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Nearly a decade ago, Simon Barrett’s screenwriting career took off thanks to the splashy world premiere of You’re Next at the Toronto International Film Festival. Now, after a series of films alongside his creative partner Adam Wingard, Barrett’s directorial debut, Seance, has finally arrived despite a 5-year pursuit. Set at an all-girls academy, the slasher mystery begins with the enrollment of Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse), who, after being waitlisted, is finally called upon to replace a deceased student. Even though she gets off on the wrong foot, Camille eventually participates in a seance with five other girls in order to find out the truth behind their classmate’s mysterious suicide.
Once Barrett and Wingard started making bigger and bigger movies, Barrett’s urge to direct came from a place of wanting to contribute more during production, something he’d become accustomed to during their stretch in micro-budget indies.
“I was just sitting at monitors on the set of The Guest, watching Dan Stevens and Maika Monroe do good work, and thinking, ‘I’m totally useless. There’s no reason for me to be here,'” Barrett tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So that’s when I was like, ‘I need to write something for myself to direct. I really want to do that. I’ve been frustrated not doing that. How hard would it be to get a low-budget horror movie financed?’ And the answer is incredibly difficult. It took me about five years.”
In February, it was reported that Barrett and Wingard were developing a direct sequel to John Woo’s 1997 action classic, Face/Off, which Wingard later discussed with THR in March. Barrett is also shedding some light on the project and how it might satisfy those who’ve been clamoring for a sequel to their 2014 cult hit, The Guest. After all, Face/Off was a key influence on the Dan Stevens thriller.
“One of the purest loves that Adam and I both understand is our love of the film Face/Off, and I think we have the right sensibility,” Barrett explains. “So much of Face/Off is in The Guest, including the whole narrative arc of the butterfly knife. So in a way, I’m hoping that anyone who wants a sequel to The Guest will find that our Face/Off 2 completely scratches that itch for them. In my mind, the sense of humor is very similar.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Barrett also discusses his own lack of interest in the supernatural, the unlikelihood of a The Guest sequel and potentially reuniting with You’re Next star Sharni Vinson.
So what prompted you to direct your first feature? What made this the right time?
The answer to that, honestly, has more to do with practical considerations than creative. I’ve always wanted to direct movies ever since I understood that it was a thing, which was fairly early in my childhood. I remember watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail and just being like, “I think these shots of actors are put together in some way to generate effect and I want to do that.” And when I went off to film school, I actually majored in cinematography and photography because I thought I was going to have to shoot my own movies; I figured I couldn’t afford to hire anyone and that was probably accurate. So as soon as I wrote a low-budget horror script, I figured I could make this film called Dead Birds for $60,000, which I’d raise from local businesses in my hometown in Missouri. But I ended up showing that script to a friend who worked at a studio, and they bought it. And then they made it with a different director who was more established, and he did a great job. So that was how my career as a screenwriter started. Writing scripts costs no money and making movies does cost money, which I didn’t have. So, like a lot of people, I just became a screenwriter. And once I started working with Adam Wingard, we were finally able to raise money for our films. Ironically, our first movie was made for a production budget of $60,000 in my hometown in Missouri; that was A Horrible Way to Die back in 2010. We then shot You’re Next and V/H/S there as well. I was more creatively involved then, and I was heavily involved in producing those early movies. I arranged our locations, our crew and got our insurance and everything. And when we moved on to bigger budgets, there was less and less for me to do, honestly. I was just sitting at monitors on the set of The Guest, watching Dan Stevens and Maika Monroe do good work, and thinking, “I’m totally useless. There’s no reason for me to be here. Adam is directing, so he’s fine. He’s got a crew. He’s got an infrastructure.” So that’s when I was like, “I need to write something for myself to direct. I really want to do that. I’ve been frustrated not doing that. How hard would it be to get a low-budget horror movie financed?” And the answer is incredibly difficult. It took me about five years.
Since you probably have no shortage of scripts and treatments, why was Seance the right entry point for you as a feature director?
I do have a lot of scripts and treatments in various files on my computer; most of them are terrible. With most of the things that I generate, no one ever sees them come to fruition because the idea wasn’t really there. Whatever people think of my talents as a writer, believe me when I say that I can totally screw up and fail. Sometimes, I have great ideas, but the characters and stories just don’t work. So Seance was never a high-concept film, but I always just loved the characters and the story. It was a film that really felt like it just poured out of my brain because I’ve consumed so many slashers, murder mysteries and gialli. And Seance works in all of those realms pretty obviously. So it was just a story that I really liked and felt connected to. I also thought, “This is probably the lowest-budget script I have,” and that’s the real answer. I looked at it as a contained horror movie. It was a film that was designed to bridge the gap in the way that gialli did between contained locked-house murder mysteries and single-location slasher films. I thought that was kind of what I’d written, but it didn’t work out that way as you may be gathering from my increasingly dark tone. It turned out that we weren’t able to find a single location, and it was really hard to do it the way that I planned it. But that’s indie filmmaking, always. So Seance was a small-enough film that I thought people would be willing to take a chance on me, in terms of the budget, and ultimately, that turned out to be true. To be honest, I don’t have any other projects. If you asked me, “What’s your next film?” I would say that I’m still writing it. I only feel good about my latest work, and Seance was something that I wrote to direct while we were doing Blair Witch. And from that point on, I was determined to get it made even though I rewrote it about 50 times. So it was written for that purpose, and I really wanted to see it get to the screen.
Have you participated in a seance beyond grade-school ouija board high jinks?
No, I haven’t. In reality, I actually have almost no interest in the supernatural. It’s not because I don’t believe in it, but to the extent that I do believe in it, I just feel like it’s the air or the sunrise. It would be wholly unremarkable if I were confronted with evidence of its existence because it would just be another thing. I’m completely disinterested in whether there’s extraterrestrial life. I assume there probably is, but who cares? If they want to say something, they will. If they don’t, then that’s fine too. It doesn’t really seem to affect my day-to-day activities. (Laughs.) So I try to feel about the supernatural the way most people feel about politics. It’s just an abstract, interesting thing that maybe doesn’t affect them. I don’t know if that metaphor tracked. (Laughs.) I would spend the night in a haunted house, but I genuinely don’t think I’d be scared to do it. I just don’t really feel that level of interest or excitement towards being afraid. Different things scare me than maybe scare other people.
Since you wrote Seance with the intention of directing it, did you direct more on the page than you normally would?
No, I have a very dry screenwriting style. In the Seance script, the only direction I allowed myself to write was where I was going to put the opening title, which I normally wouldn’t do. That would be slightly indulgent for a screenwriter to declare how that edit was going to place. I don’t really think that’s the function of a script, usually. So I tend to write my scripts in a fairly old style where I don’t tend to dictate a lot of camera movement, musical choices or anything you would consider a directorial choice. I never put that in a script, and I wouldn’t put that in a script, even if I was directing it. I think it’s boring to read, and I think it’s a lazy way to write screenplay direction. So I just avoid it as a personal taste thing. That said, I get scripts sent to me all the time where people write in that way and it doesn’t bother me. It’s just not my personal style. It’s like if someone told me they were scared of ghosts or aliens, I’d be like, “Yeah, that makes sense, but I’m more scared of getting hit by a car.” Everyone has their own personal thing, I guess. (Laughs.)
When Camille (Suki Waterhouse) would take her earbuds off or fiddle with her bluetooth speaker, I thought it was really cool how you’d turn score into diegetic music. So I assumed you directed those moments on the page for the actors and composer’s sake.
Well, I planned that, and I knew that was the way I was going to direct and sound mix those scenes. But I didn’t want to write it down because just think of how many paragraphs it would take to explain what you just described. I don’t know why I did that. There’s a film called Diva that has an opening credits that are then revealed to be a tape player on the motorbike of the protagonist, being driven through Paris. So I always thought that was such a cool little moment. Seance is a movie that’s just trying to be fun, but I did want there to be genuine depth to it and to the characters. So what I’m doing there is pretty obvious. When the audience is completely with Camille, we hear what she’s hearing the way she hears it, but when she’s with Helina [Ella-Rae Smith] and we’re more with the two of them, I play it in reverse. When the earbuds are in her ear, we don’t hear the music, but when they come out, we do hear the music like we’re in the room with them. And at the end, we’re back with Camille, hearing what she hears, and she’s retreated back within herself a little bit. We see that she’s opened up her world, and now she’s closing it back down again. So I just thought that was a nice little way to literally put the viewer in with what Camille is doing in those scenes. It’s just a little fun trick to say, “Now we’re with her, now we’re outside of her mind and now we’re back in it.”
So I’ve pressed Dan Stevens and Adam Wingard on this subject, but I still haven’t gotten the answer that I want to hear. In an era where streaming services are literally paying celebrities to read us bedtime stories, how is another The Guest movie not in the works at this point? The Guest should’ve been your triumvirate’s John Wick-type franchise.
Well, it’s very funny how everyone feels very strongly that a Guest sequel would be a viable financial model for some financier. If that financier emerges, we’d definitely be willing to talk to them, but I have to admit that we’d probably just try to get them to give us their money for something else. At this point, I think a Guest sequel could only disappoint. To a certain point, you have an obligation to respect the fandom that a film like The Guest has, which is this unique cult fandom. The film wasn’t a success, no one saw it, and then people discovered it on streaming. That wasn’t lucrative for the film, but it was tremendously gratifying for Adam and myself. We really felt like that movie was our clearest distillation of our sensibility that we’ve been able to achieve to date. We had our biggest budget and so on. So the way it turned out was the closest to the vision that we had at the start. When it wasn’t very well-received, we thought, “Oh, maybe people don’t want that.” So it was really gratifying for people to discover that film and respond to it, but at this point, people probably have a much cooler idea in their heads of what The Guest 2 could be than anything I could deliver. It’s like that Star Wars prequel thing. We could show you more adventures of David, but they probably wouldn’t be as cool as whatever you’re imagining we’d do. (Laughs.) So we are trying to come up with a way to deliver The Guest 2 that doesn’t disappoint people. It wouldn’t be a feature film, a comic book or anything like that. It would be something different. So we’re trying to work on something different right now.
I also asked Adam if the two of you had written the word “peach” in your Face/Off sequel draft, and that’s when he told me about the “peach pass” you recently did.
(Laughs.) Yeah, we did!
How’s that project going from your perspective?
It’s funny because the peach line is really symbolic of something, isn’t it? You don’t want to pander to fans of the first movie. You don’t want to put anything in the sequel that doesn’t feel organic, but at the same time, there are certain things that people want to see Castor Troy do and say, if Castor Troy is coming back. So we’re doing our best. You try to not overthink things like that as an artist. As soon as you start worrying too much about expectations and so on, you start making the wrong decisions — decisions that people don’t even want you to make, but you think maybe they do. We’re trying to let ourselves be guided by our pure love of Face/Off. (Laughs.) One of the purest loves that Adam and I both understand is our love of the film Face/Off, and I think we have the right sensibility. But in a way, those two questions go together beautifully because so much of Face/Off is in The Guest, including the whole narrative arc of the butterfly knife. So in a way, I’m hoping that anyone who wants a sequel to The Guest will find that our Face/Off 2 completely scratches that itch for them. In my mind, the sense of humor is very similar.
It feels like you and Adam are linked to a new movie every week. Since you probably prefer tunnel vision like most creatives, how are you juggling work like Face/Off 2 and ThunderCats at the same time?
Well, I work all the time anyway. I kind of don’t know any other way to exist, so I actually tend to enjoy working on multiple projects at once when I’m writing. When you hit a wall creatively on one and need to figure something out, you can just move on to something else to clear your head. In the case of the scripts you mentioned, I feel like we have a clear vision for both that makes them easy to return to, and co-writing with Adam on those is so much more fun than doing it on my own. So he now shares my terrible burden. But I will say that I haven’t exercised or left my apartment for any lengthy period recently; I should probably make time for that.
The impression that I got from Adam was that a lot of writers came and went on Godzilla vs. Kong, which is not uncommon on franchise films. Did you contribute your own two cents along the way?
Nope, I wasn’t involved with Godzilla vs. Kong at all. I got to just enjoy that one as a viewer.
Your answer to my Guest question probably applies to this as well, but do you guys ever spitball ideas about You’re Next 2 and what Erin (Sharni Vinson) might be up to now?
Ah, I hope Erin’s doing great. We’re hoping to work with Sharni again soon on something, so maybe we’ll call her character Erin in that film and people can try to figure out what her intervening decade must have been. The full answer is, after You’re Next sold but before it was released in theaters — which was a two-year process due to some corporate changes at Lionsgate at that time — we talked a bit about making a sequel if the film was successful. I think we had some cool ideas, but like with The Guest, You’re Next was never originally intended to have a sequel. We were excited to make one if there was any interest, but I never actually wrote anything down. Adam and I just bounced some ideas around, and then when the movie flopped, I was glad I hadn’t done any actual work.
You’re part of a big group of creatives who appear in each other’s work, whether it’s Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Ti West, etc. Who’s the John Hughes at the center of this family tree?
(Laughs.) Well, I’m the only one who keeps pointlessly making weird John Hughes homages like Seance is to The Breakfast Club, but I’m way too dysfunctional to actually be the John Hughes, so I’m going to say it’s Amy. She always has several brilliant projects at various stages in various mediums and is just kind of unstoppable. Amy gave me a pep talk in mid-2019 when Seance‘s financing temporarily fell through for about the dozenth time, and I wish I’d recorded it. I feel like I could sell it to people as a motivational thing.
Seance is now available in select theaters, on digital and on demand. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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