Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett first worked together on the nasty horror film A Horrible Way to Die. The two have teamed up again and again in the years since, and were responsible for some of the best segments in the anthology films V/H/S and V/H/S 2, as well as the cult classic home invasion movie You're Next. While horror has defined their collaboration so far, Adam and Simon have much more on their minds than just slashers in animal masks.
Their latest film, The Guest, is an action thriller that premiered at Sundance to rave reviews. Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey’s handsome Matthew Crawley, plays David, a vet who travels to visit the family of his fallen comrade. The family takes him in, but they don’t know the deadly secret David has brought home from war, and they could never guess just how explosively violent it will get from here.
Q: THE GUEST is an action thriller, but it also fits into the “Home From War” genre. What were some movies you looked at in that genre for guidance?
Simon: It was more about looking at what those films didn’t do which, not to put too fine a point on it, was to be entertaining. I did see STOP-LOSS and IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH; recent post-Iraq films were very much on my mind. But it was more: how do you tell a story like this in a way people want to see and not be so politically on the nose with whatever statements you’re trying to make?
Adam: That was the weird thing about the Iraq War; it bred all these movies that wanted to be the Important Statement Iraq War Film. But if you look at the Vietnam War there was a lot of really great movies that came from the Vietnam War, but by and the large most of those are pretty over the top. APOCALYPSE NOW is one of the main ones that came out of that and it’s almost a fantasy story. DEER HUNTER - the Vietnam section in that film is just insane. The thing we wanted to avoid doing was make just another boring, self-serving, self-serious movie about the Iraq War and do more of our ROLLING THUNDER take on it.
Simon: Not to mention that there’s nothing more annoying or condescending than someone talking about something they don’t personally know. Whether that’s the “#notallmen” Twitter hashtag thing or, in our case, I have friends who served in the Iraq war, but I didn’t. And I would be very careful about making some sort of thesis statement based on my understanding of it from reading a couple of ROLLING STONE articles. We’re about making fun, entertaining movies that approach things in a way we haven’t seen before. We want to be original but still work within genre parameters. I just think we wanted to use it as a starting point but then veer as much away from what those Iraq War-influenced films did. And I think Adam is right -- a lot of filmmakers were in a rush to make a statement about the Iraq War, but that statement basically was that the Iraq War was bad, and it was like if you didn’t already know that you wouldn’t go see the movie and be convinced of that. So who are you making the movie for? Who’s your audience? We always think about who our audience is and who we want to see our films -- which is of course every man, woman and child.
Adam: The movie never actually says the words Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s purposefully vague.
Simon: We intentionally wanted to avoid appearing as if we were making a statement about one conflict.
Adam: The Iraq conflict is just one of many that is going to keep going. It’s really more about the military-industrial complex than about one engagement. Our film is more about that underground corporate world that is interbred with the military. And then it’s about a bunch of fun and Christmas lights and decorations from HALLOWEEN III.
Simon: We wanted to comment a bit about the military-industrial complex at large, but even in the original draft of the script the Dan Stevens character references both the Middle East and North Africa because we weren’t trying to make it specific to one thing.
Q: There are elements of this movie, especially the relationship David has with the family, that remind me of TERMINATOR 2. What influence did that film, and other films of the ‘80s and ‘90s, have on THE GUEST?
Simon: I prefer the first TERMINATOR, but I would say in general we try to never do outright homages to anything. It never feels interesting to me; those guys, Friedberg and Seltzer who do the NOT ANOTHER WHATEVER comedies, that’s just recognition comedy. You recognize a reference and therefore you feel clever and you laugh. Especially in the horror genre you see a lot of ‘80s homages and the audience likes it because they get what’s being referenced. “Isn’t it cute that the coroner is named Raimi?” Yeah, that’s cute, but I’d like to see you try a little bit harder and come up with something original. You can be influenced by Sam Raimi -- and we certainly are, almost to an obsessive extent -- but that doesn’t mean you should emulate what he did. You should try to figure out how to give someone else that feeling, to figure out how to innovate like he did in the day. I’d say we both watch a ton of movies, but I would never want to do something that didn’t feel original.
Adam: Going into this project one of my main influences was THE TERMINATOR films and the HALLOWEEN movies. But, like Simon says, I never wanted to directly emulate that. I wanted to live in that same kind of stylistic universe that existed in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It wasn’t about copying those things, but it was about finding the tip-offs on these things I like. A lot of it boils down to tonal things, the way characters interact with each other. Then there’s obviously the music. Obviously THE TERMINATOR scores -- 1 and 2 -- were important, as was John Carpenter’s stuff.
I have a problem when people try to emulate music from the ‘80s and they’re just using a lot of software they’ve downloaded that has an ‘80s sound, but you can tell if it’s authentic or not. That’s why I hired composer Steve Moore of the soundtrack; all of the equipment he uses are retro sets, they’re all from the ‘70s and ‘80s. They’re all definitively of that time. He’s not trying to copy anybody or recreate any sounds, he just has those sounds. Now he can do whatever he wants with them. They’re going to be those sounds, but now they have a modern edge to them. That’s what I wanted to be doing with THE GUEST. We’re making a modern film, but it still has that ‘80s tone.
Q: Most people will know your lead, Dan Stevens, from the fluffy British soap DOWNTON ABBEY. What was it that made him right for this role?
Adam: I talked to a lot of actors in that age range. Dan was one of the first people I talked to, and he just had the right kind of vibe I was looking for. He has a very calm, cool, intelligent attitude. I knew I wanted a semi-android feel to the character, and that he could play that without losing his humanity. It’s a fine line -- we wanted a robotic quality to him, but we wanted you to have empathy for him, and for you to be conflicted as you root for him.
Simon: Dan’s also funnier than people give him credit for. The way his DOWNTON ABBEY character is so likable because of the mini reactions he has to absurd things, that to me showed he had a good sense of humor and would get the tone we were going for.
Adam: When we meet actors for the first time I like to tell the story of how I got into the industry, which is basically making a movie about a character who is Robo-tripping all the time, and I was Robo-tripping the entire time we were making it. Seeing how they react to that is a good gauge, seeing if they get where I’m coming from.
Q: Speaking of Dan Stevens, there’s a scene where he comes out of the shower and he is impressively ripped, which DOWNTON fans found surprising.
Simon: It was work. Dan did this movie A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES right before he did ours, and he lost a ton of weight for that. When I first met Dan he was emaciated. He was like Christian Bale in THE MACHINIST and we needed Christian Bale in BATMAN BEGINS.
Adam: That was the only question going into it -- could we bulk Dan up in time for the show? When we cast him it was a month before shooting, and as soon as he was committed we sent him out to 8711.
Simon: They trained THE MATRIX guys, the 300 guys. 8711 is a big training facility out here for actors.
Adam: They learn how to fight and how to use guns and stuff. But also Clayton Barber, the stunt coordinator, was his personal trainer. The scene where he comes out of the shower and you see his abs we saved for the end of the shoot so we could maximize his workout as we went. The day before -- which I had never heard of this -- the day before we shot the scene Dan wasn’t allowed to drink water for the 24 hours leading up to it.
Simon: And we were shooting in New Mexico in July. It was the only time I saw him even slightly grouchy.
Adam: He didn’t drink water until right before that scene. Then they gave him a Diet Coke or a Dr. Pepper and he downs it and then they got him to do a hundred push-ups. Apparently that makes your veins bulge out and your muscles tighten up, and then we shot the scene.
Simon: I don’t know if any of that stuff actually had an effect. It might have just been a funny way to torture Dan.