The movie monster comes in all shapes and sizes. For David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, the beast could be you, and me, and everyone we know.
Set in a version of Detroit that feels like a dilapidated dream state, Mitchell's scary sophomore effort follows Jay (Maika Monroe), a beautiful, normal teenager who finds out that she's acquired some kind of curse after having sex with her alluring new boyfriend. Now, no matter where she goes, a shape-shifting figure chases her every move.
Mitchell's clever setup enables a genre landscape laden with subtext. Sexuality, identity and mortality all collide in this lucid, sometimes traumatizing, neverending escape film.
CityBeat talked with Mitchell about these ideas and more, including anxiety dreams, horror conventions and embracing our own mortality.
CityBeat: What inspired It Follows?
David Robert Mitchell: The basic idea came from a recurring nightmare I had as a kid, in which a monster that looked like different people was constantly following me. It was very slow. I could get away, but it was always following me. It was an anxiety dream that I had for a little bit around the age of 9 or 10. I haven't had it since, but always thought about it. When I set out to make a horror film, I thought about that nightmare. I obviously added a lot of stuff later, but that was the core idea.
Both of your films to this point have a subtle approach to redefining classic genres. How did this style come about?
With The Myth of the American Sleepover, we were grappling with the coming-of-age story. Many films in that genre inspired me growing up, and that contributed to me wanting to make films. But I wanted to do my version. In terms of horror, I've loved the genre ever since I was a kid and always wanted to make one.
The subtleties you mention represent what I like, my style, I guess you could say. It somewhat resembles naturalism, but there's still an element of fantasy in there, just to the edge of naturalism. It's probably a little more low-key, softer and gentle than you're used to. I'm confronting clichés on some level. It's about taking the conventions we're used to and altering them just slightly in very small ways.
Teenagers are the central protagonists in both of your films. Why are you drawn to this particularly heightened time in a character's life?
For the first film, it's about a period where these characters feel potential in life. It's a bit of a magical space. Not to say that it's fantastic. The actual process of growing up is obviously not as pleasant as it is in the movies, but there's still a certain amount of hope at that period. It's not that we can't have it as adults, but the realization just seems a little easier to tap into at that age.
With It Follows, we have similarly aged kids, maybe a little older. I wanted to explore the idea that when teenagers are confronted with this kind of horror, they don't have the same kind of freedoms or access as an adult would have. They act differently to these dangerous situations. They don't have the same mobility and access to money. In a way, it keeps the story a little smaller.
The film has a distinct visual style, with long takes and zooms, almost as if the camera itself is the monster.
A lot of the time, the camera has a cold, objective quality to it, hinting that the perspective could be from the point of view of the monster. It's more of a cold and distant observer to these events. The camera is also the window for the audience to be physically planted within these environments. It's not a fast cutting film. You're given time to orient yourself within the frame, the geography of the environment. You can look around, into the distance, look along the edges of the frame.
I wanted the film to be very experiential. You as the audience are in that environment, and you are also looking out for these characters, as well as for yourself.
The graceful visuals allow the elements of horror to organically appear without the need for rigid cutting. Why was it important for you to avoid the classic jump-scares we often seen in horror cinema today?
That style was always the plan. I thought it would be fun to present these things as if you were in the space, as if you saw something off in the distance, and it got closer and closer. And not controlling that through the editing but literally just sitting there with a wide-angle frame and loose composition / space to feel the arrival of this thing as if you are there. If we cut more or cheated distance through a longer lens, I don't think it would have had the same effect.
The film exists seemingly in between time periods. Are the characters living in a sort of purgatory?
For me, it was about placing the film outside of time. All of the anachronistic elements and references, from the 1950s all the way up to the present day, are mixing together to suggest a dream space. There are even some things that don't exist in the way that we're seeing them, and while you're watching it, you can't quite put your finger on it.
When you watch a movie, you often search for an indication of where and when it is set, because you want to be grounded in some form of reality. There are some aspects here for you to connect with, but also other references that make you wonder. It's about putting you on edge, the kind of feeling one might experience during a nightmare.
Like many horror ingénues, Maika Monroe's lead performance is incredibly physical.
It really was a demanding role. She's a wonderful actress, and we're lucky she was a part of the film. Her performance fluctuates between soft and sincere to these extreme moments of chaos and fear. She handles those transitions perfectly, and in doing so, she avoids all the pitfalls that turn horror films into B-horror films. If she's screaming and running and afraid, we genuinely feel it. We're worried for her. We're with her every step of the way, as opposed to having some distance from her experience, which happens a lot in other horror films. We needed a really strong performance, and she delivered.
Sex has dire consequences in the film, but sexuality is framed as a very natural and potentially beautiful thing. Why do you think this contradiction often exists in horror films?
We wanted to deal with the ways in which people are connected through sex and through love and what that feels like. It's not trying to make some big statement, but something interesting to examine about how these characters react and feel about the scenario they are presented.
That's the trick. You're walking a line, and often you have very different extreme sides with very different interpretations of horror films throughout history. People either think they are exploitative or puritanical. The truth is often in the middle. Sometimes it is on one side or the other depending on the movie. I find that interesting, as well. It wasn't my intention to make a puritanical statement about sex. It's actually quite funny to me to read this interpretation.
For me, It Follows suggests that we are drawn to our own destruction, and we have to make peace with it. Do you agree?
The film definitely deals with mortality on some level. At different ages, we come to terms with it. I started thinking about death when I was really young. I imagine a lot of people do. As we grow older, we become more aware of it. I think the characters do open themselves up to their own demise through sex, but sex is also the way in which they are able to at least temporarily push death away and have a moment of safety.
We're on Earth for a limited amount of time, but sex and love are ways in which we can find peace in the moment and temporarily push death away. We can't escape it, but these are just a few of the ways in which we can live and not be fearful of our impending mortality.