For fans of the horror genre, the relationship between the audience and the characters on screen usually falls into a bittersweet irony. Horror is often times at its most effective when in the realm of unadulterated voyeurism, and yet so many times the genre is polluted with illogical characters, often times played off with stereotypes that are barely identifiable within the real world. And as time progresses and movie monsters become more reliant on CGI, these characters remain the same, or even worse, diluted to fit the expectation of what studio filmmaking believes young, relatable people to look and sound like.
This reason is one of many that indicate the breath of fresh air within the horror genre that comes along with You’re Next. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett present a family in a horror film that feels realistic within their personal horror, and as the story begins to unwind and secrets drift to the surface, it’s these characters that further keep the film grounded and all the more suspenseful. Among these characters is Drake, the compulsively smartass older brother played with an enjoyable unrepentant nature by Joe Swanberg. As we get to know this family, it’s Swanberg that is often the catalyst for the breaks in the chain and the trust issues that permeate through the rest of the film, and Swanberg steals moments throughout the first act with relative ease as he dishes out insults with an irresistible smarm that’s as painful as it is hilarious. For Diabolique’s YOU’RE NEXT week, Swanberg spoke to Diabolique about his character, his dialogue and what You’re Next means to jaded horror fans…
DIABOLIQUE: This is your second acting collaboration with Adam, following your role in A Horrible Way to Die. As an actor, was there any difference in your approach for that role as opposed to the role of Drake in You’re Next?
JOE SWANBERG: Well, yeah. I think they’re very different films. While A Horrible Way to Die was leaning more towards the drama-sphere and was tackling some more serious issues, You’re Next is a really scary, really fun different kind of movie. Amy [Seimetz] and AJ [Bowen], who were in A Horrible Way to Die, are also in You’re Next, and I think all of us felt the need to step up our game and make a much more action packed and bring a different kind of attitude to the film.
DIABOLIQUE: As someone who transitioned between A Horrible Way to Die and You’re Next, did you notice any differences in Adam Wingard’s directorial style between the films?
SWANBERG: Yeah, [Adam] stepped up his game, too. I have to say I was very impressed with him. He’s been a friend of mine for a long time and we’ve worked together on a lot of movies, and to see him at work on You’re Next was really incredible. I saw Adam come into his own and take command of that production. You know, there was a lot of work to do since it’s a big film and there’s a ton of action set pieces and a lot of moving parts, and Adam was really incredible. It was inspiring to see Adam handle that so effortlessly. It was a big inspiration to me, actually.
DIABOLIQUE: Even though You’re Next is a violent film by nature, it’s actually extremely intellectual and logical in its depiction of violence. For instance, the characters in the film who are the most violent are the ones most accustomed with it whereas much of the family is somewhat helpless, including Drake. Was this character’s sense of vulnerability an attractive quality when selecting the role?
SWANBERG: Yeah, definitely. I think Simon Barrett is such a good writer. I had the pleasure of directing something he wrote for V/H/S and I had a really good chance to see him work and collaborate with him in that way. But I’ve read a lot of scripts at this point in my life, and when I was reading the script for You’re Next, I was laying in bed, pumping my fist and cheering. I just thought it was so good.
When they asked me to play Drake, I was really excited. You’re Next is a movie that I could tell was going to be a massive hit. So it was great; [Drake] is a really fun character and very different from anything I’ve been able to do before. It was cool to step into this movie and be a part of this big ensemble family.
DIABOLIQUE: Well, fans of yours know you as not only an actor but also as a director, which at times can complicate a performance because you may be more aware of your choices and processes as an actor. Did you ever get the impulse to portray Drake more proactively or resourceful than how he was written?
SWANBERG: No, definitely not. I loved that [helpless] aspect about him. I pictured Drake as almost like a bully. In this family dynamic, he really picked on his siblings and was this really aggressive, bullying character but then when things go wrong, it’s interesting that he’s suddenly helpless in that way. That was really fun, and that was one of the dynamics of my role that I liked best about it.
DIABOLIQUE: Considering the arc that your character takes over the course of the film, were you ever worried that the more somber elements of the story would be incongruous to the otherwise fun and fast-paced aesthetic in the film’s second half?
SWANBERG: Not really. I think that’s one of the things that audiences are responding to in the film. You’re Next is different from all of the other home invasion movies and I think Adam and Simon are a lot smarter than that, so I think the fact that the movie can not only be super scary and action-packed but also still have room for real human emotions is a great credit to it and their filmmaking.
DIABOLIQUE: Was there anything specifically that inspired your performance, especially in terms of how you reacted with the family, or did the performance come naturally to you?
SWANBERG: That came naturally. One of the fun things about working with actors is that not only do you prepare your character and do your research, but when you get on set and start making the movie, anything can happen and those dynamics change. A lot of what you see in the finished film comes out of Adam, as a director, giving us space to play around a little bit, improvise a little bit and craft a family dynamic that feels fresh and real.
DIABOLIQUE: You play the more outwardly confrontational of the brothers in the film and many of your scenes often ramp up the humor of You’re Next with the penchant for sarcastic dialogue and the rapport you have with AJ and Ti. Were you at all flexible on-set with the insults that you throw in the film or were they outlined in the script?
SWANBERG: [The rapport] was a lot of improvisation, especially the stuff with Ti and AJ. Simon had written the dynamic in there, like the aggression that Drake has with them, but we all know each other very well. Ti West is a friend that I’ve had for a very long time and collaborated with a lot. Through Adam and Simon’s work, this was my second time working with AJ, so I think we were able to push each others buttons in a really fun way because there was a history there.
DIABOLIQUE: Adding on to that, were you at all working with Adam, Simon, AJ and Ti to make sure that these improvised barbs never became too personal or were the insults fair game as any real offense would add to the drama of the scene?
SWANBERG: I think [the insults] was pretty fair game. Simon and Adam have a really great working relationship, and Simon’s script was really bold and complete but he’s really good about not inserting himself too much on set. You know, most of the notes and the stuff that Simon would be giving were in between days, where he’d be modifying things and adjusting things. Once we got going and the energy was there, it was kind of a free-for-all on those days. With that big dinner table scene near the beginning of the film, I remember that being really fun to shoot because we really had a lot of freedom.
DIABOLIQUE: 2013 has undeniably been a banner year for the horror genre, with successes such as Mama, The Purge, The Conjuring and World War Z playing to huge audiences around the world, and even succeeding on a creative level as well. As someone versed in the genre, do you think there’s a specific reason why audiences are being more receptive to horror? Do you think You’re Next is going to raise the bar for future home invasion films?
SWANBERG: Absolutely. I think we’re seeing across the board that audiences are being very selective this summer and they’re choosing to get behind films that are original and exciting. It’s very encouraging for me as not only an actor but as a director. It’s really great to see that the same old crap isn’t going to fly summer after summer.
I think people are going to absolutely respond to You’re Next, and I think one of the reasons why it’s going to resonate with people is because it’s smarter and scarier than most horror movies. It’s so well written and the violence in the film is such an integral to the story, and You’re Next is so well photographed. I mean, audiences are smart; they’ve seen a lot of movies and they know when they’re seeing something new and when they’re not. We already came from film festivals and early screenings just how well audiences have responded to You’re Next, and that’s going to continue when it comes out.
DIABOLIQUE: You’re going to be reuniting with AJ and Amy on Ti West’s next directorial effort, The Sacrament. From what’s been released about the film already, you and AJ both play investigative reporters who answer a distress call from a close friend who is in a cult. How is the relationship between your and AJ’s characters compared to the contentious relationship you’ve had in both You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die?
SWANBERG: In The Sacrament, [AJ and I] finally get to play characters that don’t hate each others guts. That’s all I’ll say. At this point, we’ve had a nice, long tradition of going at it on screen and I think when people see The Sacrament, audiences will finally see AJ and I not totally going at each other.
DIABOLIQUE: The Sacrament, from what we’ve been told, is a found footage film and one of the obstacles in doing a found footage film is the limitations towards portraying dialogue. Obviously, for an ultra-realistic portrayal of a character, the dialogue can’t be as meditative or theatrical as a straightforward narrative. Would you say that The Sacrament has a larger element of dialogue than Ti West’s previous tension-centric films?
SWANBERG: I don’t think so. I actually haven’t seen The Sacrament so I can’t give you a full answer to that, but from doing the film and being there, it’s very scary and atmospheric. I don’t remember it being a really “talky” movie, but I have to see it. I’m hoping to catch it at one of the festival premieres.
DIABOLIQUE: When we spoke last for our V/H/S retrospective, you mentioned that you have your next directorial film, Drinking Buddies, debuting this weekend as well and then around the holiday season you have Happy Christmas coming out. Do you have any other upcoming projects in the wings?
SWANBERG: I do! I have a film called 24 Exposures that debuted at the Fantasia Film Festival on August 4th that actually stars Adam and Simon. It’s sort of an erotic thriller where Adam plays an erotic photographer and Simon plays a private detective. It very much lives in the genre world, so keep your eye out for that.
DIABOLIQUE: That project sounds really interesting and definitely to twist the dynamic you had for You’re Next. Is there anything else you can tell us about that project?
SWANBERG: I’m happy to talk about it, but it hasn’t formally released so I don’t want to give away everything. It’s based on Cinemax/Showtime late night erotic thriller stuff from the early ‘90s. I feel that people have stopped making those kinds of movies. So Adam, Simon and I really dove in and tried to recreate that vibe. The film also stars Sophia Takal, Helen Rogers who was in my V/H/S segment and Caroline White. So it’s a really cool cast of great, young actors.
DIABOLIQUE: If You’re Next takes off and people are receptive to the film and your performance, is the horror genre an avenue that you want to continue to pursue as an actor or director or are you more inclined to stick to the comedy world where you developed your talents and continue to thrive?
SWANBERG: I love horror movies, so I’m hoping that throughout my career I’ll be able to keep making stuff in. I don’t have any immediate plans to do any horror things, but I’m certainly always thinking about it and I’ve got my eye out for those projects. Hopefully in the next couple years, I’ll have another chance.
You’re Next, starring Swanberg, Sharni Vinson, AJ Bowen, Rob Moran and Barbara Crampton invades theaters from Lionsgate this Friday, August 23rd. For more information on You’re Next, you can visit its official website, like its official Facebook or follow the film on Twitter: @lionsgatehorror. For more from Joe Swanberg, visit JoeSwanberg.com or you can follow him on Twitter: @joe_swanberg. As mentioned, Drinking Buddies will be on VOD, iTunes and Amazon on July 25th and in theaters August 23rd from Magnolia Pictures, and Swanberg can be seen in A Horrible Way to Die and the first V/H/S, both currently available on DVD/Blu-ray and Netflix Instant Streaming.
Don’t forget that this week at Diabolique Magazine is YOU’RE NEXT WEEK, and we will have our exclusive chats with AJ Bowen and Barbara Crampton coming soon before our review of the film, featured in Diabolique #17, dropping on our website this Friday. To see our previous interview with Adam Wingard for YOU’RE NEXT WEEK, you can find it here.
For more on Joe Swanberg, Lionsgate and You’re Next, keep checking back here at DiaboliqueMagazine.com! Don’t forget to pick up Diabolique #17, available now for iPad/iPhone at the App Store, and will be on shelves and for other digital platforms this week, which features exclusive comments from Adam Wingard on You’re Next as well as an early look at our official review for the film!
– By Ken W. Hanley