2014’s biggest and best surprise at the movies was the completely out-of-nowhere genre jambalaya The Guest from director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. Their previous collaboration was the home invasion slasher surprise You’re Next (2013), which shook up the slasher genre and gave audiences a fresh spin on a tried-and-true formula.
Barrett has an impressive list of writing credits that includes the genre films Dead Birds (2004), Frankenfish (2004), Red Sands (2009), A Horrible Way to Die (2010), and segments of both installments in the V/H/S anthology series and a segment in The ABCs of Death (Q is for Quack, 2012).
Barrett is one of the most interesting screenwriters working today, and in this exclusive interview with The Action Elite, he shares some thoughts and insights on his work and his inspirations.
Looking over your credits and having watched most of the films you’ve written, it seems like you enjoy writing genre pictures. From Frankenfish to Dead Birds and Red Sands all the way into You’re Next and The Guest, I’m thinking I like this guy’s taste and where he’s coming from. Who are some of your favorite authors and filmmakers? It’d be nice to know some of the people who’ve inspired you along your way.
I mean, I like writing all types of films, and I hope to work in every genre eventually. I think all genres have some merit. It wasn’t like I arrived in Hollywood and people just started throwing money at me and yelling, “You’re brilliant, write what you want!” and I was like, “I’m gonna write Frankenfish!” That film was my first writing job, and I got hired off the basis of my spec script for Dead Birds because I was extremely affordable and that particular low budget subgenre at the time was risk-free for studios, financially speaking. So I’m glad I got to write a film like Frankenfish, as I did grow up watching giant monster films, and I did my best to make it unique, but I was just trying to figure things out then. In retrospect, I was a complete idiot.
As to the second part of your question, in terms of filmmakers or writers who inspire me, I get asked this a lot, and I try to just focus on one when I answer, so you don’t have to read the same list of names like Kubrick, Hammett, Leone, Peckinpah, Keaton, Bava, etc. who influenced, like, everybody. Probably the director who’s had the biggest influence on my style right now is Stephen Chow. His films are so innovative, it feels like he invents an entirely new comedic language every few years. It’s been exciting to watch him evolve as a filmmaker since the 1990s; I loved God of Cookery when it came out, and studied it relentlessly on DVD, like, in a “How did he do that? How did he make that edit work?” kind of way. And his latest, Journey to the West, has very much the same style of humor, but is a wildly different film from anything he’s done before. He never creatively stagnates; he always threatens to make sequels to his blockbuster films, but then he just gets bored and moves on and does something brand new. I admire that sensibility a great deal. Even his lesser movies, like CJ7 or King of Comedy, have moments that I just have to stop and study. So I’ll just say, Stephen Chow.
Your comment about Stephen Chow evolving as a filmmaker is definitely something I could say about you and your filmmaking partner Adam Wingard. When I saw Wingard’s film Homesick years ago I never would have in a million years thought he’d go on to make my favorite movie of 2014. I say that with complete respect. So in terms of evolving, how have you pushed yourself to move into these really radical “A”- grade genre-spliced films like You’re Next and The Guest (especially The Guest), which flip audience expectations and give them something they never could have anticipated? You’ve come a long way from your humble days of Dead Birds and Frankenfish.
I think Adam and I both have an unspoken mandate to try to never repeat ourselves, and also to deliberately try to avoid telling stories that have already been told by other filmmakers. A lot of films, especially now, are directly imitative of earlier, successful films, for various reasons, but that’s creatively not as interesting to me as a filmmaker or as a viewer. The exception would be if we’re doing a remake or a sequel, which we have, but even then, I wouldn’t take on a project like that at this point in my career if I didn’t think I had something innovative to add to the material.
And even if we’re working in a well established genre, say, like home invasion slashers in the case of You’re Next, or serial killer thrillers in the case of A Horrible Way to Die, my approach in coming up with the stories for films like that is specifically to do something I haven’t seen before. I see a lot of movies, so my approach is to think of how I would surprise myself, or what I would want to see as a relatively jaded viewer. Or ideally, how I would surprise someone smarter and more jaded than me.
I can tell you for a fact that Adam and I have abandoned a couple of projects that were in development when we found out that similar films existed. One of them was a movie that would have been too much like the 2007 British film Boy A. In retrospect, our version of that movie probably would have been very dark and non-commercial, so it was probably very much for the best, but I was working on a similar script when Boy A came out, and then we both went to see it in theaters and were like, “Okay, well, what’s next?”
You mentioned Home Sick, which leads to another kind of crucial point to all this. I think that’s a phenomenal film, though I had nothing to do with it, of course, and Adam at one point told me that his and E.L. Katz’s main reference point for that movie was Evil Dead Trap 2. I saw Evil Dead Trap 2 in college and all I remember about it is that I was disappointed that it wasn’t as overtly insane as the first one, but Adam and Evan [E.L. Katz] saw something in Evil Dead Trap 2 that inspired them to make a movie that in no way resembles it.
And that’s kind of the key too, is you can’t just take your inspiration from the same seven or eight movies that inspired everyone. You have to really know what’s out there, and be watching the true innovations that tend to occur on the outer regions of cinema, in order to yourself be original. And then let those innovations inspire you to come up with your own innovations; don’t just copy what those films did. Have you seen Evil Dead Trap 2?
I never saw either of the Evil Dead Trap movies, though they’ve been on my radar. Honestly, much of the J-horror stuff has never appealed to me like it does to so many people. There’s something there on a cultural level that I have a difficult time connecting to. Not quite sure what it is. You mentioned that you’d be willing to work on a sequel / and / or a remake, and I was wondering where you and Adam are at in regards to the remake of I Saw the Devil. I saw the original when it was released in theaters, and I really enjoyed that one. I love the action and the hard-edged thriller aspects of some of the films coming from South Korea – stuff like The Yellow Sea and The Man From Nowhere. How would you guys take something as good as the original I Saw the Devil and take it to the next level? I keep hearing that they’re remaking the Indonesian action film The Raid for American audiences, but everything I hear about that particular project is that they’re going to hire well known actors but have them doubled by stuntmen which defeats the purpose of a movie like that. So how will your take on I Saw the Devil really shake things up and be original?
I was at the world premiere of The Raid! That’s how I became pals with Gareth Evans, which led to us working together, albeit remotely, on V/H/S/2. Definitely The Raid is a hugely inspiring film. Not only is everyone involved with it seemingly a great, humble person, but their approach to onscreen action was like an evolutionary leap for martial arts cinema, which hadn’t previously evolved since, like, Ong Bak, or The Matrix. Sitting in the Ryerson Theatre at the world premiere, I definitely had the feeling I was seeing something that was going to influence action movies for decades to come, and that’s basically turned out to be true; I’d say that recent films like John Wick, for example, feel very post-The Raid in their approach to choreographed violence, and in a good way. They’ve raised the bar for sure. I can’t wait to see whatever Gareth does next.
I share your lack of enthusiasm for The Raid remake, but I’d say that The Raid and I Saw the Devil are, like, total opposites in terms of how I approach remake material. What makes The Raid work to me are its details; the premise is wonderfully simple in terms of investing the viewer in its characters and then putting them in peril as quickly as possible, but that’s the whole point of its premise; getting to the great action pieces. When I think of The Raid, I don’t instantly think of its plot or its narrative twists, although those elements work; I think of Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian and Joe Taslim’s performances, the original score, and Gareth’s insane camerawork and choreography.
So that’s a movie where I’m not too excited to see its story told again, because the story, to me, isn’t so much the point of what makes The Raid great. The Raid without its original production elements could just be another action movie set in a tenement building. The remake could be amazing, mind you, and I will certainly see it; I’m just saying, I share your concerns there.
I Saw the Devil, on the other hand, has a great story concept that I think does lend itself to a remake. That’s not to say that the first film isn’t amazing; I happened to be at its North American premiere as well, and I got it on Blu-ray long before we seriously considered remaking it. So, like, I’m obviously a huge fan of that film, and of Kim Ji-woon, Park Hoon-jung and the original cast. But I think it has a cool and unique revenge story premise that you could explore in a different direction.
There’re different places to take that concept without in any way disrespecting the original film. It’s like The Departed vs. Infernal Affairs; when that remake was first announced, I was like, what’s the point? But then when I saw The Departed, I was like, oh, they took this and made it kind of their own thing, and also incorporated elements of the Infernal Affairs sequel and prequel, so all the films can kind of co-exist. I think that’s basically my goal with the script. If we were just trying to imitate everything Kim Ji-woon did, but in English, then I’d be like, there is no point to this, and it doesn’t creatively excite me. But I think we can take the concept of the original film and make something that’s great alongside it. We’ll see!
I understand why everyone hates remakes. If our remake of I Saw the Devil sucks, then every time you tell someone you love I Saw the Devil, you’ll have to qualify it with, “The Korean original, I mean, not that fucking remake.” So even though a bad remake doesn’t erase the existence of the original film, it can kind of spoil the original film’s cultural legacy. I do get why fans get upset about that. But I think it’s a situation where they’ll be skeptical up until the moment they see our version, and then they’ll hopefully be like, oh, that was awesome. As for the Evil Dead Trap films, I don’t know that I would entirely recommend them, but they certainly are unique.
I love The Guest, and I know that movie will have a long life as it continues to accrue new fans year after year. How closely did you work with Adam in coming up with that story? When you look at the film now, what are your final thoughts on how it turned out?
I tend to come up with the stories for my collaborations with Adam on my own, at least initially. There’s a good reason for that, which is that if he doesn’t have any preconceived notions about what I’m writing, then he can approach my first drafts totally objectively, like a viewer would. We try to be very critical of our own work, but it’s impossible, when writing a script for weeks or months, to maintain a sense of objectivity and know what’s not working, so I rely on Adam a lot for that. Similarly, I stay completely out of the editing room while he’s working, until he has a full rough cut to show me, for the same reasons.
It’s not just about giving each other space; it’s about utilizing our partnership to provide us with creative advantages we’d lack on our own. In the case of The Guest, we’d had a couple of projects fall apart after You’re Next, and we were just hanging out in my apartment and listening to music and talking generally about the type of film we’d like to make. Adam had just watched The Terminator back to back with the original Halloween, and was interested in how a fusion of the two might work.
Meanwhile, I’d tried writing The Guest years prior as more of a revenge drama, but abandoned the project as being too depressing, but listening to Adam, I started thinking about how his concept could be applied to my characters and plot. I don’t remember this, I was possibly drunk, but according to him I was like, “I’ve got an idea, it’ll be called The Guest, I’m going to start writing it now,” and he was like, “Oh, cool.” About a month later, I got him the script, and he liked it, and so did our producers, Keith and Jess Calder. That first draft is pretty close to what we ended up shooting. I’m very fond of The Guest as a film.
It’s hard for me to watch anything that I wrote with pure enjoyment, because I tend to think only of the deficiencies in my work; there’s definitely some elements of The Guest that I wish I’d done a better job with, but I think success requires that dearth of self-satisfaction, so I’m not like, actually worried about it. Fortunately, our cast and crew on that film was amazing, and Adam, Keith and Jess did an excellent job of helping me fix the stuff I couldn’t figure out on the page, not to mention our incredible cast.
I’m always involved in every stage of production, so if I see something that’s bothering me, I can, you know, tap Adam on the shoulder and be like, “Yo“. But that happens very rarely, because we all tend to be on the same page. And with Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe and Brendan Meyer as our three leads, that made everything honestly very easy, because they totally got the humor of it, so it was mostly just fun for me watching them work and not having to worry about anything.
Profile picture from the set of The Last Survivors courtesy of Simon Barrett.