Keeping things very secret until its release tomorrow morning is Universal Pictures’ Devil, the M. Night Shyamalan-produced (under his Night Chronicles banner) thriller that stars Chris Messina as Bowden, a sobered-up homicide detective who is involved with a group of people trapped in an elevator — when they begin to mysteriously die one by one. Bloody Disgusting’s Chris Eggertsen sat down with filmmakers Drew and John Erick Dowdle to chat about the evil visitor and hopefully provide some clues into this weekend’s big mystery.
There is famously much contention over the extent of Steven Spielberg’s involvement in the production of 1982 film Poltergeist; some involved say he fully directed several scenes, while others claim that he simply exercised a very strong hand in creative decisions. Spielberg himself was quoted in one interview saying, “Tobe isn’t…a take charge sort of guy”. With all the speculation surrounding the authorship of the finished product, questions continue to linger 28 years later.
I bring this up because Devil, helmed by Quarantine and Poughkeepsie Tapes director John Erick Dowdle, was produced by M. Night Shyamalan, a man who was once considered Spielberg’s possible successor – a director capable of blending art with blockbuster popular entertainment. And while that comparison appears to have been extremely premature given what has been seen as the diminishing returns of Shyamalan’s post-Sixth Sense output, he is nevertheless one of the few “name” directors working in the business in 2010. So just how involved was the wunderkind in the day-to-day production of the film? Did he pull a Spielberg and get his nose all up in Dowdles’ bidness?
“Night was talking about [how] `on Poltergeist I’m sure Spielberg, you know, had to come in fix all this stuff’”, said Dowdle when I interviewed him the other day in anticipation of Devil‘s opening this Friday. “And we’re like, `oh god, please don’t let that ever happen’. Thankfully he was ecstatic with the job we did, which was really nice.”
By “we” Dowdle means himself and brother/creative partner Drew, who has served as producer on all three of John’s films and was a co-screenwriter on Quarantine. Luckily for the brothers, though they had a “standing call” with Shyamalan every day after he’d finished watching the production dailies, he was only on set for four days of the forty-day shoot.
“He was really cool about it”, said John. “We were worried about him being…a director producing for the first time, and we’ve heard horror stories of other people trying to do that. So I can see that going terribly. But it [didn't], he was great. He trusted us creatively and gave us a long leash.”
That trust seems to have paid off, at least insofar as the fact that Universal executives were so impressed with the film they decided to move up the release date a full six months – from February 11th, 2011 to September 17th.
“The timing here, and the season, is in a lot of ways better for our kind of film”, said Drew. “The other scenario was, you know, finish in August and wait six months or seven months for it to come out. It’s very hard to wait…so [it's] definitely a vote a confidence when you move up that far. They got a cut of the trailer, and everyone saw it and everyone was like, `ok, let’s do this now.’…it had a lot of momentum.”
It definitely seems as if the film has been given quite a push from the studio, considering the raft of advertising that has sprung up around the film’s release. Questions always arise, of course, when a film pegged as “horror” – and with a hit-you-over-the-head name like Devil – comes out with a PG-13 rating. Unfortunately it is a label that in recent years – particularly for fans of hardcore horror – has come with the connotation of being “watered down” or “mainstreamed” by the studio. To that potential backlash, Drew made sure to point out that the `PG-13′ was not a mandate from studio execs but rather due to the nature of the project itself – one that John describes as “Hitchcockian”.
“`Devil’…was so obviously a `PG-13′ when we read the treatment. It was one of those where it was so much about the suspense and so much about the `whodunit’ of it all”, Drew told me. “There’s violence, and there’s really some brutal things that happen. But it was [about] not seeing everything, and that absolutely lends itself to a PG-13.”
In fact, having the film come out with an `R’-rating was something the brothers ended up fighting against when they went before the ratings board; not because it would have cut into their audience necessarily, but because they legitimately didn’t feel it merited the more restrictive tag.
“We did have to struggle a little bit with the MPAA to get a `PG-13′”, said John. “[The film] would’ve been like the softest `R’. And that’s just bad news to have a super soft `R’. You know, if you’re gonna have an `R’-rated movie you gotta push that `NC-17′ edge.”
That’s not to say that Devil is fun for the whole family. As glimpsed in some of the trailers and T.V. spots, the film actually begins with a suicide in the very building where the five elevator passengers become trapped. This incident, in turn, paves the way for the Devil’s appearance.
“That [suicide] opens the door”, John said. “It desecrates the ground, and in doing so it makes the building so the Devil can come in and do some damage.”
Reading some of the press materials on the film, I also got the sense that the trapped individuals – minus the person who will turn out to be the living embodiment of the Devil himself – each has in their past a sin they are being punished for, a reason for being in that elevator. I wondered, then, if the film would be comprised of a tiresome flashback structure – the sort utilized in all those increasingly laborious `Saw’ sequels.
“We did almost no flashbacks at all in the movie”, said John. “We really wanted the story to unfold in the elevator and not go too many other places. I think in some ways, thematically the comparison [to `Saw'] is valid, for sure. The confined space, and the morality tale of sorts.”
Continued Drew, “The victims in `Saw’, we learn something about their past and why they deserve to be there. I think in that sense [the comparison is] valid. In terms of flashback and what we learn about the characters, we wanted to keep it almost exclusively present tense.”
As for shooting in such a confined space (a good portion of the film takes place in the elevator), it proved a logistically difficult proposition during production.
“We all felt like we were losing our minds…it’s five [actors] in the elevator, plus a camera operator, plus an assistant camera guy, plus a boom guy, with a mirror in there”, said John. “It was a great challenge, and part of the reason we were so excited to do the movie was because what can you do? What can you do in a space like this to make it interesting?”
Especially considering that there have been comparisons of the film to Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians – in the sense of the victims going down one by one and being uncertain of the true perpetrator – I mentioned to the brothers that shooting with bodies lying on the floor of the elevator must have only added to the complications.
“I think even worse than that, it’s hard for the actors who are the bodies”, laughed John. “There’s nothing actors hate more than not acting. It’s like, laying on the floor with prosthetics and stuff with no acting happening…we had a whole lot of like, `come on man, hold your breath! Let them fall on you and hold still!’”
“In `Devil’ we tend to ask our actors to play their own corpses for a lot longer than other people might”, Drew chimed in. “They were really cooperative and we really appreciated that. Because when you get into post, and you can see that dummy arm, and you know it’s a dummy, you know, it would drive us crazy. So we really tried to keep the real live bodies there.”
Nevertheless, even real live bodies require some gruesome makeup effects, and that’s where Rob Hall and his Almost Human effects company comes in. It was the Dowdles’ second collaboration with Hall after working with him on their last film, Quarantine.
“We just absolutely adore him”, gushed John. “He’s such a brilliant designer and craftsman, and it’s just a huge load off our shoulders to know someone that good has got our backs with all this.”
“We had Rob do a lot of design work that was, `ok, when we see this for, you know, two seconds, we want to immediately capture exactly what happened here.’”, said Drew. “So we asked him to do some tricky things where you’re not gonna sit there and keep the camera on whatever this might be for a long period of time. We need to absorb it in a second.’ And he really worked within those parameters so well.”
Likely pending the success of Devil, the brothers’ hoped-for next venture is a project called The Coup – what Drew describes as “one part action, one part thriller, one part horror” (though I’m still not quite sure where the “horror” element comes in) – about a young American family that must attempt a nail-biting escape from Cambodia after a coup overthrows the government and the new leaders call for the execution of all foreigners. At the very least, it sounds like a good change of pace from the claustrophobic settings of their last two films. Except…
“We can’t help ourselves, it’s sort of a whole series of confined spaces [in `The Coup']“, laughed John. “So it’ll be sort of one confined space after another, interspersed with getting out in the fresh air.”
So will The Poughkeepsie Tapes, the much-buzzed about Tribeca pick-up that was all primed for a release before distributor MGM inexplicably shelved it, itself see some fresh air in a theatrical – or at the very least DVD/Blu-ray – release? The brothers seemed confident that it will.
“It’s got [to be released] eventually”, said John. “I mean, we think.” And then he laughed.
“Honestly, there’s a weird effect it’s had being locked up for so long in that it’s given it a little bit more of an underground status”, said Drew. “In a weird way it’s made it bigger in horror circles, anyway…Night hired us for Devil solely based on that movie, or almost solely based on [it] versus Quarantine. He had gotten a copy and it had the same effect on him, like this kind of unknown movie that someone handed off to him.”
For those of you dying to see Poughkeepsie after a three-year-long tease, keep your fingers crossed that Devil becomes a big success – maybe then it will finally get a proper release.