Tribeca ’11: ‘Grave Encounters Directors, The Vicious Brothers!

Upcoming “found footage” horror flick Grave Encounters – the feature-length debut of two 25-year-old filmmakers calling themselves the Vicious Brothers (real names: Stuart Ortiz and Colin Minihan) – takes the concept of “ghost-hunting” reality shows to a whole new level in its story of a TV documentary crew – planning to manufacture some “genuine” paranormal phenomena for their audience – who discover that the abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital in which they’re shooting the show’s latest episode possesses a malicious mind all its own.

B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen recently hopped on the phone with the young directors to discuss the film’s distribution deal with the new distribution arm of the Tribeca Film Festival (where the movie will be debuting on April 22nd), comparisons with that other supernatural-laden “found footage” horror flick, and whether they encountered any real-life “paranormal activity” in the abandoned mental facility where the movie was shot. You can check out the full interview inside.
What with a huge upsurge in the amount of found footage/shaky-cam/cinema-verite/mockumentary-type horror movies we’ve seen over the last few years, it’s becoming tougher and tougher for the directors behind these various projects to get their films noticed. Nevertheless, up-and-coming helmers the Vicious Brothers are hoping to do exactly that with their feature-length debut Grave Encounters, about a reality-show crew who are tormented by a group of malevolent spirits whilst filming the latest episode of their “ghost hunting” series in an abandoned mental hospital.

The movie will be premiering on Friday, April 22nd at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, on its way to a limited theatrical and VOD run later this year via the festival’s recently-formed distribution arm. The “Brothers” (actually Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz) recently got on the phone with me to talk about the film, which was at least partially inspired by Ghostwatch, a notorious BBC television movie that with its documentary-style format was able to fool thousands of viewers when it was first broadcast on Halloween night in 1992.

Bloody Disgusting: First of all, talk about the moniker you guys have taken on, the Vicious Brothers. It makes me think you’re not gonna stray from the horror genre anytime soon.

Colin: Stu, why don’t you go there?

Stuart: Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely a genre thing. I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily specifically only interested in doing horror. We’re also interested in doing sci-fi, potentially, or thriller. But always with a dark, vicious slant to it, for sure.

B-D: What inspired you guys to make this movie? Do you guys watch any of those paranormal reality shows?

Colin: I think really, the idea came from I would say a few things, actually. Stu and I have been developing several other horror projects, low-budget horror projects, and every time we’d write a script, it kinda came down to we’d overwrite it, and it would become this massive fucking film.

So we kind of found ourselves in a situation with a couple investors on one of our scripts where they weren’t willing to pony up the capital that we needed to do the movie that we wanted to do, so we started thinking about alternative ideas. And this was just right around [the time] the whole `found footage’ thing was kind of coming back into the limelight with `Paranormal’. Obviously, the mockumentary format is a great way to make a low-budget film.

And we kind of just looked at each one another and were like, `why has no one made a fucking found footage film out of these ghost-hunting shows?’ There’s a hundred of these things, and you never see anything. They basically…there’s a slight horror slant to the shows and how they market the shows, but it’s like the audience is constantly disappointed watching these shows, just cause you’re gonna see a pot or a lamp move or a voice off-camera. And those can be creepy obviously…however, you can only take that sort of stuff so far before it’s like, `come on, show me something real.’

And Stu and I felt it would be a perfect format for a found-footage style film to utilize that landscape of reality television and tap into sort of this cultural fad that was happening with these shows. So that was definitely an inspiration.

Stuart: And it’s always a question with a found footage movie of why are they filming to begin with? And it just seemed like a perfect thing because obviously if it’s a TV crew that’s trying to capture ghost-like activity that’s actually happening, they’re gonna want to keep rolling and keep shooting even when things can get kinda bad. So it’s just a perfect concept.

B-D: I was thinking about that `Ghost Hunters’ show and it’s kind of ripe for parody, for some of the reasons you guys already mentioned. So to that point, how do you portray the characters in the film? Do you guys poke fun at them at all?

Stuart: We absolutely do poke fun. For example, we have…one of the characters in the movie is a guy named Houston, who you think initially is a psychic because he’s introduced as being a psychic, but then you find out pretty quickly that he’s totally a fraud, and he’s completely just an actor who’s playing the role.

So we definitely were aware of how ridiculous some of those shows can be, when they have like a psychic, and it gets real serious with them trying to contact the other side and stuff like that. And certainly the guy that plays our host is a bit of an over-the-top, cheesy host type of guy, initially. It was important for the characters to start off as being skeptics, where they’d start out basically as non-believers who are putting on this whole show pretending they believe. And then by the end, they definitely do believe.

B-D: As you guys mentioned, the found footage genre has become so ubiquitous. How do you make it feel fresh, and are you guys worried about being compared with `Paranormal Activity’ at all?

Colin: I think if anyone’s gonna compare the film to `Paranormal Activity’, then so be it. I mean, that movie went on to make how many millions of dollars?…Our goal is to make movies long-term, so go ahead and compare it to `Paranormal Activity’. However, if you wanna know what was more of an inspiration, I think the BBC takes a lot more credit for `Ghost Watch’ than `Paranormal Activity’ or `Quarantine’ or any of those found footage movies that kind of came out much later.

B-D: One challenge with the mockumentary format is that the actors can’t appear too `actor-y’. So how do you get around that? How tightly scripted was this?

Stuart: We actually wrote out basically a full-length script, I think it was about 85 pages when we were done with it. Because we knew going in to shoot the thing that we were gonna have a limited time to do it in a location that was actually kind of expensive. So we certainly weren’t going the `Blair Witch’ approach where it was literally just going in there and having a really rough and vague idea of what we were doing. We definitely had scenes and we had whole amounts of dialogue written because we knew that we’d need it. But that said, we were certainly open to and wanted the actors to be able to improvise.

Colin: Yeah, that really was a good thing, because we got a lot of good stuff out of them that we would’ve never have thought of. Like for instance, we did like three or four days of actually rehearsing within the location with our actors, just to kind of flesh out some of the scenes that we intentionally wrote very loosely, so that there would be that level of improvisation that definitely helped sell the reality of a found footage film.

I mean, with a found footage film, if everything is too scripted it becomes very obvious and there’s that level of removal [that] kind of becomes more prominent. So we wanted the actors to definitely have a lot of say as far as where the performances were going, and just different directions to take things in. But we were always there guiding them along the way and kind of rewriting the script as they were improvising.

B-D: Does the film get gory? Obviously with these films, the person with the camera is always running away from the violence for the most part.

Stuart: Um, I don’t know…what do you say, Colin? It’s not a gore film really on any level. It’s definitely a supernatural horror film.

Colin: There’s a minimal level of violence. We weren’t setting out to make a slasher film and just have blood everywhere, but there is a few really shocking sequences and stuff that you haven’t seen in found footage films, that I think we were trying to take it to kind of a more violent place but still not over-the-top.

B-D: Talk about creating the special effects for the movie. How much is practical and how much is digital?

Stuart: It’s a combination. There is a fair amount of digital effects stuff that was done in the movie, and because of our low-budget we pretty much, me and Colin, pretty much did all the effects ourselves. And you know, there’s stuff in it that…is intended to be an effect that’s on-screen, but there’s also in the movie a lot of stuff that is really subtle CG work that hopefully you won’t even be able to tell that it’s CG.

We also use, I mean, me and Colin are both pretty young guys, we’re both like 25. So we pretty much grew up with the whole digital technology thing as it kind of evolved from the very beginning. So we’re very much filmmakers who grew up doing everything, doing the editing, and also just being very aware of the power of effects, and basically the notion of being able to fix and save things in post.

So to give you an example of something we did in the movie, there’s a sequence where a guy basically…it looks like he gets thrown across a room like 30 feet, basically, and it was intended actually to be a physical effect. We wanted it to be where we had like a stunt guy on like a wire rig, but it turned out that because we were shooting in an actual practical location, that the ceiling was so low that our stunt guy basically just couldn’t get any real height.

And we ended up…you know, we shot this thing, and we ended up with this…you know, if you could see the raw footage it was hilarious, basically. This guy…we were expecting it to be this super-impressive 30-foot throw where he’s like all the way off the ground, practically touching the ceiling. And we go to shoot the thing and he was about three feet off the ground, basically like horizontally moving forward, kind of like Superman…he was so low to the ground that his feet were actually dragging on the ground. And then he like falls or whatever.

And me and Colin just looked at each other and we’re like, `oh my god, this is supposed to be one of the awesome things in the movie, like a trailer kind of moment, and this is pathetic.’ So what we basically did is we just had our stunt guy…we knew that it was no dice, it was not gonna work at all.

So we just had our stunt guy basically run and take a couple of jumps and fall to the ground, and then the whole thing is all done in post, is all done in the computer. And you can see that shot in our trailer, and I think it looks great, I think it totally looks real, you know? And the whole thing is essentially 100% just like fake.

Colin: So that’s a great use of a visual effect. That’s the kind of visual effects that Stu and I are into. We’re not all about showing CG characters on screen or anything like that, we want to keep it more stripped-down and more practical but use visual effects in combination with live-action stunts and live-action practical effects. Put the two together, and it’s the best way.

B-D: Where did you guys shoot the movie?

Colin: I’m pretty sure contractually we’re not allowed to give away the real hospital, the location…it’s an actual facility and they’re sensitive to that kind of thing.

Stuart: Yeah, we shot…it’s a real, still-active mental institution, although of course the building that we shot in is now defunct and closed. But there’s parts of it that are still open, so…

Colin: Yeah, I’m sure once the parts of it close, then we can release that information.

B-D: I worked on a low-budget horror movie once as a P.A. where we shot in an abandoned hospital, and a lot of people started saying they were seeing things, but I think a lot of it was paranoia. You know, shooting at night in those locations can get kinda creepy. Did you have anyone claiming they say anything supernatural while shooting?

Colin: I wouldn’t say during shooting, but during some of the location scouting processes, there’s actually a series of bizarre photos that were taken, and they actually kind of gave inspiration to a scene in the movie. Someone took a photo of just a hallway, and I’m standing at the end of the hallway, and behind me there’s this crazy black shadow person standing there.

And when we noticed that, we just zoomed in on the photo and [were] like `holy shit!’ But there’s a ton of stories, for sure, that the liaison and…the crew had because it’s a location that’s used for filming so frequently…and actual lobotomies and so forth were done there, so it’s a pretty dark place to shoot in. And there’s actually another shot in the film where there’s some crazy orbs that are happening in the shot [that are] kinda unexplained as well.

Stuart: You know, most of the time when you’re shooting there we’ve always got 20, 25 people around so it’s never too creepy when it’s like that, but there’d be a few times where you’d have to go take a piss or whatever, and you’d have to walk down…you’d have to go basically by yourself with just like a flashlight in the pitch dark and have to like go down three flights of stairs and wander through this building to get to like the one bathroom they had.

And that was the only time that you’d start to get creeped out. Cause you could definitely get creeped out, man. There’d be times…I remember there was a point during a lunch break when me and the lead actor just kinda went off by ourselves and were kind of exploring, which is one of the coolest things about making movies, too, is the fact that you get to do stuff like that, that like the general public cannot do…

But anyway, we’re walking around and we went into some room and the vibe or the atmosphere or whatever of the room just sorta changes when you walk in. You can feel it, it’s freaky. You feel a kinda negative energy thing going on, for sure.

Colin: It definitely helps elevate the performances I think, too, Stu, just having them in a real location.

Stuart: Oh yeah, definitely. We didn’t have no trailers on the shoot, that’s for sure. So it’s like, we were all living basically in that building for the twelve days that we shot there. And I think it definitely helps the performances, because everybody was just in it. There was no escape. You were constantly in the dark and constantly in the building.

B-D: I know the trailer when it first got posted started getting a lot of hits and kind of went viral. Did that help at all to get the deal with Tribeca Films considering you guys kind of had a following already?

Colin: I don’t think that really played too huge of a part. I think…Stu and I actually put together the trailer ourselves before we screened it for any distribution companies or anything. That’s something that Stu does quite frequently.

Stuart: Yeah, I do trailers. I do a lot of editing of trailers for a company that I’m sure you know, which is Full Moon, Charlie Band and the whole Full Moon thing. So I’m pretty used to taking, shall we say, hilarious concepts that they have for their movies and trying to make them look like they’re awesome. I have a bit of that marketing background, so it definitely helped with putting together our trailer.

Colin: But as far as the Tribeca thing goes, I think it was our sales agent that we came on board with, Darclight, that I think had a previous relationship with them and sent them private screening copies. And I think the head of acquisitions over at Tribeca just really liked the film and…they knew that they wanted to acquire it.

B-D: So what are the release plans for the movie?

Stuart: I think that…well, we’re premiering the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival. The grand premiere is April 22nd, and then there’s three other screenings, so there’s four in total during the festival. And I believe that the film is going to be released theatrically in New York in August, right Colin?

Colin: Yeah, there’s a tentative plan for I’m pretty sure it’s August, and then VOD at the same time. But I’m not sure if there’s a lock-down date yet. They’re just kind of floating around with August as the possibility right now.

B-D: What’s next for you guys?

Stuart: We’ve got three other scripts right now that we have written, so we’re trying to get money together for the next one…potentially, it may not be the one, but we have a script called `The Clinic’ which is sort of a modern-day vampire story that’s set in a drug rehab clinic.