A few years ago, director Adam Wingard and his creative partner, writer Simon Barrett began intriguing horror fans with low-fi, often deftly deconstructive and ironic films like the mumblecore serial-killer flick A Horrible Way to Die, the V/H/S horror anthologies, and last year’s terrific You’re Next.
While part of the mumblecore film un-movement with pals Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, and Ti West, Wingard and Barrett have been inching toward the mainstream. Their latest is The Guest, about a mysterious military vet who, upon returning from an unnamed present-day war, ingratiates himself into the still-grieving family of a fallen comrade.
British Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens plays David, a seeming drifter who turns out to be as deadly as he is charming, masterfully manipulating the emotions of the mourning Peterson family (Shelia Kelly and Leland Orster as the parents, Maika Monroe and Brendan Meyer as their teenage children). Lean, smart and sure-handed, The Guest is an often darkly amusing, clear-eyed, cold-hearted action-thriller.
Another writer and I sat down with Wingard, Stevens, and Barrett last week in Chicago. Our long, free-wheeling chat covered the film’s obvious ’80s genre influences, the British tradition of truly dark satiric comedy, and how to fulfill audiences’ entertainment expectations while still creating something layered and ironically subversive.
The Guest opens in theaters everywhere today.
Adam, you’ve mentioned you were inspired to make this after watching the original Halloween and The Terminator back to back. How do you walk that line between ’80s homage and imitation?
Adam Wingard: The important thing for us was to inhabit that headspace of ‘80s films. The zeitgeist of the time period created that kind of undefinable ‘80s aesthetic. You can’t put it into words, but you can apply elements of it to a story like this, that doesn’t take place in the ‘80s.
The type of storytelling we’re doing aligns itself with that same thing. I don’t want to create an ‘80s parody—I want the movie to exist beyond that reference point, but I want that to influence your enjoyment on another level. But the film is centered on characters and story—the ‘80s style stuff just accentuates that.
You mentioned Jason Zinoman’s great book Shock Value which put the rise of ‘70s horror films in the cultural context of post-Vietnam. Is that something you were conscious of when setting your film in our current Iraq/Afghanistan era?
Simon Barrett: We wanted to make a film that had the tone and energy of the movies we grew up with and were inspired by, but we didn’t want to do an imitation of that because that would be lazy. So it was about finding what the modern version of that is.
Our cultural anxiety now is about the fact we’re entering this new terrorism-based endless war, so we wanted to comment on things but not be too on the nose about it. If you make a film with a strong political statement, unfortunately the only people who will see it are those predisposed to agree with that statement, which is how our society consumes media right now.
We want our movies to have layers to them. I don’t want to make a film you have to see twice to get it—we’re not our friend Shane Carruth. We tend watch the films we enjoy again and again, so we try to make films that reward that with layers and subtext. We don’t ever want to make a film that’s not saying something, but it’s about finding that balance.
If you want to come to a movie and have a good time, we’ll deliver that. But if you’re interested in going deeper, I would hope all our films have something to say. So we are interested in our current endless battles in the Middle East and our relationship with the military industrial complex, and what’s going on now with ISIS, but we made it not very specific in the film.
Wingard: Everyone assumes he’s come back from Iraq, but we don’t really say. We saw him more as part of a peripheral special forces unit involved in wars you’ll never hear about.
Like all those secret wars Jeremy Skahill covers in the book and film Dirty Wars.
Barrett: I saw that documentary in theaters, but how many other people did? So that’s the problem—how do you reach those people? How do you reach people whom Dirty Wars would have really educated?
Dan Stevens: By not being specific about the conflict, it enabled us to slightly cut loose.
Wingard: We’re not thinking about our nation’s current predicament. It’s not saying one war is bad and the other ones are okay. It’s more about the general misguided military industrial complex agenda. So hopefully people will see The Guest who maybe wouldn’t plop down the same amount of money to see Dirty Wars, and if they want to, they can get something out of it, and if not, they don’t have to.
Barrett: We want to make movies for audiences, first and foremost. We don’t make movies for ourselves, but we make movies that we would enjoy.
Wingard: Our take on humor is we try to avoid obvious deconstructive humor that comes with horror or action movies. It seems like either you get a straight-forward genre picture or you get one that supposedly is reverse-engineering the genre, taking it apart and being self-referential. We’re being self-referential, but in a low-key way that is not plot-based, but based more in the stylization and tone and aesthetics of the film.
There are no actual jokes in the film. It’s more about the situation that Simon creates and Dan brings to life. It becomes funny because we in the audience see the absurdity of it and watch the characters deal with that absurdity. By making those characters as real as possible—or at least a stylized version of real—it allows the viewer to project themselves on that situation, and it becomes funny.
Barrett: We don’t just treat our characters as stereotypes that are gonna get murdered. We try to make them feel real in how humans actually interact and speak. It’s not that we don’t have empathy for all our characters—we know who they are. It’s not just characters lining up in a row to get slaughtered. We take our characters quite seriously.
As for whether our sense of humor culturally is getting darker, when you look at the style of humor practiced created online at places like 4Chan and Reddit is in some ways darker, but is it really darker than say Brass Eye or Blackadder? I don’t think it’s getting darker, I just think the mainstream goes in waves. And right now we’re culturally feeling more cynical for good reasons.
Stevens: I want to note that the two cultural references you used were British. We’ve always paved the way. [Laughs]
Barrett: In terms of dry humor, that’s very true.
Stevens: I was very psyched that Adam and Simon had heard of Chris Morris who did Four Lions and a lot of very dark television in the UK in the mid-to-late-‘90s, like this show called Jam.
Stevens: I did a lot of student stand-up, every Tuesday night for three years, but I had no ambitions to be a stand up. I enjoyed it as a discipline to make myself write something five minutes long each week to make my friends life. It was usually a smoky digestion of the week’s happening. It was a great chance to gather and make your words work.
You know immediately doing comedy if what you’ve written is effective because people are laughing or they’re not. If you’re doing a very intense dramatic monologue, you go outside and see your friends either weeping or embarrassed and shuffling off to the car park, pretending they half enjoyed it. I had no aspirations to be comedian, but it’s been very nice to recently reconnect to some of those lines.
You certainly play David with some very subtle, deadpan comic reactions.
Stevens: Let’s go back to Chris Morris. A lot of the performances in his work are very, very straight. They’re barely knowing. Those actors are able to trend a very fine line between ridiculous absurd extreme comedy and a very bleak, dark truth to a scene. Context is key, especially with Adam and Simon’s work.
You’re Next made me laugh, especially [You’re Next spoiler alert!] in A.J. Bowen’s monologue at the end, where it’s revealed the whole affair has been part of some middle-class aspiration to make a little money and have a honeymoon in Paris. To me, that’s so bleakly funny, coming deep in an economic recession.
The Guest has a similar take on global politics, while digesting all those muscle-bound action movies of the ‘80s. For example, some of the ways my character is objectified in the film are perversely funny in that context.
Dan, last night you mentioned two of my favorite films, Lindsey Anderson’s If… and O Lucky Man!
Stevens: If… was another influence we talked about. If… predated the Terminators and the Halloweens—it really had this wonderfully anarchic sense of cool violence, which at the time must have been extremely shocking. That unapologetic, blithe take on destruction.
And Malcolm McDowell was clearly delighting in that role. As an actor, there’s nothing I enjoy more than seeing another actor really enjoy the shit out of his work, on stage or screen. You see it with Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill—they’re clearly having such a good time. I always dreamed of an equally good time in a role like that and managed to achieve it with David in The Guest.
Wingard: You’re Next was the first time we’d tried to do a film that was paced and executed in a more audience-friendly way.
In the past because I was working on such a low-budget scale, the only way I was able to make a movie interesting and surpass the low budget was to distract the audience with a lot of experimental film-making techniques. You’re Next was the first time I consciously decided to use more conventional cinematic language and not rely on a lot of weird gimmicks. I figured out a lot of things, but hadn’t refined them yet.
The Guest is a progression from You’re Next in terms of refining those techniques and trying to make a very tight movie. Even though it has a very serious subject and comes out of this family’s mourning and depression, it was a challenge to have fun with it. Our first film, A Horrible Way to Die with AJ Bowen, was similar in that the villain is also the hero of the story.
That’s the exciting challenge with The Guest, too, in creating a character that would conflict its audience. You know he’s trouble, but there are good things, entertaining things about him. Even when the shit really hits the fan and goes past the point of no return, you still can’t help but enjoy the stuff Dan’s doing.
To do that we accelerated the genre elements and the acting and had a lot of fun with the performance, while still keeping it grounded. We knew we had to earn it to get to that point. I would never say The Guest takes place in reality, but there is a consistent reality that we create. It was important to set that up and be able to knock it down.
Dan, how did you flesh out David, balancing his charm and intense menace?
Stevens: “Charm” is a word that came up a lot early on in terms of how we play the audience’s sympathies. I certainly enjoy sitting down with a movie that says, “I’ve got a crazy thing to show you. It’s the freakiest thing you’ve ever seen.” So we needed to establish that from the get-go and not lead you down any dead ends. The charm has to get David in the door and win over the family. Then how far can you run with that charm before people start questioning what you’re up to?
Wingard: We didn’t want to beat around the bush. You know going in that there’s something off about this guy, so there’s no reason to disguise it. We want to assure you that we’re gonna take it slow at first, but as soon as we get it going it’ll be non-stop. That’s always interesting to figure out—how much to show early on. I really feel you have to earn those insane scenes later.
Barrett: You have to respect your audience’s intelligence, too. Know that they’re savvy enough to get where you’re going, so you can skip some of that stuff, do some shorthand, and get to the fun stuff. We always wanted Dan’s character to be likable in a movie way rather than a real-world way. In the real world, he’s terrifying. So it’s about exploring that tension and transforming it as the film goes on.
Barrett: One of the original goals with the story when I first started coming up with it is that David would find what was missing in people’s lives and become that.
Wingard: We talked about “The Monkey’s Paw” early on.
Barrett: Bob Clark made the film Deathdream, which is a more literal Vietnam-war interpretation of “The Monkey’s Paw.” Wishing for something and getting it, but then your wish is fulfilled in a violent, dark way that’s ultimately horrific. That’s a universally appealing story.
This is often a full-on action film—was that fun to do?
Wingard: The thing that I was really looking forward to doing was to finally do a major shootout sequence. Growing up, the real reason I wanted to make movies was mainly action films. I didn’t get into horror until I was 18 or 19. I had watched a lot of horror when i was younger, but it wasn’t my thing until later.
I grew up idolizing people like Robert Rodriguez—his book Rebel Without a Crew is my Bible—I read it many times in high school. That book influenced my approach to directing, where you gotta learn every aspect of filmmaking, because why not be the best that you can be? I’ve always loved John Woo movies too, and I’d never had the chance or the budget to be able to do a big shootout, so that was really exciting for me.
Stevens: Getting the action-comedy beats as well, bringing it back to the funny as a performer. That’s something I wish we had gone a little further with and hopefully will in future projects, but that sense of having a big action sequence that has those little “aw, fuck!” beats.
Wingard: That’s what a lot of action is missing nowadays. You don’t have enough close-ups of characters, getting their reactions to what is going on. We had a lot of fun when Dan gets shot in the middle of a shootout, and he acts just totally annoyed by it.
Stevens: It’s more of an inconvenience than an injury.
Wingard: I always loved that in the Indiana Jones movies. Those close ups of Harrison Ford looking terrified at his impending doom in those little moments really sell the action more than the spectacle does. I have a lot of big problems with major action films—you look at the Iron Man movies—they feel like these well-orchestrated [computer graphic] animatics that have been brought to reality. But they’re so overly complicated, I just don’t connect with them at all.
Barrett: It never feels like anything’s really at stake.
Barrett: I think that’s one of the themes of The Guest. Initially when you see Dan’s character be violent, it’s giving authority figures and bullies their comeuppance.
Stevens: It’s in the service of good.
Barrett: It’s very movie-likable violence; it’s very entertaining violence. But some of the violence later in the film is much darker in tone. We wanted to show a violent character and that his behavior later in the movie, when he is killing characters you like as opposed to characters you dislike, is entirely consistent from the start. For David, it’s the same motivations.
Stevens: It’s context and also the vocabulary of violence and the different application of it. We say yes it’s fine to get revenge on high-school bullies, but there are things that happen later in the movie that really stretch the audience’s sympathies in quite an interesting and challenging way.
Barrett: That’s the idea; to show the consequences of violence, even in a heightened, ridiculous way. There’s a humor to it, but the humor comes from pathos, and we needed to play that correctly. We show that Dan’s character is so formidable and so powerful… For example, I’ve always liked that in The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger is so much more intimidating than Linda Hamilton in that movie, and he still is using this massive firearm against her, and it feels almost cruel and terrifying.
I’m so tired of people cheering a “cool” death.
Wingard: That’s just fan service pandering. It goes beyond just the deaths; I don’t like the idea of pandering to your audience in general. Everything should be based on story and characters, it should never be based on cool ideas and concepts. That comes later; that’s what you fit in after you’ve structured everything correctly. And that’s what separates a parody from a real movie.