A few year ago, I saw a disturbing little horror offering directed by Adam Wingard, written by Simon Barrett and starring such actors as Amy Seimetz, AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg. Now those of you who know the long history of YOU'RE NEXT might think I'm talking about that film, but in fact I'm talking about A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, the 2010 feature from the same team that is bringing you YOU'RE NEXT, opening this week after nearly two years on the shelf.
Wingard followed by that film with a WHAT FUN WE'RE HAVING, which I never saw, but it featured writing work from Barrett and Bowen in the cast. Wingard has also done anthology work in such movies as AUTOEROTIC (Swanberg also directed a portion of this film, which featured Ti West, Seimetz and even Wingard acting), V/H/S, V/H/S 2, and THE ABCs OF DEATH. He and Barrett and currently shooting their latest feature THE GUEST, starring Dan Stevens, the recently departed "Downton Abbey" star.
But it's YOU'RE NEXT that has been one of the most eagerly anticipated horror films in recently years. I've seen it twice now and promise you it is one of the most perfectly paced, well-acted, skillfully written pieces of pure tension I've seen in a very long time. With a cast of most familiars (Bowen, West, Seimetz, Swanberg), as well as Barbara Crampton and relative newcomer Sharni Vinson, Wingard has made a film worth people getting excited about. Just last weekend, I screened this film for about 200 hardcore Chicago horror fans, and they ate it up--cheering when the end credits started to role and about a half-dozen times before that.
I spoke briefly with Wingard at the SXSW Film Festival, and managed to pick his brain a bit about his work on YOU'RE NEXT, along with a bit about this next feature. In the next couple of days, I'll also give you a fairly lengthy interview with Sharni Vinson, the surprise centerpiece of YOU'RE NEXT. Stay tuned, and enjoy my talk with Adam Wingard…
Capone: Hello, again.
Adam Wingard: How are you again, sir? Welcome to my huge room. [The interview is taking place in a fairly sizable conference room, with us being its only occupants.]
Capone: Yeah, this seems overindulgent, even for you. I just realized how long ago this thing played at Fantastic Fest. I really did think for a while I was never going to see it.
AW: Yeah, there were aspects of me at certain points where you’re like, “Oh man, are people ever going to watch this movie?” Especially having come off of such a great screening in Toronto, it was such a disappointment for me to have missed the Fantastic Fest screening.
Capone: I was telling AJ Bowen last night that the first half hour of the movie, I was thinking, “Why are people getting so excited about another home invasion movie?” Then it kind of kicks in with the fun stuff after that, but tell me about your thought process and how you and Simon Barrett worked toward bringing something new to that sub-genre of horror?
AW: That’s exactly where we started from, from the perspective of watching all of these horror movies come out, and while there were a lot of them that we liked, usually what we were responding a lot to were movies like THEM and THE STRANGERS, and those seemed to be the type of horror films that we were getting the most. Se wanted to basically start off with the home invasion template, but also at the same time, there’s a lot of things about that that we don’t like. It just seems like that sub-genre itself has this fad of ending with people tied up to chairs and being tortured and usually they're pretty mean-spirited movies, and usually it’s just a one-two punch of “This is scary,” and then maybe there’s a little twist or something, but basically they're just trying to scare you and that’s it.
We wanted to do something that was just different, and coming off of the whole gore porn thing and everything else, I think the next wave of horror--and I think V/H/S 2 has been another thing like working on that--has given me a perspective that I think people are ready to really enjoy themselves and have fun with these types of movies again, and they're tired of getting punished.
Capone: A lot of the films that I’ve liked lately, the horror stuff has been stuff that has almost deconstructed the genre. You’ve really analyzed what works and what doesn’t and you pull it apart and say, “Well let’s add this that no one’s done before.”
AW: I feel like that’s because almost everything has been done before, and sometimes the only way to break into new ground is to take what’s been there and take it apart and reverse engineer it. That gets you back to the essence, you know? These things always start pure, and slowly over the years I feel like they just keep degrading with different knock offs, and everybody is either inspired or ripping it off or whatever. To deconstruct it is something I think that is able to really bring out the real essence of the material.
Capone: I mean Wes Craven has done it a couple of times in different ways.
AW: To varying degrees of success. [Laughs]
Capone: And usually for laughs. So it’s cool to see it done for a purely dramatic and engaging reaons.
AW: Well that was the thing. SCREAM was another big, huge influence on us. But aside from really the opening scene, SCREAM is pretty much a straight-up comedy and it takes place in its own universe. We wanted the danger to feel real for the characters and not that it doesn’t in SCREAM, but SCREAM has that more comedic undertone to it. I think for us, it was important not to say, “We're smarter than the average horror film” or something like that, because we’re not. To me, the thing that was important was to actually be making a unique horror film, even though it was paying homage to a lot of things. So while we wanted to add our mark to that stuff, it was really just as important to make a horror film that stands up on its own merit and that you don’t have to be on all the inside jokes to be able to really enjoy it.
Capone: Speaking of inside jokes, casting other directors in some of these roles is maybe the best joke of the movie. I’ve known Joe Swanberg for years being from Chicago. He's so good in this. In very subtle ways, he’s very funny. And then you've got Ti West and Amy Seimetz as well. The thing I wanted to ask you about is, every time we saw that arrow sticking out of Joe's back, everyone laughs. Did you think that was going to happen?
AW: Yeah, well the funny thing was that on set, Joe was always jokingly in character, even in between takes a lot of the time. So he and AJ and Rob [Moran], who plays the dad, would always be in character, and they would just have conversations and it was really funny. So they were just completely in that world. On the set, a lot of times the thing that you think is the funniest is often the thing that people, when they actually watch the film, don’t find that funny.
So I remember thinking Joe was really funny; that dinner table scene we did so many takes and each take would be like 10 minutes long, and Joe’s just going off. I remember I just thought it was the funniest thing ever and thinking on the set, "No way this is actually going to be funny, because it is actually so funny to me.” But then it just turned out I was so happy to see that it really translated in the end. And yeah, the stuff like with the arrow out of his back and everything, we always made jokes on set that he looked like he got shot by Cupid, because it just looks absurd, and that was something we were always having fun with and trying to juxtapose during serious moments. [Laughs]
Capone: One of the coolest things about the movie, and it was the turning point for me when I realized how smart it was, in these other home invasion films these people are tormenting the people in the house. In this film, it's a straight-up assassination. I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying that, because you realize that they aren’t there to torture them; they're there to kill them as fast as possible.
AW: Yeah, and that’s the difference. I think that’s one of the things in the home invasion films that, especially the effective ones, is that their goals have always been aimless, and I think that was something that’s scary the first few times you see it, but you just can’t do it anymore. Simon and I are such story-oriented people, especially Simon just the way he approaches everything, he really wants to have a good, logical reason that you’ve never seen before, and even though it’s a simple one, it really stands out and really pushes it to a different direction.
Capone: Talk about just why it was important that this is a movie about a family, an extended family. I feel like that dinner scene was the one that you really dug into these characters. It wasn’t just a conversation to take up time until we get to the killing; it's an actual scene that you wanted people to pay attention to.
AW: Totally. I come from a family with a bunch of brothers, so that came natural to me. Also Swanberg too, he has a couple brothers. So a lot of the stuff that we're riffing on is stuff that we have experienced ourselves, and I think we understand these family dynamics are kind of funny really in the long run. You can be taking it seriously as your family, but from an outside perspective, all the little squabbles are just funny.
We're also playing on a class warfare thing, where it’s no coincidence that Sharni’s character is basically a poor person going into this rich person’s world, and we wanted to show how even when the violence is going on, the family still can’t get out of their own bullshit. Simon and I were both coming into this project just so poor. For a couple of years, I was living off a $100 a week, and I was helping my dad mow cemeteries for money right before we were shooting this film. There is some cathartic venting at the system during this movie, and the ending with the police officer, which I’m not going to give away, was just another one of those elements to that where you're just pushing that point home.
Capone: In addition to setting out to reinvigorate the home invasion idea, did you also set out to make something that would be a little more commercial? I don’t want to say that in a bad way.
AW: Absolutely. That’s it a 100 percent.
Capone: Something that would play to big audiences, who seem to be coming out for horror on the opening weekends.
AW: That’s exactly it. Going into it, to me, the main exciting thing about doing this film to begin with was to try and do something more challenging to myself and really get back to my roots as a filmmaker. Whenever you get into the indie world, at a certain point, you're making a lot of those decisions based on your budget. For instance, A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, that whole film was constructed around the fact that we had no money to make it. All my stuff up until that point was always about creative decisions.
And with YOU’RE NEXT, we went into it being like, “We're going to do a movie that isn’t just for film festival crowds.” I mean it clearly is a very film festival friendly film, but we wanted something that could play to your regular audience member and also play to ourselves whenever we were 17 years old, and that was the important thing to me, because when you’re 17 or younger, you’re not thinking about doing experimental indie movies; you want to do STAR WARS and you want to do all of these other types of movies that aren’t hindered by budget, and it’s all about the creative and “sky’s the limit” there. So going into this, my whole study for the kill scenes, I was really inspired by obscure movies like WHITE OF THE EYE. That was a big thing, the way that the kills play out in that film, even though this is different.
Me and my cinematographer, Andrew, we sat down and watched a lot of Hollywood movies and were just like, “What makes this feel more expensive? What makes this feel bigger?” So we approached it from that perspective. We watched movies like FACE/OFF and were like, “How did they use their slow motion?” It was always like “What makes these big-budget movies feel big budget?” The answer we came to was there’s just a control over the environment that low-budget movies don’t have, and there’s the ability to be able to cut to shots at a pace that you’re not used to on a lower-budget film. So the whole goal in this was to never let you pay too much attention to one shot, and it’s always just moving moving moving, and the pacing is just always pushing you forward.
Capone: Cool. Is DEAD SPY RUNNING still in the works?
AW: Yes, Simon is still writing that, and we're still in development on that right now.
Capone: Do you think that might be the next thing that happens? Are you working on something else?
AW: Yeah, maybe. I think right now we are pushing on this other film called THE GUEST, which we are doing with [producers] Keith Calder and Jessica Wu; it depends, but I think right now it probably is more likely that THE GUEST is going to happen and probably shooting this summer. [The film is currently shooting.] So it will be the whole YOU’RE NEXT team pushing together on that. It’s a really cool script.
Capone: Awesome. Thank you. It was great to talk to you.