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Director David Robert Mitchell on It Follows: The Scariest Film of This Generation

on March 12, 2015, 4:15pm

There are three questions you’ll want answered after seeing It Follows: Will I be able to sleep tonight? Where can I get the soundtrack? And who the hell is David Robert Mitchell?

Rest assured, you’ll be able to sleep — that is, with the lights on, the television blaring, and a close, reliable friend nearby. As for Disasterpeace’s 8-bit nightmare of a score, well, that will soon surface on vinyl courtesy of Milan Records on April 7th. You’ll want to pre-order soon, as they’re limited to a 1,000 copies.

With regards to Mr. Mitchell, however, we’re just as perplexed. The young Michigan filmmaker turned a number of heads a few years ago with his full-length debut film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, a dreamy coming-of-age portrait in the vein of American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. But It Follows


Let’s just say that very few films are ever this scary, and when they are, they traditionally become the ubiquitous horror film for that generation. Remember when your older cousins or neighbors would warn you about renting Halloween, The Exorcist, or A Nightmare on Elm Street? That’s It Follows.

Here’s the thing: Don’t watch any trailers. Don’t read about the movie. In fact, if you haven’t seen it yet, bookmark this interview, and return when you’re shaken and stirred. After all, you’ll undoubtedly have the same questions above, the last of which we’ve attempted to answer below.

At the Sundance premiere, you mentioned that the premise for It Follows actually started out as a nightmare. Was this recurring, or was this a one-off that you just happened to write down?

No, it was recurring, but when I was a kid. I had it several times when I was really young. I haven’t had it when I was an adult, or anytime recently, but I always remembered it.

Not even while you were filming?

Well, I don’t know if it did, because I don’t really remember my dreams or my nightmares. I haven’t remembered them for many years.

So, you don’t have any current crop of nightmares right now?

No, I don’t. I’m sure I do, but I’m not aware of them. I literally go to sleep, and I wake up. I remember nothing.

david robert mitchell and maika monroe Director David Robert Mitchell on It Follows: The Scariest Film of This Generation

Does that bum you out? Especially given the wealth of ideas they offer?

No, I’m happy about it. I used to have nightmares all the time, and I remember them constantly, and it’s unpleasant. I know this may sound a little strange or a little crazy, but when I was younger, there was a point where I felt like I maybe willed away my ability to remember them. I remember literally thinking, I can sort of push it away somehow. I don’t know if that’s crazy, but I really barely ever remember a nightmare or a dream.

Well, that’s a good thing.

It’s fine for me. I know it’s nice to take creative inspiration from nightmares and dreams, and I’ve definitely done that. I remember a bunch of the ones I had when I was young, and so I’ve got enough.

It Follows is probably the worst nightmare of ’em all. One of the things that makes it so dreamy is the idea that you’re always on the run — that evil will always be stalking you. When writing the film as an adult, what are some things that you attributed that fear to? 

I don’t know what caused it when I was young. I know it’s an anxiety dream. I could only guess, but — and I’ve talked to people that have had similar nightmares — it’s a fairly common anxiety dream. Yeah, it’s anxiety, but that’s not, like, the cause. Back then, I don’t know … What am I afraid of now? I don’t know, the normal things. I think on some level, pain and illness, and death of myself and people that I love, I think those are always things that are frightening. It’s very real. I think on some level that’s the root of most of these things. That’s just my guess.

What pushed you to revisit the nightmare? 

Honestly, I had been thinking about it in the back of my mind for a lot of years. I certainly continue to add to it, build on it over time before I sat down to write it. I mean, obviously, the sexual element came much later, but as for why I came back to it, I don’t know. I tend to think that, in writing this film, there were all kinds of interpretations — like if you’re looking for the meaning behind the film, I think there could be many, and I was conscious of some, and I also think it’s possible to not be totally aware of others. To me, that’s sort of interesting. So even if I can’t totally unlock it — or even if I could, would I?– the answer is probably I would not.

it follows 2 Director David Robert Mitchell on It Follows: The Scariest Film of This Generation

You’ve previously related the film’s allegories of sexually transmitted diseases to the connections we make over social media, which I thought was really interesting. It is scary that somebody can just follow you at any moment. Strangely enough, that same technology proves useless in this story; in fact, there’s hardly any tech at all.

I stripped away certain bits of technology, and I blurred others, like you see the cellphone that’s the shellphone, like a seashell. That’s a cellphone; it’s just not one that exists. It’s really about trying to place the film outside of time, so to the viewer, you can’t quite put your finger on when it’s happening, and that’s a little bit disconcerting. We’re used to being able to watch something and looking for indicators as to when something is. If you don’t have it, it kind of throws you off a bit, and to me, that approximates the feeling that you have within a nightmare.

That was something I also noticed about your debut film, The Myth of the American Sleepover. There also appeared to be this focus of offline innocence and more timeless virtues. Is this something you feel passionate about?

Yeah, it’s tricky to explain, but there’s some of the same tricks in this film that were in the first, but for slightly different reasons, if that makes sense. There’s some overlap, for sure, but some of it is to create a different feeling than the other film did. It’s not about suggesting that there’s a moment in time that’s better than some other, or that there’s something wrong with the way we operate now, but more that I think there’s something interesting, more engaging, for me personally, in constructing a film that is not built around some of the very quickly changing technologies.

I think, for one, they date a film in a way that’s not bad, but you want to sort of be in control of that. You can’t totally control that sort of thing, but it’s about having a little bit of say in that. And I also think that, on a practical level, this technology can dominate your plot and your scene construction, and the way people interact, and it can be a little bit of a burden. Even beyond that, I’m just not that interested in trying to convey exactly the way the world is — I’m not interested in trying to make a timestamp of how our world feels or how it operates.

To me, that’s what’s so cool about making films: You don’t have to operate on the same ground rules as our world does. You can change big things or small things. I like the idea of playing with fantasy and merging that somewhat within — playing with naturalism and playing with fantasy, and trying to see how those things can intercept each other, and what that feels like. I don’t know. It’s just something I’ve been playing with a little bit, and I can continue to explore some of these ideas with future projects, things that I haven’t gotten to make yet. So, we’ll see.

it follows malika monroe mitchell Director David Robert Mitchell on It Follows: The Scariest Film of This Generation

Your patience with naturalism works to your benefit, especially with It Follows, namely because you never over-explain the mythology. I think that’s a major problem of horror movies today, and I don’t know why that seems to be the norm.

You know, I don’t know either. I find it a little unfortunate. I feel like it’s almost the default. At this point, we’re in a space where the default is to deal with the fear for a little while, and then try and solve it, like find the origin and eliminate it. And to me, that’s just not really the point. The majority of the horror films that I like are just about somebody in some kind of nightmare, and they are trying to survive it, and that’s it. But really, you try to get to the bottom of anything, you’re probably going to hit a wall, especially if you’re in some kind of dangerous situation that’s outside of reality.

And so, I don’t know where that started or why it’s so dominant, but it is the dominant thing. It’s the dominant way of thinking about horror films. And I sort of had to fight that myself. It’s not that I want to do that, but it’s a common reaction for people to read something and want to explain it, want to solve it, want to create an origin for it. I find it a little irritating. Again, like I said, there’s some that I like, but overall, it changes the course of the story in a way that isn’t interesting to me. But then there are people who create that and then are happy they don’t get it.

Especially in TV culture. You go look at recaps, and there are always comments saying, “Well, you know, it doesn’t make sense that this connected with this,” and it’s like, “Well, a lot of things don’t always make sense, but if you just let it be…”

Yeah, it’s the need for everything to be completely, logically explained, and it’s like you know, sometimes there are things that just aren’t logical, and that’s the point of them. That’s what actually makes them … that’s what’s so good about them.

it follows character2 Director David Robert Mitchell on It Follows: The Scariest Film of This Generation

It’s hard to dispute your characters, though. They’re so real and natural and organic. Because these films were shot and conceived where you grew up, how much of your own childhood shaped your characters? Were you pulling faces from your own past?

Sometimes. Or an idea of somebody. And a lot of the time, they’re made up, too, or they’re just composites of people or the idea of a person. Honestly, it’s a mixture. It’s all of those things. Sometimes it’s total fabrication, and sometimes it’s like, “It’d be interesting to have a character like this,” or sometimes it’s like, “Oh, what if I took this characteristic and this characteristic — this aspect of a person…” It’s hard to say, but there are a lot of things that go into it.

Truth is, neither Myth or It Follows are representative of me — even sequences within them or characters. There are always pieces of my personality that come out in terms of writing the characters. When I write them, I have to feel like I understand them. I try to approach it as though I’m that character when I’m writing for them. Whoever it is that I’m writing for, I just try to imagine that I’m really that person.

And so, there’s going to be a part of me that’s in there, but none of it’s autobiographical, per se. It’s definitely not that. There’s always a certain piece in there that might be, but it’s always so tiny that someone very close to me might go, “Oh, I kind of see a little bit of this here,” or, “I know why you mentioned that,” but it’s not enough to say that it’s really any of my experience with Myth or any of the naturalistic parts of It Follows.

it follows scene Director David Robert Mitchell on It Follows: The Scariest Film of This Generation

How about locations, though? I imagine that some of the more notable places in each film have some memories or stories tied to them, right?

Yeah, somewhat. It depends. In It Follows, the park that she runs to and gets on the swing, that’s the park I would walk to by my house when I was a kid. So I wrote it to take place there. I thought, Oh, well this is how I imagine it, let’s go film it there. Those are specific. There’s always things where it’s like, “Well maybe it’s not the actual place, but it’s inspired by a place.”

One of the film’s many intimidating hallmarks is its overwhelming sense of dread. I imagine that feeling is something you don’t really experience until the final cut, which must be a daunting fear while shooting. Were you ever worried that the tension might not translate?

Well, it was certainly a concern. I can’t say that I 100% knew that it would all work out perfectly, but you know, you have to be confident in what you’re doing. I did feel like we had a good plan. I knew how I felt when I wrote it, and I would try to hang onto the feeling that I had, that memory of that feeling. Because you’re absolutely right. You do not feel that on a shot-to-shot basis in production. It’s impossible. Really, you’re trying to make your day, you’re trying to get your shots, there’s all kinds of stress, and it’s about me trying to remember what little piece of that puzzle I need to get within that shot that will help me to then later create the accumulated dread. And it’s impossible to feel that in every second; you’re just too close to it.

Ultimately, I just followed my plan, and trusted that it would work, and then in editorial, you just construct it. And yeah, I certainly was nervous at times, because I can only really see it through other peoples’ eyes. I can understand it from an analytical point of view, and from a filmmaker’s point of view in terms of how I build it, and I have an understanding of what certain things will do, but until you actually see that working with a person, it’s really hard to know.

We built a temporary soundtrack, just little pieces of music from all over the place. We spent an incredible amount of time on the sound design, even through editorial. It was vital to know that everything worked perfectly, and we couldn’t just do it without making all of those elements as complete as they could possibly be. And all that said, there was a point where I said, “Okay, I’m proud of the film, I know how I feel about it,” and I’d share it with some people, but ultimately, I didn’t know 100% until we played it at the critics week in Cannes.

Not until that first screening did I know how it would play in front of an audience. We hadn’t played it in front of an audience. So literally, some people started screaming, and there was a feeling in the theater, and it was after that screening and talking to people that I realized, Oh, it is actually working for people, and that’s really nice. It’s very subjective, you know, what is terrifying to one person may not be for another, and it’s very hard to know.

Now it’s up to you to find out. It Follows hits theaters tomorrow: Friday, March 13th.

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