It’s the horror genre’s own fault, really. Once a unique and ingenuity-focused filmmaking method, responsible for classics like Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, the ‘found-footage’ technique has a bad reputation nowadays. No surprise, either, since it’s been sullied almost beyond repair in recent years. Ask any film festival programmer or tireless independent horror film watcher—since the budgetary costs are minimal, first-person POV movies are being made at an overzealous rate, and most of the final products suck. Or if they don’t flat-out reek, they’re routine and disposable, usually taking place in some ‘haunted’ house, populated by morons portrayed by bad actors, and being uneventful until a final, too-little/too-late burst of action before the camera shuts off. And viewers want to whoop the director’s ass.
So, chances are, you’ve seen the commercials for the new found-footage pic As Above/So Below and haven’t exactly altered your Labor Day Weekend beach plans to see it. You’re expecting more of the same old ‘poor man’s Blair Witch’ poppycock. But, if so, you’re wrong—As Above/So Below is much better than its recent POV peers. The last 15 minutes, in fact, might leave you exiting with stained drawers.
Actually filmed where it’s set, As Above/So Below follows a small group of explorers who bravely, albeit foolishly, venture into the Parisian Catacombs’ underground boneyard and endless, claustrophobic tunnels in search of a historical artifact, the Philosopher’s Stone. What starts off as a Da Vinci Code/National Treasure riff gradually turns into a supernatural blowout, as the still-living characters (two of whom are filming the journey for a self-funded documentary) travel deeper and deeper into Catacombs and reach the Gates of Hell. And that’s when the medieval corpses, wall-bound skeletons, Capuchin friars’ specters, and each explorer’s worst personal demons come out to play.
As Above/So Below is the brainchild of filmmaking siblings John Erick Dowdle (director and co-writer) and Drew Dowdle (co-writer and producer), two horror buffs who are no strangers to found-footage. After catching festival buzz with the lo-fi/indie serial killer examination The Poughkeepsie Tapes, the Dowdles went Hollywood with Quarantine, a risky remake of the beloved Spanish POV flick [REC]. Much to many people’s surprise, Quarantine ended up being one of the better horror remakes of the last 10 years, giving the Dowdle brothers serious cred within the horror circle. And with As Above/So Below, they’ve honored that respect by delivering a found-footage winner that works just as well as an action-adventure film as it does an unsettling creepshow.
In the final one of my interviews from As Above/So Below’s Paris press rounds earlier this month, I sat down with the Dowdles to learn more about the movie’s scary-as-hell sound design, how their longstanding interests in nerdy historical facts benefited the story, and where exactly Steven Spielberg’s influences lie.
As Above/So Below doesn’t feel like other found-footage horror movies, mainly because of the location’s authenticity and how it’s more of an intense, scary adventure movie than a straight-up horror flick, and that all comes from the Parisian Catacombs themselves. Isn’t it crazy that nobody’s made a movie about them before this?
John Erick Dowdle: I know, right? We love to go into a historical kind of world like this. I was walking around Paris earlier today with my wife, and I said to her, “You know, this street we’re walking on, 100 years from now, it will probably look just like it does now.” The buildings haven’t changed in 100 of years, and my great-great-great-grandkid might see that exact same street.
The Catacombs were carved out in the 1300s, so to actually be lucky enough to get permission to shoot there is amazing. To take that old space and shoot a modern documentary style down there just felt like a natural, interesting fit.
The Catacombs element of the story came from one of your producers, right? Originally you wanted to make something that was more straight-up Indiana Jones?
Yeah, it was sort of a combo of things. Drew and I had wanted to do a found-footage Indiana Jones kind of movie with a female lead, something that’s an epic movie but told really intimately, personally, and subjectively. We were actually supposed to go out and shoot a different movie, but it collapsed the night before we were supposed to leave for the shoot. We were like, “Oh, fuck, what do we do now?” [Laughs.] Thomas Tull, the head of Legendary Pictures, had called us serendipitously the next day and said, “I’d love to do something in the Paris Catacombs—do you have any ideas for that?” A bell went off for us, and we replied, “Oh my god! Can we come in tomorrow and pitch you an idea?”
We met with him and pitched all this weird shit with alchemy and Nicolas Flamel and all this super-strange stuff. Once you see the movie, there’s some logic to all of that, but in the pitch, it’s like, “Doesn’t this sound completely insane? We’re telling him how down is up and inside is outside—he must think we’re out of our minds!”
Drew Dowdle: We were expecting crickets in the room, but they surprisingly reacted with, “Fuck, yeah! It’s like psychotherapy, where you have to go deeper and deeper to unburden yourself.” I gave Thomas a lot of credit for instantly getting exactly what we were going for psychologically. There’s not a lot of rooms in Hollywood where you could pitch this idea and they’d be responsive to it.
Do the elements like Flamel and alchemy stem from your own personal interests in those subjects?
John: I got really into Egyptian hieroglyphics in my late 20s. I went to Egypt with no money and nothing but my school backpack and spent a month there; I traveled the Nile and visited all of the hidden temples up there. I was trying to learn how to read the hieroglyphics and totally geeked out on that stuff for a little while. I bit into a lot of mythology from Babylonian to Judeo-Christian. I love all of that kind of mythology stuff, and then with this movie, it was like, “Holy shit, I can use all of that for something finally!” [Laughs.] “This isn’t just me being a weirdo!” Drew and I both got really into the research for this.
Drew: We love history in general, but I didn’t know all of the facts and history that’s in this movie. Like, I knew who Flamel was but I didn’t know a ton about alchemy until we started going down this path. Anything with a real historical element has always been interesting to us, and to go someplace supernatural is really fun, especially when you do it from a place of actual fact. You can go online and research everything that’s in the movie. There’s some factual basis for everything in the movie. It’s not completely made-up.
One of the film’s most effective images is of a shadowy figure dressed in a long black cloak, which acknowledge the Catacombs’ history with the Capuchin monks. Was it a situation where as you were researching, you’d come across something like the Capuchin monks’ involvement and be like, “Ding! That could totally work as a scary element in the movie!”?
John: Yeah, absolutely. Usually, Drew and I are over-prepared when it comes to making our movies—we’ll storyboard everything and have it all plotted out long before we show up to the set. On this movie, it moved so fast that we said, “OK, let’s let it tell us what it wants to be.” We’d read about the Capuchin monks and realize that that element needed to be in the movie somehow, and then we went to the Musée de Cluny, which is a Medieval museum that has the real Nicolas Flamel tombstone. They had all these monk exhibits with weird, carved marble monks—that image kept coming up, so it was like, “OK, that’s telling us it wants to be in this movie.” We tried to get a little mystical with it and let the movie tell us what it wants to be. It was a really fun way to make a film.
There’s a scene where this all-female religious cult is holding some kind of creepy-looking mass in one of the caverns deep into the Catacombs. Was that based on something you researched? Do people actually go into the Catacombs and has strange masses? It’s an effective moment, especially in how you use their chanting sounds throughout the Catacombs after it.
John: There’s a scene in Andrei Rublev, the [Andrei] Tarkovsky movie, where this monk is walking through the woods and there’s a witch coven happening, and all of these naked people are running through the woods. It’s so simple but so eerie. Ever since I first saw that, I’ve always said, “One day we’ve got to do a scene with a naked old lady running through the woods—that would be so scary!” [Laughs.] Drew’s always been like, “No, we can’t do that,” because it’s never made sense in any of the movies we’ve done before this one. I’ve been wanting to do something with a witch coven, or something that has that kind of feel to it.
Also, no found-footage movie’s ever used score. You can’t use score in a traditional way, where you put music into the movie, but we asked ourselves, “What are ways we can use a score in this movie?” The idea hit us that we could have a witch coven that’s also a choir, and you feel like you’re entering a space that’s kind of evil and scary. There’s something about that choir that lures you in, and the Benji character [played by Edwin Hodge] is the first one to react to it. Then that becomes an element of the movie, and you hear pieces of that choir in the background throughout the rest of the movie. There’s also, sonically… We all took turns screaming and then stretched those screams out and that become the sound of the air in the spaces. So you’re hearing human screams stretched out. You can feel something human surrounding you. It doesn’t sound like a scream but you feel like that’s what is. We actually had a composer do a bunch of music, but if it sounded like music, we had to cut it out. It has to sound like the space. The same with the horns you hear, too.
Those were also really effective. They reminded me of what I read about in religion class back in my school days, about how apocalyptic events in the New Testament would be signified by the “seven trumpets.”
Drew: Totally, yeah. That’s the effect we were going for. Also with the choir, we talked to a lot of “catophiles”—which, yes, is what they call themselves—and we asked them, “What are the strangest things you’ve come across in the Catacombs?” A lot of it is based on the sonic landscape of the location. World-class musicians will go down there and play unannounced just for their own benefit because the sound quality and echoes are so interesting down there. John and I could be 100 yards down a corridor away from each other and we could actually talk to each other at a low volume and hear each other perfectly. Choirs go down there and sing for that reason, so that idea stuck with us. “Could this choir also be our coven?” Have the characters stumble into something they’re not supposed to see, and then play that sonic quality throughout the movie.
All of those elements play into what makes As Above/So Below work as a horror movie, but what’s really interesting about the film is how it blurs genres and doesn’t fit into one specific box easily. For example, there’s a The Goonies vibe to it that I loved. Was that the mission statement from day one, to have it touch on various genres and not be looked at as strictly a horror film?
John: We like that idea of taking what seems like a horror movie and layering it with Indiana Jones or The Da Vinci Code or, like you said, The Goonies.
Drew: The Goonies is a real touchstone. The idea of finding your way out of someplace by solving these riddles is really interesting and fun. It’s that whole ‘gang of misfits trying to escape this place together’ vibe.
Speaking of your film’s gang of misfits, the characters Scarlett and George don’t feel like they should be in a found-footage horror movie—they’re scholarly, sophisticated, and qualified to search for clues in the Catacombs. You can understand why they’re there, which helps build up the film’s authenticity and believability.
Drew: Absolutely. Another version of this movie that someone might’ve written is about five teenagers who go down there for a rave, get lost, and then get killed one by one by the supernatural forces.
John: And that’s not the kind of movie we’d ever want to make. We’re such fans of trying to create characters whom you really like. There’s nothing more fun than watching someone who’s great at something do what they do. To see Scarlett figuring out what she’s doing in these Catacombs, there’s something fun about that. There’s something fun about seeing someone who’s great at something. So we wanted to develop these characters that you hopefully love, and when any one of them dies, it hurts. It’s not like there’s the annoying guy who’s been cussing at everyone from minute one, and you’re like, “I can’t wait for this dude to die.” That guy’s not in this movie.
Drew: There’s also something fun about watching someone who is totally qualified and is scholarly but has still bitten off more than they can chew. That’s something Steven Spielberg did so well with the Indiana Jones character. He was a guy who knows exactly what he’s going into and he goes into it anyway, and it’s fun to follow someone like that.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who'll forever respect the Dowdles for making a Hollywood remake of the amazing [REC] actually work. He tweets here.