Screenwriter Simon Barrett has helped to create some of the more influential films in indie horror over the course of the past decade. His collaborations with director Adam Wingard—A Horrible Way To Die, You’re Next, V/H/S, The Guest, Blair Witch—have all, in ways both positive and (in the case of Blair Witch) negative, been enormously impactful. And now, as his frequent cinematic partner Wingard is experiencing one of the biggest hits of his career with Godzilla Vs. Kong, Barrett is stepping behind the camera for his feature-film directorial debut. Seance follows a group of girls at a boarding school who fear a ritual they performed to summon the dead may have brought back more than they expected. We spoke with Barrett to discuss the challenges of his first film as writer-director, the things he’s learned from being involved in such influential projects for so long, and the ways the indie horror landscape has changed.
The A.V. Club: The last time we spoke was at the Cinepocalypse film festival, when you were a guest host.
Simon Barrett: It must have been 2018 [It was 2017—Ed.], and they did like one more after that, and then it completely imploded, that festival. Which, you know, may have been symbolized by their choice to fly me out to host screenings and stuff. But I had a great time! I was so tired the whole time. My main memory is that they put me up in a house with a guy from IFC. I was on my phone and he walked in and I heard him say, “Hey, man, I think I just got mugged.” And I looked up and he was completely covered in blood from head to toe. There was blood on his shoes. There was blood everywhere. He’d been pistol whipped outside our place. I’d had a few drinks, so I said, “I got this.” I went to Rite Aid and got iodine and a butterfly closure and cleaned out the wound and closed it up. And then the festival people came and they’re like, “No, you guys can’t do this! He has to go to the hospital.” And so we all went to the E.R. at like 4:00 in the morning. And at the E.R., they said, “Whoever patched this up did a pretty good job. But we’re going to do better.”
AVC: That’s not the most auspicious start to a film festival visit.
SB: I don’t know. It felt right. And then eventually he did get his wallet back! It was a happy tale. Unbelievably, the cops did find his wallet. That is actually the most outlandish part of that story. I don’t remember that guy’s name, but I remember that festival experience more vividly than others.
AVC: Anyway! This is your debut directing a feature film. But you have directed before, most notably the wraparound story from V/H/S. Were you always hoping to eventually get behind the camera?
SB: The thing I always say is that I started writing because it was the only thing I could really do with no money. I was only in film school for a couple of years, but I concentrated on cinematography. My degree is actually in photography and because that’s because I assumed I needed to learn how to use cameras and stuff, if I was going to making movies for no money, which seemed to be my only option, just being from mid-Missouri and wanting to do what I wanted to do. So, after film school, when I just started writing scripts, I started to be perceived as a screenwriter.
I wrote a script back in 2002 called Dead Birds, which was made into a film in 2003 and premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2004. But that was a script I had written for myself to direct and shoot. My plan was to shoot it on 16 millimeter, and I was going to make it for about 60 grand in my hometown in Missouri. I wanted to cast a friend of mine from film school. And when I sent the script, he was he was working at a company that did negative pick up productions for Sony. So he was just like, “I think I could actually get this made. You wouldn’t be able to direct it, but you would actually get paid.” And I was like, “Well, yeah, that’s obviously much better than the plan that I was proposing,” which in retrospect makes no sense at all.
The only thing that’s kind of funny about that is, back in 2010 or later, after my career had completely fallen apart and I realized I was really not a for-hire screenwriter guy—or at least no one wanted to hire me to to find out if I was, is probably a more accurate way to say it—I did go back to mid-Missouri and make a film for 60 grand, but it was directed by Adam Wingard. And this time we had total creative control over what we were doing and it was a very different experience. So the screenwriting thing was interesting because it was really just the only way that I felt like I could be creative in film and work on my career while having a day job, and still to this day, I mean, I met Adam Wingard on the set of Dead Birds. So that was my foot in the door in a major way. But it wasn’t until I started working with Adam and then we had some success that I started to think about directing again.
AVC: What made Seance feel like the right project to direct? Was there a specific connection to the material or was it more just that the opportunity presented itself?
SB: Seance is like a “late 1990s slasher revival, girls boarding school, giallo” thing—uniquely something that I thought was amusing, that no one really wanted to do it with me. So I knew as soon as I realized that I wanted to write this script that this was going to be the film I would direct, because there was no way I was going to get Adam interested in a movie like Seance, especially with the projects that I knew he had on his plate.
I have always wanted to direct my entire career. I never saw myself as being just a writer. And to the extent that I was able to form a career as a screenwriter, it was working in collaboration with a director and editor—Wingard—who allowed me to have input on things. And we had a creative partnership that wasn’t a totally creatively deadening experience, like a screenwriting career can kind of be, I think, in Hollywood. So I knew that it was time for me to get behind the camera again. I was getting frustrated not doing that. And I wanted to write something kind of small, contained, that felt really smart, that felt like something I had enough experience to handle, like a kind of slasher-oriented horror story. And then it turned out to be incredibly difficult. [Laughs.]
AVC: As you were writing it, thinking about directing it, did it change anything or did it shift things in the script or in the story as you went?
SB: Yes. I would say that, if I have any kind of unique strength as a writer, it’s just that I work so much producing and working on films at different budget levels that I do try to write with an eye towards production more than other writers; I’m working on a lower budget thing. I tend to write things that, in my producer brain, feel achievable with what I know the budget to be, which I understand is not the way everyone wants to work, creatively. But my directing side and my writing side are not in sync yet. I tend to just write in a fairly linear way. I don’t tend to outline. I just start writing and then see what I feel like, where I think the story is going and where the characters are going. It’s kind of a cliché, but it’s that sense of just seeing what the characters do. I didn’t really try to make anything easy on myself other than that. I was like, this will be a single location, ultimately genre film, even though there’s a lot of different elements to it. But then the single location thing didn’t work out at all. And that was my big idea: “I’ll just write a single location thing and then we’ll find a single location and that’ll be an easy way to make a movie.” Honestly, most of that was just thinking about You’re Next, and what we’d been able to achieve on that budget.
AVC: Seance straddles a couple of different genres. You’re doing that classic “ghost at the boarding school” story, but you’re also hearkening back to not just the ’90s slasher revival, but also the ’70s/’80s slasher movie heyday stuff. Was part of the appeal the challenge of blending these different elements in a way that felt organic and real?
Simon Barrett: You know, I never try to do that intentionally. Someone somewhere pointed out that The Guest is kind of like every genre—except, I guess, musical—in one movie. And that’s just the way I tend to think, is in terms of different types of stories. I wasn’t ever thinking like, “Okay, we’ll have a supernatural story and there will also be kind of some other non-supernatural horror elements.” I tend to approach it from a character perspective, which is I like to try to put a character from a different movie in another type of film. Like, Suki Waterhouse’s character is in a Western or an action movie, in a sense. But everyone else is experiencing a different film, which is a late ’90s slasher revival. And so it’s kind of like combining genres with the characters that leads to interesting results. Dan Stevens in The Guest is kind of in an action movie, but the other characters are having a depressing drama until he shows up.
I wasn’t really trying to do a giallo supernatural hybrid or anything. I just felt like that was kind of the story I wanted to tell with those characters. And I do watch so many gialli and slashers and I read so many murder mysteries. And I grew up really obsessed with those genres in particular, I grew up as a kid really reading obsessively books like Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High, because that was just all I could get my hands on. And then I kind of graduated to Agatha Christie and other kind of mystery novels. And then I kind of graduated to Friday The 13th, which wasn’t nearly as narratively complex, but lit up the same thing in my brain. So it was only when I discovered gialli later that I found out there was a bridge between those things—between, you know, And Then There Were None and Scream. And that bridge is, like, The Black Belly Of The Tarantula. There was an in-between genre between murder mysteries and slasher horror films. So that was always something that I knew I wanted to explore, but when you say, “giallo throwback,” you think of The Strange Color Of Your Body’s Tears or something. You think of films that stylistically try to imitate that. [Pause.] I want to be really careful, because I really like The Strange Color Of Your Body’s Tears and all those films. [Laughs.] But I would never want to do an imitation of a style because I think that’s an easy way to do an homage, but you’re not doing anything unique and original then, and you’re not necessarily moving the genre forward.
AVC: Part of the fun of this movie, though, is seeing some of the ways that you play with those conventions. You’ve just mentioned some of your influences growing up, but were there certain films or directors in the discussion as you were building this film?
Simon Barrett: As soon as Kareem Hussein came on board to shoot Seance, those conversations became a lot more complex and intense because Kareem has seen literally every movie ever made. And so if I would reference, like, What Have You Done To Solange? or something, he’d instantly know the shot I was talking about. And we did start talking about filmmakers like José Ramón Larraz, and to a certain extent Stephen Chow—I’m always trying to imitate Stephen Chow. I just think he’s always inventing new cinematic language. So there are certain filmmakers and references in the movie. But ultimately, I’m always trying to do something different, and Seance is a tricky film because the giallo element of it all is pretty much designed to only appeal to people like myself and possibly yourself, who actually have seen all of Argento and Bava and Lenzi’s films.
And the movie itself is just supposed to be fun. I would say the main thing I wanted to do with my first film was just make it fun and entertaining. And, you know, whenever you start to get too clever with your references—if I’m like, oh, this will be our our shot that references The Red Queen Kills Seven Times—you just have to remember that no one cares about what you’re talking about. You don’t want to start to think too much in a bubble like that. So while some of these directors might be my personal heroes, if I’m just doing things that are too imitative, then I worry that I’m limiting the amount of people that’ll enjoy the movie. That said, there’s totally a shot in the movie that was specifically trying to rip off Stephen Chow.
AVC: That makes sense. Because when people asked me about it the next day, I described it as a perfect “Saturday night at the drive-in” movie.
SB: I really felt like I wanted to make something that people could describe like You’re Next and The Guest, as being “good-natured” films. They’re fairly mean-spirited in some ways, or at least really dark or violent, but I don’t ever try to approach characters with any kind of cruel feeling or anything like that. And I think that comes across; the movie is eager to entertain in the same way that my favorite films that influenced me hooked me. You know, another director whose work is very much present in Seance is Kevin S. Tenney, the director of Witchboard, Night Of The Demons, The Cellar—he was just a director who liked moving the camera a lot. And so I watched his movies again and again and kind of figured out how to do that.
And then you start making a movie like Seance and you realize you don’t really have the budget to move the camera very much, and your shot coverage is so limited because you have to get through these hugely complex scenes in just a couple of hours. You realize like, oh, that’s why these directors made these weird avant-garde decisions that I thought were so brilliant; just because they were losing the light, so they had to shoot the entire scene on, like, a close up of someone’s hand. Ultimately, films like Seance are just dictated by concerns like that. But I try to be smart when I make movies. I try to put a lot of stuff in there that people can unpack and find the references if they want them. But I always have to remember that I want the people that are actually watching the films that I wrote and directed to not even know what a director is, really—to not know who I am, to not care, because that’s really who the audience is.
AVC: We’re mentioning all these influences, but at this point in your career, it also seems like you could almost be influenced by yourself. Situating this project in the wider scope of your career, you’re sort of known for bringing grounded realism and humor to subgenres and styles that are often famous for throwing those concerns out the window. Do you see this as part of a unifying sensibility of what interests you?
SB: I think it’s easy to look at the films that came out, in the order that they came out, and discern that we had some sort of plan. But actually, every creative decision—at least, speaking for myself—is in response to what I perceive as my latest catastrophic failure. [Laughs.] I really want to emphasize that there’s this notion that You’re Next and The Guest are successful films. And certainly they made money for the people who financed them. But at the time that both of those films came out, Adam and I were both like, “Oh, no, we fucked up again. People hate this weird thing that we keep doing.” And especially making The Guest, I remember specifically being on set and being like, “I do not know if this movie is going to make any money, but I’m really enjoying what we’re doing here.” And hopefully that will translate somehow. I knew You’re Next was going to make money, because it just couldn’t fail to, because of how little it cost. The Guest I wasn’t so sure—and sure enough, I was right. It was it was not a successful film at all, by any metric, at least initially, except critically. So that’s why we were desperate to do Blair Witch, because we were like, “People don’t really like this You’re Next, The Guest thing that we’re doing.” And then after Blair Witch, it was like, “Oh, no, that’s the only thing they like us doing. We absolutely need to go back to that.”
The thing about Seance is, I did want to make sure that it didn’t feel too homogenous, because it’s easy to take a film like Seance and just have it be Ouija 3 or something. And so I did want to make sure that I was making idiosyncratic directorial decisions, and that if I thought the movie needed, like, a two-minute dance scene—I don’t think I’m doing a good job of selling the movie right now to your readers [Laughs.]—but I could do that. That was the freedom of the budget, within restrictions: I had to deliver a movie that my financiers agreed made sense and was commercial. And so far it’s been successful. But my creative sensibility might never be for wide audiences. But maybe that’s okay, as long as I can make movies at the level of Seance.
AVC: As an example of that sensibility, there’s that great moment in Seance when the girls are about to try and do a ritual and a random schoolmate walks in the room. There’s a pause, and then they just go, “Fuck off!”
SB: I will stop you to say thank you, because I also think that’s very funny. I do like people complimenting me. But also, that was not easy to do! Like, I had to light and stage the entire scene just for that one gag to work. And I remember at a certain point, I was like, “Should we just cut the ‘fuck off’? And Kareem was like, “No, we can’t cut the ‘fuck off’! It’s the soul of the scene.” And I thought, good, because that’s what I was thinking, too. It took a really long time to light and get the perspectives of that shot right, just so we could see the Winnipeg performer who’s playing the poor girl that Inanna [Sarkis, who plays Alice] shouts at. But to me, that is worth it.
AVC: Over the past decade-plus, you’ve put together enough of a body of work that it’s possible to not only see your voice come out, but also the influence it’s had. When people talk to you about your films as influential, is it weird to think back on them as part of this larger cultural conversation?
SB: You know, there is a weirdness to it. Because I have this sense that there’s a whole new generation now of indie horror filmmakers that are coming up. And I realize that I’m becoming part of an older generation. I was initially very resistant to that, because I didn’t feel like I’d actually experienced any success yet. So I was like, “No, no, no. I’m still the person out making V/H/S movies—quite literally.” [Laughs.] But once I got over the notion that I was now seen as being older and more established than I realized I was—though I’m pretty aware of how old I am, increasingly so every day—but in terms of being perceived as having achieved some kind of success, that I can’t just fail… I always feel, a filmmaker, and I know Adam feels the same way, and maybe this is just because of how we grew up, both of us coming from working class backgrounds—I always feel like I’m one failure away from catastrophic defeat. I also feel like I’m one one flop, whatever that means, away from basically having to move back to Missouri and, if I’m lucky, getting a job bartending. And I think it’s wonderful when people kind of remind you that that’s not true.
When we made V/H/S and You’re Next, right away, there were some films that came out that felt imitative of those films. And in some cases, people said, “We were influenced by this.” Like the Stranger Things creators, I think, noted that they found Survive’s music watching The Guest. Little things like that are tremendously gratifying because you see that you’re having some kind of minor effect on culture, even if it feels like your work itself is largely going under the radar critically and otherwise. I don’t think Adam and I ever felt like we were necessarily the star filmmakers in any film festival. We always just felt like we were over in a corner being tolerated. So now, we’ve made enough films that people can see that there is somewhat of a thesis to our work, that perhaps they could use to guide their own creative decisions. I guess that’s kind of the major metric of success. However, I say all of that and I don’t actually really know—like maybe two or three people have told me that my work influenced their own. I don’t really know if that’s the case. But I hope it’s the case. I hope I get to keep going making these movies. And eventually someone is like, “I want to do something like that,” and then I can tell them why that’s a poor choice.
AVC: Are there ways that you think of your work differently now, with the benefit of some years of reflection, as opposed to at the time when they came out?
SB: I think it was someone at the premiere of The Guest at Sundance, one of the first questions asked at the Q&A was like, “Would you be insulted if I said you basically make these cult movies of the future?” Or, “Would you be insulted if I called these elevated B movies?” And I think my response was like, well, are you trying to be insulting? And I meant that sincerely, because it just depends on what you mean. What I also meant was, don’t call our movie a B movie, we’re here to sell it; you can call it a B movie after the premiere. [Laughs.] And sure enough, no one bought the movie. I’m not going to blame that person in particular, but they didn’t help.
What that really means, when someone says that you make “cult movies,” is they mean people don’t like your movies when they come out. They’re not successful. That’s the definition of a cult film. It’s a film that fails, and then a few years later, everyone’s like, oh, that was pretty interesting. And You’re Next and The Guest both had that experience—You’re Next was very ecstatically received at film festivals. People were very generous to that movie, and I’ll always be grateful for the reception that film had. The Guest, people were initially more confused by. That’s the movie that I’m still kind of blown away that people are doing, like, podcast episodes about, and the kind of weird messages that we tried to put in that movie actually have been perceived and analyzed.
So that’s the one that really makes you rethink everything. Because at the time I just perceived The Guest as such a failure. And I think Adam did, too. And we both really felt like we had distilled our creative sensibilities into a film, the most precisely we’ve ever done it. Which is to say, when you’re actually directing a movie, all you’re really doing is you’re approaching it with your vision and then you’re watching your vision just be destroyed, day after day, by the circumstances of actually making a film. And if you have a very strong vision or a good vision, you might still come out of it with a good movie, or parts of that vision intact. And I felt like The Guest was the closest we’d gotten between what we intended to make and how the film actually turned out. And this might just be my personal chip on my shoulder, but I don’t remember the reviews initially being that positive. I remember feeling like Cold In July was the much better received ’80s throwback at Sundance that year… So again, you make decisions based on that, and you realize, oh, wait, I shouldn’t have made decisions based on that. But at the end of the day, I think you just have to trust your own specific voice anyway.
AVC: You spoke a little bit about how the films you’ve made have been influenced to some degree by what happened with the previous one…
SB: And to reemphasize that none of them have ever been successful.
AVC: [Laughs.] The most public postmortem was presumably Blair Witch, right?
AVC: Even at the time, you gave interviews where it seemed you already had a really thoughtful assessment of why it didn’t work for audiences. Is there any aspect of it that still sticks with you, where you’re like, “Wait, why didn’t that work like we thought it would?”
SB: Not when it comes to Blair Witch. Blair Witch is such a unique example of hindsight being only given to you one hundred percent in this lurching moment where you realize we made a movie in complete secrecy, which means we never really asked anyone if they wanted it. And that’s just a completely true statement. I mean, we lied to our friends and family at certain times about what we were making. We were so secretive because we were so determined to go along. We thought Lionsgate’s plan of revealing this movie was so cool and it really wasn’t until we revealed it and everyone was like, “Great, this is cool. But we kind of hoped you guys were doing something different,” that we thought, wait, we really didn’t analyze whether this was a film people were as excited about as we were in the ways that we were excited about it. And a lot of the ways that Adam and I felt we were being smart, by creatively playing it safe, ultimately were a lot of people’s biggest frustrations.
So truthfully, if I’ve learned any lesson from Blair Witch—and I hope this doesn’t lose me future jobs—it’s that second guessing your creative instincts based on failure, and playing it safe, is in fact a bad creative approach. Which, by the way, I probably could have learned from, like, a SpongeBob cartoon. I think most kids get what I’m saying. But it’s hard when you don’t have a huge financial safety net, and you’re making some decisions practically. I live very frugally, and one of the reasons for that is that I want the advantage that wealthy filmmakers have, of not having to have my decisions solely guided by my financial concerns. I want to be able to pretend I’m an artist from time to time, which requires a good deal of money in our culture. So in a case like Blair Witch, there were a lot of weirder ideas that I decided to not put in that script. At the time, I patted myself on the back for my maturation as an artist. And then when the movie came out, I was like, “Oh, I should have put all that weird stuff in there. Like, that was what people actually wanted.”
So Blair Witch was the movie that made me realize I want to do more original stuff. I don’t want to do any more sequels or remakes, which is going to make my career hard. I will end up, by the way, doing a bunch of sequels and remakes after saying that. I just said that and I’m literally, right now, working on Face/Off 2 and Thundercats and all these other things. But let’s just say I feel like I’m really glad Adam and I did Blair Witch, because there are times working on Face/Off 2, for example, where we’ll reach a point where we start second guessing ourselves creatively. And then it’s like, no way. If we’re going to do this, it really has to be the movie we truly want to make. Otherwise it’s not worth making. That’s what we learned. I don’t want to say I’m sorry I wrote and worked on Blair Witch, because I’m not. But if I could not make one movie, it would probably be that one. But having that regret does guide me on Face/Off and Thundercats. We need these movies to be great, and they’re not going to be great if we’re second guessing our decisions. So, a good lesson there. Yeah—I never thought about that before.
AVC: The indie horror landscape is a wildly different place than it was 15 years ago. What seems most different in your eyes about the horror world in 2021 versus when you started making films in the aughts, either creatively or commercially?
SB: I actually feel like film is in a much better place than when I first started making movies in the aughts. The reason I struggled at the beginning of my career was not only because I was an idiot, and young and inexperienced—and those were obviously huge factors—but it was because the DVD boom era was really bad for filmmakers like me. The movies that were thriving in the aughts were movies that you could sell 15 million dollars’ worth of DVDs of if you put, like, Casper Van Dien on the cover. That model still works, but the budgets are lower now and things have changed. The internet has also changed things. It’s harder now for unique movies to disappear, because passionate people can find them as long as they’re out there. So around the time that I was making Dead Birds, for example, I really didn’t know what I thought horror cinema was. It seemed like the entire genre was designed solely to sell DVDs. And the films that I like from that era that did that—you know, Adam Green’s Hatchet was a movie that sold just tremendously well on DVD and is a franchise now—I didn’t really know how to make films like that. My sensibility was just kind of different. Now, it’s actually much better, because there isn’t a huge market anymore. And the advantage of that is that movies kind of have to be good again to succeed, particularly in the horror genre. If you look at the big horror movies of that era, a lot of them—I actually really like Hatchet and Behind The Mask and a lot of those films that did really well—but there were a lot of films that were, like…
AVC: Like Stay Alive, maybe? [Stay Alive is a tremendously shitty horror film that hit No. 1 at the box office—Ed.]
SB: Yeah. Stay Alive. That’s a good one to think about. I saw that in the theater. So like those movies, I really don’t know how to do something like that. But now, it just feels like weird stuff succeeds. Now it’s like the biggest horror filmmakers are people like Ari Aster and Jordan Peele and Robert Eggers, people that I think are really interesting. Horror’s changed in a cool way, which is, as the market for it’s gotten smaller, it’s actually led to more unique, artistic horror films. My favorite movies last year—I loved Relic, the Australian film, and then Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg’s Canadian film—these are kind of hard-to-define movies, but they they performed well for what they were intended to do, because they were unique. So I actually think the market’s much better now for unique movies to get out there. But you have to be able to make them for an incredibly low budget, nine times out of ten. I think Relic and Possessor both are fairly unique films, in that they were able to get fairly large budgets for Natalie Erika James and Brandon Cronenberg, because of their prior bodies of work. And as has been indicated in this interview, my prior body of work doesn’t get me big budgets. [Laughs.].
So you have to know how to make a movie within that tightness of parameters. And that can be very difficult, because if you make a movie for just a couple of million dollars, most audiences will see that and think that doesn’t really look like a real movie, for one reason or another. Either, “I don’t recognize the people,” or something about the lighting is off, or the lenses look cheap. People have these knee-jerk, instinctive reactions to cheapness. But I think as long as you can find a creative visual approach, anything interesting and unique in the horror genre that’s good can really get out there and find an audience now. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago, where it felt like movies would really disappear and just be, like, buried if they didn’t make it through to the mainstream somehow.