Director Adam Wingard, writer Simon Barrett, and actors Dan Stevens and Maika Monroe were all looking for a change of pace and a challenge and they found it together in the middle of the New Mexico desert while filming the comedic action thriller The Guest (opening in Toronto this Friday).
This tale of a mysteriously polite American soldier named Adam (Stevens) who returns from the war to tell a grieving family that their dead son wanted him to make sure everything back home is well taken care of marks the third feature collaboration for Wingard and Barrett. (Technically, it’s the fourth if we’re counting the anthology film V/H/S or fifth if counting their hilarious addition to the anthology film The ABCs of Death. Or sixth if you count Wingard co-directing and Barrett co-writing Joe Swanberg’s Autoerotic.) Following up their work on the well regarded horror films A Horrible Way to Die and You’re Next, The Guest has more emphasis on action and bone dry wit than spooks and shocks (although there’s still plenty of those). It’s more like The Terminator by way of Agatha Christie.
Similarly the actors come to the project having previously never worked on something with this delicate of a dark tone before. Monroe – who is also a professional kiteboarder – had previously only had blink and you’ll miss her roles in At Any Price, The Bling Ring, Labor Day, and several other films prior to this year’s one-two punch of The Guest (where she plays Anna, the family’s eldest daughter, who’s wary of David’s eagerness to help) and the more cerebral horror film It Follows (due out early next year).
For the British born Stevens, the role of David wasn’t just a chance to balance the nice with the nasty, put on an American accent, and work out a bit. It’s a make or break chance: his first major headlining role in a feature film since famously walking away from a major role in the hit television drama Downton Abbey.
While they were here celebrating the home stretch of their press tour – with the film garnering the closing night spot in TIFF’s Midnight Madness program – Wingard and Barrett talked to us about their collaborative process, their love of subtle humour, casting against type, and the film’s memorable soundtrack. Stevens and Monroe talked about the challenges of their roles, Adam and Simon’s wicked sense of humour, and creating a believable family dynamic.
This film melds a lot of different genres, especially comedy, action, and horror, but you can take it seriously as any one of those three kinds of movies on its own. Was that something you always wanted to do from the start or was that something that came out in the production?
Adam Wingard: I think the way that Simon’s right…
Simon Barrett: (laughs) Simon’s right! (laughs) Don’t make any generalizations about anything…
AW: (laughs) Well Simon always IS right, but the way that Simon WRITES is really just I think how we like to approach these kinds of genre films. I think we’ve seen so many of these kinds of things that it would just be boring to us to take kind of a straightforward approach. Even with things that we thought were more straightforward, like You’re Next. That one came up as sort of a “let’s just do a straight-up home invasion film” but then kind of becomes its own thing. With this one I think we went into it thinking in broader terms. Not so much focused on one specific subgenre, but we had the story and then as we went along we kind of figured out this 80s kind of stylization that really brought it to life.
One of the things that I love about both this and You’re Next – and it might seem like a weird thing to praise – is the commitment you show to throwaway gags. Things that are just there for a moment or a line that you don’t realize until a few minutes later was a joke, like the scene in this film where Dan walks in with two kegs of beer or how nonplussed everyone seems to be at the idea of a high school doing an elaborately clichéd Halloween maze every year. Your last few movies have had obviously funny elements, but there are always moments that you guys also slip in there almost unannounced, so what’s it like trying to balance those kinds of moments and keep things scary and exciting?
SB: Well, thanks, and I’d like to point out that the opposite to what you’re saying is to just have a monotonous, sombre experience. In the case of something like The Guest, it would be really almost too self-serious if you tell that without any humour. It really wouldn’t be right for the story we were trying to tell. But, you know, if we were to go even further than we did with the humour, we would be belabouring it, and then it almost becomes a huge joke that you’re calling attention to it. I really hate when funny movies stop to revel in their humour, you know? I just don’t think that’s our style of comedy, period. We really like the dry humour and “blink and you’ll miss them” jokes. I just don’t think the alternatives work for us. We could make the jokes blatant, obvious, and broad, but I just don’t find that kind of humour funny unless it’s being done by someone in a comedy of that style that’s an absolute expert. Like, the first Ace Ventura comes to mind… (laughs)
AW: Which I love…
SB: It’s a good movie. And, of course, Ernest Goes to Jail, and a few others. (laughs) But my sense of humour tends to be pretty dry, and so is Adam, Dan, and our producers’ senses of humour. We all tend to prefer sarcasm and wordplay to slipping on banana peels.
AW: The sense of humour, especially in The Guest, comes from the situation itself. There’s no overt jokes in the situation, but the character of David is just so fantastical and such an absurd, sci-fi kind of character that it’s fun to put him in this real world, Americana kind of environment and just watch people react to it.
The very first time that I cut the film together and I had my own first private screening, I just found the movie to be really funny when I realized that it’s really just a series of vignettes. “Now David goes to a party! What could happen there?” The kind of expectation that kind of builds is funny because you’re always wondering where we’re going to take things and where it’s going to go, and that’s where the sense of humour lies.
How do you see someone like Dan Stevens and cast him as a dangerous person?
AW: Well, when I first thought about casting Dan, I wasn’t focused on casting an actor who could embody the negative aspects of the character. To me it was most important to find someone who could embody the nicer, more charming aspects of the character and who had a similar sense of humour. We wanted to play with audience expectations in that sense, too, because we wanted to find someone who was known in a different kind of context. And you can’t get much further from this kind of film than Downton Abbey.
But whenever I talked to Dan – and I knew he was a good actor just from seeing his work – I knew he had all of those elements. He really understood the sense of humour of the character. A lot of times I felt like even when you’re casting them a lot of times is to start with the sense of humour and if they understand the dry sense of humour. There aren’t many jokes that are even in the script, per say, but if you can pick up on where we’re coming from that’s always a good sign.
SB: You know, when I first conceived of this story the first time years and years ago, I think I was thinking of a Michael Shannon type who could just bring that kind of sense of physical intimidation and a sense of intensity. But by the time I actually got around to finishing the script, I think Adam rightfully questioned that you would have to believe that a family would want to take David in and let this stranger into their home. It became a lot more about seducing the family in a lot of ways, and I don’t think anyone we’ve talked to on this press tour, would think twice about letting Dan Stevens into their house without knowing much about him. (laughs) We could goof around with him a lot, and he just got it.
AW: One thing I remember years and years ago, one of my favourite films growing up and through high school was From Dusk Till Dawn, and I remember watching the audio commentary for the film, and Robert Rodriguez would talk about how he framed George Clooney, because at the time Clooney was just known as the doctor from ER, and Robert Rodriguez really wanted to turn him into an action star. I thought it was really interesting how he would consciously create all of these hero shots where he would be holding a gun a certain way, and I always thought that would be a fun thing to do. I always kind of wanted to do my variation on that and find someone you know in one context and turn them more into an action hero.
SB: The other thing about that is that the performances that tend to excite me the most are ones where actors really want to change gears. They commit to something beyond 100% because it’s new and because it excites them. I think as filmmakers we try to never repeat ourselves, but we have the luxury of being able to ask ourselves what movie we want to do next, and I know inherently it will be different from the last one. If you’re an actor, you’re much more dependent upon the vagaries of the career and what’s available to you. It’s exciting to see someone get the chance for an actor who has wanted to do something different for a while finally get to sink their teeth into something, and it couldn’t have worked out better for us in terms of working with Dan.
It seems like The Guest comes as part of a revival for films with synth driven music in the John Carpenter and Dario Argento tradition, and there’s a lot of examples of bands that crafted that sound on the soundtrack, so what was it for you guys that made you think this kind of sound was right for The Guest?
AW: Well, I always kind of hate it when movies that have a soundtrack just sound like the director just wants to show off that he has really great taste in music, but I did have this idea where I wanted to do something that had an 80s electronic goth rock sort of feel. I met some people back in Alabama who did have that kind of vibe, and this was a small town in Alabama, and what it made me realize was that these fads and styles and everywhere and they’re eternal now thanks to the internet and accessibility to various genres of music. Style kind of transcends all that kind of stuff. To me that whole subculture was interesting, and through that I discovered a lot of interesting music from that era.
Going into this I asked Simon specifically to write in characters who would be interested in that kind of music. If I was going to use a really interesting soundtrack to the film, I wanted it to be based on the taste of the characters and not necessarily my own. That was kind of a starting point. It was always important that the music be very much of the characters and push them forward in some ways.
Whereas the score was concerned, when I read the script really just spoke to me in that 80s context. The first person that I reached out to to do that was Steve Moore. All of the instruments he has are vintage synthesizers. He doesn’t have anything that was made beyond 1990. That kind of spoke to me in a way. I knew I wanted the movie to have that kind of flair that the 80s had, but I didn’t want to do a parody of it or overtly imitate it. The fact that he had these synthesizers that just naturally had that texturized sound that you would have had in those John Carpenter movies, was a great starting point. That meant that Steve could create modern compositions that would just have that vibe to it. We weren’t going to have to use programs and things like that to imitate those sounds. I wanted to do something that lived in that same kind of 80s headspace, but it wasn’t trying to parody or imitate it.
SB: It’s interesting that you mention Dario Argento, because Steve just toured with Goblin and we got to see him in Los Angeles. I know there are two of them. It was the one without Claudio Simonetti.
AW: But I wouldn’t say that the music in The Guest is really similar to Dario Argento. I always think of Argento’s stuff as being more prog rock, and we’re more electronic based. I think there’s no one more influenced by Goblin than Steve Moore, though. That wasn’t really a talking point for us, though.
Whenever we were discussing the soundtrack, though, we were always on more of the Brad Fiedel Terminator soundtracks and more specifically the score of Halloween 3. Say what you will about that movie, but the soundtrack was some of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s best work. Steve had actually researched the liner notes for Halloween 3, and he had collected all of the synthesizers that John Carpenter had used for that soundtrack. That was a good sign for us right away that we were on the same page. (laughs) I knew I wanted those synth textures to it, but I wanted him to do his own thing. Those sounds were just right there in front of him and he could just play with them.
SB: And I think we’re just seeing a lot of films with this kind of sound to it now because filmmakers that grew up in our generation are finally getting a chance to make the kinds of films they wanted to make growing up.
What is your working relationship like? It seems like you kind of share the same brain in terms of your goals for the films you make, but that can’t really be the case all the time.
SB: Yeah, we have to clarify that a lot. (laughs) The secret to the way Adam and I work together I think lies in the fact that we each made a few films separately before ever working together. We were already kind of set in our ways. I was always writing scripts in my dungeon of an apartment, and Adam had made Home Sick and Pop Skull and about a dozen other brilliant short films. So we knew each other, and when we first started working together, we gave each other a lot of space.
Adam didn’t really know what I was doing when I started Horrible Way to Die. He knew it was going to be a serial killer story, but he didn’t know much else about it until I was ready to show him a script. Similarly, I stayed completely out of the editing process. I think at that time, you were editing in Alabama, so you sent me a DVD of it…
AW: That’s right.
SB: …and we ended up finishing it at my apartment with our own computers. But that organically kind of became our process. On that film I was also the primary producer, so I was on set and involved in getting finances and making sure the production ran smoothly. But even when that ended, I knew it was time for Adam to go work by himself and I needed to let him do his creative thing as an editor and filmmaker. Ultimately, the rough version of that film that I saw had complete sound mix and things like that because Adam does all of that.
That became the way we approached all of our future projects, and the advantage of that is when he’s editing, I can be writing our next film. It allows us to do what we always set out to do as filmmakers, which is to show that we love the work. We each have 20, 30, or 40 other films that we want to make before life forces us to retire. We’re terrified that we just won’t do it.
Sorry, but for a second there when you said Life and Force together I thought you were going to say you were planning on remaking Lifeforce…
SB: (laughs) YES! We have 20 to 30 versions of LIFEFORCE that we need to make with Mathilda May! We need to resurrect her career! And we’re not there yet! No one will let us to our 40 Tobe Hooper remakes of the most beloved films in his cannon.
AW: Spontaneous Combustion will be right after that, followed by Invaders from Mars…
SB: Well, Invaders from Mars is already a remake itself, so we might not want to…
AW: A remake of a remake! Come on!
SB: I think we just sold our careers in Hollywood.
AW: Hollywood, if you’re reading this right now…
SB: “Hear me out… a DOUBLE REMAKE.” MY GOD WE’VE CRACKED THE CODE OF NOT HAVING TO HAVE ANY ORIGINAL IDEAS! “Congratulations, here’s a briefcase full of money!” (pauses) Yeah, I don’t even remember what we were talking about before Lifeforce. I did see a16mm print of Lifeforce recently, though. It was as good as I remember it being. (long, dry, awkward pause)
Dan Stevens and Maika Monroe
Had you guys seen Adam and Simon’s films prior to committing to The Guest, and what was it like finally getting to know their sense of humour and the films they liked to make?
Dan Stevens: They have such twisted little minds, and it’s delightful. I think they’re very special filmmakers, if only for their playfulness. There’s a lot of other things they can be commended for, but I really enjoyed witty filmmaking and films that entertain an audience without patronizing them. They kind of play with them a little bit and leave them asking questions, and I think that keeps people engaged a bit. You think you’re watching a particular kind of genre and they’ll always throw something in there that flips that expectation a bit.
Maika Monroe: I mean, you pretty much covered it. (laughs)
DS: You want me to put a full stop on that? (laughs)
MM: They’re just a really special group.
Adam and Simon were specifically looking for people who would get the sense of humour in the material because neither of you specifically have a lot of jokes that you can use to convey the film’s humour or else it will lose the tension it needs later on. What’s it like working within the parameters of a polite psychotic and someone who’s understandably skeptical of politeness?
MM: Well, if you’re like Dan and you’re carrying a pair of kegs, really all you have to do is carry the kegs. (laughs) Going into the audition process we both read the script as very humorous, and having seen their past work helped to understand what they wanted to do with it. And they have such a specific style that’s so cool to us. It’s unique and refreshing, so I just saw this girl as someone with a really dry and sarcastic sense of humour that would play well off of this very charming guy.
We had so much fun on set with Adam and Simon, and Simon has a very dry sense of humour, but both of them are hilarious and have great senses of humour, so they bring a lot of that aspect to it just by having them there. That playful aspect to everything that they bring just got applied perfectly, I think.
DS: The humour comes from context, as well. There aren’t many jokes and gags in the movie, so much as there are these delightful surprises or odd beats and moments. It made me smile just reading it, but while we were shooting it, often times we were playing things really straight. In the context of the film, though, and with the soundtrack laid over it, things become a lot more humorous. That’s all part of the playfulness of it, I think.
Well, I mean, that was the arc that we wanted to earn and the ridiculousness that you see at the ending is only from rooting the character and the family in one of only two realities at the beginning and having things start from relatively calm, pleasant, and real and then take it someplace batshit crazy. I don’t think we wanted to start out in a zany universe, but we wanted to get there in increments.
A lot of that was sitting down with Adam beforehand, really, and kind of establishing what those realites were. David was an exceptional soldier. Before his conditioning he was a really nice, charming man and a great friend to Caleb, the family’s son. He had to always seem like he was genuinely back to honour a promise that he would look after the family, check in on them, and help them out. Of course, he goes about that in a slightly unorthodox way to say the least, but we wanted to start with the rules first. There is a family. This family is in mourning. This guy is here to help. And go.
We worked very much on that beforehand so we can play around on the set, and as we went along there was a certain dial as to how insane and straight we played things. There were a few takes where we kind of went into this “Shining Mode” around the time of the Halloween maze. There were some pretty crazy takes that ended up making it into the movie.
MM: I can’t even expand on that! You always say it so well!
DS: Sorry, I’ve had a bit too much coffee today. (laughs)
MM: No! No! That’s okay! But seriously, everything he just said is great and right.
The family dynamic that you have with this family feels very believable in that every member of this family seems to be having a different reaction to your arrival. What’s it like working and creating this family and making sure everyone acts differently around David?
MM: Like Dan said, we wanted to create a believable family, and the loss of someone that’s a brother to you is a big loss, so to have someone like David coming in, he would be someone I just wouldn’t get along with. My character sees him as someone trying to take the place of someone who’s gone, and that frustration has to come from a real place that’s believable. You want the audience to be drawn in from the beginning and somehow believe that David is on the level, but you also need to feel for my character, too. That’s where we started. That’s where the base was.
DS: And from my perspective looking inward, obviously David moves at his own tempo, but another thing I established with Adam was the feeling that this was a character who approached everything on a mission-by-mission basis. He goes into every situation, analyzes what’s going on, checks all his exits, and ascertains if there’s anyone he needs to kill. (laughs) That’s how he approaches every situation, and most of the time he doesn’t have to kill, but sometimes he does. (laughs) He’s there to help with bullies, help the father get the promotion, he fills a hole in a grieving mother’s life. Anna is his toughest challenge, I think, and that’s why drives a lot of the intrigue for most of the film. How is he going to get this girl on side. He tries a number of different tacks, but that was a great challenge. Each of these characters, you can see David trying to work out the most efficient way to get them on side because the family has already been fractured by loss to begin with.
Well, maybe Anna is the hardest to convince to go along with David because she’s the only one independent enough to not need anything from him.
MM: What can I say? (laughs)
DS: That really might be it. One of the things we talked about earlier was that Anna is at an adolescent kind of tipping point.
MM: (sarcastically) You know, “just a phase” that us kids go through. (laughs)
DS: She’s at a point where she has a lot of potential. She has a deadbeat kind of boyfriend who isn’t going places while she is. She’s at a point where she needs to feel empowered for once. And in a weird and twisted way, that’s sort of what David does. Anna is empowered by the end of the movie. I’m not saying this is a “right on” feminist film, but sisters are doing it for themselves in this film.
MM: That is true. (laughs)
DS: I really enjoy the scene where David and Anna are in the truck together leaving the party because that’s almost “mission complete” for him, especially after the weirdness of the party and the strange turn that it takes
MM: That’s really one of the ONLY sweet scenes in the movie. (laughs)
DS: She opens up a bit, and curiously so.
MM: For the first time, you’re kind of seeing a kind of different side of Anna. She’s opening up just that little bit. It might be the only “nice” scene with the two of them. It’s kind of the calm before the storm.
So coming from Downton Abbey to this is obviously a huge change of pace, and I’m sure you looked at other things when you left the show that were closer to Downton in tone that you were probably offered, so what was the drive to get as far away from that as possible?
DS: I mean, that’s just it. When I moved to the States it was all about finding new challenges and to reconnect to something that I really believed in as a younger actor: that you could create this ability for yourself to leap into new landscapes and really explore a totally different character; someone with a different kind of physique and a different kind of voice. So this was a real fulfilment in that regard. It was just about plugging into what fired me up as a kid, really.
There’s a lot of physicality in the film for both of your characters. Was there anything that forced you to dig deeper physically or mentally than you expected going?
MM: Oh, I have mine. I have mine like that. (laughs) And you know about it?
DS: (laughs) What was it?
MM: THE CLOWNS.
DS: Oh, right! Yeah…
MM: Okay, so the Halloween maze in the film was shot at this farm where a family has a year round haunted maze…
DS: …in the middle of the dessert…
MM: It’s a bit odd and disturbing. So we’re shooting in this and there are all these different sections, and one of them is this clown area where you have to walk through all these disturbing looking clowns. Everyone on set KNEW that I hated clowns. I HATE them. Now everyone’s gonna know that I hate clowns, but whatever. So they said they were going to have these people dressed as clowns moving around robotically. They didn’t tell me, they recorded it, and so little of it made it into the movie, and i will tell you that NOTHING else got worse than that.
DS: I sincerely hope it’s on the DVD extras. (laughs)
MM: But yeah, clowns would jump out at me and I would just scream “Get me out of here! Get me out of here!” Honestly, it was terrifying. Now I can laugh about it, though.
DS: For me, weirdly the toughest thing for me to shoot because of when we shot it was the opening shot of David running on the road.
MM: (laughs) They wanted to shoot that over, and over, and over again.
DS: And I had this giant rucksack on and there’s a little buggy behind me.
MM: “Keep running, Dan! Keep it going!” (laughs)
DS: Yeah, thankfully you didn’t see my face in that shot because I would have looked pretty pissed off.
MM: You would have looked too winded to be pissed off. (laughs)
First of all, I also hate clowns.
MM: Good! You get me, then!
But I also dug how that maze kind of plays into the Halloween setting of the film, and I think that might be the best gag in the movie.
DS: Yeah, it’s such a great tribute to those kinds of Halloween films, but it’s unusual to see one of those films set in the desert. That’s kind of an interesting and new thing. But it does facilitate all these bizarre sequences, where in any other context none of this would make sense.
MM: Of course you would have a Halloween maze! That makes the most obvious sense in the world in this kind of town!
DS: And the way that Lance Reddick delivers that line when he discovers the maze is so great. “What is this?” Good question, Lance. (laughs)
MM: What high school in their right mind would do this? Absolutely no one. (laughs)
DS: If you look closely, as well, it’s a really twisted maze and way too elaborate for a school to have it.
MM: But we didn’t have to do a lot to those sets. All of it was there.
So would you guys work together again?
DS: I would! I’m just waiting for Maika’s schedule to free up.
MM: (laughs) I’m so busy.
DS: You really are, though!
MM: You know, I had an interview a while ago where someone asked me what I was going to do next and where I want to go next. You can’t plan, really. It’s all so unknown. You read good scripts, you hope they come, and it’s like Dan says that this why we do it, to keep challenging ourselves. I have a film coming out that’s called The Fifth Wave, which is based on a young adult novel, and I get to play this really badass chick, and that’s been my greatest challenge so far. Right now we’re doing army training, and I’m pretty psyched for that.
Oh, so now, you’re army training?
MM: (laughs) Yeah! Dan and I have officially swapped parts. (laughs) At first when I saw what Dan was doing on set for our movie, I seriously though, “Oh, fuck that, I don’t want to do this.” (laughs)
DS: But think about the abs, though! (laughs)
You guys should instead of teaming up again or doing a sequel just do a straight remake where you just switch roles.
DS: (laughs) Yes! I remember being really jealous of the boots you wore in the film. I would definitely like to wear those boots.
MM: Oh, god, I can’t wait.