“A lot of horror filmmakers think their audiences are complete f*cking idiots. And the one thing I try and do the most is make movies that are fun, that we would like to see – and not assume that the people who want to see them are complete and utter fools. Because they’re not.”
Simon Barrett knows a lot about making horror films that don’t condescend to their audience. As the writer behind films like A Horrible Way To Die, Dead Birds and this year’s sure to be breakout hit You’re Next he’s proven that he’s not susceptible to many of the lazy traps horror writers often find themselves falling into.
As a co-writer and producer on V/H/S – a film that breathes new life into the stagnant found footage genre – he again teams up with director Adam Wingard to simultaneously subvert and embrace genre in new and exciting ways.
In the film, “When a group of misfits is hired by an unknown third party to burglarize a desolate house and acquire a rare VHS tape, they discover more found footage than they bargained for.”
Hit the jump to read a portion of our recent, epic, interview. What Scream did for slasher films, it feels like You’re Next does for home invasion. It reinvents the genre a bit and the decisions the characters make share some truth with the decisions a smart audience member might make.
“It’s interesting because, post Scream you can’t do any of the old slasher stuff but you also can’t call attention to [what you’re doing differently] in any way because that film did that. And so many other films are still doing that and it’s boring and annoying. I see You’re Next and A Horrible Way To Die as being kind of similar in my mind. I wrote A Horrible Way To Die because Adam and I thought we could get a serial killer film financed but I really don’t like 99% of serial killer movies. I think David Fincher, between two feature films, has said all I’m interested in hearing on that subject. The actual psychology is kind of fascinating but I’m just not interested in most of the cinematic portrayals of it.”
“So when we were going to film festivals for AHWTD in 2010, I was just seeing so many home invasion movies. There was this interesting glut of them. I think at fantastic Fest that year I saw Mother’s Day and Kidnapped back to back and they were just all of these brutal exercises. They were trying to be very dark and disturbing. In a lot of home invasion stuff everyone seems so passive, and it’s no fun because it’s just bad things happening to them. And you’re like, “that kind of sucks”. Right around the same time I was hanging out with Roxanne and she and I had kind of an intense intellectual debate about how female protagonists are portrayed in horror films. We were talking about the idea of trying to write a female protagonist who isn’t always just talking about how tough she is. Which is how most horror screenwriters do it, which is deeply annoying. It’s the Jessica Biel, Michelle Rodriguez syndrome where there’s a lot of posturing and you’re just like ‘I hate these people’. I actually think that’s another form as sexism, because they’re not taken seriously as real people. So those two things got me talking to Adam about how the home invasion genre had a lot of potential but nothing interesting had happened in it since The Strangers.”
It’s also a lot of fun though!
“It’s difficult to intellectualize You’re Next because initially I just wanted to do kind of a modern screwball comedy. I just wanted to do something that was really fun and funny and had scary elements with the masked killers and stuff. But mostly I just wanted to to an homage to 1930’s screwball comedies. But no one wants to hear that. But it’s fun to take a genre, a genre that has built-in entertaining elements that people like, and then do something new within the confines of it. You end up entertaining people because you’re still delivering on their expectations on some levels, but you can also do something really subversive and fun if you set out with that goal of ‘okay, what is something that’s never been done in home invasion before?’ If You’re Next has an overall theme, it’s that people aren’t always what they seem to be.”
You deal a lot with characters that would be considered unlikable by a studio exec or whoever is doing their coverage. Joe Swanberg as Drake (in You’re Next) comes to mind. Any thoughts on likability vs. watchability?
“Movie likability is not the same thing as real life likability. In a movie, the audience will relate to whoever is entertaining them. If I walked into a party, threw a drink in someone’s face, kicked over the table and start playing “Because I Got High” on the stereo real loud, everyone would hate me and justifiably so. But in a movie the audience is like ‘that’s my favorite character, because he’s doing something that’s fun to watch.’ We wanted to play with that a lot”.
I hear You’re Next was a difficult shoot.
“Oh, a horrible, horrible horrible shoot. It’s funny because it’s been so great for us, and when you watch it it feels like such a lighthearted film that the shoot must have been a total breeze. It was a nightmare making that movie. All of our personal lives fell apart. We were shooting six day weeks, shooting nights for a month. And we just all basically went crazy and sunk into like deep depressions. There were a lot of complicated set pieces and we did not have unlimited resources, the budget is much lower than anyone would think. It was an awful, awful, awful experience. I came back to LA and basically didn’t eat for 2 weeks.”
“It’s funny because I love making films. I can’t do anything else with my life, I don’t have the disposition. I know nobody reading this would want to hear me complain about having the opportunities to make the movies I want to make. And I’m not complaining about it. It was totally worth it. But it was some awful Apocalypse Now sh*t. It was just very stressful and we all lost our minds. Several relationships were destroyed. The movie was falling apart and we weren’t sure if we were incompetent or not. But now it turns out the movie’s really good and we all feel good about it. And I’ve only been able to cheer up fairly recently.”
So there’s fairly grinding and exhausting work schedule with you guys?
“There are people who really love filmmaking. They have an awesome time with their friends and going to festivals. We are not those people. I’m usually pretty stressed out. It’s not because I’m anxiety prone, it’s because Adam and I work these insane hours. We’re at the point in our career where we feel like we can’t take a break or we’ll miss an opportunity. We kind of feel like, if you do filmmaking right, it is a miserable experience.”
With V/H/S how did you come onboard the project? You wrote two of the segments, right?
“Yeah I wrote both of them about 8 months apart. One of the unique things about working with a whole bunch of indie filmmakers was that it all came together really slowly. Weirdly we did the wraparound segment first, back in February. I came onboard just because I’d worked with Brad Miska and Zak Zeman on A Horrible Way To Die. Adam and I were, I think, the first two people they came to. Also, I’m friends with Roxanne Benjamin who is also a producer on the film. So that was over a year ago and initially I don’t think anyone was quite sure what it was going to be. But when we knew it was going to be a feature film I immediately wanted to do the wraparound segment because wraparounds in anthologies always suck. They’re always the thing that you’re impatiently waiting to get through. It excited me more than doing the standalone shorts and I wanted to do something really new with the concept of a wraparound.”
I don’t typically like found footage movies, but stuff actually happens in this one!
“V/H/S is a found footage horror movie made by people who are every bit as sick of found footage as the average viewer is. I think everyone involved hates found footage and thinks it’s completely played out. And because everyone was sick of it we were all forced to come up with something unique. Most found footage films have an extremely boring first act. I think everyone involved was aware that we wanted to pace it differently.”
What about the look of the wraparound segment? It’s definitely got the warmth of old-school VHS home movies.
“Adam and I talked a lot about how much video has progressed in our lifetime. We shot You’re Next on the Red One M-X and now we have the Arri Alexa and all of these great cameras that look as high quality as film. So now early video has the same kind of natural, early archaic feel as Super 8 film had when we were growing up. Obviously in old movies they always cut to Super 8 or grainy 16MM for flashbacks and stuff to signify that you’re watching something anachronistic. But because video has progressed so much – I mean my phone takes better video than the video camera I bought for 1500 five years ago. And because of that, early video now has this really interesting quality to it. It doesn’t just look sh*tty, because VHS footage as an analog medium is so divorced now from what people consider ‘video’ – the medium is now old enough that it has an interesting quality to it that’s new to a viewer’s eye. The average teenage horror fan has never seen a movie shot on VHS and they don’t recognize the analog video quality.”
It wasn’t all shot on that format though.
“We shot the wraparound on nine different kinds of cameras, so delivering the movie has been kind of challenging.”
Did this kick loose any extra found footage ideas for you?
“I’ve had people ask me to do found footage scripts since and I’ve had to say no because I am so tapped out. I never thought I’d do one of them, much less two [segments]. And now I’m 100% out of ideas for why people would record themselves doing something. Though I’m sure there are other good ideas out there for three or four sequels.”
It’s premiering at Sundance, which seems strange for this kind of movie. How did that happen?
“The Sundance programmers were having total dread towards even watching it, ‘oh God, why did these guys do this? We have to reject them!’ And then they were so grateful that the movie was different, they were really complimentary towards it. And they kindly gave us an opening weekend spot.”
What’s coming up next for you guys?
“It looks like You’re Next is going to give us to do the opportunity to continue to do stuff we really like. And we’re already onto new projects. Adam directed two in the past week that I helped out on. ABC’s Of Death and 60 Seconds Of Solitude In The Year Zero. We work nonstop, it’s okay to be miserable. If you want to make a difference and be successful, you’ve got to be a little stressed out. Adam and I will film until we are forced to stop filming by our AD’s, the sun, the unions or our actors literally collapsing. We will shoot 18 hour days. And we are not happy all the time. But we want to make big action movies and big stuff and you have to kind of kill yourself to do it.”
When it would actually be easier to establish a brand and coast by on making variations of You’re Next?
“Some auteurs are the selling point of their own movies but I want people who have never f*cking heard of me, and who will never hear of me, to see my movies.”
Bonus. My favorite usable quote from our 70 minute interview?
“I hate all films and all filmmakers. Including my films and myself”.
V/H/S premieres at the Sundance Film Festival as part of their Midnight Programming On January 22nd.