The Horror Honeys: Interview: John & Drew Dowdle on being passionate about Found Footage

Interview: John & Drew Dowdle on being passionate about Found Footage

John and Drew Dowdle, the director/co-writer and writer of As Above/So Below took some time to chat with me about their newest film, which hit theatres on August 29th. From indie roots to nerding out about history and research, it's clear that the secret to their success is all about having a passion for what you do. Plus, they're kind of adorable, and I got WAY more out of them than expected...I'm not sharing my audio interview, because I geeked out a bit more than I'd planned.

You're known for your small space filming style (Quarantine and Devil in particular), what does a style like this mean for a production or a script?

Drew: We love making films of crisis, we analyzed our previous films, and realized that's the thing we keep doing over and over. Actors are thrust into a situation they can't contain or control, and when that happens you get the fight or flight response, and when flight is not an option and you have to face that thing that scares you - to see what happens to a person over the course of that having to go through that fear or having to face that thing that scares them we find really really interesting.

John: Once thing about a contained space too that we really focus on is how to continue to make the space interesting and not fall into a repetitive landscape. For As Above/So Below, the catacombs are so inherently scary, and we really wanted to lean into the claustrophobic nature of it, especially in the early parts of the film, and as we got deeper we wanted the space to evolve, and we found some more open rooms and were down in deeper caverns that weren't all corridors, so when scouting we wanted to make sure that we found spaces that felt connected, but that were still different, it was really important.

Much of As Above/So Below was filmed in the actual catacombs underneath Paris, and you were allowed to film in some spaces that aren't open to the public, how was that for you?

Drew: AMAZING - on one of the location scouts, we hired a cataphile, someone who really knows the systems, and we went through this hole about the size of a medicine ball, crawled into these tunnels and just kept going deeper, and going through this experience, we were like "we want to capture this authentically, we don't want to build this in Romania and do a fakey plaster version of this- we want to film THIS" and we feel that really informed the performances, the actors were stuck down there with us for ten hours a day, and I think you can really feel that in the film.

John: It was not easy to get permission [to shoot there] either, we had five or six main underground locations, mostly catacombs, and two quarries to supplement the catacombs. The quarries weren't so hard, but the catacombs themselves were really difficult to get permission. Two of the underground main locations we didn't get permission until the night before we were actually scheduled to show up and shoot. They're very sensitive about permissions and for good reason.

I know what the found footage style of filming means to my generation, but why did you choose found footage as a signature style - what does it mean to you, and what do feel it brings to a film?

Drew: I think it's still very real, even when we're doing more traditional narrative stuff, we try to capture that reality - that's always been a big fascination with filmmaking; how REAL can you go, how authentic can you make this feel. I love Hitchcock, but the acting isn't real, the camera work isn't real, it's amazing and I love it but it's very different than our typical approach. Found footage really places the eye in the scenario, and in found footage you don't have to see everything, and in not showing everything you really let the audience's mind fill in the gaps. Especially with horror films, the audience is filling in the gaps with more terror than anything you could shoot, if you were to shoot a traditional narrative style, the same movie, the audience would do less of the work for you, and they're better filmmakers than any filmmaker [laughter]

John: The immediacy of found footage is what's really interesting too, and by nature is more experiential than a narrative film - when we shoot a non-found footage movie, like The Coup, we bring same filmmaking tendencies to a non-found footage movie, where we do loooong takes, where we may have three cameras and be seeing two of the cameras half the time, but we like the actors to be able to live in a longer scene and then cutting it up for coverage. A lot of the performances feel heightened in that way.

*Note: During filming, the actors were fitted with headlamps and mini cameras to capture all of the action, including footage used in the film*

Drew: Our cinematographer told us that the actors would come to him and say "I don't know what to do, I never know when the camera is going to see me!" and with found footage, you can't wait for your closeup, and a lot of these actors save their gusto for their own closeup, and in this case the camera can be on you at any second and you have to give your all every single take. It just raises the bar for everyone. With everyone giving their all for every take, it really adds a camaraderie, and there's something really beautiful in that.

Looking at your filmography, your past has been filled with a large amount of "passion projects." What does it mean to you to bring these films to the public?

Drew: You know what's really nice, we're at a moment where we're getting back to the roots of what we started off doing. We started off writing, directing, and producing our own stuff, these little movies that were kind of art, and that was really fun; and then we moved into studios and stuff, we did a remake (Quarantine) and a movie with M.Night Shyamalan (Devil), and then sort of decided to go back to what we do, and do our own thing. This year we've been able to do two movies that we've written directed and produced, and its been really fun getting back to our roots but still within the studio world.

John: The two movies we worked on last year have such a different lifespan too As Above is one that we pitched it, they loved it, and then we were on location scout two weeks later and then a month after that we were in production, and it just moved so quickly that it just never was "in development," it felt like it went right from concept to completed in lightning speed. The Coup is something we've been working on for seven years, and been on two location scouts; been on the doorstep of making four different times, just to have it collapse for various reasons, so that one was like the ultimate abusive ex-wife - just a heartbreaker over and over again. For that one [The Coup] to finally go, that was such a huge relief for us to finally get made because I had a really sinking feeling after it fell apart the previous time that it might be one of those great movies that we never got to make, and the fact that we did get to make it, we're just really thankful for that. It's good to be back to our more indie roots in a way. But any project we consider, if it doesn't have that "fuck yes" response from both of us, we don't do it. What creates that response is hard to pinpoint, it just either has it or it doesn't. And both of these movies in the last year had that overwhelmingly, so it's fun to be able to go into a movie you're really excited about.

*interrupting and talking over John*

Drew: If you don't have the passion for something, then it's just work. When you have the passion...we both feel really strongly that if you're having fun and really enjoying what you're doing, then it shows in the film, we like to think there's a joy to the stuff we do that shows through and keeps things energetic.

I come from an archaeological background, and films like this one are very intriguing to me - for the writing of As Above/So Below, what was your research like? How long did it take you and did you uncover any surprises?

Drew: We LOVE researching stuff, and we're always in research mode, we were researching and working on this stuff from really the very beginning of the concept all the way until the end of production. I was really into Egyptian mythology, traveled up the Nile on a sailboat, visiting all the temples, I was trying to read hieroglyphics - and that was fun getting to work that into this movie. What was most surprising...the layers of history in the catacombs, you see graffiti from the French Revolution, graffiti from the Nazis, from the French Resistance - the space was carved out in the 1400's and the bones are from the 1700s, and in America we just don't have that depth of history that a place like Paris does. I found that really exciting.

If you were offered the chance to reboot/remake ANY film ever made- what would it be?

Drew: NO REBOOTS! [laughter] right now, the trend in Hollywood is pre-banded awareness. It's kind of that trend where everything is a remake, reboot or a rehash of a theme or something else. We like doing our own thing, there's not enough of that in the marketplace. We did a remake, and it was fun - but there was so much conversation about what was in the original vs what is in ours and we made a rule - we told all of our agents that we're not rebooting anything.

James: We're pretty adamant about it. They'll come up with a 1930s movie from Turkmenistan, and we're like NOPE it's a remake. We don't care if no one's seen the original, it doesn't matter, we won't do it!

Drew: [Remakes] are like painting by numbers. It's more fun to invent a world from nothing and stare at a blank page and see what you can do with that. That's a big part of the joy of it all.