For better or for worse, "From the Mind of M. Night Shyamalan" has been generating reactions from audiences for months. The phrase is featured prominently in the trailer for 'Devil,' a film which Shyamalan conceived and produced, and as a result, there are few who have since forgotten the film. This of course is what directors John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle are counting on, since it's quite literally their efforts which will be most closely scrutinized when the film opens Friday, and they hope that those same audiences will come – and enjoy – the horror film in as many droves as they did that oft-discussed trailer.
Cinematical sat down last week with the Dowdle brothers, who were in Los Angeles promoting 'Devil.' In addition to talking about their collaboration with Shyamalan, whose presence has generated both awareness of the film and trepidation from some viewers, John Erick and Drew talked at length about the development process for the film as a whole, and examined the film's release within the context of their own careers, which thus far have been largely defined by similar sorts of scares to the ones in this film which they hope will have audiences jumping out of their seats from on opening day.
Cinematical: How did the whole collaboration with M. Night Shyamalan begin, and as directors of 'Devil,' how did you balance the responsibilities of the production?
John Erick Dowdle: It started with he had seen 'The Poughkeepsie Tapes,' which is really dark and a really difficult film for most people to watch. We were actually surprised that he liked it as much as he did. He wanted to see 'Quarantine' right before it came out, so we let him see that, and he invited us out to meet with him. We met with him like the next day in Philly, and went to his farm. He gave us a treatment of the film, like a synopsis, and we went to a Starbucks down the street and read it. We were like, dude this is crazy – this is awesome! We went back and said we'd love to do it if you want us for it, and he signed us up right then and there. We came on – that was two years ago?
Drew Dowdle: Yeah, September '08.
John Erick Dowdle: Yeah, and we've been on this ever since. But the division of labor was it was his idea, and he's one of the producers. It was his first time producing something that he didn't direct, so coming into this we said, let's see how hands-on or off he is. We were afraid he would just sort of steamroll right over us.
Drew Dowdle: A director could second-guess us a lot, but he never did that. He very much played the producer role and very much played goalie in a lot of ways, [saying] "what you're doing is great, but watch out for that thing. Stretched out over the whole movie, that one actor's tendency is going to bother you in editorial – I can see it." So he saw a lot of things coming that we may or may not have caught, so he really played the big brother-goalie with the studio, and with the whole production. His involvement gave us this really nice kind of force field around us where, you know, Universal was great to us, but they didn't get very involved. So it just felt like we were up in Toronto and we would talk to Night every day after we would see dailies, talk it through and then we would go back to work. He came up three days out of our 39 days of shooting, and in post we would show him stuff every few weeks, so it was a very collaborative effort, but we felt like we had a lot more autonomy than we did on our previous films.
Cinematical: Did you have to devote a lot of energy to fleshing out his idea, or was it pretty fully formed when he showed it to you?
John Erick Dowdle: He actually had hired a writer named Brian Nelson, who did 'Hard Candy' and '30 Days of Night,' and Brian had just started the script when we were hired on. So it was cool – it sort of became the whole group of us, like Brian would write a draft, and then Night and Drew and I would all analyze it and discuss amongst ourselves, and then say, okay, let's try to push this further or try to do more of this. It became sort of a script written by a small village-sort of thing, and it was a really cool process. This was the first thing that we did that we didn't write the script [for] top to bottom ourselves; 'Quarantine' was a remake but we wrote the script for it. So it was an interesting process for us, to give ideas to Brian Nelson and then see what he came back with. It was really quite fun.
Drew Dowdle: It was fun – it was like putting it through the filter and coming back and seeing what new things he could come up with. Structurally, it was a very complicated script, and in the eight-page treatment, the whole story was there – a beginning, a middle and an end. And when we expanded it into a hundred-page screenplay, it was very complicated, so it was really an enjoyable challenge.
Cinematical: Did you have any trepidations about working with Shyamalan coming into this? Obviously he recruited you for this, and he could facilitate a lot of creative freedom for you thanks to his own commercial success, but his own critical pedigree and the perception of him has sort of diminished in recent years. Were there any preconceived ideas that you were happy to discover were untrue?
John Erick Dowdle: When we first went to meet him, we read press, but we honestly didn't know what to expect. We didn't know what he would be like as a person, and when we met him, I'd really never met someone whose private persona was so different. He was super warm and like this geeky, nice, cool guy. He was like, "hey guys! Come on in!" He was extremely funny, which is not something you get from the public persona of him. He's just a big goofball, and he's really warm. He was having an 'Airbender' meeting with the heads of ILM, and he was like, "come on in and join us," and from like Day One kind of treating us like peers – which he didn't have to do. That meant a lot to us for him to bring us in and say, "the reason I want to work with you guys is because I want to learn stuff from you guys too." He's become a buddy of ours, and I could call him when we were in post and be like, "what do we do?" and he would talk us down.
Drew Dowdle: We'll continue to call him when we have issues on our next movie. He's become such a close friend and resource to us; he's so bright, and you can tell immediately when you go to the farm from the people who work for him all of the time, just how great of a guy he is by the relationship he has with these people.
John Erick Dowdle: You can tell a lot about people from the people they keep around them.
Drew Dowdle: I would say one thing I was surprised by just as far as big directors in general is that when they make a decision, they know one thing is right, and from a creative standpoint, that can be the end of the discussion. Night, I've got to say, has got very strong opinions, but when our opinion would differ, he would really listen. He would listen to our case, and at time he would go, "you know what? Let's go with that." We've worked with people in the past that weren't like that – it was like, "the decision is made." Night was really collaborative and really open to changing his mind, if we made the case compelling enough. That's when you know somebody's a real collaborator.
Cinematical: Having done two sort of found-footage films, was this more or less of a challenge for you, since this has more cinematic opportunities, but much of it also takes place in a contained space?
John Erick Dowdle: To use coverage and score, those were two things we didn't have on 'Quarantine.' After 'Quarantine' we had all of these potential films that we were looking at doing, and people were like, "but can you shoot normal film?" We were like, [found footage] is harder! (laughs) So on this one, we were like, let's really get cinematic – let's go crazy. We have crane shots and helicopters and it was really fun; my wife jokes that since meeting her seven years ago I've been talking about, "on my next film, I'm going to use a crane!" and then it would be 'The Poughkeepsie Tapes' and it would be totally inappropriate. In 'Quarantine' it would be totally inappropriate. But I finally got my crane! But we could just do the coolest things and move the camera and we wanted also to kind of play with the vertical axis. All of our films have sort of been from [shoulder height] and to be able to go down or go high and do stuff like that was really, really fun.
Drew Dowdle: To have [cinematographer] Tak Fujimoto, too, was a huge blessing. That was like a dream for us. But at the same time, coverage was in our mind a luxury that we could use to protect ourselves and make sure we had enough, but that doesn't mean we should close it down and cover everything. Let's still try to do really long [continuous takes], and there's quite a few 'oners' in the movie that are complicated. We like doing that really choreographed blocking, and we're going to do that very much on our next film too. That's something we really enjoy doing, and that really came from 'Quarantine' and 'The Poughkeepsie Tapes.'
John Erick Dowdle: Especially when the scene calls for that. There's a certain discipline that was sort of forced on us by the content of 'Quarantine,' to a series of 'oners' throughout the movie, and 'Poughkeepsie Tapes' too, that we wouldn't have to do on something like 'Devil.' But it's nice to say, we have this discipline, let's use it and really focus on blocking. Like the Coen brothers are so great at moving the camera and people through space, and that's so fun. It really brings you into that space, it orients you, and there are so many movies now where you can't tell where the hell you are. It just wears you out, and I really like that kind of fluid motion where you know where you are and you can inhabit the space.
As far as trying to keep the elevator interesting, one thing we did was take a little bit from our previous films, and we wanted to create a real subjectivity in the elevator – and put the audience in the elevator with these characters and make them feel they're one of them. So what we would do was any time we would cut into the elevator, we would pick whose scene it is, we would get in for a close-up, and then see everything he is seeing in the space. We would intercut those two; we didn't just hose it down, we were very specific with what we shot in that space. It makes it feel really visceral, and like you're really in that elevator looking around and people look at you out of the corner of your eye so you really feel like you're in that space. That was really fun, and then outside the elevator we shot over-the-shoulders and more objectively, so that was fun too – getting to shoot in a style we hadn't shot in in quite some time.
Cinematical: Obviously to some extent the subject matter dictates what kind of style of horror you employ. But do you have a personal preference between the sort of slow-burn horror that seems to be making a comeback and the more aggressive, shocking stuff that's been popular as well?
John Erick Dowdle: I think a lot of the films that we love, like 'The Shining,' 'The Omen,' and 'Jacob's Ladder,' they're sort of psychologically horrible, and I think that more than the gory stuff, we love that more. I would definitely say that the content dictates the style quite a bit, but within that, I really think there are certain moments where, like, two people are toe-to-toe about to kill each other, and you can draw that out for three days if you can think of more stuff to do. You can just almost sit there and watch two people looking at each other and ready to kill each other, whereas describing how to get to work should end up on the floor. And I think holding on one shot and seeing someone up close contemplating a life or death situation is so intense that you can really hold that for days. With our editor, we were like, "less cuts! Less cuts!" because with 'Quarantine' we didn't really have the luxury of cutting, so I've liked that as a general rule that style of less cuts, trying to lean on the performance, and rely on the characters to tell you the story.
Drew Dowdle: Instead of trying to create tension through crazy cutting. We tend to keep it more rooted in the performance and in the moment or the scene. We try to, anyway.
Cinematical: Do you guys have an opinion on the abundance of remakes versus original horror movies? Because obviously remaking something affords you the opportunity to capitalize on audience familiarity with an existing film, but the number of those productions limits the number of original projects studios can support.
John Erick Dowdle: As filmmakers, we definitely enjoy building from the ground up. We love doing original stuff, but 'Quarantine' was an amazing experience for us – it brought us into the studio system-
Drew Dowdle: We made the type of film we wanted to make, for sure. But the remake element of it was new for us, obviously.
John Erick Dowdle: I did get that, you know, "in the original, they..." and it was creatively stifling at times also. If you change too much then people are pissed, and if you don't change enough people are pissed. It was such a weird thing for us, and immediately after we got offered a number of things that were remakes and we basically said, never say never, but I can't see a world in which we would do another remake, unless it was so distant [from the original].
Drew Dowdle: If it was a wild adaptation. It is a tough experience, and like John said ['Quarantine'] was a great experience for us. It was exactly the kind of movie we wanted to make and we had a blast making it, but you can just never get away from that, "in the original..." 'Let Me In' looks like such a kick-ass trailer, and I bet Matt Reeves did an amazing job with it, but he'll get a lot of that too – but I'm sure he's prepared for it. But it's nice to get back to originality.
John Erick Dowdle: We come from a writing background in a lot of ways, and that's one of my favorite pastimes when we're not working. I'm constantly trying to sneak off and go and write. I love that part of it, and it would be sad if that ended up dying so we could do remake after remake. It's a nice time to be people who can do original stuff, and thankfully 'Devil' was an original concept. It's really exciting to be one of the few original horror films to come out in some time.
Cinematical: Are you guys pretty happy continuing to work in horror? Not maybe unlike a foreign-language filmmaker who unfairly gets asked if he wants to make "real" movies in Hollywood, genre filmmaking can be ghettoized. Do the majority of your creative impulses lie in horror moviemaking, or do you see the films you've done thus far as a stepping stone to working in other genres?
John Erick Dowdle: We've always kind of followed the ideas. Our first film was a comedy. We were sitting at lunch one day and I said, "what if we did a faux-documentary on a serial killer's home movies?" Drew was like "oh my God – let's stop everything and do that!" We didn't know if we'd be good at horror.
Drew Dowdle: We were horror fans.
John Erick Dowdle: We loved it, but we hadn't done it, and frankly I didn't know if I was a good enough director to make a horror film. Comedy is more straightforward; you just lean on the writing, and I was more comfortable with that. But horror, you've got to be a filmmaker. And that's been really fun shifting, but I could see us doing a little bit of everything.
Drew Dowdle: The horror genre is so experiential, and we love that element. We realized one thing after 'The Poughkeepsie Tapes' and it's that you can be really tweaky and artistic and do things that are much more experimental in the genre that you can never do in another genre. That appeals to us, so I think most things we do going forward will have some element of the horror genre, even if it's not straight down the middle.