The cover art to 2004’s Dead Birds, a blend of the American Western and supernatural thriller, is one of the many DVD covers permanently burned into my brain from a childhood of wandering the horror sections of local video stores.
It wasn’t until many years later when I spontaneously caught the 2011 slasher You’re Next on hotel pay-per-view that my horror-viewing habits came somewhat full circle in the form of writing credits from one Simon Barrett.
2004 was – bloody hell – nearly two decades ago now, and in that time Barrett has gouged out a remarkable space for himself in the horror filmmaking world, often alongside longtime collaborator Adam Wingard. The duo’s output includes segments in found-footage anthology flicks V/H/S and V/H/S 2, the cult classic Dan Stevens thriller The Guest and 2016’s Blair Witch reboot / sequel, which was as ambitious as it was controversial within the broader online horror discourse.
It goes without saying that Barrett’s a well-established screenwriter – but his latest project marks his first time in the director’s chair. Seance stars Suki Waterhouse as Camille Meadows, a newly enrolled student at the Edelvine Academy for Girls where a student has recently died under tragic and mysterious circumstances. Camille’s arrival causes friction between her grieving classmates, but they must work together to unravel the mysteries of Edelvine once the investigation into their late friend’s death becomes a dangerous path.
I had the immense pleasure of talking to Simon about the roots of Seance’s cinematic influences, the fascinating history behind the equipment used to shoot the film and how his experience working on lower-budget films informed his creative choices at the helm of this Giallo-inspired thriller.
One of the things that really stands out to me about Seance is something that’s subtle but really stands out is the cinematography. I’m no expert, but there’s some very interesting lens choice going on, shaping the edges of the frame and giving an eerie, warped look to much of the film. I’d love to know a little bit more about your work alongside the DoP to achieve that look.
Simon: See, that’s the kind of question that filmmakers love too much. You run the danger when you ask a question like that, because I could talk about lenses for the next thirty minutes; specifically, why Karim Hussain and I chose each lens.
The basic gist of it is that Seance was trying to essentially be an English-language Giallo. That was really the genre that I was taking the most direct inspiration from, and so I did want as much as possible to give it that older anamorphic look. We did shoot Seance almost entirely using anamorphic lenses that tended to be very wide and distort the edges of the frame. Partially, that was because I felt like that was a classical look that I myself enjoyed in films of that nature, and also that was because we were making a very low-budget film.
I think when you’re making a low-budget film, you have to make a choice. We had 22 days to shoot Seance, and that’s not a totally small number, but it’s not enough that you really get to explore scenes or anything like that. You’re just trying to get the bare minimum you need so you can move on. Working with production designer Marlena Feehery, who was doing very classical, elegant work with what was available to us in Winnipeg, we wanted to film the kind of stuff that she was building in a way that felt a little timeless and a little anachronistic – so that’s where that came from.
We used a couple of non-anamorphic spherical lenses, but when we did, they tended to be very old. Karim has a lens that he’s named ‘Lucky Pierre’, or L.P., because that was scrawled on it. It’s actually a lens that was used on Easy Rider, that’s how old it is. So that lens actually has some mould in its interior because it was stored improperly in a production house in India for a couple of decades before Karim acquired it. So that lens has interesting distortions. Normally that’s something you might want to avoid in a film, but because I knew that we only had so many resources to give the movie a visual feeling, that was the kind of thing we embraced.
I’ve seen some reviewers who find that quite annoying and I’ve seen some people who think it’s quite lovely. You do recognise when you’re doing a movie with so many lens flares that that’s just going to annoy 10% of viewers, but I think that’s better than making a film that looks totally lifeless or has no real visual aesthetic.
There are so many low-budget films – especially older ones – where it’s the flavour that truly makes it memorable; doing everything you can with what you have on hand to elevate what might have ordinarily been a flat, dry experience. So those are some cool choices.
Simon: It’s a lesson I learned, really, from Adam Wingard back on our very first feature that we worked on together – A Horrible Way to Die. That was an eighteen-day shoot, we had $60,000 total to make that movie, and 28 locations in the script. Adam was like, “we need to find a visual style that’s going to let us get in and out of those scenes” and he figured that out. 99% of that movie is Adam operating the camera. So watching what he did on that film, even though that was so long ago and a much lower-budget film than Seance, helped a lot.
When you’re looking at a schedule like I had on Seance, Karim and I were like, “twenty-two days, we have X amount of money”. You realise that with that amount of money, I could accidentally end up making a movie that looks really cheap, because I don’t necessarily have the resources to make it look great. Within that, you have to find a solution – and it just so happened with Seance that the solution was really organic to the kind of story we wanted to tell, with these old distorted lenses which have a similarity to what you’d see in the Italian films of the 70s. So hopefully I can kind of get away with that, though certainly most people watching Seance have absolutely no interest in that sort of thing.
Seance is exactly the kind of movie that I was watching when I was a teenager, wandering through video rental stores and just picking horror movies at random based on cover art. As you said earlier, it’s your take on an English-language Giallo – was that in some way rooted in wanting to make the kind of movie you also grew up watching, or was the Giallo in particular a genre you just wanted to tackle?
Simon: It’s a bit of both, really. I knew that Seance was my first feature, so I felt like I really wanted to be working in a genre that I had a lot of comfort with as a viewer. The films that built me as a filmmaker were discovered at the horror section of various local video stores. That was the discovery process as a film viewer that shaped my sensibilities creatively. It was watching those slashers of the 80s, and later the 90s as I was in elementary school. I barely even understood how movies were made, but I kind of knew I wanted to be making them, even at that time.
That’s the kind of original filmmaking spark for me, those kinds of contained slasher films of that era; most of which were made very cheaply and tightly like Seance. So we really did authentically do it. I think whether or not you like Seance probably depends on whether you enjoy a film that is straightforwardly trying to be the type of movie that I enjoy, and trying to tell the type of story that I enjoy, but isn’t necessarily subverting that too explicitly. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make the kind of movies that I enjoyed in my youth. I wasn’t necessarily setting out to make Seance for younger viewers, like I was at that age. But by having a younger cast, that’s the world you’re working in.
So that’s the first feature I wanted to make – something that really felt like I as a younger viewer would have taken inspiration from. Again, you know you’re making a movie that’s a very specific thing at that point. But with the budget of Seance, I also knew I wasn’t making a movie that had to appeal to every single human being, and it could still be a success. I think there’s a freedom with that. If you’re making an independent movie that you could make at a studio, maybe you’re doing it the wrong way. Maybe you should take advantage of the creative freedom of your low budget. The only thing that really affords you is that the producers couldn’t afford to fly to set, so they’re not there looking over your shoulder! You can make creative choices based on that. But the films that inspired me as a viewer, I really wanted to honour that as my first film as a director.
SEANCE streams exclusively on Shudder from Wednesday 29 September.