Interview: Writer/director Simon Barrett on his film making debut Seance; “People who don’t like horror have no business making horror movies”

As the spooky season creeps towards its hallowed end, horror-centric streaming service Shudder is proving to be the gift that keeps on giving for genre fans the globe over.  With the recent release of the  supernatural scarer Seance (you can read our review here), our own Peter Gray got to chat with the film’s writer and director, Simon Barrett.

An exciting staple within the genre thanks to his writing credits on such cult successes as The Guest and You’re Next, Seance marks his first foray into directing and the two discussed if there’s a different approach when writing a story as a director, why now was the right time to direct, and how being a fan of the genre is an important ingredient when crafting a horror story.

Seance marks your debut as a director.  What was it about this time and this story that assisted in making that decision?

It was really just the natural progression from my work with Adam Wingard.  When he and I were first making films together, like A Horrible Way To Die and the first V/H/S, and even You’re Next, which was a bigger film than those, there was a lot for me to do as a producer.  I never felt like I was just a screenwriter on those sets.  Ultimately he was making a lot of the decisions, but collaboratively I felt very creatively fulfilled in that partnership.

As our budgets got bigger and Adam got more successful, especially on the set of The Guest, that was the first time I felt like there was no reason for me to be there.  I felt like just the writer.  It was around the time we did The Guest and prepping Blair Witch that I started thinking about Seance.  It was around 2015 that I wrote the first draft of the film, thinking that I always wanted to direct myself.  I knew Adam was always going to do Death Note, so I thought what should I do.  I thought it was going to be Seance, but it turned out I had to wait until Adam did Godzilla Vs Kong to make Seance because the financing just took so long.  It’s a relatively small film but it’s still an original story from a first-time filmmaker so it was hard to find a financing team.

Is there a different process in writing a film knowing it’s the one you’re going to direct?

I’m very lucky in that I do have this relationship with Adam Wingard so that when I’m writing a script I can tailor it to the person who is going to be creatively realising what I’m describing.  A script like The Guest, for example, is a script that I started as purely my sensibility.  Talking with Adam I started over and re-wrote it from scratch trying to fuse our sensibilities more, which I think led to a much better film.  That’s how we work though.  Adam will send me music and say how he wants to use a song in the writing, and that’s informative to me.  He always gives me a tonne of creative space.

The simple answer is that when you’re directing it yourself, for me, I have to think less about the directing when I’m writing.  The way I see it as a writer is going to be how I see it as a director.  Whereas if I’m writing something for Adam to direct, I know how he sees things so I can translate that.  My career is kind of weird in that I rarely have ever just sent out a script in Hollywood and asked “Does anyone want to buy this”, because I realise the answer would be a staggering “No”.  I haven’t had an agent in over half a decade.  I’m more of an independent filmmaker, for better or worse.

I expected Seance to be a supernatural-leaning film, and then it obviously goes in a different direction, which was something I really appreciated.  I liked that it was such a mixture of horror sub-genres.  Did you always have that blend in mind or was it more a natural progression as you were writing?

Yeah I would say that was the core inspiration for Seance.  I knew that the first project I was going to direct would be a supernatural horror film.  It’s a genre that I enjoy so much, but as a filmmaker it’s also a genre I baulk at.  I don’t really understand the rules as to how a ghost can actually hurt someone.  With a lot of popular Hollywood ghost movies, and even ones that I really enjoy – like The Conjuring films – the rules of the demons are unclear.  They can throw people through walls, so I don’t understand why they don’t just pop someone’s aorta and kill them (laughs).

That type of obnoxiously pedantic, logical thinking is the type of thing that prevents me from writing a satisfying ghost story.  I kind of knew that when I first started writing (Seance) I knew I wanted the supernatural element to be the main narrative source, but I wanted that giallo slasher-type vibe.  Seance certainly isn’t the first film to have a supernatural emotional arc and a slasher narrative arc but I knew it was what I wanted to attempt.

Giallo is such a great term, especially when describing some of the sequences towards the end of the film.  I’m such a fan of practical effects.  Were you always aiming for as much practicality as possible regarding the gore effects?

Adam and I have always had the same philosophy that you should always try to achieve things as much as you can physically on set with whatever budgetary resources you have.  You can adjust that with the tools we have now, like CGI, in post-production.  The thing I don’t like about digital blood is that it looks too perfect.  Actual effects have little idiosyncrasies to them.  Practical effects don’t always work perfectly the way I imagine real flesh wouldn’t either.  By doing it physically you can show people that messy stuff.

Was the idea of a ouija ritual something you did as a child, or was it more something you just explored for the film’s narrative?

It was more that I just loved the idea of slumber parties where people would do seances and things like that.  When I was a little kid me and my friends would stay up telling ghost stories and playing “Bloody Mary”, but I didn’t really have a lot of personal experiences that led to Seance.  It’s more the type of fiction and entertainment I consume.  I’ve always enjoyed mysteries that take place in secluded locations, so you add a seance to that and it’s a vibe I really love.

I find that a lot of people who make or star in horror films aren’t particularly fans of the genre itself.  You’re someone who clearly loves the genre.  When it comes to casting are you looking for genre performers?

I want to say really quick that people who don’t like horror have no business making horror movies.  I know that it is an entry genre for a lot of filmmakers, there’s a certain built-in commercial aspect to it that can get cheap independent features funded, but if you don’t have a love for horror you shouldn’t be doing it.  I think you can feel that too when you watch the final outcome.

As for your actual question (laughs), when I first wrote Seance I was actually thinking of Maika Monroe.  We got along great during (the making of) The Guest and I’m still friendly with her now, she’s really cool.  She aged out of a scholastic role quite quickly, and even though I was going for the stylised “actors in the 20s playing teenagers vibe” of the 90’s movies that I loved, it’s a fine line to walk.  After Independence Day 2 Maika was like “I’m not playing those high-school/college characters anymore” and it was totally valid.  (She) was what I had in mind, so when it came to (casting) it was much more of a discovery process.  Suki (Waterhouse) was someone whose work I knew and I knew directors who had worked with her, so I knew she had a good reputation too, but I didn’t know her (personally).  I don’t consume a lot of entertainment for young people so I just had to meet people and get a sense of their vibe.

Seance is now available to stream on Shudder.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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