Interview with Simon Barrett, screenwriter of You're Next

Simon Barrett is one of those screenwriters who seems like he's got "being a writer" figured out pretty well. His work is sharp, clever, funny and unexpected. He's found a director / producer team to collaborate with that's yielding incredible results so far. He's got a film in Midnight Madness, and it's his second year in a row showcasing his work at TIFF. Pretty awesome, right? Last year, Simon was at the festival with A Horrible Way To Die (directed by Adam Wingard, who he partnered with again for You're Next), which played in the Vanguard program. This time, they're in Midnight Madness, but it's not Simon's first time in that program either. In 2004, he penned Dead Birds, a scary movie that takes place in the Confederate-era, and which premiered here at the fest as well. I was lucky enough to get the chance to ask Simon a few questions about his latest project, You're Next, a very unique spin on the home invasion genre, which is premiering at Midnight Madness on Saturday, September 10th.

KG: The dialogue in films you've penned always seems incredibly natural, almost improvised. How much of that is you, and how much is actual improv? How do you feel about your work being changed in the finished product like that?

SB: I really don't understand writers like David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin who like their dialogue to be spoken verbatim. Maybe that's just because I'm not as talented as them, but it seems to me that the reason you cast a good actor is so that they can adjust the lines to fit their take on the character. That's the point of filmmaking, it's inherently collaborative, or at least that's the way Adam and I do it. I enjoy that aspect of production, working with the actors to adjust what's in the script in the moment. That said, the extent to which my dialogue is improvised just depends on the project, the actor, etc. For example, most of the dialogue in YOU'RE NEXT is pretty much as scripted, with some notable exceptions, but I recently wrote a segment of Adam and Joe's anthology film AUTOEROTIC in which the dialogue was entirely improvised and I just came up with the basic story and outline. I think both ways are fine. I try very hard to write clever dialogue that is natural and has a cultivated rhythm to it, but when I fail at that, I then count on having brilliant actors to fix it. And then I take all the credit.

KG: Perhaps related to the question above - you're credited as a producer or co-producer on almost every film you've written. Writer-Producer isn't the commonest of combinations, and I'm wondering why you choose it. Is it just a natural result of making films in a more DIY way with friends/collaborators? Does it allow you to retain more control over your screenplays? Do you want to direct as well?

SB: Ironically, I was just talking with Keith and Jess, the L.A.-based producers of YOU'RE NEXT, at dinner last night about how I don't want to produce any significant projects ever again and they can produce our next few films without any help from me! They were not at all sad to hear this, incidentally. I think I'm an okay producer, but I hate doing it, and I'm a better writer. Producing is a horrible job, it's a huge amount of incredibly stressful work if you do it correctly. Compared to writing or directing, it totally sucks. As you surmised, I originally got into producing my own work so that I could retain creative control and help make the important decisions on casting, locations, crew, and so on. And yeah, when you're making an ultra low budget film like A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, which was shot in my hometown, you just kind of naturally end up doing everything yourself because there's not too many other people around to do it for you. Now that I've cultivated a relationship with producers I trust, I'm throwing in the towel. I'd much rather do solely creative work, and I think I'm decent at it. As for directing, maybe someday. I like directing and editing, and have shot a couple of shorts that I'm proud of, but I've got a great collaborative relationship going with Adam right now, and he's a filmmaking genius. Maybe when I finally drive him into a nervous breakdown and he ends up hospitalized for a few years, I'll be forced to shoot one of my feature scripts myself. Until then, and especially now that I'm done working as a producer on our films, I see my role on our next few productions as sitting around in front of a monitor on set, eating peanut butter cookies and criticizing all of Adam's creative decisions under my breath. I think I'm going to be great at this.

KG: You're a pretty prolific writer - you've written features, shorts, even a YA novel. What's next? A series of paperback crime thrillers? What's your favourite type of writing project to work on?

SB: I loved writing that young adult novel and would absolutely like to write more. Unfortunately, it takes a lot longer to write a novel than a screenplay, and I don't really know anything about getting books published, so I mostly just do it because I feel, I don't know, artistically compelled to or something. Less unfortunately, I have so many film projects I need to finish right now that I'm pretty much totally booked with screenwriting for the next year or so. I'm able to write very quickly, which is a gift that I'm proud of, but I don't have a lot of time for writing just for fun these days. I have several book ideas, including more YA fiction, that I hope to get to before I die, but I literally have six feature scripts I'm currently working on that I'd like to get done by 2012. Maybe in between those I can squeeze in a haiku or an angry postcard to an ex-girlfriend or something.

KG: If I can be permitted to generalize for a moment - I'm often disappointed with how lazily written women are in genre films. You're Next, on the other hand, has some awesome female characters in it. They're strong, funny, well used in the story, and not victimized in lame ways just because they're women. Tell me more about that. Did you set out to make a feminist horror movie or what?

SB: Man, I could write an essay about this. I'll try to be succinct, but the answer is yes and no. Keith made a funny point that we accidentally made a feminist horror film just because none of us secretly hate women, which is rare for a genre project. That about sums it up, I guess, but the genesis of YOU'RE NEXT really came from touring film festivals with A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE and seeing all the genre films we were competing with. It just made me want to do something different. After the Toronto premiere of A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE last year, I got in a friendly debate with a woman I'm close with over whether or not the movie had sexist elements. I don't want to give anything away about that film, but basically she felt that AHWTD's female protagonist could have been more proactive, and I was like, no, that's not taking your characters seriously as real people, which is what screenwriters do all the time when they're trying to be feminist but are really just stupid and untalented. I hate the way most Hollywood screenwriters try to write supposedly tough women, where they're just obnoxiously posturing from the first moment they're onscreen. It kind of got me thinking about how I might try to do something different. Adam and I like to challenge ourselves by taking genre ideas that we think most people approach incorrectly, and then trying to do something original within that paradigm. The goal was never to do anything political, I'm honestly not smart enough for that. I just wanted to be entertaining, and I'm sick of seeing women victimized or portrayed as physically inferior to men in films. I'm not offended by it or anything, it just bores me. Unless it's a film that I shot myself in my bed with a video camera. Then I'm into it. But that's different.

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