“The Guest” was shot in Moriarty, New Mexico, a dusty city of roughly 2000 people that’s primarily known for its Pinto Bean Fiesta in October and the unusual distinction of being the only place in the state where one can legally buy Class C fireworks, the most powerful types of firecrackers, mortars, roman candles and stick rockets available on the market. The only catch is that it’s illegal to fire them off, an especially cruel twist of fate considering the cast and crew were actually shooting on the 4th of July.
“Our first [assistant director] Matt actually drove home so he could load up on fireworks,” recalled director Adam Wingard, who himself could only look on as the three fireworks stands surrounding the Days Inn they were staying at got busier and busier.
“I actually was very disappointed in that I did not blow up any,” replied the film’s writer Simon Barrett with a hint of sarcasm. “But I also just didn’t want to get arrested in Moriarty because I can’t even imagine what a depressing experience that would be.”
Yet the two, as anyone who has seen either of their previous collaborations “A Horrible Way to Die” and “You’re Next” might suspect, brought their own set of explosives to “The Guest,” a wildly entertaining thriller about a family that takes in a soldier named David (Dan Stevens) who claims to have served with their son in combat, only to find out he’s not exactly who he says he is. From the Cannon Films-esque logo of the film’s production company Snoot Entertainment to Steve Moore’s smooth, synth-heavy soundtrack that sneaks right under your skin, you might be forgiven for thinking “The Guest” emerged directly from the 1980s when you first see the blue-eyed, syrupy Southern accented David striding towards the suburban home of the Petersons. However, just as David begins to show his true colors as his protection of the clan morphs into something more malevolent, Wingard and Barrett reveal their command at reshaping the many pleasures of their considerable influences such as “The Terminator” and “Halloween” into something electrifyingly original and deeply assured as things spiral wildly out of control.
Barrett and Wingard are well aware of what sparks can happen when putting seemingly disparate elements together, appearing in person as if they were polar opposites, the writer looking dapper in a tie and vest while the director dresses for comfort in black jeans and a T-shirt. Yet after meeting a decade ago in Alabama following their first produced features, the duo’s perfectly complementary skill sets into some of the most exciting filmmaking in genre or otherwise going on today. Shortly before “The Guest” descends upon unsuspecting moviegoers across the country, Barrett and Wingard spoke about the key to their collaboration, their continuing interest in the stranger who comes to town and challenging themselves to make something better each time out.
Is it coincidence that “The Guest” is your third film to involve someone taking their first steps into a community they aren’t a part of or is that a starting point you really enjoy?
Simon Barrett: As a viewer, one of the things that excites me the most is to have established a pre-existing dynamic like a nuclear family, then introduce an element that’s disruptive because that all is really interesting to watch. I love just movies where a stranger comes to town “High Plains Drifter”-style.
Adam Wingard: On that same note, I’ve always felt that “A Horrible Way to Die,” “You’re Next,” and “The Guest” all have in common this main character that has a secret that they’re keeping from everybody — maybe Simon has some sort of secret life I don’t know about and this is his way of expressing it, but I’ve always thought that was an interesting aspect to his writing. He really does always have that character who on the surface is very likable to everyone else, but is harboring a secret.
Simon Barrett: Yeah, and usually a really sinister one. After “A Horrible Way to Die,” I actually really overanalyzed that. I was like, “I wonder if …” because I worked full-time as a private investigator for 10 years and really compartmentalized my life. I was doing films, and didn’t talk about my day job ever, which was just like lying to people, and I felt like really bad about it. Then I also had a long distance girlfriend for six-and-a-half years in New York, so I had this relationship, but none of friends ever met her.
Adam Wingard: I had a similar thing where I felt like my relationships were different than my regular life, and I felt like I was living two lives, so I was able to relate to that feeling of, “Am I being dishonest?”
Simon Barrett: Yeah. I wasn’t cheating on her or anything, but when I went off and made a movie, I always felt like I wasn’t going to see her for a while, and it just felt like my life was compartmentalized, so I’ve become fascinated by characters that just have a weird interior thing going on. But by the way, that’s everyone. Every single person harbors an inner agenda and aspects of themselves that they don’t share with other people, possibly because they could never articulate it with words, so everyone can relate to that or knows someone like that and feeling that sense of betrayal, so these are very interesting human elements to explore. We try to never repeat ourselves, and whatever we do next is going to be a completely different thing from “The Guest,” but I’m sure there will be some sinister agendas and betrayals and nuclear families disrupted. There are certainly themes that we seem to enjoy returning to.
As your collaboration has gone on, do you want to push each other even further with each film, whether because of budget or just because you get know what you’re capable of?
Simon Barrett: We’re always trying to push each other because we’re never satisfied with our own work, which is a good thing. There’s always an open invitation to like, “If you think this could be better, let me know” and that goes across the board. Even when I’m on set, I’ll rarely have anything to say. Mostly, I’m just kind of there to see if the dialogue’s working or needs a fast tweak, but sometimes we’ll just look at a scene and be like, “Should this be restructured? Could this be improved upon? Is there a way to think differently about this?”
Adam Wingard: We’re also very collaborative not just between ourselves, but also with our producers Keith and Jess Calder who produced “You’re Next” and “The Guest.”
Simon Barrett: They’ve really taken on that role of prodding us.
Adam Wingard: They really did take us under their wing and influence us in really positive directions that we probably wouldn’t have gone into otherwise. It really started clicking when we were editing “You’re Next.” After I had my initial edit done, I showed Simon, Keith, and Jess and a couple times a week, we would sit in the editing room, and everybody would bring up their notes. When there would be a question, it would be like, “This shot seems too long. What do you guys think about it?” And I learned very quickly that you always give it the benefit of the doubt. Every time I would try it, I would realize “Oh, this shot works even better now that it’s shorter and tighter,” and our process became if somebody has an idea, never shoot it down unless you explore it. We’re always very respectful of each other’s ideas, and not all of them always work, but most of the time, if somebody brings up something, it’s worth exploring because somebody’s thought about it, and none of us are making our decisions from a selfish place.
Simon Barrett: Because [some producers] care sometimes about their own power at a company or at a studio rather than the film itself. For us, it’s really like the first rule of improv class — you never say no; always be open to exploring something. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard our producer Jess Calder say the words “I just think maybe it could be better” and you just know what that means.
Adam Wingard: And Keith and Jess in particular have told us stories working with other filmmakers where every time they want to try something different, it turns into a three-hour long argument before anybody even attempts at seeing if the edit would work.
Simon Barrett: Whereas they could have just tried it.
Adam Wingard: They could have just tried it, but the problem is I think a lot of filmmakers, they have their ego tied up into their decision-making process, and you have to let go of that. You can’t take anything personally, and you just have to distance yourself from it, and look at the movie objectively and say, “What can we do to make this the best version of this film possible?”
Simon Barrett: I hear enough stories that I feel like we’re unique in that approach, but it seems like we shouldn’t be. There seems to be only really one obvious way to do this sort of thing and prove yourself, but how do you even prove yourself if you’re not getting feedback from other people who challenge you, and you can trust? If you look at a lot of the great filmmakers, the points in their career where they stagnated are when they became isolated, surrounded themselves with Yes-men and stopped having a group of peers that challenged them. A lot of the filmmakers whose careers haven’t stagnated have relationships with cinematographers or editors you can tell they trust to push them in a certain direction, and I think that’s clearly the right choice. At the end of the day, unless you’re like Don Hertzfeldt, film is always going to be a collaborative medium. If you can’t collaborative, you should be writing novels or [doing] EDM.
I wanted to ask that since the style in your films appears to grow bolder each time out. I particularly loved the color palette you chose and how the camera moves, often in 180° pans of the characters. Are those things somewhat baked into the script?
Simon Barrett: That’s all Adam really.
Adam Wingard: When Simon writes, I don’t read a word of it until he feels like the script’s pretty much there. In our process over the years, we’ve discovered that if the script’s not at least like 75 percent there on Simon’s first draft, then we’re probably not going to end up making the movie because there’s something inherently wrong with our concept. But whenever Simon delivers the first draft, I’m experiencing it as a viewer for the first time, so my influences come from the feelings I get when I read the script.
When I read “The Guest,” I could have taken it in a lot of different directions. Up until the point of shooting it, I was debating how much of a horror movie I wanted to make it feel, or did I want to play up the comedy more? It wasn’t until I really started seeing the actors do their thing that I realized that I wanted to play it more comedic overall, and that influenced the direction of the lighting. I wanted to make it more colorful and accessible in that way, especially because it was important that the film take place during Halloween, so that has its own aesthetic quality to it that I really wanted to play up.
As for the camera movement, every film I do, I try to take myself out of my comfort zone. “A Horrible Way to Die” was a very low budget production, and the only way I was able to film the movie on the [limited] timeframe that we had and get whatever scope I wanted to get out of it and the performances the way I wanted was to basically sit down in a corner, light it as beautiful as possible, and just look around with hand-held, not shaking the camera, and it had a very floaty quality to it. I tend to tune out shakycam stuff — I didn’t even know that was a phrase until after I did that movie. I remember when “Blair Witch Project” came out, a bunch of people got motion sickness, which didn’t make any sense to me because my brain just kind of has a stabilizer or something, but I recognized after “A Horrible Way to Die,” that that is a thing that takes people out of the film, and I didn’t want to do that again.
With “You’re Next,” I still wanted to do the handheld thing because that’s how I was going to pull off that action, but I wanted to do a more refined version of it, and I also wanted to escalate more into it, so the movie starts off a lot more still, then it gets more shaky as it goes to match the emotion and to hide some of the budgetary issues that we had. And with The Guest, this was the first time where I thought, “I always do my own camera work just out of necessity,” and I knew that I needed to be able to focus more on the performances and just the timing of each scene, so the leap forward was to actually have camera operators shoot the entire film. For the first time, I didn’t shoot one frame of it.
Within that, I also wanted to avoid handheld camera work as much as possible, to a point where now I actually wish I did a little bit more in some scenes, but I’ve always been interested in the way the camera constantly moves in Hong Kong action movies [where] sometimes it doesn’t even make any sense where the camera’s going. A lot of times, there will just be a wide angle lens that’s sliding across the table just for a guy to say “Hey, how are you doing?” I really wanted to try my hand at that and really give the movie a graceful flow, because the main focal point really was David, and I wanted to reflect the robotic quality that he has ingrained in him and give the movie that precision.
Simon Barrett: That’s clearly what [Adam] brings to the table. I don’t think I’ve ever described a camera movement in a screenplay ever, even in shorts that I myself would be directing. After he sees the first draft, we’ll discuss it, so he’ll let me know what direction he’s thinking so that in my rewrites, it might affect how I envision a scene, so we can envision it the same way. But it’s not the job of a script to present the film’s visual palette. That’s the director’s job, and to a lesser extent, the production designer and cinematographer’s jobs. And Adam always works with the same production designer, Tom Hammock and Robby Baumgartner, who shot The Guest, and they work really well together, so I stay out of that stuff completely. That’s why like working with Adam, he has just such a great eye for stuff like that.
Adam Wingard: And I can stay out of the screenwriting process.
Simon Barrett: That’s why you work with someone in a creative partnership is ideally the stuff that Adam or I might not be strong at is what we [each] bring to the table, so I don’t need to worry about how Adam’s going to shoot a scene. If I was describing how Adam should shoot a scene, why wouldn’t I just try to shoot it myself?
Adam Wingard: That’s also why I can’t write screenplays really, or don’t want to, is because whenever I write, I just get bogged down in the visual aesthetics, and I can’t focus on the importance of a script, which is just story, characters, and dialogue. You’ve got to make that stuff real before you can even really think too much about that.
Simon Barrett: You have to learn to just give the person space to be creative. I would just feel like such an incredible dick if I walked to Adam on set and was like, “Hey man, maybe you should shoot it in like close-up and… ” I would just never do that. The fact is he’s going to come up with something better than I ever could because that’s the way we’re collaborating. You have to learn to trust someone, and instead of pushing them, wait and see what they do. There’s all different kind of aspects of working together creatively, and part of it is you do have to let people have their creative fun. You can’t step on someone’s toes because they have to be able to have that moment of creative inception.
“The Guest” will open in limited release on Sept. 17 before expanding nationally on Oct. 3. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.
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