The Guest is enigmatic and irresistible. It starts with Downton Abbey hunk Dan Stevens knocking on a door and introducing himself to the woman who answers. "I knew your son," he says. "I was with him when he died."
From there he convincingly charms his way into the family as a great all around guy, a soldier who fought alongside the aforementioned son. But things pretty quickly take a turn for the weird, and The Guest opens up into something bigger. By the end it your mind is buzzing with more questions than you had to begin with.
We got to speak with director Adam Wingard and ask some of those questions, and he told us how Dan Stevens' character is a mix of Michael Myers and the Terminator, how he put together the most goth soundtrack of the year, and how he cast '90s star Ethan Embry as a redneck gun dealer. Here's what he had to say.
Zimbio: I watched the movie last night, and I've got to wonder, how in the world did you know Dan Stevens would be right for this part?
Adam Wingard: We wanted to find an actor who could realistically subvert your expectations the same way he does it with this family. It seems weird to spin this Downton Abbey actor into a Kentucky soldier, but it was important that he’s realistically someone you’d let into your house. And that’s something that Dan just had, that effortless charm. From the first time I met him I was struck by just what a nice guy he was.
Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with his character?
We had a lot of discussions about archetypes. The starting point was, at least for me, I was interested in doing a film that has an android character in it. And that came from my love for the movie Prometheus, and Michael Fassbender’s character, who's also named David.
The strange thing is the genesis of this project started 10 years ago with a completely different screenplay, but the original script still had this idea of a soldier infiltrating this family. [Screenwriter] Simon [Barrett]’s original take on it was darker, but the character was still named David. It was only after we did You’re Next that we’re at this new place where we’re asking ourselves, "Now that we can make the movie we want, what do we want to do?"
I just happened to watch this screening of Halloween and Terminator back-to-back, and just watching those films reminded me of the reason I wanted to make movies in the first place. So I had this discussion with Simon about Prometheus and Halloween and Terminator and this broad idea about how to bring all these ideas together.
With both You’re Next and this, at first it seems like you’ve seen these movies before. But there’s this subversion that happens in both of them. Do you look for places to subvert those expectations?
It’s a natural part of our process. Our influences range all over the place. With this movie you could almost plug in any sub-genre. It’s a comedy. It’s a horror film. It’s a thriller. It’s an action film. It’s a sci-fi film. It’s everything but a musical. It’s just a matter of multiple influences just coming together.
But it’s not so much a conscious thing?
I don’t think so. We don’t go into any movie thinking, "How do we invert the genre?". I think if anything that’s a by-product of reacting to things we don’t like about certain types of movies or certain tropes. We’re very aware of all these things. It’s just about being smart in the way you approach them. If you’re going to do something you’ve seen before, it’s almost like you want to subtly acknowledge that without winking directly to the audience.
In a lot of home invasion movies — this is kind of heavy — but there’s an element of rape. Or there’s a threat of rape. And you’ve gotten away with making these really menacing pictures without going that route. Is that a conscious thing?
Oh definitely. With You’re Next, we were directly responding to the mean-spiritedness of the home invasion genre. They turn into these weird almost like torture fantasies. With that picture we acknowledged what we didn’t like about the genre, and then we said, "Well what’s our take on it? Let’s go down that road."
In many ways I think we’re still in the home invasion element. The Guest is kind of a polite home invasion, but it’s still somebody infiltrating a house. And in a lot of horror films you’re used to seeing women being objectified, and I guess if you want to look at it through an inverse perspective, The Guest really goes out of its way to objectify Dan. We had a lot of fun with that, and we played with that, especially in the shower moment.
It sets it apart for sure. Another thing I wanted to bring up, I grew up in Kansas, and was pretty outwardly goth in college. But one of the things my friends and I used to complain about is that whenever you see a goth in a movie it’s this over-the-top caricature. But you do something that’s more realistic.
I’m glad you mention that because I have the same kind of attitude to the whole thing. For some reason in the movie world, a goth needs to have black lipstick, and you have to wear a dress that has a spiderweb pattern or something, and those kinds of clichés. And I actually based the goth scene in this movie on people that I knew. It’s not a cut-and-dried thing. It’s not just a fashion statement. It more falls in line with people’s taste in music, and things like that. There’s a darker edge to the way they dress, but there’s not a uniformity to it like the clichés would have you believe. And that was really important to me. And that was also the starting point of the angle we took on the soundtrack.
I initially based the Anna character on people that I knew. In fact she’s based on a girl that I know who helped me find a lot of the songs that are used in the film.
That soundtrack is something else. I don't think I’ve never seen Clan of Xymox and Hocico and Front 242 on a soundtrack.
It was an interesting process because I knew I wanted it to have an authentic kind of '80s vibe to it. But to really achieve that, it wouldn’t be realistic for it to be just '80s type of artists. It had to be a mixture of new that melded together with the old.
That project evolved over time. It started off in a more goth rock style. My initial thought for the Anna character was that I’d go more in the Death in June/Christian Death kind of route. And once I started casting the film and developing it further, the movie took on more and more of a comedic styling, and there was more of a poppiness to the look of the actors and things. So I started evolving the music taste process and pushing it more toward the electronic. And that’s when I really started pushing the modern bands like SURVIVE and trying to mix that with Clan of Xymox, Front 242, which is more like early '90s industrial. That was just an interesting evolving process that we were constantly changing and acclimating to the way the film was turning out.
What about the bar fight scene? Where did you come up with blow job shots and cosmopolitans?
That’s all Simon, but it’s funny because we shot a couple movies, like the V/H/S stuff, in a town called Columbia, Missouri [Simon's home town]. I had my first experience with a blow job shot because there’s a place in Columbia, I can’t remember the name of it, but all they sell are shots. They have like a hundred shots on a menu that you can order from. And I started reading the blow job shot and was like "This is a real thing? This is a frat thing that people do?" So I had a feeling that because Simon grew up in this college town that he would know about these novelty shots and alcoholic beverages.
It sets up the mood for that scene so well. Did you guys sit down and flesh out, like, "How powerful is he?" Because David has some powers.
The real technical logistics of how that character works was fully explained in an earlier version of the film, and we actually ended up taking a lot of that explanation out.
That’s obviously a smart move I think.
Yeah because what we discovered in those early test screenings whenever we showed people the more complete explanation of the program that David was in, people felt like they had too much information. Everyone kind of has that Bourne Identity shorthand, so we didn’t end up needing it. And ultimately it’s more fun to put your own ideas in there. It can be as outlandish as you want it to be. So there is a logical explanation for what’s going on there, but it’s all kind of hidden.
You’ve gotta do a comic book or something just to give that story to us.
You know, The Guest would make a great comic book. As a series itself, I think it would almost be a more appropriate continuation to follow it in a comic.
What about Ethan Embry playing this redneck gun dealer? How did that happen?
He was in my friend E.L. Katz’s movie, Cheap Thrills recently, and Evan [Katz] and I went to film school together, and we have a really close relationship. When I saw Ethan in his film, I was totally in love with what Ethan brought to it. So while that movie was playing the festival circuit, I asked our producers to come to a Cheap Thrills screening with the idea to kind of be like, "Look at that, we should cast him in this movie!"
I saw the evidence of him being great and I wanted to find a role for him that maybe wasn’t huge, but needed a genre performance to bring something extra to it.
It’s October, so before we go, do you have any horror movie recommendations for the Halloween season?
I would recommend the Kiyoshi Kurosawa film Pulse. I think the original title is Kairo. It’s Japanese. That’s a really good undiscovered treasure. Honestly so many of the films I like are classics like The Shining or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Alien. You can’t go wrong with those. I think it’s definitely worth revisiting Halloween III. That’s a movie that kind of got swept over when it came out because so many people were disappointed that Michael Myers wasn’t in it.
Simon and I kind of have a couple of references to Halloween III in The Guest. Our film kind of shares some common bonds with Halloween III in a weird way because that film is also kind of a weird sci-fi/conspiracy-driven thriller. Halloween III is really much less of a horror film and more of a thriller. I think it ticked people off that day when it came out because it was misleading calling it a Halloween movie, but at the end of the day it’s a movie that’s having a resurgence for good reason. Because it’s one of the best scores that John Carpenter and Alan Howarth ever did. There’s a lot of reasons to go back and revisit that. It’s one of the types of movies that I like to watch during Halloween season — the under-appreciated horror film mixed with the absolute batshit.