Interview: Adam Wingard talks Death Note and moving from “mumblegore” to Netflix
Anton Bitel | On 21, Aug 2017
Adam Wingard is one of the most important horror directors of the new millennium.
The filmmaker debuted with the ultra-low-budget, Bill Moseley-starring Homesick and ‘acid horror’ Pop Skull. Both were collaborations with E.L. Katz (Cheap Thrills), but his next films – A Horrible Way To Die, You’re Next, The Guest, and the sequel/reboot Blair Witch – were all written by Simon Barrett, who has become Wingard’s regular filmmaking partner. After the success of Blair Witch, Wingard has stayed with bigger budgeted studio productions.
Always grounding even the most genre-bound of excesses in a schlubbish realism and believable characters, and seemingly incapable of working in the same sub-genre twice, his next projects will be Kong vs Godzilla, and a US remake of Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil. Before those, he has adapted popular Japanese manga Death Note to an American setting for Netflix (read our review here). Ahead of its premiere at FrightFest on Thursday 24th August, we speak to the director about working with the streaming service and moving from “mumblegore” to the mainstream.
Your first features were low-budget, DIY collaborations with E.L. Katz. Could you paint a picture of what it was like for you making films then?
Well, you know, I think I’m really lucky in the sense that I was never one of those sort of filmmakers who had their ‘indie darling hit’ that propelled them into doing a massive blockbuster and end up in a situation where I’m in over my head. Every step for me had been a slow build. Pop Skull was $3,000, and, later on, A Horrible Way To Die was $70,000, and You’re Next was half a million, and The Guest was four-and-a-half million. So each movie has been a slow progression, and that’s been really good for me, because it’s kept my ego in check, for sure. Part of the problem of getting propelled too quickly – for some filmmakers – is they start buying into their own hype and I think they become very difficult, and, for me, it was always about understanding what’s working and what’s not in a film, and really coming to terms with that in a realistic way.
Do you look back on those early days with affection or dread?
I generally look back on them with fondness. Homesick was the very first thing I did, it was right out of film school, and that was one of the worst experiences of my life, I’ll definitely say, because I was 19 going on 20 when I shot that film, and I was in way over my head. I didn’t know what I was doing, the crew hated me, I just didn’t have enough experience to pull it together – that was, like, 2003. And so, after that film, I was in a place where I was, like, “OK, I’m being told that a set-up takes a certain amount of time, and an editor’s telling me that I can or can’t do this. You know, fuck all that stuff, I’m gonna go out, and I’m gonna make my own movie, I’m gonna do everything in it, and I’m gonna learn myself, so that if somebody tells me that something is done a certain way, I can have a real informed opinion on it later in one way or another.” So that’s where Pop Skull came in – and Evan worked with me a little bit on the screenplay, which actually was mostly improv, it was more of an outline really – and helped produce here and there on it And that was one that we kinda shot over the course of a year, and it was a crazy production involving lots of psychedelics and, you know, method directing. [laughs]
You’ve had a long and fruitful collaboration with writer Simon Barrett. How did you meet?
It’s kinda funny, cos I actually met Simon around the time when I was doing Homesick. I had just finished, it was 2003 or so. Evan Katz – E.L. Katz – he was a writer for Fangoria off and on, freelance, and we’d just wrapped Homesick, and there was a movie called Dead Birds  shooting in Mobile, Alabama, and Evan was like, “Hey, let’s go down there. I already talked to Fangoria, they want me to do this on-set interview, and we’ll go down there and we can just hang out on the film set and see what the film set’s like.” So I went down there, and that’s how I met Simon, and it was really funny, because maybe it was some sort of weird sign that we really first bonded over a special effect on his movie going wrong, and since then Simon and I have been through many practical effects that have turned out terribly, and we’ve had many depressing days where we’ve tried to work out how to make that stuff work. I went on that set pretending to be writing the thing with Evan, but honestly, like, I could barely write my name, so I was just there, hanging out. There was an effects shot in that film Dead Birds, where basically a ghost had gutted somebody and they’re pulling their intestines out, but you don’t see the hands because they’re a ghost – they’re invisible. This intestine was getting pulled out of the body, and whenever they did the effect, it just kinda looked like a basketball coming out [laughs], and it was like 5 in the morning in Mobile, Alabama weather, you know, and it was just a really fun experience, because Simon – he wasn’t getting freaked out by it, he had kind of a funny attitude where he was just making jokes, and kinda low-key about the whole thing, and we just bonded on that. We’d always kinda kept up, I would see him occasionally in Los Angeles, we’d hang out – but it wasn’t until around 2008 or so, whenever we first started developing A Horrible Way to Die – because at that point, his career had kind of stagnated, and I didn’t really have a career, so it was, like, “Hey, let’s just go out, and let’s just make something, cos that’s what we want to do.” It wasn’t until 2010 when we finally got the movie going.
What has your working relationship been? Do you bang ideas off one another? Is he on set?
Usually it plays out like, I would come to Simon with a very general idea of what I wanted to do – like with A Horrible Way To Die, it was, “Let’s do a kind of mumblecore serial killer movie, loosely based on Ted Bundy. It’s specifically around Ted Bundy and his girlfriend – what would happen if he went after her, after he broke out of prison?” That was the kind of premise that I pitched to Simon, and he went with it. You’re Next was a little bit looser, where, basically, I wanted to do a home invasion movie, so Simon went out and wrote a home invasion movie. Simon’s always on set, he hangs out. Sometimes he’s more involved than others – he’s usually fairly hands-off on set. Blair Witch was a little different, because it was so improv-heavy. We were basically rewriting every scene based upon what we were getting that day. He was actually very involved, giving actors lines during that whole movie, based on what seemed to be working – and what wasn’t – in the moment. A Horrible Way to Die was also different, because that one was a very do-it-yourself kind of thing, so Simon and I built that film from the ground up. Simon was a producer, and we shot it in his home town, and we used a lot of his contacts and resources there. That was by far his most involved production, just in terms of really having to help keep the show rolling, because he was one of the main producers on that. It’s different per project, you know – but when it comes to the writing itself, I just let Simon do his thing. Once he starts, I let him go off and write, and he gives me the draft when he’s ready, and we work on notes from there just as you would with anything else.
“In a lot of ways Death Note is almost the most personal film I’ve made since Pop Skull”
There was a while when your name was being bandied about with Katz, Barrett, Ti West, Joe Swanberg, Jacob Gentry, David Bruckner, Dan Bush (The Signal) and sometimes the Duplass brothers and producer Roxanne Benjamin (V/H/S) under the label “mumblegore”, the horror take on mumblecore. Did you see yourselves as part of a movement?
Mumblecore is, I think, a legitimate film scene. If you ask the people who were, at one point, called mumblecore filmmakers, I think they will tell you that mumblecore doesn’t exist, but it kinda does, it really is a subgenre of film – it’s a filmmaking style, really. It fluctuates from filmmaker to filmmaker, but you can clearly see a through line within that. That’s what made me want to work with Joe Swanberg, initially anyways, because I liked what he was doing, and it lined up with the kind of improvisational stuff that I was doing with Pop Skull. I was taking a much different, weird, experimental cinematic route with the mumblecore sensiblity, but I was ultimately kinda doing the same thing. But it’s funny, because I remember talking to Joe early on, and he’s like: “Dude, just watch – just because you make a movie, and I’m in it, or we make a movie together, suddenly you’re going to be called a mumblecore filmmaker.” I was like: “Ok, sure.” And, sure enough, he was right. And the mumblegore thing – you know, it’s a silly phrase, but I guess it makes sense, because its does similarly describe a certain style of film that was in very much a time and place of its own, which doesn’t really exist anymore, it’s already kind of come and gone. That phrase really only came after we did V/H/S, and I think it’s because V/H/S is the ultimate compilation of mumblecore-sensibility filmmakers doing a horror film. And I think that it was almost like a joke phrase – and next thing I know, that’s what we’re being called. But since The Guest, I would say that I haven’t heard that phrase too much anymore. Because I really haven’t done anything improvisational since the early days anyway.
You started out utterly independent, and now you are increasingly being courted by the mainstream with bigger studio films. How have you found that transition? What are the differences?
It’s been such a steady progression. It’s been almost invisible for the most part. Even going into Blair Witch, which was my first studio thing – I guess that’s not true, I did the first Outcast pilot (2016) for Robert Kirkman, and that was by far the most studio experience I’ve ever had, just because that one had three different networks involved in one thing, so at one time or another I had 11 different producers on set watching everything I was doing [laughs]. But, you know, it’s been a good warm-up, because it’s not like the higher you get in the filmmaking world, the easier it gets. You have way more challenges, you have way more expectations, and it’s about understanding those expectations and managing them as best as you can. Fortunately, for me, the trajectory that I took landed me working with producers Keith Calder and Jess Calder, who did You’re Next and The Guest and Blair Witch with me, and they were the perfect kind of proving ground, where they were producers who really needed an answer – like, if you were making a crazy choice, you had to be able to back it up. And I think that makes you a stronger filmmaker. And we approached those movies in a way where we knew we wanted them to have a mainstream appeal, while at the same time we wanted them to feel uniquely stylish and all of our own. So we put a lot of pressure on ourselves on those films, and it was a good kind of warm up to the pressures that would come later on. You know, filmmaking is a very political thing, ultimately, especially when you’re working on a bigger budget, and if you deny that, then you’re just deluding yourself, because it’s one of those things where, when there’s that much money at stake, you just can’t expect to be able to say “Well, I want to do this because I’m brilliant, and everything I do is brilliant because I did it”. You can’t think that way, and also you don’t want to think that way, because that’s not how good movies happen. You have to be critical of your own work and your self.
“When I pitched the movie to Netflix, I definitely pitched it as at least 2 films, possibly 3”
Blair Witch, Death Note, Godzilla vs Kong. They’re all sequels or re-imaginings or franchise entries, so in a sense you’re stomping about in someone else’s playground. Is that constraining or liberating for you as a director?
It’s definitely a challenge. I would say the more constraining aspect of Blair Witch was just that it was found footage, and you’re kind of constrained stylistically by the sheer principle of that. And Death Note, in itself, is almost a response to me spending a year shooting found footage, where you have to justify why the camera is rolling because the character is holding the camera and all that kind of stuff – and Death Note was almost like a creative explosion, you know, stylistically, where I felt “Finally, I can do whatever I want, and I can show whatever I want and I can do all these different kind of things”.
While I couldn’t really quantify what I mean by this, to me Death Note feels very much like an Adam Wingard film. I could feel your personality in it.
Yeah, I think in a lot of ways it’s almost the most personal film I’ve made since Pop Skull – which is a weird thing to say since it’s also my most expensive film – but I think there’s more in that movie than just about anything I’ve done, with maybe the exception of The Guest, which is the other closest thing.
I take it that Netflix gave you considerable freedom to do with the material what you wanted?
Adam Wingard: They absolutely did. I mean originally the film was set up at Warner Brothers, and I think that if the movie had gone forward there, that we would have been pushed into PG-13, and I have a feeling that it would have been lot harder to fight for some of the braver stylish choices and music choice in the film – and so, it was one of those things where Netflix definitely gave a lot of creative freedom to do basically what you want. I’ve got to say, they’re still a studio, so they’re still watching what you do, and they still have opinions and everything. Fortunately, we ended up with a great producer team on this, on our side and on Netflix’s side, who gave great input. My job as a director is to – it’s not just about carrying over my vision, it’s about making the best film possible. You’re constantly having to take notes from people, and deciding. “So is this a note that I think makes my movie better, or is this something that I have to fight against and work it out?” A lot of the time you don’t know until you try, and that’s a hard process, but again, like I said, because I came from this slow-build background where each film I made was progressively more expensive and I had more of that kind of leeway, I think it helped me develop my ego in a way where I didn’t buy into my own hype at any point. It wasn’t, you know, “I just made this little indie movie and it just made a gazillion dollars and now I must know everything”. To go into this and to be really objective, I think that’s a really important thing.
Death Note ends with its pages still very much open. Are you up for sequels?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, when I pitched the movie initially to Netflix, I definitely pitched it as at least two films, possibly three. Furthermore, I think it would be really cool to do a backstory movie. The only thing right now is that I’m doing Godzilla vs Kong, which is a definitive two-and-a-half year excursion for me. So, I guess it depends on if they do want to do sequels – which I think that they do, you know, it’s just depending on, are people going to watch it? Then the only other question is, how quickly do they want to make them, will I be available, that kind of stuff.
Death Note is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.