David Robert Mitchell directs It Follows. For nineteen-year-old Jay, Autumn should be about school, boys and week-ends out at the lake. But after a seemingly innocent sexual encounter, she finds herself plagued by strange visions and the inescapable sense that someone, something, is following her. Faced with this burden, Jay and her friends must find a way to escape the horrors that seem to be only a few steps behind.
Apparently this film came from a fear you had as a child. Can you explain that?
The basic idea came from a nightmare I had when I was a kid. I was probably about nine or ten years old and I remember in one of the nightmares I was playing with friends outside school and across the far side of the parking lot I saw this kid walking toward me. He was really far away and just walking really slowly toward me. I remember seeing them and just the way you instinctively do in a dream, knowing something was wrong and that kid was a monster. I remember pointing it out to the people I was playing with and nobody knew what I was talking about. It was getting closer and closer and eventually I ran away. I ran about a block from school and then stood and waited and eventually it turned the corner and kept coming for me. In the nightmares it could look like different people and I might be hanging out with my family and nobody else would react. So it was that idea of being followed by something that you can get away from if you’re aware but the horrible feeling is of constantly being followed. I’ve talked to many people who’ve had similar nightmares and apparently it’s an anxiety dream. I stopped having it when I was a kid but I’ve always remembered it. I thought it would be cool to make a horror film of that and all those thoughts and feelings. Then as an adult I added all the other elements. But that’s where it started.
So how did you marry it to the idea of a sexually transmitted curse?
Well ever since I started thinking about it I liked the idea of it being something that could be passed between people and it just made sense to me that something sexual would work. You’re connecting people both physically and emotionally through sex and it just seemed a good thematic link.
When you were trying to get the film made did everyone get the concept?
Weeeell. Mostly. It’s one of those ideas that if you say it the wrong way or read it on paper it could sound a little silly. It’s really about how we tried to approach it. It’s a tonal trick, if that makes sense.
There’s also the possibility that if you’d handled it wrong it might seem moralising?
I’ve had people read it that way. I certainly don’t mean that and I don’t think it has a puritanical message, but I like that people read the film in different ways. That’s kind of cool. For me, in the film sex is the thing that opens people up to this danger but the truth is it’s also the thing that can release them, at least temporarily. So it’s not that simple.
This is only your second movie and your first horror. Did you study any other horrors before starting?
I’m a big horror fan so I’ve seen a ton of stuff from horror classics to stuff coming out now, so yes, I watched a ton of it. I’m a big film fan period, but horror particularly, yes.
The film seems to be set in no particular era. Was that deliberate?
That’s intentional. We built the film from a production standpoint as if it were several different eras. A lot of stuff was from the 50s, 60s, 70s and there are some modern things as well. All of it was to put the film a little bit outside of time, so it’s closer to a dream. If you can’t quite place it then it’s intentional.
When did you start writing this?
I want to say 2011. It was really quick. I wrote the first draft in about a week and a half. There were revisions, obviously. It was working up to writing it that took a long time. But once I was ready to write it it came out quick.
What made you choose Maika Monroe for the lead?
She auditioned for us and her audition was fantastic so everyone knew immediately that she was the right person. It’s a tricky part, because certain aspects of it are pretty subtle and low-key and then all of a sudden the character reaches these points of very high emotion. To do that right in a believable way is very difficult, but she could just do it. Watching her performance at that audition you were immediately like, “Oh gosh, I feel so terrible for her”. You immediately cared about her and that’s exactly what you want. That’s what you need.
Maika says the Paul character is a younger version of you. Is that true?
Haha. Well, there are always bits of me in the characters but you might say that. I put bits of me in all of them. There’s always some aspect of myself. But it’s not autobiographical.
How did you decide how the followers were going to look?
The ‘Its’? They were all in the script in roughly the way they appear in the film and then we spent a lot of time on casting to get the right people. But they were all roughly what they were on the page.
But why those particular types?
Well I couldn’t tell you exactly. It was just what seemed strange to me in that moment or what felt right and was disturbing to me. It was just what I was afraid of.
The film has been very well received at festivals. When did you know it was really working for audiences?
It was at our first screening at Cannes. It hadn’t played for a real audience yet and I was pretty nervous about how it would play for people. That was the scariest part, waiting to get a sense of whether people will enjoy the movie or not. During that screening I was sitting in the middle of the audience and started to notice there were some tension around. There were screaming. Someone dropped something in the theatre and everybody jumped. They were very on edge. That was good! So once that screening was over I knew it was working for people.
What has the film’s success meant for you?
It’s good! All I really every care about is trying to get my next project going and making more films. It’s always hard to say but it feels like people responding well to the film will help that.
Do you have a new project on the go?
I’m always writing new things. I have some stuff I’m trying to put together but I can’t talk about it just yet.