Thanks to a string of hits in the world of indie genre films with projects like V/H/S, You're Next, and The Guest, writer Simon Barrett has carved a unique path for himself as a filmmaker who manages to not only lampoon the tropes that audiences would expect to see in his narratives, but also demonstrates his passion and respect for the opportunities only genre films can afford. Having written a number of films that would go on to be directed by Godzilla vs. Kong director Adam Wingard, Barrett has been an integral component of those successes, which includes being directly involved in every stage of development. The writer recently made the jump to directing his first feature with Seance, which hits theaters, On Demand, and Digital HD on May 21st.
Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse) is the new girl at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. Soon after her arrival, six girls invite her to join them in a late-night ritual, calling forth the spirit of a dead former student who reportedly haunts their halls. But before morning, one of the girls is dead, leaving the others wondering what they may have awakened.
ComicBook.com caught up with Barrett to talk tackling a feature-length production, future projects, and a run-in his dog recently had with the business end of a bee.
Close Encounters of the Bee Kind
ComicBook.com: First and foremost, I think your fans want to know how your dog Hazel is doing after getting stung by a bee?
Simon Barrett: Oh, she's good. It was scary. My mother is always adopting elderly dogs. I grew up around my mom, it was kind of a thing. She adopts elderly poodles that are close to being euthanized at the shelters, that have been abandoned by families. So I'd always come home and there'd be all these elderly dogs around. And one of her friends is a beekeeper, and one of the dogs got stung by a bunch of bees and almost died, was in the hospital for days.
So, when Hazel got ... she was just walking and she just started frantically shaking her paw, and I wasn't sure what was up. And then she started puking, and her head kind of swelled up. And I was just like, "Oh, no, the dog is dying. I knew this would happen if I ever got a dog." But, fortunately, three shots later, she's fine. But now I guess we might have to carry around a doggy EpiPen if she ever steps on another bee again, just to keep her alive.
Well, I'm glad she's doing well. I thoroughly enjoy watching your Twitter and how Hazel seems as indifferent to being your pet as you seem to being her owner. At least, as far as it looks.
Oh, no. It's a love fest as soon as the camera goes away. This dog is a little cuddle monster. The only reason I get these great photos of her looking in the depths of despair is that I'm working and she's not on my lap, so she just lies on the ground and pouts, and then I get these great, photogenic glares. That's because, I would say, the dog spends probably two hours a day on the couch getting pet. Solid, on-the-couch petting time.
We spoil this dog relentlessly, but that's the fun thing about getting a rescue dog. I never wanted children, so I guess this is maybe my thing, is just adopting neurotic dogs that attack me and my friends, and then keeping them alive somehow.prevnext
"Becoming a Weird Filmmaker"
Seance is your feature directorial debut, so of course the studios keep putting "From the writer of Frankenfish and Dead Birds and You're Next" on the advertising, but this movie doesn't necessarily seem like what audiences expected from you for your debut. And so, going back further, what was your horror upbringing like? How do you think growing up in Missouri impacted your interests and taste in horror?
I certainly hope horror fans aren't disappointed by how different I think Seance is going to be from what people are expecting. I think what people might be starting to get is, and it's unclear if they like this or not, but this is a distillation of my filmmaking sensibility, without the healthy filter of Adam Wingard's talent. Normally, Adam fixes my scripts before anyone sees them, and this time he wasn't able to do that. So my thing got to the screen, all the way. And now everyone's just kind of confused, and that's totally valid to feel that way.
The true answer is that I love murder mysteries and old-fashioned, classical murder mysteries on such an almost genetic level, because my mother herself is a writer of mystery fiction. She got a short story published in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine when I was a kid, and Amazing Stories and publications like that, and so I just grew up [on them] ever since I was a really little kid. At first, I would read Agatha Christie, and I graduated to eventually what I read now. I still read Agatha Christie, but now I read a lot more. Actually, I don't read much mystery fiction anymore, because I have to admit, a lot of modern work doesn't interest me, and a lot of my favorite authors are now dead. I enjoy Loren D. Estleman, from time to time. It's a lot of the older, classical stuff by dead authors was really what shaped my personality. Georgette Heyer is another person that I've been referencing a lot, because Envious Casca and Death in the Stocks are two big influences on Seance.
Also, the mystery writer, Sarah Caldwell, whose book Thus Was Adonis Murdered, was a huge influence. And so it's just stuff like that, that honestly, if I could say all that stuff to Adam, he would just be like, "Okay, great. That's fine," but that's more specifically my individual interest. So it was really that I wanted to do a film of this nature and I didn't want to do the sarcastic, insane version of it. I wanted to do the sincere version, which is, I think, what we always try to do, which confounds people so much. I think what I'm realizing is that I am finally achieving my goal of becoming a weird filmmaker, because I'm starting to not think that my choices are weird.
They seem really normal to me and then everyone's like, "No, that was strange." Like, "Oh, good. Great." Maybe eventually, I can become like Claire Denis or David Lynch and just totally move at this instinctive level. But yeah, it's a singular passion for me, those types of old-fashioned, murder-mystery narratives. I think horror fans might be surprised at how just straightforward I wanted Seance to be, at least for most of its run time. But I really do, myself, just love stories like this. I felt like with my first feature, I wanted to try to make one. I think my next feature, if I get to make another one, maybe I can be a little weirder, but this time I wanted to make sure the story had a beginning, middle, and end.prevnext
Even though this might be the first feature where you're billed as the director, it's not like you haven't been on the set and directly developing a number of other films you've written, but obviously are there are different responsibilities that fall on you when you're the director. Did this experience make you wish that you had directed more projects earlier in your career or did it make you appreciate how much you learned from developing films with Adam and other filmmakers?
Well, obviously, I never had any other option. I'd always wanted to direct, ever since I was a little kid, I never really wanted to just be a screenwriter. It was more, I was always trying to figure out how to direct. And then, when I started working with Adam and I was so heavily involved in every phase of production of those early features that I wrote, with Adam directing and editing, I was a producer on those films in a very direct way. Forming the LLCs, getting insurance, renting equipment, arranging locations. And then, I would see them through to delivery. So, I think because of that, that was a big help in finding the financing for Seance. Because Seance is a fairly low budget film, it's certainly a lower budget than The Guest, but at the same time, it's not an ultra-low-budget thing, like A Horrible Way to Die.
I think one of the reasons HanWay Films, who helped finance You're Next and The Guest, were willing to come in and internationally support me on Seance was because they knew how involved I had been in those films. Because Matt Baker, at HanWay, who was kind of a producer on Seance and really was the person who got Seance off the ground because he was really the first person who said, "If you can keep the budget here, and you can cast someone in the lead, we're good for X amount of money," which is really all you need to get the ball rolling.
I just needed to bring in Dark Castle at that point and then figure out a few hundred other things. And five years later, we were off to the races. That's not an exaggeration, it took me that long to get this together. But, at the same time, if I hadn't had that experience working with Adam, I don't think HanWay ever would have taken that chance on me, especially with a script that I think they thought was pretty strange. The Seance script being not the most obvious commercial prospect for an indie financier, even at a small-budget level. So having that, being able to point to that experience, I think helped on a financier confidence level, that they didn't see me as just a first-time feature director. They knew that I had been more involved in The Guest and You're Next than the average screenwriter would be.prevnext
Largely that's because Adam and I had and continue to have a really fun, collaborative relationship on our projects. But when he's directing, he's 100% making every decision. I don't want to ever seem like I'm taking any credit for what Adam did on those films, because when Adam is directing, it's all Adam. The music, the performances, the framing. Like, if I see something that's really bothering me, I'll say something, but how often is that going to be? Adam's a great director. So I'm just useless on set half the time now, because Adam's just doing a great job, and the cast and crew are doing a great job and I have nothing to add.
That was when I really realized, like on The Guest, seeing things just go well and realizing that Keith Calder and Jess Calder were producing, and Chris Harding was producing, and there just wasn't any real need for me to be there, really. They needed me like once a day, to rewrite a line of dialogue. So that's when I was like, "Okay, it's time to really start thinking about, what's my directorial voice? And how do I want to shoot something? And what kind of story do I want to tell?" I knew that a small murder mystery was something that specifically had always excited me, about doing a Nancy Drew-style contained murder mystery thing. It was a story that I'd always wanted to tell, and it just felt like it was the right first-feature approach.prevnext
Influences vs. Originality
You've recently been doing a thread on Twitter about the films that were influences on Seance or movies that people interested in Seance might want to check out, so you're clearly aware of direct sources of inspiration for the film. When you're on set, how do you navigate the balance of feeling influenced by a certain movie or narrative, while also avoiding the recreation of those movies that had an impact on you so that you aren't merely paying tribute to those films? Or are those influences subconscious on set and you don't realize you can list them until afterwards?
Seance was a 22-day shoot, which is pretty tight, especially considering the number of characters we have on-screen in a lot of scenes. And so, to a certain extent, you can plan everything as much as you want, but when you have four hours to get through a fight scene with 72 camera setups or whatever, that ends up ... production necessity ends up guiding a lot of your creative decisions. And that's when having a director of photography like Karim Hussain, who's seen every movie ever made and just is instinctively on the same page with you, is invaluable. So that helps.
But I would say that, in terms of your question, I tend to think of influence in a very indirect way. You talk about what I posted on Twitter, and I think people have probably figured out that I am more likely to take inspiration from a movie I dislike than a movie I like, in a lot of ways. That list that I'm currently posting is tricky because those are all good films, but a lot of the films that really influenced Seance were films that I wouldn't really recommend to anyone, but there was one specific thing that they did that I was like, "Well, how would I do that differently, in a way that's better?" That sparked an idea, that sparked another idea. And I think that can be a really interesting creative process.
I've never seen a movie and been like, "Wow, that movie looked great. I want to imitate the visual style of that." Because I think, especially when you're talking about older films and the stylistic homages that can be popular in the indie horror scene, where people will make movies that are period films or stylistically anachronistic as a signifier of, I guess, atmosphere or quality. But, to me, it just feels like a lazy way to trigger those artistic associations. To me, I think doing a stylistic homage, or a visual homage, is often not interesting. It's just imitative. I don't really understand the point of it, when I think, more interesting to me, is trying to find out what style is appropriate for each story and what cinematic style would just be best for these characters, and best for the narrative and, of course, budget that I'm working with here.prevnext
I wanted Seance to look timeless and classical, and I could compare the look of it to a lot of films, like What Have You Done to Solange? and Phenomena. But really, I knew I didn't have money to actually really imitate how Phenomena looks, for example, which is just an amazing film on a lot of levels. I don't know if that was Michele Soavi shooting it or who, I forget who shot that movie, but it is incredible looking. I think the way that I took inspiration from that is in some weird, tonal atmosphere ways.
Basically the short version is, I don't ever have to avoid that because I think instinctively, I try to avoid that. And the way that I take inspiration from things tends to be very specific and subtle, but there are shots in Seance where I would say to Karim, "This is the Shaolin Soccer shot," and then we would do something a little more literal. But that's a good example, because Seance does contain a Shaolin Soccer shot, but I think it's okay to rip off a film like Shaolin Soccer in a film like Seance, because just narratively, and in terms of the productions and stuff, it's so different that ... everyone knows that my version of the Shaolin Soccer shot in Seance doesn't actually look anything like the shot in Shaolin Soccer and probably no one would make that connection, because you're forced into an original space by the context.
I guess my feeling is, I always try to be original, even if I'm doing an homage to a lot of different genres. Like You're Next or The Guest or Seance, I try to be unique and original, but just also conscious of those influences, and hope that that balance just works for viewers.prevnext
Most of the film focuses on teen-aged girls and the things they're experiencing, and since you yourself aren't now nor have ever been a teen-aged girl, what was that collaborative process like with the stars of the film? What sort of magic did they bring to the film that you hadn't really thought of or anticipated?
I would say one thing that I really did learn from Adam Wingard, because we both tend to think differently ... I think I tend to try to obsess and plan more than Adam does, and Adam just has the instinctive genius of being able to work spontaneously, to the point that he'll be writing music for the film in the editing room, and he's very creative without a lot of build up. I like to plan and feel like I have a confident safety net going into everything. Sometimes that can be the wrong choice, because you have to be open to good things that are spontaneously happening, especially in low-budget, indie filmmaking, where you really don't have the ability to plan or spend a lot of time setting things up because you're just moving so quickly all the time.
I really cast Seance with an eye towards feeling like this was going to be a collaboration on every character, with whoever I cast. I was going to be really, "This is what's on the page, now you tell me who this person is a little bit, and I can figure out how this scene is going to work." A really good example of that is Inanna Sarkis, in the Alice role, who's a person who I cast because I just couldn't figure out how someone would bully and annoy Suki Waterhouse, because Suki seemed tough and un-bully-able. When I first met her, and she was coming to the martial arts school where I train, and we were doing some training together, I was like, "This is going to be tough to find someone who really feels like they can just beat up Suki."
Then, as soon as I met Inanna, the character of Alice completely changed, it basically became Inanna Sarkis' take on that character. Because she just had such a funny take that, I was like, "Oh, this is going to be what this dynamic is. This is how she's the leader of this little group of girls. This is how they all respond to her." It was just different than what was on the page, but it worked, it was better. So, it's just stuff like that. I think you just have to be open, and not try to sculpt performances from the very start sometimes, but let your actors show you what their instincts are. And, from that point, you can sculpt the performance on set or in the editing room.prevnext
I think you have to be open to that level of collaboration. To be honest, my biggest concern with Seance was that the cast wouldn't necessarily be on board with the humor of it, because I'm asking actors in their 20s to play these boarding school students and there's a lot of inherent absurdity to a lot of the scenarios, that I wanted them to play very straight. The scenes, to me, wouldn't be funny if the characters were in on the joke. Or winking too much at the audience. I didn't want to waste people's time with comedy, but I did want things to have a sense of humor to them. I think it's a fairly funny film.
That was the trust that, I was not certain how I would earn it, that was the trust that I knew I needed from my cast, but I wasn't quite sure how to get them to make that leap of faith. But, fortunately, I think everyone looked to Suki who, fortunately, I was able to work with a fair amount before we went off to Winnipeg. I think by the time we got there, she had developed, for whatever reason, a fair amount of trust, in that I at least had an idea of what we're going to try to do. I think that just rubbed off on the rest of the cast. They were just like, "Well, Suki doesn't seem concerned about what's going on here. So I guess we shouldn't be, either. Simon's over in the corner rocking back and forth and sobbing, crying, while Karim feeds him coffee through a funnel, but I guess this is going fine."
And most of them now have seen the film, and are very fond of it.prevnext
I'm gratified that it looks like it worked out. That was both the challenge of Seance, which is, I don't know why, as a first-time filmmaker and as an elderly man, I felt like a young female protagonist was the first story I wanted to tell, but I don't tend to think of my characters in a calculated way, they tend to tell me who they are. I tend to just find the stories I want to write, and just hope that people don't feel like I'm trying to comment knowledgeably about a subject that I have no firsthand knowledge of.
I guess what I would say, the thing about Seance, is as much as obviously my characters' genders and sexualities are part of who they are, it's not necessarily a film that's about that. It's a murder mystery, slasher film. So, hopefully, I can get away with my understanding of humanity being limited, through my own experience, because I'm just telling, at the end of the day, an entertaining murder-mystery yarn.
But it's a good question, and I think, really, the fact that Suki and Madisen [Beaty] and Inanna were the first actors to really come on board, and they really got the humor of the project. And, in the case of Inanna, she's a director herself, and Madisen is, as well. I think Suki actually is directing more now, too. And they'd all seen The Guest and I think they just basically got this whole, "Oh, you're this guy who thinks he's funny, who isn't funny, but then makes these movies that everyone realizes are funny, years after the fact. And we're down for that."prevnext
The Future of The Guest
For the past 20 years or so, anytime anyone asks Robert Englund about if he'd play Freddy Krueger again, he says he'd be open to it, but it just never seems to happen, so it's unknown if there's an actual chance of it happening or if he's just being polite. With you, Adam, and Dan Stevens, anytime you're asked in interviews about a follow-up to The Guest, it's hard to know if you're just being polite that there could be a future for a follow-up or if there are genuinely things happening. Can you even somewhat concretely confirm if something really is happening or if it's more of a vague "never say never" sort of situation?
No, I'm going to answer that question. I can give you a very concrete answer to that question, which is, we are doing something related to The Guest. It is concretely happening, but it is not a feature film or a comic book, because I think that's what people would expect us to do. And I think that's the kind of thing that no one actually wants us to do, because I think if we actually made a feature film version of The Guest 2, or realistically, the graphic novel version would just be a cheaper version of trying to achieve the same thing narratively. I think that could only disappoint people, at this juncture, because people have to remember that the same weird, quasi-original artistic sensibility that caused me to write The Guest in the first place would continue to guide me with a Guest sequel.
I would likely do something perverse, and just have Dan's character be the successful owner of a local hardware store and the entire story is just about him dealing with a difficult supplier, but in a totally legal and healthy way, because he's totally grown as a person. And so, in a sense, I think Seance was trying to be the slightly more optimistic version of the same narrative that You're Next and The Guest somewhat explored with their characters. So, we're never going to do like, The Guest 2. The Guest was just never meant to have a sequel like that. However, at this point, enough people have asked us about it, that of course, inevitably Adam and I have had enough conversations about what we would hypothetically do, that we've now developed a bunch of ideas that we've become very attached to, because we think they're actually good.prevnext
There's definitely going to be one thing that tells you what the further adventures of Dan Stevens' character and Maika Monroe's character and Brendan Meyer's character, what those could have been. And then, we'll see if it leads into anything more concrete, but we're not going to exploit any of our fans and we're not going to ruin anything. Because I think that's the easiest thing for filmmakers to do, especially when you have a film like The Guest, which initially we felt was a failure. And then later, we were gradually convinced, was a success. I think it's very easy, especially in that situation, to want to double down on that success. Or, because it's so gratifying, especially when it feels a bit after the fact, and you're so excited that you were right, that your story was good and you do want to do more of it.
But I think that's a big mistake. I think that's an easy mistake for filmmakers to fall into, is this notion of like, "Oh, I did this thing and people liked it. So I should do more of that, in a direct way." I think you really have to be careful of the fact that that fandom that you have, especially with a film like The Guest, it's a precious thing. And people like The Guest, I think partially, because there isn't a Guest 2, and we didn't ruin it. It is this unique film that stands on its own and doesn't really feel like it should exist, because it doesn't make any financial sense for it to exist. And that's true, which is also a hard thing about making a sequel, is The Guest didn't make any money.
I think you have to really careful. I think it's really easy to say, "Oh, the fans want The Guest 2, let's give it to them," but that can be a really self-indulgent thing to do, as an artist. I think the better thing to do is be like, "Okay, the fandom's claim --- there are a couple of people who claim to be fans of The Guest and they want the sequel. What's a way to respect that and give them something, but not disappoint them and not let them down?" That's a real challenge, and I think we have a cool answer, but we'll see. People might be really pissed off.
Well I'm really excited for whatever that might be and I really enjoyed Seance, and even if it was different from what I expected, it's still got your DNA and your perspective all over it. And with Face/Off and Thundercats on the horizon, I'm looking forward to what you guys do with those.
Oh, thank you. Yeah, we're going for it. We're really going hard, to make these things great. So, that's all I can say.
It's about time you cashed in your genre film-fest clout to get that big Thundercats money.
I will say this, our Thundercats adaptation is going to be really, really cool. I don't think people are at all prepared for how long Adam Wingard has spent thinking about Thundercats. They are not ready for Adam's Thundercats movie. It is going to destroy.
I'm both excited and disturbed.
That is the correct reaction.
Seance hits theaters, On Demand, and Digital HD on May 21st.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.prev