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Adam Wingard, AJ Bowen and Simon Barrett Talk You’re Next

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Adam Wingard, AJ Bowen and Simon Barrett Talk You're NextThere’s a bit of under the radar stunt-casting in You’re Next: Indie horror directors abound – on the run from a small herd of cross-bow and ax-wielding killers clad in farm-animal masks are Larry Fessenden, Ti West, Amy Seimetz and Joe Swanberg.

It’s written, directed and acted with true vitality and while it’s a black comedy, humorous elements never take a backseat to the horror. Even when you know what’s about to happen, You’re Next continues to be suspenseful and scary throughout. It was definitely one of our favorite films of 2013, so it’s great it hits DVD and Blu-ray so early into the the new year (Tuesday, January 14).

Special features include a making-of featurette, an audio commentary with director Adam Wingard, writer Simon Barrett and actors Sharni Vinson and Barbara Crampton and a separate audio commentary with director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett.

It was my pleasure to pick the brains (figuratively, of course) of three of the guys responsible for the frights.

Adam Wingard

Q: Everything looks so top notch, maybe surprisingly so… How’d you avoid getting that “low budget look”?

AW: From the get go I knew that I wanted to make a film that could appeal outside of the film festival world to mainstream audiences. For me this was a challenge because prior to this I was working in the what one might call the NO BUDGET realm of filmmaking so in order to even have a movie at the end of the day I implemented a very fragmented experimental shooting and editing style. For You’re Next I didn’t want to lose the style that I had developed to that point but I did want to sort of disguise it behind more conventional cinematic language in order to make that transition to a wider audience. This means however that you have to be very efficient because part of what makes bigger budget Hollywood films is having the ability to cut to a number of angles and to occasionally do fancy stylistic little flourishes here and there. With all that said the main thing to making low budget stuff seem bigger is to make the audience feel that if you don’t show something that it was a creative decision and not based on budget or time. In short it’s all about the illusion of scope.

Q: What do you hope will be the take away for viewers of You’re Next, and how will watching it at home on Blu-ray enhance the home invasion theme that much more?

AW: I just want people to enjoy the film. It was made to be a fun movie going experience and I think once people own the film at home I would encourage them to make it a communal experience. Invite some friends over and let the movie jerk you around. I honestly don’t care if people like the film I just care that they have a good time watching it. I think its two different things.

Q: What’s next up for you, Adam?

AW: Finished the sound mix for our latest film The Guest. It premieres Friday midnight at Park City.

AJ Bowen

Q: There are lots of movies about home invasions – why’d you chose You’re Next? I know you worked with Adam before… So do you chose projects more on roles, or on the filmmaker?

AJB: The only thing about my career that I have any semblance of control over is my choice, my sensibilities. So for the past few years I’ve been making fewer movies, for the most part ones I think have a good shot at a fair shake for either audience or for the creative team. To be fair to the gang on You’re Next, I’m not sure it’s right to say I chose it. It’s a bit of the reverse. What I mean to say is, of course I’d choose to work on a film that involved people I trust creatively. I’m not in any position to choose to work with Jess, Keith, Simon or Adam. Any time friends of that quality and talent offer to choose you, you try to not fuck that up and the answer has always been and always will be yes. If they’re working on something, and think I am right to contribute on it, I’m always going to choose to do that. Beyond those guys, I’m always going to choose something based on 2 things-those being the script, and the creative team. It’s not much value to jump on a good script if there’s concern as to whether or not the team involved can fully realize it. I’ve done that in the past, to mixed results. So it starts with the script, and then it’s about compatibility with the filmmakers making it. Every movie is an eternal public journal for the world to see of a very finite moment in time, so I like to know we’re all speaking the same language and can trust each other going into creative battle.

Q: There’re a lot of carefully choreographed scenes in You’re Next – talk about how much that affects the flow of acting and emotion when you have to be very aware of the logistics.

AJB: My brain, I suppose, is fairly atypical in the world of acting. I’m logic driven, am a person that thrives creatively in logistics, so I’m always staging some form or another of choreography. That’s what I’m doing with the text as an actor, choreographing the accompanying dance to the music which in this instance means the script. Some people might find that creatively limiting but I find it freeing and an essential component of collaboration. When you’re finding the rhythm of a scene with the steadicam operator, during the scene, it becomes a partnership, and that dynamic is one of my favorite parts of shooting a movie.

Q: I understand you and Barbara Crampton became friends from working on You’re Next – what’s your favorite thing about her, something fans might not necessarily know…?

AJB: Well it’s funny because she’s not really old enough to be my mom and we don’t share that kind of dynamic in our relationship. She’s a dear friend to me, and provides a great source of comfort and wisdom, both in work and especially in life. She was one of the most present, and most supportive people in my life while I was going through the pain of getting sober. I think her nature is transcendent, so I’m sure people can already see, but her heart is my favorite thing. She’s a spiritual, wise, and most importantly to me loving and loyal cherished soul. Every cell of that beautiful woman is filled with love and I’m grateful to call her my friend. I can’t provide her the depth of counsel she provides me, but I try, and I’d do anything for her. Barbara is one of the best human beings I’ve ever known. Also, she’s got a wicked, sly sense of humor. And she sings karaoke with me. Basically, Barbara is perfect, and anyone who knows her will tell you the same.

Simon Barrett

Q: Home invasion movies are not exactly few and far between, so what was the biggest challenge in regard to making this script different?

SB: Well, I started the script from a point of extreme awareness of home invasion thriller clichés. I would say that “trying to do something different” is one of the most basic aspects of Adam’s and my filmmaking process; we always start from that point at a bare minimum, I would hope. So I was already thinking about the more standard home invasion thriller model exemplified by great films like Ils, Straw Dogs and The Strangers, and also of movies that did something unusual with that, such as A L’INTERIEUR or Funny Games.

But all of that said, we’d never have even conceived of the notion of making You’re Next if we didn’t feel like we had something new and fun to add to the home invasion subgenre. So it wasn’t necessarily a challenge, because before I started writing, I already had some ideas that I knew weren’t like any home invasion movie I’d seen, at least not since Home Alone or whatever, which is why I wrote that script in the first place. So knowing those clichés existed wasn’t a negative challenge to be overcome, it was more like a positive challenge that inspired us to make this film.

Q: Did you know who the cast would be as you were writing it?

SB: The roles played by Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen and Amy Seimetz were specifically written for them. Other roles in the film, I kind of had the actors in mind for, which can sometimes help clarify a character’s voice. But then, you know, it might not work out in the casting process, so I generally don’t do that except just as a writing tool. But Amy, AJ and Joe were the leads in the previous film we’d finished, A Horrible Way to Die, and we knew we wanted to work with all of them again immediately, and that the feeling was mutual enough that they’d prioritize us in their schedules. So I specifically wrote for them. Which can be a huge help.

For example, Joe and Amy are both masters at improvisational acting, so it was more about giving them characters that they could have fun with. AJ is likeable and engaging in a unique way, and we’d utilized that very precisely in A Horrible Way to Die, giving him this huge monologue at the end. It might be boring if another actor did it, but AJ made it totally entertaining. So when I realized I was doing something similar in You’re Next, I was just like, “Well, I’ll just write a speech for AJ, and he’ll find some way to pull it off.” And he did.

All that said, those were unique circumstances, where I knew in advance that the timing would work out. If I wrote roles specifically for Amy, Joe and AJ now, we’d be screwed, because Amy’s on two television shows, et cetera. So, it all just depends on the project and the circumstances. We like working with actors who we know are gifted and we already have a rapport with, and sometimes it’s ideal to therefore conceive a role for an actor, for manifest reasons. But in general, I just write the characters however they are in my head, and then casting defines the characters further.

Q: Is everything you wrote pretty much on screen or were the actors allowed to ad lib? Do you like actor ad libs or not?

SB: There’s quite a bit of ad-libbing in You’re Next, especially in the earlier scenes with Joe, Amy and Ti West, all of whom have also worked with improvisational acting from the other side of the camera too. The dinner scene, for example, is the kind of sequence that requires some improvisation, because you can’t write what every single character is doing at all times in a big scene like that; the scene would end up being thirty pages long and totally unreadable. I think all of the lines that were in the script are in the film, but we needed the actors to augment the dialogue and be natural and spontaneous in their interactions so that Adam could make a complete scene out of it.

I generally leave it up to the actors, it’s a matter of preference. Sharni Vinson, for example, liked to memorize her dialogue in advance. But she was great at ad-libbing, she just preferred to do a different kind of preparation, I think. It’s ultimately up to the performer. I’m very open to improvisation, as long as it’s good, and we try to work with actors who will make the roles and dialogue better than maybe we could have ever conceived them, or have an understanding of the character that can be completely different or deeper than mine.

If a bit of ad-libbing isn’t working, then, you know, I can discuss it with the actor, or with Adam. But I’m always respectful about that, and give them a chance to try something, especially if Adam’s working with them on the scene. I’ve directed stuff, so I get how that process goes.

Ultimately, it’s the performances that make a scene work. You can write a great scene with beautiful, poetic dialogue, and if the performances aren’t right, the scene will be garbage. On the other hand, great performances can save a poorly written scene. Adam and I are both aware of that, and that’s the priority during production, to get the best possible performances, whether that means ad-libbing or doing the lines I wrote verbatim. It could be either, it just depends on the actor and the moment, so I have to be open to both. I don’t think either technique is better, it’s just whatever works.

Now, obviously I do try to write the best dialogue I can; I don’t just write “[Swanberg will say something funny here]” and skip to the next scene in the script. But every actor has their own technique, and film is a collaborative art. Any writer who isn’t at least open to that is being deluded by their own ego.

I think we’re going to put the screenplay for You’re Next online, now that the movie’s coming out on video, so anyone with any interest in this sort of thing will be able to read it. I assume that’s no more than two or three people, but for those two or three people, it might be edifying.

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Staci Layne Wilson