Interview: Adam Wingard Let’s the Masked Killers of ‘You’re Next’ Keep It Simple

By  · Published on March 19th, 2013

Youre Next Masks

You’re Next caused up quite a stir at last year’s Fantastic Fest. The movie was swiftly picked up for distribution by Lionsgate after receiving stellar reviews, one of which came from our own Scott Beggs, who described the movie as, “pure horror bliss, delivering an engaging group of characters, a badass chick, some iconic masks to add to the collection, and a new twist on slashers.”

Rob wasn’t quite as taken with the film, but one thing is for sure, You’re Next is packed with horror images and a song that’ll stick with audiences. While at SXSW, we spoke with the director of You’re Next, Adam Wingard, about those memorable masks, finding its theme song and getting to direct fellow horror directors:

How did the masks come about?

Going back to when I was a kid, I remember one of my favorite things in terms of a horror film making an impression is finding really good iconic imagery. A lot of times it’s either a monster or a really cool mask. I remember even whenever I saw Scream the first time, the main reason I wanted to go see it was because I thought it was a really cool creepy mask, and it was different. I think even at that age it’s kind of subliminally planted that I really wanted one day to try to figure out a way to do that kind of thing again. It just immediately registers in your mind that that’s that movie. That’s a cool thing.

But going into this one, it was really interesting because that’s easier said than done. How do you come up with something that somebody hasn’t done before? Simon had written it already as these animal masks, but that’s all it was kind of left at. He had these specific animal masks, like the tiger, fox, and lamb. And whenever it came down time to try to figure out what that was, it was really pretty simple. We went through a lot of different incarnations of that, and we also tried completely different stuff. We even had our teams sew together some different style bag masks and weird stuff just to explore the material a little bit.

But, at the end of the day, my instant thought was, “Let’s take these animal masks exactly as they are and let’s turn them into a Michael Myers kind of thing and just paint them.” That’s what we ended up doing. That kind of simple thing ends up…I feel like it’s like…when it comes to iconic imagery you want something that’s like something necessarily you haven’t seen before but it is a very simple thing. And that just ended up kind of working out.

With Ti West and Joe Swanberg involved, how early on did you decide you were going to beat the hell out of other directors?

Definitely very early on. A lot of the roles are written specifically for actors like Joe [Swanberg], A.J. [Bowen], and Amy [Seimetz]. So going into it we kinda knew what we were going to be doing and who was going to be playing what. And really, the reason for that is you just want to be able to not have to worry about as many people as possible. If you can find roles for people that you’ve worked with and you can trust, then all the better.

In this case, most of them happened to be directors. And that really comes from the whole Mumblecore world where you are doing these low budget films and you can’t do SAG, and so you end up kind of, “What kind of actors am I going to find that have sort of a like-minded way of thinking?” And really, on the low budget level a lot of times, it’s just other directors because they know what a pain in the ass it is to really get those performances. And they also have a good perspective on what a good performance is more than just some random non-SAG actor. Which there are plenty of great non-SAG actors out there, but the fact of the matter is, if you are a serious actor you are probably going to join the union. If you can’t use union actors, who are you going to use?

So going into this we kinda had that mindset and it carried over a little bit. I’m glad it did because it’s almost like a great inside joke for horror fans. And this movie itself is a very… there’s a lot of indirect homages and so forth, but there’s a lot of almost inside jokes in it. And that just becomes another fun thing. Literally, if you count the directors, technically, Amy Seimetz is one. Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Calvin Reeder, who plays the cop at the end; he did The Rambler that’s playing here [at SXSW]. Who else am I missing? That’s just a ton of directors. [Laughs]

They must be the ultimate director’s actor, knowing exactly what you need.

Yeah, exactly. And that’s it. It’s like there’s already shorthand… because a lot of them I had already worked with before. Even Ti, like on a small capacity; he’d been in some of these Mumblecore things that we’d done.

So yeah, everybody was all on the same page going into it and it just made it easy to do. Then people like A.J. and Amy are just great actors who I’d worked with, and we’d already had a rapport. And they actually already knew each other too, especially like…it really came in handy having Joe and A.J. being good friends before this. So they had an immediate rapport and a back and forth. By having them play brothers they were able to really amplify that and play it up.

How did you come upon “Looking for the Magic”?

Well, in the script it was written as…I don’t remember what song Simon wrote in the script. But it was one of those things where…And, again, going back to the whole iconic thing, I really grew up on Tarantino’s movies. I always just absolutely loved the way he used songs in a special way that really imprinted on you. That was just something I felt like I hadn’t seen before.

And so, Simon wrote this kind of reoccurring motif. And the question became: What song are we going to use? I knew that I wanted something kind of in the late ’70s, early ’80s kind of era of sound. But, you know, when you are working on a budget you are trying to figure out, “How do we get a good song from that era that isn’t going to be super expensive?”

So I wanted something that sounded like something that basically should have been a #1 hit but you’ve never heard it before. Easier said than done. But we kept an open mind. We looked at a lot of French music. It just turned out that one of the main composers on the film, Kyle McKennen, I asked him, because he just has a huge encyclopedic knowledge of obscure and indie music, and just all kinds of music. So I was just like, “Well, this is the kind of criteria I’m looking for.” And he sent me like 11 songs, and “Looking for the Magic” was one of them. I never heard it before. I played it a couple times. And that was at Simon’s house because I was sleeping on his couch at the time. I called Simon into the room. He was in the other room doing something. I played it for him and immediately we were just like, “Okay, this is it. This is what we want.”

And so, we went from there and just like pursued it. It became a thing where me and Andrew, the DP, we listened to it like constantly. Everybody was listening to that song on the set. On the way to the set I would drive over there with Andrew, the DP, and we would just put “Looking for the Magic” on. And that really set the tone for the film in a big way. So if we couldn’t have gotten that song it would have been devastating. We kept looking for backups just in case we wouldn’t afford it or whatever. But we never found anything. We never found anything that remotely did it. And we’d already kind of shot the movie structurally so that those scenes worked with…because that song is a very particular thing. It starts up with a little bit of an intro that kind of lasts about less than 10 seconds, and then the song kicks into high gear. So all those scenes were paced around that kind of math where you had this little introduction and then, boom, it kicks into gear. And because it was so specific, it made it impossible, really, to find a replacement for it.

Shooting the house with Andrew, your DP, it must have been pretty claustrophobic at times. How mapped out did you have to make sure every shot in that house was?

Well, I mean we only storyboarded the kill scenes, because to me it was really important that the kill scenes all really stand on their own as being uniquely filmed. Because I’m really into Italian films, and I was really influenced by this movie I had just seen called White of the Eye. It’s a Donald Cammell film, the guy who did Demon Seed. It’s just kind of an obscure serial killer movie. But every time he kills people it does these great insert cutaways. Like somebody will be a struggling and they will knock over a vase, and it will cut to the vase like in slow motion smashing on the ground, and, like, a close-ups of their eyeballs.

But the house itself was a challenge just because you don’t want it to become boring, really, like, “Okay, we’re going to see this space over and over again.” So we were really careful about how we used our wides and close-ups. The reason the movie shot in a lot of medium shots and close-ups is so that you actually don’t get tired of the house.

It was always a challenge because we’re in a lot of the same rooms over and over again, but we wanted to each time approach each scene differently so you didn’t see the same angles or the same composition so that it kept it fresh and it never got old. So that was a real big challenge. It was nerve-wracking, too, because you just don’t know when you are shooting if it’s going to come together.

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You’re Next opens in theaters on August 23rd.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.