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The Guest’s Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett Talk Music and Filmmaking

How Music Shapes Their Films (Plus A Playlist That Informed The Guest)

Sep 17, 2014 Web Exclusive
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In The Guest, a grieving family is still mourning the loss of their son in the invasion of Iraq. There’s a knock on the door, and they’re greeted by a sympathetic soldier who introduces himself as David. He explains that he served with their son and was with him when he died, and had promised that he’d check in on the family when he returned stateside. They invite the young man in and encourage him to stay with them until he regains his civilian footing. David is friendly and helpful around the house, and a welcome guest—until people around town start mysteriously dying, and the children begin to wonder what dark secrets their charming visitor is hiding.

Dreamed up during a brainstorming session following back-to-back viewings of The Terminator and Halloween, The Guest is a masterfully executed throwback feature. Rocking a great retro score by Zombi’s Steve Moore and punctuated by several vintage goth numbers, The Guest feels like an authentic, VHS-era sci-fi/action hybrid. Star Dan Stevens sheds his Downton Abbey stuffiness to play a creepy, cool-as-ice villain, and shot after shot is bathed in a bold, Dario Argento-esque color palette. With moments of nail biting tension and a wonderfully sick sense of humor, The Guest stands out even in a year where genre fans have been spoiled by fantastic films.

The Guest is the latest feature from director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. Their 2013 home invasion flick, You’re Next, made the two filmmakers household names among horror fans, but their creative collaboration spans eight films, including segments of the V/H/S and ABCs of Death anthologies. One of the unique aspects of their partnership is the way they use music to communicate ideas to each other during the writing phase of a project. While developing The Guest, Adam and Simon were mainlining a steady diet of vintage goth tracks and 1980s synth music.

The below playlist was culled from artists and songs mentioned during our conversation, and includes several tracks that appear in the film itself. Hit play, sit back, and check out our interview with Adam and Simon.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: You mention in the film’s press notes that you wanted to present a more accurate look at the “hipster goth” subculture than what’s usually shown in movies. What do you think it was that other films were getting wrong?

Adam Wingard: I feel like movies in general take this very literal approach to goth characters. It’s always black lipstick and Beetlejuice-esque outfits. In my experience, back in Alabama, which is not exactly a place that you think of as being goth-y, in terms of style or fashion — even in really small towns like Anniston, that’s where I came into contact with people who were kind of goth. They were a little bit older than the Anna character in the film, but they were similarly out of high school … it was less about following this mainstream sort of goth trend, and it was like they’d created their own version of it. It wasn’t this on-the-nose kind of thing, but this hybridization. They took little bits of style from this, little bits of style from that, but overall I’d classify them as goth. That’s where I was exposed to bands like Death In June and Front 242, and things like that. Those types of music were really the starting point for figuring out my stylization for [The Guest.]

I was interested in incorporating those types of characters into the film because I found those people interesting in reality. It was important to me never to make a movie where it just felt like the director had a really quirky taste in music and he just throws that in there randomly. Specifically, I wanted the songs to be a part of the characters and the story.

While Simon was writing I’d just leave him alone, but I’d send him a lot of music and ask, “Is this the type of film that you’re writing? Because it’d be awesome if you could steer it in that direction.” And it was important to me that we weren’t going to use songs in, like, a Wes Anderson way, where it plays almost as part of the score. If the song was in the film, I wanted the characters to hear it.

Simon Barrett: Adam and I are both from small towns. He grew up in Alabama and I grew up in Missouri. I think we’re both fascinated with how subcultures evolve when they have absolutely no support in their community. If you grew up a goth in Los Angeles or New York, for example, you’ve got tons of friends and clubs that cater to you. But now, with the Internet, someone can be a goth and they’ll be the only goth within 500 square miles. And then they become, like, a cowboy goth.

Does the playlist you made while working on The Guest still exist, in any form?

AW: You mean, like the original one? There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into the movie. Originally, I was thinking more in terms of the soundtrack being even more goth rock-based. So the real starting point for the soundtrack was, first and foremost, a Love and Rockets song which is in the film, but the second point was Death In June. I originally imagined the Anna character in the film being a little bit less pop-y, but ultimately when we cast Maika [Monroe] we kind of took it in a different direction, because she’s blonde and kind of bubbly, and we played up those aspects of her personality. So it didn’t feel right for her to be listening to Death In June.

I was really influenced by the title track to At Close Range, which Madonna did. That one wasn’t one that I planned on using or anything, but it was an influence. One song that I was really disappointed we couldn’t use was “Black Celebration” by Depeche Mode. Early on I talked to the music supervisor and he was like, “I just tried to license a Depeche Mode song, and it wasn’t even about money. They just wouldn’t do it.”

When I approached these playlists initially, I was approaching it from a perspective of finding music that I hadn’t heard in movies before, but also what I thought we could actually afford. Because there’s, like, 20 tracks of music in the movie. It was about finding obscure stuff that didn’t just sound cheap and obscure, and stuff that I really felt passionate about.

SB: At one point we were thinking of using an Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark song. And then we were at Wonder Con to do a signing, and literally the song we’d just been talking about was playing in the hotel lobby.

AW: We immediately checked that one off the list!

SB: Adam was like, “I guess we’re not using this one.”

AW: At one point I had all of my music available for people to listen to on Spotify … [Eventually] I realized you can’t just put this stuff out there, all these precious ideas.

SB: The Twilleys have told us that three different feature films and a commercial have licensed “Looking for the Magic” since You’re Next. Before that it was no one, and then You’re Next came out, and now all these other movies are licensing it. It’s kind of like, “Well, that’s cool…”

That’s good for the artist, but bad for you.

SB: I don’t know if it’s bad for us. It makes us look good that we were there first, but at the same time that’s the opposite of our approach. The advantage of not being able to afford mainstream music is you end up using music no one has prior connotations with. That’s my issue—if I hear a song that I have prior connotations with in a film, sometimes that ruins the song for me. Or, it ruins the scene in the film for me.

I would use the fight scene in Starship Troopers where they play Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” as an example of that not happening. That’s a good scene, and good choice [of music.]

AW: Christian Death was another major starting point [for The Guest.] Christian Death and Death In June are a little more rock-based, and we went more in the pop direction, the electronic stuff.

I should mention, Drive was very influential … I thought Drive was great. It was the first time I’d seen a mainstream movie that was able to use this very on-the-nose, retro stylization with the music and really make it work. So even when I started moving more in an electronic direction, I was like, we have to avoid the Drive style of that…

The Italo-Disco sound?

AW: Yeah. And the Drive stuff is a lot more depressing. It’s emotionally-driven, kind of sad throwback stuff. If [a song] had a sort of Drive sound to it, I avoided it.

Simon, when you get music from Adam, how does that affect your writing?

SB: This is one of the reasons why I’ll only work with Adam. [Laughs] Adam and I have pretty similar tastes, but admittedly, almost every band he just listed I don’t own a single piece of music by them, unless he sent me an MP3. But I do really enjoy that stuff. I will say, only occasionally is it something really alarming, where I’ll say, “Uh, no.”

Mostly, what it actually does, in a way that kind of goes beyond words, is it allows me to confirm that we’re on the same page tonally and stylistically. We could sit here and try to explain in words how the tone of The Guest matches Steve Moore’s score for the film, but we’d never truly articulate it. If you just see it and hear the music, you get it.

We don’t always have the same tastes, but it’s extremely helpful. Probably one of the most crucial aspects of our partnership during the writing stage is that sharing of tracks. Maybe he’ll send me something that then makes me think of something else. I think he sent me something just the other day that made me revisit the most recent Kavinsky album, and I started listening to that while writing one of our new projects.

AW: I bet it was that Mitch Murder track.

SB: Yeah, it was the Mitch Murder stuff … And then it made me be think, “Oh, yeah, I really like this one track.” And now that’s all I’m listening to when I’m writing this new project.

Steve Moore is a really great fit into what you were doing in The Guest, in that he has that retro, 1980s synth sound and does it with totally vintage gear.

AW: You know, [Steve Moore’s band] Zombi composed music for my very first movie back in 2003, before they’d officially, actually released an album. I was making my first film right out of film school with my friend E.L. Katz, who did Cheap Thrills recently. We discovered Zombi through Rue Morgue Magazine, who did a review in the back of an issue and described it. All they had was a website at the time. I listened to them and couldn’t believe it. Steve kinda pioneered that sort of post-modern, throwback Italian thing.

That retro, Goblin style.

AW: Yeah. He was kind of ahead of his time, in that sense. The reason that he stands out in that group is that he isn’t doing a sampling or imitating thing. He’s actually a real technician who feels strongly about using real, vintage instrumentation. He doesn’t own anything made past 1990. That’s sort of what led me to using him in this film, because that’s kind of a metaphor for what I wanted. I didn’t want an imitation of the 1980s; I wanted an authentic texturization of it, and that’s what he brought to the table.

By the way, he does make a cameo in The Guest. He’s in the party scene, sitting at a table with Joel David Moore and wearing a You’re Next mask on his head.

Back around the time You’re Next came out, you guys mentioned you were writing a Hong Kong-style action movie. What sort of music influenced that?

SB: We were going to do a Korean action movie.

AW: With that one, very misguidedly, probably, we specifically set out to make a movie that was dated for the time it was being made. So we thought, what would be the “music of right now” that we could exploit and have fun with.

SB: Of course, the answer was…

AW & SB: … dubstep. [Laughs]

SB: Nero holds up. They use orchestras a lot.

AW: They have one track that’s essentially John Adams with dubstep.

SB: Their symphony, “2808.”

AW: That’s the one I’m talking about. It’s like 20 minutes long. We actually went to see them in concert, and they were unbelievably heavy.

SB: I think they’re going to stand the test of time. But a lot of dubstep has not stood the test of time.

AW: There are a lot of good things about the fact that we haven’t made our action film yet, the least of which is that it would have been a dubstep action film. [Laughs]

Actually, Gesaffelstein was the only artist that we couldn’t get rights to for The Guest. Originally the song “Pursuit” was supposed to play during the scene where Dan is smoking weed at the party. [It’s] fine, because Gesaffelstein was really blowing up right when we were looking for those rights. I think his music is being used in major Hollywood films.

And what music informed You’re Next? Obviously “Looking for the Magic” is the track everyone associates with the film…

AW: With You’re Next, the way the story was written, I felt like it needed to be definitively a 70s classic rock song. But, I wanted it to be a 1970s classic rock song that you’d never heard before, but sounded like you should have heard it. Which is easier said than done.

Fortunately, my main composer on that film, Kyle McKinnon, his main forte is 1970s and ‘80s classic rock … He sent me this list with 10 to 15 songs on it, and “Looking for the Magic” was the third song on the list. As soon as I heard it, I was at Simon’s house, and I called him into the room and was like, “Listen to this.” As soon as we heard it, we knew that was definitely it.

SB: We kind of lucked out that it all worked out … If we hadn’t gotten that track I don’t know what we would have done. Actually, if you listen at the end credits, it’s a very close cover of [“Looking for the Magic.’] Almost no one can even tell. The original recording plays in the film itself, but in the end credits it’s a cover.

AW: The way that contracts work, which I learned on You’re Next, when it comes to songs in films, using songs over the end credits costs more money.

SB: Way more.

AW: We didn’t have that experience on The Guest, which is fortunate because we wouldn’t have been able to afford the song.

On The Guest I found it interesting, because we had three Clan of Xymox songs in the film. I didn’t know going into it if that was going to be a good thing or a bad thing when it came to getting the rights. Fortunately, that was actually an incentive to the artist. I think to them—and I may be speaking for them—that it was clear we weren’t people trying to exploit some random song. We were clearly fans and their songs were going to be part of the movie experience. They actually cut us some great deals.

Our music budget on The Guest was shockingly small, so from that perspective, every day when we got closer to that mixing point… our turnaround on this film was very quick. I started editing in September, and we were aiming for that Sundance premiere which we hit in January. So there wasn’t a lot of time to actually figure out the logistics of clearing all that music.

SB: Also with Front 242, it was an incentive for them that we were licensing two tracks instead of one … With them, they were more willing to deal because we wanted two tracks, because to them it was like they were actually dealing with a fan. This isn’t just some American, like, commercial, or Super Bowl ad. These are people who love our music.

The characters listed to mix CDs in The Guest, there’s a CD playing on endless loop in You’re Next… even in V/H/S, to another degree, physical media is still precious. How much do you miss these dying formats?

AW: As a movie, you need that visual gag. You’re putting that music into a physical reality and that’s always nice to see. I think a lot of our films are nostalgic, anyway, and I think some of it might be going off of that.

I’m one of those people that if I’m taking a CD out, I don’t go and bother to find the case that it came in. I just put it in the case that I’m taking the next CD out of, so I end up losing everything and misplacing it anyways. [Laughs] So I’m actually very happy to have all of my MP3s on my phone and on my computer, organized for me.

SB: I live in a one-bedroom apartment with three turntables and about 3,000 records, but I still mostly listen to music on my computer when I’m writing.

But I will say, on physical media’s presence in these films… if you used too modern of technology – for instance, if we see Anna in The Guest compiling a playlist for her iPod Zune instead of making a mix CD – it’s almost if you get too modern, it’s more dated. Meanwhile, physical media has a permanence to it that transcends that a little bit. People still buy it on screen. Perhaps in ten years if we show a CD on screen, people will be like, “Whatever, Grandpa.” But for now, it still reads as correct. People still listen to CDs.

I don’t know what we’re going to do if we have that kind of motif again and things change. I don’t want to make period movies just to sell a mixtape scene. [Laughs]


The Guest opens in theaters September 17th. For more information about the film, check out its website. To read our review, click here.


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