A mysterious soldier befriends the family of a fallen comrade and quickly makes himself an indispensable part of their lives, but the secrets he’s hiding put them all in danger in The Guest, a nail-biting, retro-stylish thriller from director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett (‘You’re Next,’ ‘A Horrible Way to Die’).
Arriving unannounced on the doorstep of the Peterson family, recently discharged soldier David (Dan Stevens) brings a final message of love from their recently deceased son, Caleb, with whom he served. Still grieving over Caleb’s tragic death in combat, the Petersons welcome David into their home and their lives. Humble, helpful and unfailingly polite, David turns out to be the perfect guest, filling the void left by Caleb. He consoles Caleb’s mom (Sheila Kelley), helps dad Spencer (Leland Orser) get ahead at work, teaches teenager Luke (Brendan Meyer) how to defend himself against bullies and rids rebellious daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) of her loser boyfriend. But David’s unorthodox problem-solving methods begin to raise Anna’s suspicions as a wave of shocking and unexplained violence spreads through their small town. When her inquiries into his past raise a red flag with a super-secret private military organization, it sets the stage for a deadly final conflict.
David Teich spoke with director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett about war, movie violence, and why directors should edit their own films.
“The Guest” is now in theaters in select cities. Look up showtimes – HERE
In both in ‘You’re Next’ and “The Guest,” violent people enter people’s homes and wreak havoc. What excites you about that scenario?
Adam Wingard: In a way all our movies are some variation on the home invasion subgenre. In “The Guest” it’s a “polite” home invasion, as Simon is fond of saying. And to me, the notion of people becoming unpredictable after being changed by traumatic experience is really scary. What does war do to people? What happens to soldiers when they come home? These ideas can be really disturbing. And PTSD fascinates [Simon and me], because it’s a trauma-based kind of chemical change that happens in your brain…I think the movie touches on some of those ideas, but doesn’t necessarily take them that seriously.
Simon Barrett: And I think there’s a kind of innate human terror in the idea that you can never truly know what another person is thinking—that we’re all fundamentally alone, and that aloneness manifests itself through the mysteries of other people. With the Dan Stevens character [David Collins] in “The Guest,” I think that idea creates tension: He’s kind of mysterious for the entirety of the film. But yeah, what Adam said was better.
Both ‘You’re Next’ and “The Guest” take place in a family setting. Is there something that interests you about families facing threats of violence?
SB: We do kind of delight in deconstructions of nuclear families—literal deconstructions I should say. But I think it’s more that I’m interested in the idea of betrayals and plot twists that, as I said before, come from not knowing what people’s inner motivations are. For instance, [our 2010 film] ‘A Horrible Way to Die’ had similar themes to ‘You’re Next,’ but not in a family setting. That film was more about romantic relationship-based betrayal, which is also an aspect of ‘You’re Next.’ I like writing characters that have intentions other than what they’re stating, and thoughts other than what they’re displaying with their actions.
AW: And that’s a lot of what we’re toying with in the stylization of this film. There are a lot of shots that just focus on Dan’s face—shots that hold on him in a moment where he’s just sitting there quietly. I wanted to give the audience moments to project their own ideas onto what’s going on inside this guy’s head. Because ultimately, the movie never really tells you if he’s good or bad, and that’s in many ways the thesis of the whole movie: trying to throw the notion of “hero” or “villain” out the door and just create a character who’s entertaining to watch. I would actually compare it to ‘The Dark Knight.’ I re-watched that film a little while ago, and I found myself being totally bored and checked out anytime Heath Ledger wasn’t onscreen. As an audience-member, I don’t care that he’s evil. All I care about is that he’s entertaining the shit out of me…[David] is a character who is meant to be enjoyed and relished onscreen. That’s why I was interested in doing the film in the first place: to have fun with that kind of characterization.
Dan’s character first arrives at his hosts’ home claiming to have served with their son, Caleb. Is he telling the truth, and do his initial attempts to help the family in various ways stem from genuinely benevolent goals?
AW: In all the discussions I had with Dan, we always approached it from the angle that everything [David] says about his relationship with Caleb is actually true. And we always saw him as having the best of intentions. My interpretation—and anybody’s free to have their own, because the movie doesn’t force things down your throat in any way—is that his programming just forces him to approach things in a violent way. And I think he actually is helping that family up until the point of no return in the second half of the film.
SB: You could argue that, from his perspective, he does in fact help some members of this family, and leaves them better than he found them in some ways. Of course it’s really hard to discuss that without spoilers.
What does the movie have to say about veterans, and what war does to people in the military?
SB: It’s never specified where [David] actually served in the military, because we didn’t want to be seen as commenting on one specific war, in the way that a lot of films did after the 2003 invasion of Iraq…There’s a metaphor in the film, which is kind of only there if you’re looking for it, about a soldier who’s on a mission to help people, but kind of ends up at war with them. That certainly feels like it could be applied to our last few military conflicts, which in theory have had altruistic missions, at least in the way that they’ve been publicized.
AW: The propaganda involved in going into these conflicts is very altruistic. What was that phrase you used before?
SB: Operation Unending Retribution?
SB: We were trying in an earlier interview to remember all the [stated reasons] for why we invaded Iraq in 2003. And it’s hard to remember that first it was weapons of mass destruction, and then it became liberating the people of Iraq. But with what’s in the news right now, with
ISIS and everything, it doesn’t really feel like we’ve left Iraq in a much better place than where we found it. So yes, there’s a larger metaphor at play here. But at the same time, I hope that’s not in any way manifest in the film, because I don’t want to be preaching to anyone. I haven’t served in combat and neither has Adam. I think first and foremost we want our films to be entertaining. But of course you shouldn’t make a film if you don’t have anything to say. And we like to make all our films with subtext, political and otherwise.
AW: In some ways this movie represents our pessimistic outlook on the military industrial complex as a whole. Just the fact that we’re making a movie whose central theme is mourning and PTSD, and we turned that into a fun thrill-ride ‘80s throwback. [Laughs.] I think that’s basically us just saying, “This whole system is out of control. And we could bog you down with all the facts, but you already know the reality of it. And we’re still in these conflicts, they’re unending, and the whole thing is just a big joke at this point.” I don’t want to be totally resigned, because I know that’s not the best attitude to have, but that’s how I feel right now. And that’s kind of what this movie reflects, for better or worse.
Again, we knew we had to be very careful to not appear like we were preaching about something we have no firsthand experience of. But I think we can get away with that since we just made a fun movie that isn’t there to hammer you over the head with messages.
When you guys direct/write a violent death scene, what’s your emotional reaction? Is your heart breaking for the character, or are you enjoying yourselves?
AW: As far as directing’s concerned, it’s hard to have much of an emotional investment in anything other than whether or not a scene is working. I mean it’s always sad if you get really attached to a character and you’re having fun with them, then you have to realize they’re not going to be in the movie anymore. Maybe it’s not the right attitude to have, but I don’t really get emotional about it.
SB: For me it’s tricky to answer that, because in the writing process I do tend to get attached to the characters. I think that one of the things that sets our genre films apart from others is that we try to take our characters very seriously as people, and regardless of who they are, show some empathy for them. But I don’t necessarily feel sad when they die, because when I’m writing I tend to know where I’m headed. It’s not like I suddenly look at what I typed and burst into tears of surprise.
Do you get a kick out of watching those death scenes when they’re onscreen? Do they excite you?
SB: Yeah. We see a lot of midnight movies, films where the violence is played for comedy. I’m a huge fan of like films like ‘The Story of Ricky,’ ‘Dead-Alive.’ Also ‘The Evil Dead’ films, which are absurdly violent, but it’s basically all played for slapstick. I don’t think any of those films are glorifying violence—I just think they’re like doing their own kind of crazy thing. Our particular brand of black comedy is just a little dryer, and less joke-oriented than in those films. Some of the violence in “The Guest” is very much played for comedy—and some of it isn’t. Our violence kind of walks a line. In “The Guest,” we’re taking the likeability of a violent character to its logical conclusions.
Adam, in what ways do you and Simon have similar sensibilities, and what is your collaborative process like?
AW: We’re both really into obscure genre pictures from all different eras and countries…Over the years we’ve developed a great system. We give each other creative space, and try to remain objective. Early on in the [creative] process, we’ll just agree in very general terms on what type of movie we want to make. Sometimes that means just picking a subgenre, sometimes that means the general plot. Simon goes off and writes the thing, and I leave him completely alone aside from maybe sending him music occasionally. And similarly, whenever we’re in the editing phase—I actually edit all of our movies—I’ll have no interruptions from Simon or the producers. Then we all sit down and try to remove our egos from the situation, and take away all the preconceptions that we had going into the [production], and talk about what worked and what didn’t. And that can be a tough process, because a lot of times it means admitting when something’s not working, or that you fucked up on something, at least in the editing phase.
Why have you decided to edit your own films?
AW: At this point, I don’t understand why all directors don’t edit their own films. The software is so easy to use. There’s almost no excuse for it. I think back in the day, using flatbed editing machines was a totally different talent in many ways. You had to think in a completely different mechanical way, and you had to have a lot more technical expertise. It was a much more time-consuming process. I feel like being an editor has helped me so much as a director, because it lets me have a hands-on approach to seeing why something isn’t working. “Why do these two shots not connect together?” Or, “What about the editing is preventing this moment from working?” Nowadays I feel like anybody who wants to be a filmmaker should get their start by editing their own features or short films, because it’s only going to help you. And it also eliminates having to rely on other people, especially if you’re coming from the same no-budget background that we are. Having that ability to self-sustain is really important. If you can eliminate the middleman, why not? In general, it’s just going to help you improve yourself as a filmmaker.
You both starred in Joe Swanberg’s ‘24 Exposures.’ Have you thought about acting more?
AW: [Laughs.] Would you call that acting, really?
SB: Yeah, would you say we’ve acted yet?
AW: We technically did appear in front of the camera in ’24 Exposures.’
SB: Adam and I acted in our early stuff just out of necessity. Our projects were non-union, and we couldn’t really afford to pay people. And at least we knew that we’d be on-set and would actually show up to play the roles that we cast ourselves in. [Laughs]. I mean, god bless Joe for trying to get performances out of us. I don’t think acting has ever been a huge aspiration for either of us. That said, that was a very fun experience, and if Joe wanted to make any more depressing erotic thrillers with us, I think we’d probably be on board.
AW: At the end of the day we just did it because it was Joe. Even before we started working with Joe, we recognized that he was going to go down in history as a classic American filmmaker. And so if anything it was almost a novelty to be able to say, “Joe Swanberg’s gonna do a movie about us wanking off in Georgia!”
SB: For us it kind of solidifies our [place] in a certain chapter in film history.
AW: The mumblecore chapter.
SB: Yeah, and we’ll always be known for having been in Joe Swanberg’s worst film.
[Simon Barrett (left) and Adam Wingard (right)]
— Interview Conducted, Transcribed and Edited by David Teich