Like the threat in the film itself, It Follows loomed up at the Cannes Film Festival last May, scaring and beguiling a usually cynical crowd in equal measure.
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s second feature – his first being the coming-of-age drama The Myth Of The American Sleepover – is a heady mix of clanging, overwhelming sound and an observant, lingering camera. About an ordinary teenager (Maika Monroe) pursued by a terrifying, malevolent force, It Follows is both reminiscent of all kinds of classic horror (including John Carpenter’s Halloween) and an intelligent reworking of the genre’s more familiar trappings.
Ahead of It Follows‘ UK release, we talk to Mitchell about the film’s origins in a recurring nightmare, how he uses his prowling camera to create suspense, and the rush to get his movie finished in time for Cannes.
I was wondering if you could talk about the origins of your ideas, because it seems to me that It Follows shares a horror lineage that goes back via Halloween to writers like MR James.
Yeah. Honestly, the basic idea, the main point of it, came from a recurring nightmare I had when I was a kid. In the nightmare, I was followed by a monster, and I instinctively knew it was bad. It looked like different people, and it seemed like I was the only person who could see or was reacting to it. It was very slow, and it was always coming towards me. It would walk towards me when I was with friends or family, at all different times. I’d have to run away, or climb out of a window, or run down the street. It was just this constant feeling of dread and anxiety. That’s where that part of it came from. I started adding to it later, as an adult, when I started thinking about taking that feeling and turning it into a movie.
I’m a huge horror fan, and I’d been watching horror movies since I was young. I think all that stuff has definitely burned into my brain, and I think that comes out, for sure.
So at what point did you think about taking this entity from your nightmare and attaching it to the idea of it being like a disease or a curse?
I started thinking it would be cool to have it be something that could be passed between people. Then it dawned on me that if it was through sex, then it would connect the characters physically and emotionally. I don’t know, it just seemed to tie in to the idea of being followed for me, in some way. That was obviously much later, when I put that altogether. But the basic idea was in the back of my head for a long time. I couldn’t say exactly when I had that idea to connect it, but I wrote it in 2011 – that was when I sat down and decided to put it down on paper.
I sometimes get the impression that some horror films add elements that involve sex and death because that’s what other slasher and horror films have done in the past. Whereas in this, I got the impression that it was a conscious deconstruction, or a conscious attempt to tap into specific fears.
It’s something I like to do in general, in the sense of taking something you’ve seen and alter it in some way, and do my own version of it. Taking something that may feel like a cliche and give it a new life. Without going into specifics, that’s something I enjoy, I like doing that with film.
The creature reminded me of Alien, in that it comes to represent death and a kind of sexual terror all in one.
Do you think, as a culture and as writers and directors, we’re finding new clothes for this spectre that keeps emerging from our subconscious?
I think that there are a lot of ways to interpret what this monster is. That’s an interpretation that I’ve certainly… there are a lot of ways that I see it. There’s not one specific interpretation. I felt, even as I was writing it, that there are a few different things that it meant to me, even. I think there are some ways that I even read after a fact that are different, as well. But yeah, I think that’s one of the jobs of horror films. I think that’s one of the things they do really well.
I think it’s good as well that it doesn’t over-explain.
Yeah. I just wasn’t interested in that for this film. It’s a situation where these people find themselves within a nightmare. Within a nightmare, there’s no way of finding any logical sense – you’re simply within it. You’re trying to survive it or escape it – there might be a certain degree where you try to find an explanation, but you soon hit a wall and it’s impossible. The act of trying to logically climb out of something takes away some of the horror, some of the fear. It also changes the story – it makes it something else, whereas to me it was always simply about being in a situation and surviving. The “Let’s solve it” thing feels like more of a movie convention. I like playing with that as well – there are things that happen that are movie conventions, but it’s about taking those things and then having the opposite outcome from what normally happens.
The central character you created was really interesting as well. A lot of the time, protagonists in horror can be quite solitary, but Jay isn’t – she relies on her friends.
Yeah, yeah. That felt right. I liked the idea of a group of friends experiencing this thing together, even though only one of them is able to see it or feel the reality of it. The rest of them, through their friendship or their compassion, are able to experience it with her. I think at that age, there’s a short window in people’s lives when they’re a teenager, where your friends almost become your family. I think it’s about that moment, where that small group of people are genuinely her family.
We just had Fifty Shades Of Grey come out, and I think Jay’s an interesting counterpoint to the heroine in that film: she’s not virginal or restrained, she’s quite strong. Was it important that you created a strong female character for this?
For sure. Some people seemed think I was trying to demonise sex or make a puritanical statement, but I don’t see it that way at all, personally. I can see how some people would read it that way, but it’s not the way I see it. Sex is one of those things where… there’s danger in every aspect of life, and it represents something larger than just sex. Jay, what she’s doing is completely normal. She’s not doing anything wrong, but sometimes terrible things happen despite the fact that we’re doing nothing wrong – it just happens. Her being strong is definitely important.
There’s a great shot where the camera keeps rotating, and we can see a figure walking towards the camera. It’s a great moment of suspense. Can you talk about how you designed those sequences?
I worked that out at the script stage, that idea. Through the script there are moments that mention that maybe the characters aren’t privy to something but the audience may or not be, and that’s how I’d describe it. That’s one where you’ll most likely notice – there are others where there are figures in the background that are much easier to miss.
In that one, it’s pretty clear, but I thought it was fun to show the camera maybe move away and then show them move a little closer. It was a tricky one to choreograph – there was a certain amount of movement and blocking between several different actors, and just getting the timing of the camerawork was a little tough. I don’t remember how many [takes] we did, but that one was a little stressful to complete. I’m happy with how it turned out. It’s always fun to create suspense in that way.
How important was it to establish the world beyond the suburb? Because one of the really distinctive parts of the film is the look of Detroit and the empty buildings.
The idea of the separation between the suburbs and the city was an important thing to show. It’s one of many themes in the story. As someone who grew up in the area, I’d say there are wonderful, beautiful places within the city. I’d hate for people to think that’s the only thing there is in Detroit – I’d just like to say that up-front – but it’s about that separation. It was a conscious decision, and specifically written to take place there.
It sort of felt as though the monster came from out there in this jungle of empty buildings.
Yeah, I can see that. Again, where it came from – who’s to say? I’ve seen some really interesting reads in terms of interpretation. Where [the monster] came from and what it means in terms of the separation between those spaces.
What was it like to take it to Cannes, because that must have been an incredible experience.
It was really great. I was nervous before that, because we hadn’t screened the film in front of a real audience. We only finished mixing the film four or five days before it premiered, so we were working right up to the last minute. So Cannes was great, but it was stressful getting it done on time. Then, when it played, it was really nice to see. I was in that first screening, and people were screaming in places, and there was a tension in the theatre. That’s when I knew that it was alright – it was working for people.
In the past, it often felt as though there was a certain snobbery directed towards horror. Do you think that might be abating now? For example, it’s hard to imagine something like Halloween getting into Cannes back in 1978.
I don’t know. When you look at that film, you can see how it could play there – it’s a great film, an amazing movie. Has that shifted? Maybe. It’s possible. I’ve definitely heard people talking about the way that sometimes horror is seen by some people. It’s tough because I’m a film lover in general, and I absolutely love horror movies. It’s one of many kinds of movies I really enjoy, and always have. I think a lot of the people who genuinely love film really love horror, and I think anybody who doesn’t is missing out on some really great movies.
Has it shifted? I really don’t know. People have said it was a surprise to have that kind of a genre film play there, but from the way people reacted, maybe it will happen more, and it would be cool if it does.
As you say, horror cinema is pure cinema in a lot of ways.
Completely. There’s a reason so many different filmmakers really enjoy working within horror. And part of that is because you can actually get away with experimenting and doing things that might be seen to be a little too odd in any other genre. You can do it, but people might not be as receptive towards it. Whereas in a horror film, I feel like people are open and can really appreciate a different approach. It’s a genre where you can do that, you can get away with it, and people enjoy it.
In your film, it was exciting to see these moments where you allow your characters time to observe things. Those are rare in horror. The genre can sometimes be quite fidgety.
The movie is often about waiting and the quiet moments in between the chaos. That was what I was really drawn to – it’s about the moments of waiting, how anxiety can build, and how people react. The way the characters create, even, in those moments. That was a lot of the draw to me.
So what do you think you’ll do next? Do you think you’ll make another horror film, or switch genres again?
Well, I’m trying to set up the next. I’m hoping to make the next film this year. It’s tricky to say, but it’s unlikely that the next one will be horror, because I like the idea of moving around and trying different things. So it might be a drama, it might be a mystery. I have all kinds of stuff. I think the next one will be a drama, but I’ll definitely circle back and do another horror at some point.
I just like the idea of working in different genres and making different kinds of films – challenging myself. When I made this, I hadn’t made a horror film before, but I really wanted to. Most people I knew didn’t expect me to make a horror film, so I liked the idea of doing things that maybe are unexpected – that’s fun for me. I’d totally do another one, but it’s working out what the right thing is.
David Robert Mitchell, thank you very much for your time.
It Follows is out in UK cinemas on Feb. 27 and the US on March 13.