Although it wasn’t either of their first films, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett began their successful partnership with the exceptional 2010 work A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE. That was followed quickly by YOU’RE NEXT, although you might not be aware how quickly, since that film took nearly two years to be released after it’s 2011 Toronto Film Festival premiere. But the critical success of YOU’RE NEXT allowed Wingard and Barrett to become a little more ambitious with their follow-up, THE GUEST, starring former “Downton Abbey” star Dan Stevens, in a role so disturbingly different than the one he played on the British series, I think many of his fans will be shocked.
In THE GUEST, Stevens plays David, a soldier just returned from the recent war, who made a promise to his now fallen comrade that he would look in on his family, which is exactly how the film begins. With a great deal of smooth charm and washboard abs, David not only dishes out good advice, especially to the family’s two children, but he helps them out a bit in solving some of their more immediate problems. The film isn’t really a horror film, but it is damn suspenseful at times, and it takes an unexpected left turn into the bizarre that makes the entire piece all the better.
I sat down with Wingard, Barrett, and Steven last week to talk about THE GUEST’s influences, and I tried to squeeze out a bit of information about what Wingard and Barrett had next for us, which clearly they weren’t allowed to say, although it was just announced this week that they’re going to tackle a remake of Kim Jee-Woon's 2010 I SAW THE DEVIL, a film I first saw at Fantastic Fest 2011; in fact, I think it was a secret screening that I introduced. It sounds like Wingard and Barrett are about to enter into some truly dark territory with this. But until then, please enjoy my chat with Dan Stevens, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett about THE GUEST, which took place the morning after a slightly bizarre post-screening Q&A that I moderated.
Capone: Is it okay if I just repeat questions from last night? It’s much easier for me that way.
Simon Barrett: Only the audience ones.
Dan Stevens: [In a perfect Chicago accent] “How much this movie cost to make?”
Adam Wingard: “Are you Dan Stevens? I saw the poster outside, and you don’t look like the poster.”
SB: But that one wasn’t even a question. He just said, “You aren’t Dan Stevens.”
DS: It was a lively crowd.
Capone: It was a great mix of Dan’s fans, fans of your films [Adam and Simon], and…
SB: And then some people that accidentally wandered in and didn’t leave.
Capone: You made a joke last night about how YOU’RE NEXT wasn’t doing very well at the box office when you started to make this film. During that two-year period before it got a wide release, did you set out to do something radically different after that? You mentioned doing a balls-out action thing, and then you abandoned that and you decided to do this. Was there a certain amount of pressure not to repeat yourself?
AW: Oh yeah. I think it was less about not repeating ourselves. It was more just about not getting pigeonholed in one specific genre, because we knew we definitely weren’t going to do another home invasion movie, even though Simon pointed out last night THE GUEST is kind of a home invasion film in itself.
Capone: A polite home invasion.
AW: But I think we saw it really as an opportunity, especially because we have a great relationship with our producers Keith Calder and Jess Calder. And Keith has access to his own financing, so he only has to answer to himself. So it’s not a situation where there are a lot of loop holes that we have to go through. And the YOU’RE NEXT experience was so great, Keith and Jess had a lot of faith in us, and they were ready to do our next movie, and we just realized that this was an opportunity to really branch out and do the kind of movies we had always wanted to do in the first place. Before, everything was always based around how do we get money for a movie, because we didn’t have anything to show for it. We didn’t have any actors with name value that we could get attached to things. But the one thing that we did have is we could sell a movie based on its sub-genre merits. And THE GUEST was just an opportunity to try to step out of that and do something with it.
SB: Yeah, I would say it wasn’t a challenge to not repeat ourselves. I think Adam and I both, our instinct after we finish something is to do something completely different. The only times I’ve had a hard time writing scripts in the last few years is actually when, for career reasons or money reasons, I end up writing two things back to back that are kind of similar, because that’s when I get really creatively deadened. And actually if you look at a lot of filmmakers who tend to repeat themselves just naturally because that’s their thing, their work tends to lesson over time, because you run out of ways to tell that story. So I think instinctively we never want to do anything back to back that’s similar in any way.
Capone: That idea of combining genres or sub-genres is often how you spin your stories. If you come up with a great idea but can’t find that twist to it, do you abandon the idea?
AW: I think it always starts with the story itself, and the twisting of sub-genres just comes naturally because I think we’re so initiated into so many random films, and that just becomes a natural part of the process. Also, the last few movies have been approached from the cinephile angle, and I think the next film or two that we’re going to do, we’re going to try to get away from that and do something that’s not as self referential.
But I the think that we do that’s different than a lot of people who do deconstructive genre films is that first and foremost for us it’s always about the characters, and then the deconstruction comes second. We try to set up the reality of the environment, and then the rest of it just comes naturally with the stylization of the film. But Simon doesn’t have a lot of cute dialogue where they’re referencing other films or anything like that. I think what happened after SCREAM, for instance, is everybody was like, “Oh, a deconstruction is just referencing other movies in a cute way.” And SCREAM did it so perfectly that everybody didn’t realize that that wasn’t a new stylization, that was just a good movie.
Capone: SCREAM effectively birthed it and then killed it all in one stroke. You can’t do that again as creatively.
AW: Exactly, because SCREAM isn’t a sub-genre; it’s just a movie.
SB: Yeah and if it didn’t kill it, then it was certainly made moribund by SCARY MOVIE, which was a parody of a satire, and which of course did incredibly well.
AW: And I thought the actual continuation of that type of thing was the GRINDHOUSE film, which was a new deconstruction, trying to get the purity of that messiness on film, but then they did that too. But that lead to another stream of movies that had that vibe and were like, “We’re going to do that scratched film prints stuff and stuff like that.” But again, that was another thing where it’s like, this isn’t a sub-genre; this is just a movie. Yeah.
Capone: Dan, with the character that you’re playing, the references initially were HALLOWEEN and THE TERMINATOR. But when you actually have to sit down and play this guy, what are you thinking about. Any particular actors or movie characters that came to mind when you were developing this character?
DS: Yeah, I guess from a performance perspective as much as from the film making perspective there were a lot of influences funneled into THE GUEST. Those great John Carpenter and Kurt Russell collaborations really stood out from my childhood and were just wildly fun. And I think that was one of the things that really excited me when I met Adam and Simon was that they wanted to get across that kind of wild sense of cinematic fun.
But also Lindsay Anderson’s IF.... made a massive impression. I saw that when I was way too young, and it sort of left an indelible impression on me—Malcolm McDowell, I think in his first role. Most people know him from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which was the one that really spat him big, but IF... is such an extraordinary one. Lindsey Anderson as well is such an extraordinary British filmmaker, curiously un-British in his own way and was really part of that British new wave, and I just loved the anarchy, the beautiful anarchy, which is a difficult thing to get right. And there was something beautifully anarchic about Malcolm McDowell in that movie that he then went on to explore in lots of beautifully anarchic ways, and in lost of other films with Kubrick and the rest of it.
SB: Like Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN remake?
DS: Yes. Or Amy Heckerling’s VAMPS. Yeah, who can forget?
SB: He did what you’re talking about through 1985, and then he was like, “Alright!”
DS: Alright, going back to the ’60s and ’70s. Growing up, he had not made these films yet. I have not seen that. But yeah, IF…. and Kurt Russell, obviously the TERMINATOR films. Adam made me sit down and watch TERMINATOR 1 and 2 back-to-back, which I’d never done before, and I highly recommend to anybody. That was a great experience.
SB: And I made you watch TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES and TERMINATOR: SALVATION back-to-back, and you punched me.
SB: You were like, “You son of a--” And I was like, “What?”
DS: What else? KILL BILL was a huge one for me.
DS: Yeah. I love to cite Uma Thurman as an influence. [Laughs] Am I allowed to do that? While Adam and I certainly talked about Tarantino while doing this, and while KILL BILL is maybe not his greatest film in some ways, I think in terms of sheer enjoyment in the cinema and the soundtrack for that movie and the thrill that I got watching that, I certainly never forgot. It was a movie that I literally ran out of the movie theater and grabbed some more friends and took them back to the next screening. And I always wanted to make a film like that.
Capone: Can you talk about the physical transformation that you had to make? What did you have to go through to physically prepare, including weapons and fight training?
SB: It took you awhile to recover from the abs implant surgery.
DS: Thanks, Simon.
SB: Oh, sorry. The recording’s on.
Capone: I wish I could have been in the theater during the shower scene. I’m sure it got the same reaction everywhere.
DS: I don’t know. I’ve only seen it with a group of my friends in London last week. There was a very different reaction there. But yes, it was a huge part of the preparation for the character. It was something that I talked about with Adam. I wanted it to look right, wanted it to feel right. And also, the martial arts element was something that Simon really--Simon probably would be too modest to mention this in an interview...
AW: He’s not too honest.
SB: I bring it up all the time.
DS: I’m going to hand it over to Simon, and he’s going to talk for approximately three hours about martial arts.
AW: He only needs a slight intro to get him going.
DS: I jest. He’s a very interesting man to talk to about a lot of things, but in particular martial arts, and it’s not something I have a huge amount of experience about, but the psychological discipline as much as the physical discipline and how that feeds into the character really, really interested me, and it’s something I’ve taken onto other roles, even if they don’t specifically require martial arts. There’s something about that discipline and focus that I found incredibly fascinating.
Capone: I can see how that would be useful.
DS: Just briefly, as Sir Lancelot [in the upcoming NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB], the broadsword fighting. Working with a sword coach who very much saw broadsword as a native European martial art-- I know this sounds fantastical—and approaching Lancelot from a medieval martial arts point of view was kind of fun, and that very much stemmed from THE GUEST.
Capone: Looking at the things you’ve got coming up this year and then the next year. Does fear play a part in the roles you choose at this point?
DS: Not anymore, no. Fear governed my choices up until about five years ago. I’m not taking a leaf out of Adam and Simon’s book really, and it was incredibly inspiring with them on a number of levels, but Simon’s already addressed it. Their attitude to their own work, in terms of not wanting to necessarily tread the same ground. If you have to, at least try and do it in a way that keeps you entertained and engaged. So I’m sure I will be doing a costume drama within the next five years. I hope I will. But it will hopefully be a little different than some of the others you’ve seen.
Capone: I wasn’t so much wondering about fear in terms of being afraid to do something...
SB: You were asking about the Mark Wahlberg-Reese Witherspoon movie. That’s a huge factor in all of our decisions.
DS: The Nicolas Winding Refn film FEAR X influences a lot of my choices.
Capone: I actually wondered if you look at a role and say, “I’m not sure if I can do that, therefore I must try to do it.”
DS: Ah! Okay, yes, in that sense then yes, but in a good way. Taking on David in THE GUEST terrified me, but only in a very thrilling way. In a way that I felt that the thrill of taking on the roll could be possibly channeled and transmitted in some way that could also thrill an audience.
AW: But Dan is just fearless on set, though. I mean, I never got any vibe of that at all. And he has pure confidence. It’s one of those things where, I don’t know if you are turning it on and off, but like it just seems like as soon as the camera is rolling, you’re on and as soon as it’s not rolling, you become a real person again. I was really impressed that he was always able to jump in. One of the things I liked about working Dan is that he’s into exploring each take. As much time as we can allow for it, he was always ready to do another take and try something else. By the end of the shoot, when the movie gets more over the top, we were having more fun with that, in that once we felt like we had the reeled-in, correct version of the scene, we would do a take or two where we just went SHINING style on it.
AW: And a few of those are actually in the movie, because by the end of the film, the stylization gets more over the top, and we were playing with that, and it was always like let’s make sure that we have something that’s a little bit more grounded, but just in case, let’s also get the over-the-top version.
DS: It seems to be a movie that earns its ridiculousness, and that enjoys that ridiculousness.
Capone: Well, it doesn’t wallow in it.
DS: Right, I hope not.
AW: We set up a real world in the beginning.
Capone: There was punctuation in the right spots.
DS: Towards the end, there was some fun to be had.
AW: We wouldn’t have gone there if we didn’t feel like we had set up that reality early on.
SB: But a lot of actors would be scared to go there, and I think one thing that makes us all work together seamlessly is we’re all people that don’t want to stay inside our comfort zones. And there are a lot of writers and directors and actors who just want to stay inside their comfort zone, and if you tell them to do something that’s outside of it, they’ll balk and freeze up and just give you what they were doing before. That’s a really obvious way to stagnate as an artist, and I think that’s something we’re all really scared of and working to avoid. But going back to the ridiculousness thing, that was intentional.
Capone: The second time watching it last night, the ’80s vibe just jumped out at me, and I think that’s part of the thing that made me laugh hardest. The score is fantastic, like a long-lost John Carpenter score. The Love and Rockets song is crucial. The fact that you had the climatic scene in a high school gym. I could go on.
DS: You half expect to see Carrie’s hand poke out of that mist.
AW: Simon and I talked about this a lot, that the vibe of like the ’80s and early ’90s movies isn’t just outrageous synthesizers and neon lights It’s also a basic approach to characters. One thing Simon did very wisely in the film is he applied that ’80s aesthetic where the kids are always smarter than the parents, and I’ve always liked those kind of dynamics. And I think that’s symbolic almost of our approach to that type of stylization. We try not to be like super on the nose about it, even though it gets over the top in there, but the reason all that stuff seems authentic is because we’re approaching it from a character point of view first and foremost.
Capone: Even Lance Reddick’s character, there’s always a guy like Dr. Loomis, speaking of Malcolm McDowell—some voice of authority who tries to approach something crazy like this in a very practical police or military way.
AW: Oh, yeah. We always saw the structure of the film having this loose HALLOWEEN framework to it. And the movie is obviously loaded with Easter eggs that deal with all kinds of ’80s films, but particularly the HALLOWEEN films, and not just the first one, but three and four and probably six.
SB: Definitely. Having a Loomis character was one of the first creative choices we made. Normally when Adam and I work, we’ll speak in really general terms, and then I’ll go off and work on my own for a little while. But Adam specifically did mention that he wanted a Loomis character. That there needed to be some authority figure in opposition to the hero/villain who’s ultimately ineffectual.
Capone: You weren’t too specific last night about the things that you were looking to do next, but can you give us some idea of the directions you’re looking in?
SB: No, we really can’t. Nor should you really want us to, is my answer to that.
DS: I like that answer.
SB: I’m going to flip it on you, buddy.
AW: It’s always fluctuating because at a certain point we thought that a different film that we were going to be doing was going to be coming up, and now we realize that that movie is going to probably by third on the slate. So things get shifted around, and it’s not worth really talking about. Even THE GUEST, we didn’t even announce it until it just leaked that we were shooting this movie.
SB: Yeah, but I like that. I like that in this day of social media, information over-saturation, that we try and keep our projects a little secret. I like that JJ Abrams does that.
Capone: It reminds me of the way I grew up when I literally would walk into a movie only having seen maybe one trailer and a poster, and that’s it.
SB: Yeah. With both YOU’RE NEXT and the V/H/S films—or I should say the two we worked on—we didn’t announce those existed really until we announced their premieres. And we would love to be able to keep doing that. Unfortunately as we work with bigger stars, people like Dan, it gets harder to not announce that you’re working with certain people.
DS: And we get very excited and want to announce that we’re working with Adam and Simon.
SB: It becomes a more complex thing, but I would love it if you really discovered what our next film was when we had it finished and ready for you to see.
AW: Do you remember that magazine called Cinescape?
AW: Cinescape I felt like was the only way that I ever new about any movies coming out, because they had that great section in the back that was like--
DS: The Rumor Mill.
AW: Yeah, what’s possibly coming out. That was like the internet for me back then. That was like the only access you had to it, but now you just have…
SB: It’s too much.
AW: Yeah, now you just know too much about movies before they’re even shot now.
SB: Yeah, I’m sick of movies before I even see the trailer.
AW: In Cinescape, you had a little paragraph blurb at best, and half of those movies never got made. But it still excited you because you didn’t really know.
DS: You should troll some of those old ones and see what never got made.
AW: Yeah, exactly. “Wait a minute.”
SB: In some ways, YOU’RE NEXT having it’s release date delayed for so long because of the Lionsgate-Summit merger was a real object lesson that confirmed that what we were doing was the correct thing, which was don’t over-hype your movie too much in advance, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what it’s life will be.
AW: You don’t know how long it’s going to take to make it or come out.
SB: I’m getting more people responding to YOU’RE NEXT now that it’s on Netflix or Amazon Prime than I did when it was in theaters, so its life is an undefinable thing, but ideally the films you’re making last forever, and I think too many filmmakers focus on hyping them up.
AW: But that just happens naturally.
SB: Yeah, if you make a good movie that will stand the test of time, people will talk about it on their own.
Capone: I know probably neither of you guys were responsible, but I’m quoted on the case of YOU’RE NEXT.
AW: What is your quote on there?
Capone: I don’t even remember.
SB: “This is terrible.” “dot-dot-dot funny dot-dot-dot”
SB: “Intermittently... successful.”
Capone: Yes, exactly. Gentlemen. Thank you so much. Great to meet you, Dan.