Séance blends the horror and murder-mystery genre that comes from the mind of writer and director Simon Barrett (You're Next). The story follows the prestigious Fairfield Academy, an elite boarding school for girls; six friends jokingly engage in a late-night ritual, calling forth the spirit of a dead former student who reportedly haunts their halls. Before morning, one of the girls is dead, leaving the others wondering what they may have awakened. I spoke to Barrett about the inspirations behind the film, how his stars became his saving grace on the project, and what he's learned working with V/H/S director Adam Wingard.
"Séance is kind of supernatural Giallo throwback kind of set at a girls' boarding school," Barrett said. "It's clearly working in an established genre of these single-location murder mysteries. That really was the inspiration. I mean, there's no particular film that made me want to make Séance. If I could point to one, it would probably be Dario Argento's Phenomena (1985) or maybe kind of trying to do a less sleazy, less glum version, What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) or something like that. Those were the movies that I loved and watched so many times that I kind of was like, 'I feel like I need to try to tell a story like this,' because I enjoy it so much."
The idea of the film was in part driven by his work as a private investigator. "I always kind of wanted to do like a private investigator horror movie, and I had kind of a notion of what that would be," Barrett said. "I thought like a younger hero, which is kind of cool. Someone obviously not really directly like me because I think that's a pretty easy mistake. The screenwriters think that they themselves are interesting and PIs are probably the most boring people on the planet because all we do is stare at computers all day long and think about writing, which we don't often do. I didn't want to be too literal about it. That's actually the kind of the creative germs that led to Séance was we thinking of a way to tell like a kind of old-fashioned PI-yarn in a horror setting. Obviously, that character kind of became the Suki Waterhouse character, who has kind of a mysterious plan. I wrote the first draft of Séance back in 2014, right around the time that The Guest came out. The reason for that was The Guest was just kind of like our first movie with a real budget."
After Waterhouse signed on board, everything else helped fall into place. "I knew I wanted to work with Inanna Sarkis, Madisen Beaty, Seamus Patterson, and Ella-Rae Smith as soon as I met them. The chemistry on set was totally obscure to me because I was so stressed out the whole time and freaking out like getting the movie made that I basically would just occasionally check in with the actors and make sure they were happy. I didn't really ever hang out with them. They just all seemed happy." Despite the many years it took to get Séance made, Barrett took some pride in the largely restless nights he spends working on his feature directorial debut. "I was sleeping about three or four hours a night while filming," he said. "Watching me was like watching a human being melt. I start out, like, fairly healthy and in good shape. By the end, I just, like, look like I have aged like 30 years. That's what indie filmmaking is. If they care about the movie and you're not trying to get everything right and perfect, then you're not stressed out. Then you're also not taking advantage of the opportunity you've been given. I mean, because the answer to your kind of larger question is like, 'Yes, I am a first-time director,' but I think most people in the industry, certainly, anyone who kind of has been directly involved with any of my projects, know that I that when working with Adam, I was on set the whole time I was involved in preproduction."
If there was one major lesson from this, Barrett derived from working on the film and learning from his time with Wingard is to take advantage of the opportunities presented. "Only really weigh in if you think things are going in the wrong direction," he said. "If you think they're going in the right direction, sometimes what your actors and let your camera operator and people work into a scene if you have time to do it. If you can get more than one take, that's how you take advantage of that. That was really good advice for Séance in particular because I had a cast of young actors of various experience ranges. I think everyone in the cast is amazing, and I'm thrilled with their performances that certain people had different methodologies." RLJE Films and Shudder will release Séance to theaters, on-demand and digital, on May 21st.