David Robert Mitchell on his cult STD zombie-horror film

The arthouse director tells us how It Follows became a word-of-mouth Cannes smash

Arts+Culture Q+A
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The biggest word-of-mouth winner at last month's Cannes Film Festival? It Follows, David Robert Mitchell’s follow up to his first film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, which was set in suburban Detroit, where the director was born. It Follows also takes place in one of those boring middle-class dormitory towns, but the tone is radically different: Mitchell’s European arthouse sensibility here melds with classic genre horror. The opening gives a good overview of the atmosphere: a pretty blonde in a nightie and very high heels escapes from her home, obviously terrified by an assailant only she can see. She takes her car and drives far away to the sea, but when we find her in the morning, she’s dead and dismembered. This highly stressful scene is accompanied by Rich Vreeland's blaring and vibrating score, like a drone’s buzz getting louder and louder. Soon enough, we will identify the evil that gnawed the poor victim and many others after her: an STD with symptoms of visions of zombies hounding you. After I had barely recovered from the experience, I met David Robert Mitchell with the intention of understanding how the hell a 40-something director manages to become cult in only two movies.

The creepy followers in It Follows only pursue people who had sexual intercourse. And having sex with someone else is the only way to get rid of the curse. The idea is half puritan, half cynical…

David Robert Mitchell: What I had in mind was some kind of a mental and physical chain that would connect people. By having sex with someone, you suddenly become linked to the people that person had sex with before. Of course, the title recalls sexually transmitted diseases that scare teens, like Aids. But it also could refer to Twitter, a network where followers and followed are connected without meeting each other in real life.

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Where did the idea of that shambling creature come from?

David Robert Mitchell: It stemmed from a nightmare I had when I was a kid. I would see someone coming towards me – actually, it looked like different people. I knew instinctively that it was coming for me. I would run away from it, down the block, and it would turn around the corner. I would come into a house and it would follow me into that house. I would climb out of the window and it would do the same. I would always get away from it, but it was terrifying to know that I could never really escape. I would only have a short time to rest for a while because it would always come and kick me. I know now that a lot of people have this dream too, but at that time, that nightmare scared the hell out of me. The positive thing is that at that time, I was already aware of the potential of that dream in terms of storytelling. Eventually it went away as I grew up.

So finding ideas is definitely not a problem for you?

David Robert Mitchell: Not at all! I've already wrote several scripts that I want to direct. I actually have a big reserve stock of scripts that I've kept since childhood.

Do you see childhood and teenage years as the most inspiring period for storytelling?

David Robert Mitchell: Not the only inspiring time, but it definitely has something special. Probably because it’s the most mysterious and intense period of your life. And I still can relate to the emotions of those teens. But my next movie will probably be an adventure and a mystery, with elements of strange and magic – with older characters, for a change.

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You told me earlier that genre films authorise you to be more experimental. How come?

David Robert Mitchell: I’m not sure, it’s just a gut feeling I have. With genre films, people know more or less what to expect, in terms of music for instance. And because of this basic contract, loosening the rules is tempting and can be even more powerful in a context where it’s not expected.

You seem to be very relaxed with the idea of quoting older films – Maika Monroe’s character finds herself alone at night in the middle of a pool, for instance, in a clear reference to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People. Do you see that as an homage?

David Robert Mitchell: Quoting seems fine to me. I love so many kinds of film. I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t seen them. And I’m not going to pretend either that I’m not into genre films. It would be a lie. I know some directors like to say their film is 'more than a simple genre film'. But to me there’s no negative connotation linked to the horror genre, for instance. No need to pretend it’s something else – it’s fine to do genre films! And it doesn’t mean that you can’t reclaim the genre. On the contrary, that's precisely what I’ve been trying to do. I do my own versions of the things that I like.

“What I had in mind was some kind of a mental and physical chain that would connect people. By having sex with someone, you suddenly become linked to the people that person had sex with before”

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What brought you to cinema in the first place?

David Robert Mitchell: I've wanted to make movies since I was a kid. My dad is a film buff and he loves horror films. With my uncle he built an animation table in our basement. Both of them would do stop-motion stuff and I really enjoyed seeing that when I was young. I started with the idea of becoming a writer, but decided to put all of my energy into films during high school.

What would be the line-up for your perfect scary movies night?

David Robert Mitchell: I’ve always been bad at this exercise because I would love to say something not too obscure but not too obvious either, and without being too strange. But let’s start with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1978 version by Philip Kaufman. Then Nosferatu and Bride of Frankenstein. And, finally, one of my favourite horror films ever, one that I can watch repeatedly: Creature from the Black Lagoon. Trust me, everybody should see that movie.

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