It Follows is a gorgeous movie. And scary. It's your new must-see monster movie. We interviewed writer/director David Robert Mitchell, on why dread and anxiety are way worse than just getting startled. Some minor spoilers for It Follows ahead...
We're not going to give away too much about It Follows — because you should just go into this thing cold. It's that great. But we dug a little deeper with director Mitchell, to see how he made something that's so scary and yet so gorgeous. The premise is fairly simple: A monster is following teenagers, and you can make it stop following you by having sex with someone. But then it's their burden, and they have to survive... or it comes back after you.
How did you come up with the rules for this monster? And where did they originate from?
David Robert Mitchell: I don't remember where they all came from, but when I decided to sit down and write it, I needed to figure out what the characters would have figured out for themselves. So the way I see it is, they're not so much my rules, or the rules of the film. It's one character's interpretation of what he's seen. It's what he's been able to figure. And there's always a question of whether or not that's completely accurate, as well. That's sort of the way I built it.
As far as I can understand if the creature is following you, you're the only one who can see it. But if you have sex with someone, it's no longer following you, it's following someone else.
Yes you can still see it at that point. And if it's following you, anybody who it has ever followed could still see it as well.
Is it important to have rules to create a good horror monster?
It just depends on what kind of monster it is. Some you don't need. Sometimes it's very simple and direct. My favorite is Creature From the Black Lagoon. You don't need to build rules. It's literally this animal and we just witness what it does and how people react to it. A lot of great horror that doesn't need that. This is one where part of the fun is trying to understand it. And because it is very much like a nightmare, it's not (sort of) behaving. I think rules are necessary when you create a monster or a situation where it's behaving in ways that aren't natural, that don't fit into our natural world. The way we're used to things operating. So whenever you change those base ground rules you need to find a way to hint at what they are so that everyone can get on board. Basically changing the rules of the world, ultimately.
That's fair once you set up things that you're presenting as facts, they become facts. There's a [rule] that you set up, where a character says "It's slow, but it's not stupid." And for some reason that scared the crap out of me. It's also a great way to explain this movie because on the surface it's seemingly simple, but the simplicity is terrifying. Is that something you played with?
The core concept of it, to a certain degree, is a little bit ridiculous. It's very simple. My goal with it was to take this almost silly idea but to do it in a way where sort of tonally, you can buy into it. You're brought into this ridiculous experience with the character, in a way. All of that is about breaking past that point of it being ridiculous and making it scary or disturbing at the very least. So that's the plan.
You can't place this film in a particular time period. The TVs are old, the cars are all from different decades. Was that intentional? How did you make that happen and was that difficult to achieve?
That was the goal. The production designer worked really hard to mix things up a bit. There are production design elements from many different decades from the 50s on up to modern day elements. And some things that don't actually exist, as well. All of it was to place it somewhat outside of time. There's a lot of things from the 70s and 80s, I think a lot of people feel like it's a period piece to that point, and it probably leans in that direction, but there are enough things from many different time periods to where you can't quite put your finger on when it's taking place. And that's the intention, it's like a dream or a nightmare.
What was the significance of the red blue and green? The saturated versions of these colors are almost in every scene individually or all together. It's everywhere — there's a scene where people are sitting between two red things. The main character is brushing her teeth and there's a red retainer case in the forefront, but it's a pinky red.
I guess I always feel like I'm over-explaining it. I guess I would rather people feel that, as opposed to me giving a concrete reason for what's there. I don't know if I'm dodging too much. But I guess hesitant to try and explain the meaning of each particular thing, or even the film itself. I know that's a common thing and maybe that's irritating for people to hear. I'm hesitant to do that.
That's totally fine, people can come up with their own answers.
I think that's a little more fun personally.
What [the color palate] did remind me of were a lot of earlier horror movies that were a lot more colorful and bright. They were pretty, was that what you were trying to achieve. Make the horror genre cinematic again.
I wanted to give a certain amount of beauty to the film. I liked the idea of it being very specific and we tried to create more classically composed composition, and very specific blocking. For every element of it to be very designed. I think a lot of classic horror films, not all, but a lot of them tend to lean in that direction. And that's something I really like. So yeah it's definitely my reinterpretation of that film work.
[On the surface] It Follows looks simple, but when you break it down this is tedious work that you did. Eliminating various things that remind you of time, putting in the colors, was this a very labor-heavy job to put together? Everything is really controlled.
There was a lot of work. A ton of planning. It is simple, but I think sometimes to be simple it can take a lot more work… It was about not spending any energy on anything that wasn't needed. Or that wasn't going to be used. It was about only cutting when it's appropriate, when we want to cut, as opposed to doing it out of necessity. All these things just take time to make sure that happens. Everything being specific and being a decision actually. As opposed to being something that you just have to do. That carried over, that was across the board from cinematography to blocking to editorial to sound design the music. Everything it was a hard movie to make. We definitely didn't have enough money, or enough time. So there it always that struggle. The goal is, you're sort of aiming for perfection, which is always a pretty foolish thing to try and do. And we didn't get anywhere near that, so it was about trying not to waste anything. Have every bit of energy go into what actually was the film. It was really hard, but I'm proud of what we did. I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish with what we had.
You can pull out any element from this movie and start a discussion around it, like the music! Where did you find that and what was the significance of it being an electronic score and also being so off-putting.
I knew that I wanted an electronic score, and several years ago, when I first heard Rich's [Vreeland] music as Dzasterpeace. I reached out to him to see if he would do the music, and he agreed, which was really cool. A lot of that is just having conversations back and forth. It's creating reference points with other music and how to build on that. The editor and I created a temp score as we were putting the film together and we kind of used that as a starting point as well. We wanted to move between beautiful melodies and this other element of music that is almost a controlled noise and almost assaults the audience. It was fun to do it was interesting.
Control is a great word for this movie. It's the anti-jump scare movie. There's one jump scare in the whole thing. The scares are slow and cause anxiety. Is that what scares you?
Yeah I think that's probably true. The other thing is just being startled, which can be fun sometimes. But I wanted it to be about... dread and anxiety. They're much worse than being startled. It's fun and being startled is a fun way to break up the moment. But the other thing sits with you, and I think it's much worse.