Working with frequent collaborator Adam Wingard (Godzilla vs. Kong), Simon Barrett has written the screenplays for notable genre films like You’re Next, The Guest, and Blair Witch over the past decade, with the two currently collaborating on the upcoming Face/Off sequel. And now, Barrett makes his directorial debut with Séance, a new horror film opening debuting this week.
Suki Waterhouse (Assassination Nation, Detective Pikachu) stars in Séance as Camille, a new student at a boarding school where the students are still grieving over the recent, mysterious death of one of their own. She finds herself joining in a séance with some of the other students to speak to their dead classmate, only for another girl in their group to wind up dead soon after, as the group begins to question what they have set into motion.
Fandom spoke to Barrett about setting his film at a boarding school, why he doesn’t want to get too self-aware with his work, and the continuing talk of a potential sequel to The Guest.
THE RIGHT SETTING
While he became successful as a screenwriter, Barrett noted he always wanted to direct as well. As he joined forced with Wingard (who is an Executive Producer on Séance) through the years, Barrett noted, “Working with him has been very creatively fulfilling because I was so involved in the various phases of production but I knew that as our budgets were getting bigger, and Adam was moving on to more studio work, I needed to start finding my own projects too.”
Barrett said that when it came to his directorial debut, “I wanted Séance to be the first because it was a script that I conceived as a smaller, more contained story that I thought would be achievable on the kind of budget I could raise, which turned out to be somewhat accurate. And then also it was just a certain type of story, which was a supernatural murder mystery; a kind of thriller-horror hybrid that I personally have such an enjoyment of and a story I always wanted to try telling.”
Barrett said he also always knew where he wanted to set the story, explaining, “I basically set out to write a boarding school horror movie, looking at classic examples like Suspiria and Phenomena but even Enigma, The House That Screamed, What Have You Done To Solange? – those were the films I was kind of seeking to emulate, not stylistically, which would be quite difficult, but in terms of their structure and really, most importantly, their atmosphere. That was what I was going for, which is kind of a nebulous term, ‘atmosphere.’ But these great horror movies have it somehow and the bad ones don’t. If you can create the reality of an old fashioned boarding school, which in itself is such a gothic-adjacent, tonally rich atmosphere, it’s a good starting place. Also, I like the isolation of a boarding school, I like the way that the characters would be very bored and frustrated being in one. I went to public school myself and my only similar experience would be living in a dorm for a short period in college but I feel like I got the gist of it. Séance is not a movie that’s trying to necessarily be in our reality, it is slightly more of a ‘movie-reality’ movie, so I intended to take advantage of that.”
AVOIDING BEING TOO SELF-AWARE
That “movie-reality” Barrett mentions is something found in his work with Wingard at times as well – a tone that lets you know the filmmakers are aware of the history of the genre they’re working in, but avoiding leaning into the meta/wink-wink territory of the type found in many a film that tried to evoke what Scream did so well without the same skill or success.
Aa Barrett put it, “Adam and I want to make movies that we think audiences will find fun, and certainly, at an indie film level, I think critics are suspicious of those films because they feel like maybe they’re not trying to be art. I think the difference is that Adam and I, we do feel like we’re making art, but we just also want people to feel like we’ve rewarded their time and money if they weren’t necessarily looking for that. We have a sensibility that is kind of hard to define but when we’re working together we always kind of can kind of tell like, ‘Oh, this is right, but this is wasting the audiences time, let’s cut it.’ Taking that sensibility into Séance was a good guiding tactic.”
He elaborated, “As a viewer, I personally get a little annoyed if I feel like films are winking or being campy, because I just find that a little bit easy to do. I think it’s kind of a lazy technique that filmmakers fall back upon. It feels like, ‘Oh, we didn’t know how to tell a real story so now we’ll employ comedic license until we’re sick of doing that and then we’ll stop being funny again.’ It’s kind of a lazy technique so I try to write films that never really have jokes but are funny on a different level, ideally.”
WORKING WITH THE CAST
Along with former model Waterhouse, Séance’s cast also includes YouTube and social media personality Inanna Sarkis and actress and DJ Madisen Beaty. The cast stands out for having forged several different paths into their careers and Barrett noted, “This is my first time directing a feature so I was a little nervous going in knowing I had a pretty young cast from a bunch of different backgrounds and a bunch of different training backgrounds specifically. You have Madisen Beaty who’s just coming off working with Quentin Tarantino [in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood] working alongside Inanna, who mostly directs herself and really approaches things more as a director. Madisen actually directs as well, so the two of them really understood what the scene needed a lot and were very egoless in terms of their performances because they really understood what I needed story-wise from them.”
Barrett noted he also felt that his time spent as a student instructor at a martial arts school for many years was a benefit when it came to working with many of his cast when it came to the physicality needed for their performances, explaining, “I’m good at working with people’s movement and the fact that Suki and Ella-Rae [Smith] both came from modeling backgrounds, so they’re very aware of their physical presence, and then Stephanie Sy and Djouliet Amara are both extremely good dancers, with them, the physical blocking of the scene was fun. We were using lenses with such a short depth of field so if they missed their marks, the shots wouldn’t work. Their movements had to be very precise within the scenes sometimes just to give us the feeling that we were going for.”
Barrett remarked, of his cast’s overall ability to mesh their different styles, “The truth is, the only time this sort of thing really comes into play is when actors really don’t get along with each other, and everyone on Seance really got along. They were all friends. I was always off in the corner quietly having a nervous breakdown but I talked to Suki and Inanna and everyone recently and they had a great time making this movie.”
He added, with a laugh, “Inanna conceived her child, her and Matt [Noszka] conceived on the set of Séance, which is insane to me that anyone was having any fun whatsoever.”
WELCOME BACK, THE GUEST?
A film from Barrett’s past that has become increasingly popular over the years is The Guest. The 2014 collaboration with Wingard, starring Dan Stevens (Legion, Beauty and the Beast) as a soldier who goes to visit the family of his late friend – only to reveal his dark side and surprising true nature – has gained an ever-growing cult following, as more and more viewers discovered it on Netflix and the like.
I personally am part of The Guest cult – it’s one of my favorite and most revisited films of the past decade – and I asked Barrett about the talk about a follow-up of some sort, which has included chatter about a film sequel and then Wingard more recently saying he felt they could possibly do a limited series at some point. Wingard had plenty to say about what makes a Guest sequel an exciting possibility and why he’s also wary of it.
Said Barrett, of a possible The Guest continuation, “I could see, potentially, a limited series. We’ve talked to Dan about it a lot over the years and I think what we’re all aware of is that something really wonderfully fortunate has happened to us with The Guest, where initially we perceived that film as a failure and we didn’t think it was very popular, to say the least. We didn’t think people had liked it very much. Critics seemed overall positive about The Guest but if you go back and read those first reviews, there’s a lot of kind of 3 out of 5 shrugs, like, ‘I guess these guys are doing this thing and the empty theatre I saw it in seems quite amused.’ We felt like The Guest was kind of a failure so then the last few years the amount of podcasts and shows that have reached out to me about The Guest as it found its audience has been immensely gratifying.”
All that being said, Barrett said he felt they needed to be careful with how they approached any sequel, observing, “I think it’s a really easy mistake to think, ‘Oh, I should take advantage of that and try to give people as much as possible because they loved this!’ I think you have to be really careful of the fact that it’s a precious thing when people connect with a film like that and you can kind of ruin it with a sequel if the sequel sucks. So I think we’re really cautious that there is an appetite for more and for the continued adventures of the character played by Dan Stevens in The Guest and we really want to give that to people because that is a story that we loved telling.”
Stressing they wouldn’t want to simply repeat themselves, Barrett said, “I think we’re trying to find a way to give people who want more of that narrative what they’re asking for but also not disappoint them… the artistic strangeness that lead me to write The Guest in the first place is still within me and I would still do something that’s wildly uncommercial somehow. Adam and I think it’s becoming kind of a problem because the more we talk about a Guest 2, the more we have ideas that we become really attached to and think are really good and we want to do them.” He indicated a couple of other notable Guest actors would return in the story they have in mind as well, saying, “We want to see Dan and Maika [Monroe] and Brendan Meyer do those things together.”
Barrett then added, with self-deprecation, “But we’re gonna try to find a way to make that happen that both probably manages to disappoint everyone who likes the original film and also somehow infuriates everyone who’s never heard of it. That takes a lot of work and we’re on it!”
While a Guest sequel looms as an eventual possibility, Barrett added, “Honestly, if no one gets any more Guest fiction or any further continuation to that narrative then I still will be happy because the original film was always meant to stand on its own. I didn’t write The Guest thinking, ‘If this does well, boy do I have a great sequel idea!’ The Guest was never something where I had a really strong idea of what happens after the end of the movie. The fun of it was that I didn’t and now I do [have an idea], because I’ve had to think about it for 7 or 8 years. But maybe my ideas aren’t as good as everyone else’s, so you have to be careful.”
Séance debuts May 21 in Theaters, On Demand and Digital.