By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Throughout the 2000s, Simon Barrett has scripted a string of imaginative and frightening features, from the supernatural Civil War chiller DEAD BIRDS to a series of collaborations with director Adam Wingard that included A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, YOU’RE NEXT and THE GUEST. Now he has taken his own place at the helm with SEANCE, and spoke in depth with RUE MORGUE about how he conjured it up.
Coming to theaters, VOD and digital platforms this Friday, May 21 from RLJE Films and Shudder, SEANCE takes place at the distinguished Edelvine Academy for Girls, where new student Camille (Suki Waterhouse) quickly gets on the bad side of the resident mean girls. Their extracurricular activities include dabblings in the occult, specifically attempts to draw out the resident ghost, and seen their rituals begin leading to further deaths on campus. Camille becomes drawn into the killing spree while bonding with classmate Helina (Ella-Rae Smith), which adds an emotional underpinning to the rising body count.
Did you write SEANCE specifically intending to direct it?
Yes, I did, though I should note that I wrote DEAD BIRDS back in 2002 specifically intending to direct that, and my career just went in a different direction. Then, when working with my good friend Adam Wingard, whom I continued to collaborate with on a lot of projects, I didn’t ever feel like only the screenwriter–at least not initially. There was so much to be done as a producer on those films that I was basically working 20 hours a day alongside Adam on the sets. After we started getting real budgets, and Adam began moving on to bigger things, that’s when I began thinking that I’d been kind of putting off my own creative goals for a long time, since that partnership was so productive and satisfying and fun. But now that Adam was moving on to other projects, I needed to be doing the same. I wrote the first draft of SEANCE right around the time THE GUEST came out, and before we did BLAIR WITCH, I believe. And then it took me five years to get it financed!
You got some heavy hitters behind the film, including Dark Castle Entertainment. How did the project wind up with them?
That came about through my producers at Addictive Pictures, who were basically the hands-on producers on SEANCE. Russell Ackerman, Dutch Deckaj and John Schonefelder were shopping it around, and we got a commitment from Hanway Films, who had helped finance YOU’RE NEXT and THE GUEST and were willing to take another shot on me, but not for the whole budget. They and Ingenious Media were willing to come in for a small piece of it, knowing it was a much lower-budget film than THE GUEST and therefore less of a risk for them. But we needed a domestic partner–not a distributor, but someone who would agree to be responsible for a certain chunk of the financing.
Right around that time, I guess, Dark Castle was kind of regrouping with Hal Sadoff, Alex Mace and Kelly Gallagher. Joel Silver had left the company; I’ve only been in the same room with him once, when I went to an advance screening of THE NICE GUYS! So it wasn’t the Dark Castle of my youth, when I saw every one of their movies in theaters: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, GOTHIKA and ORPHAN, which Alex Mace came up with the story for. I was really interested in Dark Castle, but they let me know that this was a new kind of company. They didn’t have a studio output deal, and were now trying to get into more independent, smaller horror films, the kinds of things that A24 and Blumhouse have had a tremendous amount of success with.
They specifically wanted to work with a filmmaker who had experience because they weren’t really going to be on set. It was more like they were the LA producers who would give me notes, but I would ultimately be responsible for figuring out how to get in on budget, on schedule and such. It was a perfect arrangement for me, because I love the Dark Castle brand and the way it’s kind of comfortably nostalgic now for horror fans of my age. One of the first things I asked was if I could use the old Dark Castle logo from HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, with the gargoyle, and they were like, “Well, there’s no HD version of it.” I think they actually paid money to have a 35mm version of that logo scanned so I could use it on SEANCE. Then I asked Hanway if I could use their old logo, and they told me to fuck myself [laughs]. So shout-out to Dark Castle!
How did you come up with SEANCE’s plotline, which incorporates both supernatural and murder-mystery elements?
Without spoiling too much, oddly, the influence for that was Steven Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT, where he realized in the editing room, somewhat famously, that the film’s emotional arc was out of sync with the narrative, so he just chopped it up into pieces and put the emotional arc in different places in the edit, and made a kind of magical movie. It’s probably my favorite Soderbergh film, my favorite Elmore Leonard adaptation and one of the best modern romances. And I was doing somewhat of a romance with SEANCE [laughs]; that was one of the things that inspired me at the initial stage, because I wanted it to be more optimistic about relationships than YOU’RE NEXT and THE GUEST!
So I knew had an emotional arc to it, and I thought it would be interesting if the supernatural mystery informed the characters and their emotions toward one another, and the murders were more the main narrative thrust of the film, and they would intertwine in certain ways. There’s a lot of complexity to SEANCE, and I had a lot of fun with that kind of storytelling. Ultimately, SEANCE, like a lot of horror films I enjoy, takes place in a world where the supernatural is real, but it also corresponds with my own personal philosophy toward the paranormal, which is that it doesn’t impact us all that much unless we let it. I guess I’m going to be haunted if I keep saying that!
Given that I’m assuming a girls’ school is not a milieu you’re personally familiar with, how did you approach telling the story in that environment?
Yeah, I didn’t go to boarding school or anything like that; I’m a public-school kid from Missouri. But I watched movies like PHENOMENA and AENIGMA and WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANBE? [laughs], and I thought they looked really cool. I love that atmosphere, and I also believe SCREAM nailed something very interesting, which is that to teenagers, everything feels like an issue of life and death, so when people are actually dying, young people will respond to that in interesting ways. So I knew I wanted SEANCE to have a classical boarding-school setting, just because I wanted to tell the kind of story I grew up watching and reading. I also wanted a kind of timeless look like those films, though it wasn’t a period piece, and I knew Winnipeg would have some old buildings and other places we could potentially afford to shoot in.
A lot of my decisions on SEANCE were based on that, but I can’t specifically say why I made it a girls’ boarding school instead of a boys’ boarding school, other than that it felt like a convention of the genre to start from that place, and also, my heroes were female characters. There actually was a draft of SEANCE where there were no male characters at all, but that felt like I was tying myself in knots trying to do something where I didn’t really know why I was doing it.
TO BE CONTINUED