Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have only been getting projects to the screen together for four years, but it’s been a blitzkreig period that’s kept them at the core of the low-budget, indie-horror “mumblegore” movement, alongside friends and frequent partners like Ti West, Joe Swanberg, E.L. Katz, Amy Seimetz, and A.J. Bowen. Their initial collaborations include the features A Horrible Way To Die, What Fun We Were Having, and Autoerotic, and segments in the horror anthologies V/H/S, The ABCs Of Death, and V/H/S 2—many of them profile-raising cult hits that significantly boosted the duo’s reputation in horror circles.
Wingard and Barrett stepped closer to the mainstream in 2011 with You’re Next, a nasty little home-invasion horror thriller about a family of transcendently awful people being picked off one by one by masked killers who encounter some surprises amid the slaughter. That film’s success opened further doors, and now they’re back with a bigger budget and a less culty sensibility: The Guest, a thriller about a dangerous man who invades a family’s lives with a charming smile and a secret agenda, is their most mainstream film to date. While it draws heavily on John Carpenter films and 1980s horror for some of its visual inspirations, it’s more than a strict nostalgia piece: It’s a riveting drama with light overtones of political action and science fiction, and plenty of the old-fashioned charisma and unease of hidden-agenda films reaching back to the likes of The Night Of The Hunter.
The charisma comes from Guest star Dan Stevens, a British actor best known for his starring role on Downton Abbey. A stage veteran whose film and TV résumé skews heavily toward classics—including adaptations of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Turn Of The Screw, and Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility—Stevens seems like an odd choice as an American action star, but his purring menace in The Guest is the film’s single greatest asset. Wingard, Barrett, and Stevens all recently sat down in Chicago to talk about The Guest, and to speculate about what it’s preparing them to do next.
The Dissolve: Adam, you’ve repeatedly talked about the frustration of how slowly film production moves, and how you’ve worked in shorts and quick-turnaround indie films because it lets you get your work to the public faster. Did a bigger budget and a much longer lead time change how you work?
Adam Wingard: Well, prior to this, getting our films financed was actually tied into the creative side. The only way we could get things going was pitching ideas that we knew were a safe bet. For instance, with A Horrible Way To Die, the first film we worked on together, we looked at what genres weren’t really putting out anything interesting, so people were ready to fund them. So in that sense, that was a serial-killer film. You’re Next was the same way: “We know we can get a home-invasion movie financed.” It was about being smart about it, and working within those confines, because we really didn’t have any other choice. But after You’re Next—not only it was it our first real success in selling to a studio, it was also the first time we developed a really good relationship with our producers, who have their own capital, so they don’t have to answer to anybody. They only have to answer to their own instincts and tastes. Because we all got along really well, it became clear that they wanted to invest in us as filmmakers.
And for the first time, we were able to start approaching our next project as filmmakers, not as beggars looking for financing. That opened a new avenue of thinking, “Why did we want to make movies in the first place? Now that we’re not necessarily inhibited by subgenre restrictions, where do we go from here?” We were left in sort of a void, because our reality changed overnight with You’re Next. It took almost a year and a half to calm our minds down and figure out that we wanted to do something that was a departure, but that accumulated all of our interests in one film. Long story short, after You’re Next, we decided, “Let’s get our ultimate nostalgia movie out of our system, and pay our dues to the masters who really inspired us to become filmmakers to begin with.” That’s kind of the evolution of where we went.
The Dissolve: What was your production budget on The Guest?
Wingard: Umm, I don’t know, should I say that? I feel weird about talking about money. My parents always… I remember when I was a kid, my granddad had a little camcorder, and he brought it over, and he was filming us in our house. At the time, we didn’t have a camcorder, and I was mesmerized by it. I really wanted a camera to film my own stuff, and I asked him how much it cost, and he got really uncomfortable, and blew off the question. And then I talked to my dad about it later, and he told me I should never ask questions about what things cost. Ever since then, I feel uncomfortable about… I don’t even know if it’s my place to answer something like that.
The Dissolve: It’s always been part of the story, especially with indies, and with your work in particular—making Pop Skull for $2,000, for instance. There’s a fascination with how much films can accomplish with so little money, as blockbuster budgets keep ballooning.
Wingard: It’s definitely our biggest budget to date, but it’s not a big budget. It was enough where we were able to achieve things we were never able to do before, but not so much where it was beyond the norm of an indie film. I think we got a lot out of the money we had, but for most films, it’s still a very low budget.
The Dissolve: And your producers didn’t have any restrictions?
Wingard: I think the restrictions were the ones we put on ourselves. I think we’re kind of rare in the indie filmmaking world, in the sense that our emphases are very similar to Hollywood films. We’re trying to create entertainment, but the difference is that we just want to make movies that fulfill our own desire to entertain and be entertained ourselves.
The Dissolve: As far as paying homage to the filmmakers who inspired you, what’s your relationship with 1980s horror?
Simon Barrett: I’m a bit older than these two people, but we grew up during that period, so those were the films I imprinted on the most. As a child, you see a movie and you’re captivated by the story. You don’t really think, “These are actors,” and you don’t think about camera movement and editing. But the first films I loved, the ones I watched again and again and again until I started thinking about how they were made and edited, were films like Re-animator, Evil Dead 2, Bad Taste. My understanding of cinema is rooted in that era. At the same time, we didn’t want to do an homage. I mean, Adam’s a talented enough filmmaker that if we wanted to make The Guest look like it was shot on 1980s film stock, we could do that. But it’s more about taking the fun things about those movies that inspired us. The kids in The Guest are way smarter than the parents. That’s what I always loved about 1980s cinema. In movies like The Stepfather, written by Donald E. Westlake—that’s a very clever script that does a lot of interesting things, and one of them I like is that right away, you know what’s going on, and you’re watching other characters figuring it out in a way that’s kind of fun, and at times frustrating. Nightmare On Elm Street, it’s very much the kids against the parents. It was more about taking those things that inspired us, and trying to find a new way to apply those to a more modern story. The short answer to your question—the things that inspired us about 1980s cinema are the sense of fun, and anti-authoritarian subversive humor. It was the Reagan and Thatcher era, so a lot of humor back then had that kind of Bloom County pointed political spirit. Calvin And Hobbes had it as well.
“If our next film is Forrest Gump, show us this interview, and we’ll be like “We blew it.””
Wingard: We’re coming off the gore-porn, splatter-porn era. Everything was based in a mean-spirited sense of violence, and bringing reality to violence. People got sick of that and stopped going to those movies. So what’s the next wave? It really is going back to the 1980s, which balanced extreme violence with a sense of entertainment. Maybe society was resigned—the torture-porn was a direct reference to Iraq, and maybe through it all, they thought, “We’re still in Afghanistan, we’re about to go to Iraq.” Maybe now we’re just like, “Screw it, it’s all fucked. We might as well just enjoy ourselves, because things aren’t getting better. Forcing this stuff in our faces isn’t doing any good, so let’s just not look at it in that way.”
Barrett: We’re in a Cold War mentality, which was what we had back in the ’80s. It’s cyclical. Terrorism is the new Cold War. We’re commenting on some of that with some of the content in the film. Another thing I liked about ’80s films growing up is, they don’t always have overt jokes, and they aren’t referencing anything. A lot of modern cinema is self-referential, post-Scream, post-Grindhouse. We’ve talked about this a lot—that, to me, feels very easy. What’s the difference between a film that’s paying homage to ’70s horror, and one of these Epic Movie Friedberg-Seltzer joints, where basically the audiences are just made to feel clever because they get a reference? How hard is that to do? As a viewer, I don’t like that, and as a filmmaker I don’t like it. ’80s films weren’t doing anything like that. They were trying to be as artistically and technologically innovative as possible. The humor tends to be very dry in a lot of the films I personally appreciated. Probably watching those movies affected my sense of humor, and now that’s how I write.
Dan Stevens: I think one of the delightful things about meeting these two is that we come from three very different corners of the planet, but grew up on almost the exact same type of films. Having seen You’re Next, I recognized that anarchic sense of humor in The Guest. I found it funny in terms of its celebration and processing of a lot of ’80s films. John Carpenter’s movies. Big Trouble In Little China has been a huge common ground for myself and Adam. It’s one of those funny things in cinema: There’s a cyclical thing, with a 20-year delay. You grow up steeped in a certain culture, and by the time you professionally come to a point where you can process it, it’s 20 years down the line. So it’s not a coincidence that we’re going through ’80s and ’90s influences. We’re just now at a stage where we’re able to make the films we always wanted to make, and we’re connecting with our youth, and its passions and enthusiasms.
The Dissolve: How did you engage with the humor in The Guest without making it into a horror-comedy?
Barrett: The process was very natural. Dan and I thought the script was very funny, but there was also a feeling that because there are no overt jokes, the movie could have been played more seriously. If the stylization of the music and the look of the film had been different, we could have played up the creepiness a lot more. But we allowed the film to evolve in a natural way. Once we had the film cast—a lot of times, the casting was based on sense of humor and intelligence. Once we started doing rehearsals, it became clear to me that this was just hilarious. The scenario was so outlandish that we had to play with that and have fun with it. I had so much fun watching Dan and Maika [Monroe] in rehearsals that I just knew that was the angle to take, because that’s what was working. It was something we wouldn’t have been able to do when we had to make movies that worked in a horror-subgenre way. People wouldn’t have bought it as much early in our careers, if we were doing the same thing we’re doing right now. It would have seemed like we were trying too hard. but I think we’ve earned the right to be able to tell the stories we wanted to tell in some ways.
The Dissolve: But even if the humor came out through casting, rehearsals, and the direction, some of it must have been in the script. How did you think of it as you were writing it?
Barrett: My answer to that is really boring, which is that it’s just like my personal sense of humor. Everything I write—the dialogue recognizes the absurdity of the circumstances. That’s how I see the world. I’m never trying. Our movies seem like they’re kind of funny as an afterthought. If I wrote Knocked Up or something, no one would ask me, “How did you do that?” They’d just be like, “You’re trying to be funny.” But because it’s very dry humor, to the extent that many people who saw You’re Next were not aware of it—and did not laugh at it, though that might be a separate thing—it’s hard for me to articulate. I don’t have a good answer. That’s just personally what I find funny, so I just write that way.
The Dissolve: Was there an interplay on the set between the two of you as director and actor, in terms of how to keep it from becoming too funny, or not funny enough?
Barrett: It just felt like we were on the same page with that type of thing.
Wingard: It worked out immediately.
Barrett: You guys would do a variety of takes—
Stevens: Yeah, there was kind of a “charm” dial and a “creepy” dial that we dialed up and down from take to take.
Wingard: And a lot of that was early on, trying to find that fine line of, “How sinister is David, and how charming and funny is David?”
Stevens: It wasn’t, “Do a funny one, do a less-funny one,” so much as in combination, how serious, how dark, how charming. The charm thing was big for Adam, because he had to get David in the door, and David had to win over at least 50 percent of the family if his plan was going to work, for him to make it to the second act.
One of the things that made me laugh my ass off about You’re Next was that final scene, where A.J. Bowen reveals that the whole movie, this insane ordeal of death and destruction, has been to fuel a middle-class aspiration of having a honeymoon in Paris. It was just such a wicked joke.
Barrett: I was very poor when I wrote that.
Stevens: It was that flip, that juxtaposition, of, “What is that tone doing in this scene at this point in the movie?” I had fun playing those. Not so much, “This is a funny scene coming up,” as, “If we play it like this in the context of this moment in the movie, it has its own delightful insanity.” It made me chuckle, anyway.
The Dissolve: You’re playing a role that’s largely about a false exterior. How much did you focus on his interior, like his actual motivations? Were you interested in what’s going on in his head in any given moment, as opposed to what he’s presenting?
Stevens: That’s an interesting question, because to tie into the last one, to earn the ridiculousness that comes later in the movie, we wanted to root this story in at least one or two tangible realities. One of which was a returning soldier, and possibly his bond with his friend Caleb, and that deep connection soldiers have, this bond of honor he has to his friend to return, visit this family, help them, and tell them Caleb loved them. Those are the first two things we really learn. And if we choose to believe that, we can take it from there. I did want to root at least one of those things in reality, so we can earn all these fantastical realms that come later. I wanted to retain these strands of humanity that tied it to some backstory. “Why is this guy running along the road? Okay, let’s do the rest of the movie now.”
Wingard: It always felt like one of the big challenges was figuring out who David was before all of this went down, and how do you reference that humanity before, vs. now. Ultimately, we wanted to allow the audience to project their own ideas of what David’s real motivations are, which is why I have all those shots pushing in on David’s face. I found that interesting—depending on your take, who you are watching the film, your idea of his motivations are different, and you can project that onto him. We all had concrete ideas of David’s motivations, but we didn’t want that to play out in an obvious way.
The Dissolve: Simon, you don’t play a role in this one, which is unusual for your films. Was it ever tempting to write yourself a role?
Barrett: Uh… [Laughs.]
Stevens: Were you ever going to play David?
Barrett: I think there was a danger that at some point, I was going to be the grill chef who tells Kristen that the table looks like they’re done, if that hadn’t worked out with local casting. But no. Like Adam said, You’re Next’s modest success afforded us an opportunity to work with a much larger palette than we previously had access to. One of the things we talked about from the very start was… There are actors in You’re Next like Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz. Everyone in the film is a brilliant actor, and I want to work with them again, but we’ve been writing roles for our friends and for ourselves because we didn’t have any other options. You know, people wouldn’t be in our movies because we couldn’t afford to pay them properly, so we would do this work ourselves, and that’s why Adam and I are in a lot of our films. Like, the V/H/S films were micro-budget, non-SAG things. So things like that, I was not doing necessarily as a career aspiration. I was a producer solving a problem. And so with The Guest, one of the things I talked about right away is, “Let’s not let this mumblecore thing become a crutch. Let’s do real auditions, and get the best possible actors.” Right away, we were talking about Dan, and actors of his caliber. This is actually the first film where everyone’s new to us, except A.J., who does appear again to explain the plot. That’s a bit of a writing crutch I’m working out. Adam had met and worked a bit with Chase Williamson, who plays Zeke, and is in John Dies At the End, but every other actor is new to us.
Wingard: We wanted a clean slate, to step up out of that comfort zone. We were starting to get stuck in the mumblecore world. But you know what’s funny? I read a review last night that mentioned Simon having an extremely misguided cameo in The Guest and I was like, “What are they referring to?” They must have thought somebody was you in the film.
Stevens: Are you in the party scene?
Wingard and Barrett: No.
Barrett: We even talked about that. There was a point—we could have been extras at the Halloween party, we could have strapped You’re Next masks on our head and been clever. But it was really like, “You know what? Let’s not be clever. Let’s really make this the best possible movie, and let’s only put ourselves on camera if we truly can’t find anyone better.” You know what? I’m not that good of an actor. My range is pretty much being angry with a mask on, and not having any lines of dialogue. And you know what? If you’re in the middle of New Mexico, which has a wonderful talent pool, you’re going to be able to find a better extra than me to do even that. And that’s what it was about. We want to make the best films possible. We always want to be pushing ourselves to do it in a different way. And the way to do that is to work with actors like Dan, who are brilliant and gifted and like real movie stars, who bring their own sense of genius to the craft, rather than being, like, “I want to be clever and be in my own movie.” I’m self-indulgent in many ways, but that’s not one of them.
Stevens: I feel like I met Adam and Simon in the school corridor, and they were exiting their horror classroom, and I was coming out of Theory Of Drama 101 and looking for something else. We were all looking for something different, just from being from different backgrounds. Yeah, I don’t know which classroom we’re going into next. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: The word “slick” has come up a lot in reviews of the film. It has a much colder, more polished, precise aesthetic than your films have previously had. Does that come from the ’80s style influence? From the material? From the bigger budget? From trying to do something new?
Wingard: It comes from all those things, I think. Before, we were thinking of a stylization that made the best use of our resources. If you look at our earlier films, they go from excessively handheld to very handheld to very little handheld. Each time, we’ve had more money, more resources to work with, and a bigger talent pool to play with. I don’t want to rely on my old gimmicks. I want to recognize gimmicks I was using to get me through. So when it came time to do this movie—Dan has a cool, mechanical precision and I wanted to express that flowing, precision-oriented vibe through the film through the camera movements. The Guest does still have a little handheld here and there, because I also wanted to bring in a reality, and sometimes the best way to do with a little grittiness, so it doesn’t feel too forced. Sometimes too controlled actually feels cheaper. You look at film-school projects, and people just learned how to use dollies and cranes, and all those toys, but it feels very superficial. It’s always about trying to tread that line, finding perfectionism within technique, but also not using overusing toys just because you have them.
Barrett: Similarly to me not acting in The Guest—The Guest is the first of our films that Adam hasn’t operated camera on. Even You’re Next, he did a lot of operating. And obviously the V/H/S films—on those, even I did a little bit of camera-operating. Again, it was, “Let’s step it up.” I think Adam operated cameras in the past just because he couldn’t find someone who could do it as well as he could. And he’s very good at it. But now that we were able to hire a different echelon of crew members, Adam was really able to sit back and work with me on the script, work with the actors, and really direct, as opposed to having a camera on his shoulder for the entire production, which is how I’m used to seeing him.
Wingard: And I like doing camera work, but it does add an extra distraction to everything. In the case of this film, I just really wanted to rely on my technicians, and just focus on the timing of scenes, and the performances. So much about filmmaking isn’t about making the performance perfect, or getting the perfect shot. It’s about creating your own reality within time, and being vigilant about that. That’s one of the most difficult parts of filmmaking—knowing how long to spend on something. It takes a focus of mind.
“ So much about filmmaking isn’t about making the performance perfect, or getting the perfect shot. It’s about creating your own reality within time, and being vigilant about that. ”
The Dissolve: In this process of continually stepping it up, are you comfortable where you are now? Do you want to see this process continue until you’re making $250 million films starring Tom Cruise?
Wingard: Oh yeah, absolutely. Simon and I have talked about it—I want to be doing big war films, honestly. That’s where I want our trajectory to end. But I feel like we’re fairly unique in the sense that we try to really expand our horizons every time. I think some filmmakers peter out early, because they get a success extremely early on in their careers, so they think, “I’ve done it, this is who I am. People are going to love it. This is my style, and this is what people want to see.” So they keep feeding into that, but they don’t necessarily progress as artists. I want to always be moving forward. One thing that most disappoints me about a lot of my favorite filmmakers is that the older they get, the less interesting their movies get. And that really scares me, the idea of being less relevant, or less interesting. I feel like every time, you have to re-invent yourself, and think about not just who you are as a filmmaker—you have to throw that out the door. You just have to look at the material and say, “What’s the best way to bring this to life?” And each time, that process evolves.
Barrett: Well, I think you have to be aware of what other filmmakers are doing, too. I don’t know how filmmakers continue to be innovative without being aware of what other filmmakers are doing on the vanguard. We watch a ton of foreign cinema and obscure cinema. For instance, seeing what our friend Gareth [Evans] did with The Raid: Redemption, that was a big influence on The Guest. He pulled off some incredible things with very little money. That gives us confidence. I think sometimes older filmmakers stagnate because their peer group diminishes, and they surround themselves with sycophants and people who stop challenging them. The advantage of the way we work is, at least now, but hopefully forever, we have a group of people who are always asking if it can be better.
Wingard: Our main part where we really start breaking down the film to be as tight as possible involves Simon and our producers, Keith [Calder] and Jessica [Wu], all sitting down with me and the latest edit, which is hopefully close to the final running time, within like 10 minutes or so. And we go through every single shot and all ask, “Is this too long or too short? Are we being too indulgent with something? Is this serving the story?” Objectivity is one of the main focuses we’ve tried to have, trying to look at it from an outside perspective. These films are made to be enjoyed with an audience. The only way to do that is to be honest about whether something’s working, and to do that, you’ve got to remove your ego. And that’s why it’s nice to have four people looking at it, as opposed to just one person saying, “This is my vision.” Because at the end of the day, what does “my vision” mean? You had a preconceived idea of what you wanted, but at a certain point, that vision has to turn into reality. And whenever you’re faced with that reality, you have to be mature enough to admit whether your vision was achieved, or wasn’t. And a lot of people can’t do that. They just say, “This is what I wanted,” but they’re not looking at the facts. Sometimes things don’t work once you project them into reality. So it’s about being honest with yourself as a filmmaker and as an audience member.
The Dissolve: Given all that—and what Dan said earlier about different takes dialing the charm or creepiness up or down—how much of the final film’s tone or execution was worked out strictly in the editing room?
Wingard: The editing process was interesting because we had such a condensed timeline leading up to Sundance. We finished August 23—the day You’re Next was released was the day we wrapped shooting on The Guest. Sundance is mid-January. So our turnaround time was very short. Normally, I would spend longer on the rough edit, and really try to get it within 10 minutes of the final running time, using temp music to create as finalized of a rough cut as possible, so when I show it to Simon, Keith and, Jess, they’re able to watch it like a real movie. This one, my rough cut was rougher than I was used to, more like 20-plus minutes over the final running time. We actually had a test screening, and it went really poorly, I thought. The audience didn’t respond to the jokes, the action scenes weren’t playing cohesively. But it was very beneficial, because it really made us realize we had to cut this thing to the bare minimum to make the humor and the timing work. It was all there, it just needed to be presented in the right way.
The Dissolve: You mentioned the film’s political agenda and current relevance in passing. That’s a very lightly executed idea in the film—the way you touch on the military-industrial complex isn’t heavily underlined. What was your agenda there?
Barrett: That was a conscious process. We have a lot of friends who make documentaries and the like. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that now, people generally only consume news that reinforces their own ideologies. So if you make a political documentary, the only people seeing it are people who already agree with its viewpoints, so ultimately, it’s making no difference. One of the wonderful things about genre film, and making the kind of entertainment we like to make, is that you can actually reach people, in the way Bloom County affected my politics as a kid, because it was first and foremost a comic strip with a funny penguin. You can actually get ideas across to people at the right time, and reach them in small, subversive ways. Whether it’s having political elements, like we do in this film, or having maybe a strong character be somebody you didn’t expect. We knew we didn’t want this film to be explicit in its politics, or preaching in any way, because none of us have gone off to combat, and I don’t think there’s too many things more annoying and condescending than people speaking about something they have no real experience of. At the same time, we do have things to say about the military-industrial complex. We wanted that to be in there, but there was always this line. We wanted this to be an element, but it should never get in the way of the story, the characters and their arc, or the entertainment value of the film itself. It should always be there if you want it. And if you don’t want it, you can ignore it. And I think that probably speaks to the way we like to communicate our philosophical ideas.
Wingard: Indoctrination through entertainment. I mean, Forrest Gump is a conservative propaganda movie, but it’s effective because it’s entertaining. It has a sweet nature, but if you break down that movie, it’s fucked-up. [Laughs.]
Barrett: All the liberal activists in that film either get AIDS or are portrayed as horrible human beings and unhappy ones.
Wingard: It’s America’s Triumph Of The Will.
Barrett: Yeah, we were talking about this the other day. Simon was comparing it with Being There, which has a very similar storyline, but isn’t nearly as on-the-nose. Anyway, we just don’t want to make Forrest Gump.
Barrett: We’ve somehow managed to avoid it so far.
Wingard: If our next film is Forrest Gump, show us this interview, and we’ll be like, “We blew it.”
The Dissolve: If you want to make war films, how do you avoid an overt political agenda? And given how You’re Next is a 1970s throwback, and The Guest is a 1980s throwback, are you interested in reaching back to classic 1950s war films for inspiration?
Wingard: We’d be going back even further in time, but I don’t know what we should say. This is in the pipeline, so I don’t want to be too specific, but it’s more about bringing a new kind of reality to war, and a different context, as well. I think that war as an experience is something I can only use my imagination on, but it’s something I want to explore and try to understand more. War films glorify violence. There’s really no way around it. Our interest lies in finding a new reality beyond “Is war bad?” or whatever. It’s just concreting a new experience of it.
Barrett: Yeah. The two war films we’ve talked about making would, I think, be completely different from anything I’ve ever seen done. In terms of the concept of having an enemy and whatnot. But in order to do that, we’d be targeting some worlds that haven’t really been captured on film. Slightly modern ones, maybe—we wouldn’t be doing the Troy thing.
Wingard: Wars are the most fascinating thing to me, because they bring out the most barbaric, insane aspects of humanity. And at the same time, there’s never really a good reason for them. Yet people go along. It’s essentially mind control on a mass level. It’s most see-through when you put propaganda in the context of war. Unless you’re in the Pentagon, who knows what the agenda is, 10 proxy-wars down the road?
Barrett: And that’s why I think we’d never want to make one of these World War II movies. Hollywood loves to make World War II movies, because there’s such a clear villain. We were so clearly in the moral right in that war, and it makes it uncomplicated. But in some ways, World War II movies are also propaganda, because our wars since then haven’t been that morally clear. They haven’t. There’s no Hitler.
Wingard: All the wars since then have basically been CIA, Pentagon wars. They don’t make sense on a national-security level anymore.
Barrett: But we’re both very into, say, World War I stuff. There’s an absurdity to certain early wars that we’re fascinated by, and there’s a script I’ve been working on that I’m really proud of.
Wingard: We initially thought, “After You’re Next, let’s try to get this going.” But we quickly realized we needed to mature to the point where we could get the finances to do it correctly. We needed a trajectory, to build to it. That’s the reason we didn’t end up doing a bigger action film, which was our other initial idea after You’re Next. We don’t want to skip steps. Once you skip a step of your evolution as a filmmaker, you’re not going to be able to bring out the best version possible. The Guest was kind of the perfect stepping-stone, because it still recognizes our horror roots, while also deconstructing where we’re coming from. It’s pushing us in a new direction, but not one we totally don’t understand. That’s how we ended up with The Guest, because it’s not an action film, it’s not a horror film, it’s not just a thriller, it’s not just a drama, it’s not just a comedy. It’s all these things, and we were able to start pushing ourselves forward in all these ways.
Barrett: When we make this war film, or these two films, we want to make sure we get it absolutely right. And that’s not about being able to raise the money, that’s about making sure we have the correct experience under our belt, that we’re capable of pulling it off. And that’s not just technically; I’m a better writer than I was when I wrote The Guest. We talk a lot about how we’re really hard on ourselves, and how anything that can be cut out of our films should be. That doesn’t mean we think any of our films are perfect. We definitely don’t. We’re always seeing the flaws and trying to do a better job. I just wouldn’t want to do the war film unless we could get it at least pretty right, because that’s a serious subject, even though I think our take on it would be completely different from anything anyone’s done. We’d have to kind of honor what we’re doing.
Wingard: But there won’t be any goth-rock music, unfortunately.
Barrett: I think we’re very lucky right now, in that the only thing stopping us from doing it is our own desire to get a few more movies under our belt so we can cast it perfectly, get everything exactly right. That’s another thing—if we’d done it right after You’re Next, our access to actors would be very limited, because we were just indie-horror filmmakers. You can’t just jump into your dream projects, because you’ll get them wrong. That’s the definition of a sophomore slump. Someone’s suddenly able to make a dream project, but they’re not talented enough yet. They really should have tackled it at a later point in their career.
Wingard: We just want to make sure we don’t do that. It’s very easy to just be like, “I can do this now. Oh my God, yes please, give me a start date.” But we’d rather get a few more successes under our belt.