For years now, writer Simon Barrett has been involved with several of my favorite modern horrors, including You’re Next, the criminally underappreciated Blair Witch (2016), and A Horrible Way to Die (which we joke about here, but I recently rewatched it and it’s held up wonderfully, in this writer’s meager opinion), as well as The Guest. But now, Barrett is branching out creatively, directing his first feature Seance, which follows a group of young women at an elite prep school who are being murdered by a mysterious entity after a prank amongst several of the students goes horribly wrong.
During the recent press day for Seance, I had the opportunity to speak with Barrett about his directorial debut, and we also dug into some of our own geeky tendencies as horror fans throughout our conversation. Barrett also discussed the inspirations behind the story of Seance, the importance of being good to your characters when you’re writing and/or directing, working with his incredible cast, and more.
Starring Suki Waterhouse, Madisen Beaty, Ella-Rae Smith, Inanna Sarkis, Seamus Patterson, and Marina Stephenson-Kerr, Seance will arrive in theaters and on various VOD and Digital platforms tomorrow (May 21st), courtesy of RLJE Films.
So great to speak with you today, Simon. I knew this was going to be totally up my alley and it really was. So first of all, congratulations on Seance.
Simon Barrett: Thank you so much. Yeah, this is a genre that I have long been obsessed with for unclear reasons. I didn't go to any kind of boarding school myself, but I always just thought it was a wonderfully atmospheric place to set a horror movie, and I always wanted to try it.
I never did, either, but there's just something about students who are under these extra pressures, then having to deal with this other situation that compounds all of that pressure, that makes for like a really fascinating setting for horror. And I think you tapped into that extremely well here.
Simon Barrett: I think when you're young, everything feels like an issue of life and death. When I saw Scream in theaters, it really nailed the feeling of being a teenager, which is just like the stakes are always life and death, no matter what's happening. So when your friends start getting murdered, it's just kind of another thing to you that you're having to deal with. And I always just kind of wanted to work in that realm. I always thought that atmosphere is so compelling.
I'd love to talk about this story and all of these characters, because I think you did a really great job of fleshing them out. Also, I want to be vague because I don't want to ruin anything for people who will be watching Seance, but it definitely takes some slasher elements and potentially some supernatural elements, too, as well as this underlying mystery, and you then blended them all together here. What was the initial inspiration behind this idea of a prank going wrong and then you have all these characters that have to deal with the aftermath that follows?
Simon Barrett: I love the prank goes wrong/slasher genre, although most of the films that I can name offhand are fairly terrible. But one of my favorites is The House on Sorority Row, and its remake, Sorority Row, and also The Initiation. I love the vibes of those films, like they are Gothic-adjacent, but like contemporaneous to the era in which they were made kind of a feeling. I just think there's something really funny about that, too. If you establish to the audience that everything you see here isn't necessarily real, but we're also not going to waste your time, but you always are going to have to be guessing if what you're seeing is something real happening or a character playing a trick on another character, that's just always a really fun situation to explore.
You also just made me realize something that I specifically wanted to do, which is a movie that had a supernatural element that was independent from the other horror elements. Something really brilliant that Steven Soderbergh did with Out of Sight is he decided that the emotional arc of that film was different from its narrative arc. So we just chopped it up here. I was like, “Well, what if the emotional arc of my film is kind of supernatural, but the narrative arc is intertwined with that in a different way?” That's actually what led to Seance. I was always interested if I could do something like that without cross-cutting, where there’s an emotional journey that's concurrent with the thriller narrative, and they land in the same scene. I don't know if I pulled that off, but that was the real goal for me. Because once you establish that there are pranks, there are potentially supernatural elements, you now have this set of tools within the narrative to do whatever you want with your horror scenes. But you know, I don't even know how much I think Seance is like a horror movie, because I don't know how much any of my films are like anything that specific. But it is certainly more of a horror movie than like anything else.
I think what you said is correct. I think a lot of what you do transcends just being able to put your movies in one specific box, which I think is what I have always enjoyed about them. I like movies that don't just fit into one specific category, because then you don’t exactly know what you're getting. And with Seance, this very much surprised me several times throughout, which is just such a joy for me when you watch hundreds of movies every year because you just want to be surprised.
Simon Barrett: You really nailed it. I think if I have any kind of core philosophy as a filmmaker, it's this notion that you should always be surprising your audience. Because that's the thing I enjoy most as a viewer. I agree, when I'm watching a movie and I don't know where it's headed and I'm engaged with the characters in the story, my filmmaker brain turns off and I'm just like a kid in the movie theater again. I love having that kind of experience. It's one of my favorite things and it's what keeps me going back to the movies. But at the same time, I realized at an early point in my career, when people started getting really mad at me for making the films that we make, that in addition to surprising people, you have to deliver on what you've promised them. You can't do a total bait and switch.
That's when people go to see William Friedkin's adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Bug, and are really pissed off that there's not a giant rubber bug in it. Because that was what the trailer told them to expect and so it gets an F cinema score, even though no one really thinks that's like a bad movie. Maybe someone does, but I don't. With A Horrible Way to Die, I think Adam [Wingard] and I really realized that that movie wasn't really what people wanted us to be making. We were both very depressed at the time that we were making it, so I think we just weren't in the right headspace to deliver something entertaining. So we tried to come back with You’re Next and do something different.
And with Seance, I knew that if you're offering people a movie called Seance, you have to deliver on certain expectations or you're wasting their time and money. But once you meet those, horror fans are very generous. Horror fans are probably the most generous, adventurous viewers there are of any genre. As long as you check a few boxes of what you promised to check, you can get really weird, and they're on the journey with you. And in fact, they'll be happy that you've rewarded them with something slightly different, as opposed to just being annoyed that they didn't get the same thing. And so I love that. I love that adventurous viewership that allowed me to discover films like Suspiria when I was way too young. But seeking out movies like that when I was young enough to still be traumatized by them, that's the kind of viewership that I hope Seance provides for someone else, especially because it is a movie for young audiences to a certain extent. Those are the films that really shaped me as a filmmaker.
You are working with a fairly large cast of characters for Seance, and I really enjoyed how everyone gets their moments and we get to know them and they're not just fodder basically to kill off so we can move on to the next victim. Can you discuss working with this cast in developing these characters with them and giving them all a chance to have their moments in this story as well?
Simon Barrett: I want to answer that in two parts because I think your first question is one about making a film with empathy towards its characters. And particularly, slasher films notoriously tend to be cruel towards their characters and their characters are just kind of idiotic cannon fodder for the killer. And obviously, I'm referencing critiques that Carol Clover basically blasted out of the water years ago, but let's just say that surface level critique of slasher cinema is still viable, which is that the characters are usually terrible because, honestly, various analyses of these films aside, that largely is true about early slasher cinema. Halloween's a masterpiece and a lot of movies get it really right, but there are a lot of movies that aren't as good. And it doesn't bother me so much with older movies for whatever reason, but I despise it in modern cinema when I feel like a movie has no empathy towards its characters, even though I myself have written very violent films, sometimes with fairly dark punchline endings.
I think that there's always this core respect for the people in these films, and the people watching them, that I try to kind of let guide my work. I think it's just my creative process, but it's a very personal thing. I always try and make sure that I would never create a character that I don't think is compelling and interesting. That was really the goal of Seance. I just felt like there weren't a lot of fun characters in these types of movies and I knew that I wanted everyone in this movie to have a couple of moments. Then it was about finding the right cast.
Suki was the first person that came on board. She got Camille so instinctively and understood the humor and tone of what I was going for so instinctively that it was just like, from that point on, I was able to breathe a bit of a sigh of relief and to be like, “Okay, if this is Camille, it's just a matter of building a cast around her that can convincingly bully her,” because Suki herself is quite intimidating. But then I met Inanna Sarkis, and I was like, “Oh, problem solved.” Inanna has just this great take on everything that's hilarious. And then Madison Beaty, of course. I was a huge fan from The Clovehitch Killer and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. When she came on board, I knew that the dynamic was coming together. And then there was my Canadian team, and Ella-Rae Smith from England.
Honestly, Heather, at the end of the day, I don't know what I said or did to make these actors trust me, because I feel like I spent the entire time basically freaking out. It was a low-budget film and we were all freezing to death and we only had 22 shooting days, and I wanted to get a million shots a day with Karim Hussain, my DP. At the end of the day, my entire cast were very trusting in me and they were totally unafraid to appear ridiculous. They just really trusted me to deliver something tonally that wouldn't make them appear foolish, even though I think they all knew that I was pushing their performances a little far sometimes into a dry humor territory. I'm just so grateful. I got so lucky. I could literally talk to you for about an hour about every single member of our cast and every character in the film and what I think about them and what I think their favorite music is or something. But it would be of interest to absolutely no one, so I'll wrap that answer up there [laughs].
Well, I know we are probably getting close on time, but I wanted to ask, since now you have officially directed a feature, I always want you to be writing because I think you're just a really brilliant writer, but do you feel like now that you've gotten your feet wet, do you feel like this is something you're going to continue to do? Are you going to try to keep doing both?
Simon Barrett: I would love to keep directing. I am working on a couple of scripts right now that I'd like to direct myself, because they're kind of small projects. I am in a very lucky position in my career right now where my good friend and creative partner just saved the theatrical film industry, though [laughs].
He did. No small feat for the director of A Horrible Way to Die [laughs].
Simon Barrett: Indeed. And notably, my name is nowhere on that one, but fortunately, Adam isn't taking that as any kind of sign. So we're working on Face/Off 2 and Thundercats together. The fun thing about those projects is they're both huge studio projects, but I still want to be doing small, independent films, too, because at the end of the day, I think the thing that I love doing most, and I think, furthermore, the thing that I'm realizing I actually am talented at is coming up with original stories. I'm probably not the person you want to hire to do a sequel and remake, with the exception of Face/Off 2 and Thundercats, which are going to be amazing. But when it comes to horror stuff, I feel like my original stories are stronger than me trying to work in other people's territory.
So I do have some original horror ideas and thrillers that I think I'd want to direct myself, but it really just depends. I'd be very lucky if Seance is received in a way where I get to direct again. That said, I have already directed a segment of V/H/S 94, which we shot in Toronto earlier this year. So I already have directed since Seance, but that's a V/H/S thing. But I would like to direct some more.