of nowhere. How did you guys come up with that?

SB: We grew up living in small towns in the middle of nowhere and I think that’s an anxiety you have.

AW: I grew up in this really strange neighborhood in Missouri, on the edge of a small town. My backyard was a cemetery, my neighbor was an Episcopal Church and across the street there was this weird shack that burnt down where people used to sell crack and further down the street there was this bizarre shanty town and strangely enough across the street there was this old guy and everyday when we would drive to school, he would drive his bike on the wrong lane and he was so slow...and then one day he just stopped coming down the road and we found out he was actually bludgeoned to death with a hammer by his nephew. Because even though he lived in a shack he’d saved up all this money and hid it underneath the floorboards... so that influenced my paranoia growing up because I felt like any second something horrible could happen. Always in the precipice, surrounded by death.

SB: I like your story! I had a friend who hanged himself when we were in the third grade and it wasn’t clear if it was an accident or not and I remember thinking “oh, I guess this is something that just happens”. At that age you’re young and you don’t think of death as a big deal, because who cares, you’re not that invested in life. We were sad but it was also I guess that’s just the way the world is. So I guess that’s just my outlook and I like making movies were something horrible can happen at any minute, because you know what? It can and if you get complacent it will.

AW: I was watching a Vietnam documentary and the guy was talking about how he flew a hundred missions straight and he talked about what happened the day after and how relieving it was because that day was the first time he knew he’d survive another day, but I was thinking “you don’t really know that! You never actually know if you’re gonna make it through the day, there’s no guarantees at any point”.

SB: I don’t like movies that don’t have that respect for human life. I feel that’s arespect thing and we try to show that even if our films are kinda absurd.

Were you trying to make a political statement at all with this film? Because especially these days, it reminded me of the neverending cycle of violence going on in the world.

AW: You’ll notice that we never actually say what war this guy came from.

SB: He says Middle East but that’s it.

AW: Exactly , it’s very non-specific because Middle East has basically been every war since WWII.

SB: It was an intentional metaphor, not only is Dan’s character in a bit of a PTSD thing, but also there was something interesting about having a soldier go help a family and it ends up being perceived as a threat to them. That feels like a metaphor for all these people who enlisted altruistically with this vague notion of freeing the people of Iraq...although the motivations changed a lot, starting with finding weapons of mass destruction to freeing the people. What was it “Operation Enduring Freedom”, “Operation Unending Retribution”? It was really hard to keep track and to me there is something interesting with the idea of going with a naive but genuinely altruistic idea of helping people in a beleaguered country and making their lives immeasurably worse, because it feels we didn’t help there at all. We’ve never been to combat and I’m cautious about commenting on war, even though we wanna make war movies ultimately, but that was on my mind when I started writing the screenplay and all the way to when we made the film.

AW: I guess you can say that we’re not very optimistic people when it comes to the current state of affairs with the military industrial complex. I guess the fact that this film is an entertaining film about PTSD is essentially us throwing our hands up and saying “hey you know what, we could rub this in your face and tell you how bad it is, but why bother because it’s gonna keep going and as far as I can tell it’s neverending." We might as well be resigned to our fate here and enjoy ourselves as much as we can before inevitable doom comes crashing down on us.

* * *

The Guest is now playing in theaters.

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