Interview: Director David Robert Mitchell on Nightmares + 'It Follows'
by Jeremy Kirk
April 3, 2015
It Follows, indie writer/director David Robert Mitchell's follow-up to his acclaimed 2010 debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, couldn't be further from the coming-of-age-in-suburbia drama. In terms of tone, that is. His latest is similar in that it deals with teens in suburban Detroit, but the comparisons end there. It Follows is a nightmarish tale of one girl and the unstoppable curse that has latched itself onto her, a ghost who's hauntings can only be transferred by some good old hanky-panky. The entity follows her relentlessly until it either catches her or she can pass the curse onto another, unlucky person. Mitchell utilizes these two simple ideas to create one of the scariest, cinematic experiences to come along in awhile.
It's the concept of those two, very distinct ideas that make up the threat in It Follows where I began my interview with Mitchell, who was gracious enough to sit down with us for a few moment. Minor warning: we keep from bringing up specific details about the film, particularly the ending, and Mitchell is very careful about what he wants divulged about his film. Some of what follows may be considered a bit spoilery:
You have two, very interesting sides to the curse at the center of this movie. You have the way it's transferred, or, if you prefer, transmitted…
David Robert Mitchell: Either is fine. Yeah.
And you have the curse, itself, the entity. Did one idea spark before the other, or did you develop these ideas together while writing the screenplay?
David: The idea of being followed by something that is always walking towards you, looks like different people, basically came from a recurring nightmare I had when I was a kid. I've never been able to forget some of the feeling from that nightmare, and that was what I built the initial idea upon. Then, in terms of how it's transferred, I thought about that for a lot of years and, at some point, I thought it would be interesting to have it be passed between people. Then I added the idea that it could be something passed through sex. That was an element that came much later.
Did that stem from the American slasher movie, this idea that sex equals death? Did you grow up on those?
David: Yeah, I'm a big horror fan, so I've seen them all. I don't think it's so much coming from a response to that, because I don't think the film, for me, it's not about the idea of sex equals death. I think, in the film, sex is also a way people can, at least temporarily, escape from this danger. It was a little more complicated. At least, the way I see it, anyway. It's certainly an interpretation, and one that I've heard quite a bit. So, no, it's not a response to that, but I'm totally aware of that.
Were you a fan of those types of movies, or do you go more for atmosphere or tension?
David: I'm definitely a fan of what I'd probably call the classics, but that's a pretty big range of stuff. I love all the Universal monster movies, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead is probably my favorite of those. I'm a huge John Carpenter fan. I love Cronenberg. Some people have even asked me about similarities with A Nightmare on Elm Street. All of that is totally true. I see that. I grew up loving this stuff, and I still do. I'm still a horror fan.
This may be a different way of asking the same question, but is there any kind of statement in It Follows about the current views of promiscuity?
David: No. No, I've heard some people who seem to think the movie is making some sort of puritanical viewpoint, and I hate that. It's not my intention. Again, people can read whatever they want from a movie, and it's going to happen regardless of what the intentions are. To a certain degree it's valid. There's a line between what I intend and what exists and how people read it, and I think that's fine. That was not my intention, though. I have a very different read on the film.
Is that something you would want to reveal? It's fine if you want to keep that to yourself.
David: Part of it is, I feel, the more I say one particular thing, I'm just cautious about that being the one–or becoming the one–read of the movie, and I find it interesting that there are all these different interpretations. I'm just a little hesitant saying, "Oh this is what this means, and this is what this mean. This is why I did this." I think it would rob it of some of the fun and the mystery.
Right, the ambiguity.
It's a very simple title. You know exactly what you're gonna get, and, for the most part, it's a fairly simple premise. Was there ever a point early on where you had, sort of, an origin for this thing and a reason for the curse?
David: Hahaha. No.
In your mind, do you have an idea where this thing came from?
David: Well… what's the best way I can answer this?
You don't have to say what it is, just yes or no.
David: Right, well, I'm gonna dodge this to a degree…
David: …but here's the truth. Even the first draft of the script is very similar to what we ended up with. There are some set pieces changed. A few things are different. A lot of it comes down to there were things we couldn't afford to do or it was just impossible, logistically, to pull it off. The film is a nightmare, and to try to put some kind of magical starting point for it, to have a moment where it all began and to explain that logically places it somewhere within the real world, within our world. Or it suggests magic, and, to do either of those two things, for me, robs it of being a nightmare. When you're in a dream or a nightmare, you don't need to have a terrible event to start the action that puts you within that terrible experience. You don't need some kind of magical object. You don't need those things, and, if they were in there, it'd be quite silly. If you were in a nightmare, there would be no logical step to be able to explain it. It just is.
That's the way I like to see the film. I know there are some people who are used to the other thing. They're very used to horror films starting as nightmares and becoming, sort of, mysteries in the sense that it's all about solving the nightmare. Some of those I like. Some of them I don't. Sometimes I feel like the fact that it changes and becomes something else ruins it for me, so I completely wanted to avoid that.
Have you seen this with an audience? Did you see it with the Fantastic Fest audience?
David: Yeah, I've seen it with a few different audiences. I tend to not watch it all the way through but just pieces. I've just seen it so much. Yeah, the first screening we had in front of any sizable group of people was at Critic's Week at Cannes, and we hadn't really played it in front of an audience before, just some small groups of friends. I really didn't know how it would play in front of people, and that was really cool. It was really nice to see some people were scared, and some people screamed in places. There was a tension in the theater, and that's really fun.
That's kind of what I wanted to get into. The way you decided to depict the entity, it's basically in the background of every scene, whether you intended it to be there or not.
David: Yeah, once it's set up in the audience's mind, then literally any extra, any person… and, even if it's a moment, which is not even intended, it gives it all a certain strength.
That's what I wanted to ask. Are there moments where you've noticed people in the audience thinking they see the entity, but, in your mind, you didn't even intend it to be in that scene?
David: I don't know that I can think of one off the top of my head, but I imagine that there probably are some. We were pretty careful. There were a bunch of scenes where we were trying to put people in the background or movement in the foreground to kind of mess with you a little bit. Some of that is intentional, but there are probably a couple where it just happened to be there.
Maika Monroe is so good in this and The Guest, and in both she has to play this innocence but you realize at any point she can kick your ass. It helps in It Follows when she has to make those hard decisions. Had you seen her in Labor Day or The Bling Ring, or did she audition?
David: She auditioned, and she had a fantastic audition. She was really, really wonderful. There was this deep vulnerability. I don't know what else to say other than everyone on the team for the film who saw that audition were immediately convinced she was the right person. I'm very happy she made the film with us.
What was the casting process like for the creature, itself?
David: Oh, the different people?
Yeah, did you have ideas for who they were going to be in the screenplay?
David: They were all very specific. Everything was very specific. Everything was figured out at the writing stage, and it was about finding those people, which was sometimes easy-ish and sometimes very difficult.
We'll just keep it vague to avoid too many spoilers, but how tall was that guy?
David: He's one of the tallest people. I might be screwing this up, but I think he might be the second tallest man in North America. I actually think we didn't do his height justice. He's an incredibly tall man, and, not to hurt the film, but he's a super nice guy.
To build the whole atmosphere you have Disasterpeace doing this abnormal but haunting score. Did you always intend for him to do the score?
David: I had written the script, and I wanted to make the film. Around that time I was playing the video game FEZ. It's a really great game, but Disasterpeace did the music for that game. I absolutely loved the music. I just looked him up and reached out to him. I told him I was planning to make this horror film. I sent him the script. I sent him my first film, Myth [of the American Sleepover], and he agreed to do the music. There were many conversations in terms of what we wanted to do, but I always knew I wanted an electronic score. I wanted something that was very bold, and I was looking for someone who could create music for this movie that, it itself, was very memorable, the kind of music you could sit and listen to on its own. I feel like he did that.
Was that the love for [John] Carpenter or '80s scores in general?
David: Well, yeah, Carpenter for sure and Vangelis. A ton of stuff.
Do you have an idea for a continuation on this or are you moving on to something else?
David: I mean I have tons of ideas. I don't know whether I'll do it or not. It just depends on if people want that honestly. If there's a desire for it. In terms of other stuff I have other types of films that I wanna make in many different genres.
Is horror a genre you'd like to stay in?
David: Yeah. Not for the next one most likely. I wanna mix it up a little, but I would come back and make another horror film at some point if I had the right idea. But not next. At least it'd be unlikely that it'll be next. Nothing is 100%, but, likely, I'll go make some other kinds of films.
What's a genre that, money is no object, you'd like to play in?
David: I have scripts for all kinds of things. I have a mystery adventure. I have a detective story. I have a science fiction story. It'd be really fun to try and make all these different kinds of movies. I love drama. I just love film. I'm a big film buff, and I like the idea of trying to do my different versions of many different kinds of movies.
I can't wait to see every one of them. Thank you very much for talking with us?
David: Cool, man. Thank you.
Thank you, again, to David Robert Mitchell for sitting down to chat with us and to Fons PR for setting it all up. Congratulations are in order, as well, as It Follows expanded to 1200 screens this past weekend with an impressive box office. Catch it (before it catches you) in theaters.
David Robert Mitchell's It Follows is now playing in select theaters across the country, from Radius-TWC. Check your local listings, or visit the film's official website for more updates. Read my Fantastic Fest review.