Q&A: David Robert Mitchell on the Dread of It Follows

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It Follows is terribly eerie. It’s also clever and stunningly composed, viciously getting at inevitability—the doldrums of the suburbs, our eventual end, the onset of such anxiety as we enter adulthood. And of course, reprieve from it all. It’s initially hard to move past its conceit though, this sexually transmitted haunting that overwhelms both your fear and your mind. The sex of It Follows, both its freeing nature and monstrous consequence, is only a window to director David Robert Mitchell’s worldview. It took my second viewing to fully grasp this. Unfortunately, I spoke with the filmmaker before then.

Thankfully, Mitchell is well spoken and sharp, cutting to the core of his movie and his intent. He’s looking to explore all film and here, he tries on horror. “I thought it would be cool to do my version of it,” he says, “try to figure out what that even was.” Turns out, it’s one of the best American horror films we’ve got.

Shock Till You Drop: In slashers and urban legends, the subtext is often the dangers of sex. This is more overt here, so it seems as a counter balance you’ve made the scares less pronounced. Subtler, eerier.

David Robert Mitchell: The movie’s about dread. There’s a few surprise scares, they’re fun. To me, there’s a difference between being startled and being scared. Dread and being unnerved and having anxiety to me can be just as powerful, and also have the ability to sit with you in a way that being startled does not. I’m less interested in jump scares. The idea of the film is about waiting, knowing that something—for the characters, for the audience—is out there that’s coming closer. At some point, it’s going to reach you, and having to live with that and having to have moments where it isn’t here. It’s about those sort of calm spaces in between those moments of terror that, on some level, can be more disturbing.

Shock: The kids here feel authentic, like in The Myth of the American Sleepover. Are you more conscious of kids and how they interact?

Mitchell: I think it’s more just about how a filmmaker chooses to deal with human beings, not just young people. Across the board, there are films that treat their characters as people, and that’s what it really comes down to. It’s about trying to imagine what it might feel like to have your normal world turned into a nightmare and how someone might react. This isn’t about trying to create some representation of complete naturalism. The movie is not meant to be, ‘how does a person react when fighting monsters simulator.’ If I’m going to make a film and build a story around these characters, then I’m going to give a shit about the characters. I care about them, I want the audience to care about them. I want people to try and connect on some level. Also, if you don’t do that, people aren’t going to be involved. It’s inherently less scary, if you don’t care. Then all you have is attacks and violence and situations that can raise your blood pressure, but aren’t necessarily getting to you on a deeper level.

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Shock: I think as a kid, when you’re into horror or niche things, it helps give one an observational quality. Were you a fan growing up?

Mitchell: I’ve been a horror fan since I was a kid, for sure. Everything I can see, I’ve seen. Totally, I made this movie because I like these kinds of movies and thought it would be really fun to make one.

Shock: When did you think that? After Myth?

Mitchell: Well, always. I wrote this after Myth, but I wrote a bunch of other stuff. It’s just one of many kinds of movies I want to make. I thought it would be cool to do my version of it, try to figure out what that even was. I always knew I would try to make a horror film. I actually intended this to be my third film. There was another drama, it was just taking too long to pull it together.

Shock: Was there a pattern to how you visualize “It” in the film?

Mitchell: When I wrote it, it was whatever felt right to me on a scene-by-scene basis. Sometimes it’s about being normal to get closer, sometimes it’s about trying to take on an appearance to shock or to hurt the character. I couldn’t think of “why” I placed them in certain moments, just what felt right to me.

Shock: It Follows reminds me of the end of Shivers. This idea of fucking the stigma away.

Mitchell: I don’t see the film as puritanical. I don’t love that, to be honest. I know some people see it that way, and I understand why. It would be easy to see it that way from a certain perspective. To me, sex is a very normal part of life and yes, the character does open themselves up to some danger through sex, but it’s also how they gain some freedom and some safety as well. What is life but dealing with our mortality and on some level, trying to find a way to be at peace through our life? That’s through love and sex and connection. You can’t truly escape that, but you can push it away for now, in the moment.

It Follows is out Friday, March 13th. It’s a must-see. For more, see Shock’s review here