You can’t see it but you can feel it: Something is at your back, following you, making the hairs on your neck stand at attention. It’s a terrible, unsettling, biologically ingrained feeling that everyone can relate to. And it’s one that’s been used in horror for ages but rarely as effectively as in David Robert Mitchell’s new film It Follows.
Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover), 40, wrote and directed the film, inspired by a recurring childhood nightmare where a presence that takes a variety of forms slowly, ominously pursues him. In the film, the titular “It” is a malevolent supernatural entity that, like an incurable STD, is transmitted through sex and haunts you for the rest of your tortured life. After Jay (marvelous, 21-year-old Maika Monroe) gets busy with her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), he reveals that, to save himself, he’s just passed this shape-shifting ghoul on to her and she must pass it on to someone else or the slow-moving but relentless monster—which only the cursed can see—will be forever at her back, inching closer until it catches and kills her.
Full of moral quandaries, interesting sexual politics, creeping dread, a premise that keeps the audience’s eyes darting around every shot looking for approaching danger, and now myriad interpretations of what it all means, It Follows is the kind of horror film that lingers with the viewer long after the lights turn on again. Complex recently sat down with David Robert Mitchell and Maika Monroe to discuss viewer theories, nightmares, and the terrors of sex and impending death.
David, you’ve been clear that It Follows is not a Puritanical message movie about the evils of casual sex, which is one of the many interpretation that’s out there. Of all the theories surrounding the film, which do you find most fascinating?
David Robert Mitchell: Well, I wouldn’t say that any one thing is the answer or the key. It’s cool that there are different interpretations. I have heard people talk about it being representative of social media, like Twitter and Facebook and the way people are interconnected, which is a fun read. Also, the division between the city and the suburbs, sort of a separation of wealth and poverty.
I read one take on the film that claimed it was a retro morality tale where the woman gets punished for being sexually empowered. What’s your response to that?
D.R.M.: Some people have mentioned that to me and, to me, that’s unfortunate if people see it that way. Listen, I always knew that there was going to be somebody that is going to read it that way. I don’t want to insult anyone’s interpretation. Personally, it’s a little offensive to me that someone would see it that way but everybody has a right to see things the way they want to see them.
With all the sexual and political meaning that people are projecting onto the film, has it led you to further examine the childhood nightmare that inspired It Follows or what was going on with you when you wrote it?
D.R.M.: I’ve already spent a lot of time examining what it is that I am writing. I had it as a written script for several years; it’s something that I’ve spent an enormous amount of time working on and thinking about. It’s not to say that there aren’t new things to contribute, but I have a good sense of what it means to me. It doesn’t necessarily call me to reinterpret. I do reinterpret at different stages of creating the film, though. There is a difference for me between the way I see it at the writing stage and maybe when we’re in editorial and we’re putting the film together and there are some things that maybe I’ll start to notice. Like maybe this means this, or we can push it in this direction now by making these choices in terms of what we put in, what we leave out, how we build the sequences. It’s something that I’m always thinking about, it’s not to say that I shut down once it’s done. Ultimately, it’s finished and other people have it in the world and it’s for other people to have at it.
I can remember being young and in grade school and thinking about death. I have a feeling that it is normal to be thinking about it, but it is not something we talk about often. —david robert mitchell
You’re not saying sex is bad, but the parallels between STDs and the pursuant malevolence are obvious. What impact did ’90s sex education and the fear of AIDS have on you when writing?
D.R.M.: I’m not saying it shouldn’t be read as an STD parable. It’s not my favorite interpretation, but it’s totally valid. When I wrote it, I definitely was like, well, this is an interesting way of looking at the movie and I know that it will be seen this way. I’m certainly playing with it knowingly. There are certain sequences where it’s a direct play on dealing with some sort of an STD, and that kind of feeling, and that kind of terror. I’m sure that knowledge is formed by living through that moment in time in which there was a lot of discussion of these things, and it’s something that caused a lot of fear in our culture about that.
Maika, you’re only 21, so you didn’t experience that era. What were your experiences, as far as sex education? Was it terrifying in the same way?
Maika Monroe: STDs were the thing that we talked about—it wasn't AIDS specifically. My generation is different than my parent's generation; I don’t think sex is as big of a deal now.
Another thing the film plays with is the inevitability of death, coupled with the uncertainty of when it will claim you, and how one reacts to that. Have you had personal experiences with loss or facing your own mortality that informed that?
D.R.M.: I probably wouldn’t talk about that. It’s a little too personal, but for sure. I mean, who hasn’t? That’s part of everybody, seeing that in others or having those fears for yourself.
M.M.: My grandma passed away from cancer and actually, when I was 18, I had an experience with melanoma—it’s in the family. I had that experience where everything comes into perspective. It’s the weirdest thing, ’cause you’re like, it will never happen to me, and when it does it’s like, OK, wow. There are definitely things that I relate to in the film, not directly, obviously, but in weird ways.
How did melanoma change the way you live your life?
M.M.: You’re just more aware of things. Only when it happens can you truly understand you have no idea when [death is coming]. I’m an only child and we’re a close family. Knowing that anything can happen at any time, I made sure the people that I love know that.
Did it make you more cautious? More reckless in an attempt to live life to the fullest?
M.M.: Probably live to the fullest. I used to be a professional kiteboarder. People were like, “Oh, my God, are you scared of sharks? Are you scared of injuries?” You can’t be scared. If you're scared then you can’t do it, you can’t train to be the best. Another scary incident: I cracked my head open. I was on an island that was very Third World. You walk into the hospital and people are barefoot and people are there just to get water, and you’re like, oh, great. But you can’t live in fear. Every day you get into a car you’re in a death vehicle, but you’re not going to stop driving. To me, it’s fate in life. If something’s supposed to happen, it will happen. You can’t plan anything.
David, how did the realization that death can come for you at anytime and from anywhere affect you?
D.R.M.: I can remember being young and in grade school and thinking about death. I don’t know if this is common or if that was strange for me to be thinking about it this way at that age. I have a feeling that it is normal to be thinking about it, but it is not something we talk about often. There were points when I was young, there would be situations that I was uncomfortable in or I was nervous about and I would just think to myself, “Well, listen, you’re only here so long. You may as well do this. Our time here in this space is very temporary.” That can be empowering. That’s how I’ve always felt about it.
I remember going to sleep and thinking, ‘Someone outside there’s always watching me,’ and it scared the crap out of me. —Maika monroe
That was quite mature.
D.R.M.: I don’t think it was mature, maybe it was unhealthy.
One of the great things about It Follows is that the teenage characters have natural, realistic relationships. Maika, what was the importance of that for you and how did the cast develop that chemistry?
M.M.: It’s so important with horror, because a lot of times it’s not realistic and it’s hard to get pulled into something that you just don't believe. Working with David and the rest of the cast, that was something we wanted to focus on and make those relationships as truthful as possible. It’s not these ridiculous 25-year-olds playing the high school hottie. We spent a week and a half before we started filming just focusing on those relationships. We had some rehearsals but more than rehearsing, going over the script, it was us getting to know each other. Right away, we were all hanging out together, talking. Even now, we’re all still great. I've stayed in contact with people from films but never this closely. We’re hanging out all the time.
What is behind the absence of adults in the film?
D.R.M.: It’s something that I did in my first film, for a very different reason. That one was a sweet, gentle, coming-of-age film. In that, the parents are sort of on the edge of the frame, if at all. That movie was about creating a peaceful, safe bubble of the world of these teenagers and their interactions, their adventures, and their joy was safe and separate from the outside world, the adult world. It’s a bit of fantasy on some level. I took that idea, which is straight out of a Peanuts cartoon, and it’s not quite real but it’s an approximation of a feeling that you have when you’re younger. I took that and used it again for It Follows, the idea being that the separation from the adult world and not having the parents would increase the danger on some level. There would be no one to turn to, there is no safety, and there is no one who can solve a problem for you. It’s about isolating the main characters as opposed to creating something peaceful. It’s also something that is suggestive of a dream-state nightmare, that’s not normal, not quite right. The world that they are operating in, there are things that don’t feel right and that’s very much like what happens in a dream.
Maika, do you have any childhood nightmares that have stayed with you the way David’s nightmare about being followed did for him?
M.M.: The one I remember recurring most is someone watching me all the time, like in my bedroom. I remember going to sleep and thinking, “Someone outside there’s always watching me,” and it scared the crap out of me.
Did it feel voyeuristic? Were they coming for you?
M.M.: It wasn’t someone necessarily after me but it was like someone bad watching over me. It gives you the chills.
Have either of you had any recurring nightmares as adults?
M.M.: Recently I’ve been having so many dreams about being in a war zone. Not a normal war zone but like savage, crazy people trying to shoot you. I did a movie back at the end of last year and we were in war and had guns, so that’s where it came from I guess.
D.R.M.: This interview is turning into therapy, isn’t it? [Laughs.] I’m teasing! The truth is, I rarely remember nightmares as an adult. I had many when I was younger, and several of those I remember. They could be quite terrible. At a certain point, I remember willing them away, just waking up and not having a bad feeling from a nightmare. At this point, I go to sleep and I wake up well rested and I don’t usually remember anything. I remember a bunch of those from years ago that I don’t feel comfortable talking about because maybe they’ll be used for another movie.