When assembling a team of filmmakers for a balls-out, hardcore horror anthology, the name Joe Swanberg isn't one that would every pop up in producers' conversations. Anyone who's familiar with the Detroit native's work knows exactly why, but for the uninitiated, take a look at some of Swanberg's movie plots: a 40-year-old animator falls in love with a younger woman over the Internet (Uncle Kent, 2011); two sisters get involved in a love triangle with a handsome actor (Alexander the Last, 2009); and three college graduates deal with love and infatuation over various forms of technological connection, including a cell phone and a computer (LOL, 2006). See, not exactly the stuff of Fangoria pages.
But for V/H/S producer and co-writer Simon Barrett, Swanberg's ability to tell stripped-down, intimate stories about relationships was a perfect fit to direct the Barrett-penned segment "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger"; not to mention, Swanberg's history with online plot devices worked perfectly for the Skype presentation of "Emily." With her medical school student boyfriend, James (Daniel Kaufman), constantly offering support her via webcam, from hundreds of miles away, sweet-natured Emily (the gifted Helen Rogers) contends against what she thinks to be little kiddie ghosts; as "Emily" builds toward its wacko climax, though, the true nature of her apartment's intruders comes to light, and Barrett really swings for the fences with his unpredictably multilayered, and nonetheless intriguing, script.
Read on to, in the words of both Barrett and Swanberg, learn the real-life origins of "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She was Younger," the dramatic narrative devices inherent to Skype, and how Swanberg's non-horror background worked to his advantage.
Simon, where did the initial idea to go with the Skype technology come from?
Simon Barrett: Brad came to me, and I don't want to spoil anything about the segment, and he had this one kind of supernatural idea, and I couldn't think of any way to tell that story except to do it as a haunted house style thing. I had just gotten out of a long distance relationship where I had spent a lot of time talking to my girlfriend on Skype; she lived in New York and I was in Los Angeles, and we were together for six years.
It wasn't really any one incident or anything; it was just the idea of when someone's upset and you can't be there for them. Again, kind of going back to the challenge of found-footage, it's the way that the format limits the viewer's experience to the experience the characters are having, and how that can be more scary and more intense. That just hit me as a great way to do a relationship-horror kind of thing, where the characters are in two different places and one of them is in peril and the other person can watch but can't do anything else. And obviously we took that in a more comic, dry direction, which tends to be how I write anyway.
Joe Swanberg: Being in a long-distance relationship is difficult anyway, but when you're in a long-distance relationship and the person you're with needs help, it feels terrible. You definitely feel like you can't be there for them in that way. So it definitely increases that uncomfortable horror aspect. But, also, Skype is such a common piece of technology; automatically it's scary because as soon as it comes up on screen, you think, Oh, this looks like something I do all the time. Unlike going into the woods with your friends, right? Glenn McQuaid's segment is really playing on this cool horror tradition, and it's really fun in that way, but my Skype segment is playing on this new technology thing.
Though, there's that old ghost story, horror story about the babysitter who's getting prank phone-calls and then she calls the police and they figure out that the phone-calls are coming from within the house. The Skype segment is sort of playing on that, which I think is really cool. It's harkening back to a traditional horror story but with a cool, new technology spin.
This segment sticks closer to its actual script than the rest of the segments, right?
Barrett: That was kind of a funny thing. There was a script for the wraparound, but I don't think there's a single line of dialogue from it in the finished movie. Our idea was, This is what this is, and then Adam worked with the actors on some improvisation, which I think, you know, was a really cool thing. When you're doing found-footage, improvisational dialogue really lends itself well to that format, because you get the real, authentic, spontaneous "Umms," and hesitations and cadence of real, natural speech.
The funny thing is, one of the reasons why we wanted to bring Swanberg onto this project was because he works in an improvisational style; he's never even done a movie with a script before, period. Like, when he does his feature films, he just usually has treatments that he writes and then he works with the actors to come up with not only the dialogue, but the actual story. So we were really excited about that, and I wrote a script, because that's just how I work creatively. I handed it into Joe and I was just like, "OK, here's my script, but I assume this is all going to be improvised," and he was like, "Actually, I want to do it verbatim." [Laughs.] And then I said, "OK, well, then, I need to do a quick polish on that script, so just give it back and don't read it."
For Joe, this was a chance to do a genre film, to work with more-horror guys, working in a different capacity with Adam and I than we all had before; that was all part of the challenge. So then the challenge became to write dialogue that had that feel to it. But ultimately, the actors, Daniel and Helen, did such good naturalistic work that they were able to make that all work.
Roxanne Benjamin: And you guys really championed having Joe onboard. Adam and Simon were leading the charge to get Joe involved.
Barrett: Because he's not a horror guy, but we'd just worked with him on You're Next and we saw that he has… Even though his own films are very artistic and, often, expressionistic, we saw that he this wonderful commercial sensibility also. While Joe makes art films, some of the films he loves the most are, like, Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon. He can talk about those movies for hours and hours.
Adam and I were like, "Look, he's a cool guy, and he's a name director, so he'll bring a lot to the project one way or another." And Adam ended up shooting that segment and helping Joe edit it, so the three of us worked very collaboratively on that segment. But I think it paid off; Joe found those actors and worked with them in a way that I think everyone really responded to.
The segment has a lot of ambiguity; one senses that there's a really deep, strange mythology at work the entire time. It requires multiple viewings, and in that way it's much different from the rest of the segments, which are mostly in-your-face and visceral.
Barrett: That was definitely the intention. There are two things there. One, I wrote the wraparound which is the first thing we filmed, but then I got to write the last thing we filmed, and by that point I realized that the other filmmakers had taken Adam's style from the wraparound and gone even more aggressive with it. I'd realized we had a really chaotic film. [Laughs.] So I said, "OK, the challenge with this one is that I should write something that's pretty stably visually and is grounded."
I had talked to Brad about the initial concept, and I definitely wanted to make that… I feel like that's a tricky thing. When you're creating horror, you want something that feels real, and people will go home and think about it and that will continue to scare them. Stuff that gives you information but doesn't spell everything out for you and insult your intelligence, and that's a really fine line. On one hand, you can just be a pretentious fuckhead and tell a story that doesn't have any actual ground or foundation and it's just a bunch of ambiguous bullshit; but on the other hand, if things are too explained then they can stop being scary. So I really tried with that short write something… It's always weird to me when anyone understands what's that short's about. [Laughs.]
Brad Miska: I also think it's a really, really big idea that tried to be condensed into a 12-minute short.
Barrett: The same with the wraparound, though; both of those things have a deep mythology to them that I could sit here and extrapolate on, but I think it's more fun this way. I think everything that Adam and I have done holds up to repeat viewings, and not just holds up but rewards repeat viewings. Those are our favorite kinds of films, the ones that you can watch again and again and again. I won't flatter myself by saying that the short holds up to too many repeat viewings, but I do like the idea that all the clues are there but it never really connects the ideas for you. And then, like Brad said, it is this ludicrous sci-fi concept ultimately that I also didn't know how to explain it any simple way. [Laughs.] We kind of had to keep it ambiguous to make it feel real.
Miska: [Laughs.] It would've have taken The X-Files three episodes to fully explain something similar.
Joe, what made you want to direct a segment? You're the least genre-savvy of the V/H/S bunch by a long shot.
Swanberg: It's so true, I'm not a horror guy. [Laughs.] I'm definitely the most atypical choice among all the directors involved in this movie, but Simon Barrett really lobbied for me to get to do one, the same with Adam. They talked to the producers, and the producers felt comfortable getting a non-horror person to do one as long as Simon was writing it and Adam was DPing [director of photography] it. So I directed mine in August of last year, so it was a span of a couple months where I went from being an actor to being considered to be a director.
Prior to this, did you ever consider working on a horror project?
Swanberg: I'd say it's definitely influenced by my having worked in some of Adam and Simon's movies, and then being friends with Ti and being around his sets. Yeah, I don't think it's something I ever would have done on my own; it was definitely influenced by being around them, and also just sort of realizing that they were all doing some really interesting things with horror, which made it seem like a world I could bring something cool to rather than just straightforward genre stuff.
Did you see this as a chance to show the world your commercial sensibilities for a change?
Swanberg: Yeah, definitely. I think, like most filmmakers, I came to the movie through bigger Hollywood stuff; I feel like that's everybody's way in. It really wasn't until high school that I started discovering independent films, and it was the independent films that made me want to become a filmmaker, but if you were to look at my list of movies I've gone and seen in the theater this year, it'd be like half indies and half stuff like The Avengers and Batman. [Laughs.]
As I get older and as I make more films, I'm starting to appreciate more and more the skill it takes to make something bigger. That was a lesson that was driven home from acting in You're Next; being on that set and seeing my friends make this movie that's bigger than anything any of us have ever made, with pretty elaborate action set-pieces and all that, I thought, Oh, wow, this is actually something that I don't know how to do as a filmmaker.
I don't know how to make an action sequence, and I've never thought about it. I just started to realize that it's a really difficult, specialized skill-set to obtain. And even if I want to keep making these dramas, it's cool for me to know how to do all that as a director. Getting better at things is really useful and helpful, even if it's not the kind of things I'm typically doing. Like, making a horror film where the objective is to scare people, that's going to make me a better director of everything that I do.
What was your take on the ambiguity of Simon's script after you read it for the first time? Swanberg: Well, Simon wrote this really awesome script. Typically, I direct movies with a lot of improv, so this was the first time where I stuck to the script and basically made pretty much exactly what was written. It was really fun to read his thing, and what I like about it is that it sort of hintsat the world of these characters; you get these little snippets of information, especially at the end, of what's going on, but there's a lot of room to interpret it and bring your own theories.
For me, that is what makes something scary. Something that feels like it could actually happen to you, but something that doesn't totally make sense; it's the same reason why nightmares make sense, because they sort of make sense, and they have some kind of logic to them, but then there's something off about them that keeps you thinking about it.
Simon had the whole world and back-story figured out, to where the stuff that happens in the segment, there are reasons behind all of it, but we really had a fun time choosing what to put in and what to take out so it makes just enough sense but also leaves a lot of mystery.
Once the big reveal happens, the sound design becomes very avant-garde, almost otherworldly. What was the thought process behind that?
Swanberg: Adam and Simon oversaw the sound design of the whole movie at the end, when they put the whole movie together. It was really helpful because they had both worked on my segment, so they really knew how to heighten all that stuff.
And we did a lot of things while we were on set that we incorporated into that sound design, like creating weird echo chambers by putting two laptops facing each other with the microphones turned up and letting there be feedback between them. We kept the Skype session open so that both computers were live between each other, and then we'd make all these noises and let it loop between the Skypes to create these really crazy noises. It was really fun to think about sound design in that way and also utilize aspects of the story in the sound design.
Did you have any prior experience with Skype filmmaking?
Swanberg: Yeah. With a lot of my movies, I've tried to include a lot of technology. This web series that I'd done, called Young American Bodies, I'd done some stuff with Skype in that, but typically I would film computers while people were Skyping. So I did a lot of research before filming our V/H/S segment to figure out the best way to do it, and we talked a lot about different ideas. We talked about building two fake laptop rigs that the actors could carry around but were just cameras and microphones, not actual laptops.
We talked about all different ways to try to fake the Skype thing, but then I started doing a lot of research into the possibility of us actually shooting with Skype. I discovered that screen-capture technology is really good now, so once we made that decision to really use Skype, it liberated us. A laptop is so much easier to deal with than having the actors carry around these big, clunky rigs that we would've built. [Laughs.]
How was the shoot altogether?
Swanberg: I think it was five days. It was a cool shoot, because since we had the laptop and it was actual Skype sessions, we had to choreograph some pretty long takes. It's hard to cut around within Skype. We spent a day just looking at the location and rehearsing and blocking out a lot of the stuff, and then also, the lighting was fun and complicated in a way, because, with the laptops there's kind of a 360-degree view of the world.
It's tough to light in a traditional way, so Adam came up with all these cool ways to use light from the laptop's screen but also compliment it by following her around just out of frame with flashlights and other things to highlight the frame. Because we weren't using actual cameras, and we were using laptops, it was a pretty fun, new experience.
That was a friend's apartment, but we location-scouted between friends' apartments. It was in LA; it was in Century City, I think. Yeah, we also had to find an apartment that had enough room where we could hide Daniel's character, because they had to be on the same Internet connection and all that kind of stuff, so it was tricky. If we had shot in too small a place, you would hear him as she was walking around. [Laughs.] It was a fun challenge to figure out where we could hide Daniel each time so he wouldn't be in the shots.
Have you seen the first Paranormal Activity 4 teaser trailer? It also uses Skype, and looks almost identical to "The Strange Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger."
Swanberg: That's so crazy! It's like the exact same shot. You know, I know those guys; I don't know them well, but we have a lot of friends in common in New York. I've met them a couple times. It seems impossible to me that they would have known about V/H/S before coming up with that; it has to be a coincidence. They're probably really bummed out, actually, that V/H/S came first, because when people see that in their movie, it's going to be like, "Oh, weird." [Laughs.]