Q & A with Director John Erick Dowdle & Executive Producer Drew Dowdle
(L-R) John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle — Director and Executive Producer of “Devil”
As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director John Erick Dowdle & executive producer Drew Dowdle about the supernatural thriller “Devil,” opening Sept. 17 from Universal and Media Rights Capital.
Directed by John Erick Dowdle (“Quarantine”), “Devil’s” screenplay is by Brian Nelson from a story by M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense,” “Signs”). It was produced by M. Night Shyamalan and Sam Mercer and executive produced by Drew Dowdle and Trish Hofmann. Starring are Chris Messina, Logan Marshall–Green, Geoffrey Arend, Bojana Novakovic, Jenny O’Hara, Bokeem Woodbine and Jacob Vargas.
“Devil” is the first film from the new production banner The Night Chronicles, a series of terrifying stories conceived by M. Night Shyamalan to be turned into movies in producing collaborations with up–and–coming filmmakers.
The Story (official synopsis – no major spoilers): Five strangers in Philadelphia begin their day with the most commonplace of routines. They walk into an office tower and enter an elevator. As they convene into this single place, they are forced to share a confined space with strangers. Nobody acknowledges anybody else. They’ll only be together for a few moments. But what appears to be a random occurrence is anything but coincidental when the car becomes stuck. Fate has come calling. Today these strangers will have their secrets revealed and face a reckoning for their transgressions.
Slowly, methodically, their situation turns from one of mere annoyance to sheer helplessness and abject terror. Terrible things begin to happen to each of them, one by one, and suspicion shifts as to who among the five is making it all happen…until they learn the unspeakable truth — one of them is the Devil himself. As those on the outside try in vain to free them, the remaining passengers realize that the only way to survive is to confront the very wickedness that has led them to today.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE (Director) previously wrote and directed the thriller “Quarantine” (2008) and the independent horror film “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” (2007), an intimate portrait of a serial killer’s home video collection. “Tapes” made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in May 2007 and went on to become the largest sale ever to come out of the festival.
Dowdle also wrote and directed “The Dry Spell,” a small independent comedy that premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival, where it garnered the Jury Award for Best Performance and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.
A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Dowdle has a degree in film and television production from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
DREW DOWDLE (Executive Producer) previously wrote and produced the thriller “Quarantine” and produced the independent horror film “The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” for which he also received story credit. He also produced “The Dry Spell,” the Dowdle brothers’ first film project together.
Prior to his career in film, Dowdle was an investment banker in New York City and attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he received a degree in finance and international business.
- Q: “Devil” with its elevator setting is a unique thriller setting. How did the film come about?
- A: John: This was initially an idea of M. Night Shyamalan. He had seen our first film, “The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” which is very disturbing and bizarre, and he loved it. He asked to see “Quarantine,” which was our next film, before that came out (in October 2008). He liked that a lot and asked us to come out to Philly to meet with him. We sat down and loved the idea of this. It’s almost Hitchcockian and, yet, has a supernatural element. It’s a fun combination of elements. We were immediately excited to get on and try our hand at this.
Drew: Night really liked what we had done with confined spaces. Both of our films had a real heavy element of confinement and claustrophobia and Night felt we had captured that well. I think that was a big part of why he liked us for “Devil.” Most of the film takes place in a very small space and there’s just inherent tension when you’re trapped. In the horror genre a lot of original concepts over the last 10 or 12 years have involved very small spaces, which we find very effective and very fun.
- Q: An elevator is probably one of the smallest spaces you could shoot in.
- A: Drew: In something like “Buried,” for example, a man is trapped in a coffin, which is terrifying. How many coffins have any of us spent any time in? You know, an elevator is something we all spend time in, pretty much, and is a space that everyone is familiar with. Taking a kind of everyday space and creating a horrific story within an everyday space is particularly fun, I think.
- Q: When did you go to Philadelphia to see Night?
- A: Drew: September of 2008. We got a call and were literally on a plane the next morning. It came out of the clear blue sky and it was just one of those dream days. We went out to his farm. We didn’t know anything about the story. We just knew he was setting up The Night Chronicles and that he was interested in getting us on the first of The Night Chronicles. The Night Chronicles is a banner that Night has set up as a producer so all of The Night Chronicles will have “story by M. Night Shyamalan” and “produced by M. Night Shyamalan.”
We met him and just hung out and talked for a couple hours. He had about a 10 page treatment that he put in our lap and said, “Step away and read it. Spend an hour or two and then come back into my office and we’ll talk about it.” From the treatment stage on, we were just totally hooked. It was a story that felt right in our strike zone.
- Q: Why didn’t Night want to direct this, himself?
- A: John: I think he wanted to try his hand at branching out a bit and producing and creating a label of stuff that’s in his sweet spot.
Drew: He wanted an opportunity to tell more stories. I’ve heard him say many times that one of the criteria he has for The Night Chronicles is it has to be a movie that he would love to direct, himself, and that time permitting he would direct himself. They all have to be something that he would really be serious about. “Devil’s” a story that he had had kicking around in his mind for a decade or something. It’s something he had been wanting to do for a very long time.
- Q: Are there any other Night Chronicles projects?
- A: Drew: Right now there’s three. He formed a partnership with Media Rights Capital for three “Night Chronicles,“ “Devil” being the first. “Twelve Strangers” is the title of the second. And the third is unknown to anyone but Night. It is a series of features that will be at least three deep and if all goes well it will continue after that.
Producer M. Night Shyamalan (L) with the Dowdle brothers on the set of “Devil”
- Q: Are you guys doing anything else in the series?
- A: John: Not as of yet. We may come back to do the third, but we’re still talking about all that.
Drew: We would love to consider it. We’ve had a great experience on this one and we’ve talked a lot about the future Night Chronicles and we’d love to repeat it. But, as of now, it’s still uncertain.
- Q: When you met with Night in ‘08, what happened after you read the treatment he had?
- A: John: Basically, Brian went off and wrote a draft and over the course of the next year we all worked closely with Night to get it into a movie that we all were really excited to do. A year later or something like that we went up to Toronto to shoot. We finished shooting Christmas of last year.
- Q: How long did you shoot?
- A: Drew: 39 days — 14 of which were in the elevator.
John: In pre–production everyone was like, “The elevator will be super quick. We can just shoot tons of stuff in the elevator.” But it’s funny — the smaller the space, the longer it takes to shoot in it. It becomes so difficult to get the camera angles you’re trying to get. You have to take off walls and move everything around. It was really tricky.
Drew: The security office where the actors Chris Messina and Jacob Vargas and Matt Craven are witnessing the events in the elevator was almost an equally prominent space in the movie. We did five days in the security office compared to 14 in the elevator for what amounts to a similar amount of screen time at the end of the day.
- Q: Where did you shoot?
- A: Drew: We shot in Toronto at Pinewood Studios. Our skyscraper was on the corner of Bay & Adelaide in Toronto. It was a beautiful building. We toured every single skyscraper in Toronto and in Hamilton, Ontario trying to find sets. We had so many specific things we wanted.
- Q: Was the elevator a set or a real elevator?
- A: John: It was a set. We definitely modeled it after the elevators in the building. We tweaked them a little bit. In pre–pro one of the big discussions was that I wanted the smallest elevator we could make and Tak Fujimoto (“Signs”), who was our DP, wanted the biggest. We ended up with a really quite full elevator.
Drew: We wanted a big mirror on the back of it, too, which also caused Tak great pain. We had days when our camera operator and focus puller were in full Day–Glo green execution outfits that we had to later paint out. The elevator was tricky for sure. We used the elevator corridor in the real building and then we cut to the stage where we replicated the corridor and then the elevators were kind of stand alone sets.
We had two identical elevators — one that we used to shoot all the scenes with the camera in the elevator and one we used in the security office where they’re watching. We had one elevator just dedicated to that security camera. So we had to shoot all our scenes and then go do a quick replica scene for the security camera to match it so we had all the positions for post production.
- Q: When you looked at all those elevators in buildings, what were you looking for?
- A: Drew: We wanted something that was deep not wide so that when you’re in the elevator you would be forced to stand deeper behind people, simulating being buried alive. People wanted to be near the doors. If the elevator’s too wide, everyone has access to the doors. So we built it deep. We tried to give it a feeling like a living organism.
John: The floor almost looks like the interior of the body. There’s all this marble. It’s kind of veiny looking stuff. The wood we wanted (to have) vertical streaks to give you a sense of not being oriented spatially. And lots of mirrors and different forms of light. As the movie went on we could break lights and change the lighting of the space.
Drew: The lighting was really important in that the lights flickering and going out in the movie are a big part of the story. So we spent an enormous amount of time designing how we lit the elevator.
We didn’t want it to be such a striking building that it really stood out. We wanted it to feel like a building that you might go to for an appointment any day of the week. We wanted it to feel fairly innocuous that way, but at the same time because we had such an interior movie we really wanted some windows that look out onto the city and really give us an exterior feel when we’re in the lobby. We found the perfect building with 30 foot high windows so that gave us a little bit of breathing room and got us outside a little bit, which even in passing was very helpful.
We also found a building that was 55 stories tall and there was only one tenant in it at the time. I think they had (floors) 40 to 44. The building was almost empty and they had major elevator problems at this building when we were scouting it the first day. A handful of people got trapped in the elevator at that building and they had to call the fire department. It took them a couple hours to get them all out. So we took that as a good sign that that was the building for us.
Stars of the upcoming supernatural thriller, “Devil," (L-R) Bojana Novakovic, Jenny O'Hara, Bokeem Woodbine, Logan Marshall–Green, and Geoffrey Arend
- Q: When you were shooting did Night get involved?
- A: John: He was on set probably four or five days. He would watch dailies every day and call us and we’d have a daily talk. He’s been through so much as a filmmaker that it was really wonderfully helpful to have someone sort of playing goalie, looking over your shoulder and saying, “Okay, watch out for this. This is starting to lean a little too far this way. Just keep an eye on it.”
You know, coming into this we were, frankly, quite nervous (working with) a director for the first time producing. It ended up being so great that we had someone who was creative basically functioning as our studio. It was great to have someone who was like, “Push it artistically. Shoot less coverage. Don’t play it safe. Go for it.” That is so rare. That is the most opposite studio notes one could ever get. It was so fun to be doing a studio movie with that kind of mentality.
- Q: I know Night likes to shoot in Philadelphia. How did you wind up in Toronto?
- A: John: We initially were going to shoot in Philadelphia. The tax credit situation (was that Pennsylvania) hadn’t passed their budget and was all a mess so for financial reasons we had to go to Toronto.
Drew: We had a very unusual situation. It was August and the State of Pennsylvania still hadn’t passed their 2009 budget. So our tax credits were approved, but not guaranteed and that proved to be the difference maker. We were about a week away from moving to Philadelphia and suddenly we were moving to Toronto instead. We left for Toronto on Sept. 1 of ‘09. So the Philly to Toronto decision all came down mid–August, very much at the last minute.
We shot 39 days and Night was on set about four of those days. But he came up once for a couple days during prep and then we posted here in Los Angeles, but every few weeks we’d gone to Philadelphia for a handful of days and showed Night the cut and talked about it. He was very involved. We were never in the same city for any extended length, but we traveled a lot and we spent a lot of time together over the whole process.
- Q: Does he like the results?
- A: John: He’s happy.
Drew: He’s happy and that’s nice. At the end of the process we’re all good friends at this point and that’s always nice when that happens on a film.
- Q: Looking back at production what were the biggest challenges you faced?
- A: John: The two real challenges were how do we keep multiple scenes in an elevator interesting and how do we keep multiple scenes in a security office interesting? We wanted to try to find a way to shoot them very differently. The security office was shot more in that objective more classical style like shooting through monitors, over the shoulder, that kind of stuff. Whereas in the elevator, we tried to simulate being in that space with them.
We’d start every scene with one character’s close–up and shoot the rest of the scene from what they’re seeing. In doing so, it really gives you that kind of claustrophobic feeling that they’re all experiencing. It was really fun to shoot that way and to mix it up like that. It was a little nerve wracking to see how it cut together before we actually were in editorial.
- Q: What sort of budget did you have?
- A: Drew: For the genre, it’s a fairly decent budget, but as far as across the Universal slate it’s definitely one of their smaller budgeted films.
John: I would say in the $20 million range.
Drew: We love that zone. That’s a fun zone to be in.
John: We like calling ourselves the low risk alternative.