A Conversation About It Follows, 2015's First Must-See Horror Movie
David Robert Mitchell's It Follows is like nothing we've seen before, and yet it owes so much to what came before it. A cross-breeding of tropes from the past 40 years of horror cinema, the movie is gorgeously shot, vividly told, and full of teen characters that have an unusual amount of compassion for each other. At its center is Jay (played by The Guest's Maika Monroe) who contracts an STD that makes her see visions of ghosts following her. The only way to avert death is to pass on the bug.
For spoiler-y reasons explained below, It Follows reads like an HIV analogy whose levelheaded ideas counter those of '80s AIDS parables like David Cronenberg's The Fly. At least, that's how it reads to me—Mitchell, whom I interviewed at the office of his publicist a few weeks ago, told me that my interpretation wasn't exactly what he had in mind when writing the script. More on that, his debt to classic horror, and using jump scares tastefully is below in a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.
Gawker: In general this doesn't feel like a run-of-the-mill horror movie. What was your agenda with It Follows?
David Robert Mitchell: It probably wasn't an agenda, but what was interesting to me about the film was creating a horror film that was more about the moments in between the horror being the primary focus. It's about waiting for something terrible to happen and that on some level, that might be worse than when something terrible does happen. A lot of the movie is structured around the dread an anxiety that the characters feel in the spaces in between things happening or between the monster arriving. You still feel the presence of the monster even in those moments because it could show up at any time. But it's about also them interacting with each other and caring about each other and trying to do the things that young people would do in this event. It's a character piece in those times.
I relate to what you said about the waiting trumping actual thrills. I love this movie, but only one or two shots legitimately scared me. I didn't feel like scaring me was your objective, per se.
I wanted to create dread and anxiety. That would be the number one thing. We wanted to scare people, but...it's hard to explain. Some people see the film and they just enjoy the experience of the movie. Some people see the film and they're not necessarily scared, but they've said to me, "Later on, I kinda felt some unease," and that's probably what I had in my head going into it. There are some people I've talked to who see the film and are genuinely frightened. I think it's a subjective thing. I think it comes down to what scares you at your core. This being based on an anxiety nightmare when I was young, I've talked to plenty of people who have had similar nightmares, so I think that there may be some people that the movie just hits harder. For me, it's a horror film, but it's more than that.
There's only one jump scare: a ball bouncing against a window.
That's the cheap one. I had to put one in. If you do one, it does help to make people a little more uneasy, because then they think that at any point you could do that again. It makes people tense up a bit.
It Follows is a particularly good-looking horror movie. Was that your objective: making a beautiful horror movie?
Yeah, 100 percent.
It feels conversant with horror cinema. I recently reread Carol Clover's Men, Women and Chainsaws and to me, it seems like you designed this movie to refute a lot of her theories about horror's tropes and functions.
I didn't write the film to refute anything in particular, but it definitely is in reactions to things in the sense that I'm embracing some cliches but then turning them just a little bit and bending them. It's my reinterpretation of those cliches. I'm not trying to fight any particular analysis of any film, but I'm aware of all those, and all of the different critical reads of famous horror films throughout history. I think there's a real value in those critiques and analytical approach to genre films. I think sometimes they may go a little too far, but I still enjoy them regardless.
Clover observers that "final girls" generally have masculine qualities, including their names. Your female protagonist is named Jay.
One hundred percent, yes.
But at the same time, she is extremely feminine and her sexuality is such a big part of her character.
Some people think in the film she's losing her virginity, but she's slept with other people before. This isn't her first sexual experience. It's not a groundbreaking moment for her. It's a normal thing and it just so happens that this terrible thing starts. To me, it's very common and normal. There's nothing wrong with it.
I assume that people interpret this as her being punished for her sexuality by the STD that you invented.
They do, or they think that I'm making some sort of puritanical statement with the movie. Again, it's not my intention. All I can say is you make films here in the United States, some aspect of a puritanical approach is probably going to seep into your movie no matter what. It's hard to avoid. That's how we are as a country, however you might feel about it. But it's not my intention to do that. I'm not trying to demonize sex or trying to persuade people not to have sex, but these are things that some people feel in watching the film, which is interesting to me. It's so far from the way I would interpret it, but you get back to that argument of do the filmmaker's intentions actually matter? Who knows. People are going to read this film many different ways, and I was aware of that in writing it, so I had all different kinds of ideas in terms of what the subtext of the film [was].
***Spoilery section of the interview begins***
Speaking of subtext, what It Follows struck me as overall was an updated HIV allegory. In the way that 1986's The Fly has been read to be about AIDS, your movie is about a sexually transmitted disease that seems deadly but ends up being a manageable chronic condition. Also, Jay's coming to terms with it through knowledge shadows the way many people have evolved culturally to understand HIV.
That's interesting. The reference to AIDS and STDs was one that I was completely aware of at the writing stage, and very conscious of—one of several, honestly. It's not the only way that I think the film could be read, but it's a very valid one. It is not necessarily the driving force for me, but I think it's very clearly there.
***Spoilery section of the interview ends***
What is the driving force for you?
I'm hesitant to say. I don't want to be like, "This is what the film means." The only thing I am comfortable saying about it is that, on some level, one of the things important to me is the discussion of mortality. That's probably another fairly obvious one in that we're all mortal, we're all here for a limited amount of time, it's something that we all are aware of. In the film, it's not necessarily sex that opens this character up to danger. Sex is just one aspect of living. So it's literally just life itself, the act of living, is what creates a necessity for us to die. It's literally about the moment at which you are becoming aware of your mortality and some of that has to do with growing up, and sex is part of that. The characters open themselves up to this danger through sex, but I like to think that sex and love are ways we can push death away, at least temporarily. That's sort of what happens in the film in a very literal way, but in the grander scheme of things, it's one of the ways in which we can really be alive and not be so focused on what happens to us. In that moment, we can be truly alive.
Do you actively think about the state of horror? How big of a nerd are you?
I watch a ton of horror, I always have. I really love it. I tend to look back to what I would say are the classics more, but there's some new stuff that I like. My favorite stuff is classically composed, very controlled, very deliberate kind of work.
Like Halloween. My favorite Carpenter is probably The Thing. But I love the original Thing. I've probably seen that more than the Carpenter version. Stuff I was looking at in regards to this included the original Body Snatchers, the Kaufman version, for sure. Certainly The Shining. A lot of Cronenberg. I love De Palma.
I noticed homage to A Nightmare on Elm Street.
A hundred percent — the neighbor boy [across the street].
And the opening feels like Halloween to me, too.
When we were shooting it, I wasn't saying, "This is the Halloween shot." We were shooting at that time of year, the neighborhood looks a certain way, there are a lot of things very much like that. I've studied Carpenter, so that just comes out. And then the music reference is the thing that sort of makes it a hundred percent there, and yes, we were referencing Carpenter with the music.
You can read weekend box office reports and see that there remains a thirst for horror in the moviegoing public: any shitty horror movie that is marketed extensively will do well, at least in its opening weekend. Take Ouija, for example. Even The Babadook, which was not particularly heavily marketed, grew its audience over the past year. It will be interesting to see what happens with It Follows—it's playing the Angelika in New York, which means it's being sold more as an art film than the popcorn/thriller genre that it pays homage to.
I think it's both. That was what I intended.
It Follows is in select theaters today.