One of the hits of Midnight Madness this year, during the Toronto International Film Festival, was director Adam Wingard’s, and writer Simon Barrett’s The Guest, a twisted, funny, clever action and horror hybrid that stars Dan Stevens and Maika Monroe.
Stevens plays David, a former soldier who appears on the doorstep of the Peterson family, who are still grieving the death of their son, Caleb. David tells the Peterson’s that he promised Caleb that he would come and check up on them, so he’s in town to pass on Caleb’s final words to them, and help them any way that he can. Anna, played by Monroe, is skeptical of David, but he continues trying to prove himself. The trouble is that David really is hiding something, and it won’t be long before the family finds out the truth about their friendly stranger.
On the last Saturday of the film festival, I sat down to interview Stevens and Monroe about the film, their favorite moments, and everything else that they wanted to share about working on this intense film. What is hard to capture in an article was the way that Stevens and Monroe bantered back and forth during the interview. They had a wonderful chemistry that was funny, playful, and friendly.
The Guest opens at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto today, October 17. Watch the trailer here.
One warning, however, is that the interview does contain spoilers, so read on with caution.
Question: My first question is, have you seen their films before…
Dan Stevens: “Yeah.”
Q: My second question is, once you’re working with them, what’s it like delving into their very unique style of filmmaking?
Dan: “Their twisted little minds.”
“Yeah, it’s delightful. I think they’re very, very special filmmakers, if only for their playfulness. I mean, there’s a lot of other things that I think they can be commended for, but I really enjoy witty filmmaking and films that entertain an audience–don’t patronize them but kind of play with them a little bit, and leave them asking questions–and I think that keeps you engaged.”
“You think you’re watching a particular kind of genre, and they’ll always throw something that kind of flips that expectation a bit.”
Maika Monroe: “I mean, yeah, you covered it.”
Q: One of the things that we just talked about, with Adam and Simon, is that they were looking for people who could get their brand of humour. What’s it like working within the parameters of following the script, but you have to make it believably funny without going over the top with it… unless you’re carrying kegs, in which case…
Maika: [Laughs] “Then, you don’t have to do much. You just hold the kegs.”
Dan: “What do you think, Maika?”
Maika: “Yeah, what do I think?”
“Going into the audition process, I mean, we both read the scripts, finding it very humorous, and seeing their past work–kind of understanding what they wanted to do with it–and they have such a specific style, which is so cool. Very unique and refreshing. So, for me, I just saw this girl as having a very dry sense of humour that I think would play very well off of this very charming guy.”
“So we had so much fun on set with Adam and Simon, and Simon has a very dry sense of humour too, and both of them are hysterical. They bring in a huge aspect of it, and just playing around, having a good time on set, I think it just kind of came to life.”
Dan: “I think a lot of the humour comes from context, as well. I think there’s not so many gags and kind of jokes in the movie as there is this kind of delightful surprises, or these weird beats and moments that just made me smile just reading [the script] and shooting it.”
“A lot of the time we’re playing things pretty straight, but in the context of the film and maybe with the soundtrack that’s laid over it, it becomes a lot more humorous, and so that’s all really part of the playfulness really of it I think.”
Q: What is Adam’s style of directing and how did he get you from being a nice, polite guy to being an action badass?
Dan: “That was the arc we wanted to earn, and I think the ridiculousness of the ending, you know, we tried to earn that by rooting the character–and a lot of the characters are family, really in one or two realities at the beginning–and have this start from a relatively calm, pleasant and real space, and then take it somewhere batshit crazy.”
“I don’t think we wanted to start in this zany universe. We wanted to get there by increments. A lot of it was sitting down with Adam beforehand, really, and kind of establishing what those realities were.”
“David is an excellent soldier. He was, before his military conditioning, a very, very charming, nice man, and also a great friend to Caleb–the family’s son–and that he was genuinely back to honour a promise that he would look after the family, check-in on them, and help them out. Now, of course, he goes about that in a slightly unorthodox way, but that was the premise from which we wanted to start.”
“Here are the rules for this family: this family is in mourning, this guy is here to help, and go, you know? That’s sort of how we started. So we worked on that with Adam very much beforehand so that, by the time we got on set, we could have a little play-around and certainly towards the end there was a certain dial in terms of how insane and how straight we played things, and we did a few takes that were a little more–you know, there was a kind of Shining mode, I think, that we sort of, we got in to. Probably by the Halloween maze stage, there’s some pretty crazy takes that ended up making it into the movie.”
Q: Maika, do you want to expand on what Dan said?
Maika: “I’m sorry, what else can I say?”
Dan: “I’m sorry, I’m talking too much. I had too much coffee. I’m sorry.”
Maika: “No, it’s good, it’s good.”
Dan: “Just say, ‘What Dan just said.'”
Maika: “Yeah, everything that he said.”
Q: The family dynamic is very interesting, and they all have a very different reaction to your character as a person, which is very believable. So, what’s it like playing that from both sides?
Maika: “Like Dan said, we wanted to create a believable family, a family that’s grieving–I lost my brother–and so for him coming in, I’m not going to like him. He’s trying to take the place of someone that’s gone, so creating that frustration–that comes from a very real place that is definitely believable because, you know, you want the audience to be drawn in from the beginning; you want them on your side–so, I think that’s where we started. That’s where the base was.”
Dan: “And from my perspective, obviously David moves very much at his own tempo, but another thing that we wanted to establish–that I did establish with Adam–was this kind of mission-by-mission guy. He goes into every situation, analyzes exactly what’s going on, checks all his exits, and works out who he, if anybody, needs to kill.”
“Every scene has that going on. And most of the scenes he doesn’t need to kill anyone, but sometimes he does. He’s going to get this mission completed. So he’s there to help Luke with the bullies–he goes about that very efficiently. He help’s the father get the promotion in a very twisted way. And also, he fills a hole in the mother’s life really, and she’s obviously grieving, and he offers some strange comfort to her.”
“Anna is his toughest challenge, I think that is really what drives a lot of the intrigue for a lot of the film really. Really, how is he going to get this girl on-side? He tries a number of different tacks, and so that was really a great challenge in itself. Each one of these characters, working out David’s most efficient way of getting these people on-side. Luke was pretty easy. He seems to go along…”
Maika: “With anything.”
Q: Well, everyone else, aside from Maika’s character, has something you can offer them, but she seems independent enough that there’s not much you could offer her.
Maika: “What can I say?”
Dan: “Maybe. Maybe. But ultimately, something I think we were talking about earlier, Anna’s at an interesting point in her life. That adolescent tipping point. A difficult age. A phase.”
Maika: “That phase, you know, that teens go through.”
Dan: “She’s got way more potential than [her boyfriend] has, and she’s going places, and she’s bright, and he’s not. She’s just at that point where a young girl really needs to be empowered, and in a very weird and twisted way, that’s sort of what David does. Anna is empowered by the end of this movie.”
“But I’m not saying this is a right-on feminist film, necessarily, but sisters are doing it for themselves in this film.”
Maika: “That is true.”
Q: Did you have a favorite scene in the film? Considering the range of action and drama, was there one in particular that was fun or different?
Dan: “I enjoyed the scene in the truck with Anna after the party. I think that is almost mission complete for David, in terms of winning her around a little bit and especially after the sort of weirdness of that party–the kind of strange turn that party takes. It’s kind of a sweet scene really.”
Maika: “It’s one of the only sweet scenes. [Laughs]”
Dan: “Anna kind of opens up a little bit, and they talk about music and the mixed tape, which becomes a key part of the story. It’s such a curiously sweet scene in such an insane film.”
Maika: “For the first time you’re kind of seeing a different side of Anna too. She’s finally opening up just that little bit to David. It’s quite a nice scene. The only. [Laughs]”
Dan: “The calm before the storm. [Laughs]”
Q: So if that was the best scene, what about the worst?
Dan: “Well. [Laughs]”
Maika: “Oh, I have mine. I have mine like that. [Laughs]”
“Well, you know. The clowns.”
“The maze scenes were shot in a real… a family there, year round, has this haunted maze–bit odd, when you think about it. Middle of the desert; disturbing.”
“So we’re shooting in this. All these different sections–there’s a clown area, where you have to walk through really disturbing looking clowns. Everyone on set knew that I hated clowns–hated them. Like, I’m terrified. Now everyone’s going to know. Anyway, they decide to put people dressed as clowns that are going to be moving robotically, but they didn’t tell me. They recorded it too.”
Dan: “It’s going to be on the DVD extras; I sincerely hope that it will.”
Maika: [Laughs] “And, anyway, clowns jumped out at me and I just go running. ‘Get me out of here! Get me out of here!’ It was honestly terrifying, and now I can kind of laugh about it, but oh my God, I was honestly scared.”
Q: So no clown horror for you down the road?
Maika: “Absolutely not.”
Dan: “No remake of [Stephen King’s] It?”
Q: What about you, Dan?
Dan: “Weirdly one of the toughest scenes to shoot, kind of because of when we shot it more than anything else, was just the opening shot of David running on the road. Which they just seemed to want to shoot endlessly. Over and over again, with this rucksack on, and they were just in this little buggy running along this dirt road, and they’re like ‘Keep running!'”
“Yeah, thankfully you never see my face in that shot because I was pretty pissed off by that stage.”
Q: Dan, what was it like coming from Downton Abbey to The Guest, and Maika, what comes next?
Dan: “How was Downton Abbey for you, Maika? Did you enjoy being on Downton Abbey?”
Maika: “I was going to answer it for you. [Laughs]”
Dan: “No, I was very much looking for different challenges when I moved to the States. Kind of reconnecting with something that I always believed in as a young actor, which is that idea, and that ability, to leap into other landscapes, and really explore a totally different character, and physique, and voice, and all the rest. So this was a real fulfillment of that. It was really just plugging back into something that fired me up as a kid.”
Maika: “To be honest… it’s so unknown. You can’t plan really anything. You read good scripts, and they come, and it’s like, ‘Okay, this is what I need to do.’ And so, for me, you have to keep challenging yourself, and pushing yourself. That’s why we do it, and so, something completely different.”
“I have a film [The Fifth Wave] coming up where it’s Hunger Games-esque. It’s a young adult novel with Chloë [Grace] Moretz, and I get to play this really badass chick. We’re in training right now, doing army training, and I’m quite excited about that.”
Q: So now you’re army training.
Maika: “I am! I saw [Dan] and I fucking want to do this.”
Dan: “Get me some abs.”
Maika: “Some serious abs.”