From You're Next director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett comes The Guest, a wacko action/horror comedy that rocks and rolls like a midnight madness movie, where expectations about pacing and tone are challenged, and good ol' cinematic chaos reigns. Leading the film is Dan Stevens, formerly of BBC series "Downton Abbey," who plays a kind ex-soldier named David who shows up one day at the Peterson family's door, and begins to cozy into their daily lives. However, as the soldier spends more time as visitor, he slowly reveals himself to be a strangely wired individual, whose charm and incredible presence only provides a mask for his true origins. Along with You're Next, Wingard & Barrett have also made films like A Horrible Way to Die, and the V/H/S anthology shorts. Both of them also appeared as actors in Joe Swanberg’s post-Drinking Buddies experimental murder mystery 24 Exposures.
Stevens left a famous role in “Downton Abbey” to explore different roles. Just this week, he has two projects coming out - The Guest, and also the Liam Neeson investigative noir A Walk Among the Tombstones. He will next be seen in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.
I sat down with Stevens, Wingard, and Barrett in an extensive roundtable interview to discuss their film, its productive 80s influence, the joy in watching an actor relish a role, and more.
The Guest opens nationwide on September 17.
There is a distinct 80s vibe within 'The Guest' that doesn't become imitation. Can you talk a little bit about how you tread that line?
Adam Wingard: The important thing for us is that we wanted to inhabit that sort of headspace that 80s films took place in. 80s movies weren’t referencing 80s movies, they were just taking place in the time and in the zeitgeist so whatever was going on in the world created that kind of aesthetic.
How would you define this decade headspace you are talking about?
Wingard: It’s really that kind of undefinable thing. I think all movies of all eras have their own aesthetic to it, and it’s not something you necessarily put into words, you know? But what you can do is take certain elements of it and apply it to a story like this which doesn’t take place in the 80s, there’s no reason why it should take place in the 80s. But, the type of storytelling that we’re doing I think aligns itself with that same kind of thing. The important thing for me I think is that I don’t want to create like a parody of 80s films, I want the movie to be able to exist beyond that kind of reference point. I just want to influence your enjoyment on another level. But even if you don’t care about that, you can enjoy the movie because the characters work, and everything is based on the story and characters. This is just based on the stylization that kind of accentuates that.
What type of cultural context is 'The Guest' placed into?
Simon Barrett: Yeah, well, certainly there is one. It was just about finding kind of what the modern version of that is. Our kind of cultural anxiety now is terrorism based endless war. And so we did want to comment a bit on things, but we didn’t want to be too on-the-nose about it, because if you make a film that has a strong political statement, unfortunately the people who are going to see it are predisposed to agree with that statement, which is kind of how our society consumes media now which is unfortunate, but I don’t have a solution for it.
Like with Oliver Stone films?
Wingard: Oliver Stone is a CIA plant [laughs].
Barrett: I guess you could say we are interested in our current endless battles in the Middle East and our relationship with the military industrial complex. With ISIS and whatnot, we made it not very specific in the film intentionally as to where Dan’s character served.
Wingard: Everyone assumes that David came back from Iraq, but we never say that. We actually saw him more as part of some peripheral special forces unit that is in some country in Africa, involved in some of the wars you’ll never hear about.
Barrett: None of us have served in combat, so to a certain extent I would be concerned to comment on something that I haven’t personally experienced too specifically. As an American citizen, I can comment generally on what we’re doing, and I think it’s more about that and hopefully people will see The Guest who wouldn’t plop down the same amount of money to see Dirty Wars, and if they want to, they can get something out of it, and if they don’t want to, they don’t have to.
We've discussed how the film has an 80s influence, and yet its dark humor feels very modern. What is your interpretation of your own sense of humor in this film?
Wingard: I guess our take on humor is that we just try to avoid the obvious kind of deconstructive humor that usually comes with horror. Horror or action movies or any of that stuff, you usually get a straightforward genre picture, or one that is reverse engineering it or taking it apart, and being self-referential. I think we are being self-referential, but we are doing it in a more low-key way that is not plot-based. The self-references are almost more in the stylization, and the tone of it, and the aesthetics of certain things. There’s no actual jokes in the film, it’s more like the situation that Simon has created, and that Dan has brought to life, becomes funny because we as an audience see the absurdity in it, and it becomes about watching the characters deal with that absurdity, and by trying to make those characters as real as possible, or at least a stylized version of reality. It just allows you to project yourself on that same situation, and then in a sense I think it becomes funny.
Barrett: I would also say that a lot of the times, we don’t just treat our characters as stereotypes that are going to be murdered. We try to make all of our characters real, and feel real, to the way that humans interact and speak. It’s not like we create characters and don’t have empathy for all of them. As to whether our sense of humor is getting darker, is the internet and the kind of style created by 4Chan and whatnot, any darker than “Brass Eye,” or “Black Adder” or anything like that? I don’t think the humor is getting darker, but I think the mainstream goes in waves, and maybe right now we are culturally feeling a bit cynical, and we certainly have reasons to.
Dan Stevens: I am delighted that both of the dark comedy references you made were British. We’ve always paved the way.
Barrett: Certainly in terms of dry humor.
Stevens: I was excited that Simon had heard of Chris Morris. [Morris] made Four Lions as his first feature, but he had many television shows before then. He did a show called “Jam,” it’s a series of short films.
Barrett: Which hasn’t really been topped by anything, except maybe “Wonder Showzen.”
Dan, I read somewhere that you have experience with stand-up comedy.
Stevens: I did some student stand-up. In fact, every Tuesday night for three years. But I had no ambitions to be a stand-up, I just enjoyed it as a discipline to make myself write something five minutes long once a week that could make my friends laugh, and was usually kind of weird, shall we say smoky digestion of the week’s happenings. It was just a great chance to get out there to make your words work, and you know immediately doing comedy if your stuff is effective, because people are either laughing, or they’re not. If you’re doing an intense dramatic monologue, you’ll just go outside and either see your friends weeping, or embarrassingly shuffling off into the car park pretending they half enjoyed it.
There is some stuff in your performance that is darkly subtle comedy; some reactions and some deadpans.
Stevens: Yeah. A lot of the performances in Chris Morris’ work are very straight, actually, they’re barely knowing. It’s very difficult to describe, but a lot of those actors are able to tread a fine line between this ridiculous and absurd extreme comedy, this insane comedy, and this bleak, dark truth to a scene. And often, the words will be at odds with the setting. I think context is key especially with regards to Adam and Simon’s work. You’re Next made me laugh because eventually you have that monologue from AJ Bowen at the end, which just seemed so bleakly funny especially with regards to the time that the film was made, deep into the recession. Such an insanely funny movie to be making at that time, and I guess The Guest has the same take on global politics in a way, and in digesting all of those muscle movies of the 80s, and objectifying a man in that way in the context in that scene is very funny and kind of perversely funny. All of those elements funneled into that. [Lindsay Anderson's] If ...was a huge influence, but we didn’t really talk about it that much …
Wingard: Yeah we did, in our first Skype meeting. I was in Simon’s house, in his kitchen, because my internet was down.
Stevens: It was great because The Guest is a celebration of American cinema, but If ... was predating the Terminator and Halloween films, and had this wonderfully anarchic sense of cool violence which at the time must have been extremely shocking. I saw it when I was much too young, but that was in the 90s. Lindsay Anderson had already passed into the pantheon of British directors and lost that anarchic edge, which I think he should be remembered for. But it’s that unapologetic, just sort of blithe take on destruction, and Malcolm McDowell just clearly delighting in that role. As an actor there’s nothing I enjoy more than seeing another actor really enjoy the shit out of his work, in whatever genre, on stage or on screen. You get it with Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, you get it with Malcolm McDowell in If ..., you get it with Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. They’re clearly having such a good time, and I’ve always dreamed of having such a good time and managed to achieve it with David.
How did you go about creating the charm of the character? As audience members, we are complacent in the seduction for this character, but then we see more intensity added to an initially charming side.
Stevens: Charm is a word that came up a lot in terms of how we play with the audience’s sympathies. I certainly enjoy sitting down with a movie that takes me by the hand in the first scene, and says, “come on, I’ve got a crazy thing to show you,” like a friend might show you the freakiest thing you’ve ever seen, but it’s like, “look at this, isn’t this cool?” And so we needed to establish that from the get-go. We set it up from the beginning, “the guest is at the door,” within X amount of seconds into the movie. We’re not leading you down any dead end. But the charm has to get him in the door, the charm has to win over certain family members, and it’s just how far you can run with that charm before people start questioning what you’re actually up to.
Wingard: We didn’t want to beat around the bush. We knew that the promotional materials were going to be that there was clearly something off with this guy. We want you to know that something is going to happen in this film, and all that is to just assure you that we’re going to take it slow at first, but as soon as it gets going, it’s going to be non-stop. And that’s always an interesting thing to figure out, how much to show early on. Because I really do feel like you have to earn those insane scenes. Even though a lot of people criticize him for being ominous from the get-go in The Shining, it’s not like he’s starting that movie as a “Wendy …” There is a progression to that.
Stevens: You’ve got to earn it.
Barrett: Some of it is just about respecting your audience’s intelligence. That they’re savvy enough to kind of get where you’re going initially so you can skip some of that stuff and do a bit of shorthand and get to the fun stuff. We always wanted Dan’s character to be likable, but he’s likable in a movie way rather than a real world way. It’s about exploring that tension, actually, and transforming it as the film goes on where he’s wholly likable.
Stevens: Imagining a world where he’s readily accepted is kind of weird too, it’s like reality but skewed.
There’s also that sociopathic aspect where he behaves differently with each of them.
Barrett: One of the original kind of goals with the story when I first started coming up with it is that he would kind of find what was missing in people’s lives, and become that. And Bob Clark made the Vietnam film Deathdream, which is a more literal interpretation of "The Monkey’s Paw," which isn’t my favorite of his films but it is an interesting idea. And it’s that notion which was inspiring more than the film itself. It was just things like that, wishing for something and getting it, but then whatever you’re wishing for being fulfilled in a dark way is a universally appealing story.
Given the genre leeway, what were some of the action movie conceits you guys most enjoyed recreating?
Stevens: Cyborg [laughs].
Wingard: And for me, the thing that I was really looking forward to doing was to finally be able to explore a major shootout sequence. Because growing up, the real reason that I wanted to make movies was mainly action films. I didn’t get into horror until I was 18 or 19. I had watched a lot of horror when i was younger, but it wasn’t my thing until later. And also, I grew up also idolizing people like Robert Rodriguez, maybe not quite as much anymore, but “Rebel Without a Crew” is my Bible, and that influenced the direction of you’ve got to learn every aspect of filmmaking, because why not; why not be the best that you can be? I’ve always loved John Woo movies too, and I’ve never had the chance or the budget to be able to do a big shootout and stuff, so that was really exciting for me.
Stevens: Getting the action-comedy bits as well. That’s something I wish we had gone a little further with and hopefully will in future projects, but that sense of having those moments in the action sequence where it’s like, “aw, fuck!"; Little beats in those sequences.
Wingard: That’s what a lot of action is missing nowadays. You don’t have a lot of close-ups of characters getting their reactions to what is going on. To me, we had a lot of fun with when Dan gets shot in the middle of a shootout, and he acts just totally annoyed by it. Because I have always loved that in those Indiana Jones movies. Those closeups of Harrison Ford looking terrified at his impending doom in those little moments really sell the action more than the spectacle does. And I have a lot of big problems with major action films, like you look at the Iron Man movies, they feel like these well-orchestrated animatics that have been brought into reality. But they’re so overly complicated, I just don’t connect with them at all.
Barrett: It never feels like anything is really at stake.
There's something within 'The Guest' about an ironic approach to violence. How do you approach violence in a horrific nature, not a heroic one?
Barrett: I think that’s one of the themes of The Guest. Initially when you see Dan’s character be violent, it’s initially giving bullies their comeuppance. It’s very movie-likable violence, it’s very entertaining violence. But some of the violence later in the film is much darker in tone. It’s kind of one of the point in the movie, in that we wanted to show that here’s a violent character, his behavior later one when he is killing characters you like as opposed to characters you dislike, is entirely consistent. It’s the same programming and the same motivation.
Stevens: It’s context. And also the vocabulary of violence, and the different application of it. Like, yes, it’s ok to get revenge on high school bullies, but actually even the friendships made in the first two-thirds of the movie have their sympathies really tested when David stabs [an important character]. There are things that happen later in the movie that really stretch those sympathies.
Barrett: That’s the idea, to show the consequences of violence, even in a heightened, ridiculous way. At that point in the film, we’ve shown that Dan’s character is so formidable and so powerful, I’ve always liked that in The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger is so much more intimidating that Linda Hamilton in that movie, and he still is using this massive firearm against her, and it feels almost cruel and terrifying, that he’s going against her. I think that’s why we wanted to do that; she is clearly intimidated by him, and you can’t show a powerful man shooting an unarmed woman and portray it as funny, well you can, but you have to acknowledge …
Wingard: ... You have to follow it up with him throwing a bunch of grenades ..
Barrett: There’s a humor to it, but the humor comes from pathos. And we needed to play that correctly.
I think I'm just tired of people cheering a cool death.
Wingard: Yeah, that's fan service, pandering. It goes beyond just the death, I don’t like the idea of pandering to your audience in general. Everything should be based on story and characters, they should never be based on cool ideas and concepts. That comes later, that’s what you fit in after you have structured everything correctly. And that’s what separates a parody from a real movie, for me at least.