Prior to diving into directing a horror film whose premise almost instantaneously brings to mind the gimmickry of the Saw franchise and its ilk, you might say director David Guy Levy was as hesitant to embrace that undertaking as his film’s characters are about playing their own deadly “game.” Would You Rather (now out from IFC Midnight in limited theatrical release, and On Demand with InDemand, Sundance and iTunes) centers its proceedings on a “How far would you go?” type premise reminiscent of that 2004 film and its redundant sequels. In this case, however, Levy decidedly shifts the film’s focus not on the graphic details of a bad decision (though there’s enough of them to go around), but more so on the motivations that lead to quickly made decisions in the first place.

Levy’s aversion to genre, he explains, quickly became subsumed by Would You Rather’s potential to mine the psyches of a handful of characters in a short span of time, while offering some sly, if slightly incensed, social commentary along the way. Diabolique spoke with Levy about his decision to take on his first horror project; fleshing out character nuances in an ensemble cast; Would You Rather’s underlying subtext; and the relationship between filmmaker and spectator that films about “games” often shape.

DIABOLIQUE: Your producing and directing credits are pretty eclectic. How did you end up delving into a horror project? Were you cautious about what comes with that territory?

DAVID GUY LEVY: I had been for a while. Some good friends who are very talented had been pitching me horror for many months, but I had never been pitched an idea that I thought I could have fun with. For a while, my go-to reaction was to just not look at horror. When Steffen [Schlachtenhaufen] pitched me the idea of Would You Rather, I threw that response out the window, because finally I heard an idea that I could have fun with. We got to bring to the table a voice that doesn’t come with this type of movie. You see Saw or Hostel or people in extreme situations, and they don’t always give their characters a lot of depth, or the story enough mechanics to make it click.

DIABOLIQUE: Whenever you’re using horror to convey those extremes, especially within the framework of a “game,” comparisons to those franchises are inevitable. Were the Saw and Hostel associations difficult to shake since the film has been released?

LEVY: Oh, sure. I think there are people who watched the movie without any interest in seeing it in the first place, and then immediately preferred to lump it in with those movies and move on. We knew going in that this could become one of those movies. That’s why we towed that line, and had no one sitting in bear traps, and no one taking sledgehammers to each other’s heads. We tried to keep it more about the psychology and about the moment of the situation than about the weapons or the blood.

DIABOLIQUE: One of the trickiest balancing acts of Would You Rather is Jeffrey Combs’ ability to bring things back to a place of humor, in spite of the very bleak and depraved nature of what’s at stake. Was Combs “your guy” even before casting began?

LEVY: No – it was funny, he was our last piece of casting. It was a character where we really had high hopes, and were afraid to get our feet wet and just cast it. It got to the point where we just thought we hadn’t found anyone who could do it. Then, Steffen reminded me of Jeffrey’s work, and a light bulb went off. We pulled some YouTube videos, and we immediately saw his work again in front off us, and we looked at each other and we were like “Finally. This is the guy we need.” We went at him the next day, and he responded within a day saying “Sure, I’ll do it. Sounds great.” He truly was the person that we needed. We were a week away from production when we got him, and we were very nervous. The whole movie was riding on this big, flamboyant, evil character that had the glee of a child, and not many people could pull that off. And if they didn’t the whole movie would just fall apart. We got very lucky with Jeffrey.

DIABOLIQUE: His character, Shepard Lambrick, is a scathing critique of the super-wealthy, and how petty the things they choose to do with their money are. How much do you hate rich people?

LEVY: [Laughs] I hate when big, established, comfortable people or places take advantage of people in their situations. Steffen will argue with me on this, but I’ve always thought this is a story of the 99% being taken advantage of by the 1%. He agrees with me, but he also thinks there’s more to it. I think that’s definitely the heartbeat of this. But I also think there are other institutions – there’s corporate America, there’s healthcare. When I think of this movie, I think of insurance companies who are staying there with you, and then when you get cancer, they’re nowhere to be found. So I thought, if you’re in a situation where you really think you can turn to someone and trust that they’re to help you, and then you find out that the last thing that they’re there to do is help you… That was a big theme for me.

DIABOLIQUE: [*SPOILER*] There is that kind of 99 and 1% thing going on, but beyond that, the great irony of the ending comes from the fact that all the people playing this game have embraced absolute individualism, instead of working together. It makes sense that Iris would do what she does, and that her brother would off himself. He thinks he’s doing what’s best for his sister, by taking things into his own hands.

LEVY: Yeah, he’s sick of being dependent. The whole time, we’re thinking about Iris, and about how she’s putting her life on hold for her brother, and how she’s doing all these things and changing her fundamental beliefs, because she’s got a goal, to help her brother. When we were writing this, we weren’t looking to make any twists or anything, but we just thought logically. If they’re that close, and she’s willing to give up everything for him, wouldn’t he be willing to give up anything for her, and let her go back to her life? The fact that she doesn’t tell him that she’s doing this is really the part where she fails, because he thinks [suicide] is the only way out for them, and to let her have her life back – forget about family, forget about him. Being dependent is part of that equation.

DIABOLIQUE: Each character in the film carries a lot of baggage. There’s the sense that some of that is coming through, even when it’s not necessarily spelled out for the audience on screen. Did you go through individual backstories with your ensemble?

LEVY: Yeah. Each one of us would sit down, and I asked all the actors to come up with, or at least work with me to come up with a background for their character and where they’re coming from and why they’re there. Even though we knew we wouldn’t be showing it on screen, I wanted them to have a place to draw on, so they could react in an appropriate way. Sasha had a whole backstory. She has such a limited amount of lines to really get across who she is to the audience that I was definitely beneficial for her to bring her own history, as herself, to the screen. We sort of project our own views of who she is already, but we needed her to go where we could find out who Amy is. So when she was suggested in the casting, her past intrigued me, because I thought it could help the audience get into a position of understanding who she was. Enver had also had one. [Charlie Hofheimer’s character] Travis had gone overseas as a solider; [Eddie Steeples’ character] Cal was in Seattle before he got to the game. I think the only person I didn’t have a backstory for was [June Squibb’s character] Linda. I just assumed everyone would chalk it up to the fact that it had to do with her wheelchair. But I’m sure if you asked her, she had something up her sleeve.

DIABOLIQUE: Apparently there’s already fan fiction circulating based on the film – is that right?

LEVY: [Laughs] Yeah! It’s crazy. I Googled on Friday and found a few of them. It’s the coolest thing that could have happened. My favorite moment of this process is that there is fan fiction involved. One was a Pitch Perfect/Would You Rather mash-up, where Iris goes to college and changes her name to the character in Pitch Perfect, and is explaining to Anna Kendrick where she comes from, and it’s all about the game. And then I saw one where it’s all about Raleigh in his last few days, and the choices he made, what happens to him the night Iris plays the game, and what he goes through. That was the coolest thing ever. Raleigh’s own B-story, playing out in fan fiction.

DIABOLIQUE: Would You Rather seems to be coming from the school of thought that says horror best thrives when designed as a communal experience. Fan fiction is a perfect compliment to that. By forcing your characters to face these circumstances together, you’re implicating the audience in their story as well.

LEVY: When we started working on this, our number one hope was that as the characters started playing the game, the movie would progressed. The audience would not only be thinking and watching along with them, but they would ask themselves what they would do in that situation, and hopefully they would go home and continue those conversations. It’s a game not just for the characters, but for us to play along with them. It’s why I like to watch my friends play video games, and why I like to watch reality television once in a while. I can still project my own choices onto them. When I watch Survivor on television, I think “How would I handle that situation?” When Iris chooses between electrocuting herself or electrocuting someone to the right of her, it’s not just “What would you rather have happen?” It’s “Who do you want to be?” These are the questions we want the audience to be asking themselves.

DIABOLIQUE: There’s a clip out there online in which you tase Eddie Steeples before shooting.

LEVY: [Laughs] Yeah!

DIABOLIQUE: Putting actors through the ringer like that, more of that communal experience you’re describing is bound to take place on set, no?

LEVY: Well, there were times when I thought someone maybe wasn’t jumping as high as they should have – if they were really reacting. There were takes where I’d go behind people with blocks of wood and scare the shit out of them. Just wait for that moment and clap two pieces of wood together and watch them jump, and then we’d get the shot. I went to a military store over the weekend before we shot the “shocking scene,” and I saw a Taser for $30, so I bought it. Whenever someone got “electrocuted” on set, I would set the Taser off. It’s a really loud, overbearing sound. It’s really intense just to listen to. I felt like it really helped the performers get there. With Eddie, it was like “I’m not gonna convince him. I’m not gonna convince him…” And I was just like “I’ll tase you,” totally half-joking. But when he said “Sure,” I was like “This is gonna be the greatest thing ever!” So I took him out of the house, and yeah – gave him a little shock. I got to show that people around to some people who were curious, and I was like “This is what happens!” [laughs].

DIABOLIQUE: So what can we expect from you next? Are you considering more genre work, now that you’ve gotten over the hump?

LEVY: I want to make more movies that are just fun and entertaining. They could be genre. Whatever just gets me excited. Maybe the people who put this out will turn around and say “Hey, can you make another?” and I’d be down for that. This summer, I have a comic book coming out, and all the proceeds are going to go to the Young Storytellers Foundation. It’s called Back to Back to the Future. It’s about what would happen if the creators of Back to the Future went back in time and made sure Eric Stoltz wasn’t replaced by Michael J. Fox. It’s like 150 pages, and it’s pretty cool. Hopefully we’ll make some money for the foundation.

– By Max Weinstein