Q&A: It Follows Director David Robert Mitchell On Turning Nightmare into Magic

By  · Published on March 30th, 2015


For most horror filmmakers, the goal is to create a cinematic experience that foster nightmares for each and every member of the audience. It’s fair to say that David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows has certainly be the cause of some sleepless nights, and that many more horror fans will get the chance to sleep with the lights on as the film has just been released wide.

However, after sitting down with Mitchell recently, we learned that the genesis of It Follows was itself a nightmare. Read on to hear about this, the Redford Theater, and how Fantastic Fest assured Mitchell that his movie had the right following.

The conceit that a haunting can be its own type of sexually transmitted disease is really innovative. Where did that come from?

I don’t know. No, I’m kidding. It came in pieces, and it wasn’t formed in that way. It started with the idea of a monster that follows you, that is slow and always waking towards you. That idea came from a recurring nightmare I had when I was very young. It really freaked me out and I always remembered it. In the dream it looked like different people and was always coming closer. I could always get away from it, but it was just about this feeling of anxiety knowing that something’s always following me.

That sounds terrifying.

That idea sat in the back of my head for many years. I had always intended to try to make a horror film, and I started thinking that I could build on that idea; turn it into something. Then a little later I started thinking it would be fun to have it be something that passed between people, like a game of tag to some degree. Then eventually I realized that if it were passed through sex then it would tie in thematically to some of the other things that I wanted to do. It would link people not just physically, but also emotionally. It just seemed like the right way to connect this strange curse.

At that point it was very clear to me that if I’m doing all this, certainly one of the interpretations of this films is going to be STDs or AIDS, but there are also a bunch of other interpretations that I had in my mind. This starts through sex, but it’s also a way of pushing it away. To me that sort of lead to some other interpretations, but I was completely aware that that would be one of them. So that wasn’t how the idea was formed, but I’m totally conscious that that is a very valid interpretation of the material

Yeah, I mean the best horror is always about vicarious confrontation of the things that scare us in our actual lives. Adolescence and one’s first sexual experiences, that’s a scary time for anyone, so the supernatural angle effectively underscores that.

100% For sure, totally.

What filmmakers inspire you? Maybe not even in the sense of paying homage in the movie itself, but whose work do you always keep in mind when you direct?

I idolize many different filmmakers. Right at the top would be Truffaut, Francis Ford Coppola, and Hitchcock. I’ve loved their movies since I was a kid, and I have a very deep respect for what they’ve been able to do.

I love the the music in It Follows, how did Diasterpeace come aboard and how much did you collaborate with him on the score?

I knew I wanted an electronic score. When I heard his music, I thought he was phenomenally talented and thought that it would be a really cool and interesting approach to creating music for the movie. We had a lot of conversations about what we wanted to achieve. The editor and I built a pretty elaborate temp score as we were cutting the film together, which was a way to begin some conversations regarding certain sequences. Rich, who goes by Disasterpeace, would go and write music for sequences, send me what he was doing. Sometimes we’d just drop it in, or sometimes I’d have notes and we’d have further conversations. We were definitely very in touch regarding creating that music. It is his stuff though, and he’s fantastic.

I’m curious, since you’re still coming up as a filmmaker, during the early stages of production, did you get any studio notes or did anyone try to get you to change your supernatural beings to more traditional-looking monsters or give them digital J-Horror eyes or anything?

I don’t remember if anyone said that. Ultimately if people came on board, they believed in what we were doing, or at least they put some trust in me. But yeah, I heard all kinds of things, it was probably a little bit risky when I look back on it, but it didn’t seem that way to me. I could see it in my head and it made sense. There are many aspects of this story that I think would be very easy for someone at the script stage to look at and go, “what is this, is this really going to work for anybody?”

And don’t get me wrong, if that note was passed to you, I’m glad it wasn’t followed. The way it stands, the things that follow are so much creepier because they look like normal people. It’s as unsettling as something like the homeless horde in Prince of Darkness.


I’m a huge nerd for movie palaces, and you have a gorgeous one featured in It Follows. What is that theater and where is it?

Redford, Michigan. It’s the Redford Theater. It’s a really fantastic theater. They play all kinds of classic films and stuff there. They have a live organist, and it’s really great!

You’re from Michigan, both your films have been set there, are you thinking about setting all your films there? Making Michigan for you what Illinois was for John Hughes or New Jersey used to be for Kevin Smith?

There will be others that take place there. It’s very possible that the next one won’t. I have a bunch of stuff that doesn’t take place there, but I have a bunch of stuff that does. I love writing stories that take place there, but I think there will probably be a break before I do more there. It depends. It’s hard to say. It’s also possible that I won’t get money for one that I’m trying to do. That’s actually what happened with It Follows.


I had intended to make it as my third film. I was gonna do another drama in between, I was gonna do two dramas and then make the horror film, but then I couldn’t get the money for that drama. So I moved up the third film to be the second film. So until I’ve actually made it, I can’t promise what the next one will be.

So the plan now is to make that drama the third film, but who knows?

Well that, and I also have this very interesting mystery with some adventure. Without saying what the film is, I have a bunch of different kinds of stories in very different genres. I do still wanna make that drama, so it might be that one next, but there’s a couple of others that it could be too.

Lots of uncontrollable variables.

I don’t even mean to be vague. If it were up to me, I’d just say, “well this is what I’m making.” I can’t control it at all.

What did the overwhelming Fantastic Fest reaction to It Follows mean to you?

It feels really nice. For me, I was always making a horror film, but I hadn’t worked in the genre before. The film first played Cannes and then played a bunch of European film festivals. I therefore didn’t know for sure how specifically a horror crowd would respond to it, and if they would like the movie to be blunt. It’s hard because I’m a huge horror fan, but I also like so many different kinds of films. You can probably see some of that in the movie. The influences come from a lot of different directions. What has been really nice about Radius getting behind the film and then the Fantastic Fest reaction is seeing that there has been a really nice response from people who really love horror films specifically. It’s always nice if people like your work.

Nobody makes movies just for themselves to watch, right?

On a certain level, you’re making a film because you want to do something that means something to you. I don’t believe in making films just to make a film or to work on something that 20 other people could do. I want to try to do things that I don’t think would exist if I didn’t do them. Not coming from some kind of egotistical place, it’s just that it’s really hard to make films. It’s painful. I only want to do it if I can make something that feels unique in some way or at least to some people. It’s not just about making movies, it’s about doing things that mean something to me. Then you hope that people will like it.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.