I’ve added another of my favorite films from Sundance, The Guest, to this delightful series of Q&As that’ll give you a peek into the process of how these great works are pieced together as well as what you can expect when these films eventually hit theaters. If you appreciated Adam Wingard‘s early work (You’re Next, V/H/S) be sure to slot The Guest high on your anticipated movies list, as it’s easily his best yet and a snarky splatterfest thrill ride from start to finish. Listen to Wingard and his cast, including Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens, talk about writing the piece, inspiration from 80’s movies and getting pierced by exploding shrapnel.
Adam Wingard: We actually explored doing an action film in South Korea, and we went down the road of that a little ways, and it didn’t really work out because the whole film is just one nonstop action scene, we thought that would be kind of the experiment of that movie. Ultimately, it just never came together because, you know, when you’re doing a nonstop action scene there’s not really character development, things like that.
Simon Barrett: I said I’d wasn’t able to make it.
AW: So this one night I was just sitting around, I had a stack of Blu-Rays at this new office, and I just happened to watch Terminator and Halloween, the original, and I was watching it and I called Simon up the next day, I mentioned I’d seen those two, and I told him I wanted to do a Sci-Fi, action kind of thing, with an android and stuff like that. And Simon’s like, I have an idea that could fit into that. Maybe you can pick up from there…
SB: This is actually unique to our process, because usually Adam comes up with the type of movie he wants to make and I come up with the story. I’d started an old script that was going to be a really depressing drama, with kind of the same premise as this film, but it was a PTSD drama. Ultimately, we’re pretty big believers in the idea that art, unless the point of it is not to be entertaining, that art should be entertaining. So I stopped at around page 35 because I was like, literally no one in the world wants to see this film. (Laughter) I’m not enjoying writing it, and it’s not good. It was about this guy who comes back from the war and kills his friends and family. Ok, cool. And so Adam called me up and I was like “You know, if for some reason he was kind of bit of a malfunctioning robot, suddenly that script is actually awesome.” Not only awesome, but it’s funny, if we’re playing it for the laughs of it, and it’s not just like punishing. And then I just completely started at page 1.
AW: Well, no, it was literally like, we had that discussion, I mentioned that stuff to Simon, Simon said all that stuff, he’s like and then we’ll call it “The Guest”. I said, “Ok do you want to write that?”, and he said “Sure.” And he just went off and did it. It was like suddenly after all this time we spent on this other idea, when we really sat back and said what kind of story do we want to tell, not just saying we want a bunch of cool crazy shit, you know, it was like, you know, it was just took like a little moment, to kind of rest, and there it was.
Q: How long did it take you guys to film it?
AW: It was a thirty one day shoot, I think.
SB: And we did a 2 day reshoot in Los Angeles. Because of corporate stuff.
Q: I’ve noticed that music is pretty essential in a lot of your movies and it seems like with “You’re Next”, you have a little bit of a sort of Carpenter-ish driving electronic music, and with this it was just like a totally different kind of grittiness. I was just wondering, do you curate that or do you work with someone who does the music?
AW: Well, “You’re Next” was a totally different group of composers. It was a little bit more hodgepodge. One guy did the synth stuff really well, and one guy did atmospheric stuff. This film, for me, just spoke to me that it was like an 80’s Cannon action film, as a matter fact we wanted to actually just put the Cannon logo at the beginning of the film, you know, that’s why we do the Snoot logo kind of in that style. So, it tried to process the way to go about that. I feel like after Grindhouse there’s a lot of really good imitations of 80’s films and 70’s films. I really like Grindhouse but the post effect of that is that it’s become a sort of parody almos.? And that’s exactly the opposite of what I wanted from the music out of this. Actually going back to my very first film I did, called Homesick back in 2003, I worked with a band called Zombie. And we had a really good experience working together, they’re very prog rock, very Goblins inspired, John Carpenter stuff. Since then, one of the members of Zombie, Steve Moore, he started a solo project, and the solo project is still kind of him doing that old school thing, because Steve uses all vintage synthesizers and all that stuff. The interesting thing is that he’s just making his version of whatever music he wants to make. It’s a very modern kind of thing, but since he’s using vintage synths, then it has that quality to it. But it’s still something new and it’s not pretending to be it. From the beginning I called Steve up and we had a lot of conversations. A lot of the soundtrack, the starting point was basing it on Halloween 3 and the original Terminator soundtrack, both really great, incredible 80’s synth scores. And it kind of just went from there.
Q: In a couple of scenes, it seems that the camera angle is just really focused on David’s stare. Did you intend to make the audience feel like he was trying to break through the fourth wall in a way?
AW: Um…no, not really, I mean, I felt like those are just key moments that stood out to me. To me, I just wanted to be able to watch David process, because we never really know what goes on in his head. And I felt like I liked the idea of picking these moments where the movie’s not telling you what he’s thinking ever, but I wanted to give the audience that moment to be able to kind of put that on there. I think Dan has such brilliant physical acting that he can hold on screen just a bit longer than necessary, or would normally be done. That just kind of came out of that.
Q: Actors of course have to have physical training. Was there any other physical training, like martial arts, involved?
Dan Stevens: Yeah, there was actually, training for well over a month. Doing like weights and stuff in the morning and martial arts in the afternoon. It was a big old transformation for me actually.
SB: Our action choreographer, Clayton Barber, who worked on “You’re Next”, worked out with Dan. They like hit you a lot. We don’t really know what happened.
DS: I don’t want to talk about it.
Q: Dan, did you have a favorite action sequence to shoot in the film?
DS: Yeah I had my ear pierced by a door.
SB: Yeah, when Dan is running by things that are exploding, that’s not a stunt double sometimes.
AW: Yeah, early on, we did some shots were Dan is running by some splintering wood being shot to pieces. For some reason, I felt like that was important that you be in that shot. And that was the last time, because a piece went through Dan’s ear. It basically made a perfect little piercing in your ear.
Q: Where did you find this guy (Dan)?
AW: On this little known show, Downton Abbey. When going through the casting of the film, I knew I wanted someone who had a very calm, cool aesthetic to them, but who was naturally likeable. I talked to a lot of actors going through the casting. And Dan was actually one of the first people I talked to. He was just so nice. I could just see the character in him. From the very get-go he was my top choice.
Q: How long did it take to write?
AW: Probably two months.
Q: There’s a lot of scenes that you guys got laughs for, that, if done a different way, could have been straight up creepy. How do you find the balance between those two?
AW: Yeah man, it’s hard to say. I don’t know, it was weird. Going into it, I wasn’t sure. The first few days of shooting, how much I did want to play into the creepy side or more the humor of it? Because when I first read the script I was laughing my ass off the whole time, especially when it got to the bar scene the first time. I just really enjoyed going through that. It was just one of those things, as soon as I saw Dan on set and everybody interacting. Because the very first scene that we shot was, you know, the sequence where he gets the guns from the guy and ends up shooting a long distance, impossible missile shot. But it just instantly kind of clicked that it was a funny movie to me, and that’s the direction that we took. And the movie kind of plays homage, by the end of the film, to our roots, coming from horror and stuff, there’s even a jump scare but it’s a manufactured way. It wasn’t se-f referential but more, yes, this is where we come from but now this is a different context. Instead of playing out a horror film throughout, now suddenly we put you in this ridiculous haunted house at the end.
SB: I’d also say that everyone, and definitely our producers, we all have a sarcastic sense of humor. Finding jokes that aren’t really winking at the audience, just kind of assuming you’re smart enough to get it.
Q: For the ladies, or for all the actors really, what was it about Adam that said ‘Yes I want to work with this guy’?
Sheila Kelley: Just so much about him. I was offered the part and I got on the phone with him. He’s not a simple director. He has a lot of layers for the way he wanted the character played and how he wanted the film to unfold. And that was really exciting for me, personally.
Maika Monroe: I went through the auditioning process and I remember the first time meeting Adam. I think Jess was in the room, one of the producers and, just how he would work on the scenes with me, how he would direct me and change things I would never have even thought. There was just something so special, I was like I have to work with this guy.
Brendan Meyer: I was huge fan of Adam and Simon for a long time, so working on this was a huge dream for me, it was really surreal. It was so much fun, I had the best time. Adam’s the best what can I say.
Leland Orser: I can’t add much more than that, Adam was really really good. He really knew what he wanted and the direction was really specific and great but not in the way that he was giving you a ‘No’ or you felt like you were doing it wrong. But in a real collaborative way and you could tell he had a vision. It was really exciting and cool. You could tell he could see the movie in his head.
Lance Reddick: The funny thing for me is that I don’t remember exactly what it was about, because I was also offered the role. I was in New York at the time so Adam and I met on the phone and I told him one of my hesitations was, I don’t want to be the same Top Cop in a suit because I’ve done that for so long. I didn’t want to be the guy just doing exposition and on the page I wasn’t sure if it was going to play like that. I remember we talked a lot about film. I can’t remember exactly what it was that he said, all I remember is we ended the conversation and I said “Let me sleep on it, I’ll get back to you.” As soon as we got off the phone, I called my agent and said, “I’m going to do this film.”
AW: I just told Lance you’re going to wear a really cool trench coat and he said “Alright man, that sounds good.”
DS: Adam just cast a spell on me man. It was one of the funniest scripts I ever read, I was laughing my ass off. As soon as I read it, I made phone calls, some to people who mattered, some just phone calls. And within days we were talking, and I saw You’re Next and watching You’re Next blew me away. I was like I wanted to work with that guy. And I realized it wasn’t that guy, it was these guys. All these guys, the whole Snoot team is unbelievable. Really special bunch to work with. Obviously I didn’t know that at the beginning but I know now.