There is nothing particularly horrific about the people who make horror movies. You would assume creatives in this often frightening genre are sick and twisted, as if these films are a means for them to live out gross fantasies. You see them as the monsters they create, a real person lost in the shadow of a fictionalized villain. This is a silly misconception–and it especially is not true for writer Simon Barrett.
Barrett is of a new class of horror genre makers who are reworking the mechanics of the horror machine. He and his peers are adding an intelligence and creativity to scary movies resulting in them landing somewhere in between art house films and low budget thrills. Simon is building a large resume of respected scary movies, the most recent released V/H/S being the latest. Films like that have a buzzing reputation around them for being smart, cool, and all sorts of fucked up. Simon wrote what is perhaps the best entry in the anthology in addition to the overarching frame story, the latter of which were directed by good friend and creative collaborator Adam Wingard.
Getting to this point in his career has taken time. As any entertainment driven person can tell you, reaching a level of success in Hollywood takes time, talent, and lots and lots of perseverance. We met Simon at the home of his sound editor, Owen Granich-Young, during a break in a busy editing day. The Echo Park setting was almost too idyllic to believe that horror films have been constructed on the grounds.
Simon was born in Fairfax, Virginia and grew up in and around Columbia, Missouri, a small college town that gets the cultural fallout of the bigger cities surrounding it. “It was a good place to grow up in because its a small town but, being directly in between Kansas City and Saint Louis, we still had an art cinema and bands would play,” he explains. “Things always passed through Columbia because it was a college town.”
“I went to public school and graduated early. I jumped from college to college for a little bit, ultimately graduating from Ithaca College in upstate New York with a concentration in Photography. I graduated from college pretty quickly too…but I don’t know if it was a good use of my time or money: I just didn’t know how to start doing what I wanted to do. Fortunately, I could afford it and I had a good scholarship and financial aid and I was able to do it without too much student loan debt.”
Simon focused on photography and cinematography in school but “hasn’t used that” since finishing up his education. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and realized that working on the ground level in Hollywood was not something he liked. “I did an internship program out here which is pretty much when I realized I had no interest in working my way up at any entertainment industry day job PAing and trying to get on a camera crew. I discovered I didn’t have the disposition for that and that I would rather not work in the entertainment industry as my day job and try to do it in my spare time. At least that way I still felt inspired creatively.”
He eventually moved to Brooklyn for a couple of years and did work as a private investigator during the day and used his free time for writing. He eventually wrote something that went into development which meant it was time to move back to Los Angeles. “I initially moved out here because that is what you do if you want to make movies: this is where movies are made,” he explains. “You eventually realize that you don’t understand any more clearly how to make movies in Los Angeles as you would anywhere else. I had wanted to move to New York so I moved there, which is where I wrote my first produced screenplay, Dead Birds. I wrote that while I was in Park Slope doing PI work during the day, writing in my spare time. I wrote it pretty quickly and showed it to some friends out here, including a guy who acted in some of my student films and was actually working as the assistant to the head of a small production company. He thought he could actually get it made so I decided to move back to Los Angeles.”
The film got a decent release, a start in the direction he wanted his career to be in. There were still some obstacles, though. “It has its deficiencies but I’m still very proud of Dead Birds,” Simon adds. “I think that movie filmed when I was twenty-five so I tried to parlay that into a studio screenwriting career, which I also discovered I did not enjoy. I got signed to agencies and was up for jobs but they weren’t things I wanted to do because it would only have been for the money (which is by definition what it means to sell out). I was getting really frustrated.”
“Right around that time, Adam and I became friends,” he continues, touching on how the two initially sparked their now successful careers. “We met during Dead Birds because he was in Alabama around the same time shooting a film called Homesick. We met through a friend of his who was on set doing a report for Fangoria magazine. We stayed in touch and I started to see the very low budget things he was doing. We started talking about collaborating on something and that led to the career path we’re on now, which is what I always wanted: I’m able to do my own projects.”
“Between Adam and I, we have some of the very same creative sensibilities and a concise division of labor that works well for the two of us. Now I’m able to do the films I want to do the way that I want to do them and make a living at it. Somewhat. It was a really weird roundabout path.”
This “weird” path is typical of modern success stories in all field, especially in relationship to industries that appear entirely inaccessible. “If you grow up in Columbia Missouri to parents who aren’t wealthy, I think your avenue toward creatively making films (which is a relatively expensive art to create) is pretty obscure at first. It’s not that obvious how you will make a living in this art form that you can’t even afford to make a five minute version of. I think that’s why I really got into writing because it doesn’t cost anything. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that I started collaborating with a filmmaker who made films for no money. We both come from the same background of having no connection with the industry.”
“It took a long time for me to get to this being my primary source of income.”
“It’s very hard,” Simon says of getting into film. “You look at theatres and see what is successful and you try to imitate that. But, if that isn’t your personal sensibility, you shouldn’t try to imitate that because you’ll create something terrible that no one wants to see. It’s about doing what you want to do–and hoping that if you do what you want to do, it will appeal to enough people and you’ll be able to make money off of it.”
Simon has now been in Los Angeles for nearly ten years. Ironically, the majority of the films he has made were shot outside of the city. The exception is The Sick That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger, a Skype based horror vignette that Simon wrote in V/H/S that they filmed at a friend’s West Hollywood apartment. “We actually had the actors in the same building, talking on Skype–we just had them far enough apart that we couldn’t hear them from their respective microphones.”
Simon also noted that he and Adam shot V/H/S’ wraparound film, Tape 56, in his hometown of Columbia. It was actually shot on his childhood VHS camera, too. “My parent’s have always been very supportive,” he says. “We grew up under fairly modest circumstances but they were able to buy me a VHS camcorder. I think we actually ended up shooting a good portion of V/H/S on it: we used that same, exact camera that I got for my thirteenth birthday. Turns out it was the same camera that Adam got for his birthday as a kid, too.”
“We were able to use this antique camera for the filmmaking process. It actually broke in the course of making it, right at the last minute, on the very last take of shooting. It just wouldn’t turn on. We ended up using phone and mini-DV cameras to continue for that final scene, which we made about using those cameras instead.”
“It was cool,” he adds. “It was really interesting using a camera that my parents got me at an early age so that I could become a filmmaker on a film that is now coincidentally the first film that Adam has directed that is getting a decent release on 35mm. Ironically, it was shot on VHS. It’s the first film that I’ve been involved with that has this level of theatrical release. In a way it feels nice that we used these cameras that we’ve had for years and years and years.”
“If I ever get rich, I’ll get that camera repaired because of its great history.”
Being in Los Angeles has a strange way of influencing and not-influencing the movies he writes. He loves the city but he’s also very aware of how his line of work is a big part of why LA is seen so unfavorably. “It’s interesting,” he says. “The industry that I work in–film–is largely held to be responsible for what is bad in Los Angeles. Things like the shallowness of the people, the superficiality, everyone wanting to be a star–that all is what my industry takes the blame for.”
“When I first moved out here, I felt all those stereotypes were true. I really love Los Angeles though and once you reach a certain point and a certain level at the studios, those stereotypes stop existing and you work with likeminded people who read books and take their art very seriously: those people just want to make good art. I find that environment extremely inspiring but very difficult to film in.”
“Part of living in Los Angeles isn’t like New York in that you can get out on the subway and go anywhere in Manhattan or Brooklyn and you’re within a block from three great art galleries and fourteen great bars. In LA, part of the things that people initially see in LA are not the good things about the city. You have to live here for a while to figure out what parts are your LA.”
“I’m very much an Eastside person,” he clarifies, using himself as an example. “I live in Los Feliz, I spend most of my time in Silver Lake and Echo Park because I love those parts of town. I love the creative energy there because it’s doesn’t have the aggressive tension that some of other parts of the country’s lauded creative communities have. LA is more low key and people do what they do because it appeals to them. I found living in New York to be very inspiring but I feel in some film industries outside of Los Angeles that there’s a chip on their shoulder because they exist in opposition to something. I’d rather do my own thing and benefit from whatever resources are available to me.”
“You can kind of live anywhere and be inspired by your surroundings. This environment is particularly inspiring to me. Even the things that I hate about it.”
The future has a lot of big things for Simon, particularly in conjunction with his creative partner Adam. They aren’t at the level of success they want to be at yet but they’re on their way. “Adam and I definitely see ourselves as just getting started on the path that we want to achieve,” he says. “I did always see myself in Los Angeles but I think that is partly because I always wanted to do film. I grew up in the Midwest and I hadn’t really been to LA but I knew that is where people who do what I want to be doing live.”
The two currently are working on a new project that McG is producing with Warner Brothers that is an adaptation of Dead Spy Running. They also worked on the film The ABCs of Death and are excited for the release of their newest film, You’re Next, both of which will be out soon. Simon recently wrote a young adult novel that should be going into production next year.
“Things like the young adult novel are processes that are starting to begin,” he says. “You just have to find the time to do them.”
Simon is going to keep pushing forward and continue to work with Adam as much as he can. They’ve built their way up making super low budget films and are going to continue in the same direction as best they can. They’re also at a point where they can very easily start all over again, too. “I think the first feature film I did with Adam cost under three thousand dollars then A Horrible Way To Die was sixty. To most studios, that’s a difficult thing for them to understand. V/H/S and You’re Next are also very low budget. We’re in a good position that, if our careers do fall apart and fail and that if Warner Brothers hates my script and doesn’t want to work with us again (which I don’t think is likely…but it could happen), we at least know we can go back to asking friends for money and doing things on a small scale. Now I feel we have that safety net: if everything goes wrong, we can still make what we want to make.”
“We’re in the right place–but it’s very new.”
For more on Simon, be sure to follow him on Twitter. You can also catch V/H/S in select theatres now and you can stream it live on demand now.