Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Follow-ups, especially for famous-overnight filmmakers, can be a real son of a bitch.
Director Adam Wingard and his go-to screenwriter/longtime collaborator Simon Barrett found themselves confronted by that harsh reality a couple of years back. They’d finished their meta home-invasion horror-comedy You’re Next, an inconspicuous midnight movie starring their friends that, much to their shock, was purchased by Lionsgate. Two years later (delayed because of backdoor studio politics beyond Wingard and Barrett’s control), their little horror flick opened on 2,400 screens in August 2013. Within those two years of waiting for You're Next's release, though, the professional genre movie fanatics became in-demand Hollywood players. Producers and other big-wigs began offering them substantial amounts of money to make something new. So they thought big—they’d head to Hong Kong, honor their mutual love of John Woo’s The Killer, and make what’d basically be one long action sequence of a movie.
But that idea never fully clicked. Just like that, Wingard and Barrett were back to square one.
One day, after co-directing and co-producing last year's V/H/S 2, the sequel to their successful found-footage horror anthology V/H/S (2012), Wingard sat down for a casual Blu-ray double feature. His chose two childhood favorites: James Cameron’s The Terminator and John Carpenter’s Halloween. Once the films ended, he knew what his follow-up to You’re Next should be. It was obvious. It'd be The Guest.
Clever, reverential, but never overly nostalgic, The Guest centers around the enigmatic yet charming-as-hell David (Dan Stevens, formerly Downton Abbey’s Matthew Crawley), an Iraq War vet who randomly shows up at the doorstep of a fallen comrade’s house. He’s there to fulfill his dead friend Caleb’s last wish: for David to let Caleb’s family know that he loved them. Seduced by his politeness (he insists on calling Caleb’s mom “ma’am”), Caleb’s family invites David to stay with them for a few days, during which he teaches bullied teenager Luke (Brendan Meyer) to defend himself and disarms 20-year-old Anna’s (Maika Monroe) combativeness with his six-pack abs and general kindness. Before long, though, David’s true colors are revealed—due to something that happened during his military service, David’s more than a bit off mentally. And unstoppably lethal.
From its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, The Guest has been earning rave reviews all across the globe, and for good reason. Even more so than You’re Next, Wingard and Barrett’s latest genre mash-up is the ultimate crowd-pleaser—a movie where you’ll clap, laugh, and gasp, sometimes all within the same scene. And with its vibrant ‘80s-minded score and soundtrack choices, The Guest taps into cinema’s retro obsession that’s permeated everything from mainstream hits like Drive to indie noisemakers Cold in July and Almost Human. Except that, when Wingard does retro in The Guest, it’s an exercise in smart contrast—just wait until you see how he uses Stevie B’s sappy ballad ”Because I Love You."
I recently spoke with Wingard and Barrett about that memorable scene, as well as how they’ve managed to not let film festival hype go to their heads and how they approach ‘80s nostalgia.
As a fan of your previous films, A Horrible Way to Die and The Guest, I have to say, it’s impressive seeing how much you guys evolve and get better with each new film.
Adam Wingard: That's amazing to hear. Our process has been pretty unique, I think. A lot of people jump on the scene and their directorial debut hit it big right out the gate. There’s sort of a fetishization out there of debuts, you know? But for us, it’s really been more of a process of trial and error and learning and trying to better ourselves as filmmakers as we go. It’s been about having perspective on what works and what doesn’t, and hopefully trying to improve, so it’s definitely great to hear you say that.
Simon Barrett: Yeah, it’s about trying to put together a body of work. I think we’re still trying to push ourselves just as much now as when we did our first films together. We’re not trying to stay in our comfort zone at all, or take any breaks or rest on our laurels. But I will say that our next film is going to be much worse than The Guest. We don’t know what it is yet, but that’s our plan. [Laughs.] That’s our new challenge. We’ve been steadily improving, and now we feel like we need to take a little detour away from that. It’s just too much improvement now.
It’s cool, though, because when The Guest received so much positive attention at Sundance, you guys were able to take that all in rationally and not get swept up in it.
Wingard: Yeah, you have to kind of distance yourself from all that film festival hype at some point. I’m glad that whenever we first came on the scene a couple years ago, our first films weren’t massive critical successes. It was, basically, just modest critical success for us. It was enough where it was encouraging but we were definitely able to get negative feedback, and that was actually helpful for us more than the good feedback. We were able to start developing that perspective.
A lot of what makes a good filmmaker is being able to remove your ego out of the equation and look at what works and what doesn’t on a black-and-white level. That’s not easy to do. But whenever you have a partnership like Simon and I have, it makes it a lot easier because although our tastes align a lot of the times, and we’re influenced by a lot of the same things, we’re still two different people and we have different takes on the material. That gives us a more realistic perspective about the final outcome.
Barrett: Something like Sundance, in particular, it’s an incredible film festival and obviously it’s been immensely influential on the American independent film scene, but I’ve seen friends and younger filmmakers I know go there and have that insane media experience and come out of it with their heads totally spun around. Adam and I are always there to ground each other. We’ll be there in this insane Sundance whirlwind, and it’ll seem like we’re gonna have this huge success, and then I’ll say, “Hey, Adam, this doesn’t actually mean anything, right? It’s time to go back to work, right?” And he’ll say, “Yeah, let’s please do that.” [Laughs.]
Wingard: Well, sometimes you go to these festivals, you watch a movie, and you say, “OK, that was terrible,” but then you see all this insane hype and praise for it. That’s when you realize it’s just people’s opinions. It’s just a case of different tastes. Just because it’s good praise, you shouldn’t pay more attention to that than the bad feedback.
Barrett: Yeah, you can’t let it go to your head. Positive criticism and negative criticism both have merits and both have benefits. I’m really wary of filmmakers who, on social media, will call out critics for giving them bad reviews. If you’re taking your job seriously, it’s your job as a filmmaker to take that bad review and try to learn from it.
Wingard: I actually don’t like it when I feel like the reviews are too positive, in a way, because I know this movie, The Guest, isn’t perfect. I know that nothing we’re ever gonna do will be perfect. No one has ever made a perfect movie. If the reviews are perfect for something, you know they’re not really looking at it on a critical level. Maybe they just want everybody to be happy and to help make the film a success, but I don’t think that’s right.
Barrett: That’s not a critic’s job, in my opinion. It’s hard for us to say, because we’re not critics—we’re filmmakers, we’re on the other side of that equation.
Wingard: It’s not good for a first-time filmmakers, either, to just get a bunch of flowery reviews because the critics want to help the filmmaker’s career out. That’s not gonna help them in the long run because they’re not gonna have a real perspective on their career. It’s hard to be able to listen to that as a filmmaker, because you are so tied up into it. It can be emotional, especially if you feel like you’re being attacked, or you don’t agree with what they’re saying. But at the end of the day, it’s constructive criticism no matter what, and you can take it or leave it, but you shouldn’t get emotionally involved with the criticism. It can actually help you, especially if you’re first coming on the scene and you’re trying to hone your talent and develop your voice. The only way you’re really gonna do that is by accepting honest feedback.
You’re Next and The Guest have received almost universally positive reviews, especially within the genre critics’ community. I wonder if a lot of that has to do with how well you guys tap into the old ‘80s vibes and the John Carpenter influences. Maybe certain critics get swept up in that nostalgia and respond to how your films bring them back to the classics they grew up on, and that excitement makes it harder for them to be fawn less and evaluate more.
Barrett: I hope not. I think one thing that we try to do is we try to be innovative. I’m really concerned when I see a movie that’s just doing homage and just kind of pandering to that sense of film fan nostalgia. That’s a very easy button to push. I compare it a lot to those [Jason] Friedberg and [Aaron] Seltzer movies, like Epic Movie and Date Movie—there aren’t really jokes in those movies, there’s just a lot of references to things you recognize, and then as an audience, you kind of chuckle to yourselves because you feel clever. I never want to work on that level.
Obviously there’s stuff in The Guest for fans of those older movies because we, ourselves, are fans. But I hope that people aren’t just enjoying it on that level.
Wingard: I definitely see The Guest as being a nostalgia picture, but, at the end of the day, we weren’t just trying to imitate those kinds of movies. We wanted to embody those movies from the ‘80s, like the John Carpenter films, like you said. Those films were a major influence in that respect. But we still wanted to make a modern film. I wanted to acknowledge that you can’t just imitate the ‘80s style because it’s not the ‘80s anymore. There are great things about the ‘80s that you can carry over now, and doing so allows the audience an access because they understand that language. But at the same time, we’re still doing our own thing and utilizing all of the advancements of film style and technology that’s happened since the ‘80s. [Laughs.]
Barrett: When I first The Guest’s script to Adam, he pointed out some really interesting things to me. One thing that, to me, feels very ‘80s about the movie is that the kids know what’s going on and the parents don’t. You saw that all the time in the ‘80s movies we grew up on, like A Nightmare on Elm Street and all these Spielberg movies that had young protagonists back then.
Wingard: Yeah, all of those latch-key kids. That’s what ’80s America was kind of defined as. It had the “kids vs. the parents” sort of feel to it.
Barrett: Yeah, so that’s a reference to the ‘80s we wanted to play with because I really responded to that stuff growing up, for, I think, obvious reasons.
Wingard: And there’s a big difference between that type of homage and naming the main character in your film “John Carpenter” or something like that. [Laughs.] Something like that just takes you out of the movie. You’re like, “Oh, filmmaker, you like John Carpenter as well. I do, too. Small world.” That’s not the type of thing we ever want to do. What’s important is that the universe of the film works in its own way and feels true to the characters’ motivations, and then the stylization on top of that is to give it a spin, so that the audience has an access point, but that’s not what the movie is about. The movie, at the end of the day, is about these characters.
A lot of what drives The Guest’s feeling of nostalgia is its score and the ‘80s songs you guys worked into it. But it’s an interesting flip on that technique by having those songs all come through Anna’s mixtapes and her headphones.
Wingard: I took a lot of time figuring out the character’s style and personality sense, because you want that stuff to feel organic and true to the world that the characters live in. At no point did I ever want it to be a situation where it felt like the director really likes this song and he wants you to think he’s really cool because he likes this song. I wanted everything to exist within the characters’ choice. That’s a fine line. Originally when I was thinking about the film, I had more of an ‘80s Goth-rock sound to it; I wanted it to be a little more darker ‘80s, like the Death in June type of sound. But as we shot the film and I started discovering its tone and look, the movie ended up having more of a pop feel to it, and more of a sense of humor, so the music then shifted.
I tried to make it realistic in the sense that there is some authentic ‘80s music in it, but also, right now electronic music is going through this kind of ‘80s revival. So there’s a lot of very ‘80s-inspired music as well. A lot of these musicians are the same age as we are and they grew up in the same era and were affected by the same stuff that resonated with us. I wanted a mixture of modern music that has an ‘80s feel with authentic ‘80s music, and try to blend them together, because that’s how it really is—you don’t just listen to one era of music. You listen to all different kinds, but they might have a through-line.
One scene in The Guest that, to me, embodies your sensibilities is when David rolls the grenade into the diner as Stevie B’s “Because I Love You” is playing. It has such a weird contrast that brings a humor to the scene that might otherwise be there.
Wingard: Yeah, but at the same time, that song could realistically be playing at that diner. [Laughs.] We couldn’t have just thrown that song willy-nilly into the film. The whole movie’s like that—except for the end credits music, every song in the film is actually being played by a source in the movie, where the characters are listening to the music themselves, other than the original score. Even to use that Stevie B song correctly, we had to find a way to make it seem realistic that it’d play inside a little small-town diner.
Barrett: It comes down to taking your film seriously and making sure the characters exist in a world that you understand. If you do that, then you can make every creative choice from that point.
In terms of writing The Guest’s world, what went behind never saying or directly establishing what year or era the story takes place in?
Barrett: There wasn’t really any discussion on our end about that, actually. The characters have smart-phones and they use the Internet. I saw the film Listen Up Philip recently, which really does very much try to have an ambiguous time setting—the characters don’t use modern technology in that film because they wanted to make the time setting unclear. We didn’t want to that. We were making a very different film. For us to do that, I think it would’ve actually been distracting if you constantly wondering what year it was. It was more about not calling too much attention to anything that’s modern, which I think, in general, we don’t want to do in our films. If you do that, your film could feel dated in about five years.
If you look at You’re Next similarly, the phones are pretty much up-to-date but there’s no real modern signifiers in that film. That’s because we really want our movies to stand the test of time. If we have a character wearing Google Glass, that’s probably not gonna be that funny in 2024. [Laughs.]
Adam, you’ve mentioned in previous interviews that The Guest stems from a Blu-ray double feature you had of The Terminator and Halloween, and when we talked for You’re Next, you mentioned how that movie came from casually you revisiting Scream on Netflix. It seems like that’s the way you get your best ideas, by revisiting old films.
Wingard: [Laughs.] So far, for these two projects in particular, that’s been the starting point. I think that You’re Next and The Guest are kind of companion pieces to each other. They are nostalgic throwback films, and it’s us taking things that we love and putting our spin on it, and existing in that same kind of headspace the movies we grew up on were mind within.
But I don’t think that’s gonna be the way it always is. That’s just how this landed, and I think The Guest, in many ways, allowed us to get a lot of that nostalgic filmmaking out of our system. We’re still very influenced by a lot of obscure stuff, and that’s not gonna change, but I think right now our direction is going to take a different shape now. I don’t feel like we can do this again. I don’t want to just be the guy who has a bunch of cute old-school music in his films every time. It’s project by project. The direction we’re going in is going to be different after this.
Using The Terminator as an influence, with the sort of cyborg guy entering this family’s life, you took an interesting approach to The Guest where, while he’s still Terminator-like, David is a flesh-and-blood human being. It grounds the film in reality.
Wingard: And that is very much credited towards Simon. Initially, when I had that Halloween and The Terminator double feature, I went to Simon and said, “Why don’t we do a movie that’s basically like if Michael Myers was an android?” That was more the type of movie I pitched, but fortunately Simon immediately had a more grounded take on the material.
Barrett: Well, as soon as Adam said that, I immediately thought of the Wes Craven movie Deadly Friend, or the Mark Lester film Class of ‘99, which are very literal robot-slasher movies. I was like, “I don’t think I want to write that.” [Laughs.] But I don’t think Adam was saying that at all. I think he had a much more cool idea that ended up being The Guest. It was much more about, how do you give a character those Michael Myers or android qualities and still make him an actual character who makes sense and can interact in an interesting way?
Wingard: There’s a shorthand now because of The Bourne Identity movies and all that stuff. People really understand the whole super-soldier thing now. So at the end of the day, there’s already that kind of shorthand going into it. People already know that and people can let this exist in that world and let it all play out.
Barrett: And people understand that our government is raising a race of super-soldiers. We don’t have to explain that to them.
The Guest is in limited theaters now. You'd be wise to make it part of your weekend plans.