Seance officially made its debut today on Shudder, and the new film hails from writer and director Simon Barrett (You’re Next, The Guest). 1428 Elm talked to Simon about how he came up with the movie, which is the first feature-length film he has directed. We also chatted about his expectations now that the movie is streaming on Shudder, the movie’s main romance, and lots more!
For those who haven’t seen it yet, there are some mild spoilers below. Seance stars Suki Waterhouse as Camille Meadows, a new girl at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. Not long after arriving at the boarding school, Camille is invited to join six other students in a late-night ritual to call forth the spirit of a dead student that reportedly haunts their halls. But come morning, one of the girls is dead, leaving the others wondering what they might have awakened.
1428 Elm interviews director Simon Barrett about his feature directorial debut, Seance
1428 ELM: I wanted to start by saying that I was so ready for this movie as soon as I read the synopsis because of the subject matter: primarily female cast, boarding school, teen slasher, and occult stuff. I’m a little obsessed with horror movies that take place at boarding schools or, similarly, in sororities. What made you choose this specific setting?
SIMON BARRETT: I tend to work more in the realm of the non-personal or fiction than a lot of independent filmmakers who sometimes rely on their own life experiences. I don’t find that very exciting. But on the other hand, the honest answer is even less interesting, in that I picked that setting based on other movies that were set in such places that I liked.
Honestly, there is such a rich genre of giallo, young adult fiction stuff that’s always set in boarding schools. As a public school kid myself, I always found that an interesting fantasy in the same sense that I think the Harry Potter books provide that, and A Deadly Education is the recent young adult hit, and I love both of those books.
1428 ELM: I have to say that I was really pleased and pleasantly surprised to see that the central romance in this film was between two of the girls. I feel like there was a romantic misdirect when we met Trevor, and I was glad that didn’t end up being the story being told. I feel like horror is progressive in many ways, but it’s still relatively rare to see positive depictions of queer romance in the genre. What made you decide to go that way in this story?
SIMON BARRETT: The romantic misdirect that I think you alluded to in the film, and this is a spoiler, but when it’s done, you realize that what was happening in that scene is that they both were trying to flirt with the other for really practical reasons and neither has any genuine interest in the other person except as like, cannon fodder, which I find more endearing especially in light of the fact that I didn’t necessarily set out to write a, specifically, gay romance. That’s where the characters I wrote led me naturally.
I knew that I wanted the film to have a romance that felt genuine and earned, and by the way, I say that and I’m certain that a number of people reviewing the film feel differently, but that’s what I was going for is you see characters gradually making a connection, and who all really know about them is some of their connections haven’t worked out, and I do think that’s an emotional story whether you’re gay or straight or whatever.
Everyone can relate to having their heart broken and not wanting to take a second chance on caring about people, and certain themes like that are emotionally universal.
I was more interested in trying to end the film differently, with a different perspective on relationships than You’re Next or The Guest had, which despite being equally silly films, are very cynical about the possibility of human connection. I thought it’d be nice to end it on a note of actual connection between characters where you’re like, “Oh, maybe their lives will work out,” as opposed to, “Well, they’re all going to prison.” [Laughs]
With my first feature, I was trying to do a cozy slasher because that was a genre that I benefited from as a viewer over the years, but I hadn’t seen a lot of people specifically giving back to. A lot of people aren’t into that, a lot of people think it’s really weird that this guy’s first feature is a sedate slasher, but that’s just because people don’t actually know me and that all I consume is murder mysteries and mysteries where the cat solves or finds the killer. I love that stuff.
And though I’m not going to do it again, it was a genre that I wanted to explore. Part of that is there was romance in the Georgette Heyer novels I would read as a youth, that was an influence for this film in particular. She’s really good at romance, to the point where she is known for romances, but her murder mysteries, like Envious Casca and Death in the Stocks, are actually much better novels, or at least they’re more my sensibility, of course, since people die in them.
So I just wanted there to be a romance the viewer could connect to, but I wasn’t setting out to do anything political or representation-related just because I feel like if you start from that creative standpoint, it’s hard not to pander, it’s hard to take your characters seriously when you’re starting from that creative agenda.
I knew that with Seance, no one was looking at me to say or do anything political in the film, so I knew I didn’t have to worry about that, and I could take the romance slow. It is a very chaste romance, but that has less to do with me as a filmmaker and more of the nature of the story I wanted to tell.
1428 ELM: It’s funny you said that some viewers might not see it that way, but I did from the beginning. I feel like there was that hint that Helina had a girlfriend in the past, and it felt natural to me, like their chemistry. It was at the point where I was like many other films might say “oh, they’re just close friends,” but I appreciated that it went that direction, and it felt natural and, I don’t know, seemed to develop nicely to me!
SIMON BARRETT: I actually think the character of Rosalind is also obviously gay, and I think the way I asked Jade Michael and Stephanie Sy, who play Lenora and Yvonne, was to play them as if they had a romance with each other. I thought that would make all of the characters more interesting and more realistic since modern reality is that people’s sexualities aren’t binary, and they are on a spectrum.
And it felt like if you’re doing a movie with a bunch of young women in a boarding school, some of them are going to be dating. But again, I didn’t want to make a big thing of that because that’s not my personal experience, and I don’t come from a place of knowledge or understanding about it, but if I’m making a romance, then that’s what it feels like the romance should be.
I love the characters of Helina and the character who goes by the name Camille Meadows in the film, and in my mind, they work it out.
1428 ELM: I like that you classified this as a “cozy slasher,” because while watching this movie, I felt like it was the exact kind of film I would want to watch on a rainy afternoon. Sometimes you want something more low-key. And Suki Waterhouse was great in this. She was a standout performance. Can you tell me what it was like working with her and collaborating on Camille’s character?
SIMON BARRETT: Suki really helped get this film made because not many financiers were really interested in taking a chance on this one even though it was a quite small film. Suki really got the script. She was one of the first people I sent it to, but actually, I didn’t really know her work, to be honest. I’d been at the premiere of The Bad Batch just by coincidence a few months prior, but I hadn’t seen a lot of the stuff she’d done.
It was more like my British financiers at HanWay Films thought she would be right for the role, so they set up a meeting, and we really—as is a standard in tales of such things—we connected quite quickly over the character. I found out that Suki is quite introspective and more like the character than I expected. And then Suki informed the character in almost a weirder, angrier direction than what was on the page, just because on set she kept to herself a lot—she was friends with everyone, they’d hang out, but on set, she usually had her headphones on and was doing her quiet Camille Meadows thing.
The one thing I think that helped working with Suki, in addition to the fact she got the character and understood the material, is that she was willing to come to the martial arts school that I train at in Los Angeles and work with me a few days before we had to go up to Winnipeg and start shooting. With the fight stuff, we weren’t going to have more than a couple of hours to shoot those scenes, and I wouldn’t have more than a couple of takes for each shot, so we just needed to move quickly.
Being able to train with some fighting techniques with her before we got started actually on set. And the fact that I had that comfort and rapport with her helped because when she showed up in Winnipeg, she was ready to go and had been practicing her punches and blocks. We didn’t end up using half that stuff, of course, but that wasn’t really what mattered, it was about making sure we were comfortable with each other and understood each other, and from that point on, I think we got along great.
1428 ELM: What is it like for you to see Seance getting a second life with the upcoming Shudder release?
SIMON BARRETT: I can’t say, I mean, to be honest, I was a little sad that people didn’t really seem to like the movie very much. It didn’t really get to come out, and it didn’t really get to have a festival premiere because of COVID and such. My creative partner Adam Wingard, if anything, we try to be honest about our successes and our failures because we’ve been doing this for a long time at various levels, and I would say that Seance was less of a success than I hoped it would be.
Are people going to discover it on Shudder? Or are Shudder fans going to be even less into the film’s vibe because the truth of it is, I think people who go into Seance expecting an extreme horror film in any way are going to be very disappointed, V/H/S/94 that’s another story, but Seance, if you go into Seance and you’re like, “This is from the crazy guy who wrote You’re Next which has like 16 onscreen killings and only like 17 characters,” Seance isn’t that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Seance, from writer and director Simon Barrett, is now streaming exclusively on Shudder.