Simon Barrett, who has written films such as You’re Next and an installment in the V/H/S horror film franchise penned the terrific script for The Guest, a nifty thriller about David (Dan Stevens) who turns up at a family’s home claiming to be their late son’s best friend. Cinedelphia met with Barrett during the recent Philadelphia Film Festival to talk about his film, bar fights, and what prompted him to tell the story of The Guest.
Gary M. Kramer: The Guest features one of my favorite plots—the “stranger entering a house” story. I love how you play with ideas of reinvention, which is something all of the characters undergo. How did you come to write this script?
Simon Barrett: From a writing standpoint, that’s one of the more entertaining things—to create characters, make them feel real, and witness them trying to change each other. I don’t know why that appeals to me personally, but as a viewer, I like movies where I don’t know what’s going to happen next. The appeal of “stranger in the house” films is that you establish an existing dynamic—where the family is at; that it’s stagnant due to loss and the grief they experience—and then you add a character to it whose actions are completely unpredictable—up to a point, anyway. That is automatically entertaining. Audiences can relate to what the family members and the guest all want to achieve with their individual crises. The guest shows up and finds out what each individual family member’s weakness is. We all have those weaknesses people can exploit—vulnerability to our own egos, or actual bad things happening in our lives. The Guest is like You’re Next in that it’s about family dynamics, and adding something violent to them, and then seeing how the characters operate under duress. It’s the inherent drama in that. The same thing is happening in You’re Next as in The Guest, except it’s a handsome stranger inviting himself in, not crossbows coming in through the windows. I find that all very interesting. It’s tricky because you can go different ways.
GMK: How would you respond if someone came up to you and said they were your late son’s best friend?
SB: I am always surprised when people question the credibility of the family inviting him in, but I would completely invite that person in. I would be completely taken by them. I know from having experienced loss, it is something you do want to talk about. When someone leaves your life in a permanent way, you do want to find people who knew them, and celebrate it, and discuss it as much as possible. David is telling Laura stories about her son that she does not know. That to me feels plausibly seductive. You don’t want that person to leave.
GMK: In this age of catfishing, do you think folks are more savvy towards strangers?
SB: He’s not lying, he just has unpredictable issues. He’s completely honest with them up to a certain point. I never found that too problematic. My experience is that military families—my grandparents and family members were in the military—tend to be very generous to one another because they all are on the same wavelength and experience the same tensions and occasional loss. There is an instant bonding that occurs in that element that the average person won’t know. They have an emotional shorthand. It lends dramatic and emotional responsibility. You have to be engaged by them on some level. They don’t have to be sympathetic, but there has to be some level of recognition.
GMK: So what is the secret of creating such a dynamic, seductive character like David?
SB: The Guest is very much an experiment in movie likability. We take it to one extreme and hopefully where the audience becomes a little uncomfortable with it. David is the most active and entertaining character. The family members are nice people, but their lives suck, and he shows up and he’s awesome. We take his behavior to a logical extreme and show you what the reality of that is. Movie likability is very different from real life likability. It’s the movie’s tone—is the audience having fun in it or is the movie rubbing your face in it? Whichever character is more active, is the one the audience is going to like the most. If a character is beating up innocent people, the audience likes it because of what’s going on. With The Guest, I cast the most charming actor you could find and we took his actions to an extreme where you consider what a violent ideology means—an extreme self-defense. You see what that looks like in certain situations, where it is seemingly noble, but then he applies it in other situations and the audience is deadly silent. Everyone cheers when he helps Luke with the bullies. You see he has an extreme situational awareness. That idea of attacking someone in a certain way might not be applicable, but in the bar scene he does weird things, but he is provoking someone. Later, when you see him with the principal, he uses his words to change the situation. I wanted to write a fun smart character who would always be a couple steps ahead of the audience. Because that’s what I like as an audience member.
GMK: Speaking of the bar fight, have you ever been in a bar fight?
SB: I have been in a few fights. I was in a fist fight outside of a bar. As I was leaving, a guy jumped me. You can’t talk about real life fights without bragging. It’s like that scene in Jaws, where they are comparing scars. By all definitions of fighting, I won that fight, but I still went home and shook for two hours, and spent the next two weeks replaying how I should have done things differently. I should have beaten that guy up more, or I should have just walked away. That’s the difference between movie violence and real life violence. You can watch Steven Segal, or Jean-Claude Van Damme beat up a bar full of people, and you go “Hell, yeah!” but in real life, they’d go home and puke, or cry, or get drunk. I’ve been in enough bar fights in real life to know that everyone involved is going to wish they were somewhere else before, during, and after. It’s always scary, stressful, and bad, and the best thing you can do, if possible, is talk your way out of it. I was able to do that sometimes, but when I was younger, I was less good at talking, or I was just more inclined to put myself in bad situations, where a bar would empty out and someone would randomly decide that my face looked like something that was interesting to hit. Now I tend to stay home and not put myself in danger quite as much. You find out really quickly that what sounds like an awesome story of kicking some jerk’s ass is in fact, a complicated tale of two people who probably had too much to drink, and mistakes were made on both sides.
GMK: Did you have any hand in casting Dan Stevens? He wouldn’t have been most folks’ first choice for the part, but he nails it.
SB: Dan was on our dream actor list, along with Channing Tatum and Brad Pitt and people like that. But can he do a poor Southern accent? Dan does audio book readings, and he was on our list because he’s so likable on Downton Abbey. If Mark Boone Jr, showed up at the family home, it would be less likely they would let him in. We needed [Dan’s] charm and charisma. It was a matter of if he could get himself in the kind of shape that he looked plausibly military, which he absolutely could. He could transform his body, and the accent was no problem for him. He never auditioned. He got the humor of the script—not that there are jokes and punchlines in the film—but it’s the heightened absurdity of the situation as it gets more and more insane.
GMK: You have worked as an actor in several films? Did you have any desire to play the title character?
SB: [Laughs] No. If you look at The Guest, it’s the first film where neither Adam [Wingard] nor I appear as an extra. We could have easily been in the party scene, but it could have been, “who are those two old guys?” We could have pulled it off with masks on. All the acting I’ve done has largely been out of necessity, doing non-union movies, or low-budget movies. Sometimes it’s easier to put yourself on screen than wrangle another actor who owes you a favor. But I’ve always known what my range was, and that’s microcosmic compared to Dan Stevens.