Going for big scares in confined spaces
Secrecy, secrecy. Yes, another M. Night Shyamalan film is upon us, but this time the director of The Sixth Sense and Signs is sitting in the producer’s chair. He’s shepherding a wave of new thrillers coming our way that will fall under the banner “The Night Chronicles.” First up, Devil, the tale of a group of strangers who are trapped in an elevator and one of them is the prince of darkness. As you can imagine, creepiness ensues.
Little is known about the film. Cameras quietly rolled late last year in Toronto and Universal originally had it pegged for a February 2011 release. A trailer, however, received a good response and a free slot opened up on the studio’s schedule earlier than expected. Now, Devil is expected to reign in theaters on September 17.
John and Drew Dowdle, the brothers behind 2008’s Quarantine and the still unreleased The Poughkeepsie Tapes (thanks to the once indecisive and now ailing MGM), sat down with Shock Till You Drop to talk with me about their time directing and producing Devil, a film they became attached to while developing The Coup (read more about that project right here).
We cover all of the bases, from script development to working with Shyamalan to the film’s PG-13 rating.
Shock Till You Drop: Did Shyamalan seek you guys out for this or did you vie for the job?
John Dowdle: He actually saw The Poughkeepsie Tapes and he loved it. But he wanted to know we could do something fun. So he saw Quarantine and the next day invited us out.
Drew Dowdle: Poughkeepsie was one of the first movies he watched in his new house with his wife who has a PHD in psychology. They both loved it and hated it and hated the fact that it was the first movie they watched in their new place. Either way, it affected them and from that one viewing, it got us a meeting.
Shock: It’s cool Poughkeepsie is a demo reel of sorts for you guys even though it’s still unreleased.
John: And it got us both the jobs for Quarantine and Devil, separately.
Shock: You would figure the go-to project is the one that was the studio picture that made money.
Drew: He did want to see Quarantine, but it was just a confirmation that we could do something with some mass appeal.
Shock: Devil is Shyamalan’s story, but Brian Nelson wrote the script, correct?
John: Right, it was Night’s story. We read the synopsis and loved it. It was fun, Hitchcockian and a bit like The Twilight Zone.
Drew: We loved the confined space. It was a ten-page treatment we read. And he had hired Brian before he hired us, so we talked to Brian about it. It was a challenging adaptation for sure. The story was great.
Shock: So you did have involvement in the script?
Drew: Very much. We worked closely with Brian from the very first draft. It was a collaborative effort.
Shock: Quarantine posed a particular challenge in that you were telling a story from a single camera and you needed to stick to that visual language. Devil seems to propose a new hurdle, tell a story in a confined space. Was that particularly difficult at times?
John: One thing we learned from Quarantine is how difficult subjectivity is. If you’re in one place, moving through a space, that’s a powerful first-person thing. When you’re in this elevator in Devil, we tried to show one character and then what they were seeing and it places the audience in the elevator and it saved us from doing 500 shots in just this single elevator.
Drew: When we’re outside of the elevator we tried to shoot in a more objective style. The audience won’t notice the difference in styles, probably, but you’ll feel it.
Shock: What’s the ratio of story time inside and outside of the elevator?
Drew: Forty percent?
Drew: That was one of those problems during editing: How do we keep things interesting in the elevator? We didn’t trim the elevator stuff at all. That stuff played great. We could have done more if we wanted to.
Shock: How do you keep it interesting?
John: We made a vow not to do the same thing twice in the elevator. Every time you get in there, you’re learning something new. We created – this was Drew’s idea – a spotlight of suspicion. You think it might be this guy, or that guy. To keep that moving at a good pace where you come back into the elevator you think it might be the other guy. Every time you get in there, you learn something new. In pre-production, we knew our elevator stuff would be easy. But the stuff in the security office, that was going to be hard.
Drew: We wanted to show the progression of the elevator. Not only are the actors getting more and more frazzled, but the actual space is deteriorating, too. It’s pristine at first, but as we go, the mirror gets broken, we have lighting issues, the physical space breaks down.
Shock: If you’re going to confine a group of people to a single space, you need to make your characters and actors interesting obviously. Here you have actors that are exactly “names” but you recognize their faces from bit parts.
Drew: Exactly! We wanted some people to be recognized on this movie. Working with Night, that was a luxury, we didn’t require a big movie star to get it green lit. We got to audition people like crazy and everyone who was in it read for their roles. The elevator itself, it was group casting. If you were to change out the salesman, a couple of the actors might not work as well. We came up with our list of actors, Night came up with his and the five we came up with were all at the top of both of our lists.
John: They go from five people who are completely different types. And they all had different styles of acting. Some were method, some were theater, some were concerned with appearance, it was fun to watch.
Drew: A lot of them had intense physicality to them. They could say so much without saying anything.
Shock: Do you feel there is more pressure on you because this is an original horror film and many people are hungry for something that’s not a remake, not a sequel?
John: We’re excited. Everyone is doing remakes and pre-branded stuff. After Quarantine we didn’t want to do remakes. Let’s do original stuff whether it originates with us or Night or whatever.
Drew: That’s what is cool about the Night Chronicles, they’re all originals. And there are some remakes that are great and some that are not, but I think audiences do want original stuff. Hopefully, Devil will do well and encourage originality.
Shock: I’m sure you were offered a ton of remakes after Quarantine.
John: We were.
Drew: We had an original spec we intended to do. Everyone we spoke to said it was a spec thriller/horror script that had a chance, but no one was interested unless it was pre-branded.
Shock: That was the spec we talked about Comic-Con that was going to send you to Asia?
Drew: Right! But then Devil came along and we were not going to pass on the opportunity.
John: Yeah, couldn’t call Night back and say, yeah, we’ll wait on this. [laughs]
Shock: How has Night been as a mentor and producer?
John: He was great. Really cool. He’d watch dailies and be like, “Watch out for this” or “Keep an eye out for that.” It was the opposite of studio notes. Go ballsy. Don’t play it safe. Shoot it in a oner.
Drew: Don’t get so much coverage! We hadn’t had so much coverage in a film before.
John: Coverage and score, two totally fun new facets of our experience.
Shock: And who did the score for you guys?
Drew: It was a guy named Fernando VelÃ¡zquez, he did The Orphanage.
Shock: What is it with you two borrowing from Spain?
John: I know! We just love them. [laughs]
Drew: After Quarantine, Fernando told us we were not the most popular guys in Spain. [laughs]
John: “Nobody in Spain saw Quarantine.”
Drew: Thanks, Fernando! He’s great though. We’re doing a throwback score in Devil that’s very Bernard Herman. And it really feels it.
John: We wanted the whole movie to feel like a â70s horror film. It has that vibe. Even the studio said it felt like a throwback.
Shock: Do you think the title just gives us all of the goods? Was it always called Devil?
Drew: It was. And we considered it at first, but that’s the whole idea of it. It should be called Devil, he’s always present.
John: That’s the game. Who is it? And we realized the sooner we set up that game, the more people enjoy it.
Shock: Has it been tested? Has an audience seen it?
John: We had a friends and family screening with a large number of people who didn’t know us.
Drew: The studio didn’t want the cat out of the bag. But we got good feedback from that screening and we made changes as a result. It’s always scary to show off the film.
Shock: Since Quarantine, have you been keeping up with the faux horror documentaries that have come out?
Drew: Yeah, it’s a sub-genre that’s here to stay. There were a few that popped up after Blair Witch but now we’re moving beyond that and the style is becoming more permanent. A genre within the genre. I like the style a lot.
John: Even stuff like District 9, it’s a hybrid style. I think that hybrid element elevates the movie. That’s part of what we all do now. It’s hand-held.
Shock: Part of the culture.
Shock: How far did you go with Devil in terms of pushing extremes?
John: We wanted to go more Shining, Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. The violence serves a purpose, but a lot of what happens happens off camera. It’s so spooky in that tight space. I think if we leaned into the violence too much, people would be numb.
Drew: We were striving for a PG-13 rating. And the story simply asked for that. It didn’t deserve an R. If you tried to make it an R, it’d be for the wrong reasons.
John: Quarantine, if we didn’t make it an R, it would have ruined it. Poughkeepsie Tapes, too.
Drew: We covered some scenes more than what ended up in the cut of the movie and it’s funny, we always found out less is more. We wound up scaling back more because it made it all the scarier. You get just a peek.
For photos and trailers from the film, follow this link!
Source: Ryan Turek, Managing Editor