Film Independent Thu 3.26.2015

It Follows Director David Robert Mitchell On How He Brought His Bold Vision to the Screen

Note: Spoilers ahead!

Breakthrough horror film It Follows, the largest theatrical limited release so far of 2015, is expanding nationwide in theaters tomorrow. A critically acclaimed festival darling, It Follows is one of the scariest and most well-crafted horror films to come out in years. I spoke with director David Robert Mitchell about how he brought his bold vision to the screen.

Disasterpiece’s ominous score really stands out in the film. How did you first connect with Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpiece)? When did he come on board and what was your process like working together?
I was playing this indie video game a few years ago called Fez (it’s a really great game) and I loved the music within the game. At the time, It Follows was written and I was starting to figure out how to put it together. I knew I wanted an electronic score and something very unique and bold. So I just sent him an email. I sent him my first film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, and the script for It Follows, and he was interested. We had a lot of conversations early on and then a lot of time passed. We went into production, then we were in post and we had an early cut that I sent to him. He agreed to some on board.

We were accepted into Critic’s Week at Cannes and were at the very end of the acceptance timeline. So we only had three-four weeks to lock picture, do our sound, our entire score, color, VFX, DCP, the whole deal. And so everyone huddled and asked “can we do this?” and everyone sort of agreed that we could. Rich was one of those people, where I basically got on the phone with him and said, “can you do this in three weeks?” And he agreed to. I don’t know how to explain that time, it was madness. We were still in the mix stage on a Sunday and that coming Friday morning was our premiere. He was still writing stuff and we were dropping cues in a matter of days before. It was a lot of work. It was very tough.

Julio Perez, the editor, and I had spent a lot of time in editorial creating a really detailed temp music track and temp sound design. So that was helpful, at least as a starting guide. Then, Rich just went into writing mode and started sending cues for scenes and we would drop those pieces in and leave them as-is, or sometimes I would have notes, and it was just a back-and-forth process. It was a very fun and scary and cool process because I loved what he was creating and he is an incredibly creative person and very talented musician and it was what I had hoped for.

What did you learn from making your first feature that informed how you approached making It Follows?
Yeah, get more money! (laughs) No, but I am somewhat serious. You learn all kinds of things. When we made Myth of the American Sleepover, we had a $30,000 production budget. We were lucky to even have a dolly on some days, so we couldn’t really move the camera. But it all worked and was part of the aesthetic of the film. That film is more traditionally covered. We’re moving between masters, singles, close-ups and some subjective point-of-view shots. And we do all of that again in It Follows, but it’s a little bit more controlled.

The goal with It Follows was to control the elements and aspects of the movie as much as possible and for everything to be a deliberate choice. If we’re going to cut, that’s our choice. We’re cutting because we intended to cut or because cutting is the right thing to do, and not because we have to. Of course, there are always moments when that’s maybe that’s not the case, but for the most part, that’s the goal and you work toward it. It was really about trying to be a little bit more bold with everything across the board–the production design of the film, the way that we’re controlling the camera, the way that Julio was cutting the picture, the sound design, the performances, everything. Ultimately it’s about trying to push yourself and growing and always trying to be a better filmmaker.

How did the ball get rolling with pre-production and when did financing for the film really come together? Was it when the cast was locked?
We got our financing before we cast. That was always really important to us that we get the money to make the film and then we go out find the best actors to fill each of those parts to create the right kind of ensemble, and so that’s what we did. I got in touch with some independent producers who came on board, Rebecca Green and Laura Smith, and basically we went out and tried to find the money; and we did. These things are never easy. There were certainly obstacles and times when you wonder if it’s all going to work. That stuff happened for sure, in big ways. But ultimately it came together pretty quick, relative to how these things can go. And the fact that we were able to do it at all is great.

The Guest was one of my favorite movies from last year, so I was excited to see newcomer Maika Monroe would be starring in your film. There is something strong but also vulnerable and approachable about her. How did you go about casting her? What was your collaboration like?
We have a really great casting director out of LA, Mark Bennett, and Maika auditioned. She was actually making The Guest at the time and came in to audition and, well, she was just amazing. And that was it. Everyone who saw it went, ‘okay, that’s our lead. Maika is fantastic.’ And working with her was also great. She’s really tough and she’s a really great actress and she had to put up with a lot making this movie. It was a really, really difficult production in terms of the weather, the cold, and just the physicality of the part. You may not notice it, but she is pretty much doing all of her own stunts. She’s doing everything and you can get kind of beat up doing that. All of the water stuff that she did is really hard. She is very dedicated and very professional and very cool. And also just performance-wise she was able to nail it, and that made my job much easier.

I’d like to talk about the art direction of this stylized, sleepy suburbia that you created. There are a lot of faded browns and blues. It reminded me of the work of photographer Gregory Crewdson. What were some of your aesthetic influences?
Yeah, we definitely referenced Crewdson, and there’s another photographer Todd Hido that we referenced. I put together a pretty enormous lookbook of photographs and paintings and all kinds of things that were the inspiration for what we were going for with the design of the movie. I worked very closely with our production designer and costume designer and everyone. We put a lot of energy into it. A lot of it was Michael Perry, our production designer, in terms of working through that color palette.

I had a collection of images referencing certain colors. From the moment we first started talking on the phone to when we started pre-production, it was about that back-and-forth that happens between everyone. You start to say, ‘hey, I like this,’ when you look at a reference or a photo, and then at a certain point you’re all kind of on the same page and eventually everyone knows what is right and what is wrong for the movie.

There are several complex long takes in the film that are very impressive. What was the most difficult shot to nail? Do you have a personal favorite?
The [long take] at the school was very difficult because we had several moves that day and we didn’t have a lot of time to do it. I could’ve done it in two shots and that would’ve made it much

easier. But I liked the idea of controlling that time within one shot. I’m glad we did it that way, but it was very hard. On a lower budget film you’re managing time. A lot of it is trying to get as much as you can in terms of what you want, but also understanding that if you eat up time in one place, it makes it harder to get the thing you want in the other. It was very stressful to get in terms of just getting to a location, setting that up, placing all of the extras, and getting everyone to move in the right time… it’s harder than maybe it looks. I’m happy with that shot, though. That was a fun one.

There were a couple of others. The opening shot was difficult. We were doing that at dusk. There was a time limitation and lots of little things can go wrong. We didn’t have all of the gear that we needed to do it easily. Mike Gioulakis, the cinematographer, was operating that and, you know, it would’ve been easier if we had a remote head on the camera. There were things that would’ve made that a much simpler shot. But we were coordinating between him, the dolly grip, along with the actress who was running in heels, which is pretty ridiculous and difficult, so there were a lot of things that could’ve gone wrong and made that hard.

There’s another one where she’s running from the little boat house up a hill, and the camera is in the car. That one was tricky. Again, we see her running and the friends are behind her, and then at a certain point you see this monster behind them in the distance, and it’s all in one shot and the camera is moving. Eventually she gets into the car and starts the car and then backs up, and then as she drives we reveal more. That one was also kind of hard, just because we’re incorporating the car. But we had fun with it. We wanted to try to play out these sequences in single takes and it felt like the right thing to do in those moments, so we just planned as much as we could and fought really hard to make that stuff work.

Do you have any advice for emerging independent filmmakers trying to break into the horror genre?
I don’t know if there is any one path to making things happen. I’ve had periods in my life where I would see someone having some success and I would say, ‘maybe I need to do what they did.’ And at a certain point I realized that everyone has their own path. You don’t necessarily control the timeline. There are some things that you just have to accept. Sometimes it’s about figuring out what your strength is and what your way in might be. There may be other filmmakers out there that you really respect and you see how they pulled it off, and you can use that as a starting point to think about, but often I think everybody’s way in is going to be unique.

As for getting into horror, I tend to think that people should try to do the things that they care about. For me, I’m a big horror fan and I’ve always wanted to make one. I think sometimes there’s a tendency for people to often look at horror as some kind of way in, or some kind of thing that they can just do, and it’s not treated with a lot of respect. And I would say, do whatever you’re doing, but it should be for the right reasons and that will probably help. I tend to think that if you’re doing things for other reasons, that things often don’t work out. So, care about what it is that you’re making and try to fight for it and be true to the things that are important to you. And that’s sometimes difficult to do, but if you can get through all of the crap, then the things that you held on to will be the things that people actually care about.

Lee Jameson / Film Education Manager