To tell the story of Adam Wingard, we must first introduce Evan Katz (E.L. Katz). Katz has been working in the genre since 2007. He finally received his big break this year with Cheap Thrills. His first feature as a director has already won the SXSW Audience Award and The Gold Hugo from the Chicago International Film Festival – not to omit other various underground fests as well. Wingard’s story begins with a friendship that was formed many years ago.
Katz and Wingard met many years ago while attending a trade school in Florida. Katz was under the impression that the rest of his life would be fueled by concerts and paid in roadie gigs. His outlook changed when Wingard and him became friends. Wingard had always known that he would be a filmmaker or die trying. They shared a love for horror that became a benchmark for their future plans.
Once they were both finished with school, they parted ways. When Katz grew restless he called Wingard, who told him to come live on his couch and they could make a film together. Katz agreed to stay with him. He wrote the script for Home Sick and they set out to brave new territory.
Wingard’s first foray is riddled with issues. Due to his persistence, he was able to cast Bill Moseley, Tiffany Shepis, and Melissa George. It was made on 35mm with a skeletal union crew. Some would say he was out of his depth, but the film plays as a gory send-up to Herschel Gordon Lewis. It is a slick and sleazy exploitation film transported directly from the 1970’s. The biggest problem Wingard faced was the union crew and the editor – none of them took him seriously.
Needing a break and some extra money, Katz and Wingard decided to write an article for Fangoria. They drove out to the set of Dead Birds to write coverage. What they found there was more important than the words they were paid for. They met Simon Barrett, a screenwriter, who would eventually change both of their lives.
Katz and Barrett moved to Hollywood to write screenplays while Wingard struggled with Home Sick. The film was virtually panned by everyone. Its lack of success did not deter Wingard, instead he used his first film as a learning experience. While helping his friend, actor Lane Hughes, cope with a terrible breakup he came up with the initial idea for his sophomore feature.
With Pop Skull, Wingard set out to make a true no-budget film. He called Katz to write the script. Between Katz, Wingard, and Hughes the psychedelic ghost story took shape. Katz enlisted the help of his brother Peter to assist with the film’s initial budget of $2,000. Wingard wanted to steer clear of unions, so he did it all. He was DP, editor, sound designer, and director all rolled into one.
Pop Skull is not strictly a genre film, but they realized horror would be the best market for it. The film follows Daniel (Lane Hughes) as he descends into a Robitussin induced hell. Daniel’s girlfriend breaks up with him and he begins taking over-the-counter medication to escape the pain. This leads to a difficulty in distinguishing reality from nightmare. He believes his house is haunted, but it could be just a bad Robo-trip. The ghosts featured in the film share the pain and suffering that Daniel is experiencing. Pop Skull works by leading you into this disjointed world through a frenzy of images created to cause disorientation. The story remains simple, yet the film’s effects on your psyche keep you intrigued. Once Wingard was finished with a rough cut of the film, he felt that something was missing. He wanted to dive deeper into the drug-induced hallucinations, but it was an experience he never had before. Immediately, he grabbed for cough syrup and cold medicine, waited for the effects to kick in, and began editing. The result is a film that closely resembles the foggy thinking of a brain on Sudafed.
Within the strobe-lights and avant garde editing there is also a film within a film. The vampire film shown in Pop Skull was titled Evil Whispers and Katz directed it. During the production Wingard, Katz, and Hughes believed that it may be their only chance at creating an experimental film. The script was not traditional in any way and left a lot of room for improvisation. Since Wingard and Hughes did not have day jobs, they were able to shoot whenever and however they wanted. All of them knew the film was a gamble. In the end it paid off. Pop Skull got them into the festival circuit and it was there Wingard met Joe Swanberg.
Years after Katz had ran off with Simon Barrett to become Hollywood screenwriters, Wingard reconnected with them. Together, the three of them composed A Horrible Way To Die. Katz was an associate producer, Barrett wrote the words, and Wingard directed. Swanberg agreed to play a part and even brought Amy Seimetz to Wingard’s attention. They needed someone interesting to play the serial killer and they were all fans of The Signal so they called upon AJ Bowen. A Horrible Way To Die was another ultra-low budget film shot on digital. The film was, at its core, a drama, but also reached deep into the realm of horror.
A Horrible Way To Die shows a maturity that Wingard was progressing toward, but it is Barrett’s words that helped him to achieve it. The film could have been just an escaped killer in pursuit of his ex-girlfriend. Wingard and Barrett provide a deeper story about trust, relationships, and addiction. Sarah, played magnificently by Amy Seimetz, is a broken woman. She wasn’t all together when she was with Garrick (Bowen) but at least had the security of a semi-loving relationship. Sarah spent most of her time boozing and now blames herself for not seeing the signs. Her own partner was a prolific serial killer in the style of Ted Bundy, and had she realized it, she could have saved a lot of lives.
Told through a mixed up chronology, the film reveals the past of the characters in a way that draws you deeper into their current world. Garrick Turrell became the next famous serial killer when Sarah turned him in. He received fan mail and marriage proposals, but couldn’t get Sarah out of his mind. Bowen plays Turrell like a wounded angel. Though he is responsible for the heinous deaths of many women, he’s never unhinged and his demeanor is one that you almost sympathize with. Kevin (Swanberg) is the third in the triangle. Sarah and Kevin met in AA and find comfort and support with each other. Kevin vows to keep her safe when they hear that Garrick has escaped. Once the three main characters are established, the film plays out like a subdued opera till its climactic ending.
Some time after A Horrible Way To Die went through the film festivals, Swanberg asked Wingard if he would like to spend the year on his couch. This was not a metaphor, he literally wanted Wingard to stay with him as he embarked on his most productive year. Swanberg was finally finished with Silver Bullets and decided to dive into as many projects as he could. Their first film together was Autoerotic, which Wingard co-directed. Swanberg brought in Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Shiel, and Ti West. Wingard brought in his old friend Lane Hughes. Together they all formed the Next Wave troupe.
After Autoerotic, Wingard helped Swanberg with Art History, The Zone, and Marriage Material. During this time Wingard was also prepping two of his own films: What Fun We Were Having and You’re Next. Swanberg, in-turn, helped Wingard. What Fun We Were Having is another anthology film. While Autoerotic went for a bit more comedy, What Fun became a rather somber film.
What Fun We Were Having started off as a short film. Wingard created a fifteen minute segment and asked Barrett if he should cut it down to the average seven minutes for a short film or create three more segments for a feature. They decided to go the anthology route. Wingard brought in Katz to write a segment and had Barrett create the last section. The film features AJ Bowen, Lane Hughes, and Joe Swanberg. Wingard set out to do a film about date rape and this theme links the stories together. The film provides a gambit of emotional responses by mixing elements of a straight-forward drama, absurdest horror, and realism. This is still the most difficult film in Wingard’s filmography to find.
During What Fun, Wingard provided Barrett the germ for their next collaboration. The result was You’re Next. The initial idea was simple; a home-invasion film like no other. Barrett took the idea and ran with it. Wingard gathered the troupe along with AJ Bowen, Barbara Crampton (From Beyond, Re-animator), Larry Fessenden, Rob Moran, and another old friend L.C. Holt (Pop Skull, Home Sick). Together they embarked upon an intelligent slasher film without direct homage.
You’re Next denies most stereotypes/cliches found in the slasher genre while keeping its base formula. Fessenden and Sheil are the first to be murdered in the film’s prologue. The words, “You’re Next,” are scrawled in blood on the window – which reminded me of “aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the lights.” Once we’ve established the first kill and the tone for the rest of the film, it is time to meet our characters-in-peril. First we meet the mother and father, then the rest of the clan. Most slashers feature teens simply because horror tends to be an adolescent cash cow. When the teens show up they are caricatures i.e. “the virgin,” “the whore,” “the athlete,” and “the fool” – thanks Cabin In The Woods for putting it so plainly. Here, each character is a fully written person with complexity and back story. These attributes make the family dynamic more interesting and even provides brief interludes of comedic flourishes. Even though we’ve seen the formula before, Wingard and Barrett make the film seem like a new discovery.
While You’re Next awaited its slated release, Wingard and Barrett went on to more anthology films. The origin of V/H/S comes from its many producers. Among them were Brad Miska of Bloody Disgusting and Roxanne Benjamin. Benjamin is the brain behind the development and acquisitions department of Snoot Entertainment. Part of Benjamin’s job entails traveling the festival circuit seeking out good genre fare for Snoot. During her travels, she met most of the Next Wave filmmakers. She knew the films they were making defied the current horror trends and emphasized character over gore. After the umpteenth found-footage film, she began to get frustrated in the fad. She was so furious, in fact, that she began drumming up her own idea. She knew that filmmakers like Wingard, West, and Swanberg were not exactly fans of the found-footage trend, so she offered them the challenge to transform what they hated. She wanted their talents to help create something completely new within the sub-genre. The result is best described by V/H/S’ premiere at Sundance: audience members passed out, a case of violent food poisoning spread, and the distribution deals were made in hospital rooms.
In V/H/S, Wingard directed the creepy wraparound – “Tape 56.” This short features Lane Hughes, Kentucker Audley, Wingard, and Barrett. The success of V/H/S lead to its sequel – again produced by Benjamin and Miska. In V/H/S 2, Wingard’s segment “Phase 1 Clinical Trials” provides an interesting segue into point of view shooting. Wingard’s eye has been replaced by a camera that allows him not only to see, but also record the events of his daily life. The camera begins to pick up images that may or may not really exist. Though the short evokes a supernatural element, it also feels like a tip of the hat to H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond.” When you read into the short as a Quantum Physics parable, the story is even more terrifying.
Wingard and Barrett also contributed to ABC’s Of Death – produced by Drafthouse Films connoisseur of the eclectic Tim League. Their segment “Q is for Quack,” actually stars Wingard and Barrett as themselves. The are filmmakers struggling to come up with a “Q” short. They decide to kill a duck, but when they cannot go through with it, they accidentally kill each other. Their short plays for a comedic effect and marks the only short in the anthology that is playfully self-referential.
As you head out to buy You’re Next this week, you can rest assured that Wingard and Barrett are still hard at work. Both of them star in Swanberg’s 24 Exposures, which is gearing up for the festival circuit. And, last week Wingard and Barrett mailed out their newest film, The Guest, in time for Sundance. For The Guest, Wingard is using a whole new crop of actors. Let us hope they will all be the new faces of Next Wave horror.
From his huge first feature, to experimenting with cough syrup, to attending the unofficial Joe Swanberg film school, to his friendship with Simon Barrett, Wingard is constantly evolving. His films question genre barriers while keeping in spirit the elements of horror. Wingard’s films are all vastly different, but like West and Swanberg, they all focus on very human characters placed in situations of peril. When Erin (Sharni Vinson) in You’re Next, is making it her business to thwart the home-invasion, we know why and we cheer at her decisions rather than cringe. While we may not agree with Daniel (Lane Hughes) medicating himself into a nightmare in Pop Skull, we can feel his pain. The Next Wave filmmakers are making an impact in horror because they are creating intelligent genre bending films with characters we can relate to. This allows these films to transcend the normal body count flicks and the endless stream of remakes.
Photo Source: Shaun Huhn modified from a Publicity Photo.