Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are busting up the line between indie and studio movies. The director and writer team behind the 2010 serial killer thriller A Horrible Way to Die and last year’s hit family drama/home invasion horror movie You’re Next, Wingard and Barrett return this month with their most ambitious film. The Guest defies one-sentence log lines: It’s a mystery/action/horror/sci-fi hybrid starring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as a shadowy soldier who returns to his fallen compatriot’s family’s home to serve and protect. Maybe.
Wingard and Barrett are a pair of walking film encyclopedias — as proficient in bargain-bin cult movies as auteurs of the world — and everything they adore is detectable in The Guest. It’s an explosion of ’80s color, character, and kitsch, nostalgia without feeling nostalgic. We spoke to the filmmaking duo about how they took the pop culture they’ve loved since they were kids and transmuted them into a singular beast of a movie.
You’ve described The Guest as a hybrid of The Terminator and Halloween. How did you boil down these two iconic genre films and rewire them into something that’s your own?
Wingard: I had this Terminator and Halloween double feature one night because of this book called Shock Value, that’s all about Dan O’Bannon in the ’70s making Alien and his relationship with John Carpenter, and it goes over the whole Halloween thing. It’s really a brilliant book. I loved how he deconstructed the evolution of horror in that period and what made it scary to people, and he talked a lot about the faceless Michael Myers and kind of going through the Lovecraft roots of all that stuff, how, in that era, the Alien and Michael Myers movies … you couldn’t really put together what they were. They were these like shapes. They were terrifying in their obscurity. That’s something that’s influenced so many people. Horror, in many ways, went way down that rabbit hole for many years. People are still riffing on those concepts, with the masks and facelessness of the killers and stuff. And I thought, What would it be like to do the inversion of that? What if Michael Myers, instead of being this shapeless guy following you around town from a distance, what if he lived in your house?
Killers-living-in-the-house movies had a moment in the ’90s.
Barrett: Yeah, like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.
Those movies are more video-store staples than pillars of cinema, but do those films share space in The Guest’s collective consciousness?
Wingard: Definitely. You want to know your subgenre that you’re working in thoroughly.
Barrett: I try to see everything, just because I think Adam and I never want to make a movie that someone else has done. We always want to be doing something original and innovative, but to make sure that you’re original you kind of have to watch a lot of things, just to make sure. I will say that I think for me personally, in doing the script together, that The Stepfather, the original  Stepfather, was a big influence. It was part of kicking off the whole weird … I guess they called them “psychological thrillers”? The gentle home invasion.
Wingard: In many ways you could almost look at The Guest and You’re Next as like companion home invasion movies, with just different takes on what a home invasion really is.
Barrett: But yeah, The Stepfather was a big influence for me. That original movie with Terry O’Quinn is one of my favorites, and I love the weird family dynamic in it. One of the things that we liked about being able to work in a movie that has some ’80s and ’90s genre nostalgia to it was, you’re able to do the kind of thing where the kids get what’s going on but the parents are totally clueless. That was a key factor to those films. That’s just a fun dynamic to play with.
Dan Stevens’s character, David, is morally elastic. We root for him one minute, watch in shock the next. Is he a hard character to rest an entire movie on?
Wingard: Simon and I are really attracted to characters that conflict the audience, you know. I like the idea of a character that you wanna like even though you know he’s making immoral choices throughout the film. The way to pull that off really was just to keep making a consistent character who’s making choices that felt true to that character. And that’s just naturally going to escalate through the plot. I mean, if you look at that character through itself, the character stays consistent up until the point that he has to react to the situation around him, and that’s when things get a little bit darker with him. But really at the end of the day, you know, he’s coming there to that family, and things just kind of get out of control for him, and he’s reacting to it in the way that’s consistent with his personality.
Barrett: That was part of why Adam was initially so excited when he first met with Dan and started talking about the script with him, and why we were really excited to cast him and work with him on this: He really got the humor of that, in the ways that having a villain onscreen doing that kind of stuff can be kind of a fantasy for the audience.
Wingard: Casting somebody like Dan was key because we had to believe that this family would let him into their home and not be completely suspicious of him right away. Dan has that immediate charm to him. It’s effortless, really. That’s what I wanted to capture out of that character. I wanted to find somebody who was actually believably likable and polite, that you would actually imagine feeling like, “Eh, I could trust this guy.”
There’s a heightened acting style in the film that’s hard to put a finger on. Maybe it’s an element of kitsch that came naturally to lower-budget movies of the ’80s. Whatever it might be, it feels precise.
Wingard: I think the difference between the acting style in this and our prior works is that this was the first time that from the get-go I decided that I didn’t want to rely on improvisation anymore. Not to say that in You’re Next the actors were just making up their lines the whole time, but especially during the first half of that film, I wanted a very mumblecore, kind of naturalistic feel to it. A Horrible Way to Die is the same. With The Guest, I thought it was such a brilliant script that I just wanted to get out of that headspace. That was a response to the resources I had. That was the way I could make the movie the best, was by getting this performance in a more naturalistic way. But with actors like Leland [Orser] and Dan, it was the first time I had an ensemble that, stylistically, I felt could say what was on page and be completely true to it. And that does create a different kind of vibe to it. And like Simon said, they got the humor of it. And that’s how we cast the film. It was who really understands the humor of this, and who’s taking this character maybe even in a different direction than what we expected, as long as they were likable in their own way and got the humor of the project.
Barrett: There aren’t really jokes in my script. They’re just very sarcastic. So Maika [Monroe] and Brendan [Meyer] and Dan Stevens and Leland Orser are people that saw those scenes and got why they were funny, and then were able to work with Adam to accentuate that humor, or, you know, diminish it in the scene if that’s what Adam was going for. But you know, they were able to get what Adam was going for, kind of inherently from the start.
There’s a cadence to this dialogue that feels very ’80s.
Wingard: I always think of Jeffrey Combs in Re-Animator as one of the greatest performances ever, but like every single line is delivered in this Shakespearean dramatic style. [The Guest] is a very stylized film and the acting needed to not necessarily get away from reality but reflect the tone of the script, which goes into all these different places. I think if we’d started too realistically then you wouldn’t have bought all the fantastical stuff.
What influenced the look of the film? Your cinematic reference points are known for their grit. The Guest is hyper-clean.
Wingard: Interestingly enough, we based the look of the film on New Mexico itself. New Mexico is an oppressively sunny place. And I feel like you have to be true to where you are. You’re Next, for instance, took place in Missouri during the winter, so we wanted to play up that kind of murky, dark quality to it. With The Guest, it was a different deal. The script was much funnier, so we tried to let you in on that joke, play up the colors of the film. And it’s a seasonal film. It all takes place during Halloween, so I wanted to have fun with that. I just love Halloween decorations and things like that. To me, the movie’s a nostalgia picture of my experiences and Simon’s experiences while growing up and first wanting to become a filmmaker as a kid throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
Only God Forgives director Nicolas Winding Refn led a Q&A at one of your screenings. He ribbed you for being influenced by Drive. A joke or a truth?
Wingard: Drive is definitely an inspiration because it was a film that was able to use what would normally be considered cheesy, kind of bold, electronic music choice and pull it off in a mainstream way. But at the same time, I knew I wanted an ’80s feel to the soundtrack itself; I didn’t want to imitate Drive. If you listen to Drive’s music, it’s all very emo — not emo as in emo music, but it’s emotional. It’s all reflective of the character’s personality. And all the soundtrack music choices, the songs themselves are always being played in some fashion by the characters or the location that they’re at. It’s never just a piece of music that plays over the scene. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just picking music based on what I thought was cool or, like, to show people that I have eclectic tastes.
“Look at my mixtape!”
Wingard: Yeah, look how much I know about ’80s electronica! It was always like, “What makes sense for this scene?” Small-town kids, they all have the Internet now. They all have access to the same things that so-called hip L.A. people have. So it makes sense that there could be this little community out in the middle of nowhere New Mexico that’s influenced by ’80s goth music. In some ways, they were based on some pot dealers I knew in Alabama.
A few years back, you guys were planning to shoot an action movie in South Korea, influenced in part by a love for The Killer. Do you sense your own affection for John Woo in The Guest?
Barrett: For certain. Those are the movies that Adam and I initially bonded over because we were the only people we knew who’d seen some genuinely obscure Hong Kong action films. And those are ultimately the movies that, in a weird way, influenced us the most. Maybe because in some ways they’re not the most polished action films, so you can start deconstructing how a scene was actually done, from a viewer’s perspective. I love the way those movies combine comedy and extreme melodrama with insanely violent action scenes. Like Adam was saying with Drive, we don’t want to consciously imitate those films or be in any way a throwback to that. It’s more just like, these movies did this thing and we thought that was amazing and great. How do we take that and use it to do our thing, and how do we push it further? Action stuff is hard. It takes a lot of time, and right now we’re not — no one’s necessarily throwing an amount of money at us for us to really do, like, our version of Gravity or whatever, but we definitely hope to get there someday.
When you say “obscure Hong Kong action movie,” how obscure are you talking? What’s your deep cut recommendation?
Barrett: There’s a movie called The Tigers, which is about a group of corrupt cops that get embroiled in this insane [plot]. They steal from this gangster and then they just start getting picked off one by one. Andy Lau is in it. I rented it by accident. There was a Chinese grocery store in my hometown of Columbia, Missouri, where they had all these Hong Kong movies, but they were all just VHS bootlegs labeled with just Chinese handwriting. I was trying to rent a Simon Yam film, trying to track down the movie Run and Kill, so I’d learned some Cantonese so I could speak to the people at this grocery store and try to find these movies. For some reason I ended up bringing The Tigers, and boy it’s good. I would see the film Too Many Ways to Be No. 1, which Johnnie To produced that, Wai Ka-Fai directed it. It’s so clearly an influence on Run Lola Run, and just an absolute miracle of filmmaking, but I guarantee no one has seen it.
Wingard: I was about to mention The Longest Nite.
Barrett: That’s one that we were just obsessed with. That movie is just genius. It’s another Johnnie To/Milkyway production, though again he didn’t direct it. It’s Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Lau Ching Wan, basically just like facing off against each other in Macau and it’s one of the best-written films ever. They shot it in seven days.
Wingard: A simple movie, but it builds up stylistically really beautiful.
Barrett: That movie’s been a huge influence on us. I’d love to remake it, but I’ve talked to Roy Lee and no one can even figure out who owns the rights. That’s one that we’ll probably end up ripping off someday.
Speaking of underappreciated: Adam, you have to make your case for Prometheus, a movie that most people hate, but a small minority really enjoy. Why does it do it for you?
Wingard: Because it’s a massive, epic kind of disaster of a movie. It doesn’t make any sense really, it’s all over the place, but there’s a genuine stylization to the film that I’ve never seen before. It’s one of the best-looking movies that’s come out in the last 30 years. The cinematography’s incredible, the sets are incredible. I’m a sucker for sci-fi films, but on top of that I absolutely just love Michael Fassbender’s character in it. If he wasn’t in that film, the movie would be kind of a disaster because those other characters don’t really hold up, you know? But he’s an iconic character. I love so-called movies that are bad movies, but Prometheus is one of those movies that people are gonna come back around on in 20 years. There’s gonna be midnight screenings of that thing. People were too hard on it because they wanted Alien and it’s not Alien. I was disappointed when I first saw it, but then when I realized that after the screening we had a two-hour discussion of the film, just trying to figure out how the creatures in that film [work]. Like the liquid goes into your glass and then you have sex with somebody, and then they have an alien and you melt and turn into a zombie person. We were just trying to figure out what is going on in this movie. I kept watching it in the theater — I ended up watching it like three times — and each time I went with a different group of people, and each time it resulted in another two-hour conversation. I was like, “This never happens,” and that’s why I think this movie’s brilliant. It really is on its own level.
Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work can be seen on Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and Time Out.