There’s something a trifle off about the dashing young stranger from the moment he walks through the door. Identifying himself as “David,” a soldier who once served with the deceased son of the Peterson family whose house he has now politely infiltrated, this guest has a genial demeanor that masks an inner core as cold as steel. As played by Dan Stevens, the actor who made “Downton Abbey” fans swoon as the late Matthew Crawley (who was killed off when Stevens left the show after Season 3), this ominous visitor is enormously fun to watch, whether he’s seducing the Peterson daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe), with his impossibly sculpted midriff or making ambiguously threatening gestures with a kitchen knife. Though “The Guest,” directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett (the team behind 2013’s home invasion pic “You’re Next”), is marketed as a thriller, it is bound to get more genuine laughs than many of this year’s comedies.
Stevens, Wingard and Barrett spoke with RogerEbert.com about their methods for capturing the right tone, their lessons learned from marketing “You’re Next,” and the appeal of intelligence as a weapon in the arsenal of a modern action hero.
I know many “Downton Abbey” fans who are still wondering what it was about Matthew Crawley that you found limiting as an actor. Was it the period dialect, the uncomfortable costumes…?
Dan Stevens (DS): [laughs] The starch was killing me!
Simon Barrett (SB): He told us he’d rather wear a leather jacket in the middle of a New Mexico summer. [laughs]
DS: No, “Downton” was an amazing experience. It was the first time I had done a long-running format like that. After three years, the option was up and I was faced with the question, “Do I want to stay or should I go?” I had an instinct that I wanted to do some other things and challenge myself a bit more than I had previously. I felt like it was time to do that so I came over [to America] and didn’t know what form those different projects would take. When I did “The Heiress” on Broadway, director Scott Frank saw me in it and gave me a role alongside Liam Neeson in “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” It was much darker territory than I had tried before and I underwent a physical transformation for that. Then I met Adam who suggested a different physical transformation, beefing back up again while staying in similarly dark territory but having a lot of fun with it. It immediately reminded me of all those movies that I loved while growing up. To get to connect with that sense of why I wanted to be an actor was very important to me. I didn’t know it was going to take this particular form.
SB: Well, that and the fact that they were going to make Matthew Crawley a mutant in Season 4. [laughs] One of the things that united us right away is that none of us want to stay in our comfort zones. Adam and I are always trying to make movies that are complete departures from our previous work. I don’t think we’re able to do that completely yet, but we’re still growing and evolving and that’s where we’re trying to push ourselves. Dan is the same way. He responds incredibly well to challenges in a way that I think only the truly great actors do and can. That was something that we related to right away.
Dan told “Entertainment Weekly” that he saw “Kill Bill” multiple times when it first came out, and one thing that Adam and Simon share with Tarantino is the ability to walk that tightrope between satire and palpable tension without diluting either of them.
DS: That’s right, we want to make the tension and violence real and believable and have the stakes very high. Aesthetically the violence must be entertaining and you want to have a sense of fun about it. That’s something Tarantino and Adam and a number of other filmmakers have in common is their desire to celebrate that act of being relentlessly entertained while seated in a giant, dark movie theater with huge speakers pumping out all sorts of crazy noises. That sort of “movie box” experience is really worth celebrating.
Adam Wingard (AW): Our approach to genre and action is always more based on characters than it is on spectacle, in some ways, or at least the spectacle is based on the characters. We try to create a consistency of characterizations and I think that’s what makes a good horror or genre film. You have to believe that the characters have a consistent line of thinking that evolves as the film goes on. The action should take place because the characters make choices based on their own intelligence that is hopefully brought to life as the film moves forward.
One of the delights of the film is how the audience is invited to be “in on the joke” with Dan’s character. We know he has a secret and are able to share that knowledge with him, which brings a great, darkly comic tension to many scenes.
DS: We wanted to tease the audience and be playful with them in terms of their sympathies for the character, while not being too blatant about defining him as a hero or villain. Audiences respond well to that approach because we’re not patronizing them. We’re not abusing their trust. We’re letting them know that we’ll be flipping the [tone] occasionally and we’re not going to tell them when. It may make you laugh and it may also shock and scare you. Predominantly, I think we’re having fun with that sensibility.
SB: That was the experiment. I’m a big fan of Donald E. Westlake, who recently passed away and was a great mystery writer also known as Richard Stark. His script for “The Stepfather” (1987) is incredibly fascinating. In the opening scene, you see Terry O’Quinn killing an entire family. Then he leaves [to find another family], and you know exactly what’s going to happen. It tells you in the first five minutes what’s going to happen next, but it’s nonetheless incredibly suspenseful to watch how it’s going to play out. I don’t think I wanted to emulate that film in any way, but I wanted to attempt something along those lines. The film is called “The Guest,” so I’m not going to insult your intelligence by revealing 50 minutes in that there’s something shady about Dan’s character. It’s more about having Anna start to react to him in different ways initially and then encounter the twists and turns. You know where this is headed to a certain extent, but maybe we can surprise you with some of the twists along the way.
AW: That’s a good point because you really do have to be thinking about how the movie is going to be marketed and how that’s going to effect people’s expectations. I really enjoyed “Hostel,” but that movie had a bit of a misguided approach. The movie has this assumption that the audience is unaware that it’s a horror film, though the filmmakers had to have known that the movie would be advertised that way. So you’re sitting there for about 50 minutes until the first guy gets killed off, and you’ve spent all that time simply waiting for that to happen. I enjoyed the humor of it, but nowadays you can’t approach a movie in that misleading way. “Psycho” did it when it was fresh and you can only do it once.
SB: But at the same time, “Psycho” had a very ambiguous trailer and the marketing strategy was to make audiences promise not to reveal the ending.
AW: I’ve wondered if the initial idea for “Hostel” was that they were going to advertise it as a comedy, but then the distributors lost their nerve.
SB: We even learned a little bit about this firsthand when we were premiering “You’re Next.” No one knew anything about it and that was very intentional. If you didn’t know of Sharni Vinson’s work from “Step Up 3D,” it was supposed to be surprising that her character becomes the protagonist. The script was certainly written that way. Out of all the characters, she talks the least until a certain point. Then we realized after the premiere that the surprise wouldn’t be able to be preserved.
AW: That made it difficult for Lionsgate to advertise the movie because the whole way the movie stands out is based on its twist. So we kind of screwed ourselves over in that sense.
SB: It was a fascinating lesson and I’m still proud of that experiment. I also like the way that Andrew [Droz Palermo] shot it. Sharni isn’t any more prominently featured than the other actors until she takes charge, and then he features her in a much different way, in terms of how she’s portrayed visually. We realized that the experience of the twist was for festival audiences only, and in today’s social media world, that wasn’t a smart way to make a movie.
The surprise for audiences who’ve seen the trailer for “The Guest” will be just how funny the film is. The advertising makes the film look like an alternate, blood-spattered version of Nicholas Sparks’ “The Lucky One.”
SB: We watched the first half of “The Lucky One” before we made “The Guest” as part of our research. Whenever I’ve written a script and something comes out that seems remotely similar, I immediately go see it just to make sure that I don’t have to completely rewrite the movie. At the halfway mark of “The Lucky One,” I figured that I was okay.
You must’ve walked out just before Blythe Danner becomes a sociopath—
SB: [laughs] Yeah, and murders everyone.
My favorite scene in the film occurs in the principle’s office when David stands up for Anna’s brother, Luke, warning that suspending him would be considered a “hate crime.” That’s very tricky subject matter to tackle in a film like this, but you somehow manage to find the right tone.
DS: One of the delights of that scene is that it shows an ultra masculine character defending this young man’s sexual rights. It was such a joyous [combination] of those two things—this ultra-badass Special Ops soldier standing up for gay rights. It was awesome.
SB: The humor in that scene never comes from a place of mockery regarding the people with the least power. It comes from mocking the people of authority, which are the principle and the bullies, and I think that’s generally a pretty good guideline when you’re looking at a joke. Who is this joke on? If the joke is on the person with less power, then maybe the joke is mean. I never really thought about any of that stuff until after the fact, but we wanted it to be a funny scene that also felt realistic in light of the recent [climate] of bullying. We wanted to treat those elements seriously. That scene was never rewritten. The first draft is what ended up getting shot.
AW: When I read the script for the first time, it was that scene and the scene that takes place in the bar that I was most excited to shoot. They just escalate in such a beautiful way, and in a different way than we had ever done before. We never had structured scenes in the way that Simon had structured them here, where they have a real escalation to them. Our films prior to “The Guest” were more focused on the collective trajectory of the story rather than individual scenes.
DS: The other delightful thing about that scene is that the audience has already seen my character deal with a number of conflicts with extreme violence. He enters this situation and, I guess, as an audience member, our anticipation is that he’s going to the kick the s—t out of this guy, slam his head into the desk or grab a knife or something horrendous. Instead, he gets at a principle’s worst fears by bringing up things like “the board,” and utterly destroys this man with logic and a great line of argument.
All of the violence in the scene is verbal.
DS: Exactly, you don’t just want to see a meathead badass kicking ass the whole time. It’s kind of wonderful to see that this person has a brain and is able to construct an argument that can floor a principle.
AW: That’s why we cast Dan for the film in the first place. In the case of movies like “The Expendables 3,” you can see that audiences are sick of the 80s notion that you can become an action hero through martial arts skills or muscles…
Or steroid injections.
AW: [laughs] Yeah, it’s not really about that anymore. It’s about having a fully rounded character.
DS: These things aren’t mutually exclusive.
AW: Intelligence is an important key to a character’s believability, and it shouldn’t limit what they can do physically.
Did you [Dan] draw at all on the comedy you performed with the Footlights at Cambridge back in college when approaching this character?
DS: Yeah, it’s been nice to be able to reconnect with that because that’s where I started out. I happened to do straight plays in college that led to my first professional engagements that got me on a straighter path than I had anticipated. Bringing that black comedy element into “The Guest” was great. There aren’t any out-and-out jokes and gags in the way that there are in “Night at the Museum 3,” but to infuse a film like this with a bit of fun and a sense of humor is delightful. You only have to spend five minutes in the presence of Adam and Simon to realize that they have a great shared sense of humor, and also a warped one. I’m glad you found it funny.