After providing audiences with a unique twist on the horror genre with last year’s critically acclaimed You’re Next, the writing and directing team of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are trading in thrills and chills in favor of straight-up action. The Guest bursts into theaters this week, starring Dan Stevens as a recently discharged military veteran who shacks up with the family of a fallen comrade. It’s a true genre-bending experience, continuing the duo’s track record of crafting films that have surprises around every turn.
During a recent promotional tour, we had the opportunity to sit down with Wingard and Barrett to discuss their creative process, transitioning out of the horror realm, and playing fast and loose with genre conventions.
You guys have worked together quite a bit. Have you gotten sick of each other yet?
Simon Barrett: I would say the key to our creative process is that we actually know when to give each other a lot of space. Like when Adam’s editing, I stay completely out of the editing room, so that I can then bring objectivity to his first cut. And Adam’s first cuts tend to be more polished than a lot of people’s final cuts. He writes a lot of score himself, he does a lot of sound design, so I get to really sit and enjoy the movie.
But that’s about two months that I just stay out of his way while he works, and generally, I’ll take advantage of that time to be writing. That’s one of the good things about our partnership, is that we’re doubly productive. When I’m writing a script, I tend to not show Adam any pages until I have a final, finished draft, and I like to surprise him with what the story and characters are. So maybe during production we get sick of each other, but during production you get sick of yourself.
Adam Wingard: We tend to not really hang out on a casual basis that much, even though for awhile we lived next door to each other. When you’re shooting a movie, you’re around each other every day, and then you go on these press tours and you’re around each other every day, so it’s not like we’re starving to hang out.
Barrett: And we’re both really busy. We’re constantly working, so we’re constantly hanging out because of that.
The Guest feels like a pretty big departure from your other work, in terms of genre and tone. What was your inspiration to move in such a different direction?
Barrett: We always loved action films in particular, those were the kind of movies that we initially bonded over. But we never had a budget to do an action film until after You’re Next. It was a difficult thing, figuring out how to conceive that. And without getting into too much detail, there were a couple of false starts, projects that we really went down the road with but didn’t actually end up making.
Wingard: It’s also worth mentioning that prior to You’re Next, and including You’re Next, our projects had to be pitched based on proven subgenres that we could essentially exploit and raise money for, as a kind of safe financial venture.
Barrett: Yeah, projects had to seem commercially viable.
Wingard: Because they’re not based on talent, we didn’t have a name for ourselves. So for A Horrible Way to Die, we pitched it as a serial killer movie, and then we did our own spin on it. You’re Next was the same way, we pitched a home invasion film because that’s something we could get made. And after You’re Next was a success, that actually afforded us the opportunity to do something different.
And it was interesting – our careers at that point had always been so focused on getting that type of success [from You’re Next], that we never really thought much past that goal. Once it was met, it was almost like this shock to the system, because suddenly our lives were in this place we’d always aimed toward being at, and now we had to figure out what the next step was. And that took a little bit of searching.
Barrett: Yeah, it took quite a bit. But ultimately, we ended up at this weird kind of genre fusion. The Guest certainly has thriller elements – in fact, if I had to define it as just one genre, I would just say “thriller” – but obviously there’s some comedy, as well.
Wingard: Didn’t you say once that it’s every genre except for musical and…?
Wingard: Even though if you count all the ways music is used, you could almost call it a musical in some ways.
Barrett: I actually cited the marketing materials from Arachnophobia and called it a “thrill-omedy.”
Wingard: [laughs] That’s a deep cut.
Barrett: It didn’t go over well for us or them. But yeah, here’s the thing: once we had that kind freedom to not have to be like “were going to make a home invasion thriller and it’ll be under a million dollars” and stuff, once we could work on a wider palette and be more experimental… I don’t think we really planned this, but I think we’re attracted to movies that surprise you, whether that’s plot twists or tonal shifts. I think that’s what we enjoy as viewers, sitting in a theater and not knowing where a scene is going or where the film is going, and I think that’s what we’re both driven to create.
And so I think it just organically happened that The Guest was a different, weird hodgepodge of genres, all of which are hopefully entertaining. I’ll also add that just as a creative writer and filmmaker, I do get a little scared at the idea of getting pigeonholed into one genre, because if you look at the directors that stay in one genre, they tend to stagnate. If you told me to write five ghost movies in a row, I guarantee the fifth one would just be bunch of recycled ideas from the first four, because you run out of inspiration.
And I think one of the things we try to do is we try to make sure what ever we’re doing next is very different than what we did before, because that’s how you grow as an artist and become better at what you do, by not staying in your comfort zone and switching it up. But again, it took us a little while to figure out exactly what that story was going to be, the story we wanted to tell. And it turned out, it was The Guest.
I’m glad you mentioned “tonal shifts,” because this movie has a distinct shift in the middle. As soon as that phone call is made and we see the other side of that phone call, the movie definitely takes a turn you weren’t expecting.
Barrett: There’s a couple of abrupt tonal shifts, but I guess the later ones are definitely spoilers. One thing we were really trying to play with a lot was the idea of experimenting with character likability. Obviously, I’m primarily referring to Dan Stevens’ character, you just love him and he’s so entertaining. But we treat him seriously as a character, and his behavior and his reactions are consistent, and at a certain point, that becomes a darker thing.
We did a similar thing with You’re Next, where the movie got increasingly comedic as it went along, and climaxed with this kind of absurdist monologue. You’re Next was a gradual progression, The Guest was much more of a 90-degree turn, when Lance Reddick enters the film. But I still think, as a viewer, that’s the kind of stuff I enjoy and find fun, when a movie pulls the rug out from under me, as long as it’s grounded in a reality with characters that make sense.
Wingard: And a lot of that through-line, with being able to pull off tonal shifts, sometimes has to do with some very abrupt music choices. As The Guest unfolds, it’s very sparsely decorated with music for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, and it’s only when the bar fight happens that we really start kicking in the electronic soundtrack. It was the same on You’re Next, the music and score, in this perfect way, just start shifting the modes. On this film, it just gets progressively more insane, and the music helps that process feel a little bit more cohesive.
It’s got a very unique soundtrack.
Wingard: That was a starting point for me, in terms of figuring out the stylization, and while Simon was writing I would send him all kinds of stuff, like “Does the movie that you’re writing support this type of song?” Actually, he ended up basing the Maika Monroe character on the kind of music stylings that I felt would be great for her to be listening to.
And that’s kind of a good summary of how Simon and I work. I don’t get directly involved when it comes to character and story whenever Simon is writing. My biggest input early on is “let’s agree on the type of movie we want to make,” and then at that point Simon goes off and does his own thing, and I send him music. In the case of this film, I knew that I wanted it to be set during Halloween, because we wanted to follow this Halloween type of structure.
Barrett: That stuff might sound very incidental, like icing on the cake, but it’s actually crucial for making a film with jarring tonal shifts. It needs to have a coherent style, visually and aesthetically, that can support that. And Adam is extremely talented at that sort of thing, but we need to be on the same page for that to work.
Wingard: You don’t just want cool music to show up in your movie. I hate whenever I watch a film and it sounds like the director just picked music based on his personal choices, and has nothing to do with what’s going on. I feel like the music should be character-based in itself, and so far, none of our movies have featured songs unless the character can hear them. There’s obviously score in the films, but if there’s a song playing, it’s playing on a source that the characters can also hear, and so they have to be the ones to exhibit that, and that just has to make sense, story-wise.
I think that all comes from watching movies like Pulp Fiction and stuff like that growing up, in those formidable middle-school days, you know? And realizing that music can be a character as well, and be part of the story.
People that are familiar with Dan Stevens are familiar with him mostly from Downton Abbey, and this is the complete opposite end of the spectrum. How was he chosen for this role?
Wingard: He just kind of personified what you really want out of a mysterious character like this. Similarly to the film, he has to earn the trust [of the other characters] to be able to integrate himself into the family’s lives. So we wanted an actor that the audience already trusted to begin with. Their association with him is the polite, mild-mannered Matthew Crawley, and so that association is what we’re kind of playing with, and playing with Dan’s natural likability.
A lot of people liked Stoker, and I liked that director’s other films, but I had a problem with it. That movie came out right before we started shooting, and I remember watching it. And I was really glad I did, because it really defined exactly the opposite of what I wanted. When that guy shows up, he’s super creepy in this way that, to me, wasn’t really that fun to watch, and it didn’t draw me in. And there was never any reality to him.
We wanted to do the opposite, we wanted to warm you up to Dan, because ultimately what we’re playing with is creating a character that we want to conflict the audience. We want to throw the notion of hero or villain out the door, and all you should be focusing on is “are you being entertained by this guy?”
And Dan had all those aspects to him. He’s a very intelligent guy, he got the sense of humor of the script, and we already knew he could act. The only leap forward in going with Dan was, there was a question mark with “what’s his Southern accent going to sound like?” But Brits are usually pretty good at pulling off the Southern thing, so that wasn’t too big of a deal. Even if the Southern thing hadn’t worked, we would have just had him do more of a flat accent, and it would have been fine. It’s not that imperative that he’s from Kentucky, but the “ma’ams” and “sirs” and stuff do help that character along.
Wingard: Exactly! But also, he had lost a lot of weight to do A Walk Among the Tombstones, but he didn’t have that muscle mass, he didn’t look like he had just come out of the military. We hired him a month before we started shooting, and he had to go into an insanely accelerated workout routine, but he was down for it.
Some actors like to make a big deal out of little things, and Dan is the kind of guy who is just on board and is going to give you everything he’s got, and he’s not going to complain about it. He totally gave himself to the film and committed to that workout regime, and learned all the guns. Clayton, our stunt coordinator and choreographer, he taught Dan how to disassemble that firearm and reassemble it, so Dan was always practicing that. He taught him how to do the butterfly knife, so Dan was constantly [practicing]. He even had the butterfly knife on set at all times, and sometimes in between takes he would be practicing, so whenever he would do it we can actually show it in a wide shot, so you can see it’s Dan Stevens actually whipping out the knife.
So what’s next?
Barrett: That’s an easy one to answer, because we don’t know yet.
Barrett: We have about three projects together that are definitely going to get made, but we really don’t know what that order is. And since we don’t know, we wouldn’t want to hype those up.
Wingard: Even with The Guest, it was the same thing. We usually try to avoid talking about our next movie until we’re almost shooting it. We almost just wait until it leaks out that an actor is working with us or that we’re on set or something.
Barrett: Yeah, we’re going to imitate J.J. Abrams until people care enough about our films.
Wingard: Especially in the indie film world. It’s so absurd, because you have all these filmmakers on Twitter, just constantly sending photos that nobody has any idea about or cares about, so by the time you actually do hear about it, you’ve been seeing all these bland posts about it, and there’s just no mystery to it anymore. I feel like so much of film is magic, and magic is mystery, and sometimes it’s good to just hold your
Barrett: Yeah, we like to surprise people, and I think as viewers we like to feel like we’re discovering a film. So if we could do it perfectly, we wouldn’t announce our movies until they premiere.
Wingard: Which we’ve done before. With the V/H/S series, nobody had heard of that until we got into Sundance.
Barrett: And no one knew we had made a sequel until we got into Sundance. And I like that. Until we’re making like a Star Wars movie where people actually care enough to see what our stars’ footwear is on set or whatever..
Wingard: Yeah, like today there was a photo of a note that mentions the new Apple watch, and you can see just a little out-of-focus pattern in the background, and everybody is reading into it like “is there a new Death Star?” It’s cool and everything, but that’s not where we are.
[Editor’s Note: A few days after this interview was conducted, news broke that Wingard and Barrett were attached to an English remake of I Saw the Devil]
The Guest is currently playing in limited release, and will expand into more theaters on October 3.