Note: This interview originally ran in September, but we're reposting it now with V/H/S debuting on DVD and Blu-ray today.
Simon Barrett may not be a household name, though he'd rather that be the case. If you're a horror fan, however, you may know him as the writer-producer behind the Civil War-set haunter Dead Birds, the emotionally scarring A Horrible Way to Die, the home-invasion movie with a twist You're Next, or the inventive found-footage anthology V/H/S. It's that last film, which hit Video on Demand platforms in September ahead of its October 5 theatrical release, that brings us here today.
Barrett wrote and produced two of the segments in V/H/S, the wraparound device that frames it all ("Tape 56," directed by Adam Wingard) and the very creepy Skype sequence ("The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," directed by Joe Swanberg). We sat down to talk about what it's like trying to produce part of a film filled with different filmmakers and different styles, the general state of getting films off the ground and to their audience, and what exactly is going on with You're Next, which was snapped up by Lionsgate last year and is still waiting for release (here's our review from Fantastic Fest).
Movies.com: Looking at your track record, there's so much of your own material that you're also a producer on. On an anthology project like this, how hard was it for you to maintain that control?
Simon Barrett: I really only produced the two that I wrote. I was offered a producer credit on the feature that I turned down because I felt I hadn't really done that job. It was more like I ended up producing in postproduction because there was no one else there to do it. When you work on a small level, everyone sort of ends up working on everything. And on V/H/S, as the films were turned in, there definitely was this weird responsibility vacuum that Adam and I ended up filling just by virtue of having done the wraparound and having conceived the overall project with Brad. The answer is almost that when you're making a movie for no money, if you have the ability to produce, you're going to end up doing it. Ultimately people obsess over who gets what credit, but that stuff doesn't really matter. It matters that everyone is making the best film.
Movies.com: Was your wraparound always conceived as the wraparound, or was it just another segment?
Barrett: Yeah, it was always conceived as the wraparound. When Brad first brought the project to me he didn't really, I think, know exactly what he wanted the project to me. Maybe it was a TV show, maybe it was this. I was much more excited about doing an old-school horror anthology, even though we didn't use that word and we kind of still don't. The idea of riffing on classic horror anthologies that have a wraparound seemed like such a good idea. It's a found-footage movie about people finding footage.
Movies.com: Why are you guys staying away from calling it an anthology?
Barrett: There's this weird debate about whether it is an anthology. Brad will argue that technically it's not because it is all one tape that's been assembled by one of these collectors, and that because all of the stories are edited into that narrative, it's not an anthology. I certainly conceived it that way, but initially we weren't using the word anthology just because it had been so long since one was actually commercially successful. Plus, no one was promoting the movie anyway. No one promoted it until its premiere was announced. We never had a poster, we never had a trailer. It was the same thing we did with You're Next. We just wanted the movie to come out. If you hated it, you hated it, but if you liked it, you felt like you were discovering it without five months of leaked stills and Twitter accounts and requests to like our Facebook page or signups for a Get Glue sticker hadn't been shoved down your throat.
Of course, now all that stuff has happened, but that's only because the movie did get bought and is handled by people who are better at controlling that stuff than we are, which is to say Magnolia. They've been wonderful. Just the fact that they've been sending bloody VCRs out to critics... that is so f**king cool. They've been a dream home for the movie. Adam and I always wanted to work with them on something. We were kind of hoping back in the day they'd pick up A Horrible Way to Die, though that went to Anchor Bay and we were ultimately very happy with them. Magnolia is a great studio, and so it's really cool that we've had films released by Anchor Bay and now Magnolia. It puts us in a really good place.
Movies.com: And soon Lionsgate!
Barrett: Yeah, and Lionsgate also some day. [Laughs] I think with V/H/S we didn't want to be so obvious about what it was. So part of it was that there hasn't been a successful one since Tales from the Darkside. Movies like Trick 'r Treat vanished because they weren't confident enough to market that movie even though they spent millions of dollars on it. We're making a much lower-budgeted movie that was really a collaborative effort between filmmakers. We shot the wraparound first because it was important to me that there really be a wraparound, even though it's kind of a thankless task to entertain people with a story that's told in increments like that.
Movies.com: The wraparound has the most genuine VHS style in the film, because you can imagine finding it on a tape and being really disturbed.
Barrett: Well we filmed a lot of it on VHS. The story of the wraparound had to be people watching videotapes, which is not an inherently interesting story to tell. I think Adam and I like challenges, and we liked the idea of doing found-footage horror because people are so used to it and so exploited by it that we wanted to figure out how to make it stand out. I think ultimately it was tricky, especially because when we filmed the wraparound we had to do it in a brief window of time before You're Next. It was the first thing anyone filmed on V/H/S by a considerable margin.
Movies.com: You filmed it before You're Next?
Barrett: The wraparound, yeah. But most of V/H/S was filmed after You're Next, with the wraparound done in January so it would look a little snowy. We knew we'd be filming over many months, so we wanted to give it some scope by having both winter stuff and summer stuff. We liked the idea of it starting in this cold, disgusting environment and then filming other stuff in the L.A. summer. It was also tricky because when we filmed the wraparound we had no idea how many segments there were even going to be, or who was even going to be involved.
Movies.com: How did you choose the segments and the directors?
Barrett: We kept adding them on until we had too many. [Laughs] The very funny thing is that by the time we shot the wraparound, we had two other filmmakers locked in and they both ended up not being able to do it. We thought this person was going to do this and that person was going to do that, and neither ended up happening. The next person we filmed with was Ti [West], who we'd just worked with on You're Next, which he acts in. He kind of had his own idea, and we thought it was cool, so he did his thing. It kind of just snowballed like that.
Glenn [McQuaid] was doing his own thing, but then there was this rush to finish the film and Joe, David Bruckner and Radio Silence kind of did theirs at the same time. And those ended up being, I think, the strongest pieces in the film because they were able to riff off of what everyone else had done previously. Ti was able to see the wraparound before he went off and did his, but, for example, when I wrote the Emily segment I knew what the feature film was basically going to look like. I knew everyone had kind of taken Adam's chaotic camera work from the wraparound and run with it. So it was like, "How do we dial back from this?" And I think with Bruckner and Radio Silence, they were able to look at the others and be like, "How do we one-up this?"
That's the great thing about collaborative competition. Everyone wants to have the best segment, and I think that's how you end up with really cool stuff. I'm curious to see what ABCs of Death is like.
Movies.com: Adam has a segment. Did you write his?
Barrett: Yeah. Keith Calder, who produced You're Next, came up with a story for it and then I wrote it, and Adam and I both appear on-screen. I'm not saying any more than that. [Laughs]
Movies.com: Are there any future projects you can talk about?
Barrett: I don't know. One thing I liked about V/H/S and You're Next is they came out and people were surprised. I think that in this day and age of people over-hyping things on the Internet, that's a really valuable, cool thing. And I think Adam and I are lucky enough that after V/H/S and You're Next people actually give a sh*t what we're going to do. So we want to reward that by surprising them as much as possible. We've got ABCs premiering next month, which we contributed one segment to. We've got quite a few other projects in the works, so it's just a matter of seeing what hits next after that.
Movies.com: Do you find that when a film like You're Next hits with such a flash fire of buzz and then is bought and pulled back, does having that wildcard out there help you get jobs, or hurt?
Barrett: I kind of don't think either. The fact is we want You're Next to be released, but we want it to be released at the right time. And the truth is we do have a great deal of trust that Lionsgate knows how and when to do that. They've been really successful at marketing independent horror films like ours in the past, so it's just a matter of trusting them.
In terms of our careers, I do think it would have been more helpful if more people had been able to see it. But it's also one of those things where we're doing fine. We're getting films made. We have V/H/S and other stuff. The thing is you want your film to be seen by as many people as possible, and it's easy to forget when we spend all of our day in this indie-horror world that the vast majority of people that are going to be seeing V/H/S and You're Next have no idea who we are. Nor should they. I don't think Adam or I ever want to be the draws of our films.
We want to make films that are entertaining to people. We don't want to be name filmmakers, necessarily, we want the work to speak for itself. And I think ultimately you forget that the buzz on something like You're Next or V/H/S -- that festival and industry press buzz -- the vast majority of people that go to see movies don't know about any of that stuff. You just have to remember that that buzz may seem like a big deal to us because we're in that world, but the vast majority of the moviegoing populace could not care less. They're going to see it based on trailers and poster art and the larger buzz based on marketing. We're kind of seeing that happen now with V/H/S with people tweeting who have no idea what it is, but have seen the trailer or clips. These are people who don't read reviews from Sundance or SXSW, and that's exciting because that's who you want to be reaching with your movies, because otherwise you're just preaching to the choir.
So having a movie like You're Next still on the release slate, there's good and bad things about it. When you make a movie, you want it to get out there as soon as possible, but I think in this case that would hurt us. What you really want is for a company like Lionsgate -- a very smart, large studio with a tremendous amount of resources and a year of hits -- to do their jobs well, and so far they've been great to us.
It's also different for us because Adam and I are constantly working. We're workaholics, so when people are like, "Are you upset waiting for You're Next to come out?" it's like we probably would be if we didn't have V/H/S and ABCs of Death coming out, both taking up all of our time, and like 10 other projects we're trying to get off the ground. We love that everyone has been so supportive, and we hope that when it does finally come out people are still supportive. The fact is we tried to make a movie that would reach everyone. We made it for the Midnight Madness and Fantastic Fest crowd, but we also made it for teenage girls to laugh at and have fun with. We want it to play well with mainstream crowds, and we think with Lionsgate behind it it will.
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