In our special eight part feature ‘Inside the mind of…’ HeyUGuys pieces together a broad set of perspectives behind the work and contributions to genre cinema at this years FILM4 FrightFest. From rising star Maika Monroe, the genre young bloods Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, Spain’s Nacho Vigalondo, Hatchet horror maestro Adam Green, and the seasoned Veteran John McNaughton, we journey into the creative mindset.
Following on from The
Reflecting on the forces that have shaped their careers to date, Wingard and Barrett offered an honest contemplation of genre cinema and the horror anthology past, present and future – an image of light and shadows.
How does genre influence the dynamic of the writing, directing and the casting of a film?
Simon Barrett: We like working in genre at least from the very inception of a project, because we tend to think of what kind of genre film we want to make, and that’s how we conceive what we are going to do next. But I think I like working in genre because audiences bring certain expectations, and if you deliver on those expectations then generally they will be happy. But then you can also do things on top of that to surprise them – be subversive, deliver some kind of political commentary, which is a lot of fun because that way you can reach people who you might otherwise not if you were making a bizarre art film.
When we look at genre films, and I’m not just talking about horror movies here, but also action films, then in terms of characters and casting, a lot of what genre films do very poorly is that their characters tend to totally serve to move the boilerplate genre plot forward, and they are not believable as real people.
I think if you were to sum up Adam and my creative aesthetic, then we try to tell genre stories with non-genre characters.
Adam Wingard: The Guest is a departure from where we were going with our first two films, because a lot of the decision making process in terms of the conceiving of projects in the beginning was based on what projects could we get funding for. We were coming from nothing at that point, and A Horrible Way to Die sounds like it is a crazy slasher film, but at the end of the day it is a totally depressing kind of drama. But we knew we could sell a movie called A Horrible Way to Die about a serial killer. Similarly with You’re Next, we knew we wanted to take a step forward and do something that had more mainstream sensibilities. But we knew to do that then we needed a reference point that was very familiar to people. So getting the money for that and pitching it to our producers was simply based on the fact that we wanted to do an home invasion movie. That is an easy shorthand to talk to anybody about and to say why the movie should exist.
Following the modest success of You’re Next, The Guest was a different situation. We found ourselves in a new position where we were able to pick our projects based on our creative tastes as filmmakers rather than what we could get made. So this time around it was well what do we want to make, and that was a whole different way of thinking for us – we had always had this low budget mentality of scrapping a project together. So the process of figuring out what the next movie was going to be after You’re a Next was quite difficult. But fortunately we had the VHS films that we were able to jump into with a relatively small amount of activity. Whilst we did produce them, it didn’t require as much of an investment of our time and energy as a full feature, and so it allowed us to creatively keep on working.
But when it came time to figure out what The Guest or even what the next film was going to be, it came down to a very simple moment. I was sitting at the office in Culver City where we have a little screening room, and I had a stack of Blu-Rays with me. I just happened to watch a double feature of the original Halloween and The Terminator, and watching those films I realised they embodied the types of movies that made me want to become a filmmaker. I knew Simon had similar feelings about those movies, and so I pitched him the idea of why don’t we do something that is an inverted Halloween story mixed with a Terminator plot. Fortunately Simon had a story that we were able to inject that into, and in a lot of ways this was the first film we have done that is not just a straightforward sub-genre. You cannot just classify The Guest as a serial killer or a home invasion film. It’s a lot of different things all at the same time, and in many ways it is an amalgamation of all the nostalgic films that inspired us to want to make movies.
The anthology occupies an important place within horror, and has recently seen a resurgence. How do you view it’s place past, present and future?
Simon Barrett: Starting with Dead of Night in the forties and then the Amicus films, the first several horror anthologies were interesting because it was usually one director working with the same crew. It would be a normal film shoot, but they would just be separate stories.
These new horror anthologies starting with VHS, The Theatre Bizarre and The ABC’s of Death are completely different because they are being shot as separate short films. The directors are working at their own locations, with their own crews, editing and then sending the films in where they are then composed as a feature.
Honestly, I think the reason why there has been a resurgence in the anthology is that it is a very cheap way to make a movie. With the VHS films in particular, they were all non-union actors, and those films were extremely low budget. It was fun to work that way, but one of the reasons we were all willing to work for free and make those movies was just for the creative opportunity, and because initially or at least it seemed so, it was a very small commitment time wise.
When we first started talking to Ti West and Joe Swanberg about it, the idea was you would go off and do your own thing. It would be around a four day shoot, and so a lot of filmmakers got into the competiveness of that situation. Like with the ABC’s of Death, those budgets are extremely low, and it’s more like a competition. So it’s a very different style than the old film anthologies, and I think it is based more around the economic realities of independent cinema right now.
Adam Wingard: There is a danger with the whole anthology because it is a producers game. What I’m seeing first hand having worked on some of the more well-known horror anthologies over the last few years is that in some ways it’s turning into an exploitation of the filmmakers. So that is something that people need to be aware of going into these projects, although I think it’s moving away from that now because they have kind of exploited everyone they possibly can [laughs]. As long as people are all on-board, and as long as the filmmakers have the control on the projects it’s great, but I can easily see how this whole movement could get out of control, and could turn into that kind of exploitation.
Simon Barrett: It is a little disturbing, because especially on a lot of these modern horror anthologies no one is paid up front, and if they are lucky they get it back on points, which is the way we worked on these films. But if you look at the business model, it is almost like the 48 Hour Film Fest or in America we have things like Channel 101, but these are non-profit. The 48 Hour Film Fest isn’t a filmmaker competition, but no one’s making any money off of it, whereas people are making money off these horror anthologies, though it is rarely the filmmakers. We’ve had very positive experiences with producers, but I do worry that there have been a lot of films that have been inspired by VHS and The ABC’s of Death, and in particular I am a little worried about the filmmakers who are spending their own money to finish these films that the producers are then able to immediately sell for a 300% profit.
Adam Wingard: The difficult thing about the anthology films in general is that it really is based on a gimmick, and we were lucky with VHS because no one had previously done a found footage anthology. On the surface it initially seemed like a terrible idea because people hate found footage movies, and we were going to ask you to watch six in a row.
Simon Barrett: At the time we started working on that it was before The Theatre Bizarre came out, and so I think the last horror anthology was Tales from the Hood or maybe the film Trick ‘R Treat, which had a disastrous experience.
Adam Wingard: All of those original anthologies like Simon said are just the one director, and the reason VHS worked was because of the found footage format. It put all the filmmakers on the same stylistic level, where we all had to shoot outside of our means, and outside of our normal style. So it was like the Lars Von Trier film The Five Obstructions, where it gave everyone an obstruction that they had to work with, and it created a more cohesive movie. When people are going into these films they tend to think, oh we can put four or five shorts together, and I don’t think they necessarily realise this a lot of time, but that just doesn’t work unless you have a cohesive way to glue them together. At the end of the day nobody’s going to care about four short films if there is no reason to care about them.
Simon Barrett: I am excited to see The ABC’s of Death 2, VHS Viral and all of these films. But as a filmmaker it does feel that there is a ceiling as to how good an anthology film can be. As Adam said, we shot the wrap around seqment for VHS first, and so all the other filmmakers were able to look at it to see the style of the film. It was less of a jarring visual experience than say something like The ABC’s of Death where the director’s are working in different countries, and can get a vastly different value for the dollar. So you end up with some segments that look incredibly polished next to other segments that look like they were shot on someone’s cellphone.
Adam Wingard: But it was a solid gimmick, and that’s why it does stand out and why it works in it’s own way.
Simon Barrett: At least The ABC’s of Death has the premise that something is required to happen in each short. The ABC’s of Death and VHS found a very good hook, but some of these other found footage horror anthologies didn’t have that. Also The ABC’s of Death like VHS had stylistic rules such as how long each segment could be, because they knew they were going to have twenty six segments in total, and they didn’t want to make a three hour movie.
But some of these other horror anthologies where they are working with different directors, crews, cinematographers and even cameras, there is just going to be such a wide disparity of tone and style. It inevitably means that there is a ceiling as to how cohesive that viewing experience can be.
We have some other anthology ideas, but ultimately we are less excited about that now, partially because we just exhausted ourselves creatively. But I’m very proud of our work on the first two VHS films, and even Adam’s segment of The ABC’s of Death.
How do you think genre will evolve over the coming decades?
Simon Barrett: It is tough to say, although I feel that genre and in particular horror almost evolve based on cultural anxieties. After the Iraq war there was this extreme and brutal horror that was exemplified by the Hostel films, which took on xenophobia, along with the SAW movies that rubbed people’s faces in the images of war that they weren’t seeing on the news. So that in itself is interesting to think about, but I can’t predict what our next cultural trauma is going to be.
Adam Wingard: It is kind of a fluke because the movements always seem to be designed after whatever last movie made the most money. It just spurs it on because everybody wants a familiarity with their project so that you can pitch it as being similar to so and so that made a shit load of money. So it is unpredictable because it is a system that creates a spider web based on a centrepoint that you cannot predict.
Simon Barrett: What I hope, and this is my hope rather than my actual prediction is that we see a resurgence of fun and humour in genre cinema a lot more. Adam and I have spoken about this a lot, especially when we were doing press for You’re Next, and right now with the internet people are extremely aware of genre and its conventions. I think it’s time to start being innovative and having fun with that, although not with a winking homage, but by doing innovative and clever things.
This is what we try to do, and I hope that’s where things will go, because the two horror sub-genres that feel like they are now coming to an end are the found footage (post-Paranormal Activity films), and also the post-Slasher resurgence that was started by SAW.
It’s hard to say what’s next, and I do worry that we are going to keep repeating ourselves. But at least Adam and I will not keep repeating ourselves, and we don’t care what other filmmakers do.