Writer Simon Barrett Talks V/H/S, YOU’RE NEXT, THE ABCS OF DEATH, and the Pros and Cons of Making Horror Outside the Studio System

     October 12, 2012

simon barrett vhs

V/H/S is the latest release to capitalize on the found-footage craze. The anthology film is structured around a group of criminals who are hired to break in to a desolate house and retrieve a mysterious videotape. When they arrive at the house they find the owner dead in his recliner, facing a stack of TVs and a massive pile of videotapes. In order to locate the correct video they begin watching the tapes one by one, each being a segment in the film. These shorts include new interpretations on a monster, a masked stalker, a killer in the woods, a ghost story and some good ol’ Satanists; effectively providing a snapshot of the horror genre. V/H/S is directed by Adam Wingard, Ti West, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg, and newcomers Radio Silence.

During the press conference for the film, I was able to sit down for a one on one phone interview with writer Simon Barrett, who provided the script for the segment “The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily when she was Younger” and the wrap-around story “Tape 56”. During the interview we discussed his thoughts on the distant release scheduled for You’re Next, what we can expect from The ABCs of Death, and what’s wrong with studio horror today. Hit the jump for the full interview.

For V/H/S you wrote two of the segments, “Both of them have a lot of left over questions, specifically for “Tape 56” one of the more interesting questions you’re left with at the end of the movie is, “What are all these tapes doing in the same place?” Do you have a lot of the back-story in your mind?

vhs simon barrettSIMON BARRETT: Yeah, actually, the funny thing about kind of both those stories is they both do have really complicated back stories and mythologies, but then we don’t give very much, we don’t put very much of it in the film. I guess I feel like, as a horror fan, I tend to enjoy horror films that only give you just enough information that you kind of have to keep thinking about them. Because that’s what makes them stay with you, you know? If you’re given enough information that you’re kind of trying to put it together after the fact, that also hopefully means that you’re thinking about a horror movie alone at night in your apartment, and that’s the kind of horror film that you’d recommend. But, you also have to be careful because of course you can also be very lazy and just come up with some bullshit and be like, “Yeah, there’s a mythology there. Trust me. ” So, you know, it’s a very fine line. We tried to, with both those stories, we tried to give the viewer just enough hints through the dialogue that they can get what’s happening if they want to, but also, you know, not sitting down and spelling it out for them. Which a lot of horror movies do. A lot of horror movies, particularly it feels like nowadays, don’t expect a very high level of intelligence from their audience. And, as a horror fan, I am consistently being insulted by the films that I watch. And we really didn’t want to do that. We just really set out to do something that, you know I wouldn’t call V/H/S necessarily an intelligent film, but we didn’t want to overtly assume that our audience would be stupid.

That’s always a good idea.

BARRETT: Yeah. Well, nonetheless, that does seem to be the pattern for a lot of studio horror films. You know, it is kind of weird, I feel like some of the attention V/H/S is getting is just because a lot of what else is out there is just so condescending and bad that people are just very excited to see anything that’s different.

Definitely, I feel like part of the reason it’s been successful is you guys had a lot of creative control to sort of do whatever you wanted.

vhs-movie-posterBARRETT: Yeah, total creative control, it’s really nice.

That’s really missing in a lot of studio horror.

BARRETT: Yeah, I mean- well I guess the tradeoff there is if you’re doing a studio film, you have money.


BARRETT: And you can afford to pay your rent and things like that. But the good news is at least if you have absolutely no budget it is nice to have total creative freedom, there’s a tradeoff there. Ideally, I think you know, you find yourself with a budget and creative freedom, but I haven’t quite cracked that code yet.

Next year you guys have You’re Next coming out, which I have to bring up because- I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it, but everybody I know who has is absolutely batshit crazy for it.

BARRET: Oh, that’s awesome.

I can’t wait to see it. A year is such a long wait, and that seems to be sort of a trend for a lot of really good horror movies in the last few years, Trick ‘r Treat, Cabin in the Woods, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, they all had a lot of buzz coming out of the festivals and then they had to wait a long time for a release to, sort of, varying results. Do you think that’s going to have any effect on the release or how it’s received?

BARRETT: You know, well of course I hope not. It’s interesting because actually the producers of You’re Next also produced Mandy Lane, so one of the things they actually did that was smart to make sure that didn’t happen is you know, we have fairly open, frequent communication with Lionsgate about You’re Next. And it really was just the best and strongest spot for that film to come out. And Lionsgate has been very smart, I think. As soon as they acquired the film they locked it down pretty much. You know, like we don’t even have copies of it. The festival buzz was this initial thing I think to get everyone excited, but it’s not like the movies going to circulate for two years before it comes out. That’s the thing that- I think sometimes people can get tired of a movie before they even see it, because it gets so overhyped, and there’s so many stories on the internet. But, for You’re Next they’ve really cleverly just been like, “Ok, this is the right date for the film, and were going to wait until then to market it. ”So, I hope not, I hope audiences are still just as excited to see it. I don’t feel like it’s lost any relevance since it premiered last year. youre-next-movie-image

I would have to agree. There’s a pretty good amount of mystery about it. Other than the fact that it’s a home invasion movie that’s supposed to be very clever, I don’t really know a whole lot about it.

BARRETT: Yeah, I think it’s a very different kind of film and I can’t imagine anyone’s going to do anything like it before it comes out, so I think we’re in good shape.


BARRETT: And also, Lionsgate has had a really positive experience this year with a similar film, well the two films are similar on in that there was a lot of hype building up to their release on the festival level, but Cabin in the Woods, of course, was a movie that had a really delayed release and nonetheless people were really excited to see that when it came out. So I think that’s made them feel like they made the right choice in picking up the film. But, yeah, so that’s kind of it, you know. It’s funny but we’re just going to stay busy and keep making films and, you know, we obviously just can’t wait for people to see, but we want as many people to see it as possible, so going with Lionsgate’s August release is the best way to make that way happen.

That’s good to hear. You guys also did a little segment in The ABCs of Death. That seems like a really interesting project, what can you tell me about that?

abcs-of-death-posterBARRETT: Adam was selected to direct a segment on that and then, you know, since we collaborate on everything he brought me in to write it. You know it was honestly just an honor to be invited to participate in that. And going to Toronto for the premiere and seeing how good everybody’s segments were was actually fairly humbling. I kind of don’t want to talk too much about our segment because I want that to have an element of surprise, but I was like completely blown away by Jason Eisner’s, who did “Y”, and Timo [Tjahjanto] who did “L” and Xavier Gens, who honestly was a director whose work I hadn’t really studied before, his segment “X for XXL”is absolutely brilliant. So it was really, it was actually really amazing to see a bunch of film makers step it up. Really, kind of, the coolest thing about it was, you know, no one participated in that for the money. It was really like, it was actually a challenge, they gave you a small budget and we were all just kind of competing with each other to see who could be the coolest and do something that got the biggest audience reaction. And it was honestly like, I don’t want to get too overly sincere, because I’m not good at it, but it was actually really inspiring to see a bunch of filmmakers doing work just for the sake of the work itself. And, you know, a bunch of guys who all get along, just really putting themselves out there and making a huge effort to make something different just for the sake of doing it. Because so much in the film industry, movies are made for the wrong reasons, and ABCs, you know, it was really cool to be part of a segment where the only challenge was, you know, what can you creatively bring to this? Everyone is saying the movie is exhausting and it is. But I also was astonished by how many segments of it are actually great. 

How long is it?

BARRETT: I think ABCs is 2:05; which is a long time to be hit with the barrage of content that that film hits you with. And it is- there are moments where you feel the punishment. But there’s also just so many incredible highlights. Adam and I went in to it being like- because we hadn’t seen it, none of the filmmakers had actually seen the feature before the premiere, and we were just like, “I have no idea what this is going to be” It wasn’t like V/H/S where we specifically sat there, assembled and sound mixed it. We thought it was actually a great film, and certainly a unique film. So yeah, I was really impressed. But mostly it was really great to see how creative everyone had been and how many people vastly expectations for the assignment.

Yeah, it’s a really cool combination of genre directors.

abcs-of-deathBARRETT: Yeah, I think Tim league and Ant Timpson are uniquely situated to keep track of people. Adam’s actually a really good example, because when they asked Adam to contribute a segment all he was really known for was Pop Skull, which Ant had programmed, and A Horrible Way to Die,which Tim had programmed at Fantastic Fest. But You’re Next hadn’t come out yet, V/H/S hadn’t come out yet- obviously, this one still hasn’t come out really. But, you know, they asked Adam to contribute when he was still relatively unknown. So I think those guys are really smart at not just finding people that they think are good and talented, and will bring something interesting to you know a creative challenge like that. But, they’re also uniquely situated to kind of know who’s on the rise. You know hanging out in Toronto with a bunch of the ABCs directors it did kind of feel like- wow; I’m hanging out with a bunch of people who are going to do something with their careers. Not that I would necessarily count myself among them. I was just really grateful to be there and it was just a really cool thing. I suspect you’ll like that film too. It, you know, I wonder personally if ABCs might be better suited as a home video experience where you can pause it and go to the bathroom. But, then at the same time seeing some of the segments with a crowd and hearing the audience response to them is amazing. But I definitely liked it, I thought it was actually one of the better films I saw at Toronto, but I obviously can’t be objective about that.

Do you have any idea if they have plans to do sort of a VHS type release with it, where is goes VOD first and then to theaters?

vhs-movie-imageBARRETT: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know specifics, but my understanding is Magnolia is going to do a very similar release. I don’t think that dates been announced yet, but I think they are going to do a similar release with ABCs. There will be a preview on VOD and then a limited theatrical. You know that seems to be what they’re doing with a lot of their genre films right now, and they’ve had a lot of success with it. So I suspect ABCs will get the same style release, hopefully next year, because I want people to see it. Part of the fun of it is just talking to people after you see it and arguing with over which segments were your favorite and which were the most outlandish. I haven’t read all the reviews of V/H/S or You’re Next or A Horrible Way to Die, but I think I’ve read every single review of ABCs of Death because I’m really fascinated to see which ones the critics single out and for what reasons. I feel like, I don’t know, arguing over your favorite Pokémon or something. But, it’s like, really engrossing. Every single person I know has seen it, its lead to a huge conversation afterwards. You know, you just kind of can’t help yourself but to start debating about the merits of relative segments. So that’s really fun and I hope it comes out as soon as possible, but I don’t think Magnolia has actually announced their dates for it yet.

Earlier this month it was announced that you guys are going to do Dead Spy Running, can you tell me anything about that or is it still pretty hush-hush?

BARRETT: Yeah, dead spy running is pretty hush-hush. For one thing, you know, Adam and I are obviously really excited about it. After You’re Next we got a fair amount of offers from studios and Warner Brothers was always kind of a studio we wanted to work with. They’ve made such- you know, a lot of the really great films of the past few years, like Inception, and they’re very film maker friendly and they really seemed to get that we weren’t just low budget horror movie guys. Dead Spy Running is kind of the evidence of that, which is like, you know, a lot of studios saw You’re Next and V/H/S and they were like, “Hey, we’d like you guys to do a found-footage home invasion film. “You mean you want us to remake the last two films we did?” And that’s not a bad thing, it’s great to have anyone offering you any work at all honestly, we’ve gone most of our careers without having anywhere close to that kind of opportunity.

vhs-simon barrettBut at the same time we weren’t really interested in telling those stories, because we’ve already told them, and it’s kind of a scary thing in the film industry where people will only take a chance on you to the extent of hiring you to do what they know for a fact you can do because you already did it. And Warner Brothers with Dead Spy Running are definitely taking a chance on us. Because, you know, it’s an action film, it’s going to be really fun and we’re just excited to do our project. The entire team over there are just really great guys. We turned down a lot of projects, and when they brought this one to us we got pretty excited. And, you know, I’m a huge fan of the original novel. So I think we’re going to be able to bring something really fun and cool to it. But other than those kinds of platitudes I can’t say any more. But you wouldn’t want me to. It’s more fun. I think with You’re Next and V/H/S another thing we like doing is, we kind of like surprising people. In this age of the internet it feels like every movie is so overhyped that like I said earlier, I’m sick of movies before I even see their trailer because I’m sick of hearing about them. I’m sick of seeing people tweet about them, and I’m just like “I’m already tired of this movie and I haven’t even watched it yet.” So I think Adam and I want to surprise people, and if we have any fans, which I don’t think we do, but we might, then we want them to have a good experience with our film.

It’s a little bit of a surprise in that it doesn’t seem like a horror movie at all, are you excited to take a break from horror?

BARRETT: I think Adam and I love the horror genre and we’ll probably always come back to it, but I also feel like if you look at some of the greatest horror film makers of all time they’ve gotten very burnt out and started doing bad work if they stay in the genre.

Very true.

simon barrett vhsBARRETT: Just like we wouldn’t want to do another home invasion movie right now, or another found footage movie right now, because we just did that, and we tried to be really original and do something different with it, but we also don’t really have much else to say. I think if you stay in one genre that’s when you can start unintentionally creating lesser work and being less original because you just, you run out of ideas and you might start repeating yourself. So Adam and I knew- we have a couple different projects in the works, including dead spy running and they’re actually all in different genres at various budget levels, Dead Spy Running obviously being a fairly big project. I think that’s just a way to keep creatively inspired and keep doing work that fans respond to.

Thank you Simon.

BARRETT: Thank you, awesome talking to you.

Yea, you too.

V/H/S is available to watch on VOD and expands theatrically this Friday.

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