The Feeling of Following: An Interview with David Robert Mitchell

We talk to the director of It Follows about the timeless place where dread and nostalgia meet.

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It should come as a surprise that It Follows, 2015’s buzziest horror offering, is directed by David Robert Mitchell. Mitchell made his debut in 2010 with the indie teen drama The Myth of the American Sleepover, so the leap to horror feels like a gear shift. But watching the two films in succession, there’s a sense that It Follows might take place just down the street from any character’s house in Myth. Ultimately the greatest shock of all lies in how well these movies mesh with one another.

With only a pair of productions under his belt, Mitchell has landed on a distinct style that’s unmistakably his own. Recently, Paste had the chance to catch up with the director about the genesis of It Follows (a project that he began brewing up just about a year after the release of The Myth of the American Sleepover), audience immersion, his approach to filmmaking and how the unique challenges posed by shooting horror wound up influencing his technique. Read the full interview, then pass it on:

Paste Magazine: So let’s talk It Follows. Am I to understand you’ve been working on this movie since right after The Myth of the American Sleepover came out?
David Robert Mitchell: Well, I mean, off and on. I wrote it in 2011. I actually spent a good deal of time trying to put a different project together, which I had intended to be my second film. When I wrote It Follows, I thought it would be my third film, but the other one, we just were sort of struggling to get financing for it and it wasn’t coming together. So I sort of moved this one up and made this one second.
Paste: Gotcha!
DRM: Yeah, so I wasn’t working on it the whole time. I spent a whole lot of time during that period trying to do something else, and then sort of got frustrated and decided to put my energy into trying to make It Follows happen. And it definitely happened a lot quicker. These things are never easy, but at least it happened.

Paste: And I’m glad it happened. I enjoyed it immensely. Did you start out knowing that you wanted to make a horror movie or did that happen during the process of writing it? It feels almost like a cousin of sorts to The Myth of the American Sleepover, except for the “follower.”
DRM: No, I definitely wanted to make a horror film. I’ve wanted to do that for a long time. There’re a lot of different genres that I think it’d be fun to try to work in or [use to sort of challenge myself a little bit. That idea is fun to me, so I wanted to do that, and then I guess when I sat down to write this, I worked out this idea in my head over a long period of time—the specifics of it and the characters. I had just made Myth, and I sort of thought that it would be fun to start from sort of a basepoint from a similar world, to imagine characters that could have existed within that first film, and I aged them up a little bit and imagined how they might react or deal with being placed in a nightmare. So yes, there’s definitely a link between them.

Paste: So it’s about experimenting with similar ideas but couching them within a different genre just to see what happens?
DRM: Yeah, and I did some similar things but to different effect, basically.
Paste: Right. Like I said, it feels like a spiritual cousin to Myth, and I dug getting that vibe from it while watching it.
DRM: Yeah, yeah! My editor, a very good friend of mine, when he read the script for It Follows, he was sort of laughing. He was like, “This is like a nightmare sequel to your first movie!” (Laughs.)

Paste: The reason I asked about how you conceptualized it is because it feels like the emphasis is so much more on the teens that I could so easily see the “follower” being something that sprung up while writing it. You start with the kids.
DRM: Oh yeah, it started the other way. It’s really just my approach. That’s just my sensibility. The thing that was interesting to me about this horror film was that it’s very much about waiting, the anxiety within those waiting spaces. To me they’re very much connected to the human interaction, the way these characters interact with each other, the normal things that would happen to them in the spaces in between the moments of chaos and the actual terror.

Paste: The anxiety is such a real element in all this. It’s not like you’re going full spooka-blast, where with every sequence there’s something jumping out at you and scaring the shit out of you. Seems like you were focusing a lot more on slowly building dread and how these kids feel about what’s happening to them, and to Jay.
DRM: One hundred percent!
Paste: And it’s definitely a coming-of-age story. Coming-of-age and loss of innocence go hand in hand…
DRM: That’s certainly an important part of it, yes. I mean, it’s a little bit just past that. It’s almost the point where that’s maybe gone and it’s about moving to that next stage. So, I mean, for Jay when she sleeps with Hugh, that’s not the first person that she’s slept with. It’s not the moment of her losing her virginity. But it is sort of her getting closer to having to live within some kind of adult world.
Paste: And the “follower” is the ultimate sign that they can’t go back. They literally have to keep going forward.
DRM: Yeah, I mean, I sometimes like to think of it in the sense of crossing a threshold, being aware of mortality, and all these other things. It’s an interpretation of the movie, but there are many.

Paste: It’s interesting, the “follower” feels explicitly like a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases and how sexual history connects us. But like you just said, there are a lot of different ways to interpret it. You could almost say that this is a comment on social media as well, because we’re all connected through Twitter and Facebook. I didn’t know if that was something you thought about while writing it or if that was just a happy accident.
DRM: Yeah! Yeah, I mean, I had many of these ideas in the back of my head, to be really honest. I was sort of intentionally trying not to just make it one thing. I certainly was aware of the connection with STDs and many of these other sorts of subtexts to the film, and I kind of tried to sprinkle a few different clues around. I think it’s very easy to see it in different ways. You can see some of these things in a very literal way, and I also think that you can step back and view them as something larger as opposed to it just being about sex and STDs. I think it could mean more than that as well. It’s subjective. It’s up to the individual viewer to see how they feel about it?

Paste: Do you feel like horror is a good place to explore human issues through empathy?
DRM: Well, it’s certainly a genre that I really love, and I think it does allow you to deal with all kinds of issues, and it allows you to experiment with all kinds of techniques. I think a horror audience is open to some of those things, and to a certain amount of technical experimentation. That’s interesting to me. You can do these things in many kinds of genres and many different kinds of movies. This is just one of them. It’s a very good one for doing so, of course.

Paste: Speaking of empathy, is your hope that teenagers will be able to recognize bits and pieces of themselves in these characters and these emotions as well?
DRM: I don’t know whether or not a current teenager will see that. It’s not so much about a teenager in the moment, in this exact day or year. It’s kind of more of a reflection, or a memory, mixed with something made up. I don’t know whether or not it speaks to a modern teenager. I think it speaks more to the idea of being young. I hope that people of different ages will remember things or see parts of themselves within the characters. But yeah, I hope that younger people can at least connect to or enjoy the film on some level or see parts of themselves, but some of what I was trying to do was a more timeless representation of being young as opposed to a very specific moment in time.

Paste: “Timeless” is a good way of putting it. The film doesn’t feel like it exists in any specific time or place, but in its own universe. Was that done on purpose to give yourself more freedom?
DRM: Yeah, totally, that was very much part of the plan, to make the film exist outside of time so that in a way it resembles a dream or a nightmare. There are some anachronistic production design elements, things from many different eras. There are some things that don’t quite exist. The fact that you rarely see any of the parents or adults in the film, they’re on the edge of the frame or they’re barely there, all of that is to suggest something that doesn’t feel quite right, that is a little bit outside of reality or the way that we see the world. You can’t quite put your finger on it, or where this is, or when this is specifically, and I think that’s a quality that shares with a dream.

Paste: Compared to your first film, what do you do differently with your style and technique to work within the genre framework of horror?
DRM: I don’t know, I tried to tackle some of the suspense moments a little differently than other sections. It’s just about merging the ideas. Again, I’m a big horror fan. I grew up loving Hitchcock, and studying his films and many others, and it’s about trying to implement some of those ideas in a way that’s interesting to me. So I created my own sort of language and worked very heavily with the cinematographer, and we tried to create a visual language for the film that’s very experiential. So: placing people within the environment so you get a sense of distance and space and the geography of each environment, so that you’re there with them. You scan the frame as though you’ve been placed in that world.

There’s a certain deliberateness to the editing. We’re not cutting constantly. When you see an image, you actually have a sense of space, and that’s the goal with it—to understand the place in which the characters are existing.

Paste: Would you make another horror movie? Would you revisit horror in the future?
DRM: Yeah, yeah! Not next, not as, like, the next film. I want to do some different things. But I would make another one someday, if it’s the right thing and I have the right idea. It’s fun. I find it very challenging. It’s definitely really hard to do. I found this to be a lot of work, really tricky and tough.
Paste: Compared to American Sleepover, or in general?
DRM: I mean, that was also hard, but a different kind of hard. That was just a super low budget movie where we were just in over our heads. It was a large cast of first time actors, with a ton of locations, and we had almost no money. So that was hard just in that way, and this was…again, money is always a tough part for lower budget movies. Just the construction of dread within a horror film is tough, because ultimately you’re on set and it’s about getting the shot and making your day and getting this stuff, but also trying to remember the way in which those pieces are going to complete the whole. Dread is something you feel because of a series of images, and you’re building it one piece on top of another. So when you’re doing one particular shot, it’s sort of difficult to feel that. You have to have faith and remember what it is you felt when you wrote this particular part, and trust that your initial plan is the correct plan, because it’s very difficult to feel those things constantly.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently he has given up on shaving.