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To watch the buzzy new horror film It Follows is to feel trapped inside a nightmare. It’s no surprise, then, that writer-director David Robert Mitchell took his inspiration from a recurring childhood nightmare of his own.
In the movie, which opened in limited release last week and will expand over the next two weeks, a 19-year-old girl named Jay (Maika Monroe) is relentlessly pursued by an evil, slow-moving presence intent on killing her. The monster can take the form of any person, and it cannot be stopped — but if an intended victim has sex with someone, the evil creature’s attention will be diverted to their partner.
The film’s story sounds ridiculous when it’s described in literal terms, as Mitchell acknowledges in this interview with Yahoo Movies. But It Follows isn’t about the plot, so much as it’s about an inescapable feeling of dread and terror that grabs the viewer and doesn’t let go. To that end, the director has taken great care not to over-explain the film’s dreamlike elements, including the monster’s appearance and the movie’s ambiguous time period. (Mitchell incorporated many props and set elements from previous decades, and at least one that doesn’t actually exist: a flip-phone-style e-Reader shaped like a shell.) Yahoo talked to the writer-director about the movie’s sex metaphor, the horror clichés he deliberately avoided, and the camera technique that makes ordinary suburban life feel so scary. (Warning: Minor spoilers.)
I was just recommending this film to someone, and as I was giving a synopsis I realized, I am making this sound like a terrible movie.
You can’t really describe it. When you say it out loud, it sounds like the worst thing ever.
So it’s not just me.
No, no, no. I avoided talking about the story when people would ask me “what are you working on?” I would not pitch it. If you say it out loud, it’s really tough to not have it sound pretty ridiculous. So I would say, “Just trust me and know it’s a horror film.” As far as getting people on board, it was about sharing the script. I put a big look book together. I did a lot to try to get people to understand that it’s about the tone of the film.
One thing that makes It Follows tough to describe is the role of sex in the movie. I think in another era, people would have really seen it as a straight-up analogy for AIDS. I saw it more as a metaphor for growing up and facing death. Obviously there’s some deliberate ambiguity there, but why did you make the choice to use sex as a conduit for your monster?
The idea for It Follows came from a dream when I was a kid, but I sort of built on it later. And at a certain point when I was working out the story, in the back of my mind, I thought that it would be nice to have [the monster] be something that can move between people. It just sort of made sense to me that if it was something that was passed through sex, it would be a way to link the characters — to connect them both physically and emotionally. And it tied in to some of the other larger themes that I was working towards.
What’s your reaction to people seeing it in terms of a moral message about STDs or casual sex?
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t completely aware of that [interpretation] when I was writing the script. I mean, we play that up in a few scenes for sure, but it’s just one way of seeing it. It was not the number-one interpretation of the film for me. I don’t have a problem with anybody seeing it that way; it’s not necessarily my favorite read, but I think it’s a valid one. To me, part of the fun of a horror film is having people dissect it and analyze it and look at it from different points of view. And I’m okay with there being a separation between my intention and other people’s interpretation.
You’ve said in other interviews that you didn’t set down concrete rules in terms of what the monster can or can’t do. But we do hear some rules in the film.
The only rules that we hear are rules that we’re told by a character within the film, who has access to limited information. If you look at the film enough, you can start to understand how he may be figuring these things out and how he has gotten the information that he has. But you also have to understand that they’re not rules on a stone’s tablet; they’re a character’s best guess about what’s happening to them. So, you know, they seem mostly right. But for me, that’s kind of fun, in that there might be some gaps in information, some things that he doesn’t understand and neither do we.
The camera plays a big role in keeping the audience on edge in It Follows; you use a lot of wide angles and long takes, and it feels like the monster could come out of anywhere at any time. But also, there were a couple times when the characters turned to the camera and I thought maybe the monster was me. I realize this is like asking you to explain a magic trick, but how did you do that?
[Laughs] Where to start? I knew that I wanted to have the film be as immersive as possible. And so it was about placing the viewer and the audience within the world. So we slowed down some of the pacing; we’ll hold on a cut a little bit longer than I think some people will be used to. And that is about letting people be familiar with the frame and the geography of the space, so that you can see the character, and you’re on that frame long enough that you might start to scan in the background, in the edge of the frame. And so when we cut to a shot it’s not about, “How quickly can you understand what’s within this composition before we cut to the next?” It’s “Okay, well, this is the space that we’re in right now.”
Based on the language of the film, you get used to the idea that you have time to look around. And I’m not sure that I’m explaining this in a way that makes sense, but it’s really about placing the viewer in that world. So if you’re on the beach, we sit there, we can look into the background, and we feel like we are within that environment. Or at least, the shot design is built with that goal in mind.
Like you mentioned, a lot of the film is shot with wide-angle lenses, and so there’s a little bit more depth of field: you see into the background. And it’s really just about creating that language where you understand that this monster is going to have to break into the frame, ultimately. That the camera isn’t going to cheat and allow it to get in. We don’t really cheat distance very often with the camera via longer lenses or a quick cut. There may be places where we break that rule, just for a particular reason – but for the most part it’s about being honest with geography and distance. So it’s about understanding space.
There are many parts of It Follows that could be seen as references to classic horror films, particularly those from the eighties. Were there any genre clichés or elements that you made a deliberate decision not to include?
I did not want to have this film turn into a quest for an origin story, for the way to explain this thing. Oftentimes horror films start out in a way that’s about dealing with this terror and trying to survive, and then they quickly turn into a quest for answers. And we do that a little bit in the movie – I think some of that is normal and natural – but ultimately you’re going to hit a wall. Something from a nightmare can’t be explained. And that’s part of the film. In the movie we do a lot of things that are sort of mirror images of things that happen in other horror films, but maybe with different results. Like, these kids may try to stop this thing – and that’s a staple of eighties horror films, getting the gang together to try and find some sort of physical-world way of dealing with the monster…
… And that plan has a different outcome than horror movie fans might expect.
Yeah, because it’s silly! I mean, if you’re a teenager trying to stop a monster, you’re out of luck, honestly. You really are.
Without spoiling the ending, can you talk about what makes it a satisfying resolution for you?
To me, it’s really about Jay and how she’s going to handle this. It’s not so much about, “Can you fight a monster?,” but “What do you do when you’re within a nightmare?” And so to me, the real climax is between Jay and Paul, and what happens there. I think that it’s important for it to have an ambiguous ending, to some degree. And I’m sure there are probably some people who crave something that is more final, but that just didn’t feel right to me based on what we’re saying about some of the larger themes in this film, especially what you mentioned in terms of dealing with mortality in contrast with sex and love. So if someone watches it and it bothers them, I would say, watch it again; maybe it will click in some way.
I have a couple quick how-did-you-do-that questions. How did you get the shot of the naked man on the roof?
[Big laugh] Boy, you know, no one’s ever asked me that. I don’t know if I should answer! You know, a really cool actor played the part and agreed to go do it. We were very careful about it: Our stunt coordinator went up, and he had to be harnessed to the roof to make sure it was safe, so there was a lot of prep work to make it happen. Because actually, it’s quite high up and kind of dangerous, so we put a lot of time into making sure it was safe for him. And then it was about just getting that shot – you know, we had to clear the street, make sure no one was around. [Laughs] Yeah, that was a tricky one to do, honestly.
The other one I was wondering about was the very cool underwater shot of Jay where you see her reflection so that she looks like two conjoined bodies without a head. Was that inspired by something in particular? I don’t think I’ve seen it before.
The idea of a character being isolated in a pool, being stalked by something, is a direct reference to Cat People. But that shot, no, I can’t think of something where I’ve seen that. It just seemed like a very beautiful and surreal strange image that we found. We had a lot of things like that – that’s just one that we chose to put in.
Before I let you go, I want you to know that I’m very disappointed that the shell phone does not exist.
A lot of people are saying that to me! People ask me where the shell phone is, or if they can get one, more than almost anything. We just made it up, because I didn’t want to have a close-up of any kind of modern cellphone or e-Reader. It’s along the lines of trying to make it feel like a dream or something outside of time. But yeah, it’s funny, everybody keeps asking me if they can get one of those. And I’m convinced somebody is going to make them and get incredibly rich from doing it.
Watch a trailer for It Follows.
Image credit: RADiUS-TWC