After creating a buzz with their indie hit The Poughkeepsie Tapes, the directing/writing/producing team of brothers John and Drew Dowdle has been hard at work in the genre of found footage features. With one more trick up their sleeve for the popular subgenre, the Brothers Dowdle are taking audiences on a trip through history with their new film, As Above/So Below.
Starring Perdita Weeks (The Invisible Woman), Ben Feldman (Made Men, A to Z, Cloverfield), and Francois Civil (Frank); As Above/So Below takes its viewers into the very real Catacombs of Paris. The filmmakers were granted unprecedented access to shoot in the actual catacombs, including some of its restricted sections. We spoke with the brothers about shooting in such a hallowed location (also home to the bones of millions past Parisian residents), as well as how their found footage style played into their upcoming Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan thriller, The Coup.
Tell me, what was the genesis for the creation of this story?
John Erick Dowdle: Well, Drew and I had, for a long time, done a couple of found footage movies. We were done with that subgenre unless we did a found footage that was a female Indiana Jones character. What would that be like? Something epic, but done on a really intimate scale. So, we had that idea sort of kicking around, but we were focused on other stuff. We’ve long been fascinated with the catacombs but we had never put the two together.
We got a call one day from Thomas Tull, the ever-legendary mind behind Legendary Pictures. He brought up the idea, “Guys, I’d love to do something in the Parisian catacombs. Do you guys have any ideas?” It was just that lightning bolt moment. It was like, “Oh my God, that would go perfect with Scarlett Marlowe [Perdita Weeks’ character] and the plot we’re showing [about Nicholas Flamel]. We had all these ideas that sort of came together. We pitched the idea two days later, and then we just started making it.
Drew Dowdle: I would say from that meeting to the first location pick was probably about a month apart. Things moved very quickly from that first meeting.
So obviously, when you shoot anything, you don’t want anybody to get hurt, you don’t want anything to happen to the equipment, you don’t want anything to happen to the location. But shooting in such a location, with such expensive equipment, with real, live actors: what is that experience like?
JD: It was pretty crazy. We kind of have a … we’re very safety conscious. We have all kinds of rules and tricks. We have a safe word on set, so if anyone ever felt in danger, they would say “Canard,” which is the French word for duck, because the ceilings in there are very low, which we just found funny. But in those confined spaces, people would take headers—they’d hit their heads on the ceiling quite a bit. That was actually a little dangerous. One of our assistant camera guys got whiplash from hitting his head, and his head cranking back. He had to wear a neck brace until the end of the shoot.
Shooting down there, we just had to take a really intelligent approach to shooting. We had the actors…the scenes were lit by the actual actors’ headlamps. There’s a scene towards the end of the movie—a sort of key, pivotal scene—and the camera is just in Scarlett’s hand. We tried very hard never to set marks, never to force the actor into a specific blocking. Actors could move wherever they wanted on any take. And the camera could follow. We kept it really facet-less, and shot it like you would shoot a real documentary. We kept it really lively and fun.
You spoke about the story elements you were already working on would work really well – you brought up the whole Nicolas Flamel [alleged medieval French alchemist] angle. This is something you probably never thought about, but I feel like the minute that J. K. Rowling put anything in one of her Harry Potter books, Harry Potter fans automatically thought it belongs to her; even if it was a real person. Even if it was fiction and she used it, they would think people are stealing from her. Were you worried about that, one way or the other? Did you ever want to change it to somebody fictional?
JD: You know, no. We wanted to go with stuff that was kind of a real legend. If you look it up, you can find pages and pages about Flamel and all that…I mean, there’s a street in Paris that’s named after Nicolas Flamel. He was a famous Romanian alchemist. It’s pretty awesome that he was so well regarded, that they would name one street after him, and one street after his wife. Just the fact, to capture that in a realistic kind of format, versus a fantasy. That stuff is great, but we wanted to go with more of the real, natural legend on this.
DD: We liked the idea of a found footage movie in a supernatural space. When we started talking about putting Scarlett in the catacombs, it was such a natural connection to Flamel and her family, and what it is she’s looking for. It really did have a real history to jump off, to go into that supernatural space. We obviously knew the Harry Potter connection, but it never gave us a second of a pause. It just is so different. It’s a real history. It’s not like we’re taking a fictional character from Harry Potter. It never concerned us.
Your main cameraman really gets hurt first, which generally doesn’t happen in found footage movies. But things are happening to him, which generally are the opposite from the norm; which is the main cameraman is the last one to have something happen to him/her. Was that something purposefully you were trying to do, new and different?
JD: A little of each. We try very hard to do little things to keep the audience off-balance. If the audience is off-balance, it forces them to pay attention. When things happen by the numbers, they don’t have to pay as close attention—it’s just not very enjoyable. So little things, like putting the cameraman in harm’s way early, doesn’t feel like the way it’s supposed to be done.
DD: We also really like treating the cameraman, of course, like a crew member, and the main footage really was the cameraman; we saw him very little. His voice is very present throughout the movie, but in this one, we liked the idea of not treating the cameraman so much like just the camera, really letting that device sort of fall into the background, and having that head camera coverage, that allowed us to see Benji [the aforementioned cameraman] a lot. It allowed him to be another character, rather than just being stuck in the box of being just the cameraman. We did like the idea of the camera itself being one of the last things to survive, but maybe not the cameraman being the last to survive, and to keep it a little less traditional that way.
Obviously, whenever you hire actors for anything, you hire them for their talent, what they bring to the role, what they can bring to the piece to the whole. When you cast somebody like Ben [Feldman] though, does the idea of him having previous work in the found footage film [Cloverfield] help with the idea that he can handle himself in that filming situation?
JD: Oh, yeah. For a moment, I forgot that he was in Cloverfield. When you’re casting somebody for a found footage movie, they have to throw away dialogue in a way that feels very natural. That’s a really hard thing to do. It doesn’t sound that hard—but if you seem like you’re acting, in any movie, it’s not good, but in found footage, it’s really not good. I feel like there are certain actors that can throw away dialogue in a way that’s very natural. Ben’s really, really great at that. I’m sure that’s what jumped out to us. Frankly, we auditioned tons and tons of people, for all of these roles, and looked for the best person. It wasn’t a big surprised that Ben had done this before, because he obviously knew how to play this.
DD: It’s a fine balance too between your relationship and the camera in a found footage movie. There’s no fourth wall, so obviously you can acknowledge the camera, but if you start to play to the camera too much, you’re constantly reminding the audience that the camera’s there. If you cross that line too much, it becomes a little too present. Not only is he great with dialogue, but he’s also really great with his relationship with the camera, where you didn’t feel like he was playing the camera too much, but also not too little. It’s a tough balance.
You said early that you were trying to move away from found footage, but this kind of popped it’s head up as being the perfect situation. Can we expect The Coup to look different, to feel different, and if so, coming off of something like this, how does it feel shooting something like that right away?
JD: It’s pretty great. You know what was really interesting was The Coup is really more of a traditional feature, but there’s a lot of hand-held, there’s a lot of natural tone to it. But after shooting As Above, we so enjoyed shooting, and editing, all these little subplots—that was so enjoyable that on The Coup, we were like, “What if we edited some of this as if this were a found footage movie. What if we do little jump cuts in it?” How would that look? I hadn’t really seen that in a normal narrative.
We took a little bit of the found footage aesthetic, and brought it to that, which plays really interesting. As a director, so rarely do you get to show up on set, warm. Usually, it’s been two or three years since you’ve been on set, and it takes you a little while to sort of get back into the feeling. “Okay, I’m really doing it now.” Whereas, when we shot As Above, seven weeks [later] we were shooting The Coup. It was nice to show up to that set really warm, and really feeling in fighting shape.
DD: I got so used to the blocking, just setting up everyday. We really took a found footage approach to how we would set up blocking for each scene, where we’d do really long, extended takes. Even if we’re not planning on doing a oner, we’d have three cameras going all the time, and we’d tell our camera operators, “It’s okay if you see other cameras, let’s just allow the performances to have these more extended moments, where the actors really get heated up.”
Really kind of feel the frenetic energy, and not just be like, “One mark here, one mark there.” Really take a found footage approach to blocking, and we’ll deal with it in editorial, later. The actors loved that, they really did. It’s unusual for Owen [Wilson] and Lake [Bell], and Pierce [Brosnan] to shoot in that way. I think that’s something they may take from us, that we may take from found footage for all movies that we do.
Now are you guys on to the next project already, or are you going to take a little break before gearing up?
JD: No, we’re working on two different scripts right now, and we’ve got a couple different irons in the fire. We don’t believe in taking breaks.
DD: It’s usually unintended when we’re taking breaks. So we’re hoping not to.
So, I’ll let you go and have a one-minute break before the next person calls in. That’s something, at least.
DD: Really nice to talk to you, Matthew.