Badass Interview: IT FOLLOWS Director David Robert Mitchell

Director David Robert Mitchell talks IT FOLLOWS, 2015's first must-see horror indie.

It Follows, from director David Robert Mitchell (Myth Of The American Sleepover), was one of the most talked-about films at last year's Fantastic Fest, and now it's one of the most talked-about horror films of 2015. And no wonder: It Follows is a helluva film, as unique as it is unsettling, and seems poised to follow in The Babadook's footsteps as this year's must-see horror indie. The hype is strong, but take my word for it: it's justified.

Based in and around the suburbs of Detroit, It Follows revolves around Jay (Maika Monroe, excellent in the role), a typical young woman navigating the hormonal tail end of her teen years. When we meet Jay, she's just started up a relationship with Hugh (Jake Weary). Hugh's a fun, good-looking dude with a cool car (and good taste in movies), but shortly after Hugh and Jay take their relationship to the next level...well, look: the less one knows going into It Follows, the more fun they're going to have with it. If you're absolutely determined to know more, I'll attach the trailer to the bottom of this post. Suffice it to say, things don't work out for Jay and Hugh, and shit gets nightmarish shortly thereafter.

Last week, Mitchell swung through Austin to host a screening of It Follows at the Alamo Drafthouse, and before the screening I spent some time trying to pry a few answers out of him about the film. Here's what he had to say for himself (be forewarned, some light It Follows spoilers follow):

I'm curious about your decision to set the film in Detroit.

Well, that's where I'm from, I grew up there. So I had a certain kind of look in mind in terms of the locations, specifically the contrast between the city and the suburbs and sort of the separation between those areas. There was a certain subtext in there for me that I wanted (to explore).

What's it like shooting up there right now? You hear horror stories about what's going on with that city--

Well. Yeah, I kind of hate that a little bit, to be honest, because, y'know...I mean, look, there's terrible things-- some of the poverty within the city is incredibly sad. There are all kinds of issues in terms of talking about that, but there's also wonderful things there. A ton of great people. I mean, my family lives there--

Sure.

So, y'know, I really care about the place. So I'm hoping it's not about just exploiting the abandoned buildings of the city, but exploring that contrast. But what's it like? I dunno, like any other place. There's wonderful things, and there's terrible things. But I think a lot of people have focused on the darker aspects of Detroit, y'know, focus on the negative. And that's not my intention.

I've heard you say that the genesis for It Follows was a specific nightmare you had as a kid. We all have recurring nightmares, but what was it about this particular nightmare that stuck with you? Was it the frequency of it, or the--

No, it was just about the level of anxiety I had about it. Just enough that I'd remember it. That's just one that stuck with me. The idea of being able to get away from something, but the idea that it's always there.

The inevitability of it.

Yeah. That was the most disturbing thing to me.

When you had the nightmare, was it an entity you could identify, or something more like the movie, where--

It was just like it is in the film. More often it was people I didn't know, but sometimes it was people that I recognized.

Is there a significance in the film as to what form the entity takes when it appears to people?

Well, it depends on the scene. I'm sort of hesitant to explain it too much. It's more about hurting or shocking the person it's (coming for), and taking the form of a person (they know) or a stranger. It genuinely depends on the moment, but...in my opinion, it can change. But I tend not to want to overexplain it. They were all very specific, written to be what they were. We spent a lot of time selecting specific people for those moments. I'm sorry I'm not--

No, it's cool, I don't necessarily want, y'know, a magic trick explained to me. I think there has to be some sort of rhyme or reason to it. For instance: some of the forms are clearly those of sex crime victims, right? So--

(silence, fidgeting)

No? Am I wrong about that?!

(Laughs) What is clear to one person isn't always going to be clear to another. What one person's convinced of, another person won't even pick up on. I can only say that's what I've witnessed in terms of interpretations of the film. So, I'm not saying that's wrong, but the more I say-- I mean, it gets into the larger topic of, was that intended or is that just your interpretation, so...

I'm not wanting you to agree or disagree; that's just my interpretation. I also kind of thought-- and again, not looking for you to validate this one way or another-- but my interpretation was, the forms the entity takes are probably those of past victims of the...what would you call it? Would you call it a curse, or a disease, or--?

Well, I don't have a term for it. I've heard some people just call it a Follower. I've heard all kinds of things. But I intentionally sort of didn't name it. The only thing we really have are these things one character tells another that they sorta tried to figure out, and those are suspect, as well. They may not have it totally right. It's not like we start the film and it's like, 'These are the commandments,' these are things the characters are figuring out, and they're not the most trustworthy (people). You have to assume that they've figured this much out based on their experiences and observations, and there's a limit to what they actually can figure out.

You wrote the script, and I'm wondering how much of it-- if any-- is autobiographical. For instance: was there anything autobiographical to the Paul character, anything you'd identify with?

Well, each of the characters have little pieces of me, and when I'm writing I sorta try to identify with them. I think some people would say 'You were probably a little like (Paul),' but no. I think maybe in terms of a physical resemblance, but...eh, no. That answer's no. It's autobiographical in the sense that it's taking place where I grew up, but in terms of the interactions or the events, it's...it's sort of just made up. But it's also very personal, y'know? But I'm not pulling from a specific experience. I connect to all of them, is the real, honest answer.

I was curious about one detail, in particular: the little clam-shell reader that pops up throughout the film. The first time I saw it, I mistook it for a birth control case, or--

Yeah, that's actually like a '60s-style makeup compact? It looks similar, but we repurposed it to be sort of a shell-phone eReader. The thinking there was that (as in a nightmare), you'd sort of layer in things that are anachronistic to the time period you're in, that don't belong there. It's about placing (the film) outside of time, so that was sorta just about making it feel more like a dream or a nightmare. That's why I didn't want like a particular make or model of cell phone. You put that in a closeup and everyone goes, 'Oh, it's the iPhone whatever production model, I know when (this takes place).' It pulls you out of the dreamspace. It comes from wanting it to feel like, y'know, something's not quite right. It's also about isolating the characters.

Some of the obvious touchstones for the film would be The Shining, Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street...are there other films that inspired you during the making of It Follows where the influence might not be as readily apparent?

There's a ton of 'em. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. A lot of people notice the Carpenter element, and there's definitely some of that there, especially in regards to elements of the music, and in regards to composition...I've just watched his films enough and paid enough attention to (Carpenter's) staging to...I've studied 'em enough that that comes out without me even thinking about it, y'know? Most of the references aren't me setting up a shot-- or even when I wrote the script-- and saying, 'This is me doing this movie,' not consciously. People do that all the time, but because I sorta grew up loving these things, I think those sorts of things came through, and I see them when (I watch the film). Creature From The Black Lagoon is another one--

Really! I love Creature From The Black Lagoon.

It's probably my favorite horror film. I love the world they're in, I love the adventure and the mystery. The monster is amazing. The sort of wonderful, strange, one-sided love story. I could go on, but in reference to It Follows: there's that sort of slow-moving-- when he's on land, anyway-- creature, he's very persistent, he keeps coming back. A lot of that movie is them sort of waiting on this boat and the audience waiting for the Creature to pop up in a porthole in the background. Island Of Terror would be another one. Another slow-moving monster movie...these strange little pod things that sorta divide and multiple and drink your bones, I think, and these people are trapped on an island with them and they're just sort of waiting around for them to (track them down). I was also sort of obsessively watching Paris, Texas during filming. So in terms of compositions, that was very inspiring. There's a ton of stuff.

There's a surprisingly low body count in the film. Was that--

I love a good horror movie with the right amount of gore. But with this particular film I felt like it was about the anxiety and the dread that would build in the waiting moments. What drew me in was the sort of middle spaces in between those (attack) moments, what that would feel like and what that waiting would be like, how characters would interact with each other. It's more about an accumulated dread, and I didn't think that more gore would bring anything to the table. There's probably a version or a variation where that would work, but...I dunno, for these characters and this telling, that just felt right to me.

Are you going to stay within the horror genre for your next film?

Probably not? My first film was sort of a sweet, coming of age film, and most of the people I know were sort of surprised to find out I was making a horror movie. I just wanted to make one, I thought it'd be really cool to try and do it. And I want to do that with many different kinds of movies. So, the answer is, I really want to make one again, I just don't know when. Whenever I have the right idea, and who knows when that's gonna be? Could be sooner, but probably a few films from now.

It Follows hits theaters today. See it at your earliest convenience; the BAD team's totally onboard with this one, and we think you guys are going to like it, too. Special thanks to David Robert Mitchell, the Alamo Drafthouse and Fons PR for setting this one up for us.

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