In the documentary-style horror movie “As Above, So Below,” director/co-writer John Erick Dowdle and his brother co-writer Drew Dowdle, were given permission to do something no other filmmaking team has been able to do under the watchful eye of the French government: shoot a movie in off-limit sections of the Catacombs of Paris where the remains of approximately six million people are entombed. It’s a condition to making the film the Dowdle brothers were firm on.
“I think if you’re planning on making a movie about an iconic place like the Catacombs, it has to be real,” Drew Dowdle told me during an interview last week to promote the film. “To try to recreate that on a set just feels like cheating. I don’t know if we would’ve done this movie if we hadn’t gotten the permission we got. It was critical to shoot the movie in the real place.”
In the film, the Dowdles follow a group of explorers who are searching for a powerful stone that has been lost for years. While down in the underground ossuaries, the team begins to experience supernatural disturbances and must face their own dark pasts.
During our interview, John and Drew talked about why they felt the “found footage” style of filmmaking was the best choice for this project and how they were able to create a sense of claustrophobia for the audience by doing the opposite of what they say most filmmakers do when there is very little space to work with.
Before shooting this film, had either of you visited the Catacombs? If not, what drew you to this specific place in Paris to make a horror movie?
John Erick Dowdle: I had tried to go visit the Catacombs once, but it was closed because of vandalism. I think part of what drew us to it was the rich sense of history there. The Catacombs are from the 1400s. They are so old. Millions of human corpses were put in there in the 1700s. There’s graffiti down there from the French Revolution. You see graffiti down there from Nazis during the French Occupation. There are just so many layers of history right below the world above it. It’s just so creepy and nightmarish down there. That was a big lure, too.
Drew Dowdle: The Catacombs is the kind of place begging to have a movie shot in it. We didn’t know if it would be possible to shoot down there, but once we started digging into it and asking for permission, we started thinking we could get most of the footage there. We definitely had some key spots that we needed. We just chipped away at it and got the permits we needed. It wasn’t easy though. [The French government] wasn’t especially open to it, but over time we wore them down.
Would you have pursuing the film even if they hadn’t given you permission? I mean, it would’ve been easy enough to recreate the Catacombs on a sound stage, but I’m assuming you thought it was important to be in the real setting.
JED: We love to film things as close to reality as possible. We have a character named La Taupe (Cosme Castro) in the movie that the other actors never met until they met him in the scene underground for the first time. We try to keep everything as real as possible. There’s something almost telekinetic about that. You can really feel what they are feeling. If you are on a set with a green screen and you’re like, “OK, act like you’re underground and scared,” you can feel that it’s not real. When an actor really is spending 10 hours a day, deep underground, you can see a little bit of that crazy look in their eyes. I think the audiences can feel empathetic to the characters and feel that experience if the filmmakers are willing to make everything real.
Speaking about your documentary style of shooting, I know you did the same with “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” and “Quarantine.” Were there ever any second thoughts about continuing with this trend? I mean, in recent years I feel the “found footage” style has been overused and, a lot of times, doesn’t add much to the narrative.
JED: To us, it felt really right for this. There is definitely some audience fatigue with the style. I think what gives “found footage” a bad name is that often it feels like it is created in a boardroom. Like some executive says, “OK, I have an idea! Let’s do a cheap movie shot in ‘found footage’ style and set in a graveyard!’” For us, it was the best way to tell the story. It was the best way to get the audience in the setting with us and make it feel really visceral. Plus, the “found footage” is never the point of this movie. When you watch this movie, the fact we shot it like this just falls into the background. Some movies bang their “found footage” drum so hard. We, personally, find that annoying. Usually those aren’t the movies that are doing it very well.
DD: Yeah, when “found footage” is the entire point of the movie, I think that’s what fatigues audiences. We just try to make it nothing more than a shooting style. It adds such a level of immediacy, especially when you’re in a real location like this. I think people like that documentary vibe to it.
One of the best horror movies that I’ve seen in the past few years that really captures how it feels to be in a contained space was director Neil Marshall’s 2005 film “The Descent.” I also thought you both did a pretty good job with “Devil,” too. Talk about how you wanted to create that claustrophobic feeling for this film and if it was more difficult since you have more room to work with than just the inside of an elevator like in “Devil.”
JED: Creating claustrophobia is all about perspective. It’s about getting the camera in with the actors and seeing what the actors are seeing. It’s kind of funny because we sort of do the opposite of what some filmmakers naturally do. I think most people would want to get tighter and tighter and tighter as [the characters] go into the Catacombs. But we wanted that to be the first experience audiences had when they got down there. We wanted them to be like, “Oh my God! The walls are too tight!” We wanted them to have this immediate reaction to the space. But as the movie continues, the spaces opens up wider and wider, but our light becomes more focused. There is more darkness and that becomes scarier because you don’t know what is around you.
DD: [In “As Above, So Below], the characters are trapped, but they’re trapped in this vast labyrinth. It’s about being lost and going deeper and wondering what is around the corner. We opened the space up so it would feel more cavernous. I feel that was a big draw to this location versus being trapped in one particular small space.
A few years ago, a horror movie called “Chernobyl Diaries” was criticized for what some people say sensationalized the tragedy that happened in the Ukraine back in 1986. Was being sensitive to the Catacombs something you kept in mind at all when making this film since it is a burial ground or was that not really a factor in your filmmaking process?
JED: You know, with “Chernobyl Diaries,” we sort of felt like they missed the mark. That was one of those movies where its point was that it was “found footage” more so than we like. But, yeah, we really didn’t worry too much about that. We did sort of want to glorify the history of these spaces. We really wanted to ground the history into something mystical and historical.
DD: Yeah, I mean, we were very sensitive to the location in that we didn’t want to put holes in the walls. We were very careful with the space because it is a historical site. In some parts of the Catacombs, we literally couldn’t touch anything. We treated it like we were really on a tour and made sure we didn’t bang into things. We didn’t want to screw anything up.