Finally, You're Next Is Now
The two-year wait for the revolutionary thriller is over
By Richard Whittaker,
11:55AM, Fri. Aug. 23, 2013
Two years ago, a packed Alamo Drafthouse was ripping the roof off at the U.S. premiere of You're Next. And then it disappeared, seemingly without a trace. Finally, the wait for a multiplex release is over. "Hallejulah!" exclaimed star Sharni Vinson.
When writer Simon Barrett first came up with the idea for a home-invasion thriller, it was pretty simple: No cliches. If it had been done in any home-invasion film before, it went out the window. As he put it the day after its debut at the Toronto International Film Fest in 2011, there was not going to be a moment when the bad guy stuck a gun in the face of a hostage and demanded that the hero unlock a safe.
Barrett is the king of (to use a phrase that will probably make him groan) mumblegore, the thriller end of what cast member A.J. Bowen called "that bullshit mumblecore word." The film's cast is a who's who from the m-word scene, like Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color, Sun Don't Shine), Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies, Hannah Takes the Stairs), and Ti West (The Innkeepers). Well, for a start, that's a lot of people with director credits appearing in the cast, a hallmark of the scene. Director Adam Wingard said, "We've killed all the directors we know."
Barrett nodded. "I'd like to cast Steven Spielberg if we make a sequel."
But unlike their last feature with Bowen, Seimetz, and Swanberg, the melancholic and cerebral A Horrible Way to Die, the duo just wanted to shoot the best damn horror thriller, period. Sitting down with Barrett during this year's SXSW, he explained, "We pushed aside all of our personal stuff and said let's make the best, tightest, most-audience friendly film that we possibly could."
It made sense that Austin got that one Fantastic Fest screening in 2011. SXSW was arguably the first festival to embrace the scene, while Barrett and Wingard swept the board at the Fantastic Fest awards in 2010 for A Horrible Way to Die. In fact, that festival is why one of the key pieces of casting – horror veteran Barbara Crampton – was in the film at all. On a recent return to Austin for a preview screening, she recalled that Barrett had run into her old friend and Re-Animator/From Beyond director Stuart Gordon at that very festival. She said, "I think he thought, 'Oo, Barbara Crampton, whatever happened to her? I have this new movie, she can play the mom, where is she, what is she doing?'" She was actually retired from acting, raising her kids in San Francisco, "And I get a call from my agent who says, 'Do you want to be in a horror movie and go to Missouri in 10 days?'"
Even with that local connection, that first Austin screening in 2011 almost never happened. It's already a matter of cinematic lore that there was a bidding war in the lobby straight after the TIFF screening. It took a lot of negotiating from Fantastic Fest to keep the movie on its schedule (it's not uncommon for films to cancel festival dates after being acquired, but somehow FF and Lionsgate worked some magic). The day after the Toronto screening, I was on the phone with Barrett, and he seemed to be in a slight state of shock. He said, "It's funny, because this is one of those life experiences where you feel like you should be on top of the world and enjoying every second, that you're just tired and confused and vaguely hungry all the time that you aren't actually enjoying yourself much. But I'm sure that in a few months, I'm sure I'm going to look back on this as the experience of my life."
Crampton came out of happy acting retirement to work on the project. Vinson, on the other hand, sheds her Australian soap opera credentials as a new action actress. Her co-star Bowen has said that he would be quite happy to work with her in any movie (she has reciprocated, calling him "a genius.") For Barrett and Wingard, she was really the only choice for Erin, the dinner guest with a surprising history.
Call it the tank top syndrome. As Marcus Dunston, director of The Collection put it, there’re too many films where the mousy heroine takes her jacket off to reveal a tank top and suddenly, boom, she’s a cliche-riddled action star. When looking for their action lead, Wingard said, “The casting process was very similar to The Collection thing. We would bring all these girls in, and they would show up in Daisy Duke's cut-offs, and the shirt's tied up, and they would be posing and pretending to be tough, and it just didn't work. Then Sharni comes in there and she just is that character; she just is tough.”
It helped that Americans always think that Australians are a little bit more badass. Wingard said, “The bugs are bigger and more poisonous, the animals are more dangerous, the weather's worse. So you just associate Australia with tougher.” (Plus, Vinson has the same dry, sardonic but cheerful sense of humor that most of Wingard's regulars display.)
It also helped the winnowing process that the rehearsal scene was a pivotal action moment in the movie: the first assault on the house. Vinson said, “That's an incredibly tough scene to give anybody to come in and portray to four white walls without anybody around. Start barking orders, taking the lead and saying that this is what we need to do and being commander. Very tough, so thanks, Adam and Simon, for making it really difficult.”
But since much of the film requires Vinson to be taking the action lead, that was perfect preparation. The Sydney native traveled with the rest of the cast and crew to the less than sunny outskirts of Columbia, Mo., where they were given four weeks' free run of a glorious century-old mansion. Not that she had much time to appreciate the architecture. When the attack comes, she said, “We didn't fake it. Someone shot an arrow through the window. You really are responding to what's going on, and there are 10 people in this room chaotically going crazy. Adam is in there, being the director that he is. He's got the camera on his shoulder and he's moving around like the 11th person in the scene. You're just avoiding the camera, so you never know what shots he's getting.”
The crossbow is one of the most important props in the film. In fact, part of the quest to make You're Next unique may slip by viewers on first watch: There are no guns. Barrett, who had also served as producer on his earlier films with Wingard, laid out his thinking. “I just knew gun stuff is really difficult,” he said. “Also, you've seen gun stuff in so many films, so I just had an idea at an early stage that the killers would want to use stuff that was completely silent, and I just thought it was cooler and unique."
Machetes and bows and axes may be visually more stunning than a simple pop-pop-pe-ow, but easier? Not so much Wingard said, "It turned out to be much harder. I don't know what Simon's process of thinking was there, that you could just add a flash in post and a squib goes off.” Rather than letting the actors just make blammo noises and add light and sound in the edit bay, “it turned into a nightmare. Almost every day of shooting, we would set aside an hour at the beginning of the day or the end of the day just to get more coverage of those crossbows, because it took almost 45 minutes to set up a shot of a bolt hitting something, like a vase in slow motion. It didn't always work, so we were constantly playing catch-up."
Barrett quickly learned how much of a burden he had placed on Wingard and the crew this first time he pulled the trigger on the bow. He said, "I was five feet away from the plywood, aiming at this spot we drew on it, and it went about a foot and half higher than where we'd aimed.” Mercifully, he said, this was not for film. “They were not precise instruments,” he noted.
In the film, the house is like another member of the family: But this was the only relative that Wingard couldn’t afford to get scratched. He said, "If you look, throughout the film there's an inappropriate amount of carpets because we couldn't get the blood on the floor, we couldn't stain anything, and when there was blood on the walls, it was on specific wallpaper that we put up. That’s the kind of stuff that people don't think about. It looks like we were wrecking havoc on that house, but we were very careful to keep our shit in check at all times."
That’s a huge shift from when Wingard and Barrett were shooting in Missouri for found-footage anthology V/H/S. Windows were kicked in, lights torn down, and there was general mayhem on much of the shoot. Wingard said, “We didn't have to be in those places for four weeks, so those were much more expendable locations."
"Nor,” said Barrett, “has V/H/S at any point been praised for its visual palette."
Damaging the house would be one thing. Almost blinding the star would be another. During the key dinner party scene, Vinson got stabbed in the face. Not by a knife, but by Seimetz’s shoe when the pair were crawling under a table. Vinson said, “She went under first, and I had to go after her, and it was the first time we'd done a proper take, and I throw myself into everything one million percent. I'll break something or bruise something, and that's how I know I've done a good job.” Trouper that she is, she just carried on throughout the night. She said, “We just had to do wider shots and crazier footage for that moment, then come back the next day and start again.”
The dinner party scene wasn’t just tough because of the stunts. After all, most of the cast have known each other for years (a Venn diagram of every time Bowen, Swanberg, Siemetz, West, Wingard, and Barrett have worked together would look like a Mandelbrot Set.) This meant Vinson, Crampton, and fellow newbies Rob Moran were dropped into the middle of a clubhouse filled with improv-heavy actors who know one another well. As Bowen told the crowd at a recent Austin Q&A, "I feel like we didn't tell Barbara and Rob that was how it was going to be. We just kind of sat down at the table. Sharni didn't know yet, but Joe and Ti and Amy and I knew what was about to happen." To put it in a musical terms, "this is a blues riff in B, watch me for the tuning. It sounds like I'm being glib when I say 'start fucking around,' but we start from a place of serious preparation, get that locked in, and then we start riffing."
Vinson actually had her own familiar ace in the hole: Wendy Glenn, who plays Nicholas Tucci's girlfriend Zee, is actually her roommate. Vinson said, "The fact that we were going into this together and experiencing this together, we pretty much shipped our L.A. lifestyle to Missouri for a month." The duo of outsiders soon quickly became insiders: Vinson said, "Even though I kind of came in not knowing everyone, it didn't take long to become very close with these people. We're all a family now. It's very special."
Of course, the indie kids had their own pressures, like having to measure up to one of the true greats of modern horror cinema. Her casting came as a shock to Bowen, as he only found out Crampton was coming when he arrive in Columbia. He said, "I went into production and said, 'Who put Barbara Crampton's picture on the wall?' Nobody answered, so I was like, 'seriously, who's the woman that look like Barbara Crampton?' 'Oh, the mom.' 'Yeah, but seriously, who do we have playing the mom?' 'Barbara Crampton.' 'Shut the fuck up. Who's playing my mother in the movie?' 'Barbara Crampton.' Literally the second that happened, I was waiting to meet Joe and I just left. I went, 'fuck that' and left, because I heard she was en route. I was a-feared."
And then there was the heat. Take 10 actors, a production crew, lights, and have a roaring fire in the background – because, after all, the scene is a family gathering in the Missouri winter. Vinson said: “It was snowing outside, and it was like a sauna inside. We're all in winter gear, I'm in a woolen sweatshirt for the first part of it, and then you're running around. The scene takes three minutes, start to finish, each time we do it, and by the end we're just dripping in sweat. You want to go outside and sit in the snow for a minute and cool off."
Wingard grinned at the image. "That's how you get an Australian mad. When she's cold, she's motivated and ready to kill."
What the team didn’t know when they shot those scenes was that they would have a long time to cool off: two years between You’re Next screening at Toronto and this weekend’s release. For fans desperately waiting to see it, that seemed like a long time. For Bowen, it’s nothing new. After all, he has been through the indie distribution wars, starting with The Signal, which he called "the very first movie that started getting me from someone who had made a movie to being someone who makes movies. We made it for 50 grand and knew no one who had a movie in a legitimate festival." They sent it off to Sundance, and not only did it get in, but it was acquired by Magnolia. "It was one of the larger acquisitions that year," Bowen said. Unfortunately, it disappeared without trace, opening in 160 theatres and quickly becoming a critically loved but rarely seen gem.
Curious coincidence corner: When The Signal was pulled from screens, it was replaced by Step Up 2: The Streets, prequel to Step Up 3D which stars none other than Sharni Vinson. Bowen said, "It was very interesting to work with Sharni and telling her the story that the franchise she was attached to crushed my independent $50,000 film."
So when Lionsgate picked up You're Next, he was happy, but not expecting miracles. "Everything that they were going through with You're Next, I had already been through with The Signal, but I also had the additional element of extreme commercial failure," he said, "I thought, 'Well, cool, it will never come out. so be prepared. It'll be VOD if we're lucky, and in five years someone will ask a question about it.'"
Just after the acquisition, there was a lot of armchair quarterbacking, that Lionsgate should have rushed the film out for Halloween 2011, or early 2012. But the realities of the movie business took precedent: Not least that, in January 2012, Lionsgate bought Summit Entertainment, and found itself with more films than it knew what to with. Bowen said, "There's a misconception that Lionsgate had mentioned a time that it was going to come out. We knew that they were merging with Summit, and when that happens you have a slate of movies that you want to come out, and you don't want to compete with your own product."
Timing is everything in film releases. Back in 2009, Drew Barrymore's Austin-set Roller Derby flick Whip It took a box office tumble when it was moved, last minute, from a relatively empty mid-September release weekend to a crowded October headlined by Zombieland. Vice versa with another long-shelved film: Paranormal Activity. Bowen said, "If that had come out three weeks later, four weeks later, it would have had very different numbers at the box office, I think."
When Lionsgate finally announced last year that they would be giving this little indie horror/thriller one of the calendar's key release dates, that's when things got a little more real. Bowen said, "That August 23 release date let me know, oh, that one's actually going to be in theatres. There's actually a substantial release platform, and I was very excited see that." Still, he's ever the realist. He said, "I can't control if anyone goes to see it. I don't expect anyone to go see any movies that I'm involved in."
So what has everyone been doing since 2011? Bowen, Seimetz, Swanberg and West have a new film at TIFF, The Sacrament. Meanwhile, Barrett and Wingard were hired by Warner Bros. to develop an adaptation of John Stock's novel Dead Spy Running, and while You're Next opens, they've just wrapped filming on The Guest with their You're Next producers Keith Calder and Jessica Wu. Barrett said, "Basically it's the You're Next team coming together. It's more of a thriller, but it may end up becoming who knows by the time it's finished."
You’re Next opens today, Aug. 23. For our full review and showtimes, visit our calendar page.
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A.J. Bowen, You're Next, The Signal, A Horrible Way to Die, Columbia, Missouri, Paranormal Activity, Whip It, Sharni Vinson, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Barbara Crampton, Keith Calder, Amy Seimetz, Fantastic Fest, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn