Back in 2011, I caught You’re Next at the Toronto International Film Festival. I really dug the film, and I’m glad that it will finally hit theaters later this year. The plot centers on a family reunion that turns deadly when the family becomes targeted by masked murderers. Their only hope is Erin (Sharni Vinson), a girlfriend of one of the family members. The film also stars AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Barbara Crampton, Wendy Glenn, Margaret Laney, Rob Moran, Joe Swanberg, Nicholas Tucci, and Ti West.
The film recently played to an enthusiastic crowd at SXSW 2013, and I got the chance to sit down and discuss the movie with director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. We talked about writing a strong female character from the inside-out, designing the creepy and iconic masks worn by the killers, shooting carefully inside of a historic mansion, and more. Hit the jump to check out the interview. You’re Next opens August 23rd.
ADAM WINGARD: It’s great because the movie is designed specifically to be played for an audience. From the get-go the creative inception of the movie was to do something that could work more for a mainstream audience, because we come from a background of very low-budget independent filmmaking and a lot of this choices you’re making stylistically and all that stuff are kind of based on what your budget is. A lot of times the goal in those films is just to get a movie.
SIMON BARRETT: Yeah, just to finish.
WINGARD: Whereas this film we had enough of a budget where we were able to say what kind of movie do we want to make? What script has Simon written? And what is the correct way to direct that script? Not just how do we make this into a movie? Going into it that way we approached it from the perspective of what would we want to see as an audience? What would we want to see out of a film if we were sixteen years old? That was a very important process for us so, even before we played it in Toronto; internally we did our own test screenings, official test screenings, out in Hollywood because it was important to us to see how it played for an audience and to sculpt the movie in a way that maximized that. Watching the movie last night, for me, was super enjoyable because that’s the whole reason the movie exists is to get a rise out of people and get people laughing, clapping, and jumping and all that stuff
One of the things I love best about it is how it reinvented the survivor girl into the survivalist girl, I was wondering what the thought process was in redefining that familiar trope.
BARRETT: We knew from the very beginning of even talking about that project that we wanted a strong female lead, but the way Adam and I take inspiration from a lot of things is we don’t like the way strong female leads are portrayed in most horror films. Usually if you have a tough female character it just means that she’s kind of pointlessly mean to everyone from the very first scene on and then screams and runs around.
WINGARD: And usually your final girl is also somebody who has really just gotten lucky and is slightly smarter than everyone else.
BARRETT: Absolutely, yeah, or she’s just had the least sex so somehow she survives. So I was thinking, really trying to wrap my head around what I haven’t seen before, and it occurred to me that the problem is I think a lot of male screenwriters maybe don’t believe in what they’re doing so they constantly have the characters talking about how their tough and acting like their tough. I just realized that really tough people don’t act tough, they don’t have to say that their tough because they know that they could kill everyone in the room. That was kind of the key to that character for me realizing that she actually might be a little embarrassed about her toughness. So I wanted to give a backstory that really hit the nail on the head. A backstory of why she’s tough that totally explains it but is also is kind of so ridiculous that she would be embarrassed to tell anyone. She even says, when she’s talking about that, she says she hasn’t told her boyfriend Crispian yet.
WINGARD: Even going to the casting of it was important to find somebody who- for instance, whenever we did the auditions these girls would come in and they would be wearing cut-off shorts and they would have their shirt tied up around their chest and showing their whole mid-section, they were posing and pretending to be tough. It was totally exactly what I wanted, didn’t want somebody to come in there and over sexualize the role, we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to find somebody who actually just personified toughness. She didn’t come in there and pose and say that she was tough, exactly as Simon just said, and Sharni is that person. She came in there and he was just badass and that’s who she is.
BARRETT: A lot of heroines in Hollywood cinema are hard on the outside but then you discover they have a soft, emotional center and we wanted to do the opposite of that. We wanted a heroine who’s soft on the outside and acts kind of like what she thinks a normal girl is but has a true interior of toughness and hardness. The kind of funny thing is that that is a little bit what Sharni is. She’s the nicest, most awesome person and then you find out, Adam was just saying Sharni told him some story about how she sprained her ankle during Step Up 3D and then danced with a sprained ankle for six months. She would get hurt on set and you would never know because she just wouldn’t talk about it until makeup would come up to us and be like, “Why are we covering a bruise on Sharni’s face?” “Oh, Amy accidentally kicked her in the head.” That was really important to us because we wanted to make a movie that both male and female horror fans could really enjoy and get behind. I feel like a lot of horror movie cater more to a male audience. We knew we wanted to do something really different because we felt that was just missing from the genre, and that was the key to doing something new and kind of fresh, but we also knew there were a lot of clichés that we needed to avoid. On the one hand having her be an actual survivalist is very obvious and obviously a bit absurd, but it also gives you a key to the character.
I also wanted to talk to you about the design of the film in terms of the masks, which are very memorable, and also the kills because those are the ones that get people cheering.
WINGARD: The mask was something where Simon, in the script, wrote it exactly how it is; there was a tiger, a fox mask, and a lamb mask. Going in to it we actually tried a lot of different things, we kept an open mind. The art department sewed together different types of masks. We tried a lot of different things, but ultimately my first instinct, which is what we ended up doing, was to do the Halloween approach, which is they bought that Captain Kirk mask, they painted it white and just made it their own. To me it just made sense to take those animal masks and just basically give them a white feature, because it’s a simple image, but it stands alone on its own iconicness.
BARRETT: I think that’s a really good point because I love the film The Strangers, but when you see the masks that these kids are wearing it’s like, what are they, design majors at FIDM during the day? They’re clearly serial killers.
WINGARD: Our masks had to look like something that was found and could have been created realistically by a bunch of not super smart guys.
BARRETT: A bunch of merciless killers. That’s the whole thing that kind of drives me crazy in these film is these people are insane killers but they clearly have spent a lot of time designing these very artistic masks. So we wanted something that on one hand looked cool and iconic-
WINGARD: But was also realistic to the plot.
BARRETT: Totally, you could believe that these guys just got these masks and painted them and that was it.
WINGARD: As far as the kills go, to me it was very important that we make the kills violent, but we also do something that sets them apart and actually draws you in in an entertaining way, and can let you have fun with it as well while not subtracting the goriness or the violence of it. So I took a lot of inspiration, Simon and I are both really into Italian films, those are meticulously crafted, usually kind of sloppy, but they always an interesting approach to their kill scenes.
BARRETT: It’s all stuff you haven’t seen before.
WINGARD: Exactly. Going into this a huge inspiration for me was this Donald Cammell film from the 80’s called White of the Eye. It’s really this obscure serial killer thing, but the thing that I took away from it was the way that he shot his murder sequences. It would be these beautiful slow motion shots, somebody would be strangled and they would knock over a vase of flowers and the film would concentrate on the vase hitting the ground in slow motion, exploding, stuff like that. That really made big impact on me and I realized that I really wanted to do some interesting stylizations with the violence and make it really pop in a way that wasn’t just saying, “Oh, this is hardcore” or anything like that, but it was doing something like you’ve never seen it before without distracting too much from the story. I didn’t end up going as over the top as White of the Eye, if you ever see that film, but it was definitely a huge influence to approach it from a unique angle like that.
WINGARD: It’s all a real location, we found it in Columbia, Missouri, which is where Simon’s from and that’s where we shot our other two films A Horrible Way to Die and V/H/S. We were talking about this earlier, it was a really challenging process because it was actually a historic mansion, it was built in the early 1900s, so we couldn’t damage anything. But we wanted the film to look like the whole house has been torn to pieces by the end of it so we had to be very meticulous in picking certain walls we had to create in the house that we damage. If blood was going to hit the wall, it would be our wall paper. It’s not noticeable, but if you really pay attention there’s a surplus of carpets in this house and that’s because we had to make sure that we couldn’t damage it. That created a huge challenge in itself, because we wanted that aesthetic beauty, but what that brings is other challenges in itself so we had to work around that creatively. Especially when it comes to the crossbow stuff, we were actually shooting those crossbows for real in the house. All those inserts you see of it smashing into things was us actually just shooting a crossbow inside the house. That couldn’t damage anything so right off screen every time that’s going on are all these big pieces of plywood and Plexiglas and it takes forever to set up. So constantly while we were shooting the film, either at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day, we always set aside an hour outside of the schedule where we would just get more crossbow inserts, because a lot of times they wouldn’t work out, or just trying to get enough of them. I feel like we just barely have enough. You don’t notice in the film because it feels all complete, but we were sweating it when we were shooting, because it was a process to actually pull that kind of stuff off.
BARRETT: We have no idea. We’re as excited to find out as you.
WINGARD: I can’t wait, yeah, but we’ll see. I’d assume relatively soon.
BARRETT: I hope so; we’re just really excited about that.
After 18 months of waiting.
BARRETT: Yeah, we’ll find out when you do I guess.