Sundance Director's Cut: Adam Wingard ('The Guest')

the guest sundance wingard

Now with three world premiers at the Sundance Film Festival under his belt, it’s becoming old hat to see Adam Wingard trudging around Park City, but things are a bit different this time around with “The Guest”. The two previous years he’s shared the stage with his peers as they unveiled the popular “V/H/S” omnibus (and its sequel), but “The Guest” is Wingard’s latest solo work (penned by his frequent collaborator Simon Barrett) and delivers an action-packed wallop that is both novel fun as well as an  homage to everything we love about 80s genre films, a combination that clearly illustrates Wingard’s  evolution as a filmmaker.

In the film we follow David (“Downton Abbey”’s Dan Stevens) a dreamy stranger who shows up (actually runs) to the doorstep of the Peterson family, who David says served with their son, Caleb, who was killed in the war in Afghanistan. With his kind eyes and chiseled looks the family think he’s the total package, except for older sister Anna (Maika Monroe) who grows more suspicious by the day.

With a score by Steve Moore that John Carpenter would be envious of, its comedy and incredible action sequences, “The Guest” epitomizes what a Midnight movie should be (where the film is programmed at Sundance).

We talked to Wingard at the festival about the film’s origins, how watching “Downton Abbey” with his parents led to him casting his lead and if we’ll see him do a studio picture soon.

FILM.COM: At one point you were going to shoot something in South Korea after “You’re Next”, right?

ADAM WINGARD: We were in an interesting situation after “You’re Next” because after that it’s always the question you get which is, “What can we make next?” But after the film the what can we do next question was much easier to ask because we had people coming at us with money, so the question changed to, “What should we be making next?” And I think initially our whole take on that was too pragmatic. We were thinking we didn’t want to get boxed in as the home invasion/action thriller guys, horror guys basically. Not that we wanted to leave that genre, but this was a big moment because if we did another movie about a girl that fights back suddenly that’s all anyone is going to hire you for. So Simon and I’s initial bonding was over Hong Kong action films. Specifically “The Killer”, it was the movie we always talked about. So we always had a desire to do an action film.

We thought we should fulfill that desire and we wanted to do something that was a non-stop action thing. So we were sitting down with [producers] Keith [Calder] and Jessica [Wu] and talking about where we’d like to do a movie and we thought let’s do South Korea! We don’t know anything about it, we’ve never been there, let’s check it out. So we just set up all with oppositions for ourselves. It was a way too ambitious script. The first 30 pages was this incredible car chase. So we went through that whole thing and it never became our film.

We had a little of down time after that movie went away and we ended up doing the “V/H/S/2” thing just so we didn’t go insane, and then after that I was just sitting around the Snoot offices [production offices of Calder and Wu] with a stack of Blu-rays watching movies by myself and I just happened to put in the first “Terminator” and then the original “Halloween” and I realized these two movies kind of embody the kind of movie I wanted to make.

So I called Simon up and pitched him this fantastical story. It was basically taking the structure of Halloween into an action movie. Combining it with “Terminator” so instead of Michael Myers you have a cyborg. We have a Doctor Loomis character, which is basically Lance Riddick in the movie but I pitched Simon that and that really solidified our collaboration because he said, “I have this script idea that I was working on a couple of years ago that's about this soldier that ends up coming to this family and he ends up living with them,” so it was a drama revenge thing. And he was like, “The script wasn't working so I just stopped but you know what if we took that premise and combine it with this conceptual idea you have, I think it could work.” And he said, “We'll just call it “The Guest”. That was it. Within 20 seconds he had the whole thing figured out.

Will you guys go back and try to do the South Korea action project?

Probably not specifically that one, but I'm sure one day we'll do a straight up action movie. That turned out to be a big learning curve for us in terms of how to develop movies.

The gun fights and action sequences in “The Guest” are really impressive. Were there standards you set in regards to movies or favorite scenes that you wanted to emulate?

I knew the scenes were never overblown or expensive as the action scenes that we were thinking of. Our aspirations are always high, I was always thinking about “The Matrix” and the way American mainstream action movies are able to take that Hong Kong esthetic and apply it to more of an American standard.

And also you're using actors who aren't martial artists so it's a different style going about it because you're faking it a bit. I mean, Dan had to learn how to use guns and we went through an extensive, month-long workout course and fight choreography. But we had a really good stunt man that did the things that were impossible for Dan to do. Like the scene of him jumping through a window with bullets shooting over his head. Stuff like that is impossible to ask anyone other than a professional to do. And by the way, the stunt man that we had was amazing, he could time out the jump through the window perfectly. He knew he could land on the bed, bounce up, hit a wall and hit the floor, and knew exactly the steps he'd have to take. And it's not like he could practice it because you're going through a window.

So it was one take?

One take. And on top of that someone said the wall was pretty fragile because we had the squibs in it. So he's like, “I'll hit it at 40 percent.” That just blew my mind. Some of these guys are incredible.

With the music it was like you captured John Carpenter and locked him in a closet to do your score, that's how spot on it is. Was the synthesized sound always the intention?

I always try to get my composers to do the music before we start shooting, I like to have at least half of the score done, or know the themes and what it sounds like, and in this case I wanted that 80s John Carpenter vibe to it. But I didn't want it to parody that. I'm a big fan of the “Grindhouse” series and some movies that came after that, but they did that so I didn't want to do a movie that was imitating something.

So with the score the reason I got Steve Moore to do it was because he's a very unique musician in the sense that he's not sampling anything, he's not using software, everything he's using is vintage synthesizers. I don't think he uses a synthesizer past 1990, and specifically in doing this film I really wanted to have something that was an version of the Brad Fiedel soundtrack from the first “Terminator” and “Halloween 3”, which is my favorite of all the “Halloween” scores, also done by Carpenter. One of the few films he composed and didn't direct. In my first conversation with Steve he said he had found a liner notes of “Halloween 3” that had a list of all the equipment and over the years he had gotten all of those synthesizers listed, so that's what he used. So he's using all of the equipment from that era, but brining modern ideas to it.

I'm not that familiar with Dan Stevens. Are you a “Downtown Abby” fan?

Before casting had even started, the Thanksgiving before that I'd gone back home to hang out with my dad and my step mom and they sat me down and forced me to watch an entire season of “Downton Abbey”. I really enjoyed it, but they are crazy about it, like a lot of people are. And Matthew Crawley, the character Dan plays made a good impression of me. But it wasn't something like immediately I thought we have to cast him in the film. It was just, I enjoyed “Downton Abbey”, moving on.

Then, when the casting process came around we were going through the names and I was going to a lot of meetings and Dan was on there and I was really intrigued by that. But I was skeptical because this is a southern character and I'd never seen him do that. But any hesitation I had left once I talked to him. He just had the exact look and personality that the character needed. And I like to cast from the standpoint that the actor needs to have to embody a certain amount of the character already. I could see his calm, cool demeanor and his genuine likability, he's a genuinely nice guy, you can't fake that. And that's what that character needed to infiltrate this family and built their trust.

It seems you're being strategic in your choices of projects, so is a next step something larger in scope?

The budget of this film is significantly greater than “You're Next” and we actually have two projects lined up that we'll shoot back to back. I don't know which we'll do first yet, it just depends on timing. They're weather contingent. We haven't announced them yet so we can't talk about them, but they are both larger in scale and that's what's cool about “The Guest”, it helps solidify our creative collaboration, especially in the development process.

We ended up in a funk between “You're Next” and this film where we just weren't sure about which film to do next but really at the end of the day we were just overworked. We'd been working for a couple of years straight on these projects and we had to take a break and ask what do we want to make next? It actually let us reframe our whole lives in a way where we didn't have to think a certain way anymore, now we think what kind of movies do we want to make, and that's a much better place to be, but it's still a transition.

If a studio called would be you interested in taking on a franchise?

Of course. If the project was right. I mean, we've gone down the road with different studio stuff but we just haven't found a project that speaks to us. But one of these two projects coming up may or may not be a studio film. [Laughs]