Director David Robert Mitchell on It Follows

We speak to David Robert Mitchell about his artistic influences that play out in his hypnotic new chiller It Follows

Today sees the UK release of It Follows, the Cannes-acclaimed film from writer-director David Robert Mitchell. Set in suburban Detroit, Mitchell’s suggestively entitled, sophomore movie is the spine-tingling story of 19-year-old Jay (up-and-comer Maika Monroe) who, after an unknowingly crucial sexual encounter, finds herself haunted by the inescapable feeling that something is following her. As the deadly visions push Jay’s sanity to the limit, she and her friends must find a way to escape the chasing creatures that seem to be always a step behind.

A consideration of mortality and how we deal with it, the movie is filled with allusions to the classics. But while some references are very specific, others are not so conscious – the indoor pool scene is a clear visual hint to the 1942 horror Cat People, but there are also bits of Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street and The Shining woven through the film. Yet despite the numerous artistic echoes, Mitchell’s film gives the genre a fresh and much-needed twist. Comprising skillfully crafted sequences and gripping tracking shots, pretty visuals are accompanied by Rich Vreeland’s earsplitting lo-fi scores in a perfect tension buildup.

With five awards won and four nominations for It Follows, the future looks bright for the 40-year-old director. Here we catch up with Mitchell to talk old-school cinematic craft, inspirations and mortality.

On bringing cinematic visuals into the horror genre…
"I wanted to try and tell the story visually as much as possible. To me, the visual approach to the film is incredibly important and we tried to do something that was to me interesting and maybe a little bold in some ways with the camera work. I’m not saying the visual language of the film is more important than the story, but we put a lot of love and care into the planning and the look of the film. I think that that can draw people in, but it can also alienate some people because they may not quite understand what we’re doing."

On avoiding falling into the teen horror movie cliché…
"I like to embrace the clichés, to sort of take them head-on. But then I like to change them just slightly, to do my own take on the things that maybe we’ve seen, that are a little bit overdone. The film does things that you’ve seen in a lot of other horror films, but it’s at least my hope that it’s doing so in a slightly different way – for instance, I think it’s tonal in the way characters react and in the way we play scenes."

On the inspiring power of adolescence…
"Adolescence is one of those magical, middle spaces in life, where we’re open to ideas and open to things in ways that maybe we’re less likely to be open to as adults. A lot of my favourite movies growing up were sort of coming-of-age films – like Truffaut’s Doinel films and American Graffiti. They were films that inspired me to want to make movies. That said, I have a lot of different stories and a lot of different genres that I want to explore."

On where the idea for the film came from
"The basic idea came from a recurring nightmare that I had when I was a kid, where I was followed by a monster that would look like different people. In the dream, I felt like I was the only one seeing it, I would point it out to people and they wouldn’t react. And it was very slow and I could always get away from it. But it was this terrible feeling of dread and anxiety knowing that there was this thing. You know, I could be sitting with my family at dinner and it would just walk into the room coming towards me. This was when I was 10 years old, but some of the images and the feeling have sort of stayed with me, and as an adult I kept thinking about it. So then I added the sexual element sort of connecting people physically and emotionally, and it all just kind of came together."

On the theme of the movie…
"The way I see it is we’re confronted by our mortality, we’re here for a limited amount of time and sex and love are what we have to push that away and be in the moment, be within and enjoy our life. They’re our ways to survive, at least temporarily. There’s no real escape from death or mortality, but you can at least have moments. That’s what happens in the film, the sense that Jay has opened herself up to the stranger through sex, but that’s really just about living – it’s not so much a statement about sex, as it is about life. That’s the way I see it. You might be able to get away for a moment, or for a day, or for years, but that ultimately is the end."

It Follows opens in cinemas today.