“A Hint of Joy Before It All Goes to Hell”: ‘It Follows’ Director David Robert Mitchell on Teen Sex, Horror, and the Virgin Trope

The camera is a parasite in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. It hunts Maika Monroe’s Jay as she’s stalked by a mysterious group of “followers” — ghost-like apparitions that relentlessly pursue her after she has sex with her crush. Jay’s sexually transmitted haunting evokes the film’s theme of the terror of interconnectivity and teenage anxiety. Sex is an unknown force in It Follows that invites questions about the representation of women in horror cinema, the depiction of teenage sexuality, and more. Flavorwire spoke to Mitchell by phone about his second feature film and “the act of living that opens us up to danger.”

Flavorwire: It Follows speaks to teenage anxiety about sex and surrendering a part of yourself to someone else in the act, but also the strange realization that these fears are not unique. Sex doesn’t seem to ease the confusion of teenage life. Do you agree?

David Robert Mitchell: I think that can often be the case, sure. I think it depends on the person and the time, honestly.

But for your characters?

I hate to suggest a grim, melancholy aftereffect for all sex in terms of the characters, but that’s certainly what’s happening a lot within the film. When Jay sleeps with Hugh, I think there’s still a melancholy there, but I do think there’s some hint of joy before it all goes to hell — at least from Jay’s point of view.

How did you conceive of your characters’ relationships in the film, and what aspects did you most want to emphasize?

I never really know where characters come from. It’s through the writing process and just spending time by myself, thinking about the stories that I want to tell. I try to put pieces of myself in there.

And you wanted to highlight the dramas in these tiny social circles? You have the best friend who feels jilted that he didn’t get to have this thing with “the girl,” and so forth.

Yeah, [Keir Gilchrist’s] Paul is interesting, because he’s someone who has grown up in this neighborhood. He’s maybe just a little younger than Jay, and they were closer before. There’s a point when you’re kids and a year or two doesn’t make a difference, and then there’s a point when it does. This is that space. I like the idea of someone that has these feelings for her and is willing to do anything despite the fact that it’s probably the worst idea on the planet. I think that’s probably very much a teenage boy’s reaction to having those kinds of feelings for someone — feeling separate from them, yet seeing this opportunity, as terrible as it is, to try to step into some type of role that he probably shouldn’t.

It Follows reminded me of a couple of other recent horror films, like Starry Eyes and Contracted — films where young women transform and deteriorate after sex due to a seemingly supernatural infection or STD. Have you seen the films?

I haven’t, but I would like to see them. I’m behind with some of the things in the past year. Once It Follows is out, and I can take a step away, I’d like to experience them separate from it.

So you tend to stay away from other films when you’re working?

It depends. In terms of prepping, I went through and watched all my favorites. The classics. That’s a lot of decades’ worth of horror films and some non-horror films. But I was careful.

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To return to my question, the women in these films are forced to sacrifice something for having sex. There’s a consequence. You could say the same thing about Jay, but it’s for different reasons. You’ve said in previous interviews that sex is a healthy, normal activity. How does that perspective temper your film’s ambiguous attitude towards Jay’s haunting?

I totally understand people having that read, but I don’t feel that way. As far as it being a broader social statement about women and sex, I don’t personally see it. It’s definitely not my intention. I think it’s really more about sex in general. I wouldn’t say it’s specific to women.

How did you want Jay and her female friends to understand or view sex? Where did your characterizations for these young women come from?

I’m still trying to think about the previous question. It’s a big subject.

Some people read the film as, this is the moment she loses her virginity. There is talk about it in subtle ways throughout the film, but at one point she says that she and Greg did stuff together in high school. I don’t think this is a groundbreaking moment. This is not her losing her virginity. This is her sleeping with someone she likes and maybe has feelings for. In that sense, she’s had a very normal sex life, and this is just a terrible thing that happens. To me, it’s more about sex being a normal part of life. It’s the act of living that opens us up to danger. It’s not just about sex. It’s about life. It’s about dealing with mortality. I’m not denying there is a way of reading it. Maybe a preferred interpretation for me would just be: it’s the fear, at that age, of what that means and what you imagine that experience to be, and the fears that are connected. The fears of becoming an adult and entering the world, and all the things that follow that.

I have no problem with other interpretations. Whether I agree with them or not, and even if they’re troubling to me (and I’ve read some that are), I don’t think it’s my place to tell people that they can’t analyze the film separate from my intention.

It is possible to read the film as sex-negative. Sex becomes a burden. Jay has to carry this thing within her and rid herself of it somehow.

I totally understand. If I’m a little defensive, it’s because I find there’s some people who see a puritanical message, and that’s a little irritating to me.

As I said earlier, I do see the way you use sex to touch upon teenagers’ anticipation and fear of sex as a liberating act. But at the same time, the sexual anxiety trope has always affected women more than men in horror films. Women are routinely punished and shamed for being sexual.

I heard John Carpenter talk about this regarding Halloween. I’m paraphrasing, but people have discussed the idea in Halloween that the virgin lives and that having sex equals death. I’ve heard him talk about the fact that it’s definitely not his intention. It’s an interpretation of the film. He said it’s about a character who has an awareness about her. She’s somewhat isolated, but she has her wits about her. She’s someone who is not focused on the guy. I think that’s another valid way of reading the film. We’ve sort of accepted this other academic read as a pop culture fact. I would question that just because we’ve heard it in Scream or read the books it comes from, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s fact.

I think for some general movie-going audiences, it is simply the Scream rule. Personally, I appreciate European horror cinema, because the women tend to have the freedom to be more sexual. There’s an openness to that.

Do you see It Follows as a corrective to other representations of teenage sex? Are there other films or fictional representations you had in mind for comparison?

I didn’t really write the film in response to modern horror or any other horror, but it’s definitely connected to them. I’m a huge horror fan and a film buff in general. I think it’s really just what personally feels right to me. If it feels like it’s in response, that’s not really my intention — but I think that’s cool. It’s really about me trying to put my personality into it and give my own interpretation of that kind of genre film.

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The film uses sex as a vehicle for the “hauntings,” but the sex scenes are shot about as anti-sensationally as possible. Not only that, but they are rather un-momentous in that the sex is basically gentle rocking. It’s captured at a distance in most cases, too — through a car window, through the hospital window. What was your motive for this kind of impassive approach?

I think it’s the way the whole film is approached for the most part, the majority, anyway. It’s a colder and distant view. Even when we have an objective camera, we’re still seeing ultimately what Jay sees or what she could see. So we’re always with her even when we’re at a distance. In some ways, this makes us closer to her.

I think Paul is very much in love with her. As for what her feelings are, I’m hesitant to say. Maybe I’m unveiling it here just in saying this, but I think that viewing things from a distance and the little bit of coldness and sadness, I think the camera contributes to that. It’s always about keeping just enough space between the characters so that we can see the edges of the frame and the background. We are on the lookout for the characters even when they’re not looking.

You’ve already said that you’re a big horror fan. There are a lot of nods to cult favorites like Cat People (the pool scene, the sense of loneliness and general fear of intimacy), vintage Carpenter (the synth score), The Creature from the Black Lagoon, De Palma, and maybe early Cronenberg. And your staging of the movie spans time periods and inserts nonexistent objects like the shell compact, which looks like a birth control compact, into Jay’s world. It makes the movie a living dream. What did you consciously retain, and what did you want to consciously keep out of the film? In other words, how did you keep the film from just being homage?

In general, I am not trying to make or do shot-for-shot homage. There is some. Cat People is definitely one of them. I think that’s fun. But it’s more about the spirit of something and the way something made me feel. Sometimes it’s a sliver of a plot point, the way someone looked, or the way I remembered something. It’s more about having watched these things and having really loved them. They meant a lot to me and are sort of burned into my brain. It’s really just about the way I like to write — to embrace a cliché, but to make it personal in some way.

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The synth in the film is overpowering and invading, like the “It,” becoming its own character. But there’s something about the ambient sounds of domestic life being dialed up in the film that is almost more disquieting. I think it’s because there’s a real sense that these characters are always waiting for something to happen and wanting more. What was the mood you wanted to achieve with the sound design, and what kind of discussions did you have with your composer?

A certain amount of that was building a sound design in the editorial stage. The editor and I worked to create that. We spent an enormous amount of time on it. Sound design is vital. It’s something I care about deeply, for any film I do. But it plays such a huge role in a horror film — sound and those textures that place people within the environment. I like things to be deeply experiential. In regards to working with Rich [Vreeland], I wanted something really bold and memorable. Something that was beautiful, but could also genuinely affect people and create anxiety. The goal was to fluctuate between beautiful melodies and controlled noise — the kind of thing that nearly assaults the audience with the sound.

The film is understated and deliberate in camerawork, sound, and editing. But it’s also got this great understated humor, like the character running in high heels.

I’m glad you say that, because a lot of people have been reading [the humor] in different ways. It’s also a little bit of a nod to something over-the-top — like something you would see in a De Palma film.

Totally. You seem very careful to keep the humor tamped down, so as not to mock the characters for their salient insecurities.

It’s fun to have a little bit of release. There are some things that [Olivia Luccardi’s] Yara does in the film that really crack me up. It’s low key. I don’t expect it to be a big laugh, but it’s fun for me.

The setting has a palpable suburban melancholy. It’s resonant even in the pick-someone-that-you-want-to-be game Jay plays with Hugh/Jeff while they’re waiting in line at the movies — this idea of inhabiting other bodies and yearning for escape. Where does the film’s suburbia come from? I feel like most people associate that area [Detroit] with an industrial wasteland, not tree-lined streets.

It’s all of those things. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. That’s where my family still lives. It’s a place that means a lot to me. The theme of separation in the film is one that is important to me in terms of placing the film in the suburbs of Detroit and in the city. It’s a place where there’s a division in terms of race and wealth. Again, I’m not trying to make this sort of grand political statement, but it’s a shitty thing. There’s no nice way of putting it. It’s something that people there are aware of, and it’s always seemed strange to me. I’m always a little bit nervous about painting an overly painted picture, but I felt it was important to show that contrast. It’s just a way of hinting at something that I think is very unfortunate.

Will you return to horror cinema in the future?

Probably. I’d like to do another horror film eventually. It most likely won’t be the next film. We’ll see — if I have the right idea. I learned a few lessons doing this film. Ultimately, I like the idea of making all kinds of movies. That’s always been my goal.

Can you tell me one lesson that you’re talking about?

Some of it is just about having faith in a plan. It’s about designing a plan and recognizing that I am personally not going to feel the way something is going to feel when it’s assembled and properly constructed. That can be a difficult and kind of scary thing. Again, I had never made a horror film before, so I had a certain anxiety that I trusted in. Some of it is just about trusting your plan, your blueprint. Having the confidence of having one film done, I think I can get even bolder with it.

It Follows is playing in select theaters and will be available on VOD March 27.