I was convinced the tree was going to come in and eat me.
When writer-director David Robert Mitchell arrived on the scene with The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010)—a gentle brushstroke about adolescence in the Michigan suburbs as a time of fading innocence—few would’ve guessed it might spawn a follow-up horror movie that puts a refreshing spin on a familiar model: the pass-on-the curse conceit made popular by films like Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) and Japanese cult phenom Ringu (2000).
In It Follows, something scary is afoot in the Detroit suburbs, the setting a recurring theme and a place where Mitchell grew up. In its opening scene, a teen darts out in panic from her front doorstep onto the street of an otherwise peaceful, tree-lined neighborhood. She’s being chased by something we can’t see. No one can see it except for her and others like her: the victims of a sexually transmitted hex that’s sent a shape-shifting specter implacably into their lives.
For our protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe), the afterglow of hooking up with her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) is ugly as hell. Through Hugh’s dire warning—at the same time deliberately steering the many-faced stalker’s bull’s eye from his forehead onto hers—and Jay’s first taste of what’s in store, we learn that whenever someone’s killed off, the previous sexual partner in line moves to the top of the never-ending death chain in the manner of Final Destination (2000).
It Follows hits select theaters March 13.
When we met up with Maika [Monroe] and Danny [Zovatto] at Cannes last year, we got to talking about the kinds of horror movies that have made a big impression on us. Maika brought up A Nightmare on Elm Street and Danny seemed to have a strong liking for The Shining. How about yourself?
I’ve always loved horror movies and I was definitely watching them when I was really young. That’s probably why I had so many nightmares, I guess? [Laughs] I really don’t know what the first stuff was. I grew up watching a lot of the Universal monster movies, [George] Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and Dawn of the Dead. Poltergeist scared the hell out of me when I was really young. I had my bed by the window and there was this tree and the branches would scrape against the glass. I was convinced the tree was going to come in and eat me.
What I appreciate about those classic films, and certainly It Follows, is the use of in-camera practical effects. I’m not a big fan of CGI when it comes to horror myself.
Well, we did use a little bit of that, but tried to avoid it as much as we can within our limited budget.
The film has been getting a lot of attention for breaking the conventions of the genre—its self awareness.
Sure. Ultimately, I’ve seen a ton of horror movies and I’m very much aware of what happens within the genre. But I also try to make things from other kinds of films I really love and merged that into It Follows as well. To me, it’s very much a horror movie, but the influences are vast.
What are those bigger influences that, maybe, we don’t see in the foreground of your films?
Growing up, I was sort of obsessed with [Alfred] Hitchcock and Rear Window is probably my favorite film ever. [John] Carpenter’s original The Thing comes to mind. A lot of [David] Cronenberg… I was obsessively watching Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas before making this movie in terms of compositions. Gosh, I don’t know how to answer this! [Laughs] I like the classic European arthouse stuff, too. [François] Truffaut is an idol to me. That sort of sensitivity, I guess, is a part of the movie as well. It’s the mixing of that along with the terror that’s interesting to me. The movie is very much about waiting and the anxiety of waiting. A lot of the really interesting things are, for me, what happens in those quiet spaces in-between the moments where these characters are attacked. I’m talking about the way they interact and care about each other.
Has the film’s visual style drawn a lot of comparisons to Gregory Crewdson’s work?
Oh yeah. That was an influence, for sure. Crewdson, Carpenter, [Brian] De Palma, [David] Lynch—these are all things I love and looked to in terms of the visual approach to the film.
You grew up in Michigan and shoot your films there. Is that a source of comfort, efficiency, awareness, authenticity, or practicality?
All of that. I don’t live there now, but my family is there and I like going back. It’s a very important place for me and I wrote the film to take place there. It had to be there, for me. I imagined how certain streets and neighborhoods should look like. Also, the very tragic separation between the city and the suburbs was another aspect or theme of the story. It’s there in the foreground in a few places, but that’s also part of the subtext of the movie.
You managed to create this “nowhere” place. The film’s retro-future tone is displacing and you get a lot of mileage out of small details like the flower lamp in Jay’s bedroom and the seashell Kindle, not to mention that brilliant video game-like score by Disasterpeace. Did you fashion these details fairly early on in the process?
From the beginning, I wanted something a little bit outside of time and that’s why we have these anachronistic elements in terms of production design. It’s about blurring the edges in terms of decades. There are, ultimately, things from the ’50s all the way to our modern times. It’s things like the ’60s shell compact phone that doesn’t exist, you know? It’s about creating a feeling within the viewer that you can’t quite place where this is. Maybe that’s a little disconcerting and it’s closer to a dream or a nightmare. It was definitely about placing it outside of time. But, yeah, it’s a conscious decision. It’s something that starts with the script and just the way I see the film. It’s about avoiding certain aspects of pop culture because I have an aversion to that. But then there are other sides of pop culture that I really like, embrace and want to put into the film. Usually, these are things from the past and things that feel like memories.
How long were you sitting on this story for?
I wrote it in 2011. I was basically in a holding pattern and waiting for money for a different film I was trying to put together. I wrote It Follows thinking it would be my third film and that was my intention. I was struggling to find money for what was supposed to be my second film. I had reached a point where I was frustrated and decided to put that aside and maybe get money for It Follows. I thought I might have better luck with that because it’s a genre film and the financiers will be more likely to give me some cash. And that was the case. That wasn’t easy either, but look what happened.
It’s easier to raise money for a horror film.
Yeah. But it was a movie I really wanted to make, also. I just intended to make it a little bit later, so I sort of moved it up.
I asked Maika and David what their first impressions were of the script and they both told me, “What the fuck is this? Who wrote this? What is going on?”
[Laughs] I mean, it was a little weird. It’s a little strange.
I don’t know how openly you share your scripts, but did you find that people had a hard time trying to figure out what it was all about?
I’m sure people did. People close to me seemed to get it, though. One of my best friends, the editor of It Follows, really liked the script when I sent it to him. He thought it was almost a sequel to my first film, a very warped nightmarish sequel. People close to me understood it. I think enough people got it to where they were able to—based on my first film and the script—have a trust in me and went along with it. I’m sure some people had no idea what the hell it was. Also, if you think about it, the idea of having these people walking towards you—depending on how you do it—raises the question as to how effective that will really be. I saw it in my head and it felt right to me, but that’s hard to express even on the page. It’s very much about the visuals. It’s very much about the atmosphere and you need to be in that environment, hear that music, the sound, and have all those things working together to really feel it completely.
Didn’t you give Maika a lookbook or something of that nature?
I did. I did a couple things.
I think that helped her a lot in the beginning from what she told me.
Yeah, I took the script and I did a lookbook for it and that’s sort of what went out in terms of how we were able to get the financing for the film. I also created a really detailed collage of references for the production design and to illustrate the general feel of the movie. That was probably a really long process, but a fun thing to do. I heard from several people that it helped.
I really appreciate that all the characters look their age in this film, too. When you ask actors to age down a bit—
Yeah, it can be a little bit silly, especially with this kind of movie where it’s so low-key and about them existing in that space. If they were too much older, it would be kind of laughable.
You had Maika put herself on camera for the audition. What was it about her that stood out?
She was fantastic. It was an amazing audition. There was a vulnerability and an honesty to her that was very important and needed. My number one concern in trying to make this film was to make sure that we had an actress who could, you know, carry the movie. You really have to believe in her. It’s one thing to sort of handle the quiet moments of the film, but then you also need someone who’s believable in that space before hitting these moments of chaos and craziness in their dealings with deep fear and terror. That’s tricky to do without falling into B-movie territory, you know? We’ve all seen examples of not very strong performances in terms of horror films where it’s literally someone screaming and you don’t feel it and it separates you from the moment. With Maika I felt like, when she’s afraid, you connect with her. She had that.
What was she asked to do in the audition?
I think she read two scenes. It was probably one really quiet one and one that was representative of the more elevated level of fear. I mean, that was really it and she nailed both of those. It was obvious she could do anything we needed for the film.
I don’t remember who said this—I’m pretty sure it was Sarah Michelle Gellar—but she mentioned how screaming was essential in the auditioning process of a horror movie. Did you need to hear Maika scream before giving her the part? Do you have those practical concerns?
[Laughs] I was just thinking about De Palma’s Blow Out because that’s all about the scream. Have you seen it?
I haven’t seen it.
It’s this whole thing where the character’s doing sound and they’re dubbing in a scream for a horror film. They’re having trouble finding the “right” scream, the proper scream. You need to see it! I’m not going to give any of it away because I hope you see it. But, yes and no. I don’t believe that there was a moment in the audition where we needed to ask Maika to do that, but I do care about every detail. You just have to make sure all of that is right.
Do you have your next project lined up? I know you have a stack of screenplays ready to go.
I have a ton of stuff, yeah, but is one particular project 100% ready to go? I want to say no. I have two scripts that I’m really pushing right now: one is a pretty big project that I definitely don’t have the money for yet and I have a smaller one that’s much more likely to be the next thing I do this year. But until I make it and there’s money in the bank and I’m actually doing it, I don’t know. So, hopefully, very soon. I have a bunch of stuff! I’m writing some TV stuff and I’m writing some more scripts now. I just have a big stack of stuff, you’re right. It’s always an issue of, like, finding people who are willing to pay for this stuff.
These are factors that are out of your control.
Well, they’re in your control in the sense that you can push and kind of try to get things going, but ultimately, it’s about somebody writing you checks. So, yeah, I don’t know.
Do you sit down to crank out one script at a time or are you working on several ideas?
I sit down and just write one. Usually, I set aside a few weeks or a month to write a script. Then I set aside a couple more weeks and write another script. Once I finish one, I’ll maybe go back and do a rewrite on that at some point. I’m always sort of juggling them, but usually, I get each script into really solid shape until I feel like I can get things going. I’ll pull something out of the drawer, ready to shoot. But I’m always trying to write new stuff. I’m hoping to find some time this year to write a couple new scripts.
So many of us have trouble finding even one solid story to tell and you have so many you want to tell all the time.
I don’t know… I really like writing. I enjoy it and I don’t enjoy it. It’s that cliché where something is fun to do, but it’s also a little painful. I’m open to ideas. I don’t know where it comes from.
It Follows was born out of the nightmares you used to have as a kid, but you no longer have nightmares from what I understand. What scares you nowadays?
It’s hard for me to get scared. Some kind of physical danger to me or my loved ones would be scary. I’m not really scared when it comes to films anymore, although I’d like to be! There are moments where you’re creeped out by movies and that’s fun, but it’s hard for me to be that way. I still enjoy horror films or just the attempt at trying to be frightened.
Well, It Follows is definitely scary. I’ve seen people jumping out of their seats at screenings.
Cool! Good! I’ve seen some of that, but it’s hard for me because I’m so close to it. I have to experience it through other people. When I see that people are bothered by it, disturbed or just have some anxiety over the movie, that’s cool and I like that. I feel a little bad about it, but it’s still nice.