Five years ago, Michigan native David Robert Mitchell burst onto the indie filmmaking scene with The Myth Of The American Sleepover, a kind of dreamy, naturalistic cousin to teen ensemble films like American Graffiti and Dazed And Confused. It was a promising debut, and many agreed that the future looked bright for the young writer-director. Few could have guessed, however, that Mitchell would chase this gentle slice-of-life with one of the scariest horror films of the last few years. It Follows, which premiered at Cannes last May, mines a brilliantly simple premise for near-constant dread. Having traveled the festival circuit, where it inspired raves (and probably more than a few nightmares), the film finally opens in select U.S. theaters this week. We talked to Mitchell about his bad dreams, his influences, and his unexpected turn to fright fare.
The A.V. Club: It Follows is kind of a genre pivot for you. Did you decide you wanted to make a horror movie next or was this just an idea that grew organically into your second feature?
David Robert Mitchell: I guess it’s both. I’m a big horror film fan and I always intended to make one at some point. I’d had this idea for a long time. It came from a nightmare that I had as a kid—this basic idea of being followed by something that can look like different people and only I could see it. It was very slow and always coming for me. So I wrote the script in 2011. I was trying to put a different project together at that moment, and intended to do [It Follows] as my third film. But when the other thing wasn’t happening, I decided that instead of spending another year or two waiting for money, I would see if I could just get financing for this film instead. It definitely came together—not necessarily easily, none of this is ever easy—but at least it happened. So I’d always intended to do it, but that’s why it happened a little sooner.
AVC: It must be easier to fund something that has this horror hook than it is to get money for, say, Myth Of The American Sleepover, which lacks an easy elevator pitch.
DRM: Right, Myth is kind of anti-narrative, ultimately. Anything along those lines is always trickier. [It Follows] is still a little different, but it’s much closer to being a conventional narrative.
AVC: The film is set in Michigan, where you grew up. As a fellow native of the state, I feel like it captures the atmosphere of the summers there perfectly.
DRM: Where in Michigan are you from?
DRM: Did you go to Michigan State [University]?
DRM: I feel like you have to go there if you’re from Lansing. If you go to U of M, your parents might disown you.
AVC: [Laughs.] Very much so. Where did you grow up?
DRM: Clawson. A lot of people know Royal Oak. It’s near there. Between 13 and 14 Mile Road.
AVC: Are there a lot of your memories of that place in the film, which takes place in the same general area?
DRM: Oh, totally. The park we filmed at is the park I went to when I was a kid.
AVC: It’s a terrifying film, and watching it with an audience, you can definitely feel the panic in the air. Are you too close to it, or can you watch your own film and feel scared?
DRM: Nah, I can’t at all. Early on, just watching it, while we were still completing it, I could still enjoy it on a certain level. But as for being scared? No. I definitely had a feeling of anxiety while I wrote the script. Since that time, it’s really just become about me trusting that I once felt that way, and then reassembling that feeling through production. And then in post, it was about looking to my editor. At a certain point, both of us are probably too close to it to feel it anymore. And then it’s about playing it for friends and trying to gauge whether it’s having the right effect. But to be really honest, I don’t think it was until we played it in front of a real audience at Cannes that I knew whether it could work as a movie. I had no idea. That was cool, but also very scary.
AVC: There’s a lot of vintage John Carpenter in this film, especially in the music and the use of space. Was he a big influence, and were there other filmmakers whose work you studied when bringing the movie to life?
DRM: Of course, I totally love Carpenter—Halloween, and his version of The Thing is a favorite of mine. I’ve definitely watched his movies a million times. I’m a fan of his blocking and his staging and his compositions. For me, it wasn’t just about saying, “This particular shot is a Carpenter homage.” I’ve watched his stuff enough that’s probably going to come out in the filmmaking. But there’s a ton of other filmmakers that factored in, too. I also love Cronenberg, I’m a big De Palma fan—I think there’s probably a lot of De Palma in there as well. Hitchcock, too. Rear Window is my favorite movie of all time. I love Creature From The Black Lagoon. I could go on and on about all the people that I love. And then there are other elements of the movie that are not necessarily the horror elements. Some of the inspiration for that comes from a lot of different places, few of them having anything to do with horror.
AVC: Do you have rules about how you write teenage characters? One of the interesting things about It Follows is that it features kids who don’t talk in references or relate everything to something they’ve seen.
DRM: Yeah, there’s an avoidance of certain aspects of pop culture, but then I like to embrace other parts of it. It’s tricky, because I’ve only made these two films, but I have a million different scripts and a million different things that I want to make. The two that I’ve done have just been about teenagers, but I have stories about many different characters at many different stages of life.
It more has to do with my general belief that film doesn’t have to operate within the world we live in. The ground rules of the film world don’t have to be how we understand the world. And something doesn’t have to be fantasy to take some elements from fantasy. Movies are very much dreams, in a way, and you can use that to your advantage.
AVC: The time period of the movie is fascinatingly indeterminate. One of the girls has this mobile device, but otherwise we could be watching a movie set in 1990.
DRM: There are production design elements from the ’50s on up to modern day. A lot of it is from the ’70s and ’80s. That e-reader cell phone—or “shell phone”—you’re talking about is not a real device. It’s a ’60s shell compact that we turned into a cell phone e-reader. So I wanted modern things, but if you show a specific smartphone now, it dates it. It’s too real for the movie. It would bother me anyway. So we made one up. And all of that is really just to create the effect of a dream—to place it outside of time, and to make people wonder about where they are. Those are things that I think happen to us when we have a dream.
AVC: Plenty of people have read the “It” of It Follows as a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease, but that doesn’t entirely scan, as you can’t get rid of an STD by sleeping with someone else.
DRM: [Laughs.] Right, exactly. I was totally aware of that connection when I wrote the script, but it wasn’t necessarily the driving force in terms of subtext. There are a lot of other aspects. I tend to shy away from explaining it, but I’m happy to have the conversation.
AVC: Of course, you don’t need to unpack your own film. That’s for us to do.
DRM: [Laughs.] But I would agree with you that even if you read it that way, it’s much more complicated than that.
AVC: You mentioned Brian De Palma earlier. He’s a director who builds his film around set pieces, and I feel as though the scary moments in It Follows are essentially set pieces, too. Did you write all of them into the script or were there any moments born when you were on location?
DRM: Oh, no, it’s all in the script. There are small elements that we worked out on set. But we didn’t have a ton of money, so it was about having a really solid plan and going in and doing everything in our power to get it done. There was very little time to change things once we got going.
So I worked those [set pieces] out in my head beforehand. Most of that stuff was probably in the first draft of the script. A few things changed. Some set pieces became smaller because of budget. There were a couple of really cool ideas from the first draft that would have been really fun to do, but we would have just needed a lot more money and people. I had a lot of ideas of ways you could use the rules of this monster to generate suspense and create some really interesting set pieces. And I only got to do a few of them in the film, really.
AVC: What’s an example of something you couldn’t do because of budget or logistics?
DRM: Some of them were just cut to simplify the script and make it filmable. There was a point in the very first draft where the friends think that they’re okay and they go to an outdoor concert. And they’re literally in a huge crowd at this show. It was doing some interesting things with perspective and playing with that cold, subjective camera, and cueing the audience in to certain things before the characters, and letting that suspense build. Without walking you through the whole thing—and I’d have to read it to remember—it was a really cool scene. But way too hard to do on our budget. Like impossible. Well, not impossible, but not something I wanted to torture myself to do.
AVC: But keeping the monster off-camera can be very effective, too. It’s the Jaws effect. A lot of the anxiety comes from the long stretches between appearances.
DRM: Oh, no, totally. And I could have crammed more in there. But for me, the movie was always about the waiting spaces, as opposed to those moments of attack or the moments where you see it. So that’s why there aren’t more. Like, the scene I was just describing, that was replaced by a different one at some point. But it was always the intention that the horror scenes would be spaced out, and it would be more about the anxiety of waiting.