After sitting on the shelf for almost two years since its première back in September 2011, You’re Next is finally getting a wide theatrical release after Lionsgate acquired Summit meaning they had to reschedule their entire calendar. It was bought right after its première at the Midnight Madness programme at the Toronto International Film Festival. Since then, writer-actor-producer Simon Barett‘s work has appeared in both V/H/S films and The ABCs of Death as well as starting production on The Guest. An ever busy man, Simon gave up his time to talk to us about You’re Next, a film that was made years ago. The interview audio starts off with me asking about the time situation but Simon told me to worry about it. Our conversation went on for so long that we had to rush the ending and rush off the phone unfortunately because neither of us saw this interview becoming this mammoth that it is.
Simon is such an easy guy to talk to that the hour flew by, neither of us really noticing that such an extensive amount of time had passed. Talking about films with people that clearly loves film is an ultimate pleasure and that’s what happened here. In fact, I’d even want this interview to be longer because it contains honesty, an earnestness and a lack of seriousness that made it a joy to even transcribe. All of it. It took hours but it was worth it.
Below is my interview with him with very few of my interjections as it was long enough as it is. Therefore you can read a film writer who’s honest about the entire trade, his career beforehand and his career ahead.
Where did you get the idea of writing You’re Next? Was the idea to subvert the home invasion genre?
The way that Adam [Wingard, director of You’re Next] and I work together is we usually come up with the germ of a film that we want to make. Then I go off and figure out what the story is, characters are and what type of film that is. We did a film called A Horrible Way to Die [N.B. It’s on Netflix] that we worked on together, and it actually did – for what it was, which is a film that cost less than $100,000 – fairly well. It played a lot of film festivals but because it had a genre title it played a lot of horror film festivals where audiences were incredibly disappointed to be suddenly faced with a microbudget, mumblecore drama about the dangers of addiction. Even though that film was very well received and won a lot of awards, it was kind of a bummer; the movie itself and then also the experience of watching it with incredibly disappointed horror fans. [laughs] It just wasn’t what people were in the mood for.
We kind of had two things happen simultaneously, which is we were developing the desire to do something a little more audience friendly – it’s actually hard to do anything a little less audience friendly than before [laughs] – but we were also consuming a ridiculous amount of horror films during that year. If you go to Fantastic Fest or Fantasia or Toronto, those were the films in that same section so we ended up seeing everything and it occurred to us that horror films are kind of in a bit of a rut. It feels like the last two trends in horror cinema was the extreme horror trend, started by Saw and then films like Hostel and that nature, then there was the found footage thing which was started by The Blair Witch Project and somewhere in there was the postmoden, self-referential thing that was started by Scream – which was of course beaten into the ground when Scream got a satire called Scary Movie and nobody really noticed that that was a stupid idea.
All of those things felt like they were over and audiences were getting sick of it and there wasn’t anything new. We were like ‘How do we make one of these home invasion horror films?’ because we really love these films and do something different which isn’t the same thing that Michael Haneke was making fun of 16 years ago with Funny Games. Which, by the way, I love The Strangers, Ils [French film titled Them in English], I think those movies are great but they’re still in that thrill-kill category. Adam was just like ‘I want to do something really technical, really fun and really scary’ and I was like ‘OK, OK’ with a ‘serial killer irony’, so I was like ‘OK, I hate most serial killer movies’ so I was trying to figure out a different way to do that. I was kind of like ‘Wow, I hate most home invasion movies now! So much!’ I hate everything about them. It turns out the reason I hate them – Colin Geddes, the Midnight Madness programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was having drinks with him and he was complaining about having to watch a hundred screeeners which was a subgenre that he described as ‘Movies Which Have People Tied to Chairs’. That was like an epiphany moment for me. ‘That’s how you do it! There’s no torture. There’s no threatened rape. There’s no extended scenes of people screaming while their children are brutalised.’ You’d have to flip it right away.
We didn’t want to do anything postmodern but that was the epiphany moment for me: a female protagonist who doesn’t act tough like every female protagonists do in every horror movie but actually is tough. We’d have to take that seriously. Half way through production, our producer Keith Calder pointed out that we were inadvertently making a feminist horror film just because none of us explicitly hate women. [laughs] The bar for that sort of thing is so low in horror cinema. Everyone keeps talking about how You’re Next is an innovative spin on the genre but what we really tried to do was make a fun, good horror film that avoided all the clichés that I was personally sick of. It’s funny that by trying to something good and different, people see it as somewhat subversive and there were some subversive things but mostly we just wanted to make a horror movie that we ourselves would really enjoy.
I grew up reading a lot of Agatha Christie novels, my favourite of course was And Then There Were None, so Dan Stevens – we’re doing a film with him right now – told me that it had a more offensive title and I don’t know if it’s true, I need to look it up on Wikipedia. [laughs] [N.B. It does, we won’t repeat it but if you’re curious, the Wikipedia page is linked there] He’s a fan as well. And Then There Were None was one of my favourite books and I started to realise that if you write, say, a contained horror film and don’t take inspiration from all of the other contained horror films, there other things to take inspiration from: Agatha Christie, screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby, that take place all in one house that builds to a climax of sorts but they’re not horror films. I was also influenced by Mario Bava‘s Twitch of the Death Nerve, though I wasn’t think about it at the time, but someone brought it up to me later and I was like ‘Oh, I see that’. It was like ‘Let’s take inspiration from all these other things that we love’. We’ve consumed enough horror movies, we see every horror movie that comes out. We are the fans. We know what we want. I should also say the French film Inside, À l’intérieur, was a big inspiration because that movie takes the home invasion horror concept and does something completely different with it.
I feel like a lot of filmmakers take inspiration the wrong way; which is when they see something they love, they’re like ‘Cool! I want to imitate that!’ and I think when Adam and I see something like that we’re like ‘Crap! That movie did that, now we can’t do anything like it!’ because they did it exactly right and now no one can do that again. I think we take more inspiration from the films that we don’t like. I don’t want to name anything specific but there were a lot of really punishing home invasion films that came out several years ago. Again, you know, I’m a big fan of The Strangers and Them, but after those came out, some really tired rip offs of those films which themselves weren’t exactly breaking the mould. For me, I was sitting there like ‘I’m hating this film, why do I hate it? OK, what should’ve this character done differently? What would surprise me as a viewer at this moment in the film? Other than what they’re about to do, which I’ve seen a million times’ you know? That’s where we take inspiration. It’s not from movies we admire but it’s hard to watch There Will Be Blood and you’re like ‘That’s great, how do I learn from it?’ [laughs] ‘OK, they had a budget of $70m on that movie? I have no idea how to do that.’ [laughs] But then you watch a terrible low-budget film at a regional horror film festival and you can be like ‘Why isn’t this working? What could they have done that me as a viewer wouldn’t know what would happen next?’ Then I’m actually engaged in this film.
You can then fix it in your head. I’m a horror fan myself I get tired of the horror genre making women hysterical all of the time, always screaming.
It’s very frustrating. I feel that it comes from an ugly place. Obviously 99% of horror screenwriters and directors are men and of that percentage of them, 99% of them didn’t have sex until fairly recently in their lives. [laughs] I do feel genuinely uncomfortable watching some horror films where the female characters… This is an interesting thing really. I don’t really know what the term feminist means when applied to modern horror cinema and I certainly don’t consider myself in a position to make any grand statements about that but I do see a lot of films that at least appear to make themselves feminist by, when the plot is of a woman being brutalised, making her vengeful. I don’t see exactly what’s even remotely empowering about that because you’re still going out of your way to say that women are inherently physically vulnerable to men and therefore should be afraid. To me that’s like – and again I use these terms with sarcasm because I don’t fully understand them – reinforcing the patriarchy in a horror film, that’s it. But people treat those films as if they’re empowering but I don’t get it.
I do think that’s a major pitfall. Especially if you watch slashers and home invasion films; with the exception of some great films like Scream or Inside or Martyrs… Well, maybe not Martyrs. I love Martyrs but I just thought about it for a second and realised that it doesn’t actually apply to what I’m saying. These moments where the women are shown to be vulnerable and terrified and OK, maybe that’s realistic, maybe if I was in that situation I’d be screaming and terrified, I think it’s very likely I would, but let’s move past it. It’s frustrating as a viewer, it’s frustrating and uncomfortable. I feel like the last ten years or so has been this profitised post-Iraq war mentality where filmmakers have been really wanting to rub audience’s faces in brutality. It’s really like a contest of what’s disturbing. Even in mainstream Hollywood cinema that normally plays it quite safe, the subgenre that’s been labelled for better or worse “torture porn” by the US media which is a very stupid term, which obviously automatically negates any sort of intelligent conversation because who’s going to argue in favour of something called torture porn? But some of those movies are genuinely merited that way because they’re fetishising it, they were setting up characters that filmmakers obviously didn’t care about and trying in a brief brutally extrapolating way to gain the audience’s sympathy by doing gratuitously brutal things to those characters for the next 70 minutes. It was just like ‘What is the point of this?’ If this is our cultural post-9/11, post-Iraq trauma manifesting itself then OK, I’m over it, I don’t get it, it’s not fun. I do think that we, as a culture, are fairly paranoid but I just think those movies have run their course.
But yeah, I do get frustrated watching female characters make poor decisions. I get frustrated watching male characters making poor decisions too. I just get frustrated watching stupid characters do stupid things just because the writer doesn’t know how to get his movie to the finish line.
Yeah, I agree. There seems to be a dividing line between two different types of female characters – with exceptions obviously – who are either made to be like men or hysterical women. I rewatched Rosemary’s Baby not long ago and I realised that Rosemary is really irritating. Were you trying to go in the opposite way with Erin, Sharni Vinson‘s character?
Rosemary’s Baby is doing something different, implying on a very different type of cultural anxiety. I think in a film like Rosemary’s Baby, a part of the audience’s anxiety comes from that character’s neuroses and obviously that’s a movie that’s more about a character realising that the paranoia that they are feeling is in fact an elaborate occult conspiracy movement. I think the movie’s actually a lot funnier than anyone gives it credit for. [laughs] The problem is you can’t translate a character like Rosemary to a more action orientated slasher but I do agree that male screenwriters either write tough female characters as pointlessly mean and annoying. A character who is for some reason a buzzkill [laughs] and is constantly posturing and acting tough. Which, by the way, in real life, people who are tough don’t act tough. If you’ve known any ex-military people, they don’t walk around flexing, they’re just quietly aware that they could kill everyone in the room. [laughs] People don’t write female characters that way because I don’t think male writers give female characters that much credit or, you made the point that, they’re written inauthentically and their sexuality is very downplayed. I don’t understand that either.
When it comes down to it, if you look at a lot of survival horror films or slasher horror films, the female protagonist, the final girl, survived just by chance. If you look at her character traits it’s like ‘Oh, she doesn’t have sex’, well, how’s that empowering? You know? I know that with You’re Next in particular, Adam and I talked and we also spoke to our costume designer – Emma Potter; who is wonderful -, there was a fine line between because we didn’t want to downplay our female character’s sexuality, we wanted her to seem like a well-rounded human being and of course sexuality is a big part of that, but we didn’t want to fetishise her in any way. We didn’t want her to be wearing a torn tight tanktop and at some stage it gets wet. Then you’re not taking that character seriously on a different level. You’re fetishising the actress and to me it takes people out of the film. I’ve done nudity in many, many films with a lot of nudity in them and I think nudity only works when there’s a degree of realism to it. If I see Jessica Biel wearing a tight tanktop in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, I’m not thinking about that character, I’m thinking about Jessica Biel and what I’m feeling is not scared. [laughs] It’s a very fine line because I hate these pointlessly asexual character that bring about the question ‘Wait, how did you survive? You’re unpleasant to be around’ [laughs], that’s your version of tough? It’s true.
This is interesting because A Horrible Way to Die, the character Amy Seimetz plays, really makes some extremely poor choices and the movie is about that. I talked to several women afterwards, including our V/H/S producer Roxanne Benjamin, who found that extremely frustrating, who felt like we were falling into the pitfall of just repeatedly punishing a female character and I would beg to differ because I’d argue that’s taking the character rather seriously – which that film is more or less a character study of her. At the same time, I wasn’t sensitive during the argument but I was thinking that’s an interesting challenge. How do you write an empowered female character in a situation like this and have her make the right choices that female horror fans aren’t grinding their teeth in frustration but not falling into the pitfall of all these annoying Hollywood films of ‘This character is annoying, I don’t like her, she’s not interesting to me’. That really was the key with Sharni’s character. It wasn’t so much about her ever acting tough – which, again, if you watch any of these big studio or slasher movies off the rack, the way that those female characters establish that they’re tough is being kind of a dick to everyone – so it was important to us that she never posture or pretend to be tough but instead be kind of embarrassed by how tough she was. That was the crucial ‘I get this!’ If you were a women who was actually this tough, in our society, you’d almost be a little embarrassed about it, you’d downplay it because it’d intimidate your boyfriend, and then he’d be impotent. [laughs] Once we made that a part of the story, that she is a little mortified about how physically powerful she can be.
Obviously You’re Next is not the world’s most serious film but we’re having a very serious conversation about it but obviously we really we’re doing these things so people can have fun and turn off their brains for a bit.
Yeah, we are. But if you downplay a woman’s sexuality then you’re taking away her power as well because you’re confining her.
Of course. Yeah, absolutely. It’s shocking – this is not a new observation; in fact, many, many books have been written about this including Carol J. Clover‘s Men, Women and Chainsaws, probably the most famous film feminist theory book about this subject – but the extent that a female character has to be asexual to not be punished in a motion picture is… I would just say, I think we’re over it. [laughs] I think culturally we’re passed that.
Moving on a bit to a different side of it. I was just curious what made you decide on the animal masks that you ended up using in the film?
Probably the biggest inspiration of that is a film I’m a big fan of, which is The Wicker Man – of course, the one I’m referring to is the Nicolas Cage remake. [laughs] But no, seriously, I love the original, I saw it as a kid and it made quite an impression on me, as you might imagine. Again, Adam had kind of said parameters of the movie he wanted to make with me next and I had already figured out that they were multiple killers and I wanted them to have iconic masks. What I didn’t want to do was the masks from The Strangers because they were designed by a famous art director, they look like it. When I watch The Strangers, it’s one of the things that I love about the film because it looks amazing but it kind of takes me out of the movie because the characters are so able to artistically express themselves by making these phenomenal art masks, why are they killing people? They clearly have a good outlet for their creativity because their masks are amazing. They look like they took weeks to make in the midst of a fashion design school. We needed something iconic, something that hadn’t done before but I also felt like we needed something true to the characters. The original Michael Myers mask in Halloween which is a famously repurposed William Shatner mask, not only looks amazing and obviously made a huge impression on viewers but feels like ‘OK, this crazy guy could break out of an asylum, go to a drug store and find this mask’ and that’s what we needed, something new, something that would stick out.
I have to say I think I was thinking about the original [The] Wicker Man and about how creepy those animal masks looked when I decided to make it animals. Once I realised that was a cool direction to go in, I realised there was an opportunity to convey the film’s themes through what the animals were. That’s kind of spoiler territory but obviously the theme that’s trying to come across in You’re Next is that people aren’t who you think they are and, in the string of situations, a person you might not like in a social situation might turn out to be better or worse in a strenuous situation than you think. Which I think is a fun thing to explore, particularly as a writer. When you get to create ridiculous characters and then put them in ridiculous circumstances and see how they react. Once I realised that was going to be a big theme in the film – not just for Sharni’s character but other characters as well – I knew that this was perfect. [laughs] That was the choice to make them a lamb, a fox and a tiger. That not only felt oddly classic and biblical in some ways but to convey to audiences that we are in on the joke.
When you were writing it yourself, were you influenced by a bad reunion that you had? Obviously not that bad but the dinner scene seems to draw real family confrontation.
Actually, I get along really well with my family. [laughs] I was more influenced by fictional ones. I will say that the dinner scene in You’re Next is by far the most improvisational heavy scene in the film because there’s no way to write a scene like that. All the things that the people say in that scene are in the script but we didn’t know the ingredients that we needed. We were working with people on that film that we had worked with a bunch for the most part. Obviously you don’t cast Joe Swanberg, Ti West or Amy Seimetz if you’re not going to let them do some improv. I strongly suspect that Joe in particular is calling on some things that people have actually said to him before – family members. I suspect that, he’s made some jokes about it, I expect that the character that Joe’s playing and is picking on Ti in that scene, I supect he’s re-enacting some things that relatives have said to him when they’ve seen his… shall we say… his aggressively non-commercial early films. Joe’s obviously an artist and director that we admire tremendously and he’s great to work with as an actor but, you know, some of his movies are made for, um, very elite audiences, shall we say. I suspect that he’s had that exact argument. I wrote the scene with that in mind. I was like ‘If we can get Joe Swanberg arguing with Ti West in favour of commercial filmmaking and Ti is arguing in favour of artistic filmmaking’ and meanwhile there’s Adam and I who are completely oblivious to those and just want to make good movies that people actually want to see. [laughs] That’s, again like the masks, if you’re not looking for subtext, you’ll still enjoy the film, but if you are looking for subtext, there’s clearly a subtext there; Joe’s arguing pro-commercial filmmaking, Ti’s arguing pro-artistic filmmaking, and they’re both completely wrong. That was the movie we wanted to make. [laughs] Look, both sides of this argument are wrong, here’s our statement on that, in an entertaining slasher film. Hopefully.
I was going to bring that up actually. Because you had people like Joe Swanberg and Ti West on set, did they ever jokingly try and take control and tell Adam how to do things?
Oh no. It wasn’t just them too, there are other directors in the film: there’s Amy, Larry, Calvin Reeder in the movie, so we have at least five directors in the film [laughs] pretty much there all the time. Ti and Joe and all that, it’s a very collaborative group, playing various roles in each other’s projects. Ti had already acted in a bunch of Joe’s films, Silver Bullet, Autoerotic which I worked on and Adam co-directed, and it’s honestly that those guys are so thrilled not to be directing. Directing is so stressful. [laughs] Sometimes they were perfectly thrilled to go in, do their job, go back to their hotel and chill while Adam quietly lost his mind. Directing is hard, hard work. I’m thrilled to not be directing the film we’re working on now, it’s just so much work. If you asked them for advice, I think Ti gave me some advice on digital special effects when a visual effect wasn’t working. ‘You can fix this, when I was working on The Innkeepers I fixed a shot like this’ but no one was going to be like ‘Hey Adam, why don’t you put the camera here?’ They know that a. it’s not their place, and b. they’re probably thrilled to not have to worry about that, and c. they don’t know what his plan is. On a shoot like You’re Next, which was a very difficult shoot, we didn’t have very much money at all or a lot of time, I think everyone was glad to stay out of Adam’s way. [laughs] Do what he needed.
On the other hand, I will say that having those directors in those roles helps in some small way because when you need them to improvise and have spontaneity, you know you’re working with people who understand on a deeper level what they need to be doing. A lot of actors approach improv in terms of ‘This is who my character is’ but when you’re working with a director, who also happens to be a great improvisational actor, then they’re not only thinking about that stuff, they’re also thinking ‘What do we need to make this scene work? What do we need to make this scene move forward? What are the story beats that I need to hit?’ They’re just thinking on a deeper level and that was really helpful for us. Obviously they’re all really good in the film.
And one of the characters is a director so it would make sense to have a director play him.
Yeah, we wanted to somewhat call attention to the joke. Again, it’s there if you want it but if you don’t know who any of those people are then – You’re Next is getting a wider release than anything if we’ve ever done so – if you’re in on the joke, it’s funny, but if you’re not then you don’t have to worry about it.
You said it was a bit of a stressful shoot but it’s been sitting on the shelf now for almost two years, is that more stressful, having your work just sitting there?
It was initially it was very stressful. It’s been such a rollercoaster with this film that I’m sure that I won’t fully process the experience of having You’re Next acquired and now finally marketed and released. In five years time, I’ll be able to look back and assess how I feel in that moment because right now I’m just like ‘OK, so this is happening…’ It was a very interesting experience. We were thrilled to be acquired by Lionsgate at Toronto, right after the film’s premiere, straight out of the gate. They were our dream distributor for the film and they responded really well. We were even able to meet with Tim Palen, the head of marketing, who is an absolute genius. He photographs his own posters and created the campaigns for Saw and Hostel, he’s really a gifted artist, we were thrilled to work with them.
Then two months later, they merged with Summit which doubled their releases. Obviously they weren’t going to release films on the same date to compete with themselves, so it became this huge shuffle. I think a lot of films got dropped and put straight-to-video. There was a very stressful period because our film is an independent film, we were very concerned that might be one of those films. They kept telling us ‘Don’t worry, everyone here loves You’re Next, we just need to find a new spot for it because 2012 just got booked’. We were like ‘Oh my god’. [laughs] We’ve known we’ve been coming out for over a year now, as soon as they gave us an actual date, admittedly we were all ‘We’ll believe it when we see it’ at this point. They kept all of their promises. Gradually all that stress has been replaced with pure elation.
Obviously we’re very… I wouldn’t say stressed but we’re nervously excited to see how the film actually performs in the wide release arena. We’re very interested, for example, how it’ll perform against The World’s End [they’re released on the same day]. It seems like it’s going to have the same crowd. There’s stressful concerns like that even though Edgar Wright is extremely positive about our film [laughs] and is incredibly nice to us on Twitter about how his film has to come out on the same day as ours. [laughs] He got to see You’re Next a couple of years ago and immediately reached out to us and was very kind about it. He’s obviously a director we all admire as well. It’s just friendly competition like that. Mostly we’re just thrilled. I’ll also say when you make a movie like You’re Next, or even A Horrible Way to Die or the film we’re working on now, The Guest, you try to make a movie is going to stand the test of time. Ones that they aren’t going to enjoy just 2 years after its time but 20 years afterwards on, like, retinal implants or whatever everyone will be watching films on then. A lot of people were already concerned that the film’s lost any of its relevance. We were like no, definitely not. [laughs] We were really trying to make something that’ll stand the test of time. I will say what’s funny is that since the film premiered two years ago, [laughing] there have been a couple of films that were definitely influenced by ours.
Care to name them?
No, I won’t name names but it’s obvious if you see them. It’s obvious if you see our film then see those films it’s sort of like ‘Wait…’ The first one actually was that someone got a copy of our script but it was a very microbudget film and it barely came out. They were like clearly copying. It was a film where I happen to know that the people had a copy of the script at an early stage. They got it through mutual friends and they made a rip-off of You’re Next but it wasn’t good at all and no one saw it. [laughs] Honestly, when you’re making a horror film, yeah, you can try and rip off an idea but the fact is I’ve had ideas that get stolen in my lengthy career is because a. I can come up with another one, and b. You’re Next, good or bad, is not its content. The content’s been done a million times, it’s the details. That’s what makes it good or bad. There have been some films that have come out that were post-You’re Next films where I know that the producers were big fans of You’re Next and wanted to do a kind of similar things. That was kind of scary. [laughs]
You see people on Twitter like accusing us of ripping off a film that was made after our film just because of the hectic release schedule. It would be easy if we weren’t doing so well or so happy to obsess over something like that. My attitude is that we’ve moved on, we’re having new ideas [laughing] so it’s all good. There’s plenty of good ideas for everyone. And it’s flattering! It would be especially flattering if our film had come out originally [laughing] back in 2012 but overall you can’t get mad over stuff like that because it is, you know, a form of flattery. It’s just a weird coincidence that stuff like that happens. Again, I’m not going to name names, because the people involved are, I think, there’s no malicious intent. They saw our film, they liked it, they wanted to do something like it. I know a couple of horror writers actually that I’m friends with have asked them to write something like You’re Next, and I’m like, really? You want them to write an incredibly low-budget independent film that’s been on the shelf for two years? OK!
Now we’re seen as this huge success, we’re seen as this film that everyone wants to make. It’s been very profitable for its financing producers. It’s very funny to see how that goes. You know, it’s good luck, but we’re going to be over here writing something that it isn’t like You’re Next. [laughs] We want to make something that’s entertaining and good but other than that we’re OK, we did that, now let’s try and see if we can continue to challenge ourselves. I’ve had multiple people tell me that producers have asked them to write a script like You’re Next because it’s marketable now. I was just like ‘Good luck…’ [laughs] You know? I was trying to write a script like Bringing Up Baby, figure that one out!
Do you think that the success of this film could pave your way to bigger budgets for the future?
It already has, yeah. I mentioned that we were shooting a film right now with Dan Stevens, The Guest, it’s a significantly bigger project than You’re Next so it already has. We’ve been attached to a couple of studio projects as well. Most of which haven’t been announced yet. It really has been great for us. I think Adam and I, right after You’re Next, we went and made V/H/S/2 just because we were bored [laughs], because You’re Next was delayed, we didn’t know what to do with our time. Then we figured out how to put together The Guest, a much bigger project and therefore – much to our surprise and dismay – took a much longer time to put together and develop. We were like ‘Let’s do another low budget thing’ and make V/H/S/2 because they’re ready to go. [laughs] We can shoot the thing literally next week… and we kinda did. I know fans have responded to V/H/S/2 like ‘Oh you just cranked this out quickly!’, well, yeah… [laughs] That was literally just because we had a window. If we had waited then there would have been no way we would have been involved in that film because we couldn’t have. We like to stay active and busy.
The Guest is a much bigger film than You’re Next and we have several projects on the plate that are much bigger than The Guest and we’re obviously going to have learn quite quickly from those experiences because that’s new to us but we’re very excited about it. But I also feel like that we’ll always come back to making smaller movies. Kind of the way that Steven Soderbergh did for a while because I do think that there’s something to be said for like making your big budget studio films but then, when you have a really strange idea, recognising – which a lot of successful filmmakers once they make their $100m movies have a hard time going back but certain ideas should be made small. I would call attention, if anyone disagrees with me, Peter Jackson‘s adaptation of The Lovely Bones [laughs] as a film that would be much better if he’d had 1% of its budget to work with. Not to call out Peter Jackson, he’s a genius and I love his work, but, you know, come on. It’s The Lovely Bones. It didn’t need that. I’ll be the first in line for the next Hobbit movie but you should direct them differently.
I think it will be to continually stretch our creative muscles. If we have a weird idea that isn’t very commercial but we still want to make it as a film, we’ll go back and make it the indie way. It’s getting a bit more difficult for us now that I’m in the Writer’s Guild [of America] for the first time – which is great because I have health insurance. That’s nothing to shake a stick at. It’s great, I paid off my student loans about a month ago so we’re doing well. I know that Adam and one of the studio projects that we’re shooting early next year, Adam has to join the DGA [Director’s Guild of America] so that’s going to limit us. Our union memberships are going to limit us somewhat, in being able to run off and shoot something like V/H/S/2 or The ABCs of Death but unions, ultimately, want people to be working. I’m sure we can find ways to be like ‘Come on!’ [laughs] We can’t pay ourselves with the budget of this film but there are ways to make it work and still keep doing indie stuff with people like Joe. Although I should say that Joe is moving on to much bigger things himself with Drinking Buddies and I think Ti is as well.
I think maybe we all got tired of being desperately impoverished. I don’t really know what selling out means but I do know that we would never do a film that we don’t think could be good, we would never do a film that we didn’t have the creative control to make that happen. In fact, we passed on many projects and actually left some high profile projects when creatively we started to realise that we wouldn’t necessarily be allowed to make a good movie. We love working with our producers Keith Calder and Jessica Wu. I feel like we’ll collaborate with them for the rest of our careers. I feel that they’re an integral part of our creative team. To the point where we’ll be debating a script note, and we’ll be like ‘Keith and Jess will know what to do here, let’s leave it to them’. [laughs] That’s at the script stage or even at the script idea stage sometimes. ‘I have this idea… we’ll just see what Keith and Jess think’. We’ve got a great team. I think the scary thing doing studio work is that we can’t bring Keith and Jess onto our studio projects all the time. When you do a studio film, they have their producers that they want you to work with. I think that’ll be a good experience for us, to do a film without them but I know we’ll want to come back and do films with them. If we’re very, very lucky.
A lot of filmmakers you see them making movies and they’re like ‘I did it! I’m huge now!’ and they sit back and wait to get rewarded or to get the next Star Wars or whatever. I think a lot of people don’t realise that in today’s economy the reward is to keep working! That’s why we’ve already figured out in advance to do a lot of indie projects; we want to work with our producers, Keith and Jess; we want to do studio films. We’ve turned down studio projects because they wanted our time for the next two years and we couldn’t go off and do anything else because we’d be attached to this. That’s not gonna happen. [laughs] Even though we make like $0 from doing some of these indie things or sometimes actually negative money [laughs] and actually put our own money into the films to finish them. Not with Keith and Jess I must say. When we’ve been working with other people, sometimes that’s happened. I’d rather be broke and making a movie than rich and writing a bunch of Hollywood films that don’t ever get shot. That’s an easy choice.
So far it’s going good, so far, yes, a lot of doors have been opened by You’re Next, and if the film does well I’ll expect that we’ll be in a really good place career wise. At least until we fuck it up really bad. [laughs] We’ll see! I think one of the main things that makes Adam and I a great team is that, we were friends for a long time before working together, but the number one thing is a desire to be constantly working. In fact, an inability to be even remotely happy if we weren’t working. We’re going to do big projects. Hopefully we’ll get to the point where we’re eventually making films as big as possible and the biggest budget films available. I would love to be working in the same arena some day as people like Peter Jackson but, in the meantime, that’s not going to stop us making some $200,000 movie. I think a lot of people are like ‘I earned that budget level! I’m not going to make it for anything less than that’ and it’s like ‘All right, man, good luck… I’ll be over actually making a movie’.
Tenacity to work is necessary in the film industry because you can’t be lazy. A lot of people call themselves writers but don’t actually write.
It’s weird. A lot of artists have a sense of entitlement, I feel like. As a writer, the only reason I have a career now is certainly not because of my agent or representation or anyone like that; it’s because I wrote a film that we could shoot, with absolutely no money [laughing], that was A Horrible Way to Die. It sold for more than it cost, that was the step to You’re Next which has put us in a good place. A Horrible Way to Die was financed by friends, Zak Zeman and Brad Miska who are producers on V/H/S films. Brad just helped us with the financing of the movie because he was like ‘I just don’t fucking understand how you guys can’t get a job and are both working horrible day jobs and can’t get hired, what do you need?’ And I said ‘Dude, if someone could give us like $80,000, we could make something awesome’ and he was like ‘I might know some people’ and we owe him everything, that’s why we worked on the V/H/S films. We have eternally loyalty to Brad for that. We went out and shot it in my hometown, I called in a lifetime of favours. I grew up in a small town in Missouri. We don’t come from money at all, we don’t come from entertainment connections at all. It was more like ‘Do you have a garage that we can shoot in?’ Great!
I see a lot of people without that initiative and that’s fine, everyone has their own path. But for me, if I had sat around and waited for someone to give me an opportunity, I guarantee that I would have moved back in with my parents by now. I’m not joking at all. When we did A Horrible Way to Die, Adam was living on my couch, he was basically homeless. I was driving a car that I’d been driving for 15 years that I bought used, this car had broken down and I was carrying around about… I’d say about $60,000 worth of debt. It was definitely getting intense. [laughs] The thing is that we’ve always done it ourselves. We didn’t get paid anything. We didn’t pay ourselves anything to do A Horrible Way to Die. We got paid much less than the actors on You’re Next but we’ve always been at backend of stuff. We’d do it for no money but then we’d have partial ownership in it, the indie way. If it hadn’t’ve paid off we’d both be back home, working at coffee houses if we’re lucky. Fortunately we were actually correct in our arrogant assumptions that we had talent. [laughs] It worked out great.
I just want to know really about The Guest finally. What can you tell us about its story, genre, cast and any details that can be released about the film really?
The funny thing about our films is that we like to surprise people as much as possible. Especially in these days where they’re really overmarketed. “Three new stills from The Guest!” Oh, here’s a shot of Dan Stevens’s sneaker… who gives a shit? The funny thing about is that I haven’t read a single synopsis of it online yet that is even remotely accurate so I guess we’re doing OK. [laughs] It’s more of an action-thriller and we’ve got Dan doing something that is definitely going to surprise everyone. [laughs] He’s incredible. We got so lucky in casting him because he’s going to completely blow people away. It’s basically a film about a family that takes in a guest and he turns out not to be who he exactly claims to be. It has some horror elements but it’s much more of a thriller. It’s much more kind of grounded in reality than You’re Next. We’re having a tremendous amount of fun with it.
I can tell from Vine. You were on swings, slides, roundabouts.
Well that’s not fun. That’s what happens when our equipment breaks down and we’ve got nothing we can do and we’re going insane. You will not see Adam and I playing on swings and slides when we should be working. We’re on swings and slides because we’re so frustrated because if weren’t, we’d be going insane. That said we just wrapped late last night on day 25, we’ve got a week of shooting to [N.B. Not any more, this interview was before then and they have since then wrapped on shooting, in case you’re interested] and it’s turning out phenomenal. That happened because our dolly broke. So they were like ‘2 hours guys!’ and we were like ‘FUCK! OK, let’s go play on the swingset’. [laughs] That’s the funny thing you know. All my friends are like ‘Yeah, we wrapped early and had a barbecue’ and I’m always like ‘Maybe you should’ve got a couple more shots’.
In case you’re interested in this too, there will be no slides, swingsets nor roundabouts in the film The Guest. No scenes take part there anyway. There you have it. One of the most honest interviewees that you’ll ever read and one that talks with a unbridled sense of passion and joy, talking about a career that almost made him and Adam Wingard homeless. Hindsight is beautiful with him now set up for many great projects so be sure to check out the brilliant You’re Next and V/H/S/2 when it’s released in the UK. After that they have The Guest but you can catch them on Netflix too with segments in The ABCs of Death and V/H/S.
We’d like to thank the ever chatty but always interesting Simon Barrett for giving up so much of his time to talk about films. It was a real pleasure.
Update: There now actually is a shot there because of their time spent there.