DIRECTOR Adam Wingard and screenwriter-producer Simon Barrett are in a good place now. After nervously awaiting a release date for their horror thriller You're Next for nearly two years while the film's distributor, Lionsgate, went through a merger with Summit, it opened globally this month.
They have also lined up their next gig, with Barrett writing and Wingard directing the espionage thriller Dead Spy Running for Warner Bros. The close friends and frequent collaborators are relaxed and cheerful on a visit to screen You're Next at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
That buoyancy is in contrast to the funk that enveloped them after their previous collaboration, the 2010 serial-killer thriller A Horrible Way to Die, a black mood that ultimately proved inspiring when it came time to make a new film.
"Adam and I were both absurdly poor," Barrett says. "A Horrible Way to Die sold for a profit, but not enough for us to live on for as much as we'd worked on it. I think I was just kind of angry. I wanted to write a movie that was about a dysfunctional, wealthy family.
"I'm also a huge fan of screwball comedies and Agatha Christie novels, and part of the fun of those is the drama and the character dynamics," he adds. "Like I watch Downton Abbey and I think, 'This would be amazing if there was someone killing all the people in the house.' "
Wingard shot You're Next during a frigid 2011 winter in a long-vacant mansion outside of Barrett's home town of Columbia, Missouri. Parents Paul (Rob Moran) and Aubrey (Re-Animator scream queen and Mill Valley resident Barbara Crampton) gather their four adult children - three sons and a daughter - along with their significant others at the family's country home for a weekend anniversary party.
When sibling warfare breaks out over the course of their first dinner together, it is clear that the family is in for one ugly reunion - and that is before the meal is interrupted by masked intruders armed with crossbows.
Wingard says he and Barrett "have pretty straight-up good families, but I do have three brothers. I definitely understood the dynamics between those relationships, and I wanted to have fun with that. There are hierarchies with brothers, and you are constantly battling each other. It's never anything totally serious in reality, but I wanted to bring the humour out in that, because it's something that I definitely had a lot of experience with growing up."
Gathering a group together and picking them off one by one is a familiar horror movie trope, but it feels fresh in You're Next because of the attention paid to character and plotting. Barrett cites Christie's classic novel And Then There Were None as one of the inspirations for his screenplay, a compelling puzzle populated by strong characters.
"That was something we were thinking about a lot," Barrett says. "Adam told me he wanted to do this type of horror film, and it was just a matter then of both of us figuring out what we don't like about all those other movies that do similar things. A lot of it is just characters that you have no investment in.
"Adam and I have both watched a ton of these horror movies, and I've read a ton of mystery novels. You sit there watching and think, 'OK, now this is going to happen. I know exactly where this scene's headed. I know exactly where this film's headed.' Then you start thinking, 'Why do I know that? I know this is predictable, but what has this done that has allowed me to predict accurately its next several scenes?' Then avoid doing that."
"On the flip side of that," Wingard adds, "it's just as annoying whenever a movie tries to be so unpredictable that they don't even have real character motivations for when the characters change up or do whatever. Then you're like, 'You're just arbitrarily doing that, but it's not earned at all.' "
You're Next is one of those movies that juggles horror and humour, a fragile balance to maintain. Parents Paul and Aubrey, for example, are initially somewhat comic figures, but as his protective side comes out and her fragility is shown, they become more sympathetic characters. The children and their partners are similarly played for laughs, only to reveal surprising qualities later on.
"That was a major thing we talked about a lot," Barrett says. "Obviously, we play the characters for a bit of humour at certain points in the film, but ultimately, we do want to take them seriously as characters. It seemed important to the tone that the movie is having fun and making jokes, but it's never winking or campy. Its characters are real people.
"You kind of laugh at them and then you realise that they are human beings.
"The whole movie kind of has this theme of don't take people for what they appear to be, even down to the animal masks. It's a movie about trying to subvert surface impressions."
Barrett and Wingard are not just filmmakers, they are enthusiastic movie fans - thrilled, for instance, that they were able to entice famed horror director-producer Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo) into taking a small part in You're Next.
"Larry was a huge influence on me when I started making movies," Wingard says. "It was really a pleasure to be able to put him in the film. There were moments on the set, I remember, where, 'I can't believe that Larry Fessenden is just hanging out here in a towel, shirtless, just like, "Hey, I'm down to do whatever." ' He is the coolest guy, really."
That fandom does not just apply to casting, but also gets to the heart of how You're Next was made as Barrett and Wingard tried to imagine their movie through the eyes of a filmgoer seeing it for the first time.
"We respect our audiences, and it's a matter of treating your audience like intelligent human beings," Barrett says. "You have to play fair with all your twists, but at the same time you have to give them something that hopefully surprises them and earns their money if they see a film on the weekend.
"We were trying to make a film that stands the test of time."
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE