Adam Wingard has quickly risen to the forefront of young horror directors with hits like V/H/S, You’re Next, and V/H/S/2. Working in close collaboration with writer Simon Barrett, the two have delivered more visceral, entertaining films with each outing. Their latest, The Guest, was granted the coveted Friday night premiere slot at the Library Theatre in Park City for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. A few days later, Wingard sat down with FEARNET to discuss how this movie came about, the films that formed his love for cinema, and his creative process with Barrett. The Guest stars Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey as a soldier who returns to the family home of a fallen comrade. He becomes close with the family, encouraging the kids to break their patterns and even helping dad with his career. To tell you more than that would spoil the fun... but let’s just say he’s not your average veteran.
FEARNET: This is your third year in the midnight program of the fest [after V/H/S and V/H/S/2 in 2012 & 2013]. How does this year feel different?
WINGARD: Technically, it’s the first time that I’ve ever had a full movie here. With the V/H/S films, Simon and I were producers, so we put ‘em together in certain ways but, ultimately, our shorts add up to about half a movie, really. There just wasn’t as much at stake with the V/H/S series. I felt going into it that I knew the audience; I knew the ideal deal, which wasn’t a very hard one to get. The budget was small. And we ended up coming out really well. The expectations were on par. But this is a different kind of movie altogether. Our last film, You’re Next, was more of an obvious genre crowd-pleaser. So, going into Toronto in 2011, I had a really good idea of what people were going to make of it, even just from early test screenings. With that film, we had a lot more time to do test screenings. It’s just a different type of project and more easily translates to audiences, and has more of a reference point. With The Guest, it was more of us saying how do we take a genre and spin it? What kind of movie do we actually want to make? Usually our question was “What kind of movie can we get made? We need to get money. What can we get made?” Now we were in a position where what could we get made was very easy, but what should get made was the question being asked.
The balance between finance and creative switched.
It switched. Because the creative wasn’t based on the financial anymore. That’s still obviously a thing, but we can now get projects made on various levels.
But do you feel more pressure now with that kind of freedom and after the success of You’re Next?
Absolutely. This is also the first time I feel like people are coming to one of my movies with expectations. After A Horrible Way to Die... that was very small and not seen. It was kind of our first movie that pushed us out there, but the expectation there was “This shows some promise.” But with You’re Next, people really got into it. I didn’t want to disappoint fans. I didn’t want to do the same thing either. Toward the end of You’re Next, you see a little more of Simon’s and my personality. But I think this film really embodies our sense of nostalgia and personality more than anything we’ve done.
So, you sit down and you have more financial freedom which gives you the ability to do whatever you want. How does that result in The Guest?
After You’re Next, the question came up, and we didn’t want to get boxed in by just doing home-invasion/slasher movies, but, at the same time, it’s not like we wanted to thumb our nose up at horror. We wanted to show people we could do variety.
This is more of a thriller.
Exactly. And our initial concept, because Simon and I first bonded over Hong Kong action films like The Killer, was that we wanted to do an action movie. We actually went down the road with this script idea that was a non-stop chase scene. We were going to do it in South Korea with our producers from You’re Next. We had been location scouting. The movie opened with a 30-page car chase. It was way ambitious. But it was too cut-and-dry. It didn’t have the right personality. We never got the script in the right place. So, Simon and I ended up in this weird, depressed period. It’s almost why V/H/S/2 happened. We realized that film wasn’t going to work, and so we had downtime and we squeezed V/H/S/2 into it. One day, I was at our producer’s offices and I had a stack of Blu-rays with me, and I decided randomly to revisit The Terminator and Halloween.
Then you had a dream that was this movie.
[Laughs] Exactly. I realized that these two movies embodied exactly the kind of film that I wanted to make. I called Simon up and talked about combining the worlds together. It’s like a cyborg that’s hunting after this girl, but in the structure of a John Carpenter movie. There’s even a Doctor Loomis character. The cyborg is like Michael Myers. Simon thought about it and, within 20 seconds, pretty much pitched me the final version of The Guest. He had this script idea that was about a soldier who came home and infiltrated this family, but had written it as a drama and didn’t know where to take it. So we turned him into a weird super-soldier and combined these elements.
Then what happens? Do you guys work together, or does he just come to you when he’s done writing?
Our relationship – Simon and our two producers, Keith Calder and Jess Wu – all four of us are like a creative entity. We all do our separate parts. We all come together and, in the end, we make all of the hard decisions, but the main thing you need to have is objectivity. That’s the most important thing for filmmakers. I feel like a lot of filmmakers don’t have it and end up making selfish, stupid decisions. Our process is, once we decide the type of movie we want to make, Simon goes off and writes on his own and he doesn’t show me anything until he has a draft that he’s really happy with. He thinks is probably within 75% of the final version. I read the script and I can objectively look at it as a viewer because I’m experiencing it as it comes. Simon doesn’t usually tell me what’s going to happen. He’ll give me some ideas of set-pieces and I might throw him some ideas as we’re going but, on the flip side, after we shoot, I edit my own film and go off for a similar amount of time until I have a version of the film that’s within 10-15 minutes of the final cut. I usually have my music composed. I have temp stuff. It’s a very solid first pass. So I show Simon, Keith, and Jess, and they can watch the film as a movie. It’s really helpful. Everybody is able to experience the movie for the first time in some way. If you watch in pieces, you’ll be thinking about those little pieces. No matter what, you’ll have a tarnished idea of what it is and you’ll be making your notes based on that stuff.
Let’s talk about the Carpenter influences because they’re heavy and thick, right down to the score. You’ve been a Carpenter fan forever. What did he do that inspires you?
I remember growing up, the first time ever talking about my favorite movies when I was a little kid and the first movies I remember saying were my favorite were Big Trouble in Little China, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, and Ghostbusters. I’ve always been a fan of John Carpenter. The funny thing is that I never think any John Carpenter movie is perfect, but there’s always a consistent magic to his films. Going into this, I knew I wanted a Carpenter feeling, but I didn’t want to do a parody. In general, I didn’t want this movie to have that Grindhouse aesthetic. I really enjoyed Grindhouse, and I’ve liked some of the movies that imitate that style, but I didn’t want to do a parody. I didn’t shoot it like one of those films. And the score is key to that stuff. The score, when I approached Steve Moore about doing it, the reason I approached him, was that he’s a guy who only uses vintage synthesizers. Our first conversation about this film was based on the Terminator and Halloween III soundtracks. That’s actually my favorite of the Halloween scores… maybe one of my favorite of the Halloween movies too.
Always a divisive one.
I hated Halloween III as a kid, but I watched again last year and I kind of fell in love with it. It holds up better when you’re not thinking “Where’s Michael Myers?” and that’s all you’re thinking when you’re a kid seeing it for the first time. Now you watch it and it’s this geeked-out, sci-fi, insane-o-fest.
Casting Dan Stevens in your lead was as essential as Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator. If he doesn’t work, the whole thing falls apart. How did you find him?
I had a real distinct idea of where I wanted to take the character and the main thing was that he had to have a calm, cool, almost-cyborg style to him, but I didn’t want to go into Stoker territory, where you’re like “This guy doesn’t seem like a human being at all.” I’m not a fan of that movie. He had to be disarmingly charming and likable from the get-go. He has to be the kind of guy who can infiltrate a family and be unassuming. I met with a lot of actors but Dan was one of the first. We had a short Skype conversation, but he already embodied all of the elements personality-wise. I had seen him on Downton Abbey, and even though he’s a million times different in that, he makes an impression on you. He has that calm, cool aesthetic, and likeability. He had all of the elements that I needed and he had been going through some rigorous workout stuff. We ended up putting him through training for about a month, learned how to use guns, and worked with our fight choreographer.
We have two projects lined up, but we can’t talk about them because they’re not announced. But they’ll be awesome.