Beneath the city of Paris lies a series of catacombs that contain over six million dead bodies. This is the setting for As Above/So Below, a new found footage horror film from the Dowdle Brothers that opens in theaters this Friday. Take a look at the trailer below:
John Erick Dowdle and his brother Drew, the filmmaking team responsible for The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine, and Devil, co-wrote the screenplay for As Above, So Below, and John directed the film. I had the opportunity to speak with the guys on the phone a few days ago, and they told me what it was like filming in the actual catacombs (the first production ever awarded the permission to do so), how they brought a real car down there and set it on fire, the challenges of filming underground, and much more.
When Hollywood inevitably decides to reboot Tomb Raider, you guys could use this movie as proof that you’re the ones to make it. Was the story of Lara Croft an inspiration for you guys at all?
John: (Laughs) A little bit. I think Indiana Jones was really more of an inspiration for us. We really liked the adventure…Tomb Raider, too. I’d say less so, but a little bit, for sure.
Drew: Lara Croft is an awesome, badass female lead, like an Ellen Ripley type, and that type of female we definitely wanted to embody.
John: Or Sarah Connor.
Drew: Or Sarah Connor, yeah. Exactly.
John: There’s something about the badass cool woman…you just don’t see enough of it in movies. We always loved those sorts of characters.
When these characters go underground, they don’t necessarily have to face their deepest fears – it’s almost more like their deepest regrets. What was it about that concept that appealed to you?
John: We discussed a lot – ‘What are they coming across down there?’ Is it their deepest secrets? There’s this ancient Egyptian [concept] of the underworld. When you were judged in the underworld in ancient Egypt, your soul would go down and they’d take your heart out and weigh it against the weight of a feather. And if your heart weighed more than a feather, this little dog-headed animal would come up and eat your heart and you’d be cast to hell, but if your heart weighed less than a feather, you went to heaven and hung out with God. We liked that, conceptually – that moment of judgement. Is your heart heavier than a feather or lighter than a feather? Really those secrets we all keep are the things that weigh you down in life, and if you can be free of secrets, you can see some light in the world and be connected to people, but if you have that thing that you just feel like you can’t tell anyone in the world, those are the things we felt really separated a person from humanity and really bring you down. So we wanted to explore that in this movie. Some of that stuff is just guilt for things they wish they’d done differently and they feel so bad about that they can’t even talk about. Some of that is genuinely bad stuff.
Drew: And Ben, I think you nailed it as far as their biggest regret. It was important to us for it not to be, in every instance, some horrible sin that they committed and some awful thing they did. We wanted it to be broader than that. Things that really weighed people down – not necessarily something they did wrong, but something that they wished they would have done differently in some way. We wanted to make it more of a major regret that weighs your soul down instead of some mortal sin that you committed.
Since you developed this together from the start, I’m interested in how you approached it from a writing and a directing perspective. When you’re writing it, do you think about the limitations you’ll have when you’ll actually be filming, or do you just write whatever you can think of and then figure out how you’ll actually shoot it later?
John: We try to be completely unrealistic when we’re writing. I have a tendency to go ‘How are we going to shoot this?’ and Drew’s like, ‘Who cares? Write whatever!’ The thing with the burning car, that showed up in the script, and we were like, ‘How the hell are we going to do that? Visually, how are we even going to make sense of that?’ Because it doesn’t make any sense. It collapses into the ground. How do you make that make logical visual sense, beyond the technicalities and stuff? We were like, ‘Well, we’ll figure it out.’ I think that’s part of the fun of filmmaking – writing things you don’t know how to shoot and then finding a way to shoot them.
Drew: Yeah, that’s truly one of my favorite parts. Pre-production can be really difficult and demanding and exhausting, but I do love those moments when you have all of your department heads around a table and you have a scene like the burning car [seen in the trailer] and say, ‘OK, how do we do this?’ And getting everyone to weigh in and come up with a plan. It never ceases to amaze me how everything seems to be doable. We’ve yet to come up with something – in our new movie in Thailand [The Coup, starring Pierce Brosnan and Owen Wilson], there’s an extended sequence that seems so impossible on the page. But bit by bit you piece it together and find a way to get every last piece. Film crews never cease to amaze me in that regard.
Are you guys the types that will go on location and do research before you start, or are you more apt to just get going quickly when you have an idea for a script in mind?
John: No, we’re big researchers. Frankly, for my money, research is one of the most fun, exciting parts of the job. I’ve always geeked out on stuff, even as a little kid. If I was doing a report on something I was interested in, often it’d be hard to get the report done on time because I’d be reading so many things. We’re definitely on the NSA watch list with all the books we’ve taken out from libraries and Amazon (laughs), it’s crazy. Research is a huge part of it, and part of that research is actually going to the places, exploring the off-limits areas of the catacombs. We found a cataphile who could lead us to all of these illegal areas, and we went deep on this and really saw stuff that we never knew was even out there in the world. We researched a lot but then actually went out and walked the spaces, and of the 200 miles of catacombs in Paris, we probably walked at least a quarter of those miles just for locations.
Drew: At least. On a story that’s so location-specific like this one, it really is critical to go see the space and walk the space…I think every movie, we really like to live in the space a little bit before we call the screenplay done. It informs the story in so many ways. You just get so many ideas in the space that the screenplay wouldn’t be complete without.
Yeah, I was blown away when I found out it was actually filmed in the real catacombs. Aside from the limited space, what sort of challenges did you face going down there and bringing a camera crew and actually trying to have the actors live and inhabit that world?
John: There were a lot of challenges. No wireless signals; the walls were so thick of limestone that obviously cell phones wouldn’t work, but even walkie-talkies wouldn’t work, and wireless monitors wouldn’t work. Any time you see the actors running down one of those halls, it would be the actors and the cinematographer, there’d be the sound guy – the radio mics wouldn’t go very far, so the sound guy had to run around documentary-style the whole time – and we’d be right behind them. We’d have our headlamps off so it wouldn’t show up in the background, and we’d have this wireless monitor and we’d be running almost full speed down some of these corridors with our forearms up so if the ceiling dipped lower, we’d take the hit in the forearm and not the face. It was gnarly. Not to mention, ten hours into the day, it’s kind of a nightmarish space, so ten hours in, you feel like you’re getting a little [makes sound to imply they’re going crazy]. Everyone could feel that, and one of the great upsides is that you can feel that in the performances. You can tell just by looking at them that those actors aren’t just stepping off the set and texting their buddies to find out where they’re going later. They’re in it. They’re in the catacombs and half-crazy down there with the rest of us.
Drew: There’s a lot of specific setpieces where the production team was like, ‘Let’s just build. We really need to build this one.’ And we always resisted. We were like, ‘If we can augment an existing space in the catacombs and do it that way, that’s the way we’re going to do it. It was really important for us to shoot absolutely everything that could be shot down there, down there. Because like John said, you can tell the difference. When I watch the movie now, the couple very small things that we did have to build, I feel like I can tell the difference. I don’t know that anyone else can, but it was key for us to stay practical throughout the movie.
Was the burning car sequence the toughest thing you had to do down there? What was the most difficult sequence to pull off?
John: I’d say the burning car was definitely the most involved. It had the most layers – every department touched that scene. Frankly, we kept thinking someone was going to try to talk us out of that one, but thankfully no one did. We brought a real car in one of the quarries, and lit it up and had an actor in the back of it – I tested it myself first to make sure the actor wouldn’t burst into flames. We enhanced it with visual effects; obviously the collapse was partially visual effects. The lights in the ground were practical lights in the real ground, and how we put all of that together was really involved and really complex and it was really fun to try to do that in a way that visually made sense. I think any scenes when the actors go underwater, for me I’d say that was the hardest. It was cold, and then being wet for the good portion of the movie, and that’s never pleasant. Someone was running around barefoot for a section of the movie, that was really difficult. It’s not a kind space to the barefoot (laughs).
Drew: But yeah, we probably spent the most man-hours on the car scene. Every department touched that scene, even digging a hole to put a stunt man in the ground to put his legs through, even that was a huge ordeal. It was solid rock ground, so every last piece of the car scene was difficult.
Did you have to use any filmmaking tricks to enhance that sense of claustrophobia, or was it just naturally there because you were filming on location?
John: You know, it’s actually sort of funny. We sort of went with the opposite of what you would normally do. Normally in a movie like this, you’d start with wider spaces, and the spaces would get tighter and tighter and tighter to increase the intensity. And we said, ‘You know what? No, let’s go in the opposite direction. Let’s start in some of the narrower spaces and then as the movie goes, get more and more cavernous.’ The spaces are actually getting bigger, but the light is actually getting more and more specific, so you’re seeing less of the space, but it’s a bigger space. We felt like that almost opening it up and playing the claustrophobia at first, but once it starts getting more supernatural, letting go of some of that claustrophobia and keeping it more about what’s around them as opposed to keeping it super tight the whole time. But that being said, one of the things we were careful about was always trying to frame in the ceiling. There’s something about having thousands or hundreds of thousands of pounds of rock right over your head that’s really unnerving. You feel like it’s not natural to have that much rock right over you, so we were careful to always frame in the ceiling so you’re always feeling that presence.
As Above/So Below is in theaters on August 29th, 2014.
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