Speaking exclusively to SciFiNow from the Paris catacombs, director and co-writer John Erick Dowdle and his writing partner/brother Drew Dowdle (the team behind Quarantine, The Poughkeepsie Tapes and M Night Shyamalan’s Devil) gave us an insight into As Above So Below, the the found footage chiller that opens in UK cinemas 29 August 2014….
It’s not just a straight-up horror film, it’s also a treasure hunt. How did that idea come about?
JED: We wanted something that was more than just five teens go into the catacombs and never come out. We wanted something that had some depth and some adventure, a Da Vinci Code-esque quest figuring out clues in a puzzle. We always thought that would be a fun way into something scary.
DD: The Scarlett character [played by The Tudors‘ Perdita Weeks] was someone we’d been developing for a while. Someone who was an archaeologist and you could give her a set of clues. We didn’t want another underground creature movie. Neil Marshall did that quite well with The Descent but we wanted to do something outside of that – but at the same time with an element of the supernatural.
JED: There’s something about leading people with intellect and a sense of adventure and then facing them with stuff that’s scary and surreal. We found that a fun trajectory to take, starting off with a historical textbook slant and then taking off with the super weirdo stuff.
You seem to have had fun playing with traditional horror tropes in this movie….
JED: Absolutely. For example, usually in this kind of move you start with a wide space and you go tighter and tighter and tighter, we wanted to go more and more open, to lead with the claustrophobia but then open it all up. We love keeping people off balance, I feel that’s what keeps audiences engaged. With it being a small movie, we didn’t have to appeal to everybody in the world so we felt like we could go a little edgier, a little weirder with it.
After the POV intensity of Quarantine and the supernatural elements – in a very tight space – of Devil, it feels like you’ve been naturally building up to this film…
JED: This film is like our greatest hits album.
DD: We’re just ripping ourselves off.
JED: With [2007’s] The Poughkeepsie Tapes, that film was ours, we wrote and made it together, it was our own thing. Then Quarantine was a remake and Devil was an idea from M Night Shyamalan and there was a lot of his involvement. After that, we said let’s go back to doing our own thing. We’ll go back to The Poughkeepsie Tapes era.
DD: Something that we could write, direct and produce independently. Obviously, Legendary were involved but it was very much like making an independent movie. It was great having that freedom again.
JED: But at the same time it was great getting to use some of the tricks we learned from M Night Shyamalan and everything we learned from making Quarantine and going back to make a found-footage film with everything we now know.
Were you concerned about going back to the found-footage genre?
JED: For us, it was a chance to go back to where we started and try to have fun with it. That really was the genesis of it, I think that fun translates – if the filmmakers are clearly having fun making the film then that comes through to the audience. There are certain movies that are made out of agony and some that are made out of joy – even a horror movie made out of joy can still be scary.
DD: A big thing about getting found-footage right is the casting. First and foremost, get really great actors who can sell reality, who can act in a way that doesn’t seem like acting. There are great actors who can’t do this kind of acting, it’s a very special brand of acting.
JED: Yeah, found-footage would not have been possible in the Hitchcock era.
DD: The key to found-footage is that it has to have a point. The characters have to draw you in and the story has to really work.
This was the first film to ever be made in the deepest, darkest unreachable parts of the Parisian catacombs. How did that negotiation happen?
DD: In pre-production, we kept saying that we wanted to shoot in the real thing and our production services company said that’s just not possible. They said there’s a bunch of quarries outside Paris that look a little like the catacombs or we could build a section on stage, but we were like, ‘No!’ Legendary got involved and started talking to the French government and the day before we started shooting we got permission for six crew members and the cast to go down there. Even though every French teenager goes down there, they didn’t want us advertising the entrance, which is understandable.
You went into the catacombs with only a small skeleton crew, so that begs the question, were the naked devil worshippers with you or already there?
JED: In pre-production, a question we raised with our editor is would it be possible to score a found-footage movie? No one’s ever scored one, it doesn’t even make sense to score one, so we were determined to find a way to score the movie. So we had that chorus come in to give us some justification to have some score elements going forward in the movie to give a feeling that you’re moving into something otherworldly.
DD: We spent a lot of time in pre-production talking to cataphiles [Paris catacomb explorers] and asked them what was the weirdest thing they’d seen. There had been entire orchestras, there was a cinema down there and somebody mentioned a choir of like 20 singers people really deep down. We thought that was a cool idea, but let’s make ours naked and covered in blood.
Watching this, I was reminded of some classic films, not at all in a derivative way. For example, the opening was reminiscent of The Exorcist and there are moments that are just like The Goonies. Were those breadcrumbs intentional?
JED: We definitely watched The Goonies, that kinds of group adventure where you have a to figure out how to get through a space just seems so fun. Other films like The Shining, The Omen…
DD: When you think of personalised demons coming to haunt you, you think of Flatliners and Event Horizon. There are a few movies that have had that great kind of idea, so when writing you can’t help but think about what did and didn’t work about them.
JED: Like The Dirty Dozen, we studied that. We wanted to make The Dirty Dozen goes to hell.
As Above So Below is in cinemas 29 August 2014. For more horror coverage, check out our new range of digital-exclusive Horror Handbooks.