Fantasia ’11 [Interview] ‘A Horrible Way to Die’ Director Adam Wingard and Writer Simon Barrett

This year Fantasia Film Festival is paying tribute to one of the leading indie horror directors, Adam Wingard, by showing a wide array of his works. On top of Adam’s many short films being played this year, Fantasia is showcasing Wingard’s indie classic Pop Skull, as well as his two newest films A Horrible Way to Die and What Fun We Were Having: 4 Stories About Date Rape.

Wingard not only directs, but edits, co-writes, and does the majority of camerawork for all his films. Adam is quickly rising to the top, as one of the most visionary and influential indie filmmakers in recent years, and he’s 28 years old to boot. Wingard is known for his dark approach to cinema, psychedelics imagery, and low-budget handheld style. If you haven’t had a chance to check out his works, I highly recommend you seek them out as soon as possible.

I had a chance to sit down with Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (writer of A Horrible Way to Die and What Fun We Were Having) to discuss their psychotic new films. Read on for the skinny…


BD: It must be interesting for you to watch your movies in a progressive order, from Pop Skull, to A Horrible Way to Day, to What Fun We Were Having. After watching these in order how do you feel you’ve progressed and matured as a filmmaker?

Adam: The interesting thing about it is being able to see phases that I go through in terms of style and so forth. The most surprising thing for me watching them back-to-back like this, is that there is definitely consistency to them, a slow motion progression you can see. It’s even more interesting if you take into context the movie which no one has seen yet, You’re Next, which I just finished right before Simon and I came down to Fantasia. You can definitely see that, starting at Pop Skull, there is this sort of throw everything that I can think of against the wall, which is why Pop Skull ended as such a crazy experience trying to edit it down over the years. After that movie I started reeling myself back and taking lessons from it. Things like, how do I condense this in a way where I can edit this, and take less than two years? So, with these movies you can see how I figure out how to work in longer takes while at the same time while maintaining a free-flowing, handheld, D.I.Y. style that I like. I was talking about it with Kareem [Hussain] last night, saying that I think A Horrible Way to Die went a little bit over the top, and with What Fun We Were Having I think it’s a nice balance between flowing handheld style and also being able to pace it out.

BD: I thought of this one for you, Adam, but I guess it also applies to you, Simon, in terms of your writing. Your older projects work a lot with the supernatural and paranormal, and you’ve moved away from that in your recent films to more realistic approach.

Adam: I wanted to get out of the supernatural thing just because it allows you to be able to do whatever you want as opposed to focusing you in a certain direction. At the end of the day the real lesson we wanted to get across is, how do we focus this kind of vision into something more relatable to audiences.

Simon: My early career was divergent form yours Adam, but when I first started writing scripts I didn’t want to write realistic characters or situations because I just felt they were boring. The more films I make the more I am interesting in bringing in a level of realism. Part of it is that it’s harder to write realistic characters; it’s much easier to write supernatural things that end in extreme situations. We make a concerted effort to make every film we do different from the one that preceded it. It’s a way to prevent yourself from stagnating as an artist.

Adam: Simon and I are always trying to challenge ourselves and it’s always different on new projects how we go about this. Pop Skull for me was being able to make a movie while doing tons of psychedelics, and trying to focus that into a vision without any money. And with A Horrible Way to Die it turned into this thing of, with limited funds, how do we do a serial killer road movie that has a dramatic core like you’ve never seen before. With What Fun We Were Having, it was about taking the subject of date rape and trying to make people laugh at it and run the gamut of different types of emotions

BD: You’ve had your own paranormal experiences that influenced Pop Skull, could you talk about those?

Adam: Growing up I lived at this house that was on cemetery grounds so from early on I had actually seen a ghost in my house and had this one experience where I was home alone and the couch moved three feet forward while I was just sitting on it. As far as Pop Skull is concerned, some of the actual haunting scenes and how they are edited are based on my experiences with astral projection or whatever you want to call it. I was getting this thing called sleep paralysis for a while. And at the time I had never heard of it and I was waking up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t move and I was hearing weird noises and I just had a feeling of something evil. With the tools that I had at the time, my only explanation was that this was something incredibly supernatural going on.

I had people instruct me to start wiggling my toes and eventually I’d come out, so I decided to see what happens if I don’t try to get out. I had one instance where I just sat there and I started hearing this weird bass noise in my ear, I couldn’t move, and then suddenly I just heard what sounded like hundreds of people whispering in my right ear, and then that turned off abruptly and in my left ear was a piercing woman screaming, and instantly all I could think was, I was hearing what hell sounded like. I had an Army of Darkness poster on my wall and this dark shadowy thing started to emerge from it and by this point I’m struggling to get out. I came out eventually and it was a very intense thing. If you watch Pop Skull and listen to the sound design you can see how certain aspects are related that incident.

Simon: I also used to have sleep paralysis and night terrors and I used to think as a child, that demons were trying to take over my body, and I was scared all the time. I think it’s incredibly common but nobody talks about it, and a generation is traumatized by it, which is why everyone loves the film Candy Man [laughs]. But now we just want to make romantic comedies [laughs with Adam]. So parents talk to your kids about sleep paralysis, that’s the message of this interview.

BD: Jumping now to A Horrible Way to Die, did you guys have to do a lot of research on serial killers?

Simon: I did absolutely none, in high school I wrote a research paper on serial killers but that’s all. Adam has naturally done research on them because it was a topic that interested him. I don’t tend to research when I write because I see it as a creative handicap, I’d rather write my script and then see if anything I write is false by checking it with people like Adam.

Adam: I went through a period where I was really interested in serial killers and I was reading about them a lot. Whenever the film was green lit I went through a thing where I was doing a “method directing” approach after Pop Skull. So for that film it had a lot of psychedelic drugs, so I did a lot of psychedelics and that’s how I got into the character. Plus, I already had experience with terrible break ups and ghosts as well. So, on A Horrible Way to Die I couldn’t relate to a serial killer so I went through a short period where I considered, not killing someone [laughs], but I did consider trying to stalk somebody in the apartment complex I lived in. But then I realized how this could easily turn into the wrong idea. This is probably how this shit starts, you come up with a legitimate excuse to do something perverted and then next thing you know you’re strangling somebody with their underwear and you’re like how did I get here [both laugh]

Simon: Yep, and that’s the research we do!

BD: Now you often make films on small budgets and you’ve been doing this for a while, how have you gotten used to this and do you have any advice for young filmmakers?

It’s one of those things where everyone who is starting to make films owes it to themselves to do it because it forces you to explore certain avenues of style that you wouldn’t normally think to do. You may only have half the materials you need, that you want for the scene, and you need to think, “How do I still make this work”. It forces you to go in different directions. It gives you a certain confidence to be able to know how to get out of sticky situations because no matter how much money you have there’s always going to be things that pop up unexpectedly.

BD: Did you ever see Robert Rodriguez’ Ten Minute Film School?

Yeah, he was a big influence on me. I think I was in 8th grade and I read Rebel Without a Crew, and it changed everything for me. I don’t come from a rich family, and before I read that I was under the impression that you needed tons of money to make a movie.

BD: I was reading some of your past interviews and you said David Lynch was a big influence, especially after seeing What Fun We Were Having you can tell that your sound design is Lynch influenced.

Yeah, I don’t really watch his stuff anymore but I used to be completely obsessed with him, especially in my formital stylistic years, which I guess I’m still in [laughs]. He was one of the first filmmaker that made me aware of sound design and how you can create aural textures to influence movement, transitions, and atmosphere in general. That was a really big thing for me because its something that should be utilized a lot in low budget because you can make things seem bigger if you know how to present it the right way. It’s not hard, you can take a Beatles’ song and slow it down by 95%, put reverb on it and reverse it and it’s going to sound completely insane.

BD: This is a dreadful question, but do you have favorite horror films or any film that influence you particularly?

Simon: something Adam said the other night is that what influences us is not the horror films we like but the ones we hate and despise. We try to do the opposite of what those movies do. Great films just have a magical effect on you and it’s hard to understand what is having such an effect, but when you watch a bad film it’s easy to see what they are doing wrong. Personally I’m drawn to horror movies that mix in social allegory such as, Night of the Living Dead, and the Japanese version of The Ring, those come immediately to mind. Movies that really influenced me when I was growing up were movies like Reanimator, Peter Jackson’s first three films, and Sam Raimi’s first couple films as well. I was also a big fan of the Cohen brothers and John Woo’s The Killer.

Adam: Growing up I was really into all those shitty Dimension film releases, like Halloween 6 and all those sequels with the blue night lighting to them. But in terms of my favorites it would run the gambit between Texas Chainsaw, which has one of the most brilliant soundscapes I’ve ever heard in a movie, and The Shining. I also love Japanese cinema from early 2000s like Pulse and the original Ring. Even though I think the remake is superior [Simon shakes head].

BD: I usually work for Graphic Content so some fans there may appreciate this. Are there any comic books you read or that influence you?

Simon: Yeah, we read comics! The one that got me back into comics was Charles Burns’ Black Hole, which I was able to follow and stretch out cause it took him like twelve years to complete. I really like the Luna Brother’s comic, Girls, but usually I just use my comic book friends as filters because I don’t have the time to read as many as I’d like. So usually I wait for my comic friends to tell me the one, and only one, comic I should read.

Adam: I used to want to be a comic book artist when I was younger, until about sixth grade and then I switched over to filmmaking, but I used to love comic books.

Simon: I didn’t read Watchmen until I was in my twenties and it just blew me away, I slept on a lot of good stuff, like Sandman too. Right now I’m not into anything currently in publication, which is pretty embarrassing. I’d love to do a comic book series but I can’t draw, can you draw, Adam?

Adam: No. Well ya, but not that style. Did you ever read Adrian Tomine?

Simon: Yeah I read it and I didn’t care for it. Put that in your interview, I challenge Adiran Tomine to a boxing match.

BD: Adam do you want to add anything?

Adam: No, Simon just nailed that one [laughs].