Zombies are scary. Vampires are creepy. Jason and Freddy would make me run away. The first scene of Absence where expectant mother Liz (Erin Way) is informed that her baby has disappeared and the police immediately jump on the situation — FRICKIN’ TERRIFYING.
Writer/director Jimmy Loweree makes some bold choices with Absence that ultimately pay off. There are supernatural undertones to the who/what/why/when/how behind the disappearance of Liz’s baby but that’s exactly where they’re played – under. Layered on is a character drama between Liz, her husband Rick (Eric Matheny), her brother Evan (Ryan Smale), and Megan (Stephanie Scholz), the new flame in Evan’s life. Put them all in a vacation house in the woods for some TLC time and cracks start revealing themselves.
I talked to Loweree about conceiving his psychological horror flick, the social baggage that comes with the hot topic, opting to shoot the film in the tricky style of found footage. Diligence seems to be the key when making a movie on a budget and Loweree was happy to put himself through the grinder to pull it off:
Prepare for a bad pun. What was the moment of conception for Absence?[Laughs] The moment of conception… I was sitting in my car late at night and I had been thinking about random ideas and I had a concept of this topic as a general bit of lore [note: a few more details have been snipped here to avoid spoilers]. It just kind of hit me that that would be the concept of someone dealing with the aftermath of that was completely disturbing and unconfrontable circumstance. I couldn’t get it out of my head.
But you chose not to make it a movie with wall-to-wall scares.
That’s the kind of movie I like better. It came from a horror place. That was the source of it. But what was most engaging about the idea was, ‘What about this person?’ I think that makes a better horror movie than treating the horror first.
In some ways, the movie reminds of Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth. It’s the social ramifications of a woman losing her baby as it is the paranormal.
If we had had more resources we would have spent more time in their town exploring the social aftermath. In her world, it was full on Casey Anthony. This woman is trapped in a small town where everybody thinks she’s a baby killer. And she is convinced that she’s not. We wanted to treat it like that.
A majority of the movie is comprised of dialogue scenes where we get to know the characters. It reminded me of — and this is compliment even if the word comes with a stigma — a “mumblecore” dramedy. Why go found footage over just shooting it with a raw camera style?
The movie is kind of an indie mumblecore movie first and a horror movie second. It’s funny you hear you say that because it’s the wheelhouse of the movie. It was a conscious choice though for a couple of reasons. One, the economics of it were appealing. We can stick to a cheap mind set. And also, if it’s done right, you can feel more engaged. In the movie. You can feel like it’s happening to you. Found footage has a unique, even though it’s much-maligned, way of telling a story. I remember seeing Blair Witch in theaters knowing absolutely nothing about it and vowing to never go camping again.
Now everyone knows these found footage movies aren’t fair. The audience likes playing with that suspension of disbelief. So I didn’t want to say, ‘This is real.’ I wanted to ground it in some reality without having to force feed it.
When you’re shooting a found footage movie, how much do you have to consider the special effects? The touches of CG feel off-the-cuff in the film.
We learned in a very hard way that shooting something and relying on [post-production] is just completely backwards and I’m never going to do it again. One of the rejected pieces of CGI that we paid for was a joke. It looked like a Muppet [laughs]. So we learned the hard way. I think the punchiest effects scene is when she has a [redacted!] in her arm. I love seeing people react to that because it comes out of nowhere. We spent 18 to 20 hours fine tuning it for our tastes. But most of the good looking stuff was in camera.
I think the story is wisely narrow, but around it feels like an expansive world. Did you conceive a lot of rules for the world of Absence and, if so, how did you play by them?
In my head it’s way more expansive. There’s a lot more that I can speak to… the world, what I knew was going on with the characters. But we had to stick to the rules. It’s cinema verite. You can do whatever you want. But I think it’s better when you stick to some guidelines. Some movies have a “DJ in the sky” and use every camera in the world. That’s not something we were looking to fool around with. We wanted to pick a point-of-view and stick with it.
Did you bring a love of particular movies to the table when you shot Absence?
Definitely. Two of the best movies of all time are Jaws and The Exorcist. It’s not horror, it’s a character piece. You add the horror and get a better story. 28 Days Later, or more recently, Let the Right One In. Beautiful genre-bending.
Absence opens July 5.
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