After seeing the much talked-about mockumentary The Poughkeepsie Tapes at this year's Tribeca, I had a chance to speak with John Dowdle, the film's director. We did the interview by phone, and I may have also been in the presence of his brother and collaborator Drew Dowdle -- the two are making their bones in the business as 'The Dowdle Brothers' -- but if that's the case, he didn't really make himself known and I don't know that he piped up to answer any of my questions. If he wants to contact me to correct, he can. John and I talked about a number of subjects, including the making of the film, the reception at Tribeca, the current atmosphere for horror films in general, and what's up next for the brothers. If you haven't seen the film yet, the less you know going in the better, so you might want to hold off reading reviews and interviews until afterwards. But otherwise, here's our talk -- enjoy.
Did you guys actually go to Tribeca with the film this year?
JD: Absolutely, absolutely.
I saw it at a public screening on Wednesday night, and the audience seemed to respond to it pretty well.
JD: Yeah, it's gotten a great reaction. We've really had a wonderful time here, with the film. The audiences really seem to connect with it.
I think a lot of the audience, at least at my screening, didn't really catch on that it was a faux documentary until that last scene.
JD: Honestly, we really struggled very hard to make everything as realistic as we possibly could, and obviously as the film goes on. The killer stuff is super realistic, very clean realism. And as it goes, it gets more and more surreal. We figured we would have earned that, later in the film, but we struggled very, very hard to keep everything as absolutely realistic as we could. We've actually had reviewers not realize its fictional until the Q&A.
I can tell you the moment that tipped it for me -- it's when the young cop tosses off the line 'my wife didn't touch me for a year after that.' That's when I said 'oh, this isn't real.'
JD: Interesting. That's interesting.
Are you getting any distribution bites yet?
JD: We have a couple circling around and one offer up, so far. We're considering that. We'll get distribution on this.
Is it frustrating for the actors that they are having to stay under cover in a way, because of the faux documentary style? The actress who plays the main victim is quite good.
JD: Actually, for the festival stuff, when we did our Q&A, we were bringing her up for the Q&A. As far as on the film, the credits, yeah it is a little buried, but she'll definitely be on IMDB and you know, we'll promote the heck out of her. She's actually my wife, as well. She's a phenomenal actress.
Yeah, I agree that she sells it. I read somewhere that you used a lot of different influences for this film -- a lot of different serial killer stories. Is that right?
JD: It's actually a combination of a number of them, but there's one -- Edmund Kemper. He was a really, really scary guy and we took a lot of pieces from him and we took some from the Green River Killer. There was a guy in Chicago we took pieces from. There was a duo in Michigan who worked together and filmed everything they did, and we took some stuff from them. Some from Ted Bundy too. So we sort of combined a lot of different real stories. Remember that couple that kidnapped a 19-year old girl and kept her as a slave for six years? We took pieces of that as well.
How did you get that degraded home video look? It really looked like someone's camcorde tapes that have been sitting on a shelf since 1986.
JD: That's awesome -- we actually spent a ton of time trying all sorts of different methods, from actually putting it on VHS and wrecking it that way, but we realized at the end of the day that we got the most control by doing it ... I sort of worked with some after-effects and designed a way of using that as a device. For the moments where you most want to see what's happening, it degrades the most, thereby heightening the anxiety of those moments, like as he's walking up to the little girl. Everything starts twisting and turning, and I found a way of isolating all the different kinds of video degradation and using them all to mean different things. That's part of it, it's all very carefully constructed.
There are some pretty hard-core moments, like with the girl scouts -- did you give any thought to going too far or not going too far? Any considerations along those lines?
JD: Absolutely. There are specific boundaries that we were absolutely not willing to cross. We never wanted to show rape, we never wanted to show him actually killing a kid. A lot of what happens happens off-screen. That was all decided way ahead of time. There were certain scenes, like the scene with the head in the stomach, where on the page we were like 'eh, that might be too much, we may have to remove that,' but it turned out to be just fine. The stuff that happens off-screen seems to be the stuff that shakes people up the most. We find that really interesting. People's imaginations are so much worse than anything we could ever come up with. We wanted the violence to actually really mean something in the film. Most horror films you see, you become numb to the violence. It's just sort of a fun part of the film -- seeing what kind of violence people can enact upon each other. In our film, we wanted it to be absolutely icky and real. Where you see it and it hurts, and its not something you enjoy. It's upsetting. Then to see the effect it has on family members, police officers, the ripple effect of that violence.
A lot of horror directors like Eli Roth have said recently that it's really time for horror movies to get scary again, as opposed to comedy-scary -- to send people away from the theater legitimately disturbed. It seems like you're down with that trend.
JD: Absolutely, absolutely. We're not very gory filmmakers, we like the suspense and we like creating those really anxiety-laden moments, but we're not very gory filmmakers. We really want the drama of horror.
Was there a longer cut prior to this one, or is this the full cut?
JD: Our first cut was about 20 minutes longer, and then we cut it down, and then Patrick Lussier, who is a director and who edits all of Wes Craven's movies, he came aboard and helped us really pinpoint like ... 'this doesn't play completely real, and this doesn't ...' ... so we removed those things and tightened things down and sped stuff up. He really helped us a lot in getting this cut to where it is now.
Do you have your next project lined up?
JD: We hope so. We have a new script that we're really excited about. It's called The Governess. It's more of a 70s-style horror film, and it's scary. It's gonna be real scary, so we're very, very excited about that.
Like a nanny?
JD: Yep. Exactly.
Where do you stand on the whole issue of the MPAA cracking down on advertising for horror films like Captivity and Severance? That must be on your mind, especially now. How do you feel about films creating horrific advertisements aimed at the general public?
JD: I don't think we'll go that angle, but I think, like, the Saw posters -- those are phenomenal. Those get people to go see it, you know. And you know exactly what you're going to see when you go see it. The MPAA scares me, honestly. Obviously it does -- we're horror filmmakers. They've got to scare us. But yeah, I wish that we didn't necessarily have to submit ourselves to that, but yeah, I don't know -- it's a tough one. I don't necessarily think horror films create scary people. Dahmer wanted to create an Ewok village in his apartment -- that was his fascination. He had all these skulls. That's why he was removing skin from skulls and stuff, so he could make an Ewok village. People don't watch The Shining and then go out and kill people. They watch Fried Green Tomatoes and go out and kill people, you know. So I don't know that there's necessarily a correlation between the two.
When you decided to do press, publicity for this film, did you debate whether or not to go the Blair Witch route and pretend that everything is 100 percent real?
JD: We definitely considered that. We considered that long and hard. We decided at the end of the day .. well, two things. We decided early on when we were making the film ... should we make this film for people who know it's real? Or people who know it's not real? We decided to make it for people who know it's fictional. So we went for it. There's kid killings and there's horrible stuff in this, where, if it were a real doc, it just wouldn't be okay. That's part of it too -- we've had people thinking its real and leaving the theater crying. That might be too much. Part of it too, we figured that, in coming out with the film, if we make it about whether or not it's real, eventually we're going to lose that. But if we make it about whether or not its absolutely terrifying, that we can win. So we decided we'd sell the film on its scariness, and not how true or not it is.
If the film does well at the box office, would you want to return to the adventures of the Water Street Butcher?
JD: Absolutely. We have our ideas already laid out. We're ready to go on two and three. We'd love to do more of these. It's fun and we're very close with all the actors in this, and we've absolutely had a wonderful time doing this. There's so much more story to tell.
How do you two work together as a team? John does writing and directing and Drew does producing?
JD: Drew and I together create the story. I do the actual laying it down on the paper. I'm the writer but we create the story together. Then I direct and he produces, but it's a pretty blurry line. He does a lot of my job and I do a lot of his job. Then I do the editing, but Drew is there 90 percent of the time as well. So we're sort of like a two-headed film bot.