'Seance' Director Simon Barrett On Making A Timeless Horror Movie And His NC-17 'Star Wars' Movie Pitch [Interview]

According to Simon Barrett, although he gained a great deal of notoriety as a genre-oriented screenwriter, he's always seen himself as a director who fell into writing thanks to a long-running partnership with director Adam Wingard (Godzilla vs. Kong). With Barrett as writer and Wingard as director, the pair have made a half-dozen films since 2010, including A Horrible Way to Die, You're Next, The Guest, and the 2016 Blair Witch reboot (the two are actively working on both a direct sequel to Face/Off and a film based on the classic '80s animated series ThunderCats).

While Barrett has dabbled in directing over the years — most notably the "Tape 49" segment of horror anthology V/H/S/2 — Seance marks his debut as a feature director. The film is set at a prestigious girls boarding school where one student dies shortly after a prank seance ritual, which may have actually awoken a dead former student who reportedly haunts the halls of the academy. Shortly after the tragedy, a new student arrives, Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse), who is immediately tormented by the school's mean-girl pranksters. But Camille has a secret agenda, fearlessness, and certain abilities that make her capable of defending herself from bullies, would-be killers, and possible ghosts. Rich with atmosphere and dripping in blood, Seance is a present-day story, but one with its roots planted firmly in the rich, decades-old tradition of horror films set in elite girls' schools.

/Film spoke with Barrett to discuss his influences for Seance, his partnership with Wingard, and his idea for an NC-17-rated, Ewoks-centric Star Wars movie.

Hi, Simon. Good to talk to you again. You're releasing Seance in this strange sweet spot where people seem to be back into the idea of watch horror movies with other people again in a theater. Are you feeling that? Do you feel like this is a good time to scratch that itch?

Here's the thing, I've had many experiences in the past where I've felt a horror movie I've done is going to do well, and it does not [laughs]. In fact, I've never had the opposite. Currently, my creative partner, Adam Wingard, is struggling to wrap his head around the fact that he's had a success, which is such an unfamiliar feeling that I think he's honestly more concerned than celebratory. And he and I are just working everyday rather than going on vacations. Obviously, theaters were good for Godzilla vs. Kong, which I could not be happier about. We'll see what that means for a film with 1/100th of the budget. I hope Seance comes out during a window where people are willing to see it in theaters.

At the end of the day, what's nice about being a day-and-date release right now, which normally I wouldn't be enthused about because I'm a big believer that movies were meant to be seen in theaters if you can—that's the best way to see them, that's what they're intended for. At the same time, I know a lot of people who aren't ready to got back into movie theaters, and I know a lot of people who don't like going to movie theaters anyway because they don't like other people. It's a good time, and hopefully the people who are excited to see Seance in a theater will have an option to do it near them, even though I know it's a limited release. And people who don't want to do that can rent it on the VOD streaming service of choice. I'm hopeful that what you say is true, but I've only experienced failure.

Financially, Seance is already a profitable film, which is wonderful, because it's a small film. So I'm looking at it the same way as you: whether or not people are going to see it. The Guest is a perfect example of a film that people seem to think was successful. I think people don't discern from Adam's and my careers is that we're often pivoting from our most recent failure, which turns out several years later to be a success, and that process repeats. So I have no idea. I just hope Seance finds an audience eventually.

You've dabbled in directing over the years, but how long have you been thinking seriously about doing it? And was this screenplay always one you wanted to make yourself?

I genuinely wanted to be a director for as long as I can remember, which, given my history of head injuries, is actually longer than you think. Going back to when I was like five or six and watching movies, I was like "This is what I want to do. I want to make films." I ended up becoming a screenwriter through a lot of convoluted circumstances, but the short version is, I wrote a script called Dead Birds for myself to direct and ended up selling it, which was great because I had no money at the time. So I became a screenwriter, and that's how I met Adam. The better answer is that when I was making those better, small-budget films with Adam, particularly You're Next, the first V/H/S, and A Horrible Way to Die, I was very involved on set, especially on A Horrible Way to Die, which only had a five-person crew—we made that movie for under $100,000. Adam and I were doing everything, and I was doing everything Adam wasn't doing and vice versa. I'd be prepping a location while he's be driving over to it with the cast. It was a crazy way to work, but it was enough to get us You're Next sold.

It was after that, when we started getting bigger budgets, that I was like "It's time for me to think about directing," because I knew Adam was moving on, especially after Blair Witch, and Adam was moving on to Death Note. I'd written Seance around 2014, with the notion that if I wrote a fairly low-budget horror film, I know I could get it made, and that's the type of story I want to tell anyway, and then it took my five years to get it financed [laughs]. But I knew Adam was moving on to bigger and better things, and realistically, clinging to that partnership would have been the wrong move practically, as well as creatively. I wanted Adam to go on and do projects like Godzilla vs. Kong and not feel like he was tethered to me as a partner who he had to bring on studio projects when it would have been non-viable. And conversely, this was the perfect opportunity for me to do what I wanted to do and actually start composing shots and editing sequences—the stuff I don't get to do because Adam happens to be brilliant at it.

The timing both worked out and didn't work out. At the time, it definitely felt like I was struggling to have any career whatsoever, while Adam was ascending. But now in 2021, both our films are coming out. Ironically, Adam finished Godzilla vs. Kong the same week I finished Seance; we were both sound mixing at the same time. And now we've synched up again and have a bunch of projects that we're working on together, but I still hope I get the chance to direct on my own in the future. I think that will always be part of the plan, because there's always stuff Adam wants to do that I don't, and if Adam gets offered a Star Wars movie, where do I fit into that equation? The answer is probably nowhere [laughs], though I have a phenomenal idea for a dialogue-free Ewoks western called Red Endor, and anytime they want to call me up about that, I'm available. Oh, and it would have to NC-17, and that is not negotiable.

That's the headline! What was the toughest part about being the guy in charge of a film for the first time?

It was tough. I knew going into Seance, because of the haphazard, last-minute way we put the financing and cast together, that it was going to be a tough shoot, because we only had 22 days and every school in Winnipeg told us we couldn't film there. I should add that I have a lot of experience, but I wasn't able to bring anyone I'd worked with before onto Seance. The only people I'd worked with before on Seance were Adam, who has an executive producer credit and Jeff Pitts, our sound editor, and Andy Hay, our sound mixer—they did Blair Witch, You're Next, and The Guest. Other than that, my entire crew was new to me, including the director of photography, Karim Hussain, who was an old friend, but everyone was someone basically I'd just met because those were the people I was able to put together who trusted me to make this movie. That was tough, and I was really stressed out making this movie, but I also think there's nothing more unlikable than filmmakers complaining about filmmaking, this blessed job that we're incredibly fortunate to do. The experience of making Seance was miserable, I didn't sleep, it was cold, I threw up a lot but no one saw me do it except Karim, and by the end of it, I was like "That was the greatest experience of my life, and I'd do it again as soon as possible." That's what making a movie is like; it's like forgetting the pain of childbirth, and now a bunch of mothers are mad at me for saying that [laughs].

Horror films set in all-girls schools are a known quantity to film fans. What did you want to do differently than what we'd seen before? And were there certain tropes you wanted to embrace as well?

While horror films in girls' boarding schools are not an unknown proposition, I felt like there hadn't been one in a while. There are a lot of Korean and Japanese ones, but in terms of American films, there's Lucky McKee's The Woods. There haven't a ton in America, though it's debatable how much Seance is even an American film—my cast is almost all Canadian, my financing is British, I was one of three Americans on set. But it's a genre that I love, and the real influences on Seance tend to be older films, thought I would say, in the late '90s, we had this post-Scream, Kevin Williamson/Lois Duncan-influenced era of the new slashers, like the Urban Legends, kind of ending with Valentine, although that's one of my favorites, and that stuff was coming out right when I was trying to become a serious filmmaker and going off to film school. So those were the movies that were shaping my brain because I was consuming a lot of them at the time, and I think I had an early impulse to tell a story like that. I also have a lot of love for traditional murder mysteries. I myself am a licensed private investigator and I've read everything by Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, people like that. That's just what I love and consume, and in a weird way, Knives Out was really good for Seance because it was doing more of the murder mystery angle on a slasher, which I was able to say to my financiers "Look, people like that," although I doubt Seance will do the same numbers [laughs]. Those have been the genres that I've been obsessed with since I was a kid, and with my first movie, I wanted to get that out of my system.

It's interesting you bring up the fact that a lot of your influences are older ones, because until someone pulls out a cel phone fairly deep into the movie, I couldn't tell what decade it took place. It has a period vibe to it. Was that deliberate?

Yeah, absolutely. I wanted Seance to have a timeless look, and what I mean by that is, I wasn't going to anything cultivated or strange, because movies that take place in unclear time periods, I sometimes find that distracting. So I knew I wanted it to be modern film, in terms of the characters' language and cel phones, but I didn't want them to do anything that would date the movie if you watched it 30 or 40 years from now, and that meant, adhering to old technology sometimes. I believe we got the last microfiche in Canada for Seance. It was the last functional microfiche machine in existence, but I knew I wanted a microfiche machine instead of a computer, because it felt like that's what they would have there. So working with Mars Feehery, our production designer, and Karim, all of the reference points I gave them were from older materials, films like What Have You Done to Solange? and José Ramón Larraz's Symptoms, that have an older look to the photography. And part of that was just me trying to figure out how we were going to make this look unique and good with very few resources.

Ultimately, one of the reasons I knew I wanted to shot in Winnipeg was because I knew we had access to old buildings with old wood and certain architecture that would more match the Gialli and Gothic-adjacent slashers that were my personal obsessions growing up. So absolutely, I didn't want the dialogue or anything on screen feel too much like it was set in 2021, and to me, the best way to do that was to not to anything too specific but just always lend it towards the more classical, fashioned look. At the same time, if I'd set this movie in the 1970s, which I could have easily done, that would have felt pointlessly pretentious and also maybe I'd be making it inaccessible to modern audiences just for my own idiosyncratic reasons, so I didn't want to go in that direction either.

I've always heard that making a film a period work makes it 10 times more difficult, even if it's a recent decade.

I'm sure that's true. I could have set Seance in the '80s, but then all of the wall outlets would have been wrong, and then suddenly the movie's budget would have quadrupled, so I'm sure you're correct.

Simon, great talking to you again. Best of luck with this.

Thanks a lot, man.


Seance is currently available in theaters, on demand and digital.