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David Robert Mitchell brings the spooky to Detroit

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

There are several images in the startling new horror film “It Follows” that stay with you after the movie wraps, perhaps none more unshakeable than that of an older man naked on the rooftop of a suburban home eyeing the camera with a mortifying death stare.

“We got that shot as quickly as we could is the best way I can say it,” says director David Robert Mitchell, the Clawson native who filmed “It Follows” in and around Metro Detroit in the fall of 2013, on the phone from Los Angeles earlier this week. “We worked fast.”

The expediency paid off. “It Follows” has been winning raves since it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and has become one of the best-reviewed horror films since Sam Raimi’s original “Evil Dead” premiered more than 30 years ago. The movie, which follows a teenage girl (“The Guest’s” Maika Monroe) who is stalked by a supernatural being after sleeping with a male friend, opened last weekend and earned $160,000 in just four theaters in New York and Los Angeles. It opens locally today.

Though the film is set in the Detroit suburbs, it has the dreamlike feel of Anywhere, U.S.A. But local audiences will pick up on references to 8 Mile and will recognize landmarks such as Clark’s Ice Cream & Yogurt in Berkley and the Clawson parks where Mitchell hung out as a kid.

“I have a strong personal connection to the area, and I often write stories that take place there,” says Mitchell, who also shot and set his debut film, 2010’s “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” in Metro Detroit. “I’m aware there’s a sense of it’s in ‘The American Suburb’ and that’s how it’s seen, but for me, growing up there, it is specifically Metro Detroit.”

Mitchell, 40, was turned on to film at an early age and was “obsessed” with “E.T.” By junior high, he was immersed in the films of Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut, and had begun to write scripts of his own.

Filmmaking clicked as a possible career in 1985 when he attended the premiere of the locally shot independent film “Stryker’s War” (later titled “Thou Shall Not Kill ... Except”), on which his uncle had worked.

“I thought it was the coolest thing that people in the area had made this movie,” says Mitchell, whose family still lives in Metro Detroit. “I thought, ‘maybe there’s a way of doing this.’ ”

Mitchell attended Wayne State University and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a film editor. He made “Myth” in 2010 with a microbudget of $30,000.

“Myth” was well-received by critics and paved the way for Mitchell to make “It Follows,” which had a budget of more than $650,000 — a huge step up from his first film, but still microscopic by Hollywood standards.

“We were stretching our dollars in a big way, and it was very challenging,” he says. He went the extra step to list all the extras in the film’s credits to thank them for helping getting the movie made. “We were definitely relying on friends, family and community to make it happen, and we were grateful to any energy that people put toward the film.”

“It Follows” qualified for more than $180,000 in Michigan tax incentives, according to the Michigan Film Office, which Mitchell says were essential in getting the film made.

“It would have been hard for me to convince everybody to come and bring this movie to Michigan if (the incentives program) hadn’t existed at the time,” Mitchell says.

With Michigan’s tax credits hitting the skids — the state House recently voted to kill the state’s film incentives program and the state Senate is considering the measure — Mitchell says making his next movie in Michigan will be challenging.

“I’m not saying I won’t make others there, because I will do everything I can to do that, because it’s personally important to me,” he says. “But it will probably be much more difficult.”

As for his next film, Mitchell is keeping it close to his chest. He’s got a project he says he hopes to begin in the summer or fall, and he’s got “a bunch of stuff” he’s setting up afterward. “Things are moving,” he says.

That’s one way to put it. Another way is to say they’re following.

Q&A with David Robert Mitchell

The director will discuss “It Follows” at Royal Oak’s Main Art Theater after the movie’s showing at 7 p.m. Saturday. For information, call (248) 542-5198.