Throughout “It Follows,” there are long, twisty shots, the camera slowly panning across the length of a street or inside an empty warehouse, threatening to make the people within the frame feel small by comparison. Fear is lurking everywhere, it suggests, yet just as the film visually spies on its cast of teens from unusual perspectives, David Robert Mitchell’s second feature takes a different angle than one would expect from the horror genre it resides in. Like Mitchell’s first film “Myth of the American Sleepover,” “It Follows” captures the possibilities of being young as its characters often talk of firsts – first beers, first kisses, yet it adds a nefarious wrinkle in the form of an abstract entity that claims the lives of those it touches unless one is able to successfully pass it on as if it were a sexually transmitted disease. In fact, the shadowy monster only emerges post-coitally, as Jay (Maika Monroe), the film’s main heroine must learn the hard way.
For the filmmaker who so vividly evokes the trepidation of that particular time where even the most benign conversations can carry the weight of the world, to push things in a more overtly terrifying direction is chilling enough. However, Mitchell proves to be a natural at eliciting scares, building upon the tension that already exists at such a restless age and transform it into a slow burning thriller that will stick with you, much like the original idea did for the writer/director when it first came to him as a nightmare. Shortly before the film hits theaters after a celebrated festival run that saw it embraced from everywhere from Cannes and Sundance to Fantastic Fest and Sitges, Mitchell spoke about how he went about doing something different with “It Follows” and finding fear in the familiar.
It’s not so much a hidden clue that that’s what I’m doing, but my love of horror is why that’s in there. It’s not so much a direct reference to this, but it’s fun for me to put references to films or for me to do a knock-off of something that I love and put it in the movie. I love the genre. It’s a part of my personality.
Since I know you’re from Michigan where “It Follows” was shot, was interesting to you to think of places that you may have known pretty well in a horror context?
That’s a little strange, yeah. The neighborhood where she lives, that’s not the neighborhood that I grew up in, but it’s not far away. And the park that she runs to, when she gets on the swing set, that’s the park that I used to walk to when I was a kid. I did write specifically to places I remember for certain sequences.
You’ve said the inspiration was from a recurring nightmare you had. Did that actually contribute to the aesthetic?
I definitely remember images from those nightmares. It was a slow pace to not the approach but the waiting for something. I don’t know that it’s so much the nightmares as opposed to a more general aesthetic that I have built from not just horror films, but my love and study of films in general.
I created a huge inspiration book [for the look]. It was photos and paintings. It was a pretty huge book. Working with a wonderful production designer Michael Perry, we took that and used some of those ideas to create a color scheme for the movie.
A good amount of those ideas were just in the writing stage in terms of the approach to the movie. I’m not necessarily describing each shot, but there would be references, [such as] a character in the background that the audience may or may not notice, and reminders for me to know how would I want to shoot particular sequences. Then it was planned. I did very rough storyboards for the whole film well before pre-production. Then the cinematographer [Mike Gioulakis] and I got together and we went through every one of those shots over many weeks, maybe even months and had a lot of conversation about how we could simplify things and design this language for the film.
It was about being very specific. We wanted there to be a certain boldness in it, but also a certain amount of control. That was planned because we didn’t have a ton of money. It was necessary to know exactly what we needed to do. Of course, we would change some things up on set when we needed to, but it was very specific and then it was continued through into editorial. It was about controlling the scenes, controlling the pace, letting the film breathe enough, and not cutting too much. There are far fewer edits in this film than, say, in “Myth.” This movie was about really letting the audience sit within the environment. It’s like when you’re at a shot, you have time to see the characters, to look around at the background, to really get a sense that you’re in that physical space with them.
I’ve heard you really give your actors room to explore a scene. Was there was anything that came out of that that was a pleasant surprise in this?
It’s hard to say one particular moment. In general, just the personality of the actors, all of the wonderful small details that they bring to each performance contributes a ton. It’s very small, subtle things that I often care about. Those are things that it’s all about the casting and letting the actors feel comfortable and to bring all of the wonderful things that they bring.
Was it a different experience on this to figure out how to scare an audience?
I hadn’t done that before. It was all sort of theory from watching other films and looking to other horror films, trying to study the different approaches and then trying to come up with my own approach. We tried to create a little bit of a unique language in the way that we do the set pieces and the moments of approaching “It.” But I definitely had to figure it out. Everything was very planned, but there’s a difference between having that plan and then getting on set and actually trying to get someone walking towards someone actually feel frightening. When I set out to make the film, my main goal was to make a movie that induced a certain level of anxiety and it was really just about living within this specific tone of this world.
I wanted there to be some disturbing things in there, some frightening things, but as for whether or not people would have an immediate reaction in terms of genuinely being frightened in that moment, I could build all of the pieces, but it’s a very subjective thing. It’s hard to know how people will respond to those. Now, that I’ve done one, I have a better sense of it, but there’s a learning process here. Horror is very difficult. It’s harder than a lot of other things.
The Rich Vreeland score is one of the things that makes this particularly distinctive, but like a fair amount of your collaborators, he doesn’t necessarily come from the film world. Do you think that brings something different to your films?
I’m just drawn to interesting creative people and those different kinds of ideas. In the case of Rich, he’s just super-talented and I thought if I have a chance to work with him on this, I’m not 100 percent sure of what is going to come out of it, but I feel like it’s going to be unique and worth doing. I’m really happy with what he did.
If you have talented people and they don’t already feel like there’s only one way of doing something, then you can do something unique. Maybe that’s part of what worked with this. I can only guess, but horror is one of many things that I enjoy and I wanted this to operate on many levels. It is a horror film, but I also felt like it’s doing even more than that and maybe it’s the intersection of all those different ideas and agendas that makes it different.
You know my editor [Julio Perez]? He wasn’t editing horror films. There was talk even earlier before we put the film together [where] people would say, “You need to fill your crew with people who have done horror.” I felt like, “No, I want the people who I really trust, who are really wonderful and creative collaborators who really smart people and we’ll just figure it out.” That was my idea all along. That’s why it’s probably different because it’s people who love the genre but maybe aren’t working in it regularly. It’s our version of it.
“It Follows” opens on March 13 in Los Angeles at the Arclight Cinemas Hollywood and in New York at the BAM Rose Cinemas 4, the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center and the Angelika. A full list of theaters and dates is here.