M. Night Shyamalan may be the name which gets the most immediate and visceral reaction from horror fans who view the trailer for Universal’s upcoming Devil, but looking past the twist-laden director’s role as story man and executive producer for the September 17 horror film finds the movie in the hands of brothers Drew and John Erick Dowdle.
Best known for their respective producing and directing roles on the 2008 screamer “Quarantine” (whose screenplay they also adapted from the Spanish flick [REC]), the Dowdle Brothers joined the production of Devil shortly after Shyamalan turned his original story over to screenwriter Brian Nelson. Starring Chris Messina, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend and Caroline Dhavernas as a quintet of elevator riders who become trapped only to learn that one of them is a murderous supernatural force.
Spinoff Online had the chance to catch up with producer Drew Dowdle and his older director brother John Erick Dowdle at the recent Wizard World Chicago Comic Con, and the natives of the Twin Cities revealed the influence of hometown heroes The Coen Brothers on their working relationship, their roots in horror and genre films, their take on the growth in P.O.V. fright fests and how working in a tight space with Shyamalan helped them make a movie that they hope is as cryptic and mysterious as it is scary.
Spinoff Online: Before we get to the specifics on “Devil” itself, I wanted to ask about your outlook on the work division between you. You’ve got a lot of brother teams in Hollywood who make movies together and take different roles, how did you find your current producer/director titles?
John Erick Dowdle: If we go way back, I think the way this all started was that I was writing all the time from around the time I was 14. Drew’s a little younger than me, and I couldn’t show any of my friends my writing because it would look a little weird, but Drew is something I could tell anything to. So I’d bring my writing across the hall and show it to him, and he’d give notes, and then I’d go back into my room and rework it. We started this working relationship way back then, and we knew as adults we wanted to work together. We weren’t sure on what, but we thought it’d have something to do with writing or film. I ended up going to film school at NYU, and Drew ended up…
Drew Dowdle: Going to business school at Michigan. We really liked the Coen Brothers. Their model was what we were going for because they were our hometown guys – one directs, one produces. They co-writer and both control everything about their movies. How cool is that? That’s how we want to do it. We wanted both sides of that, and we have different personalities. As kids, John was always more creative, and I was always a bit more square and detail-oriented. I was good at math and things like that.
John: But Drew is the better communicator. I remember in first grade or kindergarden, I was the kid going, “Let’s put on a carnival, and we’ll invite all the kids in the neighborhood!” and Drew would be like, “Well, we’re going to need this and this, and we’re going to have to put signs here and there and do fortunes over there.” [Laughter] It was like the mini versions of us now. I think those divisions are innate.
Drew: They are innate, but I don’t do anything on the producing end of things without going to him and having him contribute, and it’s the same thing when we’re on set. We’re sitting next to each other at the monitors talking about every take, and I get to get my directing kicks through him. It’s a good way to keep us firmly entrenched in those sides.
What draws you guys to horror specifically? So far, your horror films haven’t gone into slasher film territory or torture porn or these other reliable genres we know for that genre. Do you consider yourselves horror guys first and foremost, or has it just been where things have led?
John: It’s a good question. We’ve had a lot of fun doing the horror we’ve done, but there are two kinds of horror. There’s “The Shining” and then there’s…
“Freddy Versus Jason!”
John: Exactly! Those feel very different to us, and we wouldn’t just do a genre film because it’s a genre film. A lot of the stuff we look at, we’ll say, “No. That’s just not what we’re after.” This movie is sort of a supernatural thriller/horror thriller kind of a film, and in the future I could see us doing more thrillers and more other genre stuff.
Drew; It’s funny. Growing up, we were obviously huge horror film fans, but we always thought we’d do comedy. Our earlier stuff was more dark comedy-driven as maybe another homage to the Coen Brothers. Our first film was a comedy, and then John had the idea for “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” one day when we were spit-balling ideas around. He went, “What about a faux-documentary about a serial killers home video tapes?” and in that moment we became genre guys. We dropped a comedy we’d been working on for six months with committed investors right then. We put it aside and changed gears and went off on the “Poughkeepsie Tapes” path, and we got better known for it because that got a lot more attention than our first film. Now we’ve done “Quarantine” and “Devil,” and this is a great genre. I can see us doing non-thriller/horror movies in the future at some point, but the things we’re looking at next are all thrillers. So maybe we’ll be one step out from this stuff, but we like those experiential, intense movies a lot, and genre films allow you to get a lot crazier.
John: I don’t think we’ll do “Rudy” or something like that. [Laughter] That’s not in our wheelhouse.
Drew: And we’ve had a lot of ideas for dramas that seem really cool, but they all have a bit of a dark edge to them.
For a while, we’ve seen this cinéma vérité/documentary/handheld style of horror movies growing in popularity, and it really peaked last year. People like that both because the first person stuff draws people in but also because it’s low-budget. You did some of that with “Poughkeepsie Tapes” and “Quarantine,” but it seems you’ve receded a bit more with each movie, and now “Devil” appears to have very little. How do you view that aspect of the genre now that you’ve moved past it a little?
John: It’s such a fun style, that point of view style. We love it and had a blast doing it. It’s a great study in terms of learning blocking and things you wouldn’t have to learn in a traditional cinema creation.
Drew: Learning how to create tension without relying on score too much. In the more traditional style, you can over-rely on devices like score and coverage to create tension, but when you’re shooting P.O.V./found footage style, you’ve got the blocking and the scene. That’s it. I feel like it’s made us better filmmakers in that it’s a harder style. But it’s interesting. When we were making “Poughkeepsie Tapes,” a big part of our pitch was “People are so used to shooting things on their Flips and putting stuff on YouTube that this aesthetic is not a fad. It’s a new part of cinema, and it’s here to stay.” I get really excited when a movie like “Paranormal Activity” does so well, and I’d love to see those kinds of movies continue to be successful so it’s a long term style of cinema.
And it seems like it’s empowering to up and coming people to some extent. You don’t have to go to a studio to make a real movie anymore.
Drew: Absolutely. We programmed for Slamdance, which is a festival in Park City, and it’s amazing how many submissions that are coming in are not just genre films shot in that style but all types of movies done first person style.
John: It worked for us, thank God! We did a $30,000 feature and then a half million dollar feature, and we shot them on video. And without those, we wouldn’t be able to be doing this.
How did “Devil” come together for you? I know M. Night Shyamalan wrote the treatment. Did you two come on right away, or did the project move around a bit before you came and put your spin on it?
John: We came on right away. Night had hired the writer Brian Nelson who did “Hard Candy” and “30 Days of Night.” He was working on the script when Night found us and hired us, so we were there really from the beginning before anyone had read a draft of the script. As soon as Brian finished a draft, we all read through it and gave different ideas on different things. We were there for a year before we started shooting.
Drew: We were hired a month and a half or so before Brian’s draft was due, and we got to work with him and contribute a lot of ideas for our own. We felt like we had a really nice influence on the screenplay from the very early stages, and then Brian took it home.
The premise – a group of people trapped in an elevator, one of whom is some kind of malevolent supernatural force – is intriguing for a few reasons, but something that stands out to me in terms of the challenge of making that story work is that each of the characters needs to have a lot going on to keep the mystery up. They need to be a little charming, a little relatable, a little shady, a little vulnerable…how did that effect casting? Did you work a lot on red herrings to throw the concepts into upheaval a little?
John: Absolutely. For us, a huge part of the development of this was that every time you cut to the elevator, something needs to change. You can’t just have five people in an elevator bickering and keep that interesting. Drew was the first one who really started talking about “the spotlight of suspicion.” There has to be a spotlight of suspicion that moves from one person to the next in very tangible, very clear moment. We really focused a lot of attention on going, “Now we think it’s this person. Oh wait! But then something happens, and now we think it’s this guy!” To keep that motion keeps the film interesting.
Drew: And keeping it sustained on one person for a little length of time – a little bit of you, a little bit of you, a little bit of you – we thought that might exhaust an audience. We want to spend some time to really focus on “This guy might be it” in distinct moments. And an audience might go, “Oh, the filmmakers are telling me it’s him, so it must be anyone but him!” And that reaction is fine. It makes it a fun guessing game.
It’s almost like doing it as Hitchcock would do…keeping the scenes very controlled and tight on one element at a time rather than just going, “And then there was an explosion…let’s cut to the next reel!”
Drew: Totally. And we talked about how we want each scene in the elevator to be one character’s scene. It’s their moment, and we shoot it in this subjective style where if it’s your scene, I’m shooting center punched and then looking from your point of view. With the script, we had to really analyze every elevator scene going sequentially through the movie and decide which scene was whose scene and how we would tailor the scene to them.
Are you flashing back to characters’ supposed past as they hit their scene, or is it keeping all in the moment?
Drew: It’s pretty much all in the moment. We joke that this is our third movie – and the next one if going to be the same thing – where nobody changes their clothes. [Laughter] It’s all in one day.
Filming in an elevator – even an elevator set – is really confined. How do you keep the feeling on the set from being to static and claustrophobic, and with the final film, how do you make a small box cinematic?
John: A big part of it was using the subjective perspective where we’re following what one character’s looking at in scenes. That helped out a lot. And then trying to find ways to get a character high or low so we can move vertically is the kind of thing that helps switch it up. You don’t feel like you’re seeing the same elevator every time you’re back there. And lights! We spent a lot of time in pre-production building lights. There’s center-panel lights and can lights and a back light. So over the course of the film as things happened and spread, we could erode the elevator where the lighting made it feel like a totally different space at the end of the movie than it was at the beginning.
Drew: The production design really changes over the course of the movie. It visually stays fresh, and having a cinematographer like Tak Fujimoto – he’s amazing. Having him working with the pre-production, our biggest goal was “How do we continue to make this elevator look really interesting? What can we do to enhance the intrigue over the course of the movie rather than let audiences get tired of the space?” That was the biggest single challenge.
This isn’t a monster movie, but there’s a definite supernatural element to what’s going on. How do you achieve the kinds of thrills you want in terms of that true horror element in play?
John: For us, we love experimenting with not seeing a lot of stuff. “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” had a lot of the horrible stuff happen off camera. “Quarantine” dealt with a lot of the sound because it was so dark, and you could only see a few feet out in front of the camera in this tight beam where things keep coming from our of nowhere. In this, we really liked playing a lot with the darkness. The lights go out, and bad things happen. That’s been really fun for us to play with. There’s no picture at all.
Drew: It’s nothing but sound, and when you see it in a full theater with surround sound and everything, that’s when you feel like you’re in the elevator the most. Your hear it all all around you. Once you use that device once in the movie and then drop the lights again, people know that something bad is going to happen. and it gets more and more fun.
This is probably the question you’ll get more often than not, but because Night came up with the screen story, did you work with him to cook up a twist for the ending?
John: You’ll have to see! [Laughter] Night’s also very secretive, so we’ve got to be careful about what we say about the ending.
Devil, which stars Chris Messina, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend and Caroline Dhavernas, opens on Sept. 17.