Last time we heard what director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett had to say about the influences behind their 2014 cult hit, The Guest. One of the key influences was John Carpenter’s original Halloween (1978), but “inverted.” David (Dan Stevens) takes the maniac’s role, with the twist that “Michael Myers, instead of being the faceless shape that’s watching you from a distance, [is] the beautiful friend right inside your house…” (01:10:00).
However, like Laurel without Hardy, Abbott without Costello, or Riggs without Murtaugh, the Michael Myers character is incomplete without his other half. “To really make that [dynamic] work, you have a Dr. Loomis character hunting him down,” they explain. “That’s what Lance [Reddick], as Major Carver, is” (01:10:00).
But the initial version of the film included much less of Reddick’s character. Listening to Wingard and Barrett talk, it almost sounds as though an early cut of the film had Reddick making his first appearance out of the blue at the Peterson home to throw down with David in a John Woo-style shootout. When they showed that cut to a test audience, they realized they had a problem because audiences were left “confused” by the introduction of Reddick’s character (00:42:20).
“It’s just [that] there wasn’t enough build-up to it,” Wingard explains. “So once we realized that that was a major issue, we just came up with [an additional] sequence” (00:42:20) that explains who Carver is. Though Wingard makes it sound like they just plucked the fully formed idea out of the air, Barrett says he wrote “fourteen drafts [of that scene] just to figure out what I wanted it to be” (00:42:20).
Situations like that are perfect illustrations of why Wingard and Barrett, contrary to many other filmmakers, are actually in favour of the audience-testing process. “I know a lot of directors are really scared of that,” Barrett says. “But the thing is…to do that with a studio is probably a really scary process, but if you do that on your own, before you’re even working with a studio, it can be really smart.” Wingard adds, “Really the only thing that you want to avoid with those test screenings is you don’t want to be in a position where an executive or somebody [in the audience] has an agenda…” (00:44:00). If the filmmakers are working with producers they trust and “everyone’s using [the test screening] to make the best possible movie, it can be invaluable…. And also then when a studio comes [to the filmmakers and says], ‘Hey, we wanna test it,’ [the filmmakers can say], ‘Hey, we already did that. Here’s the results’” (00:44:00).
In this case, it’s possible that the test audience helped to balance out Barrett and Wingard’s constant desire to trim the script and the cut on every project. “There was a period where we were just trying to cut the script down, which we always try to do,” Barrett explains. “We always try to pare both the script and the edit down as much as we possibly can. It’s kind of like the overall mission is always, ‘If you can cut something, you should’” (00:16:10).
Though it’s unclear whether Reddick’s character had appeared earlier in the first place, Leland Orser’s role as the father of the Peterson family came close to being completely cut in the editing room. “There was this discussion over whether the family should even have a father, cuz [cutting] it would really trim the script down,” Barrett explains (00:16:10). What ultimately saved the role was that cutting it would have impacted not just the film’s running time, but the relationships between characters. Cutting the role would have made the finished film about a single mother, and Barrett hadn’t had that in mind while writing the script. If he had, he “would’ve written the dynamic, and it would’ve been more about the Dan Stevens character seducing the mom” (00:16:10). What’s more, they “didn’t expect…that Leland was just gonna be so fuckin’ enjoyable…,” explains Barrett. “He’s part of what helps steer the trajectory of the tone of the film at this point” (00:16:10).
As relatively young filmmakers whose careers have definitely taken off in the last few years, they have some advice for new filmmakers that’s probably worth listening to. “If you’re having a good time on set, you might wanna look at what’s going on, cuz you shouldn’t be,” warns Barrett. “You should be stressed out, because you should be trying to get everything perfect.” Similarly, Wingard has noticed that new filmmakers have this feeling like, ‘We’re gonna shoot this movie and we’re gonna have a great time doin’ it. This is gonna be a party.’” Quite simply, Barrett says, “That is not what it’s about” (00:48:05).
But don’t feel too bad if you’ve caught yourself feeling that way. It seems to be a common phase. “By the way, I felt the same way at that age,” admits Barrett. “Yeah, exactly. I did, too…,” says Wingard (00:48:05).
The Guest (2014) | Directed by Adam Wingard | Written by Simon Barrett | Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Sheila Kelley | Commentary by Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett
What do you think? Did you pick up on the Myers/Loomis vibe in The Guest? Did the backstory between David and Major Carver work for you? Do Wingard and Barrett’s comments about new filmmakers remind you of any experiences you’d like to share? Leave some comments below and let us know!