Simon Barrett’s Got Next
The writer of You’re Next opens his toolbox and describes his collaboration with director Adam Wingard
by Adam Stovall
Everyone always asks how Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard met, so let’s get that out of the way first. In 2003, Barrett was on the set of Dead Birds, his first produced screenplay, and Evan L. Katz was visiting the set to cover the film for Fangoria magazine. It turns out Katz was already in town, because his script Home Sick was being filmed not far away. When he arrived on the Dead Birds set, he was accompanied by his director, Adam Wingard. Wingard and Katz had met while attending film school at Full Sail University, and had collaborated on a few shorts before this. They and Barrett hit it off, and after their respective films wrapped and the three separated, they all kept in touch. A little while later, Wingard made a film called Pop Skull, which impressed Barrett, who in turn reached out to congratulate Wingard on a job well done. The two got to talking, and…
But A Great Way To Work!
“Adam (Wingard) wanted to do a serial killer movie,” remembers Barrett, “but I didn’t feel like I had anything new to say in that particular genre.” Still, Barrett knew he wanted to work with Wingard, so he started reading and thinking and watching movies about serial killers, trying to find a spark of personal reaction that might prove novel. He was thinking about Ted Bundy when it occurred to him that the serial killer was still a person who could be in a relationship, a story he hadn’t seen before.
“The way Adam and I work,” explains Barrett, “we come up with a germ of an idea together, we talk about the type of movie we want to make, and then I go off and figure out what that is, so he can approach the script fresh. He’s able to envision the film before we start, so bringing him the script allows him to go in and find his first cut. We try to take advantage of our collaboration and give ourselves objectivity whenever we can.”
Through this process they made A Horrible Way To Die, starring AJ Bowen as Garrick Turrell, the serial killer, Amy Seimetz as Sarah, his ex-girlfriend, and Joe Swanberg as Kevin, the guy who comes between them. Shot for a budget of $60,000, the film went on to play the festival circuit, win festival awards, and eventually be released through Anchor Bay Entertainment. All’s well that ends well, right?
Since A Horrible Way To Die was a film about a serial killer, the film was booked in a lot of genre film festivals. The problem here is that A Horrible Way To Die is not a genre film, but instead a quiet, bleak character study. “So two things happened there,” says Barrett. “One, we got to watch audience after audience be disappointed by our movie, when they had gone in expecting a serial killer horror film and got a really depressing movie featuring various types of addiction. The other is that we got to see a ton of horror films that were coming out.” Barrett and Wingard realized, in watching so many horror films, that the extreme and brutal sensibility that had risen to prominence in the 2000’s was starting to wane. They saw a few brutal home-invasion films at these festivals, and thought the time might be right to do a new take on an old story.
You’re Next tells the story of one night in the lives of the Davison family. Paul (Rob Moran) and Aubrey (Barbara Crampton) Davison are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary, and they’re joined at their secluded estate by their children: Drake (Joe Swanberg), Crispian (AJ Bowen), Aimee (Amy Seimetz), and Felix (Nicholas Tucci). Each child has brought their significant other, who gets to witness the family’s rampant dysfunction as they all sit down to the celebratory dinner. And then a razor-sharp arrow flies through a window, the men in the animal masks attack, and the best hope the Davisons have for survival lies in the improbable skill-set of Crispian’s girlfriend, Erin (Sharni Vinson).
Well, I Can Tell You What I’m Not Doing
To be fair, this idea started, much like A Horrible Way To Die, with Wingard knowing he wanted to make a home-invasion movie. He loved Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, and the opening of Scream, as well as movies like Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury’s A l’interieur (or Inside, as it it’s known in the US) and David Moreau & Xavier Palud’s Ils (or Them, as it’s known in the US). As the list of reference titles grew though, Barrett was concerned that there was no new ground left to cover. “If we try to do this thing that they’ve done, they’ve already done it and done it well. We can’t be in this conversation without something new to say. How do we do something different? How can we do something that none of these other films has done before?”
Bob Dylan once said that before he can write a song, he must first figure out what it is not about. Once Simon Barrett knows the sort of film he’s about to write, he looks to those who have done it wrong before. “I feel like a lot of filmmakers are inspired in the wrong way, which is that they see something they like and they try to imitate it. I tend to take inspiration from what I don’t like. I feel like that’s a better starting point. I mean, I really liked There Will Be Blood, but how do I use that? You take these movies that are doing this thing wrong, and you figure out how they’re doing it wrong, and what would you do differently.” For Barrett, this meant refuting the unfortunate trend of torture and sexual violence that had permeated the genre through the last few years, and finding a way to play with genre stereotypes in a way that wasn’t post-modern or satiric—because both of those have been done many, many times before—but that acknowledges something nearly the entire audience will be aware of, and tells a fun story in the process. And what greater genre stereotype is there than the Final Girl?
“Writing the main character of Erin, I really wanted to write a very strong female protagonist. In that process, it was very important to me that she not fall into a lot of the pitfalls that happen to a lot of the strong female characters in Hollywood, where there’s posturing and talking about how tough they are. Which I think happens because I think the screenwriters themselves don’t really know how to conceive that and convey that. I think there’s an inherent sexism. It was very important that we not write her as if she were male, because there are obvious differences, and I think that’s kind of a cheat people use when they don’t understand gender. But it was also important to us that we not make it the kind of thing where we draw too much attention to it. She wouldn’t be talking about how tough she is, she would just be tough. Once I had the starting point that not only was she tough but she was also kind of embarrassed by how tough she is, I really wanted to dig into that character.”
Some of you might be aware of the found-footage horror anthology films V/H/S and V/H/S/2. Simon Barrett wrote the framing story for the first film, then wrote Wingard’s entry in the second, and wrote and directed the framing story for the second. The first film was met with a backlash on the internet, where it was accused of both misogyny and misandry. “We found that many festival-goers and festival critics see any female nudity that is not used to comment on gender politics and equality as inherently sexist, which I don’t necessarily agree with. I mean, that thought negates most of art throughout time. But then I also understand it because we get up on stage and we’re ten young guys making a movie with a bunch of naked, screaming women, so you think ‘Oh, these guys must be assholes.’ I get that response, and I do respect it. I think most feminist horror films are still caught up in this rape-revenge model, where the girl is raped for the first thirty minutes and spends the next sixty getting revenge on them. Personally, I don’t see what’s empowering about that. That doesn’t interest me, as a storyteller. But then, I don’t know what the definition of feminism in contemporary film is. I think often the problem is that people think feminism is just not being misogynist, which is incorrect. That’s just not being sexist. In my white male reality, I don’t know that I’m aware enough or presumptuous enough to say, ‘I’m going to write a feminist film!’ I would say, however, that I strive to never write a sexist film or misogynist film.”
Once Barrett finally sits down to write the script, he begins, naturally, with the ending. He doesn’t outline or lay out note cards or scribble on a white board. “I write in order, I just write the last scene first, and then any scene that doesn’t push me towards that ending is thrown away.” He’s a nocturnal writer, for the most part, preferring to write quickly, with a full head of steam. “If I can’t generate a script from start-to-finish in about six weeks, there’s something wrong with the idea, and I need to start over.” He says it took about a week to write the actual script for A Horrible Way To Die, a little more than a week for You’re Next, and a little more still for his next collaboration with Wingard, The Guest. Still, he says each script still takes between four and six weeks, soup-to-nuts.
A Home Invasion For The Homeless
There is a school of thought that says one can only write truly about something they have personally experienced. Obviously, giving this idea even a moment’s thought exposes the myriad holes in it, and yet it persists. Perhaps this is due to the confrontational nature of internet discourse, and peoples’ desire to dismiss something they don’t want to hear. Or maybe it’s just because many people have a hard time envisioning a context beyond their own. But isn’t that one of the more interesting things about creative writing in general: this idea that there is room in every conversation for all takes and angles, as long as they are delivered articulately and with consideration for others. After all, isn’t that why many people go to the movies in the first place, to either escape their everyday lives and be transported somewhere new and fantastical, or just to see something familiar through fresh eyes?
As Barrett was deconstructing the home-invasion thriller genre, it occurred to him that these films all seemed to play to the home-owner’s anxiety of their family being killed and their home being taken from them. “But I don’t have a family, and I can’t afford a house. I wanted to make a home-invasion film for someone like me.” At the time he wrote You’re Next, Barrett was also working full-time as a private investigator, and Wingard was crashing on his couch. The idea that two such men—a renter and a nomad—were crafting a home-invasion thriller, a genre being dominated by established and to some extent wealthy filmmakers, struck them both as strange and hilarious, and also essential to finding their own unique approach towards the story and characters. “The vast majority of the populace is people just trying to survive. If they have a chance to get out and spend $30 on a movie, they want it to actually entertain them a little bit. We wanted to respect that.
“Adam and I come from very humble backgrounds. He’s from Alabama, I’m from Missouri. Neither of us come from money. We just knew that this is the work we wanted to do. Los Angeles is full of so-called writers and directors who want to call themselves that but never do any work. For us, the work was the reward. Neither of us knew anyone or had any connections. Even now, we’re viewed as young filmmakers, but we met in 2003; that’s ten years of not having success, but still working every day and getting better.
“The dynamic really serves us both, since while Adam is editing I can be writing. Besides a tremendous amount of respect for each other’s talent, we also share a sensibility where we kind of freak out if we’re not making movies. Our personal lives fall apart if we’re not making movies. We probably are both pretty lame definitions of workaholics. If I were working on my own, I’d be lucky to make a movie every three years. Working with Adam, I can make three movies a year. I can be writing and setting up the next project while he’s finishing up the last one, which is both exhausting and inspiring. We’ve only recently become financially successful, which I use very loosely. For us, the work is the reward. We just keep pushing ourselves creatively, which we’ll do until we retire or die.”
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