David Robert Mitchell burst onto the scene in 2010 with The Myth of the American Sleepover, a dreamy contemplation of the pains and satisfactions of the American teenager. The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival out of competition, resonated with critics for its impressionistic depiction of the vagaries of youth, and without succumbing to easy nostalgia. On the surface, Mitchell’s new film, It Follows, suggests a departure: the story of a group of teens in suburban Detroit trying to evade death at the hands of a mysterious haunting that’s acquired and capable of being staved off—if only for a spell—through sexual intercourse. Yet in its startling fixation on the varied anxieties that grip these young characters on the brink of adulthood, It Follows is also of a piece with its predecessor. At Sundance this year, I caught up with Mitchell to discuss the origins of this spellbinding film, his thematic fixations, and his relationship to genre.
With It Follows, you were inspired by childhood nightmares?
It was a recurring nightmare I had as a kid. I remember only pieces of it. In one part of the dream, I was with my friends during lunchtime at school, at the playground, and I looked across the parking lot and I saw this other kid very slowly walking toward me, way in the distance, like straight toward me. I remember pointing him out to somebody and they didn’t know what I was talking about, and the kid just kept coming closer and closer until I knew, in the way you know in a dream, this kid was like a monster, he was going to hurt me, and in it, I felt like he was a vampire or zombie or some kind of thing I didn’t know. It was very strange, the way he just flowed, though he looked normal. So I would run away from school, like a block away, and I stood there and waited. And then after a while, way down the block, I turned a corner and just kept walking. In the nightmare, I could get away from it all the time, as long as I was aware. It was the feeling of that anxiety and dread of knowing that something was always coming closer and coming toward you that inspired me. And I remember, in another nightmare, sitting with my family, having dinner, and then a man just walks into the front door and starts coming toward me, no one else reacts, and I run and climb out a window. It was just a constant feeling of dread. That’s where the basic idea came from.
And then what gave you the inspiration to add the more adult, STD element to the final feature?
I wanted it to be something that could be shared, like a game of tag to some degree. I thought if it could be sex, thematically it ties in really well. It’s a thing that links people physically as well as emotionally.
That’s something that I really appreciated about the film. In classic horror films, you have the sexual morality tale, but in It Follows, you can get the haunting through sex, but also theoretically get rid of it through sex.
Sex and love are the things that allow us, at least temporarily, to push away the reality of mortality, so that’s what it is for me, to some degree.
Given the focus of The Myth of the American Sleepover on childhood and the focus of It Follows on the characters’ teenage years, do you see yourself drawing most of your creative inspiration from those times?
No. That first film I wrote many years ago, and it took a while for me to make it. I have a lot of other projects with people of varying ages, but these have been the ones I have been able to put together at this point. Growing up and watching films, I definitely loved coming-of-age films and there are some that are very important to me, like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused and plenty of Truffaut films.
What do you see as your biggest influences with regard to It Follows?
I love The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s probably my favorite horror film of all time. I absolutely love it. I watch it all the time. That’s another one with a slow-moving threat. For influences, it’s hard to say. I watch so many movies. I went through a lot of my favorite horror films and watched them before we went into production. Again, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the original The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Kauffman version, The Shining, of course, some Cronenberg, some Polanski, A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Since this film is also based in the Detroit suburbs, it certainly has this surreal otherworldliness to it, with the remnants of Motown, Big Motors heyday in the present day. There are a bunch of vintage cars. Every time the TV is on, it’s turned to an old black-and-white movie. And there aren’t many, if any, cellphones.
There’s one in the first scene, but you don’t really see it. There’s also a smartphone e-reader.
The seashell with Dostoevsky’s The Idiot!
Yeah, but that was something we made up. It’s not a real thing. We used a ’60s shell compact.
So you were going for a sort of timeless quality?
It’s an anachronistic thing. It’s about trying to place the film outside of time, more like a dream or like a nightmare.
With the way that the film is structured, there are rules, but they aren’t so certain.
The rules exist within the film, but based on what the characters have figured out. So you can only trust them as much as you trust the characters. I myself, as a filmmaker, don’t say these are the rules, but I say that these are what the characters in a difficult situation have figured out. As opposed to saying that the film is saying that, I’m saying that the characters are saying these sets of rules. They seem mostly right, but they’re questionable.
The magic of the tricky narrator.
Regarding the film’s score, in a past interview, you described it as an “assault of noises.”
To me, it has some beautiful melodies and, then, at times, it’s also a bit of an assault. Controlled noise in certain moments. I’m really happy with what Disasterpeace did.
Do you imagine your future projects set in Detroit?
I’d definitely like to make more films there. I have some things that are based in Los Angeles. I have some more things again that are outside of time and outside of any particular place. I want to do this as long as I can, until I’m not capable of doing it, and I want to make all different kinds of movies because it’s fun to. It’s a challenge.
Talking about that unease in the film, you’ve mentioned in the past that you intentionally kept the camera distant.
Most of the film was shot on an 18mm lens. It’s fairly wide. We tried to keep the camera closer, we didn’t always do this, primarily closer to the subject. It’s their point of view. There are some subjective shots in the film. It’s a bit of a colder camera and it’s a little more objective. Basically, we’ll position the character somewhere in the frame and you can see far into the distance, and what that does is you know nothing is going to pop up instantly in front of that character, but you wonder where this thing is going to come from. So the goal, the hope, is to cause the audience to scan the frame, and then once you get used to doing that, that you’ll do it all the time. That’s the point of it.
What did you learn from that first film to this second one?
For the first one, I was just lucky to get it made, period. I’m really proud of that film. I really like it. I think there’s a simplicity and a sincerity to it that I’m proud of. With this one, I wanted to go a little further in terms of control and style. I wanted everything to be deliberate. I wanted everything to be very specific. With my editor, Julio Perez, it was very much about achieving a simplicity in terms of the editing. It needed to be very exact. Nothing unnecessary. At least that was my approach. Now whether you actually get that is up for debate. But that was the goal.
How did you decide on casting? Specifically Maika Monroe for Jay, the film’s central character?
She read for the part and she’s amazing. There was a vulnerability that was needed and she has that. She was able to convey that and that’s what keeps the film from going into B-movie territory. Nothing wrong with a good B movie, I love them, but that’s not this movie. There may be hints of that, but you really want to believe this character and care about her, and she was able to do that.
With the rest of the cast, there’s this incredible sense of gathering together, as in Nightmare on Elm Street, a certain chemistry.
They’re like a little gang. They are all friends. They all became friends. So that probably helps too. They genuinely like each other.
In the film, it’s very focused on the teenagers. There isn’t much parental presence.
Yeah, they’re kind of on the edges. We’re not seeing them. It’s to isolate the characters. To suggest that they are even more alone than they are. It’s on the edge of being fantasy to some degree on how separate they are, but I just like that.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I wanted to do it since I was young. I was writing bad scripts in junior high. I shouldn’t even be mentioning this, but I wrote a feature-length script of Ghostbusters II, before the actual Ghostbusters II came out. From there, I started making short films in high school and kept doing it all through film school. I went to Florida State, then Wayne State, and then I moved out to L.A. I worked as an editor for a lot of years, doing movie marketing, commercials, and trailers and stuff. And then I was working to put together my first film during that time. It took a long time, and it was very hard. The first one was very low-budget. We shot it for like 30 grand.
I understand that you were working on a project prior to It Follows going into production.
It was a drama. And I still want to make that film at some point. It’s hard to say when. That was Elle Walks the Beach, an L.A.-based story about a twentysomething young woman. I love that project. I’ll make it at some point. I love doing drama. Again, everything is a genre film. Drama is a genre. I like what’s traditionally seen as a genre film. I have a few detective stories, and some sci-fi stuff, that I think would be very fun.